On taking action and turning inward

Last night I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed, and saw tweets from the president and from his lawyer blaming George Soros for ostensibly paying people to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The tweets suggested that Soros is evil and should be jailed. (I'm not going to link to them; I don't want to give them the attention.)

The claim that Soros pays protestors is ugly falsehood and it has its roots in one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about global Jewish conspiracy. I expect that all of you who are reading this blog already know that. I don't need to preach to this choir on that front. 

But maybe you, like me, are having a panic response to news like this. Intellectually I know that I am safe, that my child is safe, that most of the people I love are safe. But like most Jews of my generation, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. And when ugly anti-Semitic rhetoric is parroted by the president and by his lawyer, I feel a paralyzing fear in my kishkes, in my gut and in my heart.

I suspect that many of us are feeling that fear. The casual dehumanizing of Jews and Muslims and immigrants and people of color and women that we see in the news and splashed across social media is horrifying. And many Jews carry the accumulated baggage of generations of trauma, including the horrors of the Holocaust, and seeing this stuff in the news and on social media can activate that trauma in us. That's why I'm writing this post. I have four suggestions to offer for how to navigate these difficult times. If you have others, please share them in comments.

1. Take care of yourselves and each other

Take care of yourselves, friends, and take care of each other. Give yourself permission to turn away from social media when you need to, because marinating in a constant bath of outrage and anxiety can do harm. If Twitter and Facebook are raising your anxiety and stoking your fear, it's okay to stop reading them for a while. 

If you have the capacity to reach out to others to see how they're doing, do that -- doing so can help both the person who's reaching out, and the person receiving the outreach. (For more wisdom along these lines, here's an excellent piece by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on self-care tips for those angered and activated at this moment in time.)

2. Reach out to someone who can help

If you have a therapist or spiritual director, bring the anxiety and fear to them. (If you don't, now might be a good time to find one.) Don't sit with the fear alone -- it's all too easy for fear to consume us when we grapple with it alone. Tell a friend or family member. If you have no one at all to whom you can speak about what you're going through, reach out to the crisis text line.

3. Speak out, when you can - especially when you yourself are not a target

Many of us are oscillating between times when we have the capacity to speak out against injustice, and times when we are activated / hurt / grieving and need others to speak out on our behalf. That night when I was activated by antisemitism, I found comfort in tweets from people who are not Jewish and yet were willing to stand up and say clearly that antisemitism is wrong and they won't stand for it. Like these:

Seeing their tweets (and others like them) brought me to tears of gratitude that someone who is not directly harmed by this particular wave of ugliness was willing to stand with us against it. And that reminds me that I need to be an upstander and do the same when ugliness is directed toward groups of which I am not a part, whether Muslims or immigrants or people of color.

4. Take action when you can - and turn inward when you need to

Sometimes taking action to build a better world can be balm for our aching hearts. We can donate to a candidate who inspires us or to a nonprofit that does work we find redemptive, or write an op-ed, or be a good ally and upstander on social media, or take groceries to a food pantry. And sometimes we're too activated by the news cycle even to do those things, and need to focus instead on regaining equilibrium. Each of us will know best when we're up to taking action, and when we need to focus inward and heal.

*

The work of repairing our badly broken nation is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Or, to borrow a metaphor from Rabbi Danya, it's a relay race -- where we take turns handing off the baton to each other, so that when any one of us is unable to keep going, the work of moving forward continues. When we have the strength to keep going, it's incumbent on us to do so... and when we need to stop and rest and heal, may we find comfort in knowing that others are carrying the flame of justice and hope forward in our stead. 

 


Family bikkur cholim

Am_pm_pill_organizerThe mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is said to have originated with the Holy One of Blessing. When God visits Avraham by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, that's understood to mean not just the literal heat of afternoon but the internal heat of fever. God visits Avraham as Avraham is recovering from his circumcision. In visiting the sick, we emulate God.

Another teaching, this one from the Gemara, holds that the Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence -- hovers over the head of the sickbed like a mother bird protecting her young. God's Presence is with those who are ill, whether they are aware of it or not. When we visit those who are sick, we enter into the divine Presence. The sickbed is a sacred space.

When we visit those who are ill, it's not our job to offer explanations for why we think they are sick, or tell them why their illness isn't so bad, or tell them how to feel about however they are. It is our job to be present, be kind, be ready to listen. To hold space for whatever they want or need to say. To take their cues about what they want to discuss. To let them rest when they need to.

And... all of these responsibilities may become more difficult if the person one is visiting is part of one's family. We all have roles that we play in our family systems: caregiver, rescuer, mediator, truth-teller, clown, the one who cheers people up, the one who picks fights, the one who makes peace. When someone is ill, those roles and their familiarity may lock old patterns in place.

Part of the work of bikkur cholim with one's own family is cultivating compassion for oneself amid the inevitability of sliding into those old roles. If you are visiting a family member who is ill, cultivate kindness both toward the person you are visiting, and toward your own neshamah (your own soul) as you do the visiting. You too are likely to need some gentleness and care.

For anyone who's doing the work of bikkur cholim, it's important to seek out a trusted friend, or rabbi, or spiritual director with whom you can process whatever comes up for you. Don't burden the person who is sick with responsibility for your reaction to their illness. Emotional reactions are normal! Don't be afraid to lean on your own support network before and after you visit.

