Some years ago, I was briefly a student in France. Of innumerable conversations and encounters there, this memory stands out: being informed that “only simpletons and prostitutes smile at strangers.” He who declared the dubious adage meant to teach me how I was being perceived. My smiles were the outward manifestation of a then-rare feeling of bounty, so needless to say it wasn’t a welcome lesson.
Whether my would-be tutor was well-intentioned or mean-spirited is a mystery to me. With the willfulness that has preserved me through hard times, I continued to smile when moved so to do, or when trying to lift myself from a low place. (Science now demonstrates that engaging those facial muscles lights up the brain in positive ways—et alors, monsieur!) A seed of self-consciousness was planted, however—its coating bitter when swallowed and its fruit not infrequently, too.
Indeed, taking an inventory of my life thus far, I could publish a whole seed catalog of poison-berry tree varietals. I mean, couldn’t we all? Heirloom and GMO both. I long to call to account a professor who once disparaged me, condemning me as pretentious for describing a philosophical project and ethical inquiry of mine—the likes of which fill the history of letters and earn the lavish attention of scholars.
Why did he fault me, where he might have praised another? Was I too enthusiastic, too unguarded? Candor can be punished as naïve, and sincerity too often bears a competitive disadvantage in life. But my project here is not to contemplate his rhyme and reason; I’ve since learned other lessons. Though encouraged by ancient East and modern West to have no regrets—rien de rien—I grieve for times when I failed to reveal myself to someone who mattered to me, trying to make myself invulnerable. I didn’t start out that way; I developed the reflex for my own protection. Now I’m trying to reeducate myself, and mindfulness helps.
I think I’m learning from mindfulness that a great part of vulnerability is not being seen in my truth so much as being shaky in what that truth is. “Know thyself,” is the old Greek maxim; despite preferring it on principle to the Buddhist concept of “no-self”—I believe that the self exists and furthermore matters as such—they actually work well together. Tuning in to my actual experience (as a being among beings), versus any intellectual constructs of the same (as an ego with its isolating tensions), gives me a feeling of greater stability. When I meditate several days in a row, even for five minutes, I notice the difference. I find a steadier voice with which to speak—a voice more truly, less abashedly, my own.