“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson
I have heard the above so many times, most often being read by a teacher while I was lying in savanasa at the end of a class at Tranquil Space in Washington, DC, where I practiced yoga and worked as Creative Director Kimberly Wilson‘s assistant from 2002 to 2003. I was moved to tears by it the first time I heard it, when I was 19, though I didn’t really understand why I was so upset.
This month, inspired by my friend Meggy Wang, I signed up for a community project called 21.5.800. The goal was to write 800 words a day and to practice yoga 5 days a week for 21 days. Since writing and yoga are both practices I’ve found fruitful but have neglected in recent years, this seemed perfect. I fell far short of 800 words a day and 5 yoga classes a week. But I filled an entire (small) notebook, rediscovered my headstand, started updating this blog again, and, thanks also to some intense conversations, I realized why that Marianne Williamson poem, general enough to almost be trite, inspired such a strong reaction in me.
I don’t know how to say this. I want very much to tell you this secret. It’s not a secret, but the secret is: whatever it is you’re most ashamed of, your deepest darkest fear, your worst flaw, your worst habit, the secret terrible thing about you that you’d rather die than see revealed, THAT thing, yes THAT, is going to save you. Look at it until your eyes bleed and you think your heart is going to combust, bring it out into the open, because the passageway is there. Dig a way out through the bottom to the ocean, Rumi says in my favorite poem.
Something lucky happened to me; someone caught me. Worst habits are not easy to mask, so of course this was not the first person to notice or to complain about mine, but this time was different. There was a suspended moment in which someone I love and respect was articulating my worst characteristic to me so clearly that there could be no mistaking the fact that he had seen it, that the full extent of my selfishness and self-absorption and hypocrisy had been uncovered and it was out there, plain as day. I was being called out, and the shock of it was so great that I was neither angry nor hurt but simply stunned. This wasn’t just some paranoid idea I had about myself. It was true. The nightmare was true. I had acted selfishly, I had hidden things about myself out of shame, I had considered only my own interests, my own feelings, and I had really hurt someone who loved me. (I had, in fact, hurt many people over the years.) I was horrified.
I know what guilt feels like, I have a lot of experience with guilt, and what I felt in this moment was something altogether different, something like a knife actually piercing my heart. Yes, I was crying, I was sorry, but true repentence isn’t an apology, or a confession, or a resolution to make it right, or anything having to do with words, or with fixing it, or with the past. It has to do with seeing.
I was sitting there, horrified, my heart out on a platter with it’s black snake writhing around in it, uncovered, being seen. But the strange thing was, as much as I was appalled, as soon as my friend, the one I had hurt, the one who called me out, was able to see my bad habit clearly enough, this bad habit I had so desperately wanted to hide, he could see not only what I had done, but the causes for what I had done. He could see that I was selfish because I thought I had nothing to give. He could see that my harmful actions stemmed from a belief that I didn’t have enough power to cause any harm. That I withheld help because I thought I was incapable of helping. That I grasped and I begged and I pleaded and I took more than I reciprocated because I thought I was impoverished. That I conducted myself as if I were powerless, even though I already had the power. Power to help, power to hurt. I had power and I was terrified of it. And my bad habit, my selfishness, the thing that hurt him, and shamed me, was directly linked to my greatest treasure. My worst habit stemmed from thinking that I needed to hide. My worst habit stemmed from was refusing to acknowledge my own worth, and the responsibility that comes along with it. My worst habit held its own solution within it. And, because it was seen, and I was seen, and because I saw too, I was already, in that very instant, forgiven.
In the place where I grew up, the deep South, shame and secrets are palpable, the land is saturated in them, and the land, the beautiful, blood-soaked land, is everything. In every family there are stories that everyone knows but no one is allowed to tell, and everyone longs for faded beauty and honor and dignity and glory. But that dignity, that special, unique, specific beauty is so tightly intermingled with, even sustained by, a past filled with such unspeakable abomination and cruelty, a past which is still present. We learn to take good care of the skeletons in our closets, to polish them by hand. We pay more attention to our skeletons than to other people. We become quiet and ashamed.
The structure is intricate, there are many hidden chambers, the past layered on the present layered on the future, the beauty layered on the horror. The habit layered on the cliche layered on the true insight. I don’t know how to say this, but please, please, look. Look at that snake that you think you are, the one you want to cut up into a million tiny pieces and bury so deeply no one will ever find them. You don’t have to believe the story. You just have to see it. Right there, right in that urge you have to take the sword to the snake. Everything you need to know is right there.