April 2022 Soul Notes
“So much of what delights and troubles you Happens on a surface You take for ground.” writes John O’Donohue in his blessing “For the Unknown Self”. These opening lines, which read so gently, simultaneously shake us to alertness; to look anew at what we think we know. This blessing, as most poetry, infuses itself more fully when read slowly and out loud. Then you can hear with your soft belly, how he describes a deep resonant universal human truth, and sprinkles the breadcrumbs to another lesser known truth that goes on being just beneath the surface. He writes: “you entangle yourself in unworthiness And misjudge what you do and who you are” …and yet your “unknown self” who “prefers the patterns of the dark” “knows how your primeaval heart Sisters every cell of your life To all your known mind would avoid.” This blessing connects us with our multiple selves and for me, conjures up the idea of a soft, tender, wise self who knows more than the “I” that lives on the surface. Over the last few months and years, my “wise” self been getting more involved in study groups. I’ve joined a weekly cooperative writing group. A festival of women joining together as the sun rises, to breathe, write, support and increasingly to share life stories. I’m part of a monthly supervision group which is really family by any other name – the people to whom I bring all my shameful experience, and emerge a little bit more whole each time. I belong to an anti-racist group – white psychotherapists attempting to understand how we too, are part of the problems that divide our world, no matter how innocent we would like to imagine ourselves. I’ve joined more ad hoc groups recently to talk and study together. I come to all of these places because I want to learn in community. I want to hear what others think and feel; to understand how a paper or a book, or a concept lands in another, so that I can feel more deeply into how it lands in me too. So that we can dialogue the different human responses that arrive in each of us. But this part is often overtaken by another part of me as I first step into these groups. The part who strives to be clever; to be prepared; to have the “right” answers. The hungry, grasping part who wants to be seen to be special and smart; who wants credit from someone – an institution, or learned person, just for showing up. I’m tired of this part. And it was so refreshing to hear others speak of this drive in them too, as we met last weekend to explore a chapter in Fred Moten and Stephano Harney’s book The Undercommons. Naming it made it less powerful and left us space to not strive, for some sacred moments. The Undercommons is a radical read,available for free on the internet by the authors. Moten and Harney write of projects of “fugitive planning and black study” and invite us to see how so much is distorted and broken in our world and ask how we might live with the brokenness. These projects “are mostly about reaching out to find connection; they are about making common cause with the brokenness of being”. The practice of study together is key to this endeavour. We don’t just study with the people in the room. We build a coalition with writers, artists, thinkers, radicals who have gone before, in the shared recognition that we are all being destroyed by the systems we have created; in the shared recognition that anything we do has to be for ourselves as well as the “Other”. The conversation is ongoing – we just join it for a time, and then leave again but the conversation itself, continues with or without us. When I think about it in this way, then it becomes less imperative for me to have a coherent argument; to make an impactful statement or to be seen to be clever. It becomes enough to speak from where I am in the moment and with that comes an immense freedom to really chew and taste and savour the ideas. It also gives me the freedom to really listen. For I listen then, not with an ear for whether someone has been smarter than me, more insightful, lucid or articulate, but with my whole body, open to the wisdom of another, not threatened by it. Moten speaks of it like this: “ I feel, in a lot of ways, the fun thing about working collaboratively with someone is that you literally come to terms together. Stefano will point to different things he’s read that I haven’t read, different kinds of experiences that he’s gone through. He’ll take a term that I would never have thought of myself and I’ll find myself totally drawn to the term and want to work with it. There will be other times when I’ll want to do something to the term. A metaphor popped into my head. You can either talk about it as having a kind of toolbox or also talk about it as having a kind of toybox. With my kids, most of what they do with toys is turn them into props. They are constantly involved in this massive project of pretending. And the toys that they have are props for their pretending. They don’t play with them the right way – a sword is what you hit a ball with and a bat is what you make music with. I feel that way about these terms. In the end what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction.” I love this idea of the toybox – the joy and the play and ease that is conjured up by this image. It moves us away from the seriousness and individualism that plagues so many of our adult interactions; away from the need to be “corporate” and “proper” and speaks to the “deeper befriending” of O’Donohue’s blessing, which allows us to be where we are, not where we think we ought to be. It also takes me to a place of playing together. The interactive part back in the foreground again. Resmaa Menakem speaks of the toybox as something to be explored, when the more usually used “toolbox” suggests something to be repaired. We can feel the difference in each. Moten and Harney propose that we prepare for an alternative future by entering into study. Not the study as required by an organisation, but a way of thinking together so that we can be “ embedded in what Harney calls “the with and for” and “spend less time antagonized and antagonizing.” This idea of play, where our inner and outer worlds meet, is familiar. Psychotherapist, D.W. Winnicott said that “Playing is itself a therapy”. He advocated for play as the basis for creativity, arguing that, through play, we find previously unknown paths. It does so by opening up a space where we can relax and trust what emerges. But in order to do so, there need to be certain conditions – if we feel the need to comply or achieve a certain standard, we will struggle to play. Similarly, if we feel anxious, this will destroy the play. So if we are conforming to the world that is, on the ”surface we take for ground”, then the magic of play becomes elusive. Author, Diane Ackerman captures the relationship between time and play in her book Deep Play. She writes that : “In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles.” These moments are rare. More and more, I feel that we can only find them together, holding space for each other, inviting each of us to bring our unknown selves to a place of study. I hope to see you in one of those spaces some time soon.
With much love