Who you are? How do you know?

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

How do you answer the question, “Who are you?”

Your name is a label.  Your occupation is what you do for many hours a day.  Your cultural heritage or religious affiliation may describe your past, your customs, your dress and even your way of viewing the world.  But who are you?  What exactly is the “you” that the question is inquiring about?

Let’s take someone who wants to be a war hero.  A war hero is someone who acts heroically in battle.  But in order to be a hero, you need to have been on the battlefield in a situation requiring heroic action, and then taken that action.  If you are someone who has never seen action, then you aren’t actually a war hero.  If you have seen action, but never had the opportunity to behave heroically, then you’re not a war hero.  You may be a person with heroic potential, but you haven’t embodied it (yet).

Likewise, Michael Jordan was one of the greatest athletes to play the game of basketball.  If he had never set foot on the court, he would have remained a person with amazing athletic potential, but would not have actually become one of the greatest basketball players of all time in actuality.

If you want to be someone who “turns the other cheek”, then you need to have been in a situation where someone actually strikes your cheek.  Then you can choose to turn and present them your other cheek. Unless you actually have that opportunity and take that action, you remain simply someone with turn-the-other-cheek potential.

On some existential level, I suggest that the “you” we ask about with “Who are you?” is the combination of the soul that has the desire to act in certain ways in this life, and the actual life experiences that comprise the choices we have actually made.

Seen from this vantage point, if I am a soul that aspires to embody the “turn the other cheek” trait, then when someone approaches and slaps my cheek, I might actually, on some level, be grateful for the opportunity to embody my true nature by turning the other cheek.   I might embrace the cheek slap as the necessary vehicle for me to embody my true nature. Because without that slap, I could not have actually turned the other cheek; without that slap, I would never have become a person who turns the other cheek.  I would always have remained someone with turn-the-other-cheek potential.

Rabbi Akiva was a famous sage who was burned alive with a Torah scroll.  The Romans wrapped him in wet wool to prolong his suffering.  He apparently sang out in joyful prayer as his skin seared. His students asked, “Even now (you can sing God’s praises)?”  He answered, “All my life I wondered if I could sanctify God’s Name (by giving my life) if I was asked to.  And now I know that I can!”

To get more personal… I’ve lived through some hard experiences as a child.  Over my life, I’ve had different reactions to the events themselves and the subsequent difficulties arising from them.

In the early days, I pushed them as far away from my mind as possible, so that I could function in the world.

Later, I revisited them for healing, and gave voice to the anger and bitterness against the people responsible for them.  And at times I felt sorry for myself for having suffered so much in my early years.

When I started a meditation/Zen practice, I looked at the roots of the suffering and found compassion for both the perpetrators and myself.  Over time I saw that some of the character traits I treasure in myself arose in large measure because of those hardships. So I was able to have a measure of gratitude that I had endured such difficulties.

When I became more religious, I was inspired to actually thank God for the opportunity of living this life.  I know that some people get angry with God and wonder why they have had to suffer; others assume their pain has been a punishment for some kind of sin (in this life or a previous one).  But I had a vision that convinced me that I had chosen this initial life trajectory and had been given the strength to make it through.  There was no unfairness, no punishment, nothing to complain about.  I had chosen it willingly.  And I thanked God for that opportunity.

But throughout, there was an assumption that the events themselves were things that had happened to me.  Shaped me in good ways, perhaps, helped forge my character and so on, but in essence something from “out there” in the world that had sharply intruded into my personal development.

Many nights ago, I was in a structured session designed to allow difficult feelings to arise. Some of the old familiar pain arose.  The fear, the sense of futility, the grey numbness, the self-blame, and the intense need to run away from any kind of thought or feeling.  And as I stayed with those emotions and let them play out in my consciousness, an interesting thing happened.

I saw the old painful events as essential.

In that moment of reliving and healing from old wounds, in the moment of appreciating how central that pain was in allowing me to embody the deep nature of who I am, I actually spread my arms to embrace the suffering. In order to be the guy who could live through those ordeals and (to some measure) come out the other side a reasonably decent person, I had to actual experience the suffering. Otherwise, I would have just been a guy with live-through-it-and-thrive potential. To actually become the person my soul needs to embody, I had to go through those painful experiences.

