Juxtapositions:

between Leonard Cohen and Simone Weil

 

Leonard Soul.jpg

 

People owe us what we imagine they will give us.
We must forgive them this debt. 
To accept the fact that they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. 
I am also other than what I imagine myself to be.
To know this is forgiveness…
Simone Weil

They say the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing
And the bitter liquor sweetens in the amber cup
Leonard Cohen: Born in Chains

 

I have found these two voices resonating in me in these potent days of quiet. Passing through this time of year, many of us seem to experience moments raw with vulnerability or touched by grace.

I’ll say a little about what these words carry for me and invite me toward. Simone Weil’s have both haunted and held me for about 25 years. They do not lessen in their import. When placed alongside Leonard’s understanding of the gifts of longing, from Born in Chains, something seems to deepen and warm.

In Weil’s words I hear always the recognition of the ‘surplus’ of our hope. Of how, when we are close to others – parents, children, lovers, partners, friends - it is so easy for our deep longings and unresolved hungers to constellate around them, expecting, finally to be salved. Our imaginations - as Weil says - create, without us quite realising it, a sense of ‘entitlement’ to receive what we hope for. (We often do not experience this as entitlement, but as some kind of inherent sense of relief: we know that this longed for quality is finally, finally in our grasp...) A long-awaited satiation of whatever our particular hunger - for tenderness, understanding, devotion, constancy – seems near at hand.

And then, inevitably, life happens. Their difference from our expectations crashes into us. Our beloveds express and manifest an independent will; they articulate their own unfoldment in some way or other that dismays us and confronts us with the hope we unconsciously placed in them. And sometimes this is shattering. Sometimes the open-hearted faith we were in the way of feels so crushed, so wounded, so devastated. Our pain and disappointment are fierce. Our hurt or anger may be great.

What we do then – what we are able to do – matters greatly. Can we bear our disappointment? Can we see that our needs and longings were our own and not commitments they ever signed up to? Can we – in Weil’s terms – forgive them the ‘debt’ we placed on them? It’s hard, often. There is grieving. There is impact. There may be resentment, a sense of betrayal, a desire to reject. A catastrophic, familiar despair.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

a tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress…’

WB Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

But if - as Leonard says - ‘the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing…’ this raw confrontation with our own disappointment is also an opportunity: We are invited to deepen and grow. Yeats wrote so beautifully of this need for the soul to embrace the unwanted impacts of living: 'An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress…’ When we can find a capacity to meet our own longing, to feel its resounding momentum and the grief of its disappointment inside us, we deepen and unfold the life of the soul.

Weil asks us to do this - to renounce our claim on others – to shed the role we have carved for them and the illusion that we know who and how they should be. Unfortunately, for the part of us that wishes to use them for something, we must accept that they are ‘other than creatures of our imagination’. They are not supposed to be who we have longed for, even if some archaic part of our psyche demands that they must.

Can we live in the paradox and tension of our longing – allowing it to blossom – which Leonard was so good at, but not to insist on its gratification? Can we be this gracious and humble each other, this alive and willing to host the longings in our souls?

And then Weil offers recalls us to something that reaches another layer – we too are mysteries, sometimes ‘failures’ or disappointments. We do not know who we are:

‘I also am other than I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness’.

In our capacity to mistake both our own characters and our essence, we find ourselves down among those who have (in our imaginations) ‘wronged’ us. We are stopped in our tracks. Yet to rest into this disorienting humility – to know that we do not know ourselves – is the beginning of something else. It releases a profoundly intimate warmth - a forgiveness that can touch us with a kind of sombre, witnessing tenderness, holding our frailty and humanness.

Let’s be gentle with each other. And ourselves, too...

 Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, and political activist

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, and political activist

 

Lofty Companions & the Energy of Aspiration

Inspired by Robert Bly, this piece celebrates the ideals we are drawn toward as children and the buoyancy we gain from the goodness of our friends…

friends.JPG

 

“This being is like a friend.

It is a friend. It travels with us..."

