Timeless power of language: nonviolence and violence

Nonviolence: using peaceful means rather than force, especially to bring about political or social change

Nonviolence, in Dr. King’s words, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth… So the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

 

Dr. King’s death was widely reported as an assassination, carried out by a sniper, a lone gunman, who was a white man (or men, if you follow one of many conspiracy theories, as did King’s family.)

In the shadow of the death of Dr. King, who had unparalleled command of language, voice, and delivery, I feel called upon to simply place the following words and their definitions in proximity to one another.

We may identify these words with quite different historical periods. Let time collapse into this historical moment. This moment. Today. As you reflect, let these words talk to one another:

Violence: behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. In law: the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force

Sniper: a person who shoots from a hiding place, especially accurately and at long range

Assassination: the murder of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.

Terrorism: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Lynching: kill (someone) for an alleged offense without a legal trial, especially by hanging

Segregation: the act or policy of separating people of different races, religions or sexes and treating them in a different way

Mass incarceration: the imprisonment of a large proportion of a population, used in particular with reference to the significant increase in the rate.

Slavery: the practice or system of owning persons as legal property who are forced to obey their owners.

Institutional racism: racial discrimination that has become established as normal behaviour within a society or organization

White supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society

Jim Crow: the former practice of segregating black people in the US; an implement for straightening iron bars or bending rails by screw pressure.

Redlining: refusal to give loans or insurance to people in an area that is considered to be a bad financial risk

White privilege: inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice

(Note: definitions according to the Oxford English Dictionary)

For myself, I find the significance of each word 

is illumined by the others.

I am better able to take in each word as

the timeless/time-bound piece of reality it is, 

when amongst the others.

I take these words together to be the still 

unaddressed lineage of our country.

It is long past time to own up to our long history

of behaviors intended to hurt, damage, or kill.

May our reflections open us to insight and inspire us to action.

         

P. S. Historical note on the concept of race

IMG_1554THE HISTORY OF THE IDEA OF RACE… AND WHY IT MATTERS Audrey Smedley, Professor of Anthropology Emerita Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, American Anthropological Association.

“In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. They spent decades exploring all of the original documents relating to the establishment of colonies in America. What these scholars discovered was to transform the writing of American history forever. Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness.” 

http://www.understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf

 


 

Photo of segregated drinking fountain taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, October, 2016

Arrogance, humility, and the work to be done

We live in disturbingly puffed-up times.

I like to imagine myself among a citizenry seeking the justice that must come with the demise of arrogance: armed only with sewing needles, we advance on a gaggle of huge balloon characters (think Macy’s Thanksgiving parade). Punctured, they let out the sounds four-year-old boys like to make, then collapse into a wild heap on the pavement.

 

Alas, we are all subject to arrogance: Passover to the rescue!

As I prepare for Passover, chametz – food mixed with a leavening agent such as yeast – is a major focus. Any such food is to be separated out and removed. This calls for a close reading of labels on bottles, boxes, and cans.  Then there are the remnants, i.e. crumbs. This calls for cleaning.

This week I have dusted, washed, wiped, sponged, scrubbed, scoured, and swabbed. Sunday, the fridge. Monday, the bathroom. Tuesday, the guest room and my office. Wednesday the livingroom, diningroom, and bedroom. Thursday, the kitchen. It has been a sedentary winter, including several bouts of flu and extended weeks of recovery, so I welcome the activity, although my muscles protest.

I also trust that as I get into crevices and corners with dust-cloth and lambs-wool duster, there is an alchemical shift in my own fermented emotional and thought patterns.

And when all the work is done, there is the gift of this prayer:

All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

In other words, I make the effort I can make. And being human, the effort to rid my house and my person of all remnants of puffery must fail. And still, my effort is good enough.

Then beginning with the Seder meal, and for the next eight days, we eat matzah, which tradition calls variously “the poor man’s bread”  and “the bread of affliction.” We literally “take in” the nourishment of humility. This is not about self-abasement or groveling. Passover, after all, is about liberation, freedom from slavery. Including all the ways that we both over-inflate and under-inflate our value.

