You do not have to be good
Updated: May 8
It’s the first line of one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves...”
What relief in this message!! My internal dialogue is so often structured around ideas of should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad. I hold myself to impossible standards, and rake myself over the coals for minor and imagined infractions. It’s a painful way to live, as though you have a controlling, judgmental parent following you around, ordering, berating, forever withholding approval. No wonder so many of us resist and procrastinate, or get paralyzed!
This primitive form of morality imposed and enforced from the outside was an important crutch in our early development, before we could empathize, but we have long outgrown it. The distinction I find most helpful in navigating life now is one you can feel and know through the body: is it skillful or unskillful, i.e. does it alleviate suffering or cause suffering? It is that simple. Ask your body, how does it feel when you imagine eating an entire chocolate cake? You can feel the contraction, the nausea well up, the heavy stuckness. How does it feel to embrace the person you love most in the world? You can feel the expansion, the tingling aliveness, the tender joy swelling in the space of your heart.
We imagine we can’t trust our body’s impulses, but it is the mind in fear that is untrustworthy. Fearful minds, nervous systems in fight or flight, make bad decisions. I can’t tell you how many times I acted out of fear and brought about just the experience I was hoping to avoid.
There is another way! It involves doing what feels good- not what sounds good to the brain, but what feels pleasurable, expansive, and flowing in the body. You can trust that soft animal to love what it loves. In the same way our culture mistrusts and discounts the wisdom and wildness of the feminine and the earth, we mistrust the body. But it is the amplifier for that still, quiet voice of knowing. When you go back to a toxic relationship or job, when you tell yourself a scary story, or replay a betrayal endlessly, your body tells you: “Ouch!”
I took a wonderful and essential course, Flow Mastery, on how to cultivate and maintain that famous flow state where synchronicities and insights abound, dreams manifest with ease and delight. One of the key principles is to always follow your highest excitement. I know- I had doubts too. When am I going to be excited to do the dishes? Well, today it turns out. I didn’t like the mess in the kitchen and I felt inspired to clean up. It feels so different to do it from love, from choice, rather than imposing an made-up ideal on to myself, and limping along, the martyr or victim, rigid with resentment.
This is my growing edge these days- to listen to my deepest desires and impulses, to "follow my bliss." And to accept my “imperfections.” Who made this impossible test up anyway? It is possible to totally change the game, from trying to win an ever-out-of-reach prize, to moving from joy, appreciation, curiosity and enthusiasm. I don’t have it down, but the more I do it the more I trust and teach my brain there is nothing to prove, nothing to fix, nothing is wrong.
My invaluable coach, Audrey, gave me this to work with: “I commit to knowing, in my bones, that my presence is enough.” I invite you to try it on- like a fun costume, an embodied experiment. Can you line your whole being up behind it? “I commit to knowing that my presence is enough.” How would it feel in your body if you knew, in every cell, that just your presence- without proving or earning or achieving or giving anything- was enough? That you are enough as you are. That you are completely, utterly lovable as you are.
Echoes of these sentiments from the poets:
“Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing
there is a field- I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.”
and, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” -Rumi
And applying this principle to these very strange COVID times:
Mary Oliver for Corona Times
(Thoughts after the poem Wild Geese) by Adrie Kusserow
You do not have to become totally zen,
You do not have to use this isolation to make your marriage better,
your body slimmer, your children more creative.
You do not have to “maximize its benefits”
By using this time to work even more,
write the bestselling Corona Diaries,
Or preach the gospel of ZOOM.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body unlearn
everything capitalism has taught you,
(That you are nothing if not productive,
That consumption equals happiness,
That the most important unit is the single self.
That you are at your best when you resemble an efficient
Tell me about your fictions, the ones you’ve been sold,
the ones you sell others,
and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world as we know it is crumbling.
Meanwhile the virus is moving over the hills,
suburbs, cities, farms and trailer parks.
Meanwhile The News barks at you, harsh and addicting,
Until the push of the remote leaves a dead quiet behind,
a loneliness that hums as the heart anchors.
Meanwhile a new paradigm is composing itself in our minds,
Could birth at any moment if we clear some space
From the same tired hegemonies.
Remember, you are allowed to be still as the white birch,
Stunned by what you see,
Uselessly shedding your coils of paper skins
Because it gives you something to do.
Meanwhile, on top of everything else you are facing,
Do not let capitalism coup this moment,
laying its whistles and train tracks across your weary heart.
Even if your life looks nothing like the Sabbath,
Your stress boa-constricting your chest.
Know that your ancy kids, your terror, your shifting moods,
Your need for a drink have every right to be here,
And are no less sacred than a yoga class.
Whoever you are, no matter how broken,
the world still has a place for you, calls to you over and over
announcing your place as legit, as forgiven,
even if you fail and fail and fail again.
remind yourself over and over,
all the swells and storms that run through your long tired body
all have their place here, now in this world.
It is your birthright to be held
deeply, warmly in the family of things,
not one cell left in the cold. by Adrie Kusserow