Happiness in a minor key
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false and true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
(from When You Are Old, by William Butler Yeats)
To see the pilgrim soul of another person, to love their sorrows – we are moved by stories filled with sadness; we instinctively respect the dignity of grief; we have all suffered loss, and we know there are many more losses ahead of us, including, eventually, the loss of our lives. And yet, despite this, many of us feel we have to hide our sorrows, to be relentlessly upbeat, positive, great fun to be around. We all have different temperaments, individual ways in which we experience the difficulties of our lives. Sometimes we feel too vulnerable to show the world what’s going on with us, and the ‘sorrows of (our) changing face’ might be seen by only one or two people close to us. Yet one of the gifts of mindfulness for me has been to become much more comfortable with the full range of my emotions. Apart from sitting with difficult emotions during the formal meditation practice, I’ve learnt to allow myself to experience sadness whenever it arises. Instead of chastising myself – ‘what have you got to be sad about, there are many people much worse off than you’ (which is quite true) – I can accept sadness as a normal part of any life.
One of the fears of allowing sadness into our lives, and it is a legitimate one, is the fear of becoming swamped by sadness, of being dragged down into the morass of a clinical depression. It’s probably not a coincidence that the culture of upbeat positive thinking coincides with an increase of clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Obviously these are serious conditions, requiring professional treatment. Yet the pressure we put on ourselves to be ‘happy’ all the time can also be unhelpful.
The pilgrim soul is the part of us which takes time out from the routine obligations of everyday life to nourish our sense of spirituality. When someone undertakes a pilgrimage, they have permission to focus their energies inwardly during that time. Our culture doesn’t really encourage pilgrimages, whether real or symbolic ones – instead it often expects us to be available at all times for others. To retreat for a while can be seen as self-indulgent, even a betrayal. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course includes a full retreat day, where the participants don’t speak for the entire day, until right at the end. People who’ve never been silent for a day often feel anxious about it beforehand; but afterwards, most comment on how refreshing it was to simply be with themselves for a while.
It is easy to love ‘glad grace’ and ‘beauty’, and they are both wonderful. Yet if we really respect people, we also love their ‘pilgrim souls’. Giving each other space for inner pilgrimages, whether it be five minutes out during a busy day at the office, or a week-long silent retreat your partner wants to attend, can be a very kind and liberating gesture.
Weekly practice idea:
What would nourish your ‘pilgrim soul’? Set aside some time this week to nurture your inner spirit in a way which feels right for you.