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.
Moshe Feldenkrais

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.”
Moshe Feldenkrais

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.

Eugene Gendlin

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

Sitting with a Broken-Open Heart

Report: Sitting for Peace on Sunday, August 2, 2015

When human beings can sit “at peace” with their own uncomfortable thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations, we will also be able to better understand and eventually welcome the differences we see in others. Bringing love to suffering will include loving actions.  Recognizing that it is always “hurt people that hurt people” goes a long way toward helping us separate the actor from the action. Certain actions need to be banished from human behavior yet human beings, in themselves, need redemption not banishment.

Sitting all day, (four, 2.5 hour periods of sitting and walking meditation) is both challenging and fulfilling. Some periods fly by with lightness and joy, some inch along very, very slowly. Of course the point of the day is not personal enjoyment or entering an extraordinary state of consciousness. Rather, the intention is to recognize that the sources of dis-ease and violence within myself and the greater world are one and the same.

Sitting with all that arises in mind and body, eyes wide open to the great injustices on this planet AND finding that uncomfortable, broken-hearted peace that comes through acceptance of “what is” is the practice.

How can one be at peace with social injustice and a broken heart? I don’t know. Yet I know it is essential. By “at peace” I do not mean that one is resting joyfully or without pain. I mean something like not adding to the hatred while returning to presence by grounding in the present moment and consciously acknowledging the various forms in which suffering arises.

Meditation Day

At the beginning of each quarter of the day, I offer a subject for our focus.

We start the day at 6:00 am. No words, rather we hold an intention to include the inner and outer world in our field of awareness. Sitting with whatever arises in body and mind is our task. Through simple, whole-hearted acknowledgment of each inner voice, we attempt to neutralize any mind states of conflict. We become the place of peace. This peace does not always feel wonderful, rather it is accepting, awake and aware.

At 9:00am, we focus on violence that is created through racial identity. Since many anthropologists do not even see the validity of a category called race, maybe we can more accurately say the violence that is perpetrated due to varying skin colors. Said that way, it seems even more absurd.

I suppose in our genes, connected to our tribal history, are strong forces of “us and them”, with all of “them” being dangerous and of differing worth.  Clearly, humanity will not be at peace until this confusion about skin color, tribes, and “us and them” is eliminated. A festering wound lives around our planet and is reaching a new boiling point in the United States. If Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War was the first wave of healing and Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement the second wave, then we are in the third wave of exhuming this obscene body of hatred from its shallow grave.

At the 12:00 pm meditation cycle, we focus on gender violence in all its forms. Its most obvious and pernicious version remains alarmingly, unbelievably prevalent in our world today. Women and children throughout our precious planet are, right now, being raped and brutalized. While violence is often expressed sexually, it is important to see that this is a subset of all desire to dominate. The “negative masculine” (often, but not always in the form of men) seeks DOMINATION. It is a hungry beast eating voraciously in a desperate attempt not to experience its own inner pain.

This can be seen in our relations to other people, animals and the earth itself. When we destroy the rain forest or the oceans without thought for the future, the same kind of domination that creates sexual slavery is at work.

At 3:00pm our focus shifts to violence in the name of belief. While this is often religious in nature, it actually includes any belief that seeks to justify violence toward others. We will not find peace on this planet until enough people can stand clearly and firmly for their values without “killing” the other. In my picture this killing can be in word or deed. Although there are clear, gross versions of this all over our planet, from Syria to Tibet, I want to include the more subtle expressions in our own minds and hearts. We need to learn to argue and disagree passionately but with respect, while listening deeply to the pain and needs living in the other.

- How do I use my voice or my logic to kill?
- When do I confuse cleverness with wisdom?
- When do I turn my values into a hammer in which I metaphorically beat others?
- Can we disagree without hatred?
These are questions for true peacemakers.

Gautama Buddha spoke of three poisons: greed, hatred and ignorance.
Greed is the unbridled, all-consuming state: “I want and I take”.
Hatred is the all-consuming passion: “I will destroy you, you are nothing”.
Ignorance is the “inability to open our hearts, minds and eyes to others and experience our interconnectivity with all of life”.

