“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” ~ Pema Chödrön
Did you catch that title up there? Did you see what Pema said? What do you think when you see the two words “honest” and “gentle” together? For me, “honest” and “gentle” are like oil and water, toothpaste and orange juice, Red Sox and Yankees: they do not get on well together.
Believe me, I know. I’ve been an eighth grade girl. Honest is not gentle. Gentle is not honest.
Yoga teacher, Kelly Stine once opened a class with “You start doing yoga by getting brutally honest with yourself. That’s where it begins.”
Standing at the front of my mat, inches from a wall of mirrors, I gulped. When I hear “brutally honest,” I hear “mean.” I hear “harsh.” I hear the stuff the cool kids say behind your back.
When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “Honesty is an acknowledgement of your life situation right now, in the present moment. Brutal honesty may come across as cruel and ruthless, but it really means acknowledging this moment with full accountability and in a way that is raw, unattached and without judging or evaluating what it all means.”
Unattached and non-judging honesty? This feels as slippery as an oiled water balloon. What does that even look like? If I see something that I’m falling down at, I go straight to “bad’ and “needs fixing” and my favorite, “I suck.” If I see something I think I’m doing right, I’m quick to go to “Hey, I’m doing pretty well!” How can I be really honest and not judge?
It reminds me of grappling with the agreement in Nia to “always do your best.” What does that mean? If I’m giving 110% effort, I’m not really doing my best, I’m over-doing. But if I’m not doing absolutely all I can, am I really doing my best?
My mind, that wily thing, works its way into the gears and mucks with what is so.
An echo chamber of voices, my mind is full of the words of parents and teachers and friends who under-praise so I don’t get a swelled head or over-praise to boost my confidence. These ghost-voices criticize and correct, approve and exclude, sneer and smile until I don’t know what to trust. I beat myself up ruthlessly striving for the ever-elusive perfection or fall into denial, deluding myself that I am either worse or better than I really am.
Pema invites us not just to have “the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently” but that it is a “fundamental aggression to ourselves” when we do not. As I play with the balance between honesty and gentleness, discipline and kindness, I find a sensation. Like the pause at the top of the breath, it is a sweet, elusive space of both/and. It is a yes to clear seeing and kind acceptance.
Kelly is right, the place to start is where I am and the only way to know where I am is to be absolutely honest. Once I have that clear seeing, I can soften rather than narrow my eyes. I can breathe and get curious without beating (or pumping) myself up.
Even though they seem to be opposites, honest and gentle need each other. Finding that sweet balance takes practice in a judge-y, criticize-y world. But honest gentleness and gentle honesty is what we really need to be awake and alive.