Writings

“The Fierce Urgency of NOW”
 (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “March on Washington”, 1963)

Having Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration, the same week as Donald Trump’s inauguration was a head spinner and a wake-up call.  The contrast between these two men could not be greater. As MLK says in another context when speaking about human values and the tenuous morality in the western world, during his fight for social justice: “when scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men”.  (“The World House”, 1967) As with so many of his sentences, this seems as pertinent today as in his time.


The electric and soaring oratory of Dr. King has been filling me with fortitude for many weeks. As his language is so powerful and evocative, this writing is constructed around a few of MLK’s dynamic phrases.  When he speaks of “ the beloved community”, “the world house”, the human family” or  “the world-wide neighborhood”, I feel the encapsulating web of interconnectivity that is so central for our thriving and, even surviving, together on this small planet. As he says, “together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools” (“The World House”, 1967).

On the day of the inauguration, I was delivering a talk in Bend, Oregon to begin a weekend seminar. The words that had been so uplifting for me became guidance for my teachings. Both a healing balm and a stimulant for action, his words inspired the whole group in powerful ways.

“The Fierce Urgency of Now” resonated deeply in the bones. Here is a man whose core message was centered on Love and Freedom, igniting the deep marrow with words like “fierce” and “urgency”, bringing even more poignancy to NOW than most of us had formally felt.  My life and teaching focuses on the centrality of “awareness in the present moment” for the prospering of both love and freedom.  Early in my life journey, I saw that our capacity for presence in this moment was the key for overcoming our self-limiting, fear-based habits of survival. 

Still, we cannot allow the primacy of NOW to negate the necessity of standing up for our collective future. With the great privilege of awareness comes an inherent responsibility. A moral imperative asks us to take action upon seeing an injustice in our “world-wide neighborhood”. I am moved by MLK’s statement, first in 1954 then again in his 1964 Nobel acceptance speech: “never confuse the ‘isness’ of an old order with the ‘oughtness’ of a new order”.  We must work with the challenge of both: 1) deeply honoring THIS living moment with our devoted presence as we also 2) direct our intentions and actions toward the destiny of our potentialities.

From a Zen point of view, THIS moment always has a sense of urgency, yet it is usually enfolded within qualities of equanimity, spaciousness and restful repose. Adding the evocative “fierce” to the immediacy of “urgent” and “now”, brings a kind of “hair on fire” feeling. I am still sorting out the specific actions that this urgency demands. There is something about MLK’s perceptions that are speaking directly to us now.
 
In a 1964 address to the European Baptist Assembly in Amsterdam, he wrote these prescient words, speaking at the time of conservative Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater:

“But in spite of the masses who gather each Sunday, there is the constant deterioration of community and family life and the corruption of our national life as evidenced by the popularity of a presidential candidate who promises to return the nation to a world of the past, where there will be no taxes, foreign aid, no social security, and no problems that can’t be solved by nuclear power. And the very people who are making this candidate so popular are the people who fill our churches in the Midwestern and southern states”.

How staggering is that paragraph 53 years later! Our attention is being called forth to profoundly question, how did we get here.  By all measures, the issues of injustice that MLK focused on have made significant progress yet there is so far to go.  The battle between fear and love as OUR dominant operating principle is just as raw, perilous and pronounced!

To see this as an “us vs. them” conversation is to miss the deeper message. The people alluded to in the quote above, indeed all people, have deep wounds, needs and confusion. Our task is to stand up, with both dignified power and love, for the genuine needs of all. To emphasize love for all and our inherent interconnectivity is NOT to water down our potency or our commitment to social change and justice.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
Tied together in a single garment of destiny”
(“Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, 1963)

We are all in this together. No aspect of our “network of mutuality”, whether human, animal or the earth itself, can be exiled from our love.  We can and will disagree about strategy and effective means. The greatest challenge is to stand FOR Love, Life and Liberty without casting out those who see life differently.  We need what MLK called in 1954, our “divine discontent”, without living in anger. Though our anger can be helpful to mobilize action, protectiveness and courage, it becomes very destructive when eaten as a steady diet.

“Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together’. This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’, in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim ad Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace”.
(“The World House” 1967)

For me, MLK is a model for strength, dignity and love - NOT cowering in the face of violent hatred, yet also NOT reacting in kind. I have a long way to go on this path and, everyday, I am working to grow my inner strength, grounded-ness and presence, as I also grow my capacity for unconditional love. I see my own fears and conditioned biases. This learning is a daily investigation of my thoughts, feelings, actions and internalized systems of oppression, directed toward others or toward myself. Sometimes this appears as a fleeting thought of superiority and sometimes as a self-judgment of inadequacy. All instances of “casting out” need to be interrogated with kindness and diligence.
 
We are living in a powerful international moment. In the “fierce urgency of now”, there is an opening in our individual and collective consciousness. Similar to 1964, with the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and the women’s movement, we are in a rare moment of transformational possibility for the awakening of (our) humanity.


“Darkness can not drive out darkness, only Light can do that
Hatred can not drive out hatred, only Love can do that”
(“Strength to Love”, 1963)

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PART 2 – Reflections on Meditations for World Peace and Social Justice – THE DEDICATIONS  

In Part 1 of this writing about the all-day Meditation for World Peace and Social Justice, I focused on the structure of the day, the general intention, and some of my learning. In this writing, I will focus on the Dedications that are read each hour and their deeper meaning for me.

Vision

An enlightened vision for humanity – whether from the East, with images of liberation from suffering or from the West, with a democratic image of equal rights for all – implies social structures that support the realization of these potentialities. While human ideals cannot be bestowed by a society, clearly certain forms of injustice create roadblocks for many people.

The following dedications are inspired by a vision of a world in which these roadblocks are absent, not primarily through laws, but because of a transformation in consciousness that will make these forms of violence unthinkable. This is a world in which LOVE would be the guiding principle. You and I can start holding this vision NOW as a template for the future human being. Moving from an us/them, dominate or be dominated mentality IS the current living edge for the evolution of our species. The very survival of life as we know it is likely dependent on this radical shift.

Each of the Dedications invites us to focus on a particular domain of Social Justice. To fulfill the idealistic picture of ALL life being valued, this kind of specificity is required.  Importantly, we acknowledge that each of these discriminations arises from the same DOMINATION mindset. The greatest blind spot of perpetrators is not seeing the gilded cage they create for themselves. How obvious, yet rarely seen that pain and limitation inflicted on another has the same effect on oneself.

Oppression of others in any form comes from a superior/inferior, us/them paradigm. Acknowledging this impulse in ourselves and in our cultures is an important step.  As a white, male, heterosexual, upper middle class, able-bodied, American, I am implicitly part of a dominator culture. The privileges that arise from that culture create a responsibility for me to both identify and change the prejudice that sustains the inequitable situations in my world. One important intention of the all-day sittings is to shine a light on these matters. The overall and greatest goal is to grow our capacity for Love and Freedom.

