What if there’s nothing to fix?
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
“Do not doubt your own basic goodness. In spite of all confusion and fear, you are born with a heart that knows what is just, loving, and beautiful.”
- Jack Kornfield
A few days into the new year I began seeing articles and memes along the theme of, “Well, by now you’ve likely abandoned your new year’s resolutions, so now what?” It made me giggle, of course, but it also made me glad. It seems to point to acceptance of—or at least turning toward—the fact that the brazen commitments we make at the arbitrary turn of the calendar have no real staying power beyond a few days of giving it all we got (and then abruptly burning out).
Granted, the resolutions themselves are far from arbitrary. They are usually rooted in a deep desire to have things shift in a particular way. It’s just that we tend to hold them in more extreme (and unsustainable) ways around this time of year. It’s encouraging that maybe we are beginning to recognize that total deprivation, punishing motivation, and militant discipline are not and have never been the way to accomplish these things. It’s heartening that we are starting to ask questions like, “if not that, then how do we relate to bettering ourselves?”
Marvelous as it is that the approach to betterment is shifting, I can’t help but notice the inherent assumption that remains: that we need to better ourselves. It’s one I’d like to invite us to question.
Why we think we need to be better
I noticed recently that, having dwelt in the world of self-development and mindfulness for most of my adult life, I am perennially aware of the ways I could be more skillful, more developed, or be leaning harder into my growth edges. This narrative has made its way into my cells and becomes a deeply held “truth.” Though I know self-development is not the same thing as self-improvement, my relationship to my own growth has still often been one of assessment.
How has this shown up for you? What is your relationship to your own developmental path?
No matter how revolutionary or ancient or nuanced, developmental and spiritual paths don’t exist in a vacuum. If we are practicing them in our daily lives, they—like our lives—are couched in an orientation of progress and success (particularly in the West). Through this lens, even tools that are meant to free us from our habitual ways of being—models like the Enneagram and even some Integral Coaching frameworks—imply directions in which we ought to be moving. So although they are paths to freedom, the way we relate to them can be anything but free. Those of us steeped in a culture of performativity are programmed to look for how we’re measuring up, how far we’ve come.
Against such a backdrop, our longings to grow, to open, and to deepen can become unbalanced easily.
Then there’s our good ol’ inner critic, whose job is to keep us alive and safe, and who will always point out what is deficient in us. (For instance, we know that mindfulness practice alone can often be a ripe field for superego diatribes!) The critic is not always a motivator, either. We might rebel against its mean and insistent voice by doing the opposite of what it orders: sabotaging ourselves, causing ourselves harm, engaging in distracting or numbing behaviors, and then feeling even worse about ourselves for shirking our ‘duty’ to improve.
What might help free us from this powerful gravitational pull toward betterment?
Building a case for basic goodness
There is always the opportunity to look for evidence in our lives that runs counter to our assumptions. Here is a two-part exercise that will help you explore this. For it you will need approximately 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted quiet, as well as a journal and pen.
Part one: locating my goodness
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.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
- Mary Oliver
- Get quiet and close your eyes. Breathe deeply into your belly, letting each inbreath fill you more and more - belly, torso, head, limbs, fingers and toes, the space around you.
- Once you feel full of your own breath—your own essence—bring your attention to your heart space, right in the middle of your chest.
- Notice the quality of your heart space today. Does it have a color, temperature, consistency, movement? Spend a moment or two simply noticing.
- Once you are better acquainted, ask your heart, “what is it you long for?” and allow it to reveal its reply (which is probably different from what you think it should say). It could be a picture, or words, or a feeling. Spend some moments letting it come into focus and make itself fully known.
Part two: evidence of my goodness
- When you feel complete with part one, open your journal and spend a few minutes writing what your heart said.
- Then, based on this, make a list of all of the ways your actions, words, and intentions answer your heart's longing. You might start with how this has shown up in the last 24 hours, and expand out from there. List everything you can think of—even if you didn’t do it perfectly, even if you ‘messed up,’ even if it seems like a forgettable nothing.
For instance: if the longing speaks to connection, what are all the ways you connect with the world, with other people, other beings (animals, trees, spirit), and yourself? What is something you did today that established or maintained connection? Or if your heart spoke of love, what are all the ways you feel love, all the ways you express it? (Yes, doing your family’s dirty laundry is an expression of love – it counts!)
- To close, take a final few minutes to jot down how this exercise was for you, what you learned, and how you might move forward based on what you’ve discovered.
- Keep your list somewhere you will encounter it often, and add to it as new things occur to you.
The idea here is to begin to train our attention on noticing what is here in addition to what is not. To regard the good intentions that exist in us, and always have—as distinct from the noble endeavors we’ve spent hours crafting and puzzling over—and all the ways we express them.
Of course we shouldn’t abandon our longing to deepen, grow, expand our capacity to be of service, but all of this might be far more powerful, effective, and liberating if we begin from an understanding that there is nothing to fix.
Integral Coaching is a methodology for working with others and a developmental path toward our fullest expression in the world. Begin to work with both of these elements in Foundations of Coaching, our virtual introductory workshop. Readers of this blog are welcome to take $100 off tuition with the coupon code MINDFULLEADER. Happy new year to you all.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West, the Integral Coach training school based in San Francisco.