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”…….
FAITHFULNESS Russell Delman January 2016
What are you faithful to?
What might it mean to have faith in our truest and deepest Self?
What might it mean to our loved one’s to have faith in their truth, beauty and goodness?
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki often talked about having confidence in our Buddha nature. For me this confidence implies a kind of faithfulness to who we truly are. Beyond and before our personal neurosis (wounds, blind spots etc.), there is the unconditioned, “Original Self” that cannot be sullied by everyday life. It is like clouds leaving no trace on the vast blue sky. To have direct experience of this larger sense of Self changes everything. With renewed confidence, we can work with our personal limitations and rough spots without so much desperation. Life feels “workable”, even with our problems. To be clear- it still does not feel wonderful or positive when our historical limitations arise yet, through this kind of Self remembering, we do not feel overwhelmed.
My wife Linda recently showed me how Austrian philosopher and visionary Rudolf Steiner used the term Faithfulness to point to this kind of seeing in our relationships (see quote at the end). We can sincerely ask the question, “what am I faithful to?” Do I live in a perceptual field that keeps confirming my insecurities, limitations and sins (the original meaning of sin is “off the mark”, as in making a mistake). Do I choose to emphasize these aspects of my loved ones? How often am I faithful to the highest and deepest in myself and in others?
Our experience of life is shaped by our patterns of attention and perception. Human freedom is possible mainly because of our capacity to change our ways of attending, intending, perceiving, thinking, and moving. The great gift of the human being is the freedom to re-create a world through our neurally plastic brains. Emphasizing the deepest and truest does NOT mean we must ignore the painful patterns that we also enact. We can honestly assess ourselves and others while being faithful to the goodness that is always there also.
Perceiving the essential goodness of Life is not difficult. We have all had many experiences of this goodness as children, even those of us born into challenging conditions. We all have experienced moments of deep connectedness or oneness with life, which creates the pre-verbal sense that “life is good”. Many descriptions that we read in spiritual literature make this state sound so big and rare that we do not honor the ways in which our sense of wholeness, connectedness and at-one-ment actually arise in our everyday experience. It takes some guidance and practice in our attention to recognize the simple, ordinary and frequent ways these moments happen. A practice of sitting meditation is very helpful to attune to these states. Momentary states repeated often enough become traits; it becomes natural to have confidence in the true “I”. We can then be faithful to the loving, connected, whole Being that we are.
In our close relationships we need other people, or at least one other person, who sees our essence. When someone can attest to, what Buddha called our “basic goodness”, our social, relational brain can embody this knowing. Neural patterns of worthiness and lovability then deepen. One of the great gifts we give to our partners, children and friends is to be faithful to the uniquely exquisite person living behind those eyes. This is one of the highest, most significant expressions of love.
To repeat, this Faithfulness is not a denial of our confusion or our negative habits. In fact, we can now have the confidence to face our “distressing disguises”, as Mother Teresa called these errors of identity. The negative bias of our nervous systems often results in the habit of looking for what is wrong in ourselves or in our partners. How different it is when we can accept, acknowledge and work with our painful habits yet know, deeply, undeniably in our core, that this personality trait is not the essence of who we are!
This Faithfulness is an act of attention, intention and love.
May we all freely choose and commit to this direction of consciousness.
“Let your loyalty to another human being come about in this way: there will be
moments — quickly passing by — when he will seem to you filled and illumined by the
true, primal image of his spirit.
Then can come, yes, will come, long stretches of time when your fellow-being seems
clouded, even darkened. But learn at these times to say to yourself: The spirit will
strengthen me; I will remember the true, unchanging image that I once saw. Nothing
at all — neither deception nor disguise — can take it away from me.
Struggle again and again for the true picture that you saw. The struggle itself is your
And in those efforts to be faithful and to trust, a human being will come close to
another as if with an angel’s power of protection.”
The Joy of Giving: Yesterday and Today
Once upon a Time
In a land far away
A Middle Eastern family
Israeli? Palestinian? Syrian?
Sought shelter in a foreign land
Was it Bethlehem? Switzerland? the United States?
Right now, as then, families shivering and hungry
Throughout the town there was no place for them
Many people could not help
No resources, no space- truly understandable
Sometimes it is not easy to help another
Some could help and would not
they were filled with fear, self-protection
“they look so different from us”
we seem to have a powerful, selfish gene
Finally, a kind inn keeper
- We are so caring also
Opened his heart and his manger
- Our heart and our manger
Giving the family respite from the cold
Generosity feels so good and so right!
