So you want to do your part to bend the arc towards justice? Then you’d better check you haven’t left some part of yourself out in the cold. You’re gonna want to bring your whole self with you.
A week ago I basked in the company of eleven women ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies. We met to talk about how to mobilize our yearning and practice to bend the arc towards justice. We shared our intentions.
We practiced letting in all the parts of ourselves who showed up.
We started there because we need every bit of our body, imagination and soul strength to bend the arc.
I want to share with you what I shared with them: a few words about inclusion from a nondual perspective. About its origins and power in what I call….
The Radical Oneness of existence, or the Universe, or Reality. Many spiritual traditions view the world in this way. You could call this Oneness God, the One who Holds (as in He’s got the whole world in His hands), The Buddha-Nature, Isness, The Great Kindness, The Garment of Destiny (as Martin Luther King did), the Quantum Field (if you are a physics nerd.) My own roots are in Kabbalah, the Jewish wisdom tradition. I am partial to the Hebrew name Makom, which means The Place.
This is a Oneness so great that it holds every distinction, separation, split, pair of opposites, conflict, suffering, goodness, and every known and unknown. This is a world that is One not because it is has not shattered, but because it includes every shattering and every shard and sliver.
We humans, on the other hand, split the world. It is our nature. Hard-wired. For our survival. We make distinctions: this/that, urban/rural, fashionable/out of style, essential/frivolous, normal, i.e. the norm/deviant. Then we go on to label them as “good” or “bad” and attempt to be/do/associate with the good-only. Or we inappropriately ride over, transcend, or erase differences, as in the view that we are a “post-racial” nation.
We do this splitting as we look out at the world. And we do this splitting as we look inward at ourselves. We tend to include the parts of ourselves that we like – that are up to our standards of behavior or performance or skill or kindness or morality. And to exclude other parts we don’t like.
For some of us, it’s the “good” parts we have trouble including, so we deny or minimize – that thing that I do, it’s not such a big deal. Or diminish ourselves in comparison to someone “better.” Or fall into the mantra, “not good enough, not good enough, not good enough.”
The inner critic manages to keep close track of these. So does the task-master. So does the one intent on personal or spiritual growth, who often teams up with the critic/taskmaster to
– wheedle, charm, or ring self-acceptance out of us
– turn us into an un-ending self-improvement project
– insist that we “let go of,” “purify” or “transcend” or “see it as illusion” or otherwise get rid of/kill off the the parts of ourselves we don’t like
– shame us, a category all its own
Living in this gap between our idealized and our real self is a high-maintenance and exhausting job, all the more-so when we aren’t awake to it.
Nondual practice – rooted in Radical Oneness, turns our attention towards forging a path of deep self-acceptance and dedication to staying at our working edge. We do our best to listen to the intelligence of our strengths and limitations, the parts of ourselves that we like, the parts we hate or despair of, the parts we deny or minimize.
The more we can do this, include each of these parts, come into relationship with them, give them a place, the more wisdom we have access to, and the less our limitations are obstacles in our path. The more we can do this, the more we can be intelligent companions to all kinds of people. We have less compulsion to turn our “opposites” into our “opposition.” The more we can do this, the more we are neither larger nor smaller than we actually are. (This has been one of my specialities, going back and forth between messianic aspirations and goals and helplessness.)
It also turns out that as we can do this, the more that connection and Oneness shine through the multiplicity. The fabric shimmers, even while wet with tears. The more palpable God’s presence becomes in our daily lives. This is the work of healing and awakening.
What does this have to do with bending the arc?
Pragmatically, materially speaking, we need all the wisdom we can access, and all the wholeness we can muster, to meet life.
From the standpoint of healing and awakening, we are each 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. That is what we are here for.
And we are not on our own in this work. Reality has our back.
JC has stopped me in my tracks with his question. We have been sharing our respective histories and current engagements with activism and social justice, and I am suddenly and unaccountably inarticulate.
Here I am a couple of hours later trying to understand why.
I met JC Faulk as a facilitator of conversation circle events several times over the summer months, and we had spoken before. Long enough to discover our shared admiration and debt to Edie and Charlie Seashore, who had trained both of us in group skills and diversity work, albeit a half generation apart from one another. An unexpected intersection, rich with a shared understanding of group process.
Red Emma’s, where we met over breakfast, sits at its own notable intersection. Charles Street runs north-south. It is typically described as “Baltimore’s Main Street,” “a historic cultural corridor,” ripe for development and redevelopment, and “a place where people want to live.” North Avenue, which crosses Charles Street just outside the door, runs east-west. It is “targeted for revitalization, improved safety, economic opportunity and access for residents.” This corridor gained notoriety for the Uprising that took place about two miles west of here in April 2015. These corridors can easily stand in for the city’s racial and economic fault lines. Red Emma’s sits at this intersection, drawing a mix of customers from both corridors, a stew rich with possibilities. A rarity in Baltimore.
I have just written myself to a new understanding. Now I see that I am pinned by his question at my own intersection:
Who I am and who I wish I was. Who I am and how I’d like to see myself: more skilled, more willing, more courageous, tougher and more empathic, grittier and more loving, ready to put not just my voice but my body on the line. The for-real Sara and the idealized Sara. The Sara who wants to make a difference in the world, be a difference in the world and thinks she has to be some other person to do this. The Sara who has just effectively devalued her life’s work.
And oh, my. The fact that I have crossed and recrossed this bridge with pretty much every single client I have worked with over the years does not save me from the same dilemma.
Now that I have named this problematic intersection, here’s my answer, JC:
I love to write. It helps me to see myself more clearly, to see myself whole. When I share my writing and hear back that it has helped some readers see themselves whole, I am nourished even more.
I love to explore life’s challenges with another person, to see the light come on in someone’s eyes. See a face soften, a body relax or straighten up as it needs to. A flash of understanding. The “oh,” or the silence that says: I really get that, I get that in a way that restores me to something essential in myself, I get that in a way that I can make a different choice, I get that in a way that I see you in a fresh way. I love to travel with someone as she takes root in herself, breaks through hard soil, and unfolds towards the sky.
I love to play a role in a community that shares a clear focus and intention for a common good. Every such group is an intersection of differences rich with possibilities.
I love to work with people who are ready to talk, and want practice. Help design welcoming and safe but not bland or superficial group meeting spaces. Where strangers can build lasting and resilient relationships over time, become allies and friends. Where we human beings can show up with our strengths and limitations. Grant one another dignity. Listen to and tell stories. Learn and teach. Be together in “we don’t know.” Shed tears and shake with laughter. Drop through anger and fear and open to heartbreak. Stand together. Grow, grow up, grow in self-responsibility. Build the generosity, willingness, fortitude, trust to have one another’s backs.
And by nourishing connection in these ways, draw down grace. Because when we humans come into relationship, especially when that relationship is big enough to hold our differences, the world does respond and signal.
There is a particular collision of calendars in my life right now, as every fall. The September new moon has once again brought the Jewish liturgical calendar into play and called me to an annual Accounting of the Soul. I proceed. I hold firmly to my intention to be who I am, plain, ordinary and unique.
And all the while I shift my rhythms in response to the pulls of other cyclical agendas. The mix of rhythms can be as enlivening as a good jam and as bewildering as the cacophony of an orchestra tuning up.
My body calendar has begun to register the shorter days. 7:15 and it’s already getting dark. Mornings can be a little sneezy and congested as ragweed pollination gets underway and leaf mold growth accelerates. The garden looks worn and dried out, and has revived only momentarily with yesterday’s downpour. Apples are hanging so heavily they pull the branches towards the ground, but they are not yet ripe enough for picking.
Then there’s the school calendar. As Labor Day approaches, olfactory memories turn my thoughts to the scent of a freshly opened green and yellow box of Crayolas. I have a commanding sense that playtime is over and it’s time for me to get down to serious work. So I revisit work plans made way back last spring, adjust them for what I can see now that I couldn’t see then, for what I can live now that I couldn’t live then.
The winds and storms of the election year calendar spread troubling waters across my landscape, and I respond by keeping my eye on a near horizon I have set: the hour the last polling place closes on November 8.
But the calendar at the forefront for me at this time of year is the Jewish liturgical one. The new moon signals the beginning of the month of Elul on September 4 and the High Holy Day season that will end at sundown on October 23.
The month of Elul invites me into an extended personal examination of conscience and behavior through the practice of Accounting of the Soul (Heshbon Hanefesh.) Experience has taught me that whatever preparation I undertake now will shape my journey through the whole season.
Overlook the opportunities for conscious change, aka awakening, and any efforts to move in those directions will be much harder during the rest of the year.
How can that be? Is there really a season for change?
The Jewish Sages teach that during this period “God is In the Field,” more accessible than at any other time of year. You can think of the Field as a place you’d choose to meet a friend for an intimate conversation that doesn’t require a latte or even a cup of tea – a Friend who holds a High Position – it can be tough to get together during most of the year. Or you can think of this as Rumi’s field “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing” – there is that much Kindness available to meet whatever honesty, self-responsibility, clarity about my limitations and gifts I can summon for this annual talk.
When Elul ends, God leaves the Field for the Throne of Judgment. I will be judged on Rosh Hashonah, the New Year. I am responsible for my actions, and for their consequences. But God’s judgment relieves me of the burden of self-judgment.And God’s judgment – which includes whether I will live or die, and if I am to die this year, by what means – will be sealed as night falls at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. You can think of the Throne of Judgment and the King who occupies it as a Reality that responds to our world by bending towards kindness – not leniency, but kindness.
I have often approached this Accounting by journaling my way through an assessment of relationships: to myself, my family members, friends, communities, God, work, creative pursuits. Where have I fallen down as a human being? What needs attention, repair, simplicity, yielding, persistence, forgiveness? Too often the assessment has not come off the paper into life.
Almost a year since the launch of A life of practice, a conscious choice to show up consistently and differently in the world, and I am approaching the Accounting with an intention to make room for the Other without surrendering myself.
I am surprised to find how this intention opens up space in my brain, slows my biochemical anxiety response and even clock time, and actually changes my rhythm and responses. My husband asks me a question, and I respond in a way he can take it in – neither too little nor too much nor the “wrong” information (all well-worn paths).
This is Accounting in action mode.
As I intend and attend to the moment, I return – again – to who I am.
Even as I shift my routine towards longer evenings, reach for the Crayolas, or check in with election news.
Perhaps you are the the one who holds the calendar for your whole family – birthdays, rehearsal dates, soccer matches, PTA meetings, travel dates.
Perhaps you are beholden to a medical calendar, filled with diagnostic tests, treatments, days and times meals will be delivered or transportation provided.
Perhaps you are devoted to the calendar of Mother Nature herself.
What calendar(s) govern your time in this season?
How do you hold to who you are?
P.S. As you reflect, let this sweet melody guide you: