I admit it. I carry around a bag full of guilt. It can shake me at any moment, given even a random thought about what little thing I should have done today. Guilt and shame that I am not perfect is partially a woman’s curse. Given that the many “woman” perfections are about meeting other people’s expectations (about our bodies, our manners, our roles as caretakers and supporters, our deferrences to powerful others, etc.), it is easy for women (from the time they are born) to learn that if we do not meet other people’s expectations – including the expectations of our society, then we are “less than.” This implicit message is reinforced every time we somehow fall below the ideal, or are shown/told how we cause disappointment for others. Is there an antidote to these internalized messages that cause us so much suffering?
This morning as I was meditating, feelings of guilt and fear arose in me. Does it matter the details? No, just stuff about what I didn’t do that I should have done, what I did that others would not approve of, and some things that I didn’t want others to know about me. What did I do about those feelings? Nothing. I let them in and nothing more. When I remember, this is my practice of mediation. No excusing away or pushing out. No describing or criticizing. Well, all of that did come up, but I just let it be. And let it pass.
In the uncomfortable quiet of that space, the mindfulness trainings came to me (see http://www.plumvillage.org/mindfulness-trainings/3-the-five-mindfulness-trainings.html) and I remembered that they are trainings that ask me to inquire and to practice. They are not commandments. Practice reverence for life and not killing; practice generosity, not taking from others; practice deep listening and loving speech; practice mindful consumption. These trainings are for my benefit and the benefit of all beings. As I work with them in my everyday life, I see that they are impossible to “keep”. Instead, as I practice with them, they remind me that there is no such thing as perfection, no perfect woman, no perfect me, only sincere trying. Am I ashamed of myself? What is at the bottom of that? How can I move toward accepting myself or changing my actions? The mindfulness trainings provide me with concrete tools to look into these difficult questions I have about myself.
Then Florida Pier Scott-Maxwell’s words came to me, frequently posted on the bulletin board at the Trappist Abbey guest house:
“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. . . . When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.”
I have practiced with this quote for a long time, but had never before realized that this is a powerful statement about facing the weaknesses, frailties and disappointments of my shadow side, and the collective shadow side that haunts women everywhere. The side of myself that I do not want anyone else to see. The side I am so ashamed of, I can barely acknowledge it. How can I be fierce with reality if I am afraid someone will “find me out”? If I can’t be fierce, it occurs to me that I am left to bargain. And in the process of bargaining with reality, I also bargain away the chance for my/our healing and freedom. Why? Because if I am afraid someone else will find me out, I see that I also am afraid that I will find my own self out. So I cover up, hide, make excuses, run away, or push out. In doing so, I never really give myself the chance to understand my thoughts, words and actions. I never give myself a chance to uncover the internalized messages of perfection that drive some of my guilt and fear. I never allow compassion the chance to break open my heart and heal the deep wounds that drive my everyday protective self.
So I stop. I slow down. I meditate. I walk and eat mindfully. I try to remember to stay with difficult feelings when they are with me. When I can. Sometimes I can barely breathe, and that is okay. Healing and freedom are not “things” to arrive at. They are just a natural outcome of the alchemy that happens as the stream of conscious/unconscious awareness flows into the river of reality just as it is. As this happens, I do heal, and the woman’s curse heals as well.