 

This hyperbolic world has such a deep need for us to be the size we are.

May we each occupy our rightful place.

May we gather around our tables, tell our stories, ponder deep questions, and praise.

Then may we together free the still-enslaved and open our gates to the uprooted.

 

More on Passover:

We are all strangers in a strange land

Passover paradox: freedom is given yet must be earned

 

Run to do good with a snow shovel

“Run to do good with a snow shovel.” As of this noon, I am moved to add this action to the list of obligatory ways to do good under Jewish law (halachah).

Early this morning in Baltimore we were having a white-out moment. No matter we were less than twenty-four hours into spring by the Gregorian calendar. Wet snow was falling heavily, already bending the bamboo grove in our backyard down to the ground.

After a short night’s sleep, an early-morning on-line meeting, and a late breakfast, I napped. When I woke, a blinding whiteness shone through the window. The snow had stopped. I went to the front door prepared to bundle up and spend an hour clearing the front steps and walk, to see that an Angel-with-a-Shovel had already been by. Two angels, it turned out – Lisa, my next-door neighbor, and Ashley, her neighbor on the other side. Ashley and I have waved hello to one another but never really “met.”

As recipients of an unending flow of goodness from the One Source, Judaism teaches us, so we are bound to carry out acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chassadim), regardless of whether the recipient appears to be “needy” or not, “deserving” or not. Especially acts of lovingkindness extended towards the dead, who cannot reward us.

Thus we are taught to offer unstintingly

to the wealthy and the poor,

to the wise and the foolish,

to the dead and the living.

 

We are taught to offer “all our everything.”

To offer of ourselves, our effort, our resources.

To offer hospitality.

To welcome in and provide for the stranger, and guide her on her way.

To visit the sick.

To celebrate with the couple at their wedding.

To guard and prepare the body of the dead.

To accompany and bury the dead.

To comfort the mourner.

To seek and pursue peace.

To bring people into the presence of the Shechinah, the Indwelling presence of God.

To learn Torah, teach Torah.

No legal (halachic) limit is set on what we can offer: no moment when we can cease from giving and say that we have fulfilled our duty.

Then there is the “running” aspect. It’s not just that we are not to stop and weigh the pros and cons.

The “running” is an actual eagerness to be of service, in the same spirit that G-d “runs” to bestow everything on us. Our “running” is in the image of G-d. All the more-so when we treat the “stranger” as friend and neighbor, in spite of the fact that – like Ashley and me – we may never have met.

As we offer in this way, we give up “reward” in the mundane sense, and as we give without expectation, so we do also receive. nourishment.

More than that, we become partners with G-d in completing creation. With eagerness and as small and mighty a tool as a snow shovel.

Lisa and Ashley: thank you!

As we name our feelings, so we move with life

Learning to recognize, re-cognize, embody, express, and name our feelings is a life-giving practice. Because our feelings are among the most fluid expressions of Life itself as it continually moves and changes. And they often pair with subtle sensations, movements in the body-mind.

images

A chartreuse-winged butterfly – yes, chartreuse – crosses my line of sight. Flits across the yard and back again. I have never seen such a creature before, nor such a color in a winged being.

And I find no online source that yields a species name.

But I can capture the feeling that lingered: a mix of a rising up to meet, a joy, a curiosity, a quick inhale, a caught breath.

I am devoted to naming what I see, hear, think, sense as accurately and precisely as I can. Sometimes it is still to save myself from terror or trouble, often it is to locate myself, find some stability. More and more it is to come into relationship with what is right here, without time-traveling to regrets or anxieties.

Yet even now it is easier for me to select the Prismacolor shade

of blue that is true to my emotion of the moment

than it is to precisely name a feeling. 

photo 8

Sometime in my late twenties, when I was a young mother, I came across the“list of feelings that persons have but often fail to identify” pictured in the banner photo. I don’t recall whether someone gave me a copy or I myself typed the many mis-spellings on my green Olivetti portable. In any case, the list was a revelation, no less than Helen Keller’s discovery that the sensation of water could be named by movements in the palm of her hand

How do I describe my family of origin? repressed? secretive? private? of its cultural time – first-generation Americans who came of age post WW I and in the Depression?

Emotions of all kinds loomed large among the unnamed  and unexpressed, crackled and smoked around me.  I was buffeted by strange winds and weather systems, haunted by maternal and paternal hungry ghosts. I didn’t know who or what they were, just felt the life force bound up in them, and that they  sought some kind of appeasement. I learned to snuff out my own feelings. I stored great indistinct tangles of emotion in large, heavily guarded vaults. So large that to unravel even my own state of mind or heart became overwhelming.

But I could sit with the list and begin to name a multitude of orphaned feelings. Eventually I was able to tolerate more sensations in my body (that is another story) as they shifted with my feeling-state.  Then I began to discover the pleasures of nuance.

Nuance is truthful to the uniqueness of the moment, thus a great ally to living a life of practice.

Of course, we can name every little thing exhaustively – and to the point of exhaustion, when we name to capture and fix something in place – a bit like pinning a specimen chartreuse butterfly to a mounting board.

We don’t need to name everything, just enough to warm us. Just enough to move with the precious and unique dance between the changing forms that surrounds us and and the fluid life that arises within us.

“Good questions” can clear a path through incivility

We are desperately in need of good questions to draw us out of our silos, to connect us as human beings during these divisive and acrimonious times.

Good questions can clear a path through half-truths, lies, justifications, insults, declarations, vilifications, clarifications, obfuscations, rationalizations, denials.

Good questions invite us to drop our personas, masks, even the half-truths we tell ourselves.

Good questions open up possibilities.

They have many answers.

They are even likely to have different answers at different times.

 

Here are the most relevant “good questions” I have heard in months.

English teacher Laurel Taylor recently challenged her 12th grade students to sit down and talk with someone with whom they disagreed on a foundational issue, such abortion, or who they supported in the presidential election. The students were to ask the following:

What is it like to be you?

What is your life like?

What is it like to be known and by who are you known?

The students learned something of what shaped the “other,” discovered common ground as well as differences that were not resolved. Built relationships.

They went on to each answer the same questions for themselves, and share with their class-mates. More surprises: discovering they were not as alone and exceptional as they believed as they encountered the many challenges of adolescence.

 

These questions inspire me in their simplicity, plainness, and directness. They say, “I really want to know who you are, what it’s like for you to make your way through daily life.”

When we ask “good” questions we make space for surprise, the unexpected, revelation, AHAs. Space for other questions to arise. For more information to come in. More insight. Also mystery, doubt, vulnerability, confusion.  Also awe, joy, pleasure.

As these students learned, when we are able to let in what shows up, what is actually present and real for us, our capacity for compassion grows, even compassion for ourselves.

 

Invitation to practice:

You may share the same reluctance and discomfort these students did, but risk asking someone these questions, then answer them for yourself.

And please share your own “good questions” with us here.

 


For the full story: In a time of divisiveness, lessons on listening at a Virginia school, by Debbie Truong,  Washington Post, February 26, 2018.

Ardent reader, Pt 2:  stories & wisdom across cultures

More good stories: from middle America to Africa and the American South

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Billie Letts (1986). A sweet, quick read that lifts my faith in humanity every time I read it. Caney Paxton is a Vietnam vet who runs an Eastern Oklahoma diner from his wheelchair but hasn’t been outside since the place opened twelve years ago. The diner is peopled by a mash-up of locals who rally to help one another at every turn. Crow Indian woman Vena Takes Horse blows in the door one day with an injured dog in a cardboard box, upsetting the order Molly O has established as her way of watching over Caney and managing life with and without her wild and estranged daughter Brenda. Meanwhile Bui, a homeless Vietnamese immigrant finds a home in the local black church and surreptitiously restores it even beyond its former glory, while working as short-order cook and handyman.

In here he knew what to expect. The smell of hot grease and stale beer, the flicker of red and blue neon, the taste of ketchup on fries, the clink of spoons against coffee cups. Days as predictable as…Suddenly, Caney grabbed the wheels of his chair, gave them a powerful jerk and popped the chair over the threshold. Clearing the door frame, feeling the heat of the sun on his face, he squinted against the glare.

 

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (2016). When I got to the end of this absorbing novel, I turned right back to the beginning and started over. I can’t say that about any other book. Gyasi’s heroines are half-sisters Effia and Esi, born in different villages in 18th century Ghana. Married off to an Englishman, Effia lives out a European colonial life, one of the many native women the British take as second wives. She does not know that her half-sister Esi is imprisoned in the castle dungeon below her palatial quarters, about to endure the agonizing Middle Passage. In alternating chapters Homegoing then traces the sisters’ parallel stories generation by generation. The unfolding of tribal warfare, control of the slave trade, and colonialization on the one hand. Plantation life in the deep South, the Civil War and Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance on the other. On my second pass, I read Esi’s story straight through, and then Effia’s, and absorbed more details of the finely-rendered characters, times and places.

…two long moans meant the enemy was miles off; three quick shouts meant they were  upon them…Esi did what her father had taught her, grabbing the small knife that her mother used to slice plantains and tucking it into the cloth of her skirt. Maame sat on the edge of her cot. “Come on!” Esi said, but her mother didn’t move…”I can’t do it again,” she whispered.

 

Non-fiction: the power of recognizing yourself in the text

Running on Empty, Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Jonice Webb, PhD, with Christine Musello, PsyD (2013).  Webb’s book was life-changing for me.  For this book among many things I am ever grateful to my healer Brenda Blessings. In Webb’s cogent analysis I recognized my own life – the way I experienced the world and behaved in response. If anyone had ever asked me straight out if I was emotionally neglected as a child, I would have responded with a puzzled yet definitive “no.”  But Running on Empty helped me to see the relationship among what to me had been unrelated fragments. Feelings of isolation while real life went on in Technicolor on the other side of a barrier I could not breach. A capacity to speak up, and passionately, on behalf of others, but not for myself. A disconnect between “work” and pay, cause and effect. And other mysteries of my life. Five years later, the these fragments have softened and integrated – still around, yet no longer running my psyches and my life. Such as…

Signs and Signals of Alexithymia

–  you have a tendency to be irritable

–  you are seldom aware of having a feeling

–  you are often mystified by others’ behaviors

–  you are often mystified by your own behavior

–  when you do get angry, it tends to  be excessive or explosive

–  sometimes your behavior can seem rash to yourself or to others

–  you feel you are fundamentally different from other people

–  something is missing inside of you

–  your friendships lack depth and substance

 

Inspiration and guidance from many cultures

Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott (1994). I was a fan of Lamott’s from the time I first read Traveling Mercies (1999) – captured by her plain-spoken struggles with faith in daily life. It was many more years before I began to have any thoughts at all of myself as a writer. Writing was just something I did, and loved, whether I was journaling or writing testimony for a legislative hearing. If you think that none of this could apply to you, take my word for it: good writing and a good life both follow the same instructions, as Lamott’s title indicates. She opens and closes Bird by Bird by calling us to truth.

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, but we do…But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.

There are so many things I want to tell my students in our last class…Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

 

The World has Changed, Conversations with Alice Walker, edited with an introduction, Rudolf P. Byrd (2010). This volume was a sale-table find at Red Emma’s, where I was browsing while waiting to meet my friend Lisa for lunch. In these nineteen interviews and conversations with Walker from 1973 – 2009, she is often asked the same questions. What changes and what remains a steady thread in her responses is the instructive nourishment of this compilation. Then there is the sheer power and magic of her speaking.

On writing fiction:…there’s that wonderful, playful quality of knowing you have dreamed up people who are walking around and who have opinions…You’re dreaming people, creating people, they do surprising things, but it’s only because you have given them that freedom in creating them.

On Possessing the Secret of Joy: I learned about genital mutilation twenty years ago in Kenya, and it was just so completely beyond my experience at the time…that I didn’t, I literally didn’t understand what they meant…But by the time I actually started [the book] I was in such a state of grief that the only thing that sustained me was that I could go outside and just lie facedown on the earth. And I really understood…that the body of a woman is the body of the earth, and it was the same kind of scarring, mutilation, control. You know, “If you’re gonna have a crop, it’s gonna be my crop.”…And the same where they cut the woman and they sew her up, and they say, “if you’re gonna have children, it’s gonna be my child.”

 

The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (2016) Two of the wisest men on the planet are in conversation, and their love for one another and their warm and playful friendship, displayed in photos and verbal exchanges, bring delight, though Abrams as narrator sometimes got in my way. My friend Greg loaned me this book, accurately sensing that my spirits were sorely in need of upliftment. Joy, in fact, remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Abrams did redeem himself in my eyes by including this definition from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens.”

The Dalai Lama: After 9/11 you would have suspected that those who hated America would have been gloating. But there were very, very, very few people gloating, People were deeply, deeply distressed. Had the American President not hit back, we might have had a different world. We will have a different world of course, eventually. But just look at any tragedy…There is compassion that just springs up.

Archbishop Tutu: You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others…God created us and said, Go now, my child. You have freedom. And God has had such incredible reverence for that freedom that God would much rather we freely went to hell than compel us to go to heaven…And God weeps until there are those who say I do want to try to do something.


For Part 1 for Ardent readers:  https://alifeofpractice.com/musings/ardent-reader-pt-1-good-stories-perennial-wisdom/

 

 

Love in action on Valentine’s Day: not about romance

heart

Valentine’s Day: reframing the irritating task in front of me as love in action made my day

Attention to ordered and effective detail comes naturally when I am writing poetry. It’s a matter of scale: a limited number of words and lines on a simple white background. Small enough that my eyes can take in the parts and the whole at the same time.

But what was in front of me this morning was something else. The day began as I chaired an online meeting of an all-volunteer committee. A key agenda item was the need for a leave of absence policy. The issues proved more complex than they originally appeared. We agreed and voted on a general direction. One member – a careful listener with a good memory – agreed to take on the word-smithing after we adjourned. We signed off.

Over the next few hours twenty emails flew back and forth on this thread. Twenty. Including a new voice that was not part of the online discussion but is vital to include. Half a dozen additional considerations raised. Lots of parts. Moving parts.

My irritation rose. I was losing sight of the whole. And losing touch with impeccability: in this instance, our collective intention to craft a policy that would bring clarity, closure where necessary, and serve both the individual volunteers and the work of community-building that is our passion.

Pause.

Reframe.

This is Valentine’s Day.

What better day for love in action?

Impeccability is not about writing the perfect leave of absence policy that will fit every circumstance like a glove. It’s about patience with the words, the people, the incremental steps, the revisions. It will take more thought, a few more days. A bunch more emails. And we’ll arrive at a policy that is seated in our values and does the job. We’ll nudge the necessary details  into place.

The gift – for myself and those on the receiving end of my emails: letting go of the urgency, I relaxed and went on with my day, which also included dark chocolate and red roses.

Ardent reader, Pt 1: good stories & perennial wisdom

stack of books

As an ardent reader, I relish both good stories and perennial wisdom. This week I share a few of my favorites with you.

 

Thankfully, Dick and Jane did not quench my love of reading. I lose myself in a well-told story.

I read to find heroines and role models, to understand villains and evil. See the world afresh.  Escape.  Time travel to other places and by unfamiliar means – horseback, sleigh, trans-Atlantic steamer, dragon- back (Anne McCaffrey’s specialty). Drench myself in strange tastes, smells and dialects. And find myself anew, with widened eyes and a wiser heart, some enhanced capacity to be more human. Enchanted by language. Refreshed to return to my own daily “story.”