It is natural to want to "fix" things -- especially if the person you are visiting is a member of your family. And... making things better is not your job. No matter what. The best gift you can offer is your presence, and your attentiveness to their needs. And you can best tend to the one who is sick if you're attentive also to your own needs for solitude and downtime and care.

 

Related:

Praying for what's possible, 2014


Pastoral care in tight places

Cf62b1ee-de67-4cd2-8d7e-333a273d112fRecently  I got an email from a dear friend who teaches at Knox College, asking, "Is there any chance you can come to Knox in the next few weeks?"

The Jewish community at Knox has been navigating some tough stuff around racism and antisemitism. (I don't want to give that stuff energy by linking to it; if you're interested, Google will enlighten you.) And there's no Jewish chaplain or campus rabbi to offer pastoral and spiritual support as the Jewish community navigates these tight places. 

So I'm going to Knox for a few days. While I'm there I'll join the chair of the religion department for a few of his classes, and I'll give a poetry reading. But the primary purpose of my visit is to offer care to the campus Jewish community. I'll hold "office hours" for anyone who wants to talk, and I'll offer a Jewish contemplative practice opportunity that will be open to all. 

My visit to Knox is pastoral. I'm not coming as an expert in antisemitism or racism. (The College is looking into having an actual expert in those areas come to campus in the fall -- hopefully a Jew of color.) I'm coming to be a chaplain, a "non-anxious presence." I hope my visit will offer some comfort to Jewish students/faculty/staff. Those who are in tight places need care. 

What's unfolding at Knox is part of a much larger phenomenon. People and organizations and institutions are beginning to grapple with the far-reaching effects of both racism and antisemitism and how different forms of oppression can mirror, intersect, and collide with each other. There's an opportunity for tremendous learning here -- and also a need for inner work to prepare the soil so that the seeds of that learning can bear fruit.

Many Jews with white skin don't think much about how our skin benefits us and how we partake in white privilege by virtue of our skin. And we may also be unconscious of how horrendous and pernicious are the impacts of racism in this country. America still hasn't reckoned with our legacy of chattel slavery or how that legacy persists in structural racism of all kinds, including police violence against people of color, mass incarceration of people of color, and widespread prejudice against people of color.

Many people who are not Jewish don't think much about the legacy of centuries of antisemitism: from ancient hatreds that led to exile, to Church teachings about deicide, to pogroms and mass slaughter (from Lisbon to Kishinev), to the Holocaust: the 20th-century Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And they may also be unconscious of how even light-skinned Jews fear the antisemitism that's built into white supremacist worldviews, and of the trauma we carry as Jews.

(I spoke about these issues at length in my Rosh Hashanah sermon last year: After Charlottesville.)

And, not all Jews have white skin. It's easy to frame the tensions at Knox, or the recent tensions around whether or not the ADL should participate in Starbucks' anti-bias training, in terms of the colliding worldviews of Jews and people of color -- but that framing erases altogether the presence of Jews of color. And... I don't want to make Jews of color responsible for educating the rest of us -- for sensitizing their Jewish community to racism, or sensitizing their community of color to antisemitism. 

We all need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, even when (especially when) that learning is uncomfortable. There's so much that we all need to learn about each other... and when we're feeling attacked or traumatized or activated by an incident of hatred or bias, it's incredibly difficult to do that learning. When we're feeling attacked, emotionally and spiritually we shut down. It's a valuable defense mechanism. We need to honor that and give it appropriate time before we can move beyond it.

As I prepare for my visit, I'm working on the practice of cultivating compassion for everyone who feels afraid and marginalized and attacked in the current American political climate as incidents of hatred continue to mount. I'm reminded of the teaching that no one gets to tell a member of another group whether or not they're experiencing oppression: we need to listen to each other and honor each others' experience. I'm thinking about how rarely we give ourselves space to pray, reflect, and heal.

I'm thinking about how important it is that our communities come together to work against hatred, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds. I'm thinking about the work we can do together when we find the places where our yearnings and politics align -- without demanding complete mutual understanding or ideological perfection, because if we demand complete understanding from our allies before we can begin to work together, we'll never get to the kind of justice that the world so desperately needs.

And I'm thinking about the need to replenish ourselves as we work toward that more just world. Sometimes in order to have the strength to have the difficult conversations about how someone else's unconscious "stuff" hurts us, we need to turn inward first. We need to notice, and balm, our own aching places before we can build bridges or coalitions with others -- especially when our interactions with those others have re-activated those aches. We need to be kind to ourselves as we process and heal. 

May I be an instrument of balm and comfort for those in need.


Replenish

Series.replenishLife is full of obligations. Work, school, caring for children, caring for parents, deadlines, due dates, doctor's visits, the carpool, the groceries, the laundry, the bills. Then there's the news, which contains reasons for anxiety and spurs to action: postcards, petitions, protests, campaigns. Then there's the rabbit-hole of looking deeper into one's media choices: am I reading a sufficiently broad cross-section of sources, am I engaging with diverse viewpoints, am I putting my attention in the right places? If I'm an activist on this front, am I ignoring that issue? And meanwhile did I forget to pick up the dry-cleaning, and when will I unload the dishwasher, and is there milk for breakfast tomorrow morning, and, and, and...

Each of us could list a litany of stressors and obligations. (And for some of us making the list is comforting, offering a sense of "control" over the to-do's -- while for others the fact of the list itself can be anxiety-provoking, fuel for an emotional tailspin.)

But what would go on your counter-list, the list of things that replenish you rather than draining you?

Maybe it's curling up with a cup of tea or coffee, not as fuel for your daily work but as an opportunity to pause and savor. Maybe it's cuddling with a pet or a loved one. Maybe it's treating yourself to a good novel or piece of fiction. Maybe it's studying Torah or Hasidut or Mussar. Maybe it's reading poetry. (Maybe it's writing poetry.) Maybe it's a hot bath, or a visit to the gym, or a walk outdoors. Maybe it's yoga or meditation. Maybe it's prayer. Maybe it's wrapping yourself in tallit and tefillin. Maybe it's listening to music, or singing, or playing an instrument. Maybe it's lunch with a friend. Maybe it's Shabbes -- which could mean lighting candles and blessing bread and wine, or being with friends or family or community, or going to shul, or staying home; it could mean relinquishing technology for a day, or changing your technology use so that it nourishes rather than depleting.

For me one of the perennial challenges in replenishing myself is giving myself permission to focus there in the first place. There's so much that needs doing: on a personal level (work, dishes, parenting), on a community level (am I doing enough to give back?), on a national level (I'm not satisfied with the current American body politic), on a global level (am I doing enough to work against climate change, or toward greater interfaith understanding?) The work that needs to be done is endless.

And that endlesssness is precisely why and how I give myself permission to replenish my own well. The work is without limit: it will never be done. If I try to throw myself at it without stopping, I'll burn out and that will be the end of my capacity to make things better than they are. If I can pause to replenish, then I can return to the neverending tasks at hand with renewed vigor. 

There are things that replenish me in body, in heart, in mind, in spirit (all four worlds.) Some of them change with the seasons, though many are perennial. Over time I've learned what refills my well, and I've learned techniques for short-circuiting the self-critical voice that sometimes nags "why are you taking care of yourself when there's so much else to do?" I've learned that my body is nourished by good food and hot showers and clean laundry, and my heart is nourished by time with my beloveds, and my mind is nourished by reading and study, and my spirit is nourished by tallit and tefillin and song.

What replenishes you, and what are you doing to take care of yourself so you can wake with strength to another day?

 


A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed. 

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation. 

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now. 

So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


New in the Forward: Squaring The Freedom Of Passover With The Struggles Of Life

Struggle-of-pesach-1522266251We talk a lot about freedom at this time of year. Freedom from bondage. Freedom from our narrow places. Freedom from constriction. But what do we do with this talk of freedom if we ourselves feel stuck, if liberation seems impossible? What are the psycho-spiritual implications of that narrow place, the one that feels existential rather than circumstantial? What if we’re stuck with something: a diagnosis that isn’t curable, or financial ruin, or a sick loved one, or a grief that we know will persist?...

That's from my latest piece for the Forward

Read the whole thing here: Squaring the Freedom of Passover With The Struggles of Life.


How to thrive in this broken world

We live in a world of trauma and tragedy and outrage and constant micro-aggressions. In recent weeks we've seen hurricanes bring unthinkable devastation. The massacre in Las Vegas is heartbreaking. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a rise in misogyny both overt and systemic over the last nine months. Many of us live in fear of violence against women. There's been a documented rise in antisemitism over that same time period. (David Duke just blamed the Las Vegas killings on Jews.) The United States just voted against a UN resolution that would have condemned the use of the death penalty for being gay. (I could go on.)  How can we not only live but thrive in this world? I don't have a single simple answer. But here are seven suggestions.

*

Kindness. Be kind to yourself in whatever ways you can. Notice your internalized voices of critique -- maybe you knock yourself for not having the spaciousness to pay enough attention to the brokenness of the world, or maybe you knock yourself for not being able to make enough of a difference. Those voices can be helpful, up to a point. But they can also harm. Tell your internal critic to take a break, and be kind to yourself. Maybe that means taking a few extra minutes to put on lotion and be grateful to and for your body. Maybe it means a cup of tea, or a walk in the fresh air. Maybe it means clean sheets on your bed and the laundry folded, or a bouquet of flowers on the table. Do the little things you can to be good to yourself, to replenish yourself.

Boundaries. Maintain good boundaries. Maybe that means being attentive to your social media use, or your consumption of news. Maybe it means taking one day a week away from news altogether. (I suggest Shabbat, for reasons that are probably obvious.) If there are people in your life who deplete you, try to find ways to minimize contact with them. If the twenty-four hour news cycle is wearing you down, take a break from it. If the omnipresence of misogyny and antisemitism fill you with despair (as they do me), find a way to turn away from them and focus elsewhere for a while. This may feel like a luxury, but it's actually a survival tool. Maintain good boundaries around your body, your heart, your mind, and your spirit. This will help you stay intact.

Balance. Seek balance in your life. Maybe this means work / life balance. Maybe this means balance between engaging with the broken world, and seeking respite from the brokenness. Maybe it means balance between reading the news, and reading a novel. Maybe it means balance between focusing outward (on the world, on the work that needs to be done) and focusing inward (on your own heart and soul.) It can be tempting to throw yourself wholly into engaging with the broken world -- there is so much that needs to be repaired! There are protests to attend, letters to the editor to write, worthy candidates to support, hungry people to feed, systemic injustice to unravel. But if you throw all of yourself into that work all of the time, burnout is inevitable.

Endurance. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. The great struggles for justice, civil rights, safety in all four worlds (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual), human progress -- these are long and their work will not be complete in any of our lifetimes. Find a rhythm that is sustainable and that sustains you. That rhythm might be six days of work, one day of Shabbat. It might be setting aside time each week for justice work -- or setting aside time each week for not doing justice work. The work of healing our broken world is enormous. It needs all of us, but it can't be accomplished single-handedly by any one of us. And if we don't engage in that work with an eye toward sustainability, the likelihood that we will hurt ourselves in so doing is high.

BeautySeek beauty in what your eyes look upon: notice the beauty in the faces of other living beings, in a forest or a tree or a houseplant, in the sky. Seek beauty in what your ears listen to: notice the beauty in music, in a beloved voice, in rhythm, in poetry. Seek beauty in what you breathe in: the scent of spices at havdalah, or autumn leaves rustling underfoot, or a sprig of rosemary, or a bowl of soup. Seek beauty in what you touch with your skin: notice the warmth of your clothes, the weave of your sheets, the fur of a pet. Seek beauty in what you consume: whether media, or music, or food, or drink. Seek beauty, and cultivate gratitude for beauty. This may feel frivolous when the world is so broken, but it is not: it is life-affirming and can be life-saving.

Connectivity. Connect with the place where you are. Connect with your communities, whether geographic or far-flung. Connect with your roots and your ancestry. Connect with your heritage. Connect with your creativity, and bring new words or work or ideas into the world. Connect with your friends, the people who put a smile on your face. Connect online. Connect with people you love. Connect with causes that matter to you. Connect with places and things and ideas and individuals that make you feel hopeful and strong. The more rooted we can be in our connections with place and time and each other, the stronger we are, and the more able we become to withstand the damaging winds of hatred and bigotry and tragedy with our hearts intact.

Presence. There is an immanent, indwelling presence that enlivens all things. That presence has many names. In my tradition alone we name it as Shechina, the Divine Feminine, Malchut, God between us and within us and among us. You may have other names, other metaphors. Whatever words you use, welcome that presence into your life. Maybe that means making regular time for meditation or contemplative practice. Maybe it means regular liturgical prayer -- or spontaneous prayer, whenever you feel called to speak to the divine. Maybe it means spiritual direction, discerning the presence of God in your life. Maybe it means talking with Shechina in the front seat of your car. Open yourself to presence and let yourself be sustained thereby. 

*

May our abraded places be balmed, and our hearts be strengthened.

 

 

(These seven suggestions map to the set of seven qualities that the Jewish mystical tradition says we share with the divine -- the seven "lower sefirot" -- about which I have written here many times before.)


Breathing space

88dc79_be21bf798a984fed8baeddb3760a59f4To be fully alive and fully human, we need space, or room to breathe. This need is fundamental: it is rooted in our everyday experience. We all know what it is like to feel crowded, pressed, or overwhelmed. We know what it is to face deadlines, expectations, demands. We know these pressures can originate from outside us as well as from within us. And we know the relief, release, and freedom that come from outer and inner space -- room to breathe and to be ourselves. We owe it to ourselves, individually and communally, to find such room, such space.

Those words come from Father Philip Carter, in his essay "Spiritual Direction as an 'Exchange of Gifts'," in the March 2017 issue of Presence: an International Journal of Spiritual Direction. From time to time I pick up back copies of that magazine and leaf through them, and often I find that an idea or a quotation leaps off the page and demands my attention. Today it was Carter's words that grabbed me. 

"To be fully alive and fully human, we need space, or room to breathe..."

Shabbat is supposed to offer precisely that breathing room: one day of the week during which we can let go of our to-do lists and obligations, a day when we can focus on being rather than doing. Of course, that breathing room can be hard to come by -- especially for those who dedicate their days to caring for young children or aging parents, for whom Shabbat may not offer a genuine respite of any kind.

But this isn't just about our obligations. Even someone with a daily to-do list the length of my arm can still seek the internal and spiritual spaciousness that allows them to draw a full breath. This is the space the soul really requires: space to grow, space to change, the space of the freedom to become and in so doing to discern what would bring joy. Our souls need these things the way our bodies need air.

And without room to breathe, the soul can't flourish. Without space to grow, and maybe more importantly space to just be, the spark of divinity that enlivens us flickers and dims. A soul that is constantly constrained will be damaged by that constriction, in the psycho-spiritual equivalent of the maiming once experienced by women who endured having their feet bound and reshaped.

There are all kinds of circumstances that create constriction. Some of them are internal: grief, or depression, or personal struggles. Some are external: emotionally and spiritually abusive workplaces, or family relationships, or systems of oppression. The challenge lies in not internalizing the messages that tell us we either don't need to draw a full breath (spiritually speaking)... or, worse, don't deserve to.

You deserve to draw a full breath. You deserve to have room to breathe. You deserve to change and grow. You deserve to take up space in the world. You deserve to be honored, and valued, and treated like the precious soul that you are. Anyone in your world who tells you otherwise does not have your best interests at heart, and they have a vested interest in keeping you small, and they are wrong.

 


Why three weeks of grief can help us heal - in The Wisdom Daily

...The Jewish calendar gives us these Three Weeks as a time for feeling the brokenness that characterizes every heart and every life. These weeks offer an invitation, and an opportunity to feel what hurts. Not because we’re going to stay in that brokenness, but precisely because we’re not — and because recognizing what’s broken is the first step toward healing, as individuals and as a community...

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: Why These Three Weeks of Grief in the Jewish Calendar Can Be Healing. Click through to read the whole thing.


About Bypassing

Spiritual-bypassingA few days ago I mentioned spiritual bypassing in my commentary on a short Hasidic text. A few of you reached out to me after that post went out, asking for more about spiritual bypassing: what it it, how can you recognize it, why is it important. 

For a basic introduction, here's a good article by Dr. Ingrid Mathieu: Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Dr. Robert Masters also offers a great essay about bypassing, calling it Avoidance in holy drag. His book Spiritual Bypassing is a classic in my field, and with good reason.

Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over "spiritual." 

(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She's a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts... until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)

It's easy to mis-use spirituality to justify avoidance of things that are painful or uncomfortable, like anger or conflict or boundaries. But this is not spiritually healthy, even though it disguises itself as spiritual. It is a spiritual sickness, disguised as spiritual health.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to experience what is: all of what is. And that includes the things we tend to categorize as "dark" or negative: pain, sorrow, loss, rejection, grief. (I wrote about that recently in my review of Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.) 

The Jewish mystical tradition describes God via a series of qualities that exist in holy balance, such as chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength / judgment). When someone leans so far toward chesed that they reject its healthy balancing with gevurah, that's spiritual bypassing.

When a spiritual leader serving a community where there has been abuse (whether sexual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, or all of the above) ignores the abuse, or urges community members to rush to healing before there has been justice for the abused, that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to feel angry, or isn't comfortable with conflict, so they over-focus on sweetness and light while sweeping their anger under the rug (or encouraging others to sweep anger under the rug), that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to be constrained by someone else's interpersonal or systemic boundary, so they transgress it while convincing themselves that the boundary really shouldn't apply to them anyway, that's spiritual bypassing.

In all of these instances, the quality that's chosen for over-focus -- whether it be healing, or sweetness, or lovingkindness -- is in and of itself a good quality. That's part of the challenge: everyone likes healing and sweetness and lovingkindness, right? But these qualities are only healthy when they're used honestly, authentically, and safely -- and, as the Hasidic text I translated last week suggests, when they're in appropriate balance with qualities like judgment and healthy boundaries.

If I pursue healing at someone else's expense, then that healing is not only false but damaging. If I pursue pleasantries in an abusive context instead of naming the abuse for what it is, then my sweetness is not only false but also complicit in the abuse. If I disregard someone's boundaries because I think I should be exempt from their rules, then my "love" will cause hurt.

Even gratitude, the middah (quality) to which I most often gravitate, can be used in spiritual bypassing. When faced with trauma or grief, if I leap too quickly to "let me find something to be grateful for so I don't have to feel this thing that hurts," then the gratitude practice that's such a core part of my spiritual life becomes a tool for bypassing the thing I need to actually feel.

Spiritual bypassing is what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage:" a sweet topping disguising something rotten underneath.

Spiritual bypassing pretends to make things better, but it actually makes them worse. If a wound is infected, then suturing it and simply hiding the infection will not help the infection to heal. If a relationship is abusive, then pretending that it's healthy will not help the person who is being abused. (For that matter, it also doesn't help the abuser to name and recover from their own trauma.) Spiritual bypassing does serious damage to people and communities.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to feel what we feel, even when what we feel is uncomfortable or painful. Authentic spiritual life calls us to speak truth, even when we'd rather pretend there are no difficult truths to be spoken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to pursue justice, even when we'd rather imagine that if we close our eyes to injustice it will simply go away on its own. 

Any spiritual leader who claims otherwise is not worthy of the title. 

 


When Mother's Day hurts

In the United States today is Mother's Day. We're reminded of that in a million little ways: from television commercials for Hallmark cards, to ads for Mother's Day brunch deals, to countless social media postings about mothers and motherhood.

I'm always aware that days like these can be fraught and painful, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you had a difficult relationship with your mother. There are mothers who are neglectful, narcissistic, and/or abusive; maybe yours was one. Maybe this day reminds you of everything you wish your relationship with your mother could have been but wasn't. Or maybe you had a wonderful relationship with your mother, and now she has died and this day reminds you of how much you miss her. 

Maybe you yearned to become a mother, and faced infertility. Maybe you yearned to be a mother but your marriage has ended. Maybe you've had a miscarriage, or an abortion. Maybe you are a mother, and you have a painful relationship with one or more of your children. Or maybe you are a mother and your child has died -- the English language offers us a word for a child whose parents have died, and a word for a person whose spouse has died, but we don't have a word that means a parent who has lost a child.

All of these are land mines hidden among the greeting cards, the commercials, and the friends on social media posting photographs of their happy families and hand-drawn mother's day cards. There are endless social and cultural messages telling us how we are "supposed" to feel today. And it can be extra-isolating to feel out-of-step with the way we think we're "supposed" to feel on a birthday or an anniversary or a holiday like this one. Days like today can evoke, trigger, and intensify feelings of loss. 

If you are someone for whom today is purely sweet, I am glad for you. May you be blessed to always experience this day as a source of sweetness. 

If you are someone for whom today contains bitterness or sorrow, I am holding you in my heart. Be gentle with yourself today in all the ways that you can. 

 

Other resources:


Learning to Walk in the Dark

51LLOq4rwuL._SY344_BO1 204 203 200_If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God -- only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.

-- Barbara Brown Taylor

When we were in Tuscaloosa, my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding mentioned to me that he was reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. "That sounds like a book I need to read," I said. Not long thereafter, I found his copy in my mailbox, waiting for me to read it.

And oh, wow, did I need to read this book. The copy I was reading wasn't mine, so I didn't give in to the temptation to underline and highlight -- but if I had, it would be marked up everywhere, because so much of what Barbara Brown Taylor writes here resonates with me. Like this:

Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with your language for calling it to your aid... but darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.

Sometimes we feel that God is agonizingly absent from our lives, but this is a matter of epistemology, not ontology -- a matter of how we experience the world around us, not a genuine indicator of how that world actually is. This is a core tenet of my theology. I felt a happy spark of recognition, reading it in Brown Taylor's words.

Continue reading "Learning to Walk in the Dark" »


Parsley dipped in tears

33109547490_120fdd0378_zA few weeks ago, on a Friday morning, I walked with a dear friend in the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Where we live the world was covered with a winter coat of snow, but in Georgia the first stirrings of spring were underway. There were daffodils blooming, and leaves preparing to pop free.

But the thing that most drew my attention was one of the beds in the herb garden, filled with different varieties of parsley. The moment I saw the parsley plants growing, I tasted Passover.

The third step of the seder journey is karpas. We bless and eat something green, dipped in salt water. The green represents the new life of springtime, while the salt water represents the bitter tears of slavery. 

There's a deep truth hidden in that bite of green. New beginnings may not come easy. Often they require hard work, and willingness to name and to take responsibility for what's been bitter.

We've all had moments when we feel as though whatever constraints we habitually inhabit are permanent. Maybe we've had moments of losing hope that whatever narrow place we're in -- depression, or tough life circumstances, or grief -- will ever be different. 

But spring does come, even when winter feels most entrenched and unmovable. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we cry out from the depths of our lives' narrow places, there is One Who hears us and helps us to break free. And every year we retell the story: not as something that happened to them back then, but as something that is happening to us right now. 

It's okay if the green of new life is bathed in salt tears, if our new growth is tender, if change sometimes hurts. That's exactly the flavor of the parsley dipped in salt water. Sharp, and intense, and a little bit salty: sadness for what was, mingled with hope for what's coming. Remembrance of the old, and embrace of the new.


Intensive care

A few weeks ago I received a couple of photo albums in the mail from my parents. One of them contained photographs from the first months of my life, beginning with the weeks I spent at what they then called "the neonatal unit." (Today the standard name for such a ward is NICU, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When I was born, the hospital at which I was born didn't have a NICU, so they rushed me to Santa Rosa. Today most hospitals have at least some capacity for neonatal care.)

32323176870_6cdc53ff6a_z

That's me, about a month old, in an incubator at the neonatal unit at what was then known as Santa Rosa Children's Hospital -- now called The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. I spent forty days and forty nights there before I was well enough to go home. The number feels symbolic to me, since in the rabbinic understanding, that's a period of time that represents maturation, fruition, and change.

While visiting Texas with my son, I had the opportunity to visit Santa Rosa again with my parents and my son: not only to see the current neonatal unit (which I had seen once before), but also to visit the even newer NICU that they're building now.

32911656981_0a7f5a44ef_z

Because of hospital regulations, my son couldn't go into the NICU, but he had the opportunity to use a stethoscope to listen to the heart of the baby mannequin they use in training, and to learn a little bit about the kind of care they provide to babies who are born too soon.

The whole visit was extraordinary, though there were two parts that were especially special for me. One was having the opportunity to walk through the NICU and say silent prayers for the babies who are being cared-for there. Sister Michele O'Brien told me that they are able now to operate on babies whose hearts are the size of a quarter. Dr. George Powers, who led us on our tour, showed us the equipment they use now and explained how it differs from what they had at their disposal when I came into the world.

The other thing that was special for me was visiting the hospital chapel with my son. When one first walks into the Children's Hospital, the chapel is the first thing one sees, which is intentional: a reminder that spiritual life and care are at the heart of what they do. It's a beautiful chapel, unsurprisingly, and we spent a few moments sitting there in contemplation.

There's a little metal "tree" in the back of the chapel. People are invited to write prayers on colored paper hearts and to hang them on the tree, and when the tree fills up, the hearts are taken out into the surrounding grounds and buried there, because -- in Sister Michele's words -- the place where the hospital stands is holy ground.

My son took a heart and carefully wrote "Thank You God for this," and then he paused. "Mom, can you write 'hospital'?"

I wrote "hospital," and he hung the heart on the tree. 

Thank You God for this hospital indeed. 

 

With gratitude for everyone at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio and the extraordinary work they do to provide care for families in need. 


On grief and moving forward

This morning I presided over a funeral for a beloved member of my congregation. It was hard to shake the sense that many of us were mourning not only that loss, but also the loss of a vision of our nation as a place of hope and inclusion. Even those who are happy with yesterday's outcome may be feeling shaken by the reminder of how stark are the divisions within our nation.

To everyone who is feeling grief today, I say: it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling, take permission to feel it. Let yourself grieve.

Take comfort in what you can: the presence of friends or family, whatever sweetness or kindness you can find, a cup of coffee, the fact that the sun rose this morning.

Recognize that grief comes and goes in its own rhythms. So, too, does healing. Be gentle with yourself today and in days to come. Be gentle with those you encounter.

When grief is strong, it can seem impossible to imagine that one will ever feel differently. But this is not all there is. Loss is not all there is. Grief is not all there is.

Jewish tradition wisely instructs mourners to retreat from the world for a week. The customs of shiva are designed to insulate mourners from the hard edges of the outside world. They remind us to take the time we need to tell stories, to remember, and to grieve.

At the end of shiva, there is a custom of leaving one's house through one door, walking around the block, and then entering the house through a different door. We will emerge from our grief changed by the experience of the grieving. We will exit what was and enter into something new.

In this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, God calls Avram to leave his home and go forth into the place that God will show him. The opening words are often translated as "Go forth," but they can also be understood to mean "Go into yourself." Like Avram, we too are called to journey deep into ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual work of becoming.

Avram had to leave everything that was familiar. He too must have felt that he had lost his narrative about who he thought he was and what he thought was ahead of him. But somehow he found the strength for the journey, and so will we.

We may need to grieve, but we must resist despair. Despair is corrosive, and it denies our agency and our ability to create change.

We can cultivate hope. We can build a better world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will come after us to continue trying to build a world of justice and lovingkindness, a world in which no one need fear abuse or mistreatment, a world in which diversities of all kinds -- of race and creed and sexual orientation -- are honored and celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are protected. A world in which bigotry and hatred vanish like smoke, and generosity of spirit and compassion prevail.

In this moment I don't know how we will do that. I don't know what steps we will take or how they will get us where we need to go. But I know that this is the journey to which we are called, and that we will journey together.

 

 


You may find comfort, as I did, in this from Rabbi David Evan Markus: The Day After.

Cross-posted to my congregational blog.


Take care of yourself as Election Day approaches

Election-stress-americaThe American Psychological Association reports that the Presidential election is a source of "significant stress" for a majority of Americans. I'm not surprised to hear it. Everyone I know is surfing waves of anxiety right now. I don't ever remember an election where the choices seemed this stark, the rhetoric this toxic, and the nation this divided.

Anecdotal conversation with a colleague who works as a therapist yielded a report that she's never seen pre-election anxiety this dramatic in all her years of practice. If you are feeling anxious, stressed-out, and/or afraid of what may be coming, you are not alone.

Take care of yourself over these next few days. 

For some of us self-care might mean pounding the pavement with get-out-the-vote initiatives, or making phone calls to potential voters. Taking action can be a way of asserting some control over a situation that otherwise feels vast and out of our hands, and that can be a form of self-care.

For others of us self-care might mean turning off the television, clicking away from Facebook and Twitter, and resisting the temptation to refresh Five Thirty Eight one more time. Self-care might involve choosing to diminish our intake of the 24-hour news cycle and the constant stream of data and opinions across social media networks.

Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. This goes doubly for those of us who are tasked with caring for others -- our children, our parents, our loved ones, our congregations. It is always okay to engage if that will help you through, and it is always okay to disengage if that's what you need to do. Listen to your body and to your heart, not just to your mind and the narratives your mind spins about what you "should" (or shouldn't) be doing with your time as the election approaches. 

For me, self-care includes ensuring that I get enough rest, cooking foods that I will enjoy eating, pausing to articulate gratitude for being alive and for the food that I have to eat, seeking out small sources of beauty like the red leaves on the bush I can see from my home office window or the bright orange of the pumpkins at our door. Lately it also includes pausing for short stints of contemplative practice during which I recognize the anxiety that the election is provoking in me, and give myself permission to feel what I am feeling, and then gently tell the anxiety that it is not needed and do my best to let it go. 

Most of all it means seeing myself through gentle eyes, and being kind to myself. May you find access to your best forms of self-care in the coming days. 

 

 

Related:

How news and social media can hurt us, 2014

Salve, 2014


After every funeral

Every time I am called to do a funeral for someone who had grown children, I notice my own emotions arising in response to what I witness in the emotional landscape of the mourners. I'm blessed that my parents are still alive... and when I preside over a funeral where adults mourn their parents, I can't help thinking about the day when I will be in the mourner's shoes instead of the rabbi's. I'll come to it with countless funerals under my belt, and surely they'll inform how I experience my own journey -- and yet I know as well as anyone that there's a vast chasm between experiencing someone else's grief from the rabbi's vantage, and experiencing one's own grief without the comfort of the rabbinic role. 

I often ride to the cemetery with one of the lovely gentlemen from the local funeral home with which we work. And every time, as we drive to my synagogue's cemetery in the hilltowns, as we chat about their kids and mine and what it's like to serve in their role and mine in a community of this size, some part of me is thinking: I should call my parents. Just to say I love you. Because I can. Often, afterwards, I do. And I wonder what goes through their minds when I mention that I've just done a funeral. Are they thinking of the friends they have buried? Are they thinking of their own mortality?

Across every axis of difference in the world, death is the thing we all have in common: every life ends. Everyone someday says goodbye to their parents or to those who reared them. Everyone someday says goodbye to loved ones and peers. Everyone someday says goodbye to this life and moves on to whatever it is that comes next. No two deaths are the same, no two griefs are the same. And yet every grief partakes of a sameness. Grief is like a hologram: every individual grief carries the imprint of the whole universe of grief within it. My prayer is that every grief carries the imprint of healing, too.

When there has been a profound loss, one can feel as though life will never be sweet again. As though the moment one wakes the grief will be crushing again, and it will be crushing until sleep, and then maybe also even in sleep. But it isn't perennial. The day will come when you wake and grief isn't the first thing to arise. The day will come when you wake with ease. With comfort. Even with joy. The crushing weight of grief will lift, and on the other side -- please, let there be gentleness. Let there be gratitude. Let there be the sense that (as our liturgy teaches) God every day renews the work of creation. Let all who grieve reach sweetness. Let all who grieve be renewed.

 

Related:

Good grief, fall 2014.


On spiritual thirst

Logo-twd-header

My latest post just went up at The Wisdom Daily. Here's a taste:

Sometimes in difficult circumstances, the safest thing to do is to shut down awareness of one’s emotional or spiritual thirst.

But like any other coping mechanism, this one can outlive its usefulness. Human beings can grow accustomed to almost anything. There is risk in allowing the practice of ignoring one’s thirst to become habitual. After a while, one might not even notice anymore that the thirst was ever there. And our emotional and spiritual thirsts are important. They come to tell us something about who we most deeply are.

Read the whole thing: An alternative to the life you lead.


Written with tears


Ac6a8a5f48135ac1d719676a129e873cI belong to a small group of local Jewish clergy which meets once a week at a coffee shop to study together, and for the last year or so we've been slowly working our way through Heschel's encyclopedic masterwork Heavenly Torah. Recently we read something about the final verses of the Torah which continues to reverberate in me. 

The book of Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses. This poses an interesting challenge for the classical tradition: if Torah was dictated verbatim by God to Moshe, then how can it contain verses about Moshe's death? How could Moses have told the story of his own death if it hadn't happened yet?

The tradition offers a variety of different answers, among them "he didn't write those last eight verses; Joshua did." But the answer I find most moving is that as Moshe heard about his own imminent passage out of this life, he wrote the final eight verses not with ink (or not only with ink) but with his tears.

Moses didn't get to cross into the Promised Land, but he did cross that threshold from this life into whatever comes next -- as everyone eventually must do. When he wrote the last verses of his story with his tears, what was he feeling? Were they tears of gratitude, or of longing? Tears of regret, or tears of joy?

Each of us, the tradition says, is to write a Torah. That's understood in a variety of ways: one should learn the scribal arts, one should fiscally support a Torah scribe, one should contribute commentary to the tapestry of tradition... and, perhaps, one should recognize consciously that one's life is a sacred text unfolding.

One of my favorite passages in this Heschel chapter holds that Moshe could have written the whole Torah with his tears, but then it would be too luminous for us to read. There are chapters in everyone's Torah of lived human experience which are written with tears -- tears of sorrow, and tears of gladness.

What would it be like to name those moments in our lives which are washed with tears not as something to be hidden away or avoided, but as luminous connections with the undercurrent of spirit which enlivens all things? What scripture might we write if we allowed ourselves access to the invisible ink of our cracked-open hearts?

 


New at The Wisdom Daily: What do you yearn for?

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay is up at The Wisdom Daily. Writing this essay was really meaningful for me; I hope that reading it is equally so for you. Here's how it begins -- with a story from the beginning of my hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training with ALEPH several years ago:

We sat facing each other, two women who were reasonably friendly but by no means intimate. We were enrolled in a spiritual direction training program together, and this was our first week of class. Our task in this moment was to ask each other one simple question: what do you yearn for?

My partner asked me, and I had a ready answer. I had just learned that I was pregnant, and the yearning at the top of my consciousness was to be a good mother. So that's what I said. Then she asked the question again. I refined my answer. She asked again. I went deeper. She asked again.

After ten minutes of continuing to answer this question, I was weeping. Not in sadness, but in awestruck recognition of how many yearnings I ordinarily keep buried beneath the surface -- and of how remarkable it felt to be able to articulate those yearnings and to have my answers received with gentleness and grace.

If you ask me what I want out of life, I can answer you fairly easily. If you ask me what I hope for, I can answer that too. But yearning feels deeper than either of those. Yearning feels more tender, more vulnerable. Yearning arises from the innermost chambers of my heart...

Read the whole thing: Ask yourself: what do I yearn for?