And in the moment, in actually spreading my arms to receive the old pain, I had a different understanding of the Christian image of Jesus on the cross.  Leaving aside theological questions of who Jesus was or is, I was able to see the crucifixion as an opportunity for Jesus to embody a deep love that included his persecutors and his betrayers.  A love so large that it needed such a situation to be expressed.  Without it, Jesus would have a been a teacher with the potential for showing such a vast love, but not someone who actually had shown that love. I remembered hearing that Jesus reportedly felt abandoned by his Heavenly Father at that moment, and it suddenly made sense to me. Feeling that spiritual abandonment in addition to all the worldly pain was necessary to show the great love that Jesus was embodying at his most difficult moment. For the demonstration of his love to be what it needed to be, the circumstances had to be as harsh as possible.

I recognize that hearing this point of view, and how it arose in my experience may do nothing to help someone else who has anger, resentment and lingering effects of trauma or abuse.  And my apologies if something I’ve written here is painful to read. But it was quite a moment for me, and I wanted to share it.

Since I’m writing on a sensitive subject, let me respond to a few potential misunderstandings or reactions to what I’ve written so far:

  • In our adult lives, I don’t think our soul’s ideal is to passively endure abusive behavior, but rather to take firm and appropriate action to end it.
  • Nothing here should be read as justifying abusive actions on the part of others
  • Some may see in this perspective a “story that I tell myself” to feel better about what has happened to me; a “feel-good” panacea that helps me avoid seeing the world as a dangerous or unfair place.  Perhaps I am just fooling myself by trying to see meaning where none exists. That’s certainly a legitimate viewpoint, and one I can hardly disprove. But (of course) it’s not where I live. Still, I think it’s natural to have thoughts like that (I do myself occasionally!), and I thought I’d acknowledge that, in case it’s helpful.

As I see it, when we encounter difficulty, when we are disappointed or frustrated, betrayed or teetering on despair, we have a unique opportunity to become in actuality the person that, up until then, we only had the potential to become.  The difficulty we encounter may be a gift for us to embody our soul’s ideal.

And even if we don’t succeed in manifesting our ideal, we still have the opportunity to become the person who has done our best.  And that is no small thing.

For me, part of my soul mission is being a person who never gives up. So even an opportunity where I feel like I failed to be my authentic self in some other fashion is still an opportunity for me to be true to my soul — by being the man who doesn’t give up in the face of discouraging outcomes.

So while I don’t always find that accepting, gracious response in the moment, I do know it’s available in general.

And when I do welcome the experience in the moment, it’s an especially sweet embrace.

May you find it in your heart to embrace the life you have lived thus far, to be thankful for all the events and opportunities therein, and to find joy in the person that you have expressed yourself to be in the past (even with all your imperfections).

May you be well-pleased with your future choices which express the beautiful nature of your soul in this world, especially when the circumstances are challenging.

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Eating My Lima Beans

ב”ה    الحمد لله

I hate lima beans.  Always have.

I remember in third grade, sitting at the dinner table long after the others had left, staring at the seven lima beans my mother insisted I had to eat before I was excused.  Finally I consumed them, in the most painful manner.  I would ladle one enemy bean onto my fork with my right hand and clutch my water glass in my left.  I moved my tongue to one side.  Then I lowered the lima bean down just inside the base of my teeth, holding my breath so as not to taste it and washed it quickly down with a large mouthful of water.  Like a bitter pill.  One down, six to go.

It didn’t help to be told me they were “good for me”.

It didn’t help to told that people were starving in Ethiopa.  Send them these lima beans; they would enjoy eating them, and then I wouldn’t have to.

My life experience didn’t include the kind of insistent, throbbing hunger that would make me grateful for any kind of food, of whatever taste.  (Thank God I was never so deprived.)

Not only did I not appreciate the blessing of having enough food to eat, I also didn’t appreciate the blessing that someone cared enough about me to force me to eat healthy food.  As an adult, I’ve been with families where the kids fend for themselves and the adults have no interest in what they’re eating.  It’s a blessing to have a parent that –whatever other faults they may have, large or small–  makes you eat something good for you, even when you don’t want to.

But in that lonely dinner chair, all I knew was that my mother, who was supposed to love me, was subjecting me to cruel and unusual punishment.

