When asked to explain how he carved the ‘David’ statue, Michelangelo is rumoured to have said that he simply took a lump of marble and removed everything that wasn’t ‘David.’ And if he didn’t say it, who cares, it’s such a great line.
I saw the 'David' a decade ago on a rainy afternoon in Florence, and I’ll admit, it had a quality of the divine about it. How a statue can do that I’m not certain, but that’s the divine for you. Always mysterious but unmistakable, like a stranger revealing themselves as your oldest friend.
So the moral of the story of course, is that we are all David, bound in a suffocating excess of spurious marble. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this process of emerging with authenticity, and how many of the instructions I’ve received along the way have somehow confused the order of how that seems able to happen. In particular the ‘act as if’ principle for becoming a supposedly better version of myself, while certainly effective, has ultimately proven to be frustratingly limited. The instructions to practice gratitude, to practice noticing abundance, to practice physical exercise, to practice eating well, even to practice meditation eventually meet a wall of resistance that the will to practice seems woefully unqualified to surmount. And yet the more I’ve learned in meditation to simply allow what is to be exactly the way that it is, the more it feels like I’m trying to fake being exactly who I already am. Odd, no? How do you act as if you’re you?
There is I think, a deeply and widely held belief, that our truest selves are lazy, greedy, selfish and awful. That if we really just let ourselves go and surrendered to our deepest urges, we would all just disappear into an oblivion of sloth, aggression, infidelity, self-centred grasping, narcissism and greed. That human beings are by their very nature awful, and that we must restrict and imprison and curb our true selves so that we can avoid going to hell. Hmmm…so I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we ain’t exactly floating on paradise island here; and I don’t think it’s because we’re failing.
We seem to be living in a kind of nightmare in which we’ve identified ourselves as being greedy and awful and are trying to discipline ourselves into submission. We pat ourselves on the back when we achieve the inevitably temporary victory of transcending our awful, flawed selves, and then shame and punish ourselves when we inevitably fall once more. It's impossible. Because we cannot transcend or maintain that which we are not. We’ve mixed up being our ego with being our true selves. We are not our egos. We are gratitude, kindness, generosity. We are considerate, moderate, compassionate and loving. So we don’t need to practice what we already are, only surely to release that which we are not. It’s like saying, I’m going to focus on beating my heart today. We don’t need controlling, we need revealing. We do not need to be become better, only to emerge as we already are.
For years I refused to write gratitude lists. I mean just the idea, never mind the instruction triggered anger in me. I flat out refused. The thoughts of scarcity, anger and injustice that would rise up in response seemed to be reacting to the idea of being replaced or shamed into submission. They felt they had the right to exist just like all of the nice, ‘correct’ thoughts. They would not be silenced by a shaming ‘consider yourself lucky’ or self improvement motivated gratitude list with all of its self righteous implications. So I let them be. Ok scarcity, anger, even greed. Live it up! You don’t get to speak out loud or guide any of my decisions or actions, but you get to live as loud and as large and for as long as you want. And they did (and they do). And to the best of my ability, I watched and felt them rage without interference, reactivity or judgement. Until one day, onto the pages of my journal, and without invitation, strolled a ‘thank you.’ Suddenly it was, thank you for this, thank you for that, gratitude just spilling out of me faster than I could write. Real, true, heartfelt, overwhelming thanks. I wasn’t looking for it, it rose up from the depths of my true self. Unmanufactured gratitude. The true nature of mine, and everybody else's heart.
So here’s the small print of this Michelangelo metaphor. All credit for your wonderfulness has to be checked at the door too. Your achievements, your self restriction practices, your ‘hard work,’ your good behaviour, all of it. You are not the conditioning that causes you to act out in ways that hurt you and others. Nor are you the way out. You are accountable and responsible for showing up for the process of being relieved of what is not you, no matter what. But its not your fault, which means that the great stuff you’re doing, that’s just your true self being animated by that which is way way bigger than you. We often make fun of the ‘Thank you God’ speeches at the Oscars, but you know what? They’re accurate accreditations.
The anger, the scarcity and the fear were, and continue to be, my spurious marble. I have a lot of excess marble. But I am not the sculptor; I’m the ‘David.’ At least these days you can make out a hand and a foot and a nose here and there. So in meditation I hold the pose and release the marble to the mysterious sculptor who calls me each day to the artist’s studio. All goes well, and then I get ideas about how I want to look and I grab the chisel. Somewhere a heart breaks as my ego takes the reins and starts trying to out do the artistry of all that is. Surely I can do better than whatever it was that created snowflakes and hummingbirds says my ego. I’ve got this! And then the pain and then the self flagellation and then the self improvement plan. Bonkers.
But then, more and more quickly these days, I notice the chisel in my hand. And with the next breath and as little judgement as I can muster, I return to the studio. A piece of marble quivers with great reluctance as it readies itself to be released to perhaps reveal an eye or an elbow. For the millionth time I wonder why I ever resist and reject this extraordinarily lovely experience, and then my knee hurts and I resist the pain, and I grab the chisel and I think I hear laughter somewhere because honestly, who are we kidding?
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