New Year's Card 5772 / 2011

On compassion (inspired by Dr. Dan Gottlieb)

I'd never read anything by Dr. Dan Gottlieb when one of my friends pointed me to his essay Lessons From a Wheelchair: Treat Your Body With Compassion this morning.

Gottlieb has been in a wheelchair for thirty years, paralyzed from the waist down. Several months ago, a recent accident on a ramp (which ended in an invisible stair) led him to fall, landing on his neck. Since that accident, he's lost more functionality and he's been in great pain. This essay chronicles the accident, his responses to it (including despair), and eventually his shift into a place of feeling compassion for his body and its suffering.

It's a remarkable essay, not because it chronicles such a riveting story but because of the simple acceptance and kindness it shows. My own health struggles have been infinitely less dramatic than Gottlieb's, but even so, my relationship with my body isn't always what I wish it were. My body isn't always what I wish it were! And it's so easy to get hung up on feeling frustrated by my body's limitations, or to fall into the habit of running my body ragged and not taking good enough care of myself.

Gottlieb's essay inspires me. Faced with physical trauma I can't begin to imagine, he finds his way to a place of feeling blessed by love and relating to his own body with compassion. This is the kind of profound existential shift which I hope that my prayer life (including my meditation practice) can help me achieve. This is, I think, a kind of teshuvah, a turning or re-turning to orient oneself in the direction of holiness and connection with God. When I can relate to my body, mind, and spirit with compassion, I am more able to experience God's presence in my life.

(Two other essays by Dan Gottlieb which I just read which have moved me profoundly: How I Know That Listening Is an Act of Love, about his accident and the act of listening which helped him move toward recovery, and Life Lessons We Learn From Our Children, about the sense of wonder that he's learned from his autistic grandson.)

In Jewish tradition God is often depicted as containing the paired qualities of judgement and compassion, din and rachamim. These are big themes during the upcoming Days of Awe. We understand God as the One Who judges us, and also as the One Who is compassionate toward us. We're created, Torah teaches, in the image and likeness of the divine; maybe it's not surprising that we relate to ourselves, and to each other, with judgement and with compassion, too.

It's easy to judge, and to find others -- and our own selves -- lacking. How might our lives change if we made a conscious effort, this month and every month, to relate to ourselves and to others with compassion instead? Try going a whole day without judging your body: don't knock yourself, don't look in the mirror and criticize what you see, don't get angry with your body if something hurts or if something isn't working; just cultivate compassion for your body.

The body is a good place to start. It's the physical house in which we each live, and I'm not sure I've ever known anyone who had an entirely uncomplicated relationship with their body. But once you can feel compassion for your body, how about cultivating compassion for your heart, and for your mind, and for your soul? What would that even feel like, replacing the constant mental narrative of judgement with deep compassion for ourselves and for others?

If we understand God as the source of both compassion and judgement, maybe cultivating our own compassion is a way to cultivate God's compassion. It could be what the kabbalists call "arousal from below" -- when we arouse our compassion here in the world where we live, we awaken and enflame God's compassion from on high. Or, maybe when we ourselves are more judgemental, we experience God as a harsh judge, but when we are more compassionate, we experience God as more compassionate too.

Powerful stuff for this moment in the Jewish spiritual year. Thanks, Dr. Dan.