Hefting a book in my hands, I treasure the tactile – the feel of the binding and texture of the paper. I’ve kept notebooks of quotes, even extended passages. I’ve underlined and scribbled in margins, highlighted and tabbed with post-its.

I love being pulled forward page to page…and if the story is a good one, I ration the pages to slow myself down and savor the experience.

 

Winter comfort reading…fiction to be savored with afghan and tea

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin (1983). The language and imaginative scope of this novel still absorbs me on my – 10th? 15th? rereading. Peopled by outrageous underworld characters, a master mechanic, a consumptive heiress, an epic competition between high-minded and low-minded daily newspapers, an elusive bridge-thrower, a howling White Wall, and a powerful white horse, all in the roiling streets of Manhattan during some time that never was but we dream of. Especially now that Helprin has engraved such a city in our minds.

All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

 

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett (2007). Trailing her yapping corgis around a corner of Buckingham Palace, the Queen of England stumbles upon a traveling library. I revisit the life-changing pleasures of reading as she discovers her own. Full of Britishisms and good humor.

’The Queen has a slight cold’ was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.

 

The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver (1988). Taylor escapes Kentucky “in a ’55 VW Bug with no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.”  Headed west, she stops for a scant meal and leaves the bar with her “head rights” to the Cherokee nation: an abandoned, abused toddler. Taylor and Turtle end up in Tucson at Jesus is Lord Used Tires, which houses an auto repair shop and a sanctuary for Central American asylum-seekers. Full-bodied and warm-hearted characters, each down on their own hard luck, take care of one another, creating their own miracles along the way.

We looked where (Turtle) was pointing. Some of the wisteria flowers had gone to seed, and all these wonderful long green pods hung down from the branches. They looked as much like beans as anything you’d care to eat…It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees.

 

Perennial wisdom … dip in, savor, open at random and contemplate

I take on a different reading persona with these works of perennial wisdom.  These are not cover-to-cover reads. I do start with forwards and prefaces and introductions for context. I often read the acknowledgments at the end: I enjoy getting a sense of the lineages to which such books belong and the village that may have surrounded an author’s or translator’s work. Then I read I-Ching style: open at random, read a few passages or pages, close the book and reflect on what light the words shed on any given current personal or world predicament.

 

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, translation and foreward by Stephen Mitchell (1984). First published in 1929 by Franz Xaver Kappus, recipient of these 10 letters from the Bohemian-Austrian poet. Kappus was a 19-year-old military cadet and aspiring poet. While addressing a life in poetry and art, Rilke’s words remain rich guidance for a vibrant inner life in the 21st century.

…it is clear we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.

 

Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass (2005).  This volume is built around talks I first listened to on cassette tapes as I was running a gingerbread-baking business out of my kitchen. He spoke about the “mellow drama” of his own journey. And he mixed his personal stories with commentary on the themes of this ancient scripture, “themes…that touch on the various yogas, or paths for coming to union with God.”  The 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita originally appear among some 200,000 verses of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. This “song” takes the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, his charioteer, as Arjuna is about to go into full battle with his own family members.

Again and again the Gita turns our perspective upside down…It shifts our sense of what our lives are about. So as we begin to adopt the Gita’s perspective as our own, we’ll notice that our focus starts to change. Instead of always preoccupying ourselves with trying to get what we think we want or need, we’ll start to quiet, we’’ll start to listen. We’ll wait for that inner prompting. We’ll try to hear, rather than decide, what it is we should do next…we’ll discover that we’ve lost our lives – and found them.

 

The Instruction Manual for Receiving God, Jason Shulman (2006). This slim volume offers more than one-hundred “seed passages”  for contemplation, along with commentary and suggested practices. He lays out an open-hearted path to accepting the wisdom and limitations in our human imperfections, and to encountering God at every turn. I have been studying this nondual work with Jason for over twenty years. He is the real deal.

There is a Japanese saying: The elbow does not bend outward. It is a smart saying. The freedom of the elbow, the wonderfulness of the elbow, is precisely because of its limitations. This is our awakened attitude. We are free to be completely human. We are not free to be aliens or cartoon creatures. We are free to be ourselves, with all of our imperfections and bruises.

 

An invitation: pay it forward and add one of your titles and why it makes your own list of favorite books!

 

Watch for Part II: fiction and non-fiction for writers and cross-cultural explorers.

 

In good hands with Healing Presence

Recent weeks have been a strange and compelling time for me. I have been called on to think deeply about behaviors that contribute to Healing Presence. At the same time to ever more deeply explore early childhood experiences of emotional absence. This dual preoccupation has freshly illuminated the gift in the wound that is my calling in life.

 

Putting myself in good hands

I can see now that I have devoted myself professionally to being “the good hands” in which I want to place myself whenever I seek health care or disease (medical) care. Being those “good hands” comes down to a felt quality of relationship that engenders trust and a sense of being met, seen, and cared for.

 

This is how I define Healing Presence, a particular application of living life as an imperfect and vulnerable human being. 

Healing Presence looms large in my professional foreground. Peer into my personal background and I find a profound absence of being  met, seen, and emotionally cared for early in  life.  The gift in the wound. The lotus rising from the mud. A calling. Or, as the Jewish sages have taught, God has created the cure even before the disease.

Countless times I have sat with a client holding for her the foreground and background of her life work that she cannot yet see, as she heartfully yearns to be able to grasp what is just inside and right in front of her.

Just as I could not see that while I was trying to salve, and solve, my early life difficulties with emotional absence, I was in the same moments perpetuating it. There are large swaths of my life where I have been in absentia. In vain my daughters have asked me about certain family events of life-altering significance to them: I have no memory to illumine their own search for meaning or understanding.

 

Healing Presence in the face of absence from life

Until very recently, I could not answer my own question: Where was I at those moments? Now I understand that my attention was focused not on what was in front of me – and them. I was, unawares, scanning entire universes for danger, mustering and deploying armies of defenders, all skills I began to apprentice before I had even the earliest language skills. Developmentally, a supremely young part of me was in charge.

The ongoing psycho-spiritual work of allowing these patterns to appear, of feeling utter loneliness, and unwinding embedded physiological patterns brings me back to Healing Presence. Because I do not entrust myself and this work lightly to anyone. And I have been fortunate to have been in the best of hands with friends, role models, teachers, and practitioners who have helped me to heal and awaken.

 

Here are some of the qualities and behaviors of Healing Presence I look for in the company I keep – in life and in the treatment room

We click. I have been met, seen, cared for unconditionally enough, if imperfectly. I feel a quality of relationship that engenders my trust. I sense that we can develop a partnership that serves my needs and desires and honors her expertise and viewpoint. So if a conflict develops around a course of action or treatment, it can be a productive one.

Each of my professional helpers…

  • listens to me deeply, non-judgmentally, with curiosity and nuance.
  • trusts that I am an expert on my own life.
  • trusts my body-mind-spirit’s innate wisdom, uniqueness, and capacity to heal.
  • accepts and responds to my story, language, and emotions (or lack thereof) as the foundation for our work. She is then free to validate, encourage, reframe, educate, or challenge me. To articulate, clarify, question, counsel, and illuminate. To partner, lead, or follow willingly as appropriate.
  • is comfortable with silence, tears, guffaws.
  • presents herself as a professional, grounded in ethics and respect for the limits of her scope of practice.
  • offers a fertile mix of critical thinking and humility, which discourages her from coming to premature conclusions, and encourages her to make good use of her knowledge and to embrace what cannot be known.

I take these qualities and behaviors as the fruits of  my practitioner’s own life of practice. Most often her practice is not going to be precisely my practice, and that does not matter. I may or may not learn deeply about or embrace the language or practices of her path or discipline over the time we work together towards my healing and awakening.

That we can walk together is essential, each of us knowledgable, wise and limited in our own ways: gifted by our own wounds, answering our respective callings. This is when I know I am in good hands.

These are the good hands I aspire to be.

 


AN INVITATION:

If you are looking to place yourself in good hands, in a partnership dedicated to your healing and awakening…

OR if you are a practitioner who wants to explore and deepen your own Healing Presence with your clients or patients…

LET’S TALK…. be in touch.

We can schedule a half-hour conversation (no charge)


IF you are interested in a peer-reviewed article on Healing Presence, this is a good place to start.


Banner photo: original painting by Sheri Hoeger, A Touch of Hands

 

Rhythms disrupted settle in the arms of Mother Nature

Rhythms disrupted.

As I began to write this morning, my MAC’s little rainbow wheel kept spinning, yielding up one letter or three or four at a time. Pretty much how I feel in week five of “recovery” from the flu. Not sure when I respond to a question, a directive, an email what might come out by way of wisdom or irrelevancy. As a human I am a creature of rhythm. My rhythms have been wildly disrupted between ragged breathing, coughing, and no routine. I have felt out of sorts.

 

Then last night I stumbled into a wonderful antidote: reflections on the relationship between human nature and Mother Nature.

I sat down to leaf through two photo albums I had put together during my second year as an herbal medicine student. Our assignment had been to spend a full year exploring some aspect of “People, Plants, and Seasons,” and present our learning to our classmates in some material form. As I began to work on the project in the spring of that year, I had a fundamental question. What is the relationship between human nature and Mother Nature? Between the patterns, cycles, behaviors of humans and other living creatures and the whole messy collective that we are?

Over the course of that year I filled three sketchbooks with field drawings, botanical and medicinal information, and personal reflections. I took photos, pressed plant material, tucked away quotes that touched me. I lived life, became a grandmother for the second time, and tended my mother through what turned out to be the final three months of her life.

As the project due date approached, I spent several weeks sifting, sorting and ordering images and words, and they took on a life of their own. I remember sitting on the floor, surrounded by scraps of paper, photos, dried plants and glue sticks. The process of cutting and pasting and arranging to making a meaningful whole of all those moments. How absorbed I was in making meaning, in finding the story that was mine to tell about people, especially my people, my plants. my seasons. How much room there was for the fresh grief of my mother’s death, the joys of grandmothering and the wonders of the green world. How healing it was to assemble and offer this story to my classmates, and be fully received.

 

The unsettling and awe-filed potency of birth and death, the generational shifts, full of feeling and poignancy: the relationship between human and Mother Nature revealed through the seasons. 

What astonished me last night as I paged through the albums was how the whole experience sprang fully to life. The observing and recording. Aromas and sounds and places. Voices of teachers and classmates. The excitement of discovery. Sorrow and delight.

 

 

IMG_3043 photo                    IMG_3047 photo 1

SPRING: Andre’s birth and garlic mustard                      SUMMER: nettles and St. John’s Wort

 

IMG_3048 photo 5                     photo 4IMG_3050

FALL: Ginkgo leaves, and fall too and fruit harvest        WINTER: Seasonal forms and light

 

Sometimes life says, “you’re on”  when I am “not ready,”  and I am reluctant to act in the face of unknowns. Other times life gives me room to recover and shift in ways that feel natural to me – breath, pulse, night and day, work and play, season, giving and receiving. Change of viewpoint, change of heart. Refreshed rhythms.

As drawings and photos and words transported me back to my true place in the large scheme of things, there was a place even for being out of rhythm and cranky. And then I had a change of heart.


 

Invitation to practice:

Pick an outdoor location that you regularly pass through and that draws your attention.

It can be as simple as a square foot or two of ground.

Or a place where you stand and slowly turn in a full circle, taking in the unique features of this place and your viewpoint.

Revisit it regularly as the seasons unfold. Observe. Sense. Notice changes.

Notice colors,  smells, textures, light and shadows, sky and clouds, effects of rain or snow,  evidence of insect or bird or animal life.

Notice changes in your relationship to this place, your relationship to yourself.

 

Keeping a simple log of your observations, taking photos, drawing are icing that will enrich the experience, but there is plenty of cake in the practice itself.

And let me know how it goes!