Dedications

Each dedication is the focus of one hour of meditation (50 minutes sitting and 10 minutes walking).

6:00am–7:00 – All suffering connected to homelessness – May all people find safe homes. When I say these words, I see refugees around the world, particularly parents. I notice that children usually adapt remarkably well to their circumstances, their caregivers tend to suffer most. I also pray that people living on the streets throughout the world can be safe, warm and seen. This reading ends with: we are envisioning a world in which safe, warm homes are universal.

7:00-8:00 – All suffering connected to racial discrimination – May people of all races be treated equitably and value each other. It astounds me that throughout our world, people are still judged by the color of their skin. This is truly unfathomable. I can imagine a time when people will look at this fact with utter disbelief. As a member of the currently dominant racial category, I acknowledge the privilege that comes through white supremacy and the many benefits that have come from the color of my skin. This reading ends with: we are envisioning a world in which people of all skin colors are equally respected and valued.

8:00-9:00 – All suffering connected to sexual violence and sexual identity – May the boundaries of each person’s body and their individuality be universally respected. I am astounded that almost everyday I read a story of a culture or country in which sexual violence is commonplace.  When I read this dedication, various people who have shared their stories of abuse flash to my mind and heart. Although women and girls have suffered most, it is now becoming more known that boys and men experience sexual violence in shocking frequency. That our bodily boundaries are respected seems an obvious necessary step for human evolution.
From a larger view, this respect includes more than the acts of sexual violence but also all ways in which people are not granted autonomy and agency in their physical bodies. Narrow societal images of beauty, gender binary, stronger bodies controlling weaker bodies, all fit into this domination picture. This reading ends with: we are envisioning a world in which transgression of another person’s body is unimaginable.

9:00-10:00 – All suffering connected to religious intolerance – May all faiths be honored.  How can the name of God, or whatever one calls the highest and deepest, be used to justify violence? Yet, this has been a dominant theme in our world history.  In addition, religious people often hold atheists in contempt and vice versa. As humanity evolves, we will no longer feel threatened when disparate views of the divine are expressed. In the future, people will look back on the intolerance in our world as a dark age of human thought. This reading ends with: we are envisioning a world in which the acceptance of all faiths is unquestionably assumed.

11:00-1:00 PAUSE

1:00pm-2:00 All suffering connected to economic and class violence – May all people be paid a fair and just wage and be valued for the work that they do.  When I read this dedication, I imagine people, particularly parents, working hard and still not being able to meet their basic needs. I also think of people who cannot find work or are laboring in disrespectful or abusive environments. It seems obvious to me that in a just society, people dedicating their labors to constructive work must, at a minimum, have their basic needs for food, housing, health care, clothing and respect met. People need to be valued for any work that contributes to our collective life. I am not arguing for a particular economic system, I am pointing to a systemic problem. I also acknowledge how classism, with its often-unacknowledged judgments, creates a painful split in humanity. This reading ends with:  we are envisioning a world in which people will be valued with just wages for their work and respected for their contribution to society.

2:00-3:00 All suffering connected to ageism – May the young and old be protected, honored and valued in their capacities and differences. When reading this dedication, images come to me of child soldiers and child laborers who are not allowed to have a real childhood. At the other end of the spectrum, I see elders being treated disrespectfully, without a chance to live out their days with dignity and often treated as if they are valueless. Society benefits when opportunities exist for elders to share their accumulated wisdom. This reading ends with:  we are envisioning a world in which all children can play in freedom and both children and elders are honored and valued.

3:00-4:00 All suffering connected to tribal, regional, and nationalistic identities – May the value of each “other” be inviolable. Our collective history grew out of clans and tribes in which people from other groups were seen as dangerous and could not be trusted- they were “other”. When a cultural identity is central to one’s self-image, violence arises. If being a “Southerner”, a “Hutu”, a “ Nazi”, an “American” or, even identifying with a sports team, becomes central to one’s self-identity, aggression often results. While identities held lightly and consciously can be connecting and fulfilling, evolving humans cannot hold these as central to their self-worth.  Ending with: we are envisioning a world in which people will be free from unhelpful and unhealthy group identifications.

4:00-5:00 All suffering connected to discrimination against those with mental or physical disabilities* – May all beings be honored in their uniqueness. Throughout much of my life, I have worked with people who have disabilities when compared to the norm. Invariably, I have discovered that each of these people has an unexpected gift to bring to their families and society. When I read this dedication I think of the people with obvious disabilities that I have known who have brought a unique offering to the world as well as those who been taunted or devalued because of their physical or mental challenges.  This reading ends with: we are envisioning a world in which people are valued for their particularity and in which the social environment supports their participation in life.

5:00-6:00 All suffering connected to human caused environmental destruction – May all beings live in healthy environments. When I speak this out, my thoughts go beyond humans to include all creatures on our planet, as well as the planet itself. Children breathing thick, smoggy air or polar bears floating on small pieces of ice because of human behavior must become a thing of the past. This reading ends with: we are envisioning a thriving, healthy planet in which human beings deeply consider the body of the earth as sacred.

In writing these reflections, I am truly dumbfounded that we live in a world that carries all of this injustice and that I am just now learning to bear witness to its many appearances and disguises. Holding the picture of a world full of justice and therefore, love, fills me with hope, determination and a subtle kind of joy, within the suffering. For me it is eye opening to acknowledge my complicity in perpetuating the dominance system.

There is a paradoxical irony in connecting social justice, activism and “just sitting”.  Shouldn’t activism be, well, more active? I believe that sitting with these visions and sharing them with each other raises and transforms consciousness, as we shine a non-violent light on their roots. I believe that these practices are a drop in the bucket on the road to a more loving world.  I hope you will join The Embodied Life School and other groups throughout the year in these “Meditations for World Peace and Social Justice”.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public”
- Cornel West

* I know some people do not like the word disability and prefer the use of the term “other abled”. Although I appreciate the intention, overall I find this language cumbersome and not helpful.

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REFLECTIONS ON JANUARY 1, 2017
“MEDITATION FOR WORLD PEACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE”
(Part 1)

Meditating for 10 hours in a day is challenging, exhilarating, boring and fulfilling. Some moments flow and some create discomfort, and like most other people, I sometimes experience unpleasant bodily sensations, random thoughts and a variety of feelings.  In this writing, I will share some of my learning and reflections from this practice.

Gratitude for Interconnectivity

Before the day started, I heard from numerous friends and students living in more than ten different countries that they would be joining for parts of the day. As this is the sixth year of these day-long meditations, there has been time for the interest to spread. Knowing that other people are sitting at the same time brings a surprising sense of connectedness and support. I actually sense a living thread running through us. This touches my heart deeply and I am very grateful.

As I sit for the day, people come and go into “Sophia’s Sanctuary”, the retreat center created by my wife Linda and I in Sebastopol, California. Again the presence of others has a potent effect on my meditation and my sense of being part of a larger community holding these intentions.

Reading the Dedications to Social Justice also ignites a strong connectedness to living beings throughout the world and the human-created forms of suffering that I see. Bearing witness to these social injustices and speaking them out heightens consciousness. Even more, as a person of privilege who benefits from the currently dominant culture and unintentionally participates in some of these forms of bias, these days include a sense of acknowledgement to all marginalized people in our shared world. With great privilege comes great responsibility. Each day-long meditation brings a growing sense of my authentically felt field of care. As none of us can be free until all of us are free, I am grateful for this.

Background

The Embodied Life School hosts these days of meditation about every other month. Each day is divided into two, five hour periods. Fifty minutes of sitting (with a soft bell for those who want to stretch after 25 minutes), followed by ten minutes of walking meditation, repeated ten times during the day. We begin each hour by reading a short “Dedication” to a particular aspect of social justice. {In part 2 of this writing, I will share each of these, along with some commentary}.

Reading the Dedications

This reading frames the hour and instantly connects us with those who are experiencing the effects of that particular injustice. Each dedication is also repeated at the beginning of the walking meditation. We always end the reading with a positive image of a future in which, due to the changes in human consciousness, this form of suffering no longer exists.

I notice that reading these dedications inspires my practice. I am no longer sitting for myself only, I am holding in my heart: 1) people who are suffering in these ways, which includes both the perpetrators and victims and 2) my participation in the systemic structures that perpetuate this reality.  It is humbling to acknowledge that many of the advantages I have experienced in this life arise from historic biases that make the same possibilities more difficult for others. The practice is to acknowledge it, feel it and let it go – returning to the physical reality of the present moment.
The letting go is connected to the meditation practice, later one might initiate action based on their insights.

Embodied Meditation

In “Embodied Meditation”, we focus on the present moment by continually grounding ourselves in physical reality. The sense of weight and breathing are the center, along with the sounds, sights, (our eyes are a little open) and other body sensations. We also notice the thoughts and feelings that arise.

There is a subtle, important difference in this practice during these all-day meditations as compared to our daily meditation. Here, in the moment of noticing any “absencing”, we briefly recall the particular aspect of social justice that we are holding in our hearts. This remembrance is followed by returning to the next breath. I notice that including the suffering of others in this way potentiates my practice, my compassion and my commitment. It is as if I am sitting FOR and WITH the people both now and throughout history who have suffered from this transgression, as well as including my unintended collusion, in its occurrence. Over and over we do this dance – resting in presence, noticing our “absencing”, briefly recalling the particular domain of social justice, letting go into presence by sensing the next breath…

A few further observations:

* Stillness is a great gift. It begins with quieting the physical body, creating space for subtle phenomena to emerge with clarity. In moments of silence, in impactful yet simple ways, the ordinary becomes deeply satisfying. THIS breath, THAT chirping of a bird, THE light on the carpet can become profoundly fulfilling. There is a completeness, a sense of “enough-ness” in the ordinary. Great gratitude arises in these moments.

* At other times, the ordinary evokes something like “is that all there is”, a kind of bored, sad, empty feeling. We all carry something like a “sacred wound” from our basic separation from “all”, that occurs at birth.  In Embodied Meditation, our practice is to enter into the direct experience of “the wound” when it appears, feel it and then return to the following breath.

Again, before coming back to the breathing, we include the aspect of social justice that is our focus for that hour. Importantly, we can see that each of these forms of injustice creates more separation for the oppressor as well as the oppressed, thus adding to the wounded-ness of everyone. Including the suffering created by the dominant ones on themselves helps to remind us that this change of consciousness is not top-down. Recognizing that the oppressor is also deeply hurt by the act of oppression, while not equivalent, seems essential to me.

* A beautiful image came to me numerous times during this day and emerges even as I write this now. Three times after reading a dedication, I experienced something like a blue cape or shawl coming out of each of my sides, enfolding suffering beings throughout the world in this field of care. I too, was enclosed within the warmth of this vast fabric. This is the first time I have experienced this spontaneous image.

* One final comment - almost all my moments in meditation can be described in three categories: 1) satisfying, often deeply fulfilling, simple experiences of being alive, 2) inner resistance or struggle while still present to the moment, and 3) absencing into a kind of virtual reality, often through a fantasy about the future. The latter arises out of inner resistance to just being alive in the moment. This, for me, is the edge of sitting practice.

When committed to returning to the present moment without judgments or aggression and choosing presence over even entertaining fantasies, we enhance our capacity for authentic living. Sitting through uncomfortable “wounds” is as important as the delightful moments, maybe more so. 

Further, when our struggles are no longer creating separation between ourselves and others, our humanity deepens. This is one of the surprising gifts of the all-day meditations. I notice that often, in the past, my pain was a source of isolation not connection. Connecting personal struggles to the suffering of other people, we are no longer alone. This opens an unexpected doorway to our generous and tender heart.

Meditating many hours in a day is richly fulfilling and challenging. I have a sense that I am entering into the heart of humanity as my personal heart opens further. My gratitude for this open door is great, deep and wide. In part 2 of this writing, I will explore each of the dedications and how they are unfolding for me.

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FOR CHRISTMAS 2016   

Asking: The Most Important Questions to Keep the World Turning

In his famous, endearing story, “The Emperor’s Three Questions”, Leo Tolstoy brought a poignant teaching about the most important questions to ask for effectively engaging in any situation. These questions were: “What is the best time to do each thing?” 2) “Who are the most important people to work with?” and 3) “What is the most important thing to do at all times?” After receiving a variety of unsatisfying answers, the Emperor goes on a quest to speak with an enlightened hermit. The story unfolds through their dialogue (the answers appear at the end of this writing).

Finding Your Questions

For now, rather than looking at his answers, we can focus on: what are the most important questions to have at our fingertips as we traverse our everyday life? What questions can guide us? We all likely have differing conclusions. Let’s look deeply for the two questions that might be most essential for our shared world to keep turning and our lives to prosper in meaningful ways. How would you answer?

Some might think of ecological issues like climate change and preserving the planet. Without our precious planet, we would certainly perish. For example, “How can I save the planet and how can I engage others in this mission?” might, with good reason, be their most important questions.

Some might think of the social issues that plague us and wonder, “How can I stand for social justice and help others to create a just world?” Again, this is a worthy place to focus one’s life energy.

Another thoughtful person might focus on the fundamental capacity for love that human beings share as the essence of our purpose in life and ask, “How can I love more and help others to love?”

Still another caring person who values the unique individuality of each human soul might center their life on the questions, “how can I bring my unique gifts to fruition in the world and help others to do the same?”

Each one of these questions is worthy as a guiding principle. Still, in my proposed thought experiment, none of these questions is the most important; rather they are derived from the most important. So what, in my opinion, are the two most important questions?





Question 1 - “How Can I Help?”

The first, which can appear in a rich variety of forms, is “How can I help?” This is the essence of: “what is needed right now?”, “what is troubling you?”, “how can I serve” or, as in the famous German Grail story, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, “what ails thee?”.

Parzival tells of a chivalrous quest, a hero’s journey, emphasizing humility, compassion and serving a larger purpose. A key part of the story is the encounter between the young knight Parzival and the king Amfortas. The king is dying, in terrible pain and, as his light is extinguishing, so is the light in his mystical kingdom. The secret for his healing and the healing of his world is for the innocent Parzival, to ask the question, “What ails thee?” The young knight had been taught that it is not polite to ask personal questions so he never asks (how many of us fall into this quandary?). As the story unfolds, Parzival goes on a harrowing spiritual quest seeking his true life’s purpose. In the denouement, Parzival returns to the castle and this time asks the question, “What ails thee?”, the king is miraculously healed and the kingdom saved.

Healing comes from asking the question! To my mind, this is the purpose of the story, to invite us, no, to implore us, to ask this question in whatever form accurately fits our situation, “how can I be helpful here?” or “what is needed to support life in this moment?” In some situations, it is not appropriate to ask the question verbally, still circulating internally in our hearts can be: “What ails thee?”

Our Ever-Widening Circle of Care

The world turns on the human impulse to care for others. The evolving of consciousness IS the evolving of the human heart toward Love. Our ever-widening circle of care defines this capacity until ALL life is included. Just as we are currently deeply caring toward a few special people, places and/or animals, our collective direction is to feel this way toward all beings.

Surprisingly, for “what ails thee?” to be truly whole and life-giving, it must include asking our own inner world, “What is needed?” Ignoring one’s own needs in the service of others is not healthy or sustainable.  People who adopt this strategy often burn out, become resentful and, in the end, life is not served. The impossible calculus of any moment is the attempt to surmise “how can I serve life most effectively in this situation?” In this equation, the needs of all, including the one asking, must be included. Growing the self-reflective capacity to sense within oneself, “in there”, is essential for life to flow forward in healthy ways. The pattern of attending to others at the expense of one’s own life-force can be balanced by the second question.

Question 2 - “Would You Help Me, Please?”

The moment we ask for help or even are receptive to help from others, we are acknowledging our interconnectivity. In the Eastern traditions, this is the function of begging. When human beings find the humility to acknowledge our needs and ask for support, we are also offering a fundamental gift to the world. Giving others the opportunity to take care of us balances the fundamental equation of life in which all of us are giving and receiving to the best of our ability.

Giving and Receiving

When one “giver” dominates any relationship, the power imbalance thwarts the development of both people as well as the relationship itself. The willingness to both give and receive is the lifeblood of human relatedness. In a mysterious way, it is a spiritual transgression when one rejects the care that this offered by others. Many of us are so afraid of being perceived as needy that we will not ask. We cultivate a false identity based around not having needs. Having needs, which all humans do, and being needy, are not the same. Of course, some people have developed a life strategy of helplessness and foregoing self-responsibility. I am not encouraging this kind of “neediness”.

One of the fundamental errors on a path of Awakening is to be trapped in the illusion of a separate self, a false sense of independence that belies the reality of our lives as interdependent beings. Just as we are dependent on the air, water and food of the planet, we are also sustained by the goodness and efforts of others. To deny this or push it away is a profound error and often has unfortunate consequences.

Let me repeat - asking for help and being receptive acknowledges that we can not live this life, we can not survive, without the help of others. Stepping out of the narcissistic illusion that “I can do it myself, I don’t need help from anyone” implicitly places us back in the stream of giving and receiving that sustains life. Humility softens the heart and creates an atmosphere of mutuality. This breaks down the oppressive illusions of savior and victim, of superiority and inferiority. So often “good” people become the helpers, the saviors and unintentionally infantilize and thwart the development of the people they are supposedly helping. This kind of helping is not helpful.

Asking and Vulnerability

Over many years of teaching, I have heard from people, usually women, about how they feel shutout by their mate’s unwillingness to allow the vulnerability of asking for help. This inauthentic masculinity is a major obstacle to intimacy. As a man, I was raised to place a great value on self-sufficiency and learned to ask others only when desperate. I still need to remind myself to allow others to take care of me and to feel good about it. Much of my gratitude each day now comes from asking for and welcoming the support of others.

In addition to asking for help from other people, we can also ask for help from the transcendent. By this, I mean whatever is the highest and deepest from one’s point of view. Some people can easily ask G-d for help in the form of prayer. Even those who are atheists have some way of opening to and speaking to something larger than “I”. When something wonderful happens and we spontaneously say “thank you”, who or what are we addressing?. Whether we call it: Life, G-d, All, Self, Spiritual world, Great Being or Source, we are opening to that which is larger than both the separate self and other people. Every day, after my morning meditation, I ask for guidance to live this day guided by love and clarity. I sense deeply in my bones that this prayer, this intention, is heard; yet I do not know how or carry any image of whom I am asking.

When we can say from our hearts, “I feel lost, please show me the way, please help me”, we enter the realm of prayer. Even the non-religious can feel drawn toward the unnamable when feeling overwhelmed by life. This basic impulse lives in the heart of human beings and invites intimate connection to the transcendent. Asking for help implicitly means that somehow, we KNOW that we are not alone. This is healing in itself. We do not need to know WHOM we are asking, the act of asking itself, connects us back into the river of life. The key ingredient is the sense of asking for help from something larger.

When we take care of life through the question: “what is needed from me at this moment?” we become an instrument of love, justice and healing for the world. When we practice the humility of asking for and opening to support, we complete the equation of human inter-being that allows life to flow and the world to blossom. I sometimes forget both of these questions and when I can remember them, Life invariably flows in more fulfilling ways. I invite you to reflect on these questions AND on what are your most important questions for living this life?

And, now, back to the Emperor’s three questions presented by Tolstoy

“What is the best time to do each thing?”
“Remember that there is only one important time and that is NOW”.

“Who are the most important people to work with?”
“The most important person or people are those with you right now, the one who is right before you.”

“What is the most important thing to do at all times?”
“The most important pursuit is to help make the person standing in front of you happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS

BLESS US ALL

LOVE……...RUSSELL

 

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Manifesting Authentic Positivity: A MAP for a Happy Thanksgiving


Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes
Walt Whitman

We are a multitude, our inner world is vast. Consciousness is not flat, it is deep. This is important to know because it means we are capable of numerous states, feelings, emotions and attitudes, all at the same time.  One can feel upset and grateful, joyful and fearful, angry and loving, all simultaneously and authentically. During challenging personal and social times, remembering this can allow us to experience positive inner states even as we are also experiencing other, gnawing feelings.

The complexity of a human being also means we are not reducible to singular qualities or unitary identities. Often, when in conflict with another, we narrow our focus to certain traits that we find intolerable or unacceptable. We then can not see the intricate human being in front of us. Labeling people according to their worst or best qualities dehumanizes both people.  “You ARE a racist! I AM open-minded!” These might be attitudes that a person has much of the time and they are not complete definitions of their personhood. One key to harmonious relationships is consciously choosing not to reduce people to singular qualities. This does not require ignoring or denying the behaviors, attitudes and words that disturb you. We are a multitude!