May we all continue to work to clarify our internal voices, confusions and sufferings as we also engage in actions toward social justice in the healing of our shared world.

Peace is our calling, our deep need. May we all work together in creating a planet in which greed, hatred and ignorance can be healed as we become truly humane and loving beings.  I believe we can choose this as our collective destiny.

HOLDING LIFE PRECIOUS: The Act of Bowing by Russell Delman From April 2009 newsletter

My friend James has cancer; a shortened life is now predicted. A student named Susan was misdiagnosed, her apparent cancer is gone.  Everyday in small and large ways our life moves from circumstances that disappoint us to those that bring relief and joy.

How can we live with this ever-changing reality?

In my seminars and in my life I enjoy, value and even depend on the simple inner/outer gesture of bowing.

The act of bowing is not just a formalized ritual.  It is the embodied expression of our intention to place the reality of Life above our hopes, dreams, and desires. This does not mean that we do not have these hopes, dreams, desires- they are also part of the fabric of our life. Bowing means that we place the reality of our life above these hopes/dreams/desires when they are not synchronous. Of course by ‘bowing’ I mean both the physical act and more importantly, the inner gesture of saying Yes to “what is” without denying ANY of the reactions that arise in relation to what is. This is called living out the reality of our Life/Self. It is also called humility.

Living out the reality of our Life means that EVERYTHING we encounter is our Self, which is exactly the same as saying everything we experience is our Life.  Normally we separate out our Life and our Self, as if we have this thing called a Self that lives in encounter with something called “my body” and that this Self meets what we call our Life.

Actually this is a big error and leads to a lot of trouble.  Everything you encounter is your Self/Life.  You are inseparable from the reality of your Life as it is arising in your personal circumstances.  Yet these personal individual circumstances are an expression of Life itself. This can be called UNIVERSAL SELF through which we are all interconnected and yet we each have our individual experiences of this grand interconnectedness.

Please do not think this is abstract philosophy. I am addressing the actual pain, worry, fear, self-judgments, anger and anxiety that arise in our daily life.  Just as the weather changes so do our circumstances.  This will be true forever.  How do we step back and remember the truth of this Self/Life that both includes and is free from these changing circumstances?  How do we enact this larger understanding?

When we bow, our heart is accepting our personal limitations as we simultaneously sense this Universal Self.  In the Christian world it is the gesture of saying “Thy will not my will”.  In the Dharma world it is acknowledging that right here, right now Buddha Nature (Universal Self) is functioning through me.  In both cases, even when there is pain or sorrow, there is no sense that something is fundamentally “wrong”.

My friend James has cancer. It is virulent and many thoughts/feelings arise from this diagnosis.  A student named Susan recently heard that a cancer diagnosis was inaccurate; her tests were confused with those of another person.  Clearly, we who love them feel sadness, concern, relief and elation in connection with the differing circumstances.  YET, beyond positive/negative and heaven/hell is the overwhelming truth that each is living the reality of Life/Self.  We do not need to downplay our feeling responses in order to ALSO place reality above our preferences. At a fundamental level, Love-Peace-Truth-Joy are alive within all these circumstances. This is the cutting edge of the awakening life!  We bow to Life itself!
Heaven or Hell, love or hate
No matter where I turn
I meet myself.
Holding life precious is
Just living with all intensity
Holding life precious.

-Kosho Uchiyama Roshi

A Drop in the Bucket

Thirty-one years ago, my wife Linda and I were working seven days a week with brain-injured children at Mother Teresa’s Mission in Calcutta. With a surprising sense of ordinariness and familiarity, each week we would walk down the street to Mother House for our weekly, private meeting with Mother Teresa in her small bedroom and anteroom, just big enough for her bed, dresser and a few chairs.

One day, with a light, joyful step we climbed the stairs to her room, exuding prideful happiness.  Pradeep, a blind boy of approximately 4 years had walked for the first time this week. In a remarkable neurological congruence, he also began saying his first intelligible words. All the sisters and helpers were gleefully thrilled. We felt so special. With her laser-like perceptiveness, before we said a word, Mother, who was helping so many, looked out her window at the masses on the street and said with deep sorrow, “there is so little we can do, we help one and thousands more are born." A humbling moment indeed.

The next week, we were in an opposite inner condition. Feeling the weight of Calcutta, surrounded by so much suffering, we trudged heavily up her stairs. Greeting us at the door, with a twinkle in her eyes, Mother said, “isn’t it wonderful, every drop in the bucket makes it that much more full.”

This expression, “a drop in the bucket” lives frequently for Linda and me. The dual reality that there is so little we can do to influence all the suffering on this planet AND every drop in the bucket somehow really helps is a true Zen koan.

People often use the phrase “it's just a drop in the bucket” to convey a kind of hopeless minimizing of the effects of one’s behavior. When I sense into this version of “just a drop” my chest gets tight and a kind of heavy resignation comes into my heart. From this point of view, with so many devastating problems in the world, any solutions: recycling, electric cars, meditating, eating less sugar, volunteering at the local shelter, donating to causes, etc. all seem so pointless. Simultaneously, I can see Mother Teresa’s twinkling eyes extolling the importance and virtue of each act of kindness. Living with both of these seems helpful to me. The former brings humility, the latter hopeful, inspired energy.
Intention and Action: Everything Effects Everything

Our every action is a drop in the bucket. Both our intention and ensuing actions effect the world in often unknown and remarkable ways. I like to tell the story of an ordinary situation that occurred ten years ago when I was driving on the highway, almost late for a very important appointment. There was much traffic, and anxiety flooded my body. All of a sudden I realized that my exit was very close and that I was in the wrong lane. In my mind's eye, I can still see the gracious smile of the woman in the next lane who waved her hand to let me go in front of her.  Many times since then, I have thanked her! Think of how many times each day seemingly insignificant behaviors create ripples of influence. These are drops in the bucket.

What is the effect of any particular action? Is it a life-giving drop? Are we adding, in some small way, to the goodness in the world? By goodness, I mean that there is more kindness, beauty, warmth, truth or genuine freedom as a result. These values can sound big or demanding yet my criteria include very small, seemingly insignificant moments. Holding a door for someone, offering a smile, radiating a moment of gratitude all fit for me. Having an intention toward small acts of kindness literally changes your world. Having an intention toward gratitude for the small gifts of everyday life also instantly changes your world. Even one’s inner state, without overt action permeates into and influences the environment.

Effecting and Affecting Each Other

When The Embodied Life School hosts our all day sittings for planetary peace, we are offering a “drop in the bucket”. Our inner state influences the atmosphere around us, we are always inter-effecting and inter-affecting. We never really can know the effect of our state on others and even the earth itself yet, since our entire life is a web of interrelationship, this inter-effecting is constant. Some neurologists speak of limbic resonance to help describe this transferring of states to each other. All pet owners and parents know this. While a day of sitting meditation holding the planet and all Beings known and unknown in our hearts might be helpful, even much smaller deeds are a true contribution to the emotional air we breathe together. This inter-affecting is also constant.

Brief moments of aligning with peace become small transmissions into the atmosphere. If we connect intentionally to the core Embodied Life practice of PAUSING, GROUNDING, BREATHING and then allow this moment of “peaceful abiding” to connect with the outer world, we are functioning as emissaries of peace.

I want to call this the “drop in the bucket” practice. Whether sitting all day, for a half hour or just finding our inner neutrality for a few moments, this is a contribution to our collective well-being. One key ingredient is the inclusion of the outer world in our attention. In my opinion, we have a much more potent influence when the condition that we cultivate within our personal bodies is offered in humble hopefulness to the greater body that we share.

A Drop in the Bucket Practice

At least once each hour, and ideally more often, I intend to pause in this way. When caught up in the demands of my inner and outer world, this pausing is the greatest gift I know for everyone, including myself. Even when I feel generally in harmony, I intend to offer this moment to the earth and all her creatures, including you and me. I wonder, will you join me in the “drop in the bucket” practice?

Loving Questions
(learning to love questions AND asking questions lovingly)

“How do we know the right thing to do”? she asked earnestly.
“What if we make a big mistake”? he replied hesitantly.
“Am I too old to have a baby”? she wondered.
“Can I earn enough to support a family”? he thought.
“Should I get a new job?”
“Should we move to a new city”?
“Am I working too much or not enough”?
“Do you still love me” (“do I still love you”?

Our life is full of questions. For the important ones there are no simple answers. In fact I have given up on answers except for one- Love is the answer.  What does that mean?

For me it means three things: First, that Rilke was right when he beseeched us to love the questions. This means to live with uncertainty and deep questioning. To embrace “not-knowing”, as challenging as that can be.  Second, it means bringing our warm-hearted caring, i.e. our love, to our life situations is the most reliable and effective way of finding the right next step. Third, it means a willingness to humbly ask for help from all known and even unknown sources. Opening to the unknown in this way is, in my opinion, an act of courageous love.

The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the
Mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.
It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend
A little of this mystery every day.
Albert Einstein

When seeking answers to any important question, it is essential not to look through the lens of thinking and reasoning alone. Our thoughts must be imbued with: 1) feeling, 2) a strong physical presence in the present moment and 3) deep connection with the seen and unseen world around us. When all of these ways of knowing are alive together in the light of awareness, we can call this “integrated knowing” or wholeness. This integration of thinking (symbolizing), feeling, your physical presence and connection to the environment (including all the people and places involved in your question) allows your “wisdom body” to inform the next step. 

From my perspective when we are in deep, integrated connectivity like this, we naturally are guided by Life and our actions will tend to take care of Life. For me this is a deep, profoundly exhilarating mystery. Guidance comes through our interconnectivity! I believe that these moments of inner and outer congruence, open us to suprising, serendipitous events that help inform us - the unexpected phone call, the article in the newspaper that speaks to us in deep and important ways. We learn to bring the warm heart of caring to the moment. Awareness is a shining light that illumines the darkness. My experience is that when this awareness illuminates the entirety of a moment- the four levels described above- then the right direction arises. We do not actually “make decisions”, though it often feels like that, rather decisions are made and they call us to our “next” places.

Fifth, gently sense how these places want you to be with them. In soft ways ask questions like: how do you need me to be with you?, what makes this so hard?, what are you worried will happen?, what would feel just right in this moment?

As you do this, keep returning to your grounded physical presence of steps one and two. Rather than getting lost in the feeling or symbols keep circulating between the more neutral awareness of ground and environment. You ARE a vehicle for the light of awareness that illuminates this whole process.

We can be grateful for the questions.  We can learn to live lovingly into the questions in two ways: one is to value the questions that live in your life situations, they are trying to guide you and two is the warm-hearted way of being with the questioning itself.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Rilke


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San Francisco Street Retreat: A Christmas Story

Once upon a time four curious, somewhat fearful and very excited people decided to join the homeless population in San Francisco for three days and nights in the Christmas season.

Some people thought this idea was quite strange.
Some thought it heroic.
Some thought it disrespectful to the “real” homeless.
Some were inspired, others grateful.

In this, the darkest time of year, in which many world traditions from Pagan, to Christian to Jewish, to Hindu, to Kwanza and others celebrate the season of Light, we decided to live without money and only our clothes plus a light blanket to experience life on the streets. We had no illusion that we were really homeless, we were simply wanting to learn from living in this way.

The learning was and is profoundly moving. The essence can be described as meeting the generosity and oneness of life in very basic ways or great generosity and infinite kindness amidst the deprivations. Sharing cardboard with others, exchanging food at the missions, looking for something to give back when given something, this was the etiquette of the people living on the street that we met.

Some Discoveries:

- The street, both the ground itself and life on the street, is very hard.
- Dry cardboard is a life-saver for protection from the cold.
- Getting wet in pouring rain is uncomfortable.
- People on the street help each other.
- People love to give.
- Being really seen is more important than receiving material gifts.
- People deeply appreciate and long for being heard and valued.
- Giving and Receiving are a pair that create each other.
- One cannot distinguish who is giving and who is receiving.

This last point is most important to me and in a way sums up the whole experience. When receiving a cup of coffee or a dry pair of socks on wet days, one gives their gratitude.  Humbly asking for help, gives the possibility of service and connection to the “giver”.

One night, after being awakened by two kind-hearted, twenty-something people who were distributing gift bags, I knew the great joy THEY were feeling in helping us. I am usually them, the person caring for others. True receiving requires an open-hearted humility, in some ways it is easier to say “I don’t need that, thank you”.  I know this habitual response very well, there is an arrogance in “I do not need any help”. Receiving from them was a double gift - opening to their kindness while enjoying the material goods AND knowing that they were receiving the opportunity to touch that place in their hearts that wants to give. This is humanity at its best. We fulfill each other. We cannot separate the giver and the receiver. We are one.

I am also one with the young woman who cannot look at me as she goes into Starbucks for her latte, I am her too. Or the dapper man in his fine suit who fearfully averts my gaze as his body tightens, I know this in me as well. The angry, meth-addicted, ranting man turning over garbage cans is also me when I am consumed by my personal “hungry ghosts”.  And then I meet the Street Ministry who have not missed a single night in fifty years of caring for homeless people, I see that they are me also.

I do not want to romanticize the experience. There is danger on the streets, one needs to be awake and aware. And yet, if one is paying attention there is much more kindness than danger. As one fellow retreatant said “I take days during a meditation retreat to get really present, connected and quiet, on the street it was almost instantaneous”.

When we told people that we were not really homeless but simply joining them for a few days to experience life on the streets they were so grateful that we were interested in knowing this directly. One woman, Mercedes who most called Mercy, said she felt so safe talking to us that “we were like a Christmas present” for her. When I gave her the candy cane that the street minister had given to me, tears welled up in her eyes. “I love candy canes and this is my first this year” she said. Then she gave us her wisdom about safe places to sleep.

Each person is doing their best given the ingredients of their life.  We are all always cooking the meal called “our life”. Ingredients include mental capacity, life history, bodily condition, personality, possessions, everything. Before this experience I had unconsciously created a category called “homeless people” which allowed me to ignore the uniqueness of each individual. After many personal conversations and encountering similar challenges, I experienced truly seeing each persons individuality come alive.

One more thing- the street itself is ALIVE. The ground, though covered in concrete radiates support. It says, “You are here. Stand on me, sleep on me, sit on me. I am here to confirm, validate and honor your presence.” Sleeping on the street in a city, putting one’s whole body on the ground, created a surprising sense of deep connection to the earth itself.

Once upon a time, amidst the holiday shoppers and decorations, a group of economically privileged people received the deep honor of being accepted into a community of individuals who live in very different circumstances. A truly remarkable Christmas present that I suspect will stay with me for the rest of my life.


A Caring Heart

And the light shines in the darkness…

This is the season of Light in many traditions.  As the days shorten and the outer world becomes darker, our inner light can shine more brightly.  Perhaps our potential is moving us toward becoming Beings of light in which love fills our hearts and informs our actions.  Imagine a radiant center like a sun in your chest. Is this what the great teachers from Gautama Buddha to Jesus Christ are modeling for us? Yet there are so many examples of the opposite, of violent actions darkening our world. How do we manifest this light amidst such darkness?

Today I also read about a young girl, Malala Yousafzai who stood up for life by fighting for the right of Pakistani girls to go to school. A Taliban gunman shot her in her head. Many caring people from around the world, doctors, nurses, politicians, bus drivers, village elders, worked together to save her. She continues sharing her gifts and her love with the world and recently won the Nobel peace prize. How do we make sense of the brutal darkness that lives in humanity and the light-filled love of which the human heart is capable?  What do I mean by ‘love’?  For me in this context, it is simply a quality of caring that includes goodwill, kindness, deep listening and positive actions toward all of life. 

An imagination of the Future

Imagining the future, I picture a global community in which love is the norm.  We extend our generosity beyond our immediate circle towards all.   The web of our caring includes the planet, the atmosphere, seas, plants, animals, people and all the rest.

The suffering of others produces a caring response in each of us. The joy of others is experienced as warmth in our hearts. In caring for life we spontaneously include the entirety of each situation: our personal needs, the needs of others, the social setting and the environment.

Beauty is deeply valued.  Humor also, though not the cynical kind.  Truth is earnestly sought though not as a weapon. Creativity is encouraged. The uniqueness of each person is valued.
Children have opportunities to bring their unique gifts into actualization.

Is this a utopian fantasy?  What about our biological proclivity toward self-protection and tribal identity?  Certainly, it will take time to balance the “fight for survival” impulse in our DNA with its lesser known companion “cooperation for survival”.  We have both tendencies. 

Since going to Rwanda these questions live within me. My long term inquiry into forgiveness, redemption, gratitude, self-responsibility and interconnectivity have been going deeper and wider than ever before.  A fundamental question for me, not abstractly but in a profoundly personal way is, who do I exclude from my field of care? Are there any individuals or groups that I do not include in my goodwill, i.e. my love? 

The Complexity of Caring: A Personal Example

Most recently, while guiding a Gratitude and Forgiveness retreat, I was investigating this question of exclusion through a process called  “Embodied Listening”. I discovered that I carried unacknowledged hostility toward a particular group of people: aggressive, narcissistic young men. I could also sense a deep fear lurking inside that was masked through my judgments and anger toward them. As I continued to listen to the ‘felt-sense’ under the surface, I found a feeling of shame toward myself as a young man.

Though never violent toward women, I carried many of the thoughts and images that were fed to boys of my era and indeed throughout most of human history.  Two examples of many, I remember as a 15 year old in prep school, sneaking out for a night away when the man in charge of my dormitory who was colluding with my unauthorized adventure said “don’t come back if you don’t ‘get any’”. Even younger, at 12, I remember the brother-in-law whom I idolized saying in profane language that rather than seeking love, I should “try to have sex with anyone in a skirt”. Messages like this were rampant in my formative years and I internalized them.

I observed that my current commitment to supporting groups that are working for ending violence against women was connected to an unacknowledged sense of connection to the perpetrators.  I too objectified women and learned to ignore the person and just see a body. I am grateful to the many sources of consciousness growth, particularly the women’s movement, for helping me to see past this numbing, heartbreaking conditioning . Finally, as a 62 year old relatively conscious man, a husband/father, I could see that my hostility toward this group of young men was connected to the reality that “this was me also”.

Everyone reading this probably agrees that violence against women whether on a university campus or in the Congo is horrendous and we must do everything in our power to end the complex conditions and conditioning that make this possible. Sexual violence is connected to and an instance of all forms of violence which are in essence the attempt to dominate another through force. I can imagine living in a world where acts of domination in any form are unthinkable.  Human beings are currently far from this state. What steps are needed to heal our collective wounds?

Collective Responsibility

Growing out of this inquiry is my first true sense of collective responsibility. Twenty-five years ago I first heard some of my German students speak of collective guilt over their countries history.  Though understanding of their pain, I could not truly see how the “sins of the father were visited upon the child”. Now, something different dawns in my sensibility. My circle of care includes a sense of collective responsibility. As a man I am connected to the actions of all men. As a citizen of the United States I am part of the violent actions of this nation. As a White person I hold particular responsibility for actions against people of color. As a human being I am also responsible for the destruction of the earth perpetrated by my brothers and sisters. I am part of this whole system, not just the parts I agree with.
In my recent article on Forgiveness, I wrote about Simon Wiesenthal who as a prisoner of war lost most of his family to the Nazis and was being asked by an SS officer for forgiveness. After the war, Wiesenthal managed to visit the mother of the officer. A question arose for one of the commentators in the back of the book: what about the mothers responsibility? What about ordinary people who knew that something terrible was happening to their neighbors and did nothing?  This week, reading the report about the CIA use of torture after the September 11th attack, I ask the same question of myself: what is my responsibility for these actions? What is ‘right action’ for me now?

At this moment in the United States there are many protests about the unfair treatment of Black people by various law enforcement agencies.  We need this kind of collective outrage, as long as it is non-violent. Still, we must not create more fear and hatred by casting the perpetrators out of our hearts. This is an incredible challenge for angry, hurting people. Our future must include this capacity.

