“I have been able to find a stronger center in myself to which I can return so that I am not shaken by the daily ups and downs of congregational life.”

— Rabbi Rona Shapiro

Posts Tagged: understanding

Beneath the Surface to the Heart

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.

Remembering

subway

It was cool and drizzly when I left my apartment one morning last week, wearing my spring raincoat, but by mid-afternoon, it was sunny and warm.  At the end of the day, I walked out of the office, leaving my coat on the rack outside my office door.  I rode the crowded subway to my stop, dropped in at the grocery story to pick up a couple of things, and as I started to cross the street to my apartment, all of a sudden, I knew.

Lisa's coat

The keys to my apartment were not in my bag.  They were in the pocket of my raincoat, hanging on the coat rack outside my office door.

I know that moment so well, that mental click from forgetting to remembering.  It’s a cold, jarring sensation.  It’s the jolt that accompanies waking up in meditation or suddenly knowing the right word for the crossword puzzle.  In American Sign Language, it’s the popping up of the index finger in the sign for “understanding.”  I think it must be related to the burst of the sephirah chochmah, the flash of creative insight that wasn’t there a moment ago.

The stories that accompany remembering can vary.  It can be the exasperation and self-judgment that focuses on the forgetting.  (“I am such an idiot!  Now I have to get back on the subway, go all the way back to the office and then retrace my steps again!”)  Or it can be marveling at the mind’s ability to wake up, even when it used to be asleep.  (“How amazing that I remembered before I actually reached into my bag to find my keys!”)   It can even be compassion.  (“Our poor brains!  Think of all the things that bombard us day in and day out!  No wonder we forget so much.  How else would we survive?”)

For me, the small, inconvenient act of forgetting and remembering spurred me to consider:  what else have I forgotten?  Have I remembered to be grateful for owning a key and a raincoat, for having the physical strength to get back on the subway, for having an office and a job, for walking through the early evening light in New York City with the thousands of other people, each with their own hopes and disappointments and stories?

So much of spiritual practice is about remembering to remember.