We think in stories. We consume and create narratives about who we are, the paths of our lives, our goals and accomplishments. To a point, this can be creative and useful. But it can also distance us from what’s actually happening in the present: the here and now, the flesh and blood of our moment-to-moment existence.
This fall, fresh from graduating and with no long-term plan, I have been wracked with the anxiety to cling to a life-narrative. What AM I? I keep asking myself. I keep searching for a label to which I can affix an understanding of myself, a reassurance that I fit into society: I’ll be a teacher, or an author, or a fill-in-the-blank.
Then one day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Hippie Witch by Joanna DeVoe, and she mentioned the power of tuning in to your five senses. In any given moment, what are you touching, tasting, smelling? I began to incorporate this as a practice, reminding myself to tune in several times a day. And, amazingly, it brought me back down to earth. The anxiety-balloon of my head deflated a little.
The human mind is essential, powerful, and liberating. But if we exist only in our minds, without grounding ourselves in the tangible earth on which we walk, the actual objects and plants and animals with which we interact, we get lost. Existing as a human is not solely an intellectual or even spiritual experience. It’s an earthly experience. In fact, it’s an animal experience.
Coming back down to earth, by way of my five senses, answered the what am I question—but not like I’d expected. The real answer at which I arrived was this: I am an animal. That’s all. I’m a living, breathing organism that needs to eat and drink and sleep. Yes, I have other functions like ambition and curiosity and intellectual ability, but try using those if you don’t first meet your animal needs. It won’t work.
I recently read Women Who Run with the Wolves, the ‘90s classic by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. She compares women’s psyches to those of wolves: how we share the basic instincts to run, to love, to heal, to wound, to mother, to nurture. She says that when our animal instincts are dampened or repressed by society—say, when we sense danger in a situation but don’t trust that intuition—we are doing a disservice to our animal selves. We are forgetting where we came from, and what we are. When we lose our wildness, she says—that’s when we get into trouble.
Daniel Vitalis, a popular writer and speaker who specializes in “rewilding”, agrees. He defines rewilding as being “restored to one’s natural undomesticated state”. “I’ve come to believe,” he writes on his website, “that all strength, all vigor, and all vitality emanates from the wildness of a thing. The further down the path of domestication we travel the more mal-adapted we become. Our health degenerates as does our will and our sense of purpose.” In other words, when we forget our animal instincts, our status as living biological creatures, we get confused. We get confused and sad.
There are many ways to rewild—you can read Vitalis’ and Estés’ work for more detailed methods—but for me, it started out as tuning in to my five senses. It’s a simple shift with huge consequences. It’s noticing the vividness of the yellow leaves strewn on the sidewalk. It’s touching a tree trunk, feeling the rough wood with my fingers. It’s letting bites of my apple dissolve sweetly on my tongue, instead of chomping through the whole thing. It’s a constant reminder that I am an ever-changing organism in an intricately complex world.
We so often get locked in our own heads, sticking labels onto ourselves, trying desperately hard to fit into boxes. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. I’m x pounds. I’m successful. We expect ourselves to always fit into the same box. We expect to function like machines, reliably producing at the same rate each day. Last week I had a mini-breakdown from this stress to be constantly productive, and I found myself remembering one of my favorite poems, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. The poem begins:
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.
I so often get stuck in the desire to be “good”. It can feel desperately necessary. But whenever I speak Mary Oliver’s words to myself, I remember: I am not a value. I am not “good” or “bad”. I am merely alive. I am merely breathing, existing on this planet, here for a brief stretch of years. I am a soft animal, exploring what it feels like to be here. Yes, we are animals that go to work and sit at computers and think complex thoughts, but we are animals nonetheless. And that, to me, is the ultimate comfort, the ultimate permission to simply be.
Lily Myers is a writer living in Seattle, WA. She writes about feminism and self-love at her blog The Shapes We Make. Her debut novel, This Impossible Light, is due out from Philomel in June 2017.