Diverse people of many social groups are wearing tee-shirts that say “I can’t Breathe” in memory of the dying words of a Eric Garner in New York at the hands of a “peace” officer.  As one Zen teacher said, “if he can’t breathe than we can not fully and freely breathe either”. Can we accept that we too are part of the system that led to this moment? Without absolving the policeman at all, can we see that he is part of a larger system that includes all of us? The danger and stress that the police live with everyday is included in assessing the whole situation. Extending our field of care to the police officers as we hold them responsible for their actions is essential.  Imagine if the protesters could include this sentiment in their hearts.

Similarly, what about people who “side” with the police? Can they also extend their caring to include all those who have been systematically victimized by domination systems, in the case the criminal justice system? Expanding our capacity to shine our light on injustice, to stand tall in its face AND not cast anyone out of our field of caring is the potential future of humanity. This is the hard, at times excruciating work, we all must do.

Responsibility vs. Blame

How do we live with awareness of collective responsibility at a time when we have access to so many of the horrific events from the whole world?  It is not helpful to be paralyzed by self-incrimination and guilt. One key distinction for me is the difference between taking responsibility and blaming. In my inner language, responsibility is literally the ability to assume new responses to circumstances.  How does my caring for all of life express itself in any particular situation? In addition to bearing-witness, prayer, communicating with others, perhaps sending money, what other actions are called for? To find helpful, non-violent ways of standing up for life is an essential, efficacious enactment of self-responsibility.

Blame is quite different, it has an implicit violence toward the target of the blame, whether self or other.  Blaming oneself invites ineffective self-flagellation producing unhelpful guilt, rarely leading to effective action. Blaming others, as Buddha said, “is like picking up a scalding rock and throwing it, we get burned first.” Blaming creates unintended negative consequences that linger in the health and vitality of the person.

Moving beyond blame and ineffective guilt, how do we engender self-responsibility, radically condemning certain behaviors while not closing our hearts to individuals or groups? Separating the action from the actor seems key to me. Seeing the systemic, historical, biological and social antecedents of behavior while simultaneously holding each person accountable asks us to walk a courageous tight rope. Honoring the understandable anger of marginalized populations without exiling the perpetrators is our moral task. As the old expression goes, “to understand all is to forgive all”.

As my investigation continues, I see how those sexist, young men do not benefit from my derision or my exiling of them from my heart. They need my clarity, my care and my courage to shine a light on their faulty conditioning. Standing up in this way to the unconsciousness that perpetuates violent dominance is incredibly demanding and this is the potential of humanity.

Similarly, when we exile the other perpetrators of violence in the world today do we help them to heal? Since the terms “healing” and “whole” derive from the same root, I believe that unless all of life is included as part of our collective whole, as part of our field of care, then we are incomplete. How do we include members of ISIS in the human family, understanding their pain and their needs while simultaneously doing all we can to stop their brutal actions. Demonizing the enemy is the classic way of making it possible to exclude certain people from our caring and to treat them as sub-human. We must learn to evolve further if we are to survive and heal this planet. Can ALL of life be included in our circle of caring?


There are no simple answers or formulas. One key is learning to listen deeply to self and others. If we can enter into any important dialogue with a truly open mind, i.e. not assuming to know the truth or the answers and really hold presence (bearing witness) for all elements of the situation then person by person, we will forge our way into this evolving ethos.  Through reflection and growing awareness, the painful contractions of our hearts will be sensed and overcome. Assuming responsibility and eliminating “us and them” mentality will help a great deal. In my vision, we will stop blaming anybody for anything while still holding self-responsibility as a high value. Extending our self-identity to include all of Life will lead us forward.  Kindness will guide our way. From an integrated, Embodied Life perspective doing this requires the ability to sense deeply into our bodies for the contractions and patterns that underlie our thoughts and feelings. To be whole requires integrating bodily sensations, feelings, images/thoughts while simultaneously being permeable to the outer world. This outer world includes what I call “the greater body” which transmits the transcendent or spiritual world. “Embodied Listening” is one path to opening our contracted hearts.

We can feel great encouragement from leaders like the current Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis.  Heroes like Mahatma Gandhi , Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King also pointed in this direction. These capacities need to grow one heart at a time.

I am inspired by the Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is an awakening being (Bodhi=awakened or awakening, Sattva= Being) who dedicates her-himself to the awakening and healing of all life. Rather than entering the nirvana of endless bliss and liberation the Bodhisattva vow says: “I can not be free until all others are free because I am not separate from any part of life”. This is our direction as human beings.

Today, the great challenges on our planet, both in terms of ecology and human behavior will push us either over the brink or into a new world with love as the basic operating principle. This is our potential. This journey is the most compelling and dynamic trip we can take. For some of us maybe it is the only journey worth taking. In this season of light, we can dedicate ourselves to the hard work of growing a caring heart. Let’s move forward in creating the kind of world we wish for our children’s children.

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The Possibilities of Forgiveness

As I prepare for my upcoming “Gratitude and Forgiveness” retreats, I am resounding with the transformative potential living in each of these qualities. In the past I have written about gratitude numerous times, today I want to write briefly about perhaps “the most profound expression of love possible”- forgiveness.

We carry the past in our bodies. All that is unresolved in our heart lives in the tightness of our tissues, in the heaviness of our movement, in the cast of our eyes and in the tone of our voice. Unprocessed guilt lives as a weight and often includes a need to remain hidden from view. We don’t want to be seen or to see ourselves. Within forgiveness lives the possibility of resolving our past. It holds the potential for freeing past karma. The radiance of our life-energy, our aura is transformed through this noble act. If there was no forgiveness on this earth, we would live mired in hatred, pain and untold sorrow.

Do we carry self-blame for our inability to act differently in the past and for the pain that we have caused?

Do we carry blame toward others for the pain they have caused?

What are the “right”, effective and life-enhancing ways of acknowledging our errors?

At what point is forgiveness for our own misdeeds acceptable and helpful for a maturing conscience?

What does it really mean to forgive yet not forget?


It seems to me that when we are “off the mark” (which is the original definition of “sin”), regret is an important part of that acknowledgement. That human beings feel sorrow for causing pain to self and others seems a necessary evolutionary step in consciousness. When we cause hurt, it is “right” to feel the pain of those actions. Moral learning requires this capacity. The question becomes one of timing and amount- when do we allow that energy to transform through our forgiveness?

Simon Weisenthal the famous “Nazi hunter” wrote a tremendously moving account of a profoundly disturbing event while a prisoner during World War 2. He had lost many loved one’s and experienced unspeakable atrocities. One day while being forced to clean up refuse at a military hospital, he was invited into the room of a young SS officer who was dying. The soldier had a deep need to repent for his sins and to receive forgiveness from a Jew. In agonizing detail, he told of his participation in horrific deeds. At the end he asked Wiesenthal for his forgiveness
so that he could die in peace. What would you do?

The last half of the book, “The Sunflower”, consists of many deep, thoughtful people writing about how they might act in such a situation. This is an instance of humanity struggling with an issue that confronts us all. Everyday we cause some kinds of harm to ourselves and others through our thoughts, words and actions. What is the accurate role for forgiveness in relation to the large and small misdeeds that inhabit our lives? Are there limits to forgiveness? Is “blame” ever necessary or helpful? Can one hold oneself and others responsible without blaming?

While in Rwanda last April these questions arose deeply for me. Listening to the stories of brutality that my new friends had experienced, hearing of their struggle to live amongst the people who killed their families and listening to the killers trying to make sense of their own actions and find ways to live as ‘normal’ people again brought new levels of anguishing reflection for me. While the situation in Nazi Germany and Rwanda are obviously extreme, can we see these as hyperbolic examples of our own challenges?

Forgiveness is essential for freeing our burdened hearts and adding light into the world. Self responsibility is essential for our true maturation as human beings. Acknowledging our mistakes, our sins against life, feeling deeply for the pain we have caused AND freeing ourselves from the life-killing aspects of the unforgiving heart is a necessary task for evolving humanity. If gratitude is the front door to the loving heart then forgiveness might be considered the back door. I invite you to join in these reflections.