How a seeker of justice weds the troubled human

How can we each use our life of practice to wed the seeker of justice with the troubled and imperfect humans we are: healed and healing, awakened and awakening?

This is tricky territory. On the one hand, we want to serve the world, not serve our wounding or neuroses. This requires us to turn deeply inward to inquire into our personal reality and the origins of our motivation. On the other hand we want to engage deeply with the world: if we wait until we are completely pure of heart before we act, we will remain forever immobile – and useless.

We do our best to run and return between the inward and outward journeys, bringing the wisdom of each to the other, and wrestling with the limitations of each. We could say we engage in each aspect of this work for the sake of the other.

From the front lines of this tricky territory

This week, I find myself in a passel of trouble. Troubled by one violent act upon another. Troubled by my own reactions. Broken-hearted  over the killing of Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year-old Muslim girl, as she was walking in the neighborhood near her mosque in Reston, Virginia. The man under arrest for the killing is only five years older, barely an adult himself. From El Salvador. Did he flee gang violence there?

Broken-hearted, yet I have trouble remembering her name. If I am so heartbroken, why hasn’t her name engraved itself on my memory? But I look up the meaning of Nabra, and listen to the pronunciation, “Nehbarrah.” Google translates it as “tone.” I wonder about the Arabic nuances, and what her family was intending when they gave her this name. Last night I dreamed that she and I were talking quietly and intimately in the corner of a room – or maybe it was one of her three younger sisters.

What is it about Nabra among all the others murdered or maimed? Innocence? Sacrilege? Is it that she is the same age as my grandson, who was raised mostly ignorant of his Jewishness and is about to go off to college where others may see him only as a Jew?  A news article reported that Nabra had tripped over her abaya, a garment she had borrowed for the late-night Ramadan prayers because she rarely wore one.

I am equally troubled by the stark contrast with my response to the shooting of Republican congressmen just a few days before. I am more shocked at myself  than at the event. I am sanguine, cold: well-what-did-you-expect, well-now-you-know, well-y’all-invited-it. I am ashamed that my emotional reaction insists on being what it is.

Inquiring within

I do recognize this pattern in myself, how I am drawn to the protection, the defense of those who have no voice, no place, how I am repelled by the mis-uses and abuses of power. And how that is mixed up with  my own neuroses/wounding. I have, over the years, untangled many knotty threads to begin to claim my own voice and my own place. Enough so that I can sigh and say, well, there it is again. Enough so that I can begin serving more than my own wounding.

Then I have to remember another potent pattern that is active here – a certain way that I steel myself, withhold myself from life, from the moments that are especially dicey, aka life-threatening for me. I wrote about this “held-back goodness of the heart” some months ago, about the nuances to my withholding, each supported by a faulty assumption. Meanwhile, I remind myself here again. Goodness – goodness itself is unchanging. It doesn’t vary in quality or go bad, like those food storage experiments lingering at the back of the fridge. It’s not “my” goodness, but the Goodness of Reality of which I partake, of which I am made. The Goodness of which Nabra was made. The Goodness of which even her killer is made. The Goodness of which even congressmen whose behavior I abhor are made.

Saving my sanity

It is only throwing all this up against the Radical Oneness that saves my sanity and gifts me with clearer seeing, a bit more choice and courage. A bit more capacity to be in relationship with what is – so I am less and less trying to save myself from my own terrors and actually capable of serving.

By naming my feelings, even the shameful ones, I have given them a place. This does not mean that I have either solved or dissolved my conflicting feelings. Nor am I absolved from acting. I can and must choose from the abundant opportunities life offers me to show up, to protest, to act locally, to pray globally.

It is a great goodness to allow myself to sorrow still for my own childhood difficulties even as I sorrow for Nabra, even as I work to separate out these streams of sorrow.

And I must continue to wrestle with my own privilege – the privilege of a material security in which I can fall prey to the terrors of psychological life-threat, when so many humans are in urgent, immanent, physical danger of violence and death.

Pragmatically, materially speaking, we need all the wisdom we can access, and all the wholeness we can muster, to meet life.

From a spiritual standpoint, we each are born into this world to bend the arc in a particular way: that particular way of bending that we are born for, born to, heals our soul, and heals the world. Inseparably. Simultaneously. The very same life.