And I’ve been reflecting on that the past few days, because recently God has been making me eat some adult lima beans.

Today’s lima beans are the bitter experience of reliving some old and painful experiences from childhood.  Intense feelings and memories that need healing.  Most unpleasant.  Oh, I always feels better afterwards, but the sensations themselves are awful to go through, and I throw my little internal tantrums wondering if I’ll ever be “done” with these adult lima beans, and why I have to go through all this, and will it never end.

Just like I did when I was a kid staying late at the dinner table.

Of course, as an adult I know a little bit more about life and how things work.  These days I know that there is One behind these experiences Who loves me infinitely, knows what’s best for me, and would never let me suffer any more than is exactly necessary for my growth and spiritual well-being.

These days I appreciate the cathartic power of these unpleasant adult lima beans, and feel myself growing healthier and stronger as I eat more of them.

And that makes things much more bearable.

But I still get grumpy.

And I still hate lima beans.  Both kinds.

But now, when I’ve cleared my plate for the evening, I can sincerely thank my Heavenly Father for setting them before me and making me eat them.

It’s Part of the Game

ב”ה    الحمد لله

After I returned home from volleyball, my friend shared how things are going.  He was feeling discouraged at making the same mistakes, failing recurring spiritual tests; how long will it take him to make the changes he needs to, and would he ever succeed?

So I was inspired to tell him the story of what had just happened at the volleyball game.  It’s an open pick-up game, and I was on a team with a skilled player I had seen before, and a young woman I took to be his girlfriend, who had less mastery over the game.

After the first game, she confessed apologetically that she was had just started learning and was taking classes, and I gave her the feedback that she was doing quite well; I wouldn’t have guessed she was new to the game.

Two games later, our team was sitting out, and as I walked past her, I overheard her listing out to her boyfriend the various errors she had made that had cost the team points.  It sounded like she wasn’t sure she should keep playing.  I was inspired to stop and interject.

“No matter how good you get at this game, no matter what level of mastery you attain, you will always have this same feeling when you make a mistake: that you let the team down, that you should have done better, that someone else would have succeeded in your place.  Don’t succumb to the urge to quit.  Those feelings are part of the game.  Whatever level you play at, whatever game it is, we all make mistakes.  And we all feel bad about them.  So try to make peace with it, try to embrace the learning, because it’s a package deal.  The success and the mistakes.”

And my friend took some heart from that message, thank God.  And it’s true, gentle Reader, that we all make mistakes.  And in those moments after our ungraceful acts, when we have some regret or remorse or self-blame, it’s an opportunity for the darker energies to amplify those feelings in an effort to convince us to quit.  “Give it up,” the internal message reads, “you’ll never master this; who are you kidding?”

The actual “mistake” we made is usually not of that much consequence in the larger scheme of things, but the self-recrimination can really sideline us, take us out of the game, God forbid.

So I hope the next time, when the critical inner voice gets started, you listen for just the microsecond needed to commit to improving yourself, and then turn down the sound.  Because getting discouraged or demoralized won’t help anyone, least of all yourself.

We need everyone playing the best they can in this game of life, and that includes you and me.

On Not Trying

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

Today I watched Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday and was introduced to Father Richard Rohr (http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Oprah-and-Author-Richard-Rohr-Video).  It’s the first time I can remember where I’ve said, “I want to be like that guy!”  Quite inspiring.

My biggest takeaway, however, was a sense that I might be able to get comfortable with not trying.  I might be able to finally let go of my sense of trying to accomplish something important in this life.

As far back as I can remember, I have felt a burden (or a sense of destiny) that I was to do something significant in the world, to make the world a better place.  Not just by living a moral life, but by participating in the larger public life in some important way.  For the better part of my younger years, I attributed this to compensatory grandiosity — children who are neglected or emotionally abused receive the message that they’re not important, and they often feel driven to accomplish something big when they grow up.

In more recent years I have felt like perhaps I actually have a calling, that my desire to have an impact might be part of a larger plan.  But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that regardless of the origin of the feeling, and independent of whether in fact I am called to something, I need to let go of this notion of “having to accomplish something important”.  It gets in the way of living in the moment, and it undermines whatever chance I have at a modicum of humility.

So I’ve understood that I need to stop trying so hard to create an “important” life.  But I haven’t known how to do that letting go.

