Stand by the door: bless a year of taking stuff apart

What does it mean to bless? my friend Howard asked Reb Zalman. By way of response, Zalman posted Howard by the door to the retreat space as we returned from lunch, with no more directive than that.

 

It is in this spirit that I stand by the door of the year and consider the personal and public events of 2017, marked by disruption, interruption, dismantling.

On the personal side, I initiated significant disruption: after 35 years in our house, a project to re-do our sad-looking wood floors and repaint much of the first floor of our home. The domino effect, which I intended but couldn’t exactly plan, meant moving a lot of stuff around, getting into corners of accumulation, runs for empty beer and liquor boxes, hours of sorting and letting go. The physical and psychological labor was intense over a four-month period. A blockbuster approach to nostalgia, values clarification, and the great American dilemma of too-much-stuff. The process had its disruptive effects on my relationship with virtually every part of my identity, my family and my professional life. What does it all come down to? What, indeed. The outer rearrangements and lightening-up are settling in, the inner rearrangements and lightening up, still a work in progress.

 

But if a life of practice is about anything, it is about being a disruptor of habit and denial. And that commonly comes wrapped in discomfort.

There is more work to follow to get our house in order, going beyond nostalgia into territory such as: how long shall we assume we are going to live? how well-prepared are we financially? How well-prepared to assume care-taking roles for one another? what legacies are important to us, may someday help our children and grand-kids?

On the public side, I am horrified and terrified to live under an elected leader who governs by chaos and divisiveness and who cannot distinguish allies from enemies. Nostalgia makes for poor public and foreign policy. Values clarification? Many of us have caught fire with a new sense of urgency, commitment, skill and solidarity. We are paying attention. Our nation too has its ugly accumulation of dirt that now sees the light of day. Thousands of us are engaged daily to disrupt denial: the forces of habit of power-holders are formidable – whether in government, or in the home.

 

What does it even mean to be willing to bless such events?

May we each stand at the door of the year to bless as we can, looking first back, then ahead:

  • to look life straight in the eyes, to see who/what is before you and what is needed
  • to hold a profound intention for goodness
  • to take personal responsibility for guarding the threshold of the year
  • to join our volition with the volition of the universe that has our back

 

May we offer one another honesty suffused with kindness.

May we offer one another refuge from the wild elements within and without.

And please, share your blessings for the

outgoing and incoming years

 in the comments section.

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.

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.”