Like many people, I am grieving the death of Stephen Sondheim. He had a way of putting our emotions and life experiences into words and music that not only normalized them, but also revealed aspects of them that we may not even have been aware of ourselves. He made us feel less alone—he made me feel less alone. For a long time earlier in adulthood, I was captivated by one of his most popular songs. In it, he expresses the poignancy of finding it hard to let go and fall in love despite having other abilities and being accomplished in other areas. I remember being stunned the first time I heard it by how perfectly it resonated with me and my life at that time.
Anyone can whistle, that's what they say—easy. Anyone can whistle, any old day—easy. It's all so simple. Relax, let go, let fly. So someone tell me, why can't I?
I can dance a tango, I can read Greek—easy. I can slay a dragon, any old week—easy. What's hard is simple. What's natural comes hard. Maybe you could show me how to let go, Lower my guard, Learn to be free. Maybe if you whistle, Whistle for me.
Most of us have areas in life in which we excel and other areas in which we wish we could do better. I always found that frustrating, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Many of us see our skills and talents as givens, even if we’re grateful for them, and judge ourselves harshly for the ways in which we feel we fall short. I could never feel satisfied with my life while there were things I wanted but hadn’t yet achieved, even though my life was always great in many ways. In the language of the song, “I could slay a dragon any old week—easy”—but until several years ago I could not find a mate, and even deeper than that and from a very young age, I could not shake the feeling that there must be something more to life than I had found. Yet when I looked around at friends, family, and co-workers, what I felt I was missing seemed to come easily to so many others. That was painful.
What I’ve come to see through spiritual practice is that, while the song expresses the emotions of frustrated longing exquisitely, and thereby helps us feel connected, it doesn’t point to any solution. Hearing the song over and over in my mind made me feel better about my sadness, and I feel very grateful to Sondheim for that, but it didn’t help me feel less sad. In fact, it reinforced the kind of “if only…” thinking that always leads to suffering. It was only when I began to come out of my mind and into my body that I began to feel real peace and contentment in my life.
The mind imposes judgments on nearly everything we think, say, and do, so finding it hard to have a good relationship, get a rewarding job, earn enough money, resolve conflicts with parents, spouses, or kids, etc., can feel like a failure, a shortcoming, a weakness. When we gain access to our true self through practices like meditation and yoga, which bring us into our bodies, we discover that these judgments are completely fictional: there is no cosmic scoreboard or scorekeeper that reproaches us for this or that “failing”—what appeared real turns out to be wholly made up by our mind based on our past. Our true selves know that we are fine just as we are, even if there are areas we’d like to see change. Our true selves don’t fret over the past or worry about the future. Our true selves are always free no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. When I am in touch with my true self, I don’t need anyone else to “whistle for me.”