A Practice that Doesn’t Make Perfect

By Denis MacDermot

(from GreenSpirit magazine, summer 2009)

As a collapsed Catholic in an age that worships Progress and Growth, I have found it difficult to shake off the underlying assumption that the purpose of our individual lives is self-improvement and self-perfection over time and that we can use ‘spiritual practice’ to make us better.

But in concentrating on the spiritual, whatever we consider not to be spiritual—the moving body, sometimes the heart, our unconscious responses, the urges and patterns that arise spontaneously and take indistinct shape in our awareness—all these get left out. For example the effect of sitting meditation has been compared to allowing a cloudy liquid to settle out so that the liquid becomes clear. Metaphorically the sediment is subordinated while clarity and purity are prized. I do not want to deny that these qualities are desirable, only to assert that they do not represent or engage the whole person. Buddhists will tell you that the aim of practice is to be able to become mindful all the time. Walking meditation is a kind of transition—carrying the state of awareness of sitting meditation into motion. But if you have tried walking meditation you will know that you’re not supposed to let the body go; it is as if you are carrying that settled-out glass carefully along. Most of our lives are actually lived in motion, in dynamic relation to other people and the environment and spiritual practice does not always prepare us for this; there are many stories of people coming back from lengthy retreats and finding they are no better at dealing with the ‘stuff’ of ordinary life. I am reminded of the quip “I thought I was enlightened till my mother came to stay.”

The thrust from the platform of the meditation cushion, the cast of the eyes in prayer is typically upwards—higher, lighter, clearer, brighter, purer. Retreatants in search of enlightenment head for uplands, for caves in the snow, not down into the valleys—the vale of soul-making (to quote Keats).(1) We need at times to climb Apollonian mountains in search of clarity and perspective but the real action takes place lower down, in the mud, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Spiritual practice can be a retreat from the confusions of embodiment.

What kind of practice might help us deal with our physicality, the complex currents and unexpected urges of physical existence? Mary Oliver’s often-quoted poem ‘Wild Geese’ begins with the declaration:

“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.” (2)

What a relief! Yet the recipe is not to be so easy to apply. Simply understanding what the soft animal of my body loves is really difficult. (It is not chocolate, or not always). What it loves today, if I really listen, might be different from what it loved yesterday, yet often the mind, liking formulas, wants to repeat yesterday’s pleasures and satisfactions. Listening to the body needs practice.

I experience my body as having its own autonomous life, not just in the way it carries out a million housekeeping tasks (regulating temperature, prompting me to eat, drink, excrete, sleep, wake etc.) but also in the way it reacts to the outside world. Working as it does autonomously outside the control or purview of the conscious ego, the body is like the psychological unconscious. The problem is finding the meanings in this autonomous muddiness while allowing it to remain opaque. If we are not careful, applying the conceptual mind is a bit like trying to pick out the pattern of shadows by shining a bright light on them. The challenge is similar to that of remembering dreams, and once we have remembered them, of sensing their meaning without stripping them of all resonance by dissection, as if they were coded messages to the intellect. Perhaps a better way to deal with mud is to soften the focus of our knowing eyes and feel it in our hands—being open to the shapes that want to emerge.

There are many practices and techniques whose aim is to help us to arrive at a kind of whole-body knowing, a felt sense, using intuition as well as the head. I have my own which uses movement and art. A sidelong cunning is key. The great painter, Francis Bacon described what he did as “setting a snare for reality using artificial images.” In the same way I use the artifice of a score to put a finger on that vague ‘something’ under the radar. A score establishes intention, a defined time-space and activities, a kind of framework within which the unexpected can happen. Here’s an example.

In February, I went with a friend to Spain, to the Alpujarra. When we arrived, the almond blossom was out, the sun was shining. It seemed we had stepped from winter into spring. I felt a call to expand, to go outside. I felt a contradictory desire to stay in: “too early, the air is cold”. On another level I was curious to explore the nearby town, the shops, the people. But with my rudimentary Spanish I felt afraid of engagement. So—curiosity and fear: an outward-going impulse and a closing-in impulse. I set aside an hour and 20 minutes to explore this in movement and art. Here is my score, with explanatory notes in italics:

Intention: Explore curiosity/fear, opening/closing. I struck out “curiosity/fear” because these terms seemed too loaded and narrow, too knowing.
20 minutes: warm-up (using various stretches and routines to sink awareness into the body)
20 minutes: explore “opening and closing” in movement, (using both body sense and physical location—in the warm sitting room, through the kitchen and outside onto the veranda)
15 minutes: drawing (whatever comes out of the movement experience)
15 minutes: explore drawing in movement
10 minutes: (creative) journal writing (this phase is integrative allowing a return from artistic to conceptual mind)

This is what I experienced, mostly reproduced raw from my journal:

Moving indoors, slow, warm, muted… imagining opening, arms raised and lowered, chest expands, contracts… gradually, circular movements repeating.. petals, an image of a flower coming out bravely in the sun. Then … MY FRIEND OPENED THE FRENCH DOORS!!! OUTRAGEOUS!! The warm cocoon destroyed. Triggered into a tantrum, I beat cushions then stomp downstairs to saw wood… repetitive angry movement warms body and calms outrage.

Here is my drawing:


I explored my drawing in movement (this simply involves focusing on different elements of the drawing and allowing your body to respond) then wrote in my journal:

“Splattering blows aimlessly out in all directions, a tantrum without power.. and opens up the delicate round flower petals to daggers and lightnings in. Oh cold blast of wind from outside, this hothouse plant cannot sustain but galvanized to harden before its ready time, pushed out, pushed out.”

then a dialogue:

Petals: “I swell roundness out, yellow, sunny, childish pleasure. Jittering, a flimsy enthusiasm, naïve, trusting”

Sky: “This is no place for babies! Go back inside. Or toughen up. Don’t be silly!”

Petals: “Pushed out, not allowed back in to the warm cocoon. But I am not very brave though I put a brave face out.”

Sky: “What do you want? Open air or closed safe space, the hollow warmth?”

Petals: “Open air seems vast and empty and cold. I want to light it up but my bright delight needs protection. My sunny rays do not go far.”

Stalk: “I am the link, a sinuous corridor for sap, my feet in the stolid lumpy ground, I hold you up, I feed you, I make earth nourishing. I am the secret alchemist, slow and patient.”

Re-reading this, I am struck by the muddled syntax (I have to resist the desire to correct it) and by the way the metaphors overlap with each other in a most untidy way—the flower is both flower and sun, it wants to blossom in childish pleasure but also feels victimized, pushed out. There are echoes of childhood ‘stuff’. I could go into an analysis saying it is all to do with being forced to wear shorts in winter at the age of seven but I don’t want to because this kind of language is reductive, narrowing, and closes down the imagination.

I am also struck by some metaphorical resonances between the drawing (spirit/sky earth/mud, the secret alchemical stalk) and the themes of this article.

The drawing is art-expression but does not claim the status of Art. Like my raw and naïve writing, I find it a little embarrassing to show it here. But my intention in this session was to explore not to communicate. Expression was at the service of exploration. Part of me goes – “ah, what is this, this pattern, this feeling, what is it like, where does it lead?” – shape is found, created in the moment of expression and becomes content. The process feels very organic; I blossom out my own unique inner world in the patterns of my movement and in the colours and words that spill out on to the page. What I express in this way becomes a resource and a mirror. I know myself through my expression. To communicate meaning to others (through artwork, poem or dance performance) needs a different kind of attention and skill.

John O’Donohue talks about our position on a threshold between our unique inner and outer worlds and the importance of keeping these in balance. The score described above had an inward focus but in the same week I explored the outer world using very similar techniques…that mountain on the skyline, a crook like my elbow, the gnarled shape of the almond boughs, the finger-tip blossoms, those budded branches reaching up towards the sun, a cold wind, contracting “brrr!”—echoes in my body everywhere. My drawing that day was much more representational.

So what was the effect of this practice session? I can’t say I became a better or more spiritual person or that I grew in some way as a result but I definitely found the quality of my experience, its resonance, was enhanced – I felt I had found a bridge (or was it a stalk?), at least for a while, between my muddy dream body and my waking conscious world. I felt more in touch with my emotions and with my environment. In short I felt more alive and more me.

1. See James Hillman: “Peaks and Vales” and “Soul and Spirit” from A Blue Fire (Harper & Row, 1989)
2. Mary Oliver. Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)
I am as always indebted to Carl Jung, especially Four Archetypes – The Phenomenology of the Spirit (Bollingen Series, 1969)

My practice leans heavily on the work of the Tamalpa Institute (www.tamalpa.org) but I have also been influenced by a number of other movement based practices.
Denis MacDermot is a thinker and writer with an enthusiasm for movement, drama and art . Since ending a long business career in 2002, he has been seeking a creative approach to life that allows space for all aspects of our humanity: spirit, soul, body, the sacred and the profane. He lived for a year in the Findhorn Community, and trained in California at the Tamalpa Institute. He is a father and grandfather, lives in Ashburton, Devon, teaches art and drama for Magic Carpet in Exeter and works with refugees in Plymouth.