At the end of one of the yoga practices I use regularly the instructor on the DVD uses the phrase, ‘Open hips, open heart, open mind.’ It’s not just a cute slogan. So often we embody what we are feeling emotionally and in our thoughts and the feedback loops between body/emotions and body/cognition are powerful.
As writers, we witness to the world, calling attention to how the past and present are playing out and how the future might look, depending on what happens now. To do this, we have to walk around with all our senses open. And with our hearts, intuition and minds open too.
The vulnerability of openness
But being open renders us vulnerable. When people close themselves off to relationships or to the non-human world or close themselves to anyone who is different, to learning or even to their own feelings, most frequently there is fear at the root of the shut down. We clench, tense and close in response to threat — freezing is one of the classic responses to serious danger.
In a crazy world it’s tempting to want to close ourselves off, but if we are to ‘kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,’ which Jung identifies as the purpose of life, then we have to be out in the darkness.
And James Baldwin, a queer Black man existing with all the vulnerability that entailed, pointed out in The Price of the Ticket, a year before Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream…’ speech, that
The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
but also noted that this puts artists and writers in a vulnerable position since:
Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.
The connection of openness
If being open, taking in stories the way we take in breath, reflecting back the world we encounter and bringing its darkness into the light, puts us in a vulnerable position, it also gives us a doorway to deep and transformative connections.
As Olivia Laing, quoting Ali Smith, says in Funny Weather:
Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves. That’s what art is, it’s the product of the human being in the world and imagination, all coming together. The irrepressibility of the life in the works, regardless of the times, the histories, the life stories, it’s like being given the world, its darks and lights. At which point we can go about the darks and lights with our imagination energised.
The power of creative flow to unself ourselves, to get out of the bit of the mind that is always judging and watching for a while enables us to experience how deeply we are enmeshed with all life. And we can then communicate this to those who read our work. Laing goes on:
We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living.
The courage to open ourselves through what we write becomes a possibility for others to change their story too. Our writing becomes an act of hospitality. And this, in turn, is visionary. Openness and expansiveness are intimately related.
The delicacy of openness
Openness stands with everything that connects us and with an expansive and hospitable vision of life. But this also takes us back to the vulnerability of openness since, recognising that if we don’t shut out the world, the stranger and our own emotions, we are acknowledging that there is a great deal in life that we will not be in control of.
This is a courageouss moral and ecological stance — letting in the other, letting in all that lives … Talking about Euripides’s searing tragedy, Hecuba, the philoshopher Martha Nussbaum talks about how the extent of our openess maginifies both our vulnerability and our ability to trust others:
To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
On one hand this allows that tragedy might happen. But on the other hand it is equally tragic to clench our souls against life, shutting down connection and thwarting our own humanity in the process. Being closed, as a matter of course, is a turncated life at best. And, for writers, being closed walls us off from the empathy with and porousness to the whirl of life around us, clogging the channels of insight and inspiration.
The equilibrium of openness
Perhaps the harmonious point is found not in trying to security-proof our lives by withdrawing, but by being open in a community of others who are open. I go back to the notion of finding our kith, those with whom we can share a sense of radical compassion and restorative kindness. Those who honour our commitments to do the good that we can for those we can touch and those who do the same provide a space of nurture from where we can find the courage to be open.
And sometimes finding this harmonious point in our openness also requires periods when we step back — not from fearful paralysis but because the most transformative creative practice is never going to be something we achieve and tick off the list for all time. These things have rhythms and sometimes the rhythm we need is a period of withdrawal in order to be able to open again.
In any kith we find ourselves amongst, there should be the grace to hold a space for those who need to go inwards for a time, whether for a period of grief or a period of deep inner creativity. Seeing openness as a rhythm, not as a demand, makes it so much more possible and so much more part of life and creative practice. It makes it an adventure, a different story, a new place, as E E Cummings expresses so lyrically:
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands