Beneath the Surface to the Heart
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
My husband and I are almost finished with a course that is preparing us to be foster parents. Neither one of us has parented before, and we are eagerly learning the theories that will hopefully help us once we have been certified and can bring children into our home.
For example, we know that children who have been removed from their families of origin carry with them various levels of trauma. Traumatic experiences are written on our bodies and expressed through them, even in the youngest children. The destructive behaviors that foster children sometimes exhibit often stem from rage or grief. Our teacher emphasizes that in children behaviors are indicators of feelings, and it is part of our role (and our privilege) as the caregivers to them to help children name the difficult feelings and try to find other, more wholesome ways of express those feelings.
Of course, this is not just true of traumatized children. We all carry the marks of our emotions in our bodies, and may struggle to recognize them – in ourselves as much as in others. So much of mindfulness practice is about creating a spaciousness in which we can better discern what the underlying feeling is, how it expresses itself in the body, how it might move and change, and how we might respond in the wisest way possible.
Because we know from our own practice how hard that can be, and because we are learning how much suffering foster children have been through, we expect that it should be easy to bring empathy to them – at least in the abstract. But I find myself sitting with a feeling of apprehension, a worry that we will be caught in our own need to be seen and heard, and unable to see the true emotions our foster children are trying to show us.
But isn’t that exactly the challenge? It is easy to bring a loving heart to others as long as our own vulnerabilities don’t get touched. And yet, how can we bring a loving heart without our vulnerabilities? What kind of practice do we need to keep our hearts open even when we are triggered, even when we are scared, even when we are frustrated and angry?
Perhaps one answer is setting aside a particular time for crying out. I recently studied a passage from Likkutei Halachot which said that on the spiritual realm, nothing stands in the way of crying out and teshuvah (repentance). In fact, crying out is a worthy act even after the Divine judgment has been made and in some cases, it can actually undo that judgment.
When we cry out and actually feel our own pain, we have the opportunity to bring compassion to our own weary, aching hearts. We can take off the brave faces we wear. We can open ourselves to the not-so-pretty, not-so-balanced side of emotional expression. We too can grieve and rage, and recognize the grief and rage in others.
And perhaps, slowly, we can find healing.
The Spiritual Life Begins in Gratitude and Culminates in Compassion
Rabbi Dr. Shai Held,
prepared for a session at IJS’s Kivvun Renewal Retreat 2014
R. Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953), “Kuntres HaHesed”
,כאשר ברא אלוהים את האדם, עשהו לנותן ונוטל. כח הנתינה הוא כח עליון ממדות יוצר הכל ברוך הוא
שהוא מרחם ומטיב ונותן, מבלי קבל דבר בתמורה; הן לא יחסר לו כלום, ככתוב: “אם צדקת מה תתן לו” (איוב ל”ה, ז) רק שאנו מביעים את תודתנו, אשר זה שורש עבודתנו לו וככה עשה את האדם, ככתוב: “בצלם אלוהים h“.עשה את האדם, כי יוכל לרחם ולהיטיב וליתן
When the Almighty created human beings He made them capable of both giving and taking. The faculty of giving is a sublime power; it is one of the attributes of the blessed Creator of all things. He is the Giver par excellence; His mercy, His bounty and His goodness extend to all His creatures. His giving is pure giving for He takes nothing in return. He can take nothing for He lacks nothing, as the verse says, “…If you are righteous what do you give to him?” (Job 35:7)
Our service to Him is not for His need but for our own, since we need a means of expressing our gratitude to Him.
Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too to be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself. “God created man in His own image.” (Bereshit 1:26)
Questions to Guide Study & Discussion
Rabbi Nancy Flam
prepared for a session at IJS’s Kivvun Renewal Retreat 2014
1. Who would you name as the most (or one of the most) empathic persons in your own personal life? How did or does that person express empathy?
2. Upon whom, if anyone, do you depend upon for an empathic response in your life now? Are there specific people who rely upon you regularly for an empathic response?
3. Can you think of a time when someone’s empathy toward you made a big difference to you? You might land on something that happened recently and though not life-changing, was very meaningful to you; or you might land on something from long ago that actually has had a big impact on your life.
4. How would you rate yourself in terms of empathy on a scale of 1 (not very empathic) to 5 (very empathic)?
5. What challenges do you experience in experiencing and expressing empathy, thinking in terms of cognitive, emotional and/or compassionate empathy?
Webinar: Mindful Tochacha (Admonition): Disagreeing with Empathy and Compassion
Rabbi Amy Eilberg
On Empathy in Tochacha:
Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Vol, 1 p. 190.
Avraham Hayyim of Zlotchov, asked his rabbi, R. Shmelke of Nicholsburg (d. 1778): “Love your rei’a as yourself — how is one to love an evil one?” R. Shmelke answered him: “The Torah commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But how can I do this, if my neighbor has hurt me?” The rabbi answered: “You must understand that verse correctly. It means love your neighbor like something that you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this soul is inherent in all souls, just as your soul is in all parts of your body. It may happen that your hand makes a mistake and strikes you. Would you then take a stick and hit your hand, because it lacked understanding, and increase your pain? It’s the same if your neighbor, who is of one soul with you, wrongs you for lack of understanding. If you punish him, you are only hurting yourself.”
Interpretive Poem by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg
What is a great love?
A love that reaches deep inside our hearts and minds and never departs.
An expanding, continually surpassing compassion that flows toward and within us.
Those who came before us were blessed to learn how I truly is.
So may we have the merit to be open to this learning.
Let us know that we are held in an embrace of infinite kindness.
Let us become still.
Still enough to hear,
Still enough to get clear,
Still enough to know suffering and it’s release.
May we embody this wisdom.
May it shine from our eyes
As the love that it is.
May our minds and hearts be unified to behold with love and wonder
That which is ever becoming.
No more victims, no more powerlessness, no more blaming or shaming each other and ourselves.
For our faith in this,
In this sacred this, makes us joyous.
Continually gathering peacefully from the dispersed and distracted into this right here, our home.
We engage in an ever faithful and mysterious process of drawing close to your name, what is, sacred love.
Guided Reflection: Communicating with Awareness
excerpted from Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach
The following meditative practices are guidelines for being mindful and openhearted in communicating with each other….You can practice them yourself whenever you are engaged in conversation, or you can use them as formal guidelines for interpersonal meditation where two or more people are gathered for the purpose of mindful dialogue.
Set your intention. As a basic spiritual practice establish your intention to be present, honest and kind in relating to others in any circumstance. Remind yourself of your resolution at the start of each day, at the beginning of an interpersonal meditation or before any interaction with others.
Let your body be an anchor. Choose two or three touch points, places in your body where you can reawaken a sense of presence. These might be the sensations of breathing, the sensations in your shoulders, hands, stomach or feet. Return to them as often as possible when you are communicating with others. The more you practice staying aware of these touch points during your sitting practice and throughout the day, the more readily you’ll sustain an embodied presence when you are with others.
Listen from the heart. While others are speaking, try to let go of your own thoughts and pay attention to what they are saying. This means letting go of your agenda for the conversation. Stay aware of the feelings and sensations that occur throughout your body and especially in the heart area. Be particularly aware of your mind wandering off into judgments. If you find yourself criticizing, analyzing or interpreting, meet these thoughts with mindfulness, let them go and return to receptive listening. This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with whatever is being said, but rather you are honoring the other by offering your full presence and attention. Let your listening be wholehearted and deep, paying attention to the person’s tone, pitch, volume and words. In addition to content, allow yourself to receive the mood and spirit of what another is expressing.
Speak from the heart. Try not to prepare and rehearse what you will say in advance, especially while another is speaking. Rather, in the present moment speak what feels true and meaningful. This might be a response to what you have just heard. Or as happens in meditative dialogue, it may not be necessary to respond. Rather, what you say arises from your immediate stream of experience. Speaking from the heart begins with inward listening. Speak slowly enough to stay mindfully connected with your body and heart.
Pause, relax and attend. During your interactions pause repeatedly. Pause briefly before and after you speak. Pause as you are speaking to reconnect with your body and feelings. Pause when another is done speaking, giving some space for what they have said to settle. With each pause relax your body and mind. Rest in openness, paying full attention to this moment’s experience.
After pausing you might deepen your attention by using inquiry to check in with your own heart and mind. Ask yourself, “What is true now? What am I feeling?” Deepen your awareness of the other by asking yourself, “What might this person be experiencing?” This inquiry is both active and receptive—you are intentionally asking and investigating, and also opening to whatever is arising. Use pause‑relax‑attend whenever you remember as a sacred pathway into presence.
Practice Radical Acceptance. The effort to be present and awake with each other is very humbling. The given is that we will forget our intention, forget to connect with our body, forget to listen without thinking, forget not to rehearse, forget, forget, forget. Hold the whole process with Radical Acceptance, forgiving yourself and others again and again for being perfectly imperfect. When Radical Acceptance is a container for our relationships, genuine intimacy becomes possible.