Finding our Best Self in Troubled Times
Russell Delman November 2016
Dear Fellow Travelers,
The election of Donald Trump has sent shock waves through many communities, The Embodied Life School included. My friends in Europe are expressing deep concern about this election, its potential international effects and the similar political issues arising in their lands. My intention here is not to offer political strategy but to share ideas for finding our best selves in these times. I am focusing on three main places: connected community, grounded presence and right speech.
First, I need to acknowledge my position of privilege in that I am not in immediate danger due to the hateful rhetoric we have been hearing. As a relatively rich, heterosexual, able-bodied, white male, I live every day inoculated against actions stimulated by the language of our president-elect.
Because of this place of relative safety, some might suggest that I cannot really understand the level of fear and potential danger that is the realistic response for people. I can say that people who are in privileged positions MUST speak out, even if our voices are somewhat marginalized by a perceived lack of credibility. With uncertainty, I do my best to walk in the shoes of others. Here are some of my hopes and observations.
Connected Community: Coming Home Together
Our support for each other is essential. Many of us are raw, reactive and feeling angry, fearful and lost. We need time to process our grief. It is important to know that you are not alone. Please be gentle with yourself and others, especially during these next potent weeks. Listening well to our inner voices and to each other is a key. Helping others to feel seen and heard is healing for all. More than ever, people of color, women, the poor and those wearing hijab’s need to feel our care, they need to feel seen, safe and welcome.
A community of fellow seekers who are working to uncover our best selves is a true jewel. The Embodied Life School supports and encourages each other through our practices of grounded presence, embodiment, good listening and clear speech. Intensifying any practices that support these qualities is helpful at this time. Creating or joining “listening circles” where listening and speaking from the heart is encouraged and where people can feel heard without judgment invites healing.
We have models in the world of how to deal with difficult situations. I think of the Dalai Lama who has lived through such suffering and maintains humor and joy as his ground of being. He allows himself to feel anger toward the Chinese as he also cultivates forgiveness and well-wishes toward those who have been violent to his people. In addition there are more ordinary people, like you and me, who manage to find their larger view in challenging times. Our practices are tested by troubled times, in a sense, we practice FOR troubled times.
Pausing and Presencing: Coming Home
The Embodied Life teachings grow from a basic practice of PAUSING from our train of thought, dropping attention down into our bodies so that we can freshly perceive the sensations, feelings, thoughts and external situation in which we are living. Without this pause, we are locked into old habits of reactivity. It is important to differentiate responsiveness from reactivity. To respond requires that we first “empty the cup” of reactivity. Acknowledging the reactions without being controlled by them is a key. This takes time and patience. It is one of the purposes and benefits of Embodied Meditation. In Zen, this is called “Don’t Know Mind”. We pause, holding our thoughts and feelings with care, without certainty. We can remember that we do not know the future. Our ideas are guesses and are often wrong, we can rest in what is true, the actuality of this moment.
Out of the pause comes the practice of PRESENCING, the intention to be with whatever is alive in us. Holding presence for our fear and anger is healing. This is different from either falling into these emotions or pushing them away, it is a transformative process of being present for and with the moment that creates an organic shift.
The actions we take from this grounded presence are likely to be more whole than those taken when strong emotions dominate. Our practice is not to eliminate feelings but, whenever possible, to be present for them in warm-hearted ways. Sometimes this statement is misinterpreted, as “there is no space for my strong emotions”. In my opinion, there needs to be room to simply yell or sob or let the fear move through our bodies without judgment. As soon as possible, we return to “presencing”. When we are present in this way, grounded and breathing, there is an inner sense of coming home. Being grounded in our bodies creates a reliable, steady, home-base from which to function in the world.
Right Speech: Words Matter
Our practice also needs to include awareness of our speech- both our inner speech, how we talk to ourselves and outer, how we speak to others.
Human beings live in linguistic environments. Words are essential to human life. They are the air of social discourse. Words shape thinking and actions. One of the best comments about the election that I heard is that “those against Trump took his words literally but not seriously, whereas Trump supporters took his words seriously but not literally”. I hear people arguing “he won’t be that bad”, “he did not mean all those things literally”, “he was playing to his audience”, “he will be different as president, “they were ‘just words’”, etc.
I notice a powerful anger grows in my belly when I hear these excuses. Words matter, words have effects. People choose actions based on the words of others. Hate-filled words paved the way to Auschwitz. We are already living in the putrid air of hatred and divisiveness. Racist and misogynistic words permeate the air that we collectively breathe.
Labeling as Dehumanization
I remember hearing Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of “Non-Violent Communication” say that, as a psychologist, he realized that labeling people into diagnostic categories destroyed the possibility for human relationship. I found this comment both powerful and difficult to understand. Over time, I began to see the radical difference between saying someone “IS a schizophrenic” from describing their schizophrenic behaviors. Labels can be effective as a kind of shorthand, as long as we are diligent in erasing them when connecting with the actual person.
As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I saw that when I related to someone as a quadriplegic rather than as a person who could not use their arms and legs fully, I missed the human being. Moshe Feldenkrais was diligent about this point, encouraging us to drop the labels and diagnosis (or at least put them in the background) and meet the person.
I hear many of the people most upset by this election, using dehumanizing language to delegitimize the concerns of people who supported Trump. We must be very careful here because this labeling sustains the divisions and builds walls between us. Remember, divide and conquer is the dominant strategy of oppressive forces. We do not want to fall into this trap.
When we call someone a “racist” or a “misogynist”, we take away their humanity. Here is the difficult challenge- we need to stand strongly against racist or misogynistic behaviors and words without reducing that entire human being to that label.
This is more than just words! When we use labels, the “other” loses all moral validity and therefore we delegitimize their humanity. When our anger dehumanizes the other, we all lose. Again, this is a very challenging step for us to make. It takes great courage not to respond to hatred with hatred, not to violently attack or passively withdraw but to Stand Up. This standing-up is what I call finding our best selves in troubled times. In our meditation, we develop our capacity to sit through difficult moments so that we can bring that equanimity into everyday life. This is our work and our path. This equanimity is not a passive withdrawal but an active engagement with our world.
Finding our Best Selves
Within the inclusive atmosphere of accepting our various states, we can form the intention of being a “lighthouse in the storm” for our friends and our “enemies”. The lighthouse gives its light to all. To find our grounded presence, to be a welcoming field of good listening to those with other views is our direction. We need to tread mindfully, without judgments for our failures. When we have enough grounded presence- we can seek to understand before being understood. As some of us go home for Thanksgiving this is a very, very helpful mantra.
Thoughtful, kind and honest speech, as well as courageous action is essential. We will forget, fall down and then stand up again. We just do our best. It is not easy to be magnanimous AND actively stand up to these divisive forces. This is our time to deepen our resolve and stand up WITH each other and FOR each other. This is the time to find our best selves over and over.
Finding our Best Self in Troubled Times
“What Remains”: Final letter from Auschwitz
In English, "the remains", when used as a noun, refers to a body after death. What is left over when life leaves the body? As a verb, “to remain” means “to stay behind” or “what stays” or “to stay after something is complete”. In this letter, I am asking the question, what remains or lives on from this journey to Auschwitz?
Sometimes when walking around the grounds of the immense Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau), one finds bits of bone, the literal remains of a person. One also walks by fields in which the ashes of people have become the fertilizer for a forest of trees. How strange to see these beautiful, majestic trees growing from these ashes.
What else remains, both culturally and personally, from the experience of Auschwitz?
As described in the first of these letters, the most accurate answer is "I don't know". It will take time to observe the lasting effects in my body, feelings, thoughts and actions. At the beginning of this retreat, I was asking, who would I be, how would I act, if I was here in 1943, as a guard or prisoner? I thought that answering this question might be my intention in coming here. I now see that this is an impossible and false question. The person sitting here writing comfortably in California is not the same person as the one who would be shivering and hungry in the camp. We are connected yet undeniably separate. Until pushed to such extremes, I cannot know “which of the me’s” would show up.