 

Robert Bly introduces the term Lofty Companion in The Sibling Society. Bly’s Lofty Companion is a kind of inner imaginary comrade we first develop a connection with in childhood. We start to befriend this inner being – “a figure put together from disparate fragments of "who I want to be"…’ and, in a sense, fall under the influence and guidance of our dialogues together:

I made my Lofty Companion from a careful choice among my actual qualities, plus qualities I pulled out of the air, with much denial and wish fulfilment as glue.

There’s a few things I love about this concept of Bly’s: its’ attention to our inner goodness and unique visions as children; its’ highlighting of the warmth and particularity of our inner compasses and the dreamy part of our inner relation to ourselves. I also love it for the space it opens to notice and celebrate the loftiness in our friends, and the source of nourishment their particular ideals can be for us.

Bly evocatively describes our relationship with the Lofty Companion, and his words help us recall an ephemeral, often unacknowledged process which many of us will recognise.  Though in some ways his concept is close to Freud’s ego-ideal: “the part of the mind which imposes on itself concepts of ideal behaviour developed from parental and social”, as Bly says, ‘that’s boring and the name misses the companionship it provides’. Bly’s description is more souful, poetic and honouring of quirky uniqueness.

For Bly the emergence of the Lofty Companion is part of an unfolding process of self-discovery and self-knowledge. It clarifies our purpose and calls us into life, asking us to be in service of it:

“Creating a Lofty Companion, which is your life's work for about ten years, tends to isolate you from others because you need to listen, to him or her or it...This agency of aspiration is more adept than we are, and will be our entry into success, authenticity and achievement."

______________________

Her Bly captures the vitality and strength generated by the Lofty Companion – how its aspirations can carry us like a calling, energising and giving shape to our lives.  In a sense, it helps to ‘launch’ us into the complexity of adulthood, creating a beautiful if naïve image we attempt to represent. That we will inevitably fail at this in all sorts of humbling ways is something we do not yet know.

But as it forms in us, we do not know the challenges that lie ahead – we feel buoyed by our potential and believe in our greatness: “With its help, you begin to feel you're not like those others” writes Bly, "I'm made for better things…"  These ‘better things’ are not about superiority so much as individuation. The Lofty Companion callus us to grow away from the pack, inviting us inside toward an identity and ideals we intuit there. This also beckons us toward ‘great people’ beyond our circle. In this sense it expands our horizons and calls us to belong in the world at large:

the creation also brings you closer to great people alive now whom you hear of, an artist, an inventor, a musician, also the great people who are dead and whom only you understand.

In exploring our relationship with the Lofty Companion, Bly is also honouring an era in our lives that is rarely treasured. The Lofty Companion is a warm thread of interior continuity between childhood, adolescence and young adulthood., bearing testimony to a steady private goodness, a subtle process of eros within us. It is a truly rich element of the interior life of these years, (which we are inclined to think of in such cliched terms). Bly’s emphasis recalibrates our vision of youth, capturing the mood of our ideals and how they form an intention or longing inside us to contribute. Much of our beauty lies there.

 

_______________________

Reading Bly on this threw up a further resonance with lofti-ness and how it can nourish us - Why and how do good friends nourish us, specifically? How does another’s loftiness reach us? Friends who are good and in touch with their own ‘energy of aspiration’ help us both practically (in advice and companionship) but also through how we imbibe their goodness and take it inside us over the course of our knowing of them.

It is no coincidence that the wisdom and spiritual traditions place an enormous emphasis on ‘good friendship’:

Friendship is perhaps the highest summit of the moral life. in which virtue and happiness are united. Friendship is a worthy outlet for the talents and energies of great-souled people... 

--Lorraine S. Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship

Across religions, proximity and affinity with good others is seen as one of the most potent forces of virtue, good fortune and happiness in our lives. I’m going to offer an excerpt here from Zen teacher Norman Fischer, because it captures how integral the goodness of our friends is to living beautifully:

“Five things induce release of heart and lasting peace,” the Buddha said. “First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Second, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence.”

Then, for Meghiya’s further benefit, and to the cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: “When there is a lovely intimacy between friends, then there is virtuous conduct,” et cetera. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything else naturally flows from it.

