I was recently listening to a recording of David Whyte reading his extraordinary poem The Opening of Eyes and it got me thinking about the idea of innocence.
I think of innocence as having two faces: the childish face and the childlike face. A childish innocence is one that is naive and resistant to the unknown. A childlike innocence, on the other hand, has an innate appreciation of the unknown, a deep sense of wonder and curiosity. It asks, who am I? What am I? What might this experience be about? When we are in a childish mode this type of conversation cannot begin. In the childish state there tends to be a such strong focus on ourselves as an individual that we’re often unreceptive to the greater conversation of life.
For me, an important part of innocence is a surrender to suffering. This is indeed a complex area to discuss given that our cultural resistance to it is so strong. Yet to me, suffering and wellbeing are like yin and yang, dark and light: each aspect is given meaning and definition through the existence of its opposite.
When we resist physical or emotional suffering, we take the position that the suffering is happening to us. Although this viewpoint is very understandable – I’ve been there many times – this is also the immature form of innocence which I’ve come to recognize as a childish attitude towards life. It might sound absurd given our cultural conditioning, but when we actually surrender to emotional or physical suffering, we can adopt a more mature awareness that creates a childlike innocence towards the unfolding of life. This state of innocence can help us explore the possibility that life’s unfolding events are happening for us rather than to us. Although it can be extremely challenging at times, if we can surrender, if we can trust that our suffering is an inherent aspect of life, it’s been my experience that we open ourselves to a whole new state of wisdom and wonder.
This state of wonder is evoked for me in the final lines of Whyte’s poem:
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.
I believe we are being called upon to remove our shoes, to release ourselves from the constant seeking of comfort and protection from the challenges life brings to our doorstep. I’ve come to experience true innocence as a willingness to walk barefoot upon the earth so to speak in order that we can truly feel our journey into the unknown.
On my audio recording of the poem, Whyte adds the paradoxical statement that ultimately there is no solid ground. I love this. As humans, it seems we long for the safety of the finite. But true reality is ever-changing. It is made of excitement, laughter and pain. When we can surrender to that truth, we really are in heaven.
Just as horses are whispering facets of ourselves back to us, telling us where we’re holding onto fear and its ripple effects, I believe life itself whispers ways for us to return to a state of innocence. A state of trust. Like horses, life mirrors the places where we’re still holding onto fear and where we’re trying to push pain away and wrap our lives in protective soft shoes.
For instance, in this culture, we don’t want to think about pain or death, so we push them away. When we aren’t willing to embrace this inevitable side of life we become hard pressed to witness life’s full beauty. Having spent countless hours watching other animals dancing with life, I’ve never witnessed another four-legged, water bound or winged creature hold the kind of fearful death grip on life the way other humans tend to do. That’s not to say animals don’t navigate the world in a way that supports their wellbeing; they certainly do. Yet they also seem to surrender to the infinite possibility of how life is expressing itself in any given moment and embrace it with grace.
It seems, as David Whyte writes, when we stop resisting our pain, we open “eyes long closed”.
For most, January marks the beginning of a new year and a new cycle in life for each of us. I’d like to invite you to try using this month as a space to practice surrendering to the moments of your own suffering just as much as you embrace the moments of your own joy. I know. It sounds a bit odd, but a powerful transformation can happen when we allow the heart to use the pain and decay of a moment in life as fertile ground for creating new growth. If you are willing to surrender, take off your shoes and open eye’s long closed, you may just be stunned to rediscover the childlike wonderment of your own innocence.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.