What I can say in this moment is that I see three dominant, interconnected areas of profound learning alive in me:
1) Each and Every Child: the Radical importance of One
Standing in the children's barracks, I am struck by the serene pictures drawn on the walls, a kind-hearted attempt by an adult prisoner to add warmth to this insanely cold situation. From the remembrance of the few survivors, we are told stories of how the elder children took care of the younger, how the adults would try to set up a school with singing and learning, knowing that death was coming soon.
In the retreat, we all sat together and began to sing lullabies in many languages. We were haunted, disturbed by the place yet also warmed by our presence together. I began to feel, not the presence of "children", but of each child. I saw THAT hungry child and THIS cold infant and I shuddered as I realized that they are alive in the world today. Sometimes it is a literal child, perhaps a refugee, and, at other times, I see the child in me and in each of us who is desperately longing for care, comfort, life and, ultimately, for love.
"Don't turn away" is the call.
"I can't save them all' is the response.
"Just one, THIS one who is in your path today" is the reply.
In this sense, each child means "THIS one, THIS moment", THIS interaction, THIS situation. Sometimes we can come to the aid of an actual child. Sometimes the “child” is our own need in that moment. Sometimes it is caring for the needs of others. Our basic goodness asks us to care for life, to stand up for life as best we can, not more and not less. Without guilt or shame, we VOW to do our best. For some of us it is to work with refugees, the hungry, the dying or the homeless. For others it is to devote ourselves to the beings living in our house and to be a loving source of light for our friends.
In the children’s barracks, I sense how often I ignore the child within myself, the small voice that needs my care and how often I overlook that voice in others. People in adult bodies seem so competent that we can easily have the judgment that they “should” be able to handle their life and we forget the vulnerable child living in there also.
One step for me is letting go of the the idea of helping “everybody” and moving toward taking care of some particular, authentic need that arises in my world. Sometimes that need appears in the form of “other” and sometimes in the form of “me”. IF I notice that the “me” is getting most of the attention, it is helpful to change the focus on whatever “other” is in my world and if the “others” get most of my attention to my detriment perhaps a new orientation is helpful. ANY act of goodness, of love, tilts the scales in the direction of LIFE. Each individual is precious, each sacred. We cannot save the world or all beings YET in saving one we do save all. A strange calculus, I know, yet in the one is the many, as in the many there is each one.
I notice how often I have felt paralyzed by all the needs that I see in the world. There are many needs in our immediate circles of self, family and close friends. Then there is the larger circle of our community- homelessness, environmental degradation, domestic violence, hunger, etc. Then, through modern technology, we can witness the needs of our entire planet. It is natural to want to withdraw, close one’s eyes and hide, as we cannot effectively embrace all these needs. Still, we can focus on the one being or one situation that we can help today. The particular form of suffering that calls to us. The “one” is more important in the sense of being more workable, more possible, than the “many”.
2) Auschwitz as metaphor, Auschwitz as Warning
The extreme violence and degradation of life witnessed here is an exaggeration of our everyday world. Most of us have internalized voices of disparaging judgments and meanness that we direct toward ourselves and others, there is a Nazi prison guard and a concentration camp prisoner living in each of us. This metaphor, like effective theater, is hyperbolic - it makes the case in an extreme way to get our attention. Can we listen to the message? Can we honor the lives that suffered here by becoming sanctuaries of kindness toward all beings? When we can’t, is there a way that the metaphor of Auschwitz can remind us to turn toward the light?
And what is the warning in the horror here? Fascism is alive in our world today. The historical pattern and “rule” of fascism requires that the leader appear strong through lies and exaggerations about the “other”, the one who is responsible for the suffering. Oppressed, disheartened people seek the strength that emanates from the mouth of the apparent savior. Of course, it is all backwards, this is the evil. People are suffering, they are truly feeling oppressed and the new leader loudly and boldly declares that they alone can change the system that created the problem. We see this old strategy all over the world today.
We need to see the cold calculation of it all, how the ideology of the “others” who are less human, less worthy AND the cause of our problems justifies the “final solution”. Auschwitz teaches us about the potential freezing of the human heart, the Ahrimanic forces that can overtake human beings. It says to us, “do not close your eyes, these forces are in the world today”. Whereas Rwanda was an example of hot blooded killing, here we witness the cold elimination of feeling, a brain disconnected from a heart. Whether hot blooded or cold blooded, always the “other” is demeaned, labeled and dehumanized in ways that makes the unimaginable seem natural.
3) Dehumanization- Standing Up for Life
My essential learning here, the gift within the curse of Auschwitz: we must stand up for life, we must become True Human Beings.
“Evil” is “live” spelled backwards. Forces of darkness, of evil, seek to destroy life. They do this through a process of dehumanization. At Birkenau, in a building called “Central Sauna”, prisoners were processed through steps: stripped, shaved, deloused and then tattooed - their name was taken away. They became a number. Names are important. In Rwanda, the Tutsi’s were called cockroaches, in Vietnam the enemy were gooks, in Auschwitz they became numbers. To dehumanize the other we must remove their human name. They become inhuman to us.
When we humanize ourselves in all relationships-including our relationships with the voices in our inner world as well as with the “enemies” on the outside, we bring a living humanity into the world. In our everyday actions we can "vote" for kindness and goodness and thus earn the profound name "Human Being". Fighting against ignorance, oppression and inhumanity requires that we do not get lost in the cultural habit of "us and them". We are all “us”’, no one is cast out. Can ordinary people like us actually love the sinner, the perceived enemy, while standing up against any dehumanizing actions?
Standing up for life is not a naïve openness or softness. Rather it is standing up in human ways for humanity. The odd, English expression, "kill them with kindness" means to me to help eliminate the forces of malevolence that arise in this world and to see our own meanness and self-absorption with both clarity and warmth. Clarity and warmth are two essential qualities of light. We become light-filled when we see clearly with the warmth of Love. We can then stand up and say "NO" without adding negativity to the world.
I think of the story I heard from an Aikido master, "imagine that your grandmother went crazy and began attacking with a knife. Of course you must do whatever is necessary to protect your life, her life and all other lives. But, and this is the most important - you do not harm her out of anger or fear. You do not do more than what is needed and as soon as possible you get her the help that she obviously needs. Imagine if we could approach our "enemies” with this clarity and warmth.
Humanity and Technology
In an often unseen, underappreciated way, our children and many of us adults are falling under the spell of the remarkably powerful, dehumanizing impact of misused technology. Our children are learning to be more comforted by images on screens than by flesh and blood. Cold replaces warmth as the homey hearth of humanity and cool logic becomes divorced from the helpful influence of “heart thinking”. A steady diet of screen images and of virtual reality makes us susceptible to a devaluing of life. The virtual becomes more appealing than the real. We can see this in the nefarious influence of pornography on the brain. Similarly, imagine the effect of drone warfare on the warriors sitting at desks thousands of miles away from the effects of their missiles.
The problem is not the technology, it is the way our brains are vulnerable to the seductive, mechanical forces that overtake us. I can sense it in myself with checking my email, if I am not careful. Does it seem strange to speak about technology in the same breath as Auschwitz, dehumanization and forces of evil? I sense an important connection. We are in a battle for the True Human Being and this is one of the places that the loss of humanity is occurring. It is up to us, you and me, to stand up for the re-humanization of our world.
Genocide is implicitly inhuman. The desire to destroy a people requires an objectification of all people. In objectifying others, we objectify ourselves. It is shocking to realize that the Nazi’s were so icily efficient that they realized more than half their nightmarish dream: of the estimated 11 million Jews in Central Europe, 6 million were killed! Seeing this potential in people who, at the core, are just like you and me demands from us a vigilance, a deep commitment, a VOW to stand up for life. The famous statement by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is deeply with me.