And today I got some inkling of how it might look to just be comfortable doing whatever the current situation calls for.  Not looking for how it might lead to something else, not trying to figure out God’s Plan.  Just rising to the very small occasion of the present moment and taking the best action I can.  Making the phone call, writing the email, doing the errand, washing the dishes.

And resting comfortably in the knowledge that if The Master of the Universe wants me to do something that I might call “bigger”, then, at some point in time, the arising situation will call for action of a kind that will accomplish His Purpose.

Just being is enough.  Just being here, now, and embracing my life as it unfolds in the space right around me.  That’s enough.

Easy to understand, perhaps, but I think that’s been the hardest thing for me to feel in my gut.  And somehow today, it’s gotten easier after seeing Father Rohr, a man of God who embodied that kind of trust.  So thank you Oprah Winfrey, and thank you Father Rohr, and, mostly, thank you, God, for sending this show my way.

So what does it look like?  From the outside, probably not much different.  I continue to work on clearing the old childhood experiences.  I continue to deepen my relationship with my bride and her son.  I continue to rest into California, my new job, my new and old relationships with people nearby.  (And I hope soon to include some volunteer work in the mix.)

But today I am newly inspired to be content with that, to simply do that to the best of my ability.  Not to try and make my life “important”.

It’s already as important as it’s going to get.  Because The Master has decided I should be here.

And, gentle Reader, the same is true of you.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

ב”ה     الحمد لله

I’ve been busy lately.  Both with working at my new job, and with healing from old trauma.  The work of the job involves sitting at the computer coding, debugging and testing Java/Groovy/JavaScript code.  The healing from trauma involves looking into the loving eyes of my big-hearted wife and allowing old pain to surface.  It’s the latter that’s more challenging for me, requiring as it does copious tears and even more trust.  But it’s coming along, thank G-d.

Last night I was reliving some moments that had arisen; apparently as an infant, my head had been banged against the wall (in an effort to silence my crying).  As I write that, I experience a certain amount of disbelief (perhaps on your behalf?).  How could I remember that; can I be sure it really happened; is some part of my subconscious just making this up?  But then, as I ask those challenging questions, another part of me is quietly confident that indeed, these events, and the tears that come from remembering them, are real and abiding.

And last night, as I trembled with the old fear and with the infant’s lack of certainty whether I would make it through, an odd question arose.  “Should I stay or should I go?”  It felt like somehow, in that moment of yester-year, my soul had asked whether I should leave this world.  I found myself struck by the enormity of that question.

And it occurred to me that perhaps it was a question worth sharing with you.  Because each of us, in every moment, is ultimately confronting that same question, “should I stay or should I go?”  Apart from the vagaries of our mood, our emotions, our daily successes and failures, are we really wanting to continue to be here?  And if so, for what purpose?

I am convinced that each of us is here for a unique purpose, that we each have a special contribution to make to this world.  Are we up to the task of embracing that purpose?  Not in every moment, and not without regularly pausing for rest (and certainly not without setbacks), but in the larger scheme of things, the question lingers: “Should I stay?”

I don’t think it’s an easy question.  Because we would like some awareness of what our purpose here is before we evaluate whether the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are worth opposing for that purpose.  Some of us have a clear sense of life purpose.  Some of us have fleeting glimpses.  And some of us struggle for any semblance of meaning.  But I think even without rational understanding, it’s possible to have an intuitive awareness that there is a larger purpose and context to our being here.  And it’s possible to trust that there is intention to our lives.

Perhaps that intuitive sense is enough to keep us going through difficult times.

I hope so.  For me, I apparently answered the question many years ago with “l’ll stay”.  There were times in high school where the only reason I stayed was because leaving would have meant they had won; that the abusers had vanquished me.  Today I have reasons that involve my children and my wife, my extended family, my friends and my colleagues.  But mostly, I have this sense that I’m not done here yet.  That there is work for me to do, work that I can only do after healing from these old wounds.  Contributions that I want to make, whatever they turn out to be.

So tonight it’s back to the loving arms of my wife to cry and heal, and tomorrow it’s back to the computer desk to code and debug.

And after that, who knows?

But even without knowing, I’m happy for the path and grateful for the adventure.  Even when it hurts.  I’m staying.

Right Foot, Left Foot.

ב”ה     الحمد لله

There’s a pattern I see in the world of spiritual exploration.  There are a lot of books and videos and talks about people who have been through a lot.  Often the story of how they found there way back out of the pit (or dark night) is inspiring, uplifting and encouraging.  We may read their book in the hopes of learning their secret[s] and increasing our joy or our gratitude, our sense of abundance or our connection to The One.

But I don’t find as many people (outside blogs) talking about their struggles right now.

I used to think that if someone struggled with, say, depression, then they clearly had not worked out their issues, or certainly had not achieved some great spiritual height.  If they had done so, then I thought their struggle would be a thing of the past.  Even when I heard that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrestled with depression I thought it showed that he wasn’t as great as I had once thought.

But greatness isn’t about the end of struggle.  Greatness is about finding increasing grace around our struggles.  Not being graceful.  Just increasing.  At least, that’s my thought today.  And we can learn something from folks who have been, and continue to be, in the forefront of these difficulties.

Today I am in a place of great struggle.  Difficult, powerful feelings from very old days of trauma seem to be surfacing.  No content.  No “video at 11”, as I like to say.  Just ennervating, debilitating sadness, fear, futility.  To be clear, I should say that this is not to the extent that anyone needs to be concerned for my well-being; there are people suffering from things like this who are overwhelmed and shut down.  Thank G-d I am in a place to be able to weather the storm.

And that’s what I’m doing.  I put one foot in front of the other.  Or I just stand.  Or just sit.  I lay in bed and read Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy (which I highly recommend).  Or I veg out playing silly computer games.

Or I come here to post.

My purpose in doing so is to maintain a certain honesty about the proceedings here.  I’m not always balanced, thoughtful, insightful and mystical.  Some days (thank G-d not so often!) I’m just making do.  Getting by.  Letting the waves of unpleasant experience wash over me.

And I do trust that this is part of a healing process.

I am in a deeply loving relationship, and I believe that to the extent that our intimate relationship is available as a healthy vessel for healing, any (and all) unhealed experiences present themselves for transformation and healing.  As we are ready and as the relationship is ready.

So I honestly take this as a very good commentary on my new marriage (and my new marriage partner, ie my wife!).

And I look forward to working with these feelings within the context of the relationship.

However, at this moment I’m heading back to the mindless bubble game, as futility and nihilism make their presence felt yet again.

But before signing off, let me wish everyone a most lovely Christmas (if you celebrate), a happy new year (if you follow the Gregorian calendar in that way), and a most glorious morning tomorrow morning, as The Master of the Universe brings the sun out to shine down on us once again.

As Scarlet O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Let’s make the most of it that we can.

We’re All in This Together

ב”ה     الحمد لله

It’s a lovely time of year.  We’re in the middle of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights commemorating religious freedom and miracles in olden times.  And of course many folks are experiencing the spirit of Christmas.  And some celebrate Kwanza, or Winter Solstice or what have you.  It feels like the time of year when we all, in our own ways, try to open our hearts to our fellows and celebrate our common humanity.  Which is a lovely thing to do.

It’s a contrast from the rest of the year.  In our everyday mentally we often walk around seeing everyone as distinct and separate.  We may try to see a G-dly light emanating from their soul, but our picture of the world is usually like this:

menorah_top

Everyone doing their their best to shine forth their light.  On a good day, we can give each other the benefit of the doubt and see that we’re all created in the image of G-d.

But for me, the miraculous beauty of this time of year is that we have an opportunity, when so many of us are opening our hearts, of seeing that we’re all in this together.  We all breathe the same air, we live on the same planet, what we do affects each other in ways large and small, seen and unseen.  And we all struggle with the daily choices we have, wherein we try to be the best person we can, we try to make the choices that we’ll look back on later and smile at a moment well lived, well done.  And sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we wish we had a “do over”.  But it’s the same for all of us, here on this earth, and our choices affect each other every day, from whether we hug our children to whether we smile at the passersby; whether we let someone into the lane ahead of us, or whether we visit the sick, aid the poor, comfort the distressed.

Because we’re all connected, we’re all in this together.

The reality of our situation, when we have the eyes of wisdom to see it, is really more like:

menorah

May we find it within our hearts to love our neighbor as our self during this holiday season.

And may G-d bless you, every one.