Walking to class one afternoon in high school, I found a giant butterfly crawling around on the sidewalk. I don’t remember what kind it was, but it was striking and colorful. It seemed disoriented, and I worried that another student might come by and step on it.
And so I scooped it up in my hands and I walked around the school, trying to find a safe, natural place to let it go. The school was mostly cement with very little green, so I had to walk nearly off campus, to a fenced-off area at the end of the football field where tall eucalyptus trees grew in a secluded grove.
It was a long walk. I remember cupping my hands gently around the butterfly, protecting it. I remember its stiff, soft wings gently pressing against my palms. I remember my concern and care, my sense of wanting to keep this fragile, beautiful creature safe.
Finally, I got to the eucalyptus trees at the edge of the football field and opened my palms. The butterfly crawled to the edge of my hand, waited there for a while, and took off into the trees.
I remembered this lately, when I was feeling hard towards myself and trying to recall my intention to treat myself with gentleness and care. But I was feeling so hard that it was difficult to be gentle. So I tried to recall what it felt like to hold something gently—a living thing, a minnow, a hummingbird—and I remembered that butterfly. I remembered how I held it. And I knew how to hold the darkness I was feeling.
So how are you holding yourself today? How are you holding your emotions, your thoughts, your sensations, your judgments? Are you holding them tightly or abusively, wanting them to go away? If you are, what would it feel like to relax your grip, soften your hands, and hold whatever you notice in this moment with care, with gentleness? And if find that you can’t relax your grip on life, can you gently hold even your tightly clenching fist?
This kind of gentleness is not easy. In fact, I find it the fiercest discipline. The hardest part about it is the fear that if I loosen my grip on what’s happening, it will get out of control and destroy me or someone else. My aversion to that fear keeps me holding on tight. But at some point, I realize how painful it is to hold onto life so rigidly. I long for relief from the strain. And so I am drawn towards the fierce discipline of caring for my life, of holding it gently.
This, I think, is the key to being kind to yourself: It’s not about trying to feel kind and loving, which can make you feel worse if your feelings don’t change. It’s about having a kind relationship to whatever you are feeling. Even if you are angry or afraid, is there a way you can hold those feelings gently, delicately?
Holding yourself like this isn’t something you can really do. It doesn’t take effort. What it takes is a wish to be gentle to yourself. What it takes is knowing that whatever happens, you want to care for what’s here.
So give it a try. I will too. And maybe we’ll find that the gentleness of our touch brings out the gentleness in the darkness, and our darkness won’t seem scary as we thought. Maybe it will even appear like that butterfly, stranded and in search of safety, only in need of some soft hands to hold it gently and carry it home.