Authenticating Human Experience: a Conversation with Gene Gendlin
The lessons living in me at this moment will likely continue to grow. I keep listening deeply to the “voices of the soil” and how they live in my heart, my mind, my belly, and my connections with the outer world. I am grateful to the Zen Peacemakers and to Bernie Glassman for creating this opportunity. Without the community of like-minded seekers, my experience would be impossible. We need each other to go deeply into our human experience of being alive.
My first day home I called my good friend Gene Gendlin. Gene, psychotherapist, philosopher and developer of “Focusing” is 89 and as a child was forced to leave his home in Vienna by the Nazi’s. His family narrowly escaped from Austria, eventually coming to the United States. This portion of my dialogue with Gene is important for “what remains”.
Gene: “I do not understand why you would go there deliberately, I never would”
Me: “I think my life has been so easy compared to yours. You already experienced this horror by neccessity, I needed to experience it by choice.
Gene: “I still don’t understand.”
Me: “There is something about the inhumanity, the coldness….. something about this seems central to my whole purpose in being alive and in being here at Auschwitz …… This inhumanity, this desire to destroy life….. I need to understand this, to somehow relate to it…… To find room in my heart for all this seems very important, even essential….. I don’t know why yet but it seems absolutely true (a big breath).
Gene: (taking time)- “I can see that but I am still a step away from choosing to go there”.
Me: (long pause): “there is something in me that fights against the concept of evil….. I know that hurting people often hurt others, that most child molesters were molested. This is clear. I usually can understand how individual pain leads to harmful actions…… It is the systemic dehumanization, that part of us that relishes in the killing and causing pain that does not compute.…… I need a moment to feel into this….. wait a minute…… my stomach tightens, a real sickening sensation……. Wait….. I get it intellectually I just cannot really “get it” in my guts, no, no, it is reversed, I get it in my belly but can not understand it……yes that is more right……. I am just starting to get, to sense into the evil of it all…..this incomprehensible yet real desire to destroy humanity, I can sense it even as I cannot understand it…... I needed to be in the environment to start to really take it in, to feel personally connected to it….. This is the truth, going there helps me to get that this evil is a real force, though perhaps an incomprehensible one that is living in us and around us…….there that’s it” (my belly releases).
Gene: “so being there you could really feel it. That makes sense to me, still to put yourself through that…..”
Me: “Gene, I see it clearly now- the essence of the gift you bring into this world with Focusing and felt sensing AND the center of my life through The Embodied Life teachings are an antidote to this dehumanization. That is it. That is the center. This is the larger purpose of our work. We are both devoted to validating the authentically felt human experience of being alive and to affirming the bodily-felt reality of life as it is experienced on the inside of flesh and blood human beings. This is re-humanization and is the opposite of dehumanization! It comes from our hearts and bellies and heads all working together in connection with other beings. When this gets lost, we are finished on this planet”.
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Two Strokes of Genius: The Miraculous Story of Marian Kolodziej and Bernie Glassman
(Third letter from the Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat)
Circles within circles
Don't miss it!
This remarkable, true story is actually four stories circling around each other.
Circling Around: First Story
Marian Kolodziej, was a renowned set designer for theater and cinema in Poland who died in 2013. He arrived on one of the first transports to Auschwitz as indicated by his low number, #432, and survived five years, a rare feat. For fifty years after liberation, he never spoke of his experience, not even to his devoted wife. In 1993, he suffered a severe stroke. In rehabilitation, a doctor suggested that he begin drawing to regain the use of his hand. At first, he strapped a small pencil to his fingers and worked on little pieces of paper. After sometime he began large, pen and ink drawings that became an unbelievably horrific, graphic, detailed and inspiring expression of his time in the camp. He says this is not art, not an exhibition- these are his words and memories in picture form, dedicated to all his friends who suffered and died in these camps.
Entering the basement of the Franciscan church which houses these paintings, I am bowled over, both repelled and enthralled by the potency of these detailed, precise images. Many are somewhat repetitive heads of the people he remembers- shaved heads, gaunt, with desperate eyes and piercing grimaces of emptiness and hopelessness. In a remarkable way, the occasional instances of light- of Christ, of Father Maximillian Kolbe, of the Tree of Life and the Eye of God- shine out with an intensity that is hard to describe. Such darkness, such suffering, such light! This is not naive hope. This is not "everything will be alright'. Such expressions would be an injustice to the travesty witnessed here and to the suffering. We must scream that everything is NOT alright and, of course, paradoxically know that it IS.
His stroke transformed his life. Seeing the detail, the enormous productivity, one wonders how he did all this in 16 years, much of it drawn lying prone on the ground. As he says, his life became consumed and devoted, he had a mission, a destiny, to stand up for his fellow prisoners and for humanity! The enormity of the horror is overwhelming, still we must not turn away. This "not turning away" from the paintings, means not turning away from Auschwitz, from other genocides, from the inhumanity that lives in our world today.
The expression of goodness, of light, within all of that brings authentic, realistic hope for our potential as HUMAN Beings. From the darkest imaginable aspects of humanity, which means any of us when we are desperately at the end of our rope (one never knows what we are capable of until pushed to such extremes), emerges this sense, this inkling, that love is stronger than any force in this universe.
Circling Around: Second Story
Bernie Glassman is a visionary Zen teacher who created the Zen Peacemaker Order after he experienced a vision of Hungry Ghosts. In Buddhism, Hungry Ghosts are Beings with very big bellies and needle thin throats who perpetually experience unquenchable desire. Forever hungry, forever thirsty, forever lost in wanting, these beings live in us and around us. From this insight, Bernie created various forms of social action to literally feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for those with AIDS and help people to experience our Oneness with the others. This last statement, that we are One with all Beings is the essence of Zen realization. Bernie is unique in that he took this experience of Oneness off the meditation cushion and into the world of suffering. He saw that spiritual awakening was incomplete without social action.
Upon coming to Auschwitz about 24 years ago, he heard the souls of the dead people here asking to be remembered. At first he was focused on the more than one million Jewish people killed here. After some time, he saw clearly that the cries included the German guards, the gypsies, gay and transgender people, political prisoners and others.
This is the 22nd Zen Peacemaker Retreat here, they also have had retreats in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lakota Reservations in South Dakota- places of genocide and extremely violent expressions of human ignorance. There is much more to say, please go to the Zen peacemaker web site to learn more.
About eight months ago Bernie had a stroke. Through excellent medical care, devoted assistants, Feldenkrais sessions and intense efforts he is recovering. He had the "impossible" goal of coming to this retreat. Through remarkable efforts, intentionality and Grace, he flew here this week. It was an enormous gift to be with Bernie.
Circling Around: Third Story
On the first night, Bernie told a remarkable story. When he first came here and saw the paintings of Marian Kolodziej, he was awed. Marian, greatly impaired by the stroke showed Bernie the pictures as they slowly walked together, Marian with a cane and wheel chair.
Marian explained that the stroke liberated something in him. Amazingly, he had no hatred but only love and forgiveness for the German people including the guards and camp commandant. His heart has free, his forgiveness complete. Bernie was so moved by this warm-hearted, incredibly kind human being. As Bernie said, until his death, Marian loved everybody!
Upon hearing about the first retreat that Bernie was creating, Marian wanted to be part of it. Each year, until his death in 2013, Marian would join the Peacemakers. His wife said that he looked forward all year to this event. Bernie, with vigor and health would walk around slowly with Marian who could not walk easily, taking in these expressions from the depot of suffering.
Circling Around: Fourth Story
When Bernie was recovering from his stroke, he felt an incredible softening in his heart. He said there was no room anymore for any hatred, for any pockets of resentment. The stroke was like a furnace that burnt away distrust. He saw that one of the functions of this retreat is to bring people from many diverse cultures together so that we could let go of our distrust, even our dislike and open our hearts to all. The burning away of negative karma is what Bernie experienced in his healing. No room for anymore for negativity!
He realized that he was having the same experience that Marian had had. For Bernie, coming to this retreat was completing that circle. Here was Bernie, in a wheel chair, occasionally taking a few steps steps with or without a cane, weakened physically yet so gentle, warm, radiant and kind. Just like Marian! I had the joy of sharing a Feldenkrais session with Bernie. The softness of his neck and the receptivity of his body moved me deeply.