 

To live in attunment to the goodness of others – friends, family members, spiritual figures, historical ancestors – is a deep blessing. It offers a kind of ethical, civic buoyancy that supports us when we feel depleted; when our faith in humans falters; when we are disappointed, despairing or betrayed. When we sense others’ goodness intimately, when we have an affinity with the loftiness inside them and their attempts to manifest it, counteracts so many ills: alienation, disappointment, some sad, cynical, minimalist belief that we are all out for ourselves. Those of us who are lucky, have seen too much goodness for that.

Here’s Norman Fischer again:

To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years is a special joy. So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendships even more important.

When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice is a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible—just as the Buddha says—for spiritual qualities conducive to awakening not to ripen…

So there is deep grace in sensing an affinity with the goodness in our friends, and living near to it.  Like us, our friends will not always live up to the ideals of their young longings, but if they have treasured and struggled with the Lofty within them, they inspire us to be better in ways we cannot be alone. 

So in writing of Bly’s Lofty Companion, I do no more than speak to that early love affair with virtue, speak up for it, and maybe elevate it to our consciousness a little more fully, that we may remember this early best self, converse with it more often, sense it in others, and also take up the invitation of adult life, of finding ways to ‘keep our integrity after we have lost our innocence...’

 

re-learning loveliness

i find myself with a deep sense of passion and urgency about this theme - as i see how profoundly a lack of natural inner kindness depletes so many of our lives, and leaves us sadder and living in harsher, lonelier worlds than is good for us. The piece below looks at how we may learn to include ourselves within our field of care in healthy and life-giving ways...

learning to abide with ourselves…

Sometimes you come across an idea that sheds light on familiar territory and something clarifies from a new angle. This happened me several times reading Chronic Shame by Patricia DeYoung. I want to focus on just one fragment here, in case it has resonance for others: it is about learning to relate to and from ourselves as if our inner experience actually matters. Learning to abide with ourselves.

This probably sounds extremely simple, but it is a source of huge struggle for many of us to take account of ourselves in a natural, balanced way. So the respect for inner experience I am referring to is not about self-obsession, or placing ourselves ahead of others, it is about knowing how to balance our natural capacity to care so that it becomes available to our inner selves in an ongoing, life-giving way.

 a chance to learn both ways of being in the world

The sentence that triggered me looking at this differently comes up when DeYoung quotes Francis Broucek on the importance of parents “reflecting a child as both subject an object, so a child has a chance to learn both ways of being in the world...”  I felt an immediate sense of beauty, balance and alignment when I read that phrase. Since then, a clarity about our need to relate and be related to from both angles has been reverberating through me – we are living, sensitive creatures with inner experience that is precious, and creatures who inhabit a shared, inter-penetrating world impacting life and others, who, hopefully, want to do that with maturity, grace and love.

when the balance leans toward objectification in our early lives,

we grow up vulnerable to forgetting ourselves.

So that’s the territory we are in: how to achieve a balance between these two. The point DeYoung makes next is essential – of these two ‘ways of relating’, in our formative years, the subjective element is most essential: In early life we really, really need it. For, [when objectification dominates] “the child loses the possibility of recovering what Francis Broucek calls primary communion with others….”  In other words, if we are related to chiefly in terms of our outsides, something goes wrong in our capacity to bond from (and with) the middle of ourselves.  When our inner experience is not mirrored back to us as existing or worthy of relating to, we learn, implicitly, that how it is to be us is irrelevant to how the world flows.

This can have big repercussions, because we tend to replicate, ad infinitum, this blindness to our own insides. So, when the balance leans toward objectification in our early lives, we grow up vulnerable to forgetting ourselves. We learn to automatically leave ourselves out, unconsciously believing this is required of us in order to belong, be loveable, or be worthy of contact with others.

It is important to distinguish between this self-forgetting and the mature, nourishing surrender of absorption in service, work or play. This is more like a bias of neglect - an unconscious impulse to over-ride ourselves, as if it is necessary to do so. Natural self-care eludes us.

 

This instinct toward self-neglect appears to be a foreign country to the people I know who are happiest. They seem to have an organic, warm bond with their own subjectivity – an inner friendship that is primary, affection for themselves and a natural concern that they be happy. They live and relate among others naturally as if they matter – not merely as functioning things who should function well (though many of them care very deeply about this), but as humans whose own happiness is a natural priority for them. They act and move in ways that reflect their sensibilities and preferences without a process of struggle or fraught anxiety about whether they will be punished or rejected for doing so.

ironically, over time, the habit of self-neglect leaves us

at risk of becoming self-obsessed

When I think about those of us who struggle more, we seem inclined to over-ride our subjectivity as a matter of course. We live as if impacts and imprints on our souls should not hurt us, or interrupt our functioning. We do not easily heed signals of distress when they arise inside us, or consider that we might pause to abide with ourselves. We may not know how, or feel that we are ‘allowed’ to. At some very fundamental level, we have not imbibed that our insides are worthy of care, so, at least in company, we unconsciously presume we must abandon them.

Yet in our self-abandonment, it is not just we who suffer: we often end up far more preoccupied with ourselves than those who take themselves into account. This makes sense: neglect is not good for anything. So, ironically, over time, the habit of self-neglect leaves us at risk of becoming self-obsessed in complex and demanding ways, swamped as we are by the distress of our own unsupported, ravenous-to-be-related to inner states.

how can we learn to care?

So, how can we learn to care? It is often said that what is formed relationally needs to be healed relationally. Probably the most potent way initially to address this deficit is to cultivate relationships (whether therapeutic or personal) in which our inner selves are related to with interest and love. Many of the most powerful moments in healing occur when we are caught in some form of despair about ourselves (where at some level we are experiencing ourselves as failing objects), and another mirrors back to us something more raw, tender and acknowledging of our insides. Something in how they hold us allows us, however briefly, to be nourished there, to temporarily abandon the objectification, to be merely, unhappily human, but abided with, embraced, offered, in Broucek’s term, primary communion.

Moments like these are miniature trainings, recalibrations wherein we learn, viscerally, that we are worthy of being related to, just for our sakes.  We feel the goodness of this. It touches us deeply, and may shock us in its intimacy and tenderness. This tenderness may surface new layers of sensitivity and pain. But it also begins to ignite a new interior capacity – to notice and respect ourselves with a parallel commitment, to care for what we find inside ourselves, to abide with our own interior without moving away. One of my favourite statements by one of my favourite analytic writers, Christopher Bollas is that one of the most valuable outcomes of psychotherapy is its capacity to ‘transform a person’s relation to themselves as an object of care’ – in other words, being intimately cared for and related to with true respect can, over time, transform how we treat ourselves. As Galway Kinnel writes: 'sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.'  May those of us who have misplaced it, begin remembering our loveliness  in ways that nourish our inner and outer rhythms, and soften the hard moments of our lives.

 

(if these words speak to you but something feels hazy or unclear, please feel free to mail me, as I'd really like it to be accessible)

This piece dovetails with a few other pieces I've written: It: Thou after Buber on another way we forget ourselves in service to others; reflections On Love by Milosz - a stunning poem about this balance of care for self and world; and a book review of DeYoung's book on Shame). Below, the full poem by Galway Kinnell.

St Francis and the Sow

The bud

stands for all things,

even those things that don't flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;

as St. Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of

the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking

and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

by Galway Kinnell

resources for self-care

IMG_7678 (2).JPG

 

 

'Negativity' Re-Imagined

Our aim is not to feel better, but to get better at feeling…

Michael Brown: The Presence Process

Despair in childhood leaves a brutal legacy. It inhibits our faith that feeling bad – angry, hurt, disappointed – is part of life. Instead, these seem impostors we should deny – so threatening to our tentative attachments that we must repress them.  All this quickly becomes instinctive; we dismiss our distress, we turn aggression inward; we pretend that all is well.

From the point of view of mood, this is a disaster: we find ourselves at odds with our own experience, constrained and cautious with others, ‘knowing’ there is much we must repress. We find ourselves isolated, living muted lives, sadder than we feel we should be.

On Learning to Feel Bad

If this is where we find ourselves, what are our options? Essentially, to remain as we are - or to begin to recover our capacity to feel ‘bad’ things. This is to admit that we carry hurt, rage, bitterness, and to see how these have led us to withdraw and to contract. It is to ask ourselves whether our attempts to avoid these states have really helped us; or whether they have stunted our relationships and deepened our struggle with mood.

This is not to criticize our attempt to manage pain: It is natural that we are frightened. We have associated bad feelings with overwhelm in childhood; we continue to worry that they will devastate us as they once did. But our capacity is different now, and if we are despairing as adults, we need to investigate this territory: to question whether we continue to ‘jump over’ difficult parts of our experience, and what the effect of this may be. It is possible, that we may need to feel not less, but more to release the vitality blocked by burying these difficult states. 

At this point in our development, we can recover this lost art of feeling bad. Some lucky people learned this small: how to go on being amid distress. But so many of us didn’t.

This is ground we can reclaim. There is a lot to be gained by learning how to feel, especially when we feel bad. We may come to see that ‘bad’ feelings are not our enemy; they are natural and necessary to our relationships and to our living. This is not just a matter of acknowledging difficult feelings, but of living through them well. We can learn to let them in, to give them breathing space, to ask what their function is, seek what they are trying to show us.

Rumi's Guesthouse

This is, in the words of Rumi’s poem, to see that however temporarily difficult to experience, feelings are also a source of information, a ‘guide from beyond…’

Why – when they seem so negative - might we choose to make room for feelings such as these? Because we are suffering. Because sadness or despair can be a stagnant place, arising from an inner impulse to deaden, a shutting down to impact. Faced with pain, we learned to block, to dissociate, to rationalize and to pretend. But all this cuts is off from a flow/rhythm of renewal etc.

‘Bad’ feelings are a natural part of life. For as long as they seem a threat, we will be bullied by them.  If we want to build our strength/resilience, we must develop our capacity to remain alive, sensitive and open, amid unwanted things. This helps us feel robust and secure:  Finally, we can start to trust ourselves to feel the emotions we have always felt obliged to reject – to experience what we actually think and feel, however often we have muted it.

Every day we further embed low mood because we never learned how to feel bad well. We do not imagine such a thing is possible.  But it is. Over time, we can develop a deep familiarity with difficult emotions and a trust in our capacity to bear them.

Among the deeply moody, for all our claims of enduring great suffering, most of us are bad at actually feeling bad.

Among the deeply moody, for all our claims of enduring great suffering, most of us are bad at actually feeling bad. We can speak about it, we can describe our awful moods but do not actually know how to feel them. Insidiously they seep into us – and fuel low mood.

‘Bad’ feelings are a natural part of life. For as long as they seem a threat, we will be bullied by them.  If we want to build our strength/resilience, we must develop our capacity to remain alive, sensitive and open, amid unwanted things. This helps us feel robust and secure:  Finally, we can start to trust ourselves to feel the emotions we have always felt obliged to reject – to experience what we actually think and feel, however often we have muted it.

Anger

Anger is a central element in this recovery. Freud pointed out that depressives tend to skew their anger, frustration and disappointment into self-hatred, bitterness and diffuse resentment. If we disavow anger and desire, so much grinds to a halt. So tuning into our anger, learning to allow it and engage it, can be at the heart of recovering our capacity to feel bad well – and thus to live well. The first part of the chapter explores the value of opening to and ‘including’ anger, learning to allow ourselves to experience it viscerally, and learning to attend to the messages that it contains. We then look at ‘what lies beneath’: the other emotions: disappointment, longing, heart, which anger arises in response to. We explore how to feel these things, and what their significance is within the economy of our sadness.

Three Capacities with our Emotions

There are three capacities we need to develop with each emotion: the ability to accept, allow and live through it at an experiential level – befriending its presence within us; the ability to listen to the truths/messages which it contains – the valuable information it carries for us; and the ability to include these feelings within the central relationships of our lives. (This is to return to the origin of melancholia identified by Freud – relational disappointment – and to find a way to live through it that forges relationship and vitality rather than isolation and despair.)