FIVE HELPFUL REMINDERS

Looking for the Good

Focusing on the qualities you can appreciate in others is especially life-giving during these times. Again, this does not require ignoring your values or opinions. It means that out of the multitude of qualities living in each person, you can, as a free human being, choose to bring into the foreground the best in other people.




Don’t Be Mean- Fight Fair

Sometimes it feels essential to our dignity to stand-up for our opinions and values. When expressing our views turns into dehumanizing the other through labels or devaluing their humanity, we all lose. Meeting anger with anger or meanness with meanness, solidifies the divisions. Temporarily winning an argument rarely brings lasting positivity. When we can speak from our hearts, from our genuine feelings and needs, without focusing on the other, our comments have a better chance of being heard.

Breathing in the Beautiful

The quality of our experience in a given moment is largely dependent on how we pay attention. Again, this is human freedom - the moment is complex and by shifting our attention, a new and more satisfying experience can unfold. Is it true that there is always something beautiful in the world at any moment? It might be as simple as a color, a flavor, a flower or the look on someone’s face. We can choose beauty. Then, if we linger briefly, breathing in the beauty for five - ten seconds something will deepen and touch our heart. Human beings have a deep resonance for the beautiful and, remarkably, there is always something of the beautiful in each moment.

Choosing Joy

As I have written before, I am indebted to the Congolese woman I met from City of Joy. This place was created by women who were severely abused by the military during the Rwandan genocide. She said, “they have the power to dominate my body but they can not have my joy or dignity unless I give it to them”. She is a hero and role model, reminding me that we are deep, and vast, capable of many feelings at the same time. To choose joy, when possible, is extremely life-giving. This is sacred joy - a joy that is living in the fabric of our being.

Being Grateful

On this Thanks-giving Day, I encourage all of us to orient toward the many aspects of our lives that we appreciate. I think of three very simple categories:

1) Taking in and valuing the little gifts that appear today is one ever present doorway to gratitude. Just as with beauty, there are ALWAYS small blessings coming to us everyday. Giving more attention to these “little” gifts, grows their impact on our inner life. Warm water in the shower, the first sip of coffee, the warmth of home on a cold day - we are showered with blessings, when we remember to take them in.

2) Bringing attention to the larger blessings in our world is a second doorway. Simply thinking about the people or life circumstances and situations that we would deeply miss if they were no longer present opens the heart to a deep feeling of gratitude.

3) Gratitude for life itself is the most poignant and hardest to describe doorway. This is the inverse of our desire not to die - life seeks life. To feel gratitude for “just being alive” is a most fundamental gift.

Reminding ourselves of our depth, our capacity for many feelings simultaneously, is liberating.  Taking responsibility for our attention, as well as our words and actions, will create more and more positivity in our inner and outer world. Seeking the good, the beautiful, choosing joy and cultivating gratitude each day is a significant part of changing our world for the better. Of course, there is much more work to do in transforming our social systems so that there is justice and opportunity for all AND during this Thanksgiving, I encourage us all to grow life-giving experiences.

I wish you a joyful, fulfilling and authentically fulfilling holiday season.

i thank You God most for this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is Yes....

                                         ~ ee Cummings







Finding our Best Self in Troubled Times
Russell Delman     November 2016

Dear Fellow Travelers,

The election of Donald Trump has sent shock waves through many communities, The Embodied Life School included. My friends in Europe  are expressing deep concern about this election, its potential international effects and the similar political issues arising in their lands. My intention here is not to offer political strategy but to share ideas for finding our best selves in these times.  I am focusing on three main places: connected community, grounded presence and right speech.

First, I need to acknowledge my position of privilege in that I am not in immediate danger due to the hateful rhetoric we have been hearing. As a relatively rich, heterosexual, able-bodied, white male, I live every day inoculated against actions stimulated by the language of our president-elect.

Because of this place of relative safety, some might suggest that I cannot really understand the level of fear and potential danger that is the realistic response for people. I can say that people who are in privileged positions MUST speak out, even if our voices are somewhat marginalized by a perceived lack of credibility. With uncertainty, I do my best to walk in the shoes of others. Here are some of my hopes and observations.

Connected Community: Coming Home Together

Our support for each other is essential. Many of us are raw, reactive and feeling angry, fearful and lost. We need time to process our grief. It is important to know that you are not alone. Please be gentle with yourself and others, especially during these next potent weeks. Listening well to our inner voices and to each other is a key. Helping others to feel seen and heard is healing for all. More than ever, people of color, women, the poor and those wearing hijab’s need to feel our care, they need to feel seen, safe and welcome.

A community of fellow seekers who are working to uncover our best selves is a true jewel. The Embodied Life School supports and encourages each other through our practices of grounded presence, embodiment, good listening and clear speech. Intensifying any practices that support these qualities is helpful at this time. Creating or joining “listening circles” where listening and speaking from the heart is encouraged and where people can feel heard without judgment invites healing.

We have models in the world of how to deal with difficult situations. I think of the Dalai Lama who has lived through such suffering and maintains humor and joy as his ground of being.  He allows himself to feel anger toward the Chinese as he also cultivates forgiveness and well-wishes toward those who have been violent to his people. In addition there are more ordinary people, like you and me, who manage to find their larger view in challenging times. Our practices are tested by troubled times, in a sense, we practice FOR troubled times.

Pausing and Presencing: Coming Home

The Embodied Life teachings grow from a basic practice of PAUSING from our train of thought, dropping attention down into our bodies so that we can freshly perceive the sensations, feelings, thoughts and external situation in which we are living. Without this pause, we are locked into old habits of reactivity. It is important to differentiate responsiveness from reactivity. To respond requires that we first “empty the cup” of reactivity. Acknowledging the reactions without being controlled by them is a key.  This takes time and patience. It is one of the purposes and benefits of Embodied Meditation. In Zen, this is called “Don’t Know Mind”. We pause, holding our thoughts and feelings with care, without certainty. We can remember that we do not know the future. Our ideas are guesses and are often wrong, we can rest in what is true, the actuality of this moment.

Out of the pause comes the practice of PRESENCING, the intention to be with whatever is alive in us. Holding presence for our fear and anger is healing. This is different from either falling into these emotions or pushing them away, it is a transformative process of being present for and with the moment that creates an organic shift.

The actions we take from this grounded presence are likely to be more whole than those taken when strong emotions dominate. Our practice is not to eliminate feelings but, whenever possible, to be present for them in warm-hearted ways. Sometimes this statement is misinterpreted, as “there is no space for my strong emotions”.  In my opinion, there needs to be room to simply yell or sob or let the fear move through our bodies without judgment. As soon as possible, we return to “presencing”. When we are present in this way, grounded and breathing, there is an inner sense of coming home. Being grounded in our bodies creates a reliable, steady, home-base from which to function in the world.

Right Speech: Words Matter

Our practice also needs to include awareness of our speech- both our inner speech, how we talk to ourselves and outer, how we speak to others.