May we each succeed gloriously: for the sake of our loved ones, for the sake of those we serve in our personal and professional lives, for the sake of the civic body and our common good, for the sake of the earth.

“I can’t see!”  How habit blindfolds us!

Habit is an effective blindfold: it keeps me from seeing what is there, and directs me away from my own responsibility.

I pulled up short behind the SUV as we approached the intersection with a small side street. It looked as if the driver was about to make a right turn without having signaled. Immediately I reacted with irritation, one that I automatically generalized to the whole category of “drivers of SUVs.” A moment later I saw there was a compact Honda (same model as I was driving) in front of the SUV who was actually making the turn.

Initially, I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see what was actually happening, so I reconstituted a dried out old story and slapped it on the moment, then reacted to it. The dried-out story was colored by my prejudices against outsized vehicles that obscure the road ahead and engage in otherwise obnoxious-to-me road behaviors. In short, thoughtless road hogs. Even though some of my best friends drive SUVs.

I was reminded of another foundational personal experience of not-seeing.

I had gone to “see” a musical, and paid a pretty penny for a decent theatre seat. Through the entire performance, I found myself leaning to one side or the other, trying to see around the large body blocking my view of the stage. I found myself muttering, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” Until at one point I almost laughed out loud as I realized that most certainly I could see! I could see a large, stolid body and a very partial view of the stage. It just wasn’t what I wanted to see. Or what I thought was fair for the ticket price.

Blame and responsibility

So today’s driving experience demonstrated to me how much more work I have to do to take personal responsibility – how I can go all knee-jerky and immediately look for someone or something to blame when things don’t go the way I want.

As I follow the news, this distinction between blame and responsibility is actually one of my pet peeves. Blame is liberally dispensed by pundits of all political leanings. Responsibility is rarely assigned via sound and nuanced analysis of complexity, and seldom assumed by anyone. The common “I am sorries,”  e.g. “I am sorry I called her a b- – – -,” “I am sorry I used the n word”? To me these “apologies” translate only as “I am sorry I got caught and called out for saying what I think.”

Here are a few behaviors  that in my book break the habit of blame and move me along to take responsibility:

  • Self-examination.
  • Taking in the damage I have done.
  • Regret – and depending on the scale of the hurt, remorse.
  • Some meaningful move to repair any damage to the injured party.
  • Resolve to not repeat the behavior.
  • Repeat all the above steps as needed.

Admittedly, there are more substantive examples of my casting blame that are of greater consequence to the people in my life, but any moment is a good moment to come awake, even if it’s “just” behind the wheel of a car.


More on habit: https://alifeofpractice.com/daily-practices/thankyou/

A night of small revelations

I was twelve when Cecil B. DeMille’s technicolor biblical spectacle left me wide-eyed in my neighborhood movie theatre: The Ten Commandments!  Last night I was in synagogue with family in Durham, North Carolina marking the Giving of Torah to the Jewish people: a night of small, nourishing and human-scale revelations.

The evening began with a group of Muslim guests and their imam standing with us around a Torah as the rabbi lovingly spoke about the centrality and holiness of the scroll. He described how the parchment is prepared, and the great care with which the writing is done. For example, should the scribe make an error in the writing of God’s name, that whole section of parchment must be unstitched from its neighbors. The text must be completely rewritten – without error – and then restitched in place.

I had never heard this bit before – about the unstitching, the rewriting, the restitching. At the same time, I was struck by the fact that the stories themselves are full of human error, human imperfections.

The Torah scroll unfolds the ultimate error-ridden, and unfinished, story. It opens with our common origins, the Creation, then traces the early generations of humankind who, within a matter of a few pages are banished from paradise to the labors of childbirth and working the land. We soon fall into envy, murder, and drunkenness. After the Flood God starts over. More generations of ill-will, jealousies and betrayals of one another and God. The Jewish people are enslaved, taken out of Egypt, receive a collective revelation – Torah, wander in the wilderness under the protection of God’s Cloud, and with Moses’ leadership. The scroll ends as God directs Moses to ascend Mt. Nebo to die, in view of the land he will never enter. Nor do we in the Biblical telling. It’s back to the beginning for us too.

Nevertheless, we learn, it is God’s nature to give, and humankind’s to receive.

And on the night of Shavuot, we receive by grappling with texts late into the evening.

We consider the power of the very letters and white spaces of the Torah scroll. We discuss commentaries from a half dozen sources on the meaning and power of blessing. We puzzle in discomfort over a contemporary Israeli poem suggesting that Torah itself will move on, will actually leave us. We wrestle with passages from the deeply mystical text of the Zohar that warn us not to take the stories as anything but garments which clothe the ultimately unknowable Mystery of God, yet also instruct us how to live and care for one another and the world.

I neither saw thunder nor heard lightening, as the Jewish people are said to have done at Sinai. No life-changing insight into myself or my own surely numerous errors of perception, belief, behavior.

But some dew settled on me, some nourishment, much fellowship, laughter, argument, provocation. For which I give thanks.


The banner image, Egg World,was painted by my dear friend Kristine Rasmussen, who knew how to delight in life better than most of us.

Morality: what Goodness has to do with healing

I began my studies of the nondual with the intent to heal myself and the world. Surely, I thought, healing has much to do with doing good and being good. But from early on I had questions about where morality fits into a nondual scheme of things.

I sensed I had a moral compass that turned me toward right motivation, right discernment, even if that was not always enough to propel me into action. And I felt “bad” when I did something “wrong.”

But the nondual seemed to hold out something greater than my understanding of “right and wrong” or “good and evil.”

 

Childhoods lessons in right and wrong: I’ve thought a lot about how I first “learned” what it means to be a good person, to tell right from wrong. Religion had little to do with it. My father was a trial lawyer who took on hard-luck righteous-cause clients, cheated on my mother and tried doggedly to remain “friends” with her.

“Honesty”  in my home was deeply mixed up with privacy and poisonous secrecy.

I rarely took inspiration, guidance, or direction from rules. Rules were made to be bent, if not broken. Both were clearly best done out of plain sight. By the time I was in elementary school I lied to avoid getting into what I feared was bigger difficulty. I stole change from my mother’s purse and Jokers – and only Jokers – out of  decks at Woolworths to add to my trading card collection: I reasoned that whoever bought the deck could play gin rummy without the Joker. I knew I was wrong. That was not enough to stop me.

I often chose the right thing because I liked the way I felt – not merely an absence of guilt and not a smugness at “being right,” not even some parental acknowledgment but – well, there was some vague yet meaningful emotional reward.

There was no religious observance in my house, and no talk of God. I was sent to Hebrew school and remember having to recite the Ten Commandments as part of my Confirmation training at age sixteen. They were dry as dust. The view that the “mitzvot” of the Torah were binding on me seemed quaint, except maybe for murder – a heretical position even for a Reform Jew. It was decades before I would come to trust the workings of the world, of God as Good.

Nevertheless I was well-mannered (for which upbringing I am especially grateful in our uncivil times). I was useful, courteous and cheerful (three of the ten Girl Scout Laws I pledged to obey). I colored inside the lines.

Since I spent most of my life until my mid-thirties with people who looked like me and thought like me, my perspective on right and wrong was never seriously challenged.

 

A limited relationship with reality makes for a flawed moral compass: With the help of strangers – that is, people who at first were strange to me, who looked and thought and behaved differently. With the help of teachers and role models, religious, spiritual and secular, I did develop a moral compass that I trusted, but that was not always trustworthy. It remained flawed and limited by many defenses and fears that were not yet even visible to me. There were so many parts of me and the world that I had no relationship with at all. Hence it was a moral compass designed to align with my selectively filtered aspects of reality.  It was not true enough to keep me from being in denial in ways that fundamentally injured even those who were dear to me. This compass was True North only within the boundaries of my limited reality.

It has turned out that the key to moral maturity and trustworthiness has been the practice of waking up to one filter after another, one preference after another. The practice of coming into relationship with more and more parts of myself and the world. Of ceasing to turn away from, turn aside, and instead turn more and more directly into life, into discomfort, suffering, pleasure, joy. Nor is there an end point to this practice. It demands persistence and necessitates places of temporary refuge.

 

The Very Good does sometimes appear: This Very Good is the something that the nondual held out to me, greater than my understanding of “right and wrong” or “good and evil.” There are times when I am able to access a Totality of self that recognizes, re-cognizes right action: moments of brilliant clarity. Life quite simply parts in its direction and moves on, nourished.  How does this happen? It is, despite all appearances, the mystery of our inherent Goodness, of the inherent Goodness of creation: And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was Very Good (Genesis 1:31.)

And when I am not so able? Well-tested codes of behavior, it turns out, are essential to my doing good and being good after all. They support my practice and continue to help me to reflect, discern, and act accordingly.

 

The intent to heal: We each of us come into this world in a messy act of separation we call birth. If we are fortunate we attach to a nourishing adult, experience life as more trustworthy than not. We separate again and grow into our own wholeness, fully individuated and connected with our fellow humans. This adult may not be our parents, but a teacher, an uncle or aunt, a babysitter, a mentor.

More likely our early wounding takes us on a circuitous journey where we are pulled forward by our soul knowledge of the Totality of who we are, a soul knowledge of the Goodness of which we are made, and a soul intent to heal and awaken.

From the perspective of Kabbalah, the world into which we are born is  made of Goodness, is also broken, and also has an intent to heal and awaken. The world does not heal and awaken in spite of us.

The power of the world to heal and awaken depends on the Totality of each of us and all of us together who make up the body of the world.

As we each continue to invite in every single part of ourselves and grow into the Totality of who we are – as we become more and more who we already are – we cultivate a trustworthy True North. We grow in our capacity to marry our personal intent to heal with the world’s intent to heal. We marry our intent that the world not destroy itself with the intent of the world to heal. A totality of us within the body of the world.

Then, in the words of Suzuki Roshi, society and culture “grow out of us.”

An antidote to the excesses of the day

This week I offer

an antidote

to certain excesses:

Truth

אֱמֶת

Pronounced: Eh-met

Read right to left, it is spelled Aleph – the 1st letter of the Hebrew alphabet

Mem – the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet

Tav, the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Truth is One Singular Thing from Beginning to Middle to End.

Show me One True Thing and I am yours forever.


 

More on Important Words: https://alifeofpractice.com/nondual-kabbalistic-healing/timeless-eternal-words-that-root-and-bloom-in-my-being/

Instructions to a gardener: know your gesture, praise life

I’ve been taking instruction from weedy plants now for some time.

Dandelions tell me where the topsoil is depleted of nutrients.

Blackberries and creepers teach me close and diligent observation and pruning.

Plantains reveal the paths that heavy rains travel across the surface of our back yard,  a low point into which the whole block drains.

Every  plant – and every human being – makes its characteristic gesture.

The plants remain single-minded in their praise-fest of life.

We humans, not so much.

 

Instructions to a gardener

by Sara Eisenberg

 

Let the dandelions

root

and carry buried nutrients to my soil

surface.

 

Give the thorny blackberries room to spread, increase their fruiting.

 

Let-be the creepers to shade

an interior

life.

 

Prune

the

mind.

 

Follow the plantains as they

follow the

water

path.

 

Every green thing is pre-

occupied with,

gestures us towards

redemption.


More praise for the plants: https://alifeofpractice.com/musings/915/

More on spring plants for cleansing: https://alifeofpractice.com/herbalism/choose-a-spring-cleanse-thats-right-for-you/

More poetry: https://alifeofpractice.com/poetry/still-life-with-cat-2/

 

 

The power of seeing exactly what is in front of you

There are consequences to not seeing exactly what is in front of me, whether it’s invasive bamboo or human need.

Bamboo-sprouting season has arrived. Practically-speaking, this involves a daily excursion to the rear of our property, Felco pruner in hand, to snip each new shoot flush with the ground. At the peak, I’ll find fifteen or twenty. If I miss a day, the next morning the garden will host a handful of 3-foot “sprouts.” If I miss the next day too, the shoots will have gone from soft to hard – hard enough to require a chain saw to take them down.

The idea here is to hold the line on the advancing edge of this highly invasive bamboo grove, which starts three houses down the block from us, to limit this grass to the helpful windbreak that it offers against storms that most frequently blow in from the northwest.

 

AT TIMES I can look right at a rising stalk of bamboo and miss seeing it, in spite of its distinctive shape and its reddish-brown color standing out among all the shades of spring green.

SOMETIMES we can become so accustomed to a chronic symptom that it disappears from view. It becomes the norm. The way we “normally” feel.

MANY TIMES we can live so deeply from within our own story that we forget it is merely our own way of making order and finding meaning in our lives. We just think: this is the way the world is, the way our life is.

MOST TIMES we forget that what we see through our near-sighted, far-sighted, or color-blind sight is a matter of our own limited vision. We mistake this limited vision for the way the world looks.

AND MOST TIMES we live in a trance of shifting identities. Practice is a means to proactively invite in awakening from this trance. Here are a members of the cast of characters who showed up this week as I practiced inviting in the parts of me that showed up. The lapsed calligrapher and the lapsed dancer. The one who mourns the lapsed dancer. The boundary-crosser. The hit-and-runner. The Wandering Jew. The one who is certain she eats to live and does NOT live to eat. I may instinctively reach for the psycho-spiritual equivalent of my Velcro pruner, but no: every part of me, attractive or no, annoying or no, is invited in to take its place among the whole of me.

Other awakening moments come by grace, gently or fiercely. Life shakes me gently awake with its beauty or poignance. Or my eyes fly open when life hauls me up short or shakes me by the scruff of the neck. Then I remember to question my own narrative so that I can see what is right there – whether it is a fresh bamboo stalk, a skinned knee, my own bogus identity, or a look on the face of a loved one I have failed to meet.

I am needed for bamboo patrol for only three-four weeks. Questioning the ways I impose my story on the world, so that I can tend properly to what is before me: that’s year-round and life-long.

This healing and awakening is “tacky,” i.e. real, human

Being more human, not more perfect can be so tacky: I have to mind the gap between the uncomfortably real and the idealized. Just now that means grief and anguish.

MIND THE GAP: I have always loved this sign that populates the London Underground, warning against a misstep between platform and train. The GAP I most need to MIND these days is the one between my Idealized, cleaned-up version of healing and awakening, and the Real Thing. I misstep daily, often without realizing it, as this rare dream illuminated for me a few nights ago:

I was in a cavernous, empty building, industriously erecting a sweet human-sized structure, well-proportioned, using high quality materials – there were four sturdy corner posts of well-turned and polished wood, a roof of shimmery colorful fabric overhead, some ethereal walls that left it open to a welcoming entry on all sides, until….

It abruptly collapsed…

And I found myself in the same cavernous, empty building, erecting – all higgledy-piggledy – a tacky little structure, a jumble of unidentifiable discarded materials, where everything was askew but managed to stand serviceably enough.

As I woke with these two images in mind, I could only shake my head at myself, recognizing the small structures were, respectively, my idealized image of a healed and awakened Sara, and the actual harum-scarum, raggle-taggle, hobson-jobson (to borrow again from the British), healing-awakening hot mess that I am.

As I woke, I was saying to myself: this is so tacky. Being more human and not perfect can be so tacky.

My dream was reminding me to be real, to reconcile myself one more time to my imperfect humanity.

Being real right now means I am awash in grief and anguish.  It means…

my cells are weeping

my nose is snotty

my sleep and defenses are shot

my invisibility cloak is inoperative

my frozen interior is melting

my fasciae are gaining in tensile strength and fluidity

my own hand resting on my thigh is penetrating comfort itself

anybody could find me and kill me off with a bit of kindness

I am finally, deeply, feeling a healing version of vaporous unseen and unnamed forces that have shaped every relationship, my very view of the world. Have propelled my movements through life, at times inflicting on others the very same neglect from which I suffered.

It is almost four years since I wrote the first drafts of these poems out of the shape of the relationship with my mother that I could sense kinesthetically with my whole body: a difficult yet mentally idealized picture. Now these poems are more vivid and alive:  salty, wet, and full of feeling.

So this healing and awakening is truly tacky, built of all manner of imperfections, mine and my mother’s. Uncomfortably real. But sturdy and not prone to abrupt collapse.

language is on my face

by Sara Eisenberg

language is on my face, Mother is un-lettered, i, an apple fallen close to her trunk, just beneath her tree, flat, looking up at her, a moon circling in a distant galaxy

 

Mother

by Sara Eisenberg

i am a world suspended upon

nothingness

 

launch myself on the wind

of my own arid breath,

mingle materially with

emptiness,

tract upon barren tract

until i

come up

up against

push up

up against

push,

push,

not landing,

push

against cloth black against darkness:

the shape of my mother,

herself bereft,

a mirror covered

against mourning,

swallowing light.


For more poetry:

https://alifeofpractice.com/daily-practices/an-exaltation-of-particulars/

https://alifeofpractice.com/poetry/women-friends-come-bearing-gifts/

 

Refresh yourself, or sulk, in my garden – apparently I’m on spring break

Come on in. You are welcome to refresh yourself  – or  sulk, as you wish – in my woodland medicinal garden,  nestled under a sky-ward leaping linden tree. My writer’s mind and hand are apparently on spring break,

In Perpetual Spring
Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
of a sweet gum tree,
in search of medieval
plants whose leaves,
when they drop off
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they
plop into water.
Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it.

Source: Bitter Angel: Poems (1990)

IMG_2128  IMG_2111  IMG_2104  IMG_2107

IMG_2131  IMG_2115  IMG_2110 (1)  IMG_2103

Shade canopy: Linden tree

Top row: Black Cohosh, Greater Celandine, Solomon’s Seal, Wild Ginger

Bottom row: Twinleaf, Dwarf Comfrey, Golden Ragwort, Black Cohosh

We are all strangers in a strange land

My memory of the brief exchange is so sharp that, some forty-five years later, I can picture the layout of the livingroom, just where I was sitting – a stranger in a strange land – among a group of a dozen or so women. 

The ceiling of the old Victorian was high, the walls a creamy white, an oriental rug spread out over a worn wood floor. The lighting was soft. A woman seated diagonally across from me on a damask-covered sofa spoke: “I always thought that if anyone got to know me, really know me, they would see me for the fraud I am.”

At that moment, hearing another woman speak the words I had so often furtively whispered to myself, I realized how alone I had truly felt, a stranger even to myself.

I was flooded with relief to have found my tribe.

This memory sprang back to life during the Passover Seder a few nights ago, as I reread a slip of paper I had tucked into my Haggadah – the text that tells the story of the Freeing of the Israelites from slavery.

God may have reached into history with “His long arm and outstretched hand” to free our bodies from forced labor. But our Exodus from Egypt is ultimately about getting the Egypt out of us: freeing ourselves from our sense of estrangement from one another and from God or Reality. 

It is  up to us to free ourselves of misunderstandings and beliefs that destroy the promise of intimacy.

My scribbled note lists three kinds of estrangement:

feeling ostracized in one’s environment

feeling displaced among one’s friends

feeling estranged from one’s own soul

That sharp memory of finding my tribe? Encoded within it are remnants of every one of these themes of isolation and alienation. Sometimes they still ache, like a deep old scar. Occasionally they bleed freely and bright red, as I am wounded afresh.

But this tribe around our Seder table is full of good will, deep listening, intentions for the world to not destroy itself. And full of  the wisdom of having devoted themselves to the study and practice of bench science and glass art, history and philosophy, theology and nursing, Afghani tribal and US government versions of conflict and diplomacy, helping others re-write the stories of their lives and writing for herself as a necessity, the art of guiding traumatized children and families through the education system, and the new political science of identifying two outworn regulations that can be dispensed with for each new one proposed.

So much engagement with life, so many hearts hands and feet finding ways to offer welcome and solace to the ostracized, a refuge for the displaced, and soulful connection to the estranged.

So much engagement – with one another – that our guests lingered for the better part of an hour after we concluded the Seder at 12:10am, reveling in the freeing intimacy of the evening and the nourishment of hospitable and welcoming hearts.

Even as we struggle with how we may harbor one another,  relieve the desperate journeys and living conditions of those who are even now physical outcasts, we strengthen our capacities to be of true service as we heal our own personal estrangement.


Banner photo from The Passover Haggadah, illustrated by Raphael Abecassis