- We all get warmer in this moment
May all the homeless in our world
May all the hungry
May all who have the capacity to help
Find the Joy of Giving.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
A Conversation: Can Meditation Help the World?
She was an environmental activist.
Her passion for the earth radiated from every pore.
To her, sitting in silence was worse than an ordinary waste of time. It was white, middle class indulgence. “How can this sitting in meditation help the world?” she asked.
“I don’t know” were the first words to come from my mouth.
After some time I asked, “do you think we are connected to the animals, the plants and the earth”?
“Of course”, she answered, “we are all part of one body”.
“Do you think it makes a difference if you can actually sense the earth under your feet supporting you, feel the vitality of the air moving through your lungs and nostrils and gratefully taste the indescribable freshness of cool water when thirsty?”
“Of course, but what does that have to do with meditation?” she wondered.
“For me meditation is being alive to all that is. This includes profound gratitude for the gifts that sustain us and the deep inter-connectedness to our shared life”.
“But what about thoughts and feelings, aren’t they different than the physical stuff you are speaking of?”
I reflected for a few moments. “ It seems to me that everything is part of one thing. All our thoughts are connected to the physical world - first through the tissues, synapses, neurotransmitters, etc. in our physical bodies. Our thoughts and feelings effect our actions and those of others in the world. Each thought is like a pebble rippling in the pond of life.
For example, the other day when the weather became so cold, I was feeling concerned about the local homeless people. I then read a story about a twelve year old boy who had the idea of collecting blankets and giving them out. The article showed pictures of very grateful people wrapped in the warm blankets. This young boy’s thoughts created feelings and actions that made a difference for needy people and through the newspaper article, inspired others. This is happening all the time”.
She then said, “I see how thoughts create actions, but are you saying that just sitting in meditation is helpful?”
After another breath and a long pause, I said: “the more caring and clarity that I grow in my inner world, the more these qualities live in our shared world. The more at home I am in myself, the more at home I am in the world. In my opinion, when I generate violent thoughts, there is more violence in the world, even when I do not act directly upon the thoughts.
Through meditation, I can see the kinds of thoughts that arise in my mind and I can choose to cultivate those that are more helpful and life-giving. Working directly on the external situations of the planet, as you do, is essential. It also seems to me that healing THIS mind and heart, this ‘inner’ world is inseparable from healing the ‘outer’ world. One Body, One Life , One World!”
“Thank you, what you are saying makes sense to me. Can we meditate together? ” she said.
“Listen to the Voices of the Soil”.( Sluchac Glosu Ziemi Oswiecimskieg ):
Reflections on Auschwitz
“Listen to the voices of the soil.” Passing through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Zen Peacemakers “Bearing Witness Retreat”, my body resonates with this Polish expression encouraging us to listen to the soil as a way of being in this place. The body of the earth, my human body and all the bodies that were extinguished here and now feed the trees and grass bear witness to the unbearable.Finding my own voice for this writing has been challenging. What to say? What does not sound trite, disturbingly familiar, or just somehow wrong? Then these attacks in Paris exploded into consciousness. Along with the bombings in Beirut, Baghdad and the Russian plane in the Sinai, though not the same as genocide, these acts, I believe, arise from the same dark places within human beings. Bearing witness to the past is also bearing witness to the present and the future.
May these somewhat random reflections be helpful in some way:
My first shock is discovering that it is not the deaths that touch deepest. Somehow I am at peace with the reality of death. There is some kind of core knowing that love is stronger than death. Something in me can bow to the passing of young and old. This bowing includes deep, wrenching sorrow. Still, in this place, it is not the deaths, it is the inhumanity, the cruelty, the intentional attempt to destroy the human spirit that twists in my guts. The casual enjoyment of debasement, even as it obviously debases the perpetrator, evokes some kind of deep shout, “NO” – this is not possible, not acceptable, a loud desperate “NO, not in my world”!
We are an interfaith group with services offered in Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Native American (Lakota) traditions. Father Manfred, a Catholic priest from Germany who came for one year to face his cultural guilt and has stayed for more than twenty years, leads a small group of us through the “Stations of the Cross”. The words from Jesus Christ as he is being crucified: “My God, My God, why hath Thou forsaken me?” , seem to me to be the most essential, heartwrenching prayer/meditation/question for all of us in the face of such wanton acts. For Jewish people, committed to their covenant with God while enduring this vicious attempt at their annihilation, this question cuts to the core of faith. Yet, isn’t it true for all of us? Whether we say God, Life, Nature, Destiny, What Is or whatever term we give to our deepest understanding of this journey through life – in our dark nights, we ask loudly or quietly, “why me?” “How did this happen?” And perhaps, “please help me.”
One marvels in mystery at the ensuing phrase on the cross: “Into your hands I commend my Spirit”. This willingness to say “even when I feel abandoned by you, I do not turn away from you” is an act of such trust. Where do we ordinary human beings find the faith, courage, and commitment to Life in such circumstance? Buddha taught about the “basic goodness” of our true nature. At our core, we are good and Life is good. Confidence in this essential goodness, not as a denial or rationalization but as a preverbal knowing is also an act of great faith. We could also say: “Into the unfolding of this Life, I commend my spirit”. Even those of us committed to “not knowing” as a core tenet for living this life, can find solace connecting to the essence of being alive. Perhaps
this is where meditation and prayer meet.
Right now, how do we open our eyes to all that is occurring to our precious earth, to the animals, to our fellow human beings and still have faith in THIS life? With or without theistic language, what is it to witness violent destruction and yet maintain faith in the unfolding of our Life process? There are exquisite, noble trees that were continually raining bright yellow leaves upon our heads at Auschwitz, trees that grew from the ashes of innocent beings. To live with eyes open and a thoroughly loving heart is our incredibly demanding task. Rather than contributing to the fear and divisiveness, can we be emissaries of love and care for all beings? How can we overcome our fear? How can our experience of interconnectivity and our confidence in this unknowable life process become our ground state? There are no answers, only these profound questions for each of us to live into from the foundation of our Being.
In the last two days at Birkenau, I experience a turning, something changing in me. We practice meditation in two main forms at the railroad tracks where the “selections” would occur: 1) just sitting in the silence, and 2) taking turns reciting the names of people who died here. During my final reading, the names of two babies, Helga Wagner 1941-1943 and Josef Wagner 1942-1943 appeared on my list. Whereas I could find peace with the deaths of millions, the extinguishing of these two particular rays of light broke through to a new place in me. It is not the idea that I often hear of “what they could have been”, rather, it is just the absencing of the individual, these individuals and the preciousness of each human being.
I am reminded of my heart teacher Shunryu Suzuki saying “just to be alive is enough”. And this is the great teaching that is reaffirmed from bearing witness here. We share this life together, this unfathomable gift. We value it and preserve it together. Knowing how each spoonful of soup was lifesaving in the camps, I notice my eating here at home is different. When I am eating, I eat with everyone. When I feel cold, I notice my thoughts go to those refugees and other homeless people who, right now, are shivering. Surprisingly, these spontaneous connections do not create guilt but rather profound gratitude for the simple gifts of life. From this gratitude for the abundant comforts in my world, I am also inspired to take actions that hopefully can relieve the suffering of others. Both of these seems equally important to me – deep gratitude, really letting in the joys and gifts that arise in my world, along with actions for the benefit of others. Auschwitz is a place of vast destruction and great healing, listening to the voices of this soil, I am profoundly grateful.
“A sacred place is one where the earth’s voice can be heard clearly. Go to these places and listen. Once you have heard her, she can reach you anywhere”. Frederic Lehrman
(at the entrance of “The Center for Dialogue and Prayer” where we stayed during our retreat)
Bearing Witness to the Impossible and Unfathomable*
Russell Delman October 2015
Before going to Rwanda with the Zen Peacemakers in 2014 for the twentieth commemoration of that country's incomprehensible genocide, I immersed myself in many books with divergent depictions of the events and their causes. Still, when standing on the actual soil that witnessed these brutalities and meeting perpetrators as well as surviving victims, I see now that preparation was both necessary and impossible.
Next week, I travel with the Zen Peacemakers for a "Bearing Witness Retreat" to Auschwitz and Birkenau, places of devastation that were dedicated to the annihilation of humanness. Similar to the visit to Rwanda and the Street Retreat that I wrote about last year, the intentions of these events emanate from the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: "not-knowing" (entering a situation with an open mind and heart), "bearing witness" (opening to the sorrow and joy living in that situation) and "right action" (doing the appropriate, life-affirming actions that arise from not-knowing and bearing witness).
Again, I am preparing by reading many accounts from diverse perspectives, knowing that preparation is impossible. One of my favorite Zen sayings is "because it is impossible, we do it". These retreats are not a naive attempt at fixing, understanding or even some kind of intentional healing. Rather, bearing witness from the ground of not-knowing means holding the intention to be present for what lives in and around us when engaging wholeheartedly on the land and in the stories that arise from these places. What leads some human beings - people like you and me - to revel in destroying life and the dehumanization of others? What leads other people to survive in unbearable conditions, some to give up because it is just too much to bear, and still others to find the cunning or wickedness to get by? I know that all of these responses potentially live in me and the roots of these actions live in all of us. Part of my learning is to see through these extreme examples how human beings create categories of worthiness and unworthiness and see how we all, in much more subtle ways, can close our hearts and perpetuate mental violence toward others and ourselves. Our habits of destructive judgements arise from the same "dominance system" that thrives in so many of our world cultures.
Who is unworthy of our caring?
Who or what do we cast out of our hearts?
For some it is women, for some it is men. For others, criminals, police, drug addicts or homeless people. What about CEO's, republicans, democrats or transgender people? How do we create effective personal boundaries, speak up against life’s unacceptable behavior AND, simultaneously, be a force of unconditional, radiant love into our world? When we see deeply, there is no THEM - only US. There is really only US. Just as the right hand won't intentionally hurt the left, the experience of interconnectivity naturally brings forward goodwill, forgiveness, understanding AND standing up for life. We neither choose passive acceptance nor do we demonize others. We do not accept the polluting actions of some corporate executives yet we do not create hatred either. Seeing clearly with an open, at times broken heart, we can move toward life-affirming action. To me, this is a central and incredibly challenging task of our collective awakening.
Please join me in your heart, your prayers and meditations from November 2-8 for this "Bearing Witness Retreat".
*For my European friends:
"Bearing" has the sense of "tolerating or living with". To "bear our pain" is to somehow carry it, without denying it or being overwhelmed by it. To witness is to be present for. In The Embodied Life work we call this "presencing".
Unfathomable means unimaginable.
The Challenge of Caring:
Who Do You Cast Out of Your Heart?
Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.
In my opinion, humanity has a daunting task to fulfill our ultimate potential which is: extending our field of care to include all of Life.
Human beings live between two poles: our sense of connectedness to all of life called “love” and our sense of separation. We can sense ourselves both as “a part of” our world and “apart from” our world. Without forgetting the importance of healthy autonomy, this “a part of” and “apart from” is the essential difference between true joy and depression, between being at home in one’s life or alone in this universe. Please take a moment to notice, in your bodily felt-sense, the difference between these two.
Often these two poles live in a state of compromise where our care, our love, is extended beyond ourselves to distinctly defined groups called “us”. The world becomes divided into “us”, the one’s who live in our field of care, and “them” those who do not. “Us” can include our families, our pets, our gender, our football team, our gang, friends, wherever we choose to define the limits. We are inclined to extend care to our tribe, our family, those who look and believe like us and exclude those who seem different. Different seems implicitly dangerous. There is a neurological bias for tribalism. For humanity to survive, this is no longer an option. The good news is that we have the capacity to rewire our predilection toward exclusion of "other". Our self-identity can move from narrowly defined fields to, in the words of Buddha, include “all sentient beings”.
As I look around the world today, this means that:
all the refugees seeking a safe homeland for their children and themselves are my family
all the people in the countries who are afraid of being overwhelmed by the needs of so many are also my family.
the African-American man walking down the street whose blood pressure rises upon seeing a policeman is my family
the policeman who is scared from both unconscious learning and some life experience is also my family
the fighter for IS is my family
the people fighting to disempower IS are my family
that man who feels entitled to abuse that woman is my family
that crying woman is my family
people drilling in the Arctic are my family
those opposing this drilling are my family
ON and ON.....
I imagine that this is difficult to read. I am not suggesting a "flatland" in which all points of view are equally valid. We need to have both the courage to stand up to power AND to relate to the hurting, confused human being who acts in unacceptable ways. A profoundly human challenge is to separate the person from the behavior while simultaneously holding ourselves and others responsible for actions. Even with our own compulsions and negative behaviors, can we hold ourselves accountable AND maintain a warm heart toward the inner pain that is driving our action?
Said another way, can we open our hearts enough to see that it is always "hurting people who are hurting people". Just as your right hand will not intentionally hurt your left hand, when you have the inner sense of connection to life, you want to take care of the world and all of its inhabitants. They are your family. When we do not sense this interconnectivity, when we are “apart from”, we are hurting. Always...
Striking out at others is a convoluted, ultimately unsuccessful way, of attempting to ease our own pain. Almost all child abusers were abused as children. This does not excuse the behavior but maybe allows our hearts to open, even as we hold the perpetrator responsible for their actions. The unconscious urge to dominate others or the earth itself comes from deep and painful disconnection. This is true whether we are hurting another or ourselves. Separating the actor from the action is why so many thoughtful people consider forgiveness the highest of human virtues.
To adopt this way of living and seeing, we need to withstand the discomfort and dissonance of seeing that everybody makes sense from their life experience and biology. Many years ago, while working in a fairly tough drug rehabilitation facility, I learned that whenever I heard the painful life story of anybody, including rapists, child molesters and killers, my heart opened to that human being, even as I despised their actions. There was always a hurting human being lingering in there.
Everybody is doing their best at any moment to find fulfillment and meaning in their life, given their personal history and capacity at that moment. EVERYBODY.
Moshe Feldenkrais taught the importance of paradoxical thinking. When I told him of my deep interest in Zen, he said that if he didn't have his own teaching he would study Zen because, like the great Talmudic scholars, they understand paradox. He often said "you do not really understand your opponent’s point of view until you can argue emotionally from their perspective.” In his recent address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis spoke to the necessity of overcoming our tendency toward polarization. We need to walk in the uncomfortable shoes of those we can not understand to really see from their point of view. We can no longer afford “us and them” as an ideology. The world has gotten too small and is too fragile for this paradigm. Can you sense the great challenge that I am addressing here? This capacity of extending our field of care can only happen one person at a time. That means you and me. “Who have I cast out of my field of care?”
To widen our hearts to this degree requires great inner security, courage and love. It is not helpful to try and force ourselves into this perspective. Healing takes time and when our heart cannot forgive, it is important to respect our current limits. Still, to have the flexibility to change our perspective when we have a new insight, the courage to maintain our position when it is aligned with our deepest understanding, AND the ability to take in the perspective of people with whom we strongly disagree, are requirements for the future of humanity. My deep prayer is that this is our collective destiny.
The picture is from the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
What a mystery it is that we are here and know that we are here! This is what the great French Jesuit priest, scientist and mystic Teilhard de Chardin, Moshe Feldenkrais, Gene Gendlin and Zen masters proclaim in diverse and vital ways. This unfathomable realization made possible by reflective awareness evokes awe, gratitude and deep curiosity.
Teilhard de Chardin’s main field of scientific study was paleontology. I highlight him here as he was an enormously influential forerunner of the emerging paradigm of Deep Earth Studies which includes the conceptual shift from ego-centrism to eco-centrism. We are indebted to him for our growing sense of the earth as a living Being, of Gaia, of the essential inseparability of matter and spirit. He profoundly experienced the continuity between bones, fossils, bodies, the earth, consciousness and our experience of the divine. He also continues to be a bridge between the often divided spiritual/religious view points and scientific methodology.
WE ARE HERE. Uniquely alive in this moment. Teilhard discovered that in the deeply felt, bodily experience of ordinary life we have access to the spiritual world. His profound observation that not only is life evolving but "God is evolving through us", changes everything. Resonating with Zen masters, he saw that through deepening our perception of ordinary reality, we can encounter the spiritual or Absolute dimensions of both human experience and the cosmos.
“Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things...as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.”
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
One does not need to use spiritual language if that does not fit. It seems unfortunate to me when scientifically minded people forego the most profound realizations available to us due to a repulsion against spiritual or religious language. I see many people who were betrayed by the church or spiritual elders, surrendering their capacity for transcendent experience because of old wounds. By transcendent I mean transcending one’s experience and identity beyond the separate self. To sense deep interconnectivity with all of life is transcendent. For some this is called spiritual, for some cosmic consciousness and for others simply profoundly human.
Feldenkrais was very influenced by the Talmudic and Hasidic teachings that were alive in his home and village yet he was not religious. He was uncomfortable with spiritual language. In the San Francisco training in 1975, this scientifically trained man was aghast at the sloppy, new age thinking of many in the group, me included. He demanded more precision in our language. So committed was he to the unbounded potential of embodied awareness that he once said to me with a sly smile: “you can learn more from your skeleton than from your soul”. He was always fascinated by the unlimited potential of human consciousness. In basing his teaching on “awareness through movement”, he was not idolizing the body, rather he was pointing toward a different kind of textbook based in experiencing through bodily movement. He knew that deep, embodied experience could also be transcendent.
“In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement and thought, the carriage (ed. the organism) will speed along the right road. Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate, and ‘know’. He grasps that his small world and the great world are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone.
Gendlin says the key for him is "to be connected to the larger system" though he is loathe to speak about God or spirituality. In conversation, Gene, who experienced the Nazi’s taking over his family apartment in Vienna and other horrors as a small boy, curses when referring to God and then says something profoundly transcendent like his famous quote:
“Your physically felt body is, in fact, part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people, in fact the whole universe. This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from the inside”. Gene Gendlin
Without using “spiritual language” both Moshe and Gene, based on my conversations with them, had/have deep experience of the transcendent. They rail against the limitations created by habitual language and thought. Typical categories- body, mind, spirit- break down when we place our focus on the vitality and wholeness of our lived experience. This is an essential point of living The Embodied Life. By this I mean, the focus is not “the body” as a physical object but how, being grounded in our bodily process, can open us to richer dimensions of consciousness.
I recently began reading the new, remarkable biography of Moshe Feldenkrais written by my friend Mark Reese. What a life! Traveling from his home in the Ukraine by foot, train, boat and carriage at 14 years old with pistol in his boot, this muscular, brilliant young man was already engaging with life in extraordinary ways. As a boy he had seen brutal acts of anti-Semitism yet also discovered an intimate, loving relationship with nature and was already drawn to helping people with disabilities. From his notebooks, we see that he loved both the physical world and self-reflection:
“When I was a child, the sky seemed like a hat on the world…I would start running to hold in my hand the wonderful blue stuff that made up the sky….Still I love the sky very much….I also like the clouds very much. I sit silently and watch the clouds.”
To be alive in itself is enough! To know it, sense it, feel it and symbolize it accurately brings us to a sense of wholeness that is implicitly satisfying. There comes a sense of rightness, JUST in being alive. Feldenkrais used his unique life experience, both the tragedies and gifts, to go deeply into his felt-experience. This integration of bodily experience with reflection and feeling invites a sense of wholeness.
To understand the world knowledge is not enough; you must see it, touch it, live in its presence and drink the vital heat of existence in the very heart of reality
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Two weeks ago I spent the day with Gene Gendlin at his home in New York. Though struggling physically, his mind is bright and his liquid eyes full of kindness. He is the best, most precise and present listener I have ever known. My heart warms remembering the look in his eyes. Each day he awakens with various discomforts yet finds meaning and goodness in JUST being alive. The key for him is connectivity to both his felt-sensing and to the larger system. We spent much of our time discussing death and dying. When asked how are you doing he often says with both gratitude and humor, “”well, I am still here". His passion for going deeply into the experience of being alive is undiminished. Again, allowing the deeply felt, living experience in its wholeness- the pains and joys- invites an unpredictable, life-giving unfolding.
EVERY BAD FEELING IS POTENTIAL ENERGY
TOWARD A MORE RIGHT WAY OF BEING
IF YOU GIVE IT THE SPACE
TO MOVE TOWARD ITS OWN RIGHTNESS
I feel very blessed to have intimate friendship with both Moshe and Gene. I learn different things from each of these creative, dynamic human beings:
Feldenkrais, more physical, more earthy, Gendlin more cerebral and more articulate about his feelings; Feldenkrais emphasizing the doorway of physical movement, Gendlin the doorway of the felt-sense.
Each demonstrates a passion for living, for uncovering meaning, integration and learning. In my language system, different from theirs, they are embodying a profound spirituality. By spirituality, I am pointing toward the deepest and highest, most profound experiences that implicitly are connected to something larger than self. Whether we call that spirit, God, the larger system, the All or Life, the most important thing is that we experience this intimate connection. It is from this experience of connectivity and wholeness, that, I believe, love arises in human beings.
“The most telling and profound way of describing the evolution of the universe would undoubtedly be to trace the evolution of love.”
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Valuing the gift of embodiment in their differing ways, both Moshe and Gene invite us to:
- question ordinary thinking especially the division of body, mind, spirit,
- commit to the integration of thinking, feeling and sensing,
- value the accurate, creative use of language,
- recognize the wisdom living through bodily experience,
- value the unique beauty and preciousness of your experience being alive.
This same realization is expressed by most Zen masters when they implore their students with the phrase:
Wake up! Do not miss this life”
Ordinary life as lived through this body can connect us to the most profound human experiences. Rather than seeking life in the esoteric, perhaps we can find the esoteric through deepening our experience of everyday life. The gift of being born in a human body is unfathomable. For me, this is the essence of The Embodied Life.
“Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.”
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin