Paul McCartney wrote this famous song about his own mother Mary, who died when he was 14 years old. Something deep inside us knows what we need in times of trouble. It turns out this is rarely ever good stern fatherly advice or even friendly advice. In our hours of darkness, broken heartedness, and sheer exhaustion it turns out that we don’t need very many words at all. What we need is a nonjudgmental and caring presence that lets it all be. What we need is an attention that is like a hug, embracing the whole of what we are, including our pain and anger and confusion. What we need is acceptance.
“Darling, I am here for you.” The great Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn composed this “mantra of true presence.” Please consider saying this to yourself. Look in the mirror at your face in the morning and say it. Say it late at night when you can’t sleep. Say it all the time. Be extravagant in offering yourself the gift of kind attention. Let yourself be. Let yourself dare to know you are acceptable and welcome in this life, just as you are.
“Darling, I know you are there and I am so happy.” This is another mantra from the Zen master. Saying such a statement to ourselves can seem outrageously silly until we try it. Then it can seem revolutionary. Think of all the beings you have pinned your hopes on and maybe even tortured trying to get them to give you this acceptance. And here it is, whenever you need it. Most of us have had peak moments in our lives, and we cherish them. And yet tiny moments of letting ourselves be what we are without hiding, offering ourselves up to a healing presence that is greater than our own thinking, can change our lives.
It starts with giving up our campaign against what is. Just for a moment, give up the thinking and planning and resolving we usually have going and come home to an awareness of the present moment, home to the awareness of the body, bruised and tired and sad as it may be from all it’s been through lately. Let it be. This can bring light to dark places. We remember that we are much bigger than we think we are. We remember that we are not isolated and alone but deeply interconnected with life.
This is can seem a huge paradox. Our minds and bodies can feel so limited and repetitive. Our cognition and perceptions have been hammered into certain shapes by our conditioning. Sometimes we can even physically feel how mechanical we are, how we spin and twist things. Things well up and fly out of our mouths and we can’t stop them. But sometimes, and practice helps with this, we can just stop between stimulus and response. In these moments, we remember that we are part of a greater life and that actually we don’t have to try to control and resolve everything.
More and more, I like the phrase “let it be” to “let it go” because letting go can feel like too much doing, inviting the ego to take over, ending the sense of being with life. It conveys a gentle movement of availability. If there is to be an answer to the mystery of our lives, if there is to be healing of the heartbreak and soothing of the pain and trouble, it starts and ends here. We invite in a greater, healing attention. We let it be.
I once also heard the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn say that understanding is really acceptance, and acceptance is love. I’ve held this statement like an open question for a long time and I believe it to be true. Acceptance is not resignation or passivity—it is the opposite of weakness. It is the quietly courageous movement of allowing what is to be what it is, understanding that what will be will be, and that more will come.
It turns out that the greatest wisdom and the greatest love is expressed in small moments and movements, not in big sword-brandishing gestures. It does not require straining beyond our limited ourselves, just the opposite. It involves daring to silently say “Darling, I am here for you.” And “Let it be. “
It’s amazing what can happen when we are still. We can remember that this body I am sitting in comes to me from a long chain of human beings, reaching back to our common mother. I may remember that my life is a gift and I may feel moved to give back.
Other mantras from Thich Nhat Hahn include: “Darling, I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.” Also, the most challenging: “Darling, I suffer. I am trying my best to practice. Please help me.” This is the most difficult mantra, because it means being with a loved one who is making you suffer.
Near the end of her long life, my own mother reminded me that love is what really all we need. Another Beatles’ lyric. According to the internet, “All you need is love,” was John Lennon’s favorite lyric.
I remember my mother looking small and frail in a big leather recliner as she told me this. I thought of these as her reclining years. She had just lost two dwellings in a major hurricane and was shaken to the core. At her age and in her fragile state, the sheer physical shock of the sudden change hastened her death. And yet when I asked her about it, she said, “Honey, I’m too old to cry over things.” She reminded me that changes happen in this life, sometimes many at one time and very fast. Big things can be lost, houses, careers, loved ones. She was my living proof of this. I loved her so much, her uncanny intuition and wisdom, her humor, her big mother lion love for her children. Yet she was slipping away from life and from me. It was like a planet turning away from the sun. Love is what you need, she said. This proved true. In the winter of grief after she died, sometimes my own love would well up and hold me, and I could just let it be. ♦