So many impressions live on in me:
- The horror of Auschwitz is endless and therefore beginning-less.
- Forgiveness and understanding cannot come lightly but require going through the cauldron. Screaming might be the right response to all of this. No shame. No superficial spiritual principles of "love all" or "God's will" or "its all part of the plan". NO.
Still, can we ask, without self-judgement:
- Who do I close my heart to?
- Who is cast out?
- Who and what in myself is not forgiven?
- Can we die with a clear heart?
Both Marian and Bernie are inspirations for my path. I hope that I do not need a stroke or its equivalent to live further into sharing my gifts with the world. Let's be careful here, Oneness is not enough unless it includes two-ness. When we have realizations of our Oneness with all of Life, something deeply rests, our sense of connectedness is profound. We need this big AHHH, this harmony with Life. I have seen that this realization can also lead to a kind of subtle passivity in which we are so open to "what is" and to the big "YES" that we lose our life-giving, life-sustaining "NO".
In the Jewish mystical traditions, there is an invitation to argue with G-d. In my opinion, something like this is important. On the one hand, it is important that we deeply embrace Life or G-d or reality "as-it-is", it is our job to embrace IT in all forms. This includes the end of relationships, the death of loved one's and the harrowing diagnosis. AND there is as much room as needed to scream into the dark sky! To wrestle with G-d or fight with "what is". Then from our basic opening to "all that is", we do our best to ease suffering for all.
Finally, I am working with the question of VOW. In Zen, vow means, what is the center of your life, what are you truly devoted to? In the presence of Marian's mission to bring his experience to the world and in gratitude to Bernie's dedication to "saving all beings", I ponder my right actions, my vows, my next steps. How can I help the light that is in and around all of us to be felt, seen and known?
"I am circling around God,
around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don't know
if I am a falcon,
or a storm,
or a great song.”
Reflections: Second letter from the Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat
Arriving at Auschwitz this year is so new. I know the buildings and the atmosphere yet, the actual felt-experience is very different from my powerful experience last year. Knowing the basic layout, the astounding immensity of the place, it is so big, and having an orientation to the social/physical setting allows my process to go deeper. It is as if the need to "take it all in" is gone and now it is my bodily responses that is in the foreground of my experiencing.
The trees are beautiful with yellow leaves falling as the days shorten. Nature does not seem to care what happened here. I have the thought that the earth cries, but actually I don't know if that is true or just my story. The land seems so peaceful, the trees radiating stability and calm. Human malevolence could not halt the seasons, the urge to grow, the various expressions of beauty. We must remember this, honor this and give thanks for this reminder.
My first discovery after walking into the gas showers and crematorium is that disgust is stronger than grief. My belly grinds, there is an almost constant churning in my stomach. My body responds before any of the stories or information from the guides. My lips contort in an expression of distaste. Oddly, my heart seems strangely empty. This really surprises me. There is not room for sadness or grief or even rage- the sickening sense of disgust dominates.
Then I notice that my throat is contracted, a kind of gagging. Curiously, it is not that I am looking for these bodily sensations, they seem to arrive at the center of experience spontaneously. Seeing the bales of human hair, mostly women's, that is collected for various German industries to make fabric for uniforms and stuffing for pillows or the thousands of eyeglasses and suitcases- gives context but all that is secondary to my bodily felt-sense.
Where is my heart? I keep noticing an absence in my chest. Belly and throat are clenched, my head is surprisingly clear and bright yet my chest feels empty and not effected. THIS gets clear in a moment of seeing pictures of people in ordinary life. Ahh- my heart needs individuals, not collectives masses of humanity nor thousands of remnants or pictures with so many people. The individual pictures taken from people's suitcases, not the official, head-shaved photos which are inhumane diminutions of the individual.
This person and that person are more real than 1,300,000 people killed. These wedding photos, families making music together, people enjoying life, smiling with an imagined, joyful future and then, suddenly, a tsunami of unimaginable suffering. Just like that! Regular folks enjoying life and then......Now my heart is breaking open. There is a paradoxical,Talmudic teaching that sounds a lot like Zen- "the one life is of greater consequence than the many". Life is lived one person, one experience at a time. I am so grateful for the grounding sensations of my standing, feet on the floor and of THIS breath and the next otherwise the capacity for processing this would be completely overwhelmed.
During the afternoon meditations, we recite the names of people who died here. This also humanizes, personalizes. These families, often 10-20 from one place, the Adamczewski's from Osnitz or the Katz's from Abtau, lived life as unique individual humans, like you and me. Naming is so important!
In our Embodied Life retreats, we usually take the time for names. I see that even more importantly now. Whatever humans care about they name. In one incredibly efficient building, human beings with names, lives and hopes entered and then are stripped naked, deloused, shaved and, at the last stop, a number is tattooed on their arm. The person who entered that building is destroyed before they leave. The numbers on the skin are fascistic attempts to eliminate humanity. We must stand up for the individual!
Last night Yaser, a refugee from Syria, now living in Bern with his sister, "bore witness" to the crisis in his homeland. One person talking about the pain of burying his best friends or being able to save some children from starvation but not others or losing half his body weight from eating only grass and a little flour, pierces the heart even more than the 2000 killed in Aleppo. He was a dentist in Damascus until the war. Then he was needed in the hospital for emergency care, "no dentists needed with so many dying", he said. His greatest joy was saving a life or easing the pain of someone. These are real people like you and me. When I read about them in the newspaper, I am briefly touched yet I see now that my inner life maintains a distance. Unconsciously, the people I have not met seem less real than my friends and family. Perhaps this is a necessary distancing, at this moment, I am grateful for the direct connection.
The humanity of the people in the retreat is such a radical contrast to the inhumanity we are witnessing. We have "Listening Circles" where we share what is alive in us. Listening deeply to each other and to the land opens us to the best of humanity.
Like a candle lit in a dark room, the light is astounding. Here in the darkest expressions of humanity, created by people really just like us, comes the LOVE that lives at the core of each human being. This is our journey, here, there and wherever we are.
Can we be that light in the darkness?
Can we not turn away from the darkness and be lighthouses on rocky shores?
Here at Auschwitz I am tasting the destiny of our collective journey.
Without turning from the darkness, we affirm the light!
Thank you for your presence.....
First letter from the Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat
Russell Delman November 1, 2016
Greetings to you from Krakow, Poland.
I arrived here two hours ago after a month of seminars and retreats in France and Germany, plus the start of a new ELMP in Switzerland. My wife Linda and I shared the joy of a month traveling and teaching together. The sincerity of the students who are committed to cultivating awareness through the Embodied Life practices and teachings fills me with joy. Also, I extend great thanks to all those who supported us, from the cooks to the cleaners, to the spouses/partners and families who made these journeys possible. Every moment of this life we are supported in known and usually unknown ways. Many deep bows......
Upon hearing of this retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, many people asked me: "why are you going there"? "What is the purpose of a retreat in this place"? Such a challenging and important question!
The most accurate answer is "I don't know". As a great Zen master once said, "'I don't know' is the most intimate". Although "not-knowing" is the clearest, most accurate answer we can give to almost any deep, existential question, it also can feel like a cop out, an avoidance. As another Zen master said "you MUST say something". So with a quivering sense of uncertainty, I will try to answer the question.
Immediately, I notice how this question links to other questions: why did I feel compelled to go to Rwanda for the retreat commemorating the genocide there? Why was I drawn to the San Francisco Street retreat, where we lived and slept on the streets for three days without money? Each of these potent and unique experiences were created by Bernie Glassman, the Zen teacher who is the founder of the Zen Peacemakers. Each event is distinct yet similar? Now, for the first time, I am consciously living with the question, what are my deepest intentions?
For Zen students the most important question at any moment is- WHAT IS IT? This question implies- "what is its essence"?, "what is it to be alive at this moment"? and "who am I at the moment of experiencing IT"? These are direct ways of investigating, "who am I"? In my opinion these are profoundly human questions not only Zen questions- we are experientialy exploring "what is it really"?
Beyond "I don't know", so far, I can say:
Something in me wonders, who would I be and how would I act in these situations?
- If in Rwanda, would I be one of the few Hutus to shelter the Tutsi's or would I be consumed by the group psychosis and join the killings? Like the father of the young Hutu man who told me that his father was killed by Hutu neighbors because he gave shelter to a Tutsi friend.
- In Auschwitz, would I be one of the very rare, courageous, guards who offered help?
- Would I be one of those unusual prisoners who was not solely consumed with his own survival and shared his bread and heart with others, one who becomes a lighthouse for his fellow prisoners? For example, I think of my current hero, Catholic priest, Maximillian Kolbe who offered his life so that another man who was condemned to death, a father and husband, might survive (which he did)!
- Observing the utterly consistent and intolerable violence against women, witnessed in these genocides and seen in almost every culture on our planet, how can I influence this travesty in the world that we share?
And- how do all these questions help me to open my understanding and my care to the people perpetuating violence in the world today? How can I love the sinner and hate the sin? Who do I cast out of my heart? With our incredibly polarized political world, can I remember that everyone is a human being trying to get their perceived needs met? Do I need to hate ANYONE?
And this leads me to- what is my response-ability as an affluent, white, American, male in the world today who has been blessed by authentic, transformative, liberating teachings from a young age? These are the questions I have been living with for many years, and I see now that these are a major part of my coming here.
I hope to write more about this investigation. Your reading helps me go deeper and get more precise. On my own, I might just stay with the ultimate accuracy of "I don't know" or linger with other, more superficial, observations.
Just writing that a new truth comes- In addition to the questions above, I am here to learn what I do not already know about my relationship to this precious life! You inspire me. I will write again either during or after the retreat. Thank you for your presence.
Sending Blessings and love.........Russell
Busy Minds, Kindness and the 10% Surprise: Good News about Awareness
One of the greatest challenges for people on a path of awareness, is the discovery of how often one is unaware. When one is committed to being present in life, it is daunting and downright harrowing, to discover one’s degree of unconsciousness.
I am writing with good news from someone who has been traversing this path for more than four decades. This good news comes in four overlapping parts.
First, to be fully present in life does not require an absence of thought. Sure, in meditation there will come more extended moments of silence and spaciousness. Still, the brain will spew thoughts, sensations and feelings automatically, even when there is no environmental demand. This is its nature. As the famous Zen master, Uchiyama Roshi says: "just as the stomach secretes acid so the brain secretes thoughts". This is not a problem unless we begin to fight the thoughts or have the belief that there should be no thoughts. As one becomes more accepting of the playful, irreverent and sometimes dramatic creations of the cerebral cortex, there is a sense that most of these thoughts are both random and insignificant. Then, because the field of consciousness is not flat but deep, the spaciousness around each thought becomes more and more apparent. Thus even with a moderately busy mind, we can rest in that spaciousness of Being known as awareness. This is nectar, a deep refreshment.
Second, the process of Embodied Meditation, or "just sitting" ( shikantaza in Japanese) is mysterious. There is a transformative, developmental effect on one's natural awareness even when progress seems almost nonexistent. Paradoxically, the capacity for awareness grows behind the scenes, under the surface, unconsciously - outside of awareness. The commitment to the path, especially to sitting meditation is the key. In addition, creating short moments, 5 - 10 seconds here and there of self-remembering, many times a day, will create surprisingly helpful effects over time. This is often unnoticed yet very consistent and dependable.
Third, in Embodied Life practices, as we experience the disappointing frequency of our absencing, we are simultaneously developing our commitment to a practice of kindness. Every moment is an opportunity for unconditional caring. Our historic self - identity feasts on judgments, while unconditional caring is an expression of our True nature. Practicing kindness connects us to this more authentic sense of Self. This means that deeper than any frustration or sense of futility is the intention to be welcoming in warm-hearted ways to whatever appears including the judgments and reactive patterns. Welcoming does not imply “liking” or denying one’s struggle, rather it is a bold “yes” to ALL THAT!
For example, imagine that in an ordinary moment or in meditation, a challenging thought has hi-jacked awareness for a long period of time. In the moment of noticing, there might be a habitual self-judgment and maybe even strong emotional reaction such as anger or resignation. In this practice, as soon as possible, we meet all of this with kindness, both toward the mind state and any reactions to the mind state. Thus, awareness is growing and we are expanding our capacity for compassion. Both are positive results.
Fourth, and very good news, is the observation I call the 10% surprise. It goes like this: as soon as we commit to a path of awareness, we begin to sense that we are even more unconscious then we ever knew. This can be disheartening. We see the immensity of our unconsciousness and wonder if it is even possible to wake up from such darkness. The good news is that it is not a linear equation: you do not need an equal number of aware moments to counteract the number of absent moments. Each moment of awareness has a quantum impact, disproportionate to its duration in time. In fact, if we can wake up a little bit more, even a few percentage points, the effect on our lives will be palpable. Going further, a 10% difference will create a seismic, transformative shift in your life and the lives of all the beings that you meet. Good news indeed!
Waking up is hard work, yet, I suspect that for most people reading this writing, the alternative of staying lost in old mind-states and reactive patterns is no longer a viable alternative. I encourage you to lean into the Good News about awareness- it is more satisfying, more joyful, kinder and more accessible than you might think. I wish you well on your journey.
Hearts Broken Closed and Hearts Broken Open: Living in These Troubled Times
As we look around the world at this time, there are many, many examples of the energies of divisiveness that is ruled by the dictum "divide and conquer". Each day a new example of unconscionable violence, one more horrific than the last, seems to assault our collective consciousness.
Simultaneously, through many diverse, often small communities, the forces of inclusiveness and unconditional love for the human family and for Life itself are also rising. It is essential that we do not fall into the realm of fear and separation as we open our hearts to the suffering of the world.
We are surrounded by belligerent voices suggesting that "they" are coming to get "us" and that our fear and violence is both necessary and right. Invariably, one group’s hopes and dreams of "right living" are another group’s worst fears. Whether conservative or liberal, religious fanatic or atheist, the world that one group sees as undeniably "good" is the other group’s Hell.
Seeing this, some people argue for a flat land of moral equivalence where all views are equally valid. This position is just as destructive as the other beliefs. Moral distinctions are essential yet the old dichotomy of "right and wrong" leads us into stifling judgments in which the sacred, inviolable humanity of the other is denied. Authentic, effective speech and non-violent action, as elusive as they can be, are required for our collective healing. As Desmond Tutu reminds us: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor".
How can we truly value and understand the human forces driving each person and every group belief system, while simultaneously standing up for Life? Standing our moral ground without discounting the humanity of those opposed to our views in real world situations requires great inner strength, grounded courage and, also, a capacity to stand in the "other’s" shoes.
Throughout Europe, there are major battles being fought about the right relationship to the refugees who are seeking safe, secure homes. Most of these people are just like us: parents seeking a good life for their children and hungry people seeking food and a better life. IN ADDITION, the people who feel threatened by the vast numbers of people wanting to enter their towns and cities are not "wrong", they are truly frightened for their security and way of life. After all, there are likely a small percentage of people joining the authentic refugees who seek to express their view of “right living” through violence to their adopted country. All of these possibilities must be included.
Due to the particular karmic circumstances, we in the United States are once again confronted with the lingering history of violent racism and, in the atmosphere of national divisiveness; the forces of "us vs. them" are fueled with fear and rage. Almost every day we now witness the reality that has been under the surface, hidden for so long for many of us: systemic racism is alive and well in the "land of the free and home of the brave". We now also see the bottled up rage exploding toward often-innocent public servants.
Our hearts are torn, what can we do?
How can we bear witness to all of these killings and the ensuing rage, hatred and fear without being lost in violent reactivity or paralysis?
What is a Truly Human response to these situations?
Broken Closed, Broken Open
As I look at all this, my heart beats with great uncertainty and a very clear sense of Not-Knowing. I am rarely on the front lines of these conflicts. In the relative safety of my world, I humbly offer the following observations and questions:
Hearts break in two ways - they break closed or they break open.
When our pain grows with a sense of hopelessness, our hearts break closed with despair.
When our pain grows with a sense of powerlessness, our hearts break closed with rage.
Hearts break open when we see that the "other" is none other than ourselves and see the actual human being living within and behind the beliefs, fears, hurt and even actions of the other.
For most of us, it is much easier to empathize with the victims of injustice than the perpetrators. Yet, our deep work is to stand up against the sin while loving the sinner. Unless we open our hearts to the suffering of all, we are part of the divisiveness. What a true spiritual challenge! Can we see those people who are perpetrating horrific acts as hurting human beings who long for the same things that we all do: to feel at home in this world, safe, secure, loved, with a sense of respect and meaningfulness? Please do not read this as absolving people for their actions. As we hold people accountable for their behavior, our human hearts beg us to not lose sight of our connectedness to each other.
As we see with compassionate eyes, can we also stand up to the explicit and perhaps more nefarious, systemic racism living in our culture? We are a part of this bias even if we are unclear on how we perpetuate it or how to be an active force for countering it. Seeing this clearly is truly a beginning. Honoring "Black Lives Matter" is not a diminution of other lives, rather a highlighting of the greatest lingering tragedy in our national consciousness.
Most of the people reading this message carry, in our birth circumstances, implicit privilege that many of our sisters and brothers do not have. Acknowledging our inherited advantages as white, relatively economically secure people is a powerful step. It is new for me to take this reality from my intellectual understanding into my heart. Now, I notice how I always expect to be treated respectfully and am shocked when this basic human right is withheld. I naturally assume the right to ask a waiter in a restaurant or a worker in a store for sometimes special service. I usually see a policeman as a protector and potential ally. These are not the reality of many in my country.
In another example, my parents’ income, allowed me to receive an education that most cannot afford. This is not equal opportunity for all. Public schools in poor neighborhoods are not up to the standards of public schools in wealthy neighborhoods. Rather than receiving less financial support, with fewer experienced teachers, as is often the case, these schools need much greater resources than those in affluent areas. These are examples of assumed white privilege that also hint at the institutional racism thriving in our country.
As we see the truth that "driving while Black" is dangerous in the United States (statistics clearly show that African-American drivers are much more likely to be pulled over by police for minor infractions and are approached with greater forcefulness), our consciousness of the problem grows. We can also see that policing poor neighborhoods is inherently more dangerous than walking through wealthier areas. Fearful police make less reliable choices. Acknowledging all this is an essential step toward societal change. Clearly, we do not need to be anti-police or paint them with a broad stroke to face the reality of our social constructs. We can be against ignorance (literally "ignoring what is true"), without being against human beings!
Widening Our Field of Care
Together we carry the suffering that is all around us. Our responses and actions will be unique to our personal circumstances. Know that you are not alone in navigating these troubling times and asking these overwhelming questions. Together we can be the arms, legs, ears and voices of an awakening, aware, and embodied impulse to care for Life in all forms.
We can start by deeply examining the boundaries of our field of care. Who is excluded from your/my care due to your fear, anger or hatred? A first step is acknowledging this boundary. As we learn to see the human being living "in there" we can add wider perspectives to our conversations with our natural social groups who likely share many of our views. In addition to inviting our friends to widen their field of care, maybe we can begin to seek out conversation with people who seem "other" on the surface. This can be scary, yet also profoundly moving, as I discovered on a recent plane trip.
Sitting next to me was an American businessman who held very strong, politically conservative views about the causes of violence in the world. This was actually my first meeting with a Trump supporter. I immediately noticed both fear and aggression arising in me, wanting to teach him a thing or two! Thankfully, I was conscious enough to notice the part of me that wanted to argue politics. While this might have felt temporarily satisfying, there is no doubt that this level of dialogue would not be helpful to either of us. Clarifying my intention, main goal became to listen respectfully, with an open heart, to his deeper concerns, views, etc. I questioned him gently to go deeper so that I could really "get" him. Amazingly, he really appreciated my listening. He was surprised to hear my perspectives. I did not seem to change his views at all, yet his tone and quality was radically different. He really did listen when I spoke. I believe that slow yet authentic change can happen when meetings like this occur.
Similarly, recently in Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock, a member of the Muslim group responsible for monitoring the grounds became furious with one of our group members who were praying in a way that was not allowed. Again, I had the opportunity to be a wholehearted listener, stifling the part of me that wanted to "make my point" or show him another view. Clearly, he was not ready for that kind of dialogue. He needed me to hear his outrage at Israeli authorities, foreign visitors, etc. Yet, he did change. His manner softened, he smiled and invited me to stay longer, though he still wanted the others in the group to leave. Human connection is healing, sometimes one heart at a time.
For many years, I have resonated deeply with the Buddhist image of Avalokiteshvara. Often female or androgynous, she expresses unconditional compassion for all suffering in the world. With 10,000 ears, she hears all cries and with 10,000 arms, she takes action to help. I think of this Being as living both outside of human beings and within. Outside of us, she can hear our cries and offer care to our aching hearts. Inside, she becomes a model for living a life filled with compassion for all struggling beings.
May we each become sanctuaries of peace, unconditional love, listening and healing.
May we continue to learn, forgive and collectively expand our capacity for seeing the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other.
10,000 ears hear our cries
10,000 arms are here to help
Where is (s)he?
HERE HERE, growing in our hearts..........
Dangers on the Path: Spiritual Bypassing and Wound Worshipping
How spiritual concepts and therapeutic culture impede living
For many of us on a path of inner development and consciousness growth, there are two extremes that are equally injurious. The first is well known, often called by the general term “avoidance” or the more specific terms “spiritual bypassing” and “process skipping”. The second tendency, less well known and needing attention, I have given the name, “wound worshipping”.
Spiritual Bypassing and Process Skipping
Spiritual Bypassing is a particular instance of avoidance behavior that one sees in many teachers and spiritual seekers. This manifests when transcendent experience and its concepts are used to avoid facing challenging emotional and relationship issues. “Everything is perfect as it is”, “feelings are just temporary and not ultimately real”, “everything happens for a reason” and “it’s all God’s will” are typical slogans that, though embedded in ultimate truth, can be used as an avoidance strategy. The unwillingness to acknowledge and learn from one’s historic, self-protective reaction patterns keeps these habitual mechanisms under the surface. Even if one has experienced genuine moments of awakening to higher consciousness, when these experiences become fixated in memory, they can be used by defensive, egoic structures to hide. To deny “negative”, constrictive mind states because they are undesirable to a “higher” self-image is a very ineffective and life-alienating strategy.
“Process skipping” is an avoidance habit in which we do not want to experience, in a tangible, bodily felt way, the reality of a given moment. To be in touch with one’s “process” is more than being in touch with emotions, it is to experience the way we carry our life situations physically, mentally, emotionally and in relationship. We “skip the process” when we shut down or skip over the freshly felt reality of our living moment. Often this means jumping to an action strategy- “what can I do about it”- or to a mental conclusion- “this is not for me” or “its all your/my fault”- without experiencing the various feelings or inner voices that might contribute to a more complete understanding of the situation. So much is missed when we have a habit of process skipping, we lose the deeply felt and nuanced flavor
of our life. In addition to denying ourselves access to this textural richness, we also miss out on key information that is essential for effective living. The variety and depth of our inner life becomes unavailable to our relationships, leaving them repetitive, rote, superficial and dry.
The same kind of avoidant strategies can be used in relation to medical issues. As a young, athletic man I learned to deny any pain or injury for the good of the team. This attitude was taught as a kind of right of passage into masculinity. “Don’t complain, deny the pain” was the mantra. Similarly, some people are taught that if they do not give a bodily symptom any attention it will go away. While sometimes this can be a helpful approach, when it becomes habitual, there is often an unhealthy denial of important bodily messages. Not seeking medical care when it is truly needed can be a life threatening strategy.
One of the great obstacles to meaningful, satisfying relationship is the habit of avoiding challenging conversations and/or sharing our pain with others. In an effort to be positive or not a burden, we sometimes choose not to share what is most important or difficult for us, even with our closest relations. This pattern also appears in certain ways of listening whereby the listener immediately offers advice or diverts the topic due to their own discomfort. In my experience, this kind of avoidance is the greatest challenge to deep connectedness.
We probably can all see that spiritual bypassing and process skipping are self-protective, fear-based strategies for avoiding life rather than living it fully. The opposite habit “wound worshipping” can be equally injurious.
Therapeutic Culture and Wound Worshipping
It is very recent, since the early twentieth century, that “therapy” for emotional or relationship problems came into the world. Before this, such matters were the province of the church, shaman or the medical doctor. Many of the people reading this article live in what I term “therapeutic culture” in which challenging or uncomfortable states are considered “problems” that need solutions. This attitude can be related to physical, mental, emotional and relationship issues. While this ideology can sometimes lead in helpful, life-giving directions, it can also lead to this phenomenon of “wound worshipping”.
To be clear, my purpose is to highlight a cultural ideology, a way of perceiving, that is often unconscious or under our radar. As implied in the previous section of this paper, I believe strongly in the value of listening deeply to our wounds as well as to the suffering of others. Signs of distress in our bodies, minds and relationships are invitations for growing compassion and depth in our hearts. The question is one of balance. When living with “wound worshipping” ideology, we are encouraged to focus attention on any painful feeling or unsatisfying experience as if there is something wrong that needs changing. It also suggests that if a challenging feeling or thought arises it must be inherently significant.
Some examples include:
Mild to severe hypochondria, where each sensation in the body is taken as a sign for some malady. The underlying assumption is that if one is healthy, then temporary, unexplainable sensations will not arise. I remember my brother- in-law, as a medical student, in a true panic that he might be dying due to anoxia while driving through a long tunnel. He seemed to truly have almost every disease that he studied. Many of my clients have minor discomforts that come and go which are distinct from the more significant kinds of phenomena that really benefit from focused attention. Over many years of inquiry, I see that the human body has many passing symptoms that are not indicative of any underlying pathology. Many insignificant sensations will come and go in the course of a week. Differentiating these from more meaningful messages is important for healthy living.
In an analogous way, sometimes our historic emotional or relationship patterns can arise with very little implicit energy or true importance. They are neighbors of familiar, painful and meaningful patterns. I see these “copy-cat” states as seeds without roots. They have the same surface structure of more deeply rooted patterns but can simply arise from the historical habits of our nervous systems without much implicit value or importance.
These “attractor patterns” are easily activated, hair-triggered, due to past frequency. Habitual patterns in the nervous system tend to recur yet they do not necessarily carry much life force or deep meaning. If one assumes these patterns are important, one might water these seeds with concern, attention and life-energy until they grow roots. Then, through a self-fulfilling prophecy, one does have a “problem” to work with. For example, if one tends toward melancholy or toward anger, small moments will arise where
these states are mildly activated. If these moments are approached as having underlying significance then the momentary, passing state can grow into something that really does need attention.
Therapeutic ideology carries the implicit assumption and belief that once one “deals” with a core issue, once it heals, that it will vanish. I believe this is a false assumption. When an issue is worked with effectively, it can lose most of its energy but, as Moshe Feldenkrais emphasized, old patterns are not eliminated in the brain, they become less active and compelling. Healthy systems do not throw out old patterns, there is important information and life energy in every experience. Feldenkrais used to say that with the invention of electricity it is still wise to keep candles in your house. In a similar way old, even dysfunctional patterns have some gift for the person, when carried in its right place.
Can you see the importance of this distinction? If one believes, as do many in the therapy business, that all arisings of old patterns are implicitly significant and indicative of unresolved difficulties, one will have these issues forever. The alternative is NOT denial. Rather, we need to cultivate a finer level of differentiation in which one listens freshly to the energy of the pattern without assuming its significance (potential wound worshipping) or its insignificance (potential process skipping).
Another type of “wound worshipping” happens when one develops a habit of looking for what is wrong in a situation. Built into our DNA is an evolutionarily important bias that sorts for danger. When this capacity is calibrated realistically to our life situations it is protective in essential ways. When this mechanism gets exaggerated, one is always looking for problems. Within the body it is called hypochondria. When one is on a path of inner development, it leads to consistently feeling inadequate. When in a relationship it leads to constant discontent with one’s partner.
The implicit assumption that a relationship should be “just right” leads to much suffering. When we are constantly attuned to the little annoyances in a partner or friends behavior, we will always find something to be upset about. Similarly, in life, when we allow sensations of being a little too cold or too hot, a little hungry or thirsty to dominate our perception we will rarely be content. The organism constantly seeks balance and homeostasis yet we are almost always a little away from the ideal. If we internally demand that life be “just right” before we are willing to enjoy ourselves or be at peace, the path of satisfaction becomes very narrow. Learning to laugh or at least smile at these tendencies is an effective antidote.
Depending on how we organize our attention, most moments can be lacking something. Whereas avoidance strategies lead us to ignore important signs that truly benefit from our attention, sorting for wrongness leads to a chronic sense of discontent because, almost always, something could be better. It is the opposite of the life-giving strategy of sensing the gifts that are alive in the moment, which spontaneously evokes gratitude.
Learning to be in right relationship with our lives means to live somewhere between avoidant behavior, including “spiritual bypassing” and “process skipping” and its polar opposite of “wound worshipping” . To navigate this middle way, we need three qualities: 1) warm-hearted clarity, 2) a capacity for self-observation and 3) outrageous humor, especially when looking in the mirror of our own behavior.
Share a Little Light: A Very Inspiring Video
Last week, I graduated the most recent Embodied Life™Mentorship group, a joyful day of celebration in many ways. Over three years and six residential weeks, we explored this remarkable project of learning to be “truly” Human beings. I am so grateful for the kind of transformation that I witness in my students and myself during these meetings. As I keep seeing, when we sense our intimate, intrinsic connection to Life, we naturally become a gift to the world.
The day of our graduation party, I received a very inspiring video from Israel. It brought me to tears. I shared it with the group who were also deeply moved by this example of human beings sharing their light with each other and the world.
First a few words of introduction:
All human beings have circumstances in their lives that can generate fear and pain. Sometimes these are too overwhelming for our capacity to work with them effectively and at other times we can meet them with care and skill.
- Learning to be our own best friend with a kind-hearted presence toward our own inner suffering is the art of growing compassion.
- Finding our capacity to step out of our troubles long enough to also receive he blessings of this day is the art of transcendence.
By transcendence, I mean that we are going beyond our historic, limited, self-identity. I am not implying a denial of our difficulties, rather a sense of “both/and”. Whether a moment is pleasant, neutral or challenging, we can experience the gift, the light, of a moment through shifting our attention. Receiving and sharing this light is the unfolding journey of the human heart. We are all learning to do this. Many of my heroes are ordinary people like you and me who are able to meet their challenging life situations with inspiration, joy, courage and love. As a Feldenkrais teacher for 40 years, I have met many people who take great physical difficulties and emotionally demanding circumstances and manage to authentically share their light without denying their pain. The people I met in Rwanda who had experienced such devastating atrocities remain an inspiration in my heart. One of the women who worked at “City of Joy” in Congo helping others who had been viciously violated said “the soldiers are strong enough to dominate my body but they can not have my joy or dignity unless I give it to them”. This attitude astonishes and uplifts me every day. When I tell that heroic story, I worry that people who are struggling with their suffering might judge themselves, further adding to their pain. Please be gentle if this arises. I learned early in my Feldenkrais career that one could never compare suffering, whether one has a tragic life situation or one is dealing with more ordinary challenges. I remember working with a person suffering over a relationship directly after seeing a paralyzed young man who would never walk or use his arms again. In the moment, each person was truly overwhelmed with their situation. Comparing the “amount of suffering” is not a helpful mental strategy. We are all doing our best given our personal resources. My hope is that we can all learn through the inspiration of other human beings.
In this video you will see a young, bright rabbi who is 95% paralyzed from ALS. The joy, love and presence in his eyes touches deeply into my heart. The way he inspired others to sing his song is also an inspiration to me. As you watch this, please look beyond the religious social context in which the men are separate from the women hence, the singers are all male (in the second video, his wife and mother speak in heartening ways). Also, I encourage you to temporarily place to the side any of your political concerns, this is a human story for all of us.
In gratitude to Yitzi and all beings of love, courage and goodwill.
In Peace and Joy………Russell
Conversation With Gene:
Life-Giving Resources and Therapeutic Culture
For many years, I have enjoyed a close friendship with Gene Gendlin the originator of Focusing and author of the book by that name. At 89 years old, this philosopher and psychologist remains the most gifted thinker that I have ever encountered. Our conversations, whether companioning each other in the inner inquiry called Focusing or simply exploring the complexities of living,invariably lead toward novel insights. I am deeply grateful for his presence in my life. The following dialogue comes from one of our recent, potent conversations, first a prelude.
In developing The Embodied Life work, the dominant roots have been Zen meditation, the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais and various experiential approaches to expanded awareness. Although I have been exposed to some of the dominant schools of therapy, I have never seen my approach in the domain of therapy, even as it often can be therapeutic.
My interest from the beginning has been to grow our capacity for “freedom through awareness”. The possibility that ordinary human beings like you and me could be relatively free from our past conditioning has guided my journey in life.
Many years ago, I saw that human beings have a “negativity bias” where we tend to look for what is wrong in ourselves, in others and in the world. This bias has evolutionary significance in that our ancestors without enough mental qualities of worry, wariness and danger avoidance, often did not pass on their genes. Thus, without sufficient awareness, problem seeking can dominate our perception. Unfortunately, this bias can control individuals and societies in very unhelpful ways. Although effective psychotherapy can be a wonderful life-giving gift, this problem oriented attitude has produced what I call a therapeutic culture, in which one often creates or enlarges problems through the way one attends to a challenging or painful situation.
I was thrilled with Feldenkrais’ view that functional human beings are for the most part quite healthy. When working with clients, he taught us that rather than focusing on the problems, we can seek to enhance the healthy functioning that is already present. We learned to focus on the whole organism and not the problems or presenting symptoms. When we help the whole system to function more optimally, the injured parts or
underdeveloped capacities are improved by the overall enhancement of the organism.
This kind of “systems approach” can also be witnessed in some schools of family therapy. Rather than focusing on the IP- identified patient- the idea is to bring greater awareness to the functioning of the whole family system. By improving the relationality amongst all the members, the supposed “patient”, now in a healthier system, gets better.
I began to see that all human beings, even those of us with very challenging backgrounds, have many positive, life-giving experiences in our histories. We have all known moments of satisfaction, caring, love, peace, gratitude, capability, connectedness, etc., even if these moments were quite rare. Our inner life has had these experiences and they are physically embedded as neural networks in our nervous systems.
Through a practice called Resource Growing, Embodied Life students water the memory seeds of these life-giving states and thus grow these neural networks into thicker, faster and more accessible patterns. In this way, we grow states into traits, temporary experiences into tendencies. For this to occur with reliability, the experience we are growing must be integrated so that various brain modules are active simultaneously. In my view, for a moment to be deeply integrated, four elements must be present: 1) physical sensations, 2) feelings/emotional tone, 3) mental representation/symbol, 4) all sensed as a present moment, embodied experience. When all these are present, that experience can go deeply into our brains, into our inner life and form a part of our sense of “I”.
There is much more to say, for now let’s move on to my conversation with Gene:
R- “Hello Gene, how are you today?”
G- “Glad to STILL be here, actually very grateful”.
R- “Do you want to Focus or perhaps explore a question that is alive for me?”
G- “Let’s go with your question”.
R- “So Gene, I notice that when I observe you describing Focusing or how to listen to a felt-sense, you present it as being with something dark, unpleasant and difficult. You often use a strong sound like UGGHH to express this connection at the beginning. This then will often open and unfold. You always seem to start with a heavy, stuck place. I wonder, is that your picture of all experiences of Focusing/felt-sensing or is that more your style?”
G- (takes time) “Well the reason I am going in there or helping someone else go in there is because something doesn’t feel well or feel right”.
R- “I understand, Gene, this makes sense, since your work grew out of therapy. For me, I love how Focusing can transform challenging moments for my students and for myself, AND I have discovered that, just as a Focusing attitude can allow stuck places to move forward, it can also allow positive, life-giving states to grow bigger. For example, when I PAUSE and settle in with a felt-sense of joy it often grows into something more like bliss or grounded-ness can turn into deep peace. Do you see this as different from your version of Focusing?
G- “Ummm, what your saying is very interesting and important, I want to go very slow. You know just earlier today I had an experience like that. I was feeling grateful for just being alive, even though my old body doesn’t work well. Just speaking out my gratitude, I noticed that it grew. Hmmm and you are saying that you can invite this intentionally…..That seems new….Actually there is a knowing of that also…. (taking much time)….Sometimes I just walk around and count and all of a sudden I am sensing “the larger system” that we are all a part of. I know you know all about that, we have seen that together many times. We could not live a minute without this larger system. When we sense THAT everything feels better. I do go there….. strange… it is not part of my thinking that I do that intentionally. ….I forget that I can have that….It is a little like when you guided me in just sensing my body without a lot of feelings and I realized that just sitting looking out the window brought the larger place..….
R- Yes, let’s go slow, that touches a place in me that is so grateful for our connection….. for me, growing our direct access to that larger system is like coming home (a big breath)…Ahhhh… it is also kind of like doing acupuncture to enhance your immune system. When you visit the larger place regularly you have more accessibility to your healthiness, to your inner strength and to ‘I am whole, even with this difficulty, everything is really ok as it is’….. The larger system is always like an open door, never hiding, we only need to remember it……
G- “OH, that’s very good, like an open door, never hiding. I want to stay with that ‘never hiding’ that is new for me. Ahhh, that really moves something, let’s stay there…… OH, that is just right and that other part- ‘like coming home’, let’s stay there also”….
R- “I am sensing that open, vast place right now…. ‘Never hiding’ has me expanding into and becoming one with it All and ‘coming home’ is like settling into a soft, warm, so safe comforter…..Both are so nourishing and affirming…..
In my work, we grow access to this larger space through various practices. We begin to sense that we are permeable and that IT is always here, either in the fore or background. Sometimes we change states by remembering in deep, bodily ways moments when we had this deep connectedness. When invited, our inner life often just wants to go there. We don’t do this to escape difficult moments rather to grow permeability to the larger space. This seems to bring deeper and deeper gratitude…..
G- “Yes that feels just right, let’s go slow again….”
R- “As I sense into this I get a sad place here in my chest….Something dark and big, living around the wonderful place….My observation is that we live in a therapeutic culture in which getting rid of the “bad”, even looking for the problem is in the in fore. Of course I also appreciate being able to be with difficult moments and help them to move toward resolution.….Still, I am saddened when I see that the brilliance of a Focusing attitude can be hijacked by this problem based culture. Even therapists helping patients with specific diagnosable conditions, can serve their clientele through growing these positive resources. Interestingly, something similar is happening in the Feldenkrais world…… This brings a big, kind of enthusiastic inner place that really wants to stand up for our inner resources and something like acknowledging our potent, healthy life forces”.
G- “What you are working with is a very important step, we need a word or phrase for it….hmmm….maybe positive Focusing…no, that is not right…..we need to rest with this for a while”.
R- “I notice that your deep interest in this brings a big, big smile inside my chest, let’s continue next time”…….