Human beings live in linguistic environments. Words are essential to human life. They are the air of social discourse. Words shape thinking and actions. One of the best comments about the election that I heard is that “those against Trump took his words literally but not seriously, whereas Trump supporters took his words seriously but not literally”. I hear people arguing “he won’t be that bad”, “he did not mean all those things literally”, “he was playing to his audience”, “he will be different as president, “they were ‘just words’”, etc.

I notice a powerful anger grows in my belly when I hear these excuses. Words matter, words have effects. People choose actions based on the words of others. Hate-filled words paved the way to Auschwitz. We are already living in the putrid air of hatred and divisiveness. Racist and misogynistic words permeate the air that we collectively breathe.

Labeling as Dehumanization

I remember hearing Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of “Non-Violent Communication” say that, as a psychologist, he realized that labeling people into diagnostic categories destroyed the possibility for human relationship. I found this comment both powerful and difficult to understand. Over time, I began to see the radical difference between saying someone “IS a schizophrenic” from describing their schizophrenic behaviors. Labels can be effective as a kind of shorthand, as long as we are diligent in erasing them when connecting with the actual person.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I saw that when I related to someone as a quadriplegic rather than as a person who could not use their arms and legs fully, I missed the human being. Moshe Feldenkrais was diligent about this point, encouraging us to drop the labels and diagnosis (or at least put them in the background) and meet the person.

I hear many of the people most upset by this election, using dehumanizing language to delegitimize the concerns of people who supported Trump.  We must be very careful here because this labeling sustains the divisions and builds walls between us. Remember, divide and conquer is the dominant strategy of oppressive forces. We do not want to fall into this trap.

When we call someone a “racist” or a “misogynist”, we take away their humanity. Here is the difficult challenge- we need to stand strongly against racist or misogynistic behaviors and words without reducing that entire human being to that label.

This is more than just words!  When we use labels, the “other” loses all moral validity and therefore we delegitimize their humanity. When our anger dehumanizes the other, we all lose. Again, this is a very challenging step for us to make.  It takes great courage not to respond to hatred with hatred, not to violently attack or passively withdraw but to Stand Up. This standing-up is what I call finding our best selves in troubled times. In our meditation, we develop our capacity to sit through difficult moments so that we can bring that equanimity into everyday life. This is our work and our path. This equanimity is not a passive withdrawal but an active engagement with our world.

Finding our Best Selves

Within the inclusive atmosphere of accepting our various states, we can form the intention of being a “lighthouse in the storm” for our friends and our “enemies”. The lighthouse gives its light to all.  To find our grounded presence, to be a welcoming field of good listening to those with other views is our direction. We need to tread mindfully, without judgments for our failures. When we have enough grounded presence- we can seek to understand before being understood. As some of us go home for Thanksgiving this is a very, very helpful mantra.

Thoughtful, kind and honest speech, as well as courageous action is essential. We will forget, fall down and then stand up again. We just do our best. It is not easy to be magnanimous AND actively stand up to these divisive forces. This is our time to deepen our resolve and stand up WITH each other and FOR each other. This is the time to find our best selves over and over.





“What Remains”: Final letter from Auschwitz


In English,  "the remains", when used as a noun, refers to a body after death. What is left over when life leaves the body? As a verb, “to remain” means  “to stay behind” or “what stays” or “to stay after something is complete”. In this letter, I am asking the question, what remains or lives on from this journey to Auschwitz?

Sometimes when walking around the grounds of the immense Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau), one finds bits of bone, the literal remains of a person. One also walks by fields in which the ashes of people have become the fertilizer for a forest of trees.  How strange to see these beautiful, majestic trees growing from these ashes.

What else remains, both culturally and personally, from the experience of Auschwitz?
As described in the first of these letters, the most accurate answer is "I don't know". It will take time to observe the lasting effects in my body, feelings, thoughts and actions.  At the beginning of this retreat, I was asking, who would I be, how would I act, if I was here in 1943, as a guard or prisoner? I thought that answering this question might be my intention in coming here. I now see  that this is an impossible and false question. The person sitting here writing comfortably in California is not the same person as the one who would be shivering and hungry in the camp. We are connected yet undeniably separate. Until pushed to such extremes, I cannot know “which of the me’s” would show up.

What I can say in this moment is that I see three dominant, interconnected areas of profound learning alive in me:

1) Each and Every Child: the Radical importance of One

Standing in the children's barracks, I am struck by the serene pictures drawn on the walls, a kind-hearted attempt by an adult prisoner to add warmth to this insanely cold situation. From the remembrance of the few survivors, we are told stories of how the elder children took care of the younger, how the adults would try to set up a school with singing and learning, knowing that death was coming soon.

In the retreat, we all sat together and began to sing lullabies in many languages. We were haunted, disturbed by the place yet also warmed by our presence together. I began to feel, not the presence of "children", but of each child. I saw THAT hungry child and THIS cold infant and I shuddered as I realized that they are alive in the world today. Sometimes it is a literal child, perhaps a refugee, and, at other times, I see the child in me and in each of us who is desperately longing for care, comfort, life and, ultimately, for love.

"Don't turn away" is the call.
"I can't save them all' is the response.
"Just one, THIS one who is in your path today" is the reply.

In this sense, each child means "THIS one, THIS moment", THIS interaction, THIS situation.  Sometimes we can come to the aid of an actual child. Sometimes the “child” is our own need in that moment. Sometimes it is caring for the needs of others. Our basic goodness asks us to care for life, to stand up for life as best we can, not more and not less. Without guilt or shame, we VOW to do our best.  For some of us it is to work with refugees, the hungry, the dying or the homeless. For others it is to devote ourselves to the beings living in our house and to be a loving source of light for our friends.

In the children’s barracks, I sense how often I ignore the child within myself, the small voice that needs my care and how often I overlook that voice in others.  People in adult bodies seem so competent that we can easily have the judgment that they “should” be able to handle their life and we forget the vulnerable child living in there also.

One step for me is letting go of the the idea of helping “everybody” and moving toward taking care of some particular, authentic need that arises in my world. Sometimes that need appears in the form of “other” and sometimes in the form of “me”. IF I notice that the “me” is getting most of the attention, it is helpful to change the focus on whatever “other” is in my world and if the “others” get most of my attention to my detriment perhaps a new orientation is helpful. ANY act of goodness, of love, tilts the scales in the direction of LIFE. Each individual is precious, each sacred. We cannot save the world or all beings YET in saving one we do save all. A strange calculus, I know, yet in the one is the many, as in the many there is each one.

I notice how often I have felt paralyzed by all the needs that I see in the world. There are many needs in our immediate circles of self, family and close friends. Then there is the larger circle of our community- homelessness, environmental degradation, domestic violence, hunger, etc. Then, through modern technology, we can witness the needs of our entire planet. It is natural to want to withdraw, close one’s eyes and hide, as we cannot effectively embrace all these needs. Still, we can focus on the one being or one situation that we can help today. The particular form of suffering that calls to us. The “one” is more important in the sense of being more workable, more possible, than the “many”.

2) Auschwitz as metaphor, Auschwitz as Warning

The extreme violence and degradation of life witnessed here is an exaggeration of our everyday world. Most of us have internalized voices of disparaging judgments and meanness that we direct toward ourselves and others, there is a Nazi prison guard and a concentration camp prisoner living in each of us. This metaphor, like effective theater, is hyperbolic - it makes the case in an extreme way to get our attention. Can we listen to the message? Can we honor the lives that suffered here by becoming sanctuaries of kindness toward all beings? When we can’t, is there a way that the metaphor of Auschwitz can remind us to turn toward the light?

And what is the warning in the horror here? Fascism is alive in our world today. The historical pattern and “rule” of fascism requires that the leader appear strong through lies and exaggerations about the “other”, the one who is responsible for the suffering. Oppressed, disheartened people seek the strength that emanates from the mouth of the apparent savior. Of course, it is all backwards, this is the evil. People are suffering, they are truly feeling oppressed and the new leader loudly and boldly declares that they alone can change the system that created the problem. We see this old strategy all over the world today.

We need to see the cold calculation of it all, how the ideology of the “others” who are less human, less worthy AND the cause of our problems justifies the “final solution”. Auschwitz teaches us about the potential freezing of the human heart, the Ahrimanic forces that can overtake human beings. It says to us, “do not close your eyes, these forces are in the world today”. Whereas Rwanda was an example of hot blooded killing, here we witness the cold elimination of feeling, a brain disconnected from a heart. Whether hot blooded or cold blooded, always the “other” is demeaned, labeled and dehumanized in ways that makes the unimaginable seem natural.

3) Dehumanization- Standing Up for Life

My essential learning here, the gift within the curse of Auschwitz: we must stand up for life, we must become True Human Beings.

“Evil” is “live” spelled backwards. Forces of darkness, of evil, seek to destroy life. They do this through a process of dehumanization. At Birkenau, in a building called “Central Sauna”, prisoners were processed through steps: stripped, shaved, deloused and then tattooed - their name was taken away. They became a number.  Names are important. In Rwanda, the Tutsi’s were called cockroaches, in Vietnam the enemy were gooks, in Auschwitz they became numbers. To dehumanize the other we must remove their human name. They become inhuman to us.

When we humanize ourselves in all relationships-including our relationships with the voices in our inner world as well as with the “enemies” on the outside, we bring a living humanity into the world. In our everyday actions we can "vote" for kindness and goodness and thus earn the profound name "Human Being". Fighting against ignorance, oppression and inhumanity requires that we do not get lost in the cultural habit of "us and them". We are all “us”’, no one is cast out. Can ordinary people like us actually love the sinner, the perceived enemy, while standing up against any dehumanizing actions?

Standing up for life is not a naïve openness or softness. Rather it is standing up in human ways for humanity. The odd, English expression, "kill them with kindness" means to me to help eliminate the forces of malevolence that arise in this world and to see our own meanness and self-absorption with both clarity and warmth. Clarity and warmth are two essential qualities of light. We become light-filled when we see clearly with the warmth of Love. We can then stand up and say "NO" without adding negativity to the world.

I think of the story I heard from an Aikido master, "imagine that your grandmother went crazy and began attacking with a knife. Of course you must do whatever is necessary to protect your life, her life and all other lives. But, and this is the most important  - you do not harm her out of anger or fear. You do not do more than what is needed and as soon as possible you get her the help that she obviously needs. Imagine if we could approach our "enemies” with this clarity and warmth.

Humanity and Technology

In an often unseen, underappreciated way, our children and many of us adults are falling under the spell of the remarkably powerful, dehumanizing impact of misused technology. Our children are learning to be more comforted by images on screens than by flesh and blood. Cold replaces warmth as the homey hearth of humanity and cool logic becomes divorced from the helpful influence of “heart thinking”. A steady diet of screen images and of virtual reality makes us susceptible to a devaluing of life. The virtual becomes more appealing than the real. We can see this in the nefarious influence of pornography on the brain. Similarly, imagine the effect of drone warfare on the warriors sitting at desks thousands of miles away from the effects of their missiles.
 
The problem is not the technology, it is the way our brains are vulnerable to the seductive, mechanical forces that overtake us. I can sense it in myself with checking my email, if I am not careful. Does it seem strange to speak about technology in the same breath as Auschwitz, dehumanization and forces of evil?  I sense an important connection. We are in a battle for the True Human Being and this is one of the places that the loss of humanity is occurring. It is up to us, you and me, to stand up for the re-humanization of our world.

Genocide is implicitly inhuman. The desire to destroy a people requires an objectification of all people. In objectifying others, we objectify ourselves.  It is shocking to realize that the Nazi’s were so icily efficient that they realized more than half their nightmarish dream: of the estimated 11 million Jews in Central Europe, 6 million were killed! Seeing this potential in people who, at the core, are just like you and me demands from us a vigilance, a deep commitment, a VOW to stand up for life. The famous statement by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is deeply with me.


Authenticating Human Experience: a Conversation with Gene Gendlin

The lessons living in me at this moment will likely continue to grow. I keep listening deeply to the “voices of the soil” and how they live in my heart, my mind, my belly, and my connections with the outer world.  I am grateful to the Zen Peacemakers and to Bernie Glassman for creating this opportunity. Without the community of like-minded seekers, my experience would be impossible. We need each other to go deeply into our human experience of being alive.

My first day home I called my good friend Gene Gendlin. Gene, psychotherapist, philosopher and developer of “Focusing” is 89 and as a child was forced to leave his home in Vienna by the Nazi’s. His family narrowly escaped from Austria, eventually coming to the United States. This portion of my dialogue with Gene is important for  “what remains”.

Gene: “I do not understand why you would go there deliberately, I never would”

Me: “I think my life has been so easy compared to yours. You already experienced this horror by neccessity, I needed to experience it by choice.

Gene: “I still don’t understand.”

Me: “There is something about the inhumanity, the coldness….. something about this seems central to my whole purpose in being alive and in being here at Auschwitz …… This inhumanity, this desire to destroy life….. I need to understand this, to somehow relate to it…… To find room in my heart for all this seems very important, even essential….. I don’t know why yet but it seems absolutely true (a big breath).

Gene: (taking time)- “I can see that but I am still a step away from choosing to go there”.

Me: (long pause): “there is something in me that fights against the concept of evil….. I know that hurting people often hurt others, that most child molesters were molested. This is clear. I usually can understand how individual pain leads to harmful actions…… It is the systemic dehumanization, that part of us that relishes in the killing and causing pain that does not  compute.…… I need a moment to feel into this….. wait a minute…… my stomach tightens, a real sickening sensation……. Wait….. I get it intellectually I just cannot really “get it” in my guts, no, no,  it is reversed, I get it in my belly but can not understand it……yes that is more right……. I am just starting to get, to sense into the evil of it all…..this incomprehensible yet real desire to destroy humanity, I can sense it even as I cannot understand it…... I needed to be in the environment to start to really take it in, to feel personally connected to it….. This is the truth, going there helps me to get that this evil is a real force, though perhaps an incomprehensible one that is living in us and around us…….there that’s it” (my belly releases).

Gene: “so being there you could really feel it. That makes sense to me, still to put yourself through that…..”

Me: “Gene, I see it clearly now- the essence of the gift you bring into this world with Focusing and felt sensing AND the center of my life through The Embodied Life teachings are an antidote to this dehumanization. That is it. That is the center. This is the larger purpose of our work. We are both devoted to validating the authentically felt human experience of being alive and to affirming the bodily-felt reality of life as it is experienced on the inside of flesh and blood human beings. This is re-humanization and is the opposite of dehumanization! It comes from our hearts and bellies and heads all working together in connection with other beings. When this gets lost, we are finished on this planet”.

Gene: “Amen”.

For a PDF click here

Two Strokes of Genius: The Miraculous Story of Marian Kolodziej and Bernie Glassman
(Third letter from the Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat)

 
This Life!
Your destiny
Circles within circles
Don't miss it!
 
This remarkable, true story is actually four stories circling around each other.

Circling Around: First Story
 
Marian Kolodziej, was a renowned set designer for theater and cinema in Poland who died in 2013. He arrived on one of the first transports to Auschwitz as indicated by his low number, #432, and survived five years, a rare feat. For fifty years after liberation, he never spoke of his experience, not even to his devoted wife. In 1993, he suffered a severe stroke. In rehabilitation, a doctor suggested that he begin drawing to regain the use of his hand. At first, he strapped a small pencil to his fingers and worked on little pieces of paper. After sometime he began large, pen and ink drawings that became an unbelievably horrific, graphic, detailed and inspiring expression of his time in the camp. He says this is not art, not an exhibition- these are his words and memories in picture form, dedicated to all his friends who suffered and died in these camps.
 
Entering the basement of the Franciscan church which houses these paintings, I am bowled over, both repelled and enthralled by the potency of these detailed, precise images. Many are somewhat repetitive heads of the people he remembers- shaved heads, gaunt, with desperate eyes and piercing grimaces of emptiness and hopelessness. In a remarkable way, the occasional instances of light- of Christ, of Father Maximillian Kolbe, of the Tree of Life and the Eye of God- shine out with an intensity that is hard to describe. Such darkness, such suffering, such light! This is not naive hope. This is not "everything will be alright'. Such expressions would be an injustice to the travesty witnessed here and to the suffering. We must scream that everything is NOT alright and, of course, paradoxically know that it IS.
 
His stroke transformed his life. Seeing the detail, the enormous productivity, one wonders how he did all this in 16 years, much of it drawn lying prone on the ground. As he says, his life became consumed and devoted, he had a mission, a destiny, to stand up for his fellow prisoners and for humanity! The enormity of the horror is overwhelming, still we must not turn away. This "not turning away" from the paintings, means not turning away from Auschwitz, from other genocides, from the inhumanity that lives in our world today.
 
The expression of goodness, of light, within all of that brings authentic, realistic hope for our potential as HUMAN Beings. From the darkest imaginable aspects of humanity, which means any of us when we are desperately at the end of our rope (one never knows what we are capable of until pushed to such extremes), emerges this sense, this inkling, that love is stronger than any force in this universe.
 
Circling Around: Second Story

Bernie Glassman is a visionary Zen teacher who created the Zen Peacemaker Order after he experienced a vision of Hungry Ghosts. In Buddhism, Hungry Ghosts are Beings with very big bellies and needle thin throats who perpetually experience unquenchable desire. Forever hungry, forever thirsty, forever lost in wanting, these beings live in us and around us. From this insight, Bernie created various forms of social action to literally feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for those with AIDS and help people to experience our Oneness with the others. This last statement, that we are One with all Beings is the essence of Zen realization. Bernie is unique in that he took this experience of Oneness off the meditation cushion and into the world of suffering. He saw that spiritual awakening was incomplete without social action.
 
Upon coming to Auschwitz about 24 years ago, he heard the souls of the dead people here asking to be remembered. At first he was focused on the more than one million Jewish people killed here. After some time, he saw clearly that the cries included the German guards, the gypsies, gay and transgender people, political prisoners and others.
 
This is the 22nd Zen Peacemaker Retreat here, they also have had retreats in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lakota Reservations in South Dakota- places of genocide and extremely violent expressions of human ignorance. There is much more to say, please go to the Zen peacemaker web site to learn more.
 
About eight months ago Bernie had a stroke. Through excellent medical care, devoted assistants, Feldenkrais sessions and intense efforts he is recovering. He had the "impossible" goal of coming to this retreat. Through remarkable efforts, intentionality and Grace, he flew here this week. It was an enormous gift to be with Bernie.
 
Circling Around: Third Story

On the first night, Bernie told a remarkable story. When he first came here and saw the paintings of Marian Kolodziej, he was awed. Marian, greatly impaired by the stroke showed Bernie the pictures as they slowly walked together, Marian with a cane and wheel chair.
 
Marian explained that the stroke liberated something in him. Amazingly, he had no hatred but only love and forgiveness for the German people including the guards and camp commandant. His heart has free, his forgiveness complete. Bernie was so moved by this warm-hearted, incredibly kind human being. As Bernie said, until his death, Marian loved everybody!
 
Upon hearing about the first retreat that Bernie was creating, Marian wanted to be part of it. Each year, until his death in 2013, Marian would join the Peacemakers. His wife said that he looked forward all year to this event. Bernie, with vigor and health would walk around slowly with Marian who could not walk easily, taking in these expressions from the depot of suffering.

Circling Around: Fourth Story
 
When Bernie was recovering from his stroke, he felt an incredible softening in his heart. He said there was no room anymore for any hatred, for any pockets of resentment. The stroke was like a furnace that burnt away distrust. He saw that one of the functions of this retreat is to bring people from many diverse cultures together so that we could let go of our distrust, even our dislike and open our hearts to all. The burning away of negative karma is what Bernie experienced in his healing. No room for anymore for negativity!
 
He realized that he was having the same experience that Marian had had. For Bernie, coming to this retreat was completing that circle.  Here was Bernie, in a wheel chair, occasionally taking a few steps steps with or without a cane, weakened physically yet so gentle, warm, radiant and kind. Just like Marian!  I had the joy of sharing a Feldenkrais session with Bernie. The softness of his neck and the receptivity of his body moved me deeply.
 
So many impressions live on in me:
- The horror of Auschwitz is endless and therefore beginning-less.
- Forgiveness and understanding cannot come lightly but require going through the cauldron. Screaming might be the right response to all of this. No shame. No superficial spiritual principles of "love all" or "God's will" or "its all part of the plan". NO.
 
Still, can we ask, without self-judgement:
 
- Who do I close my heart to?
- Who is cast out?
- Who and what in myself is not forgiven?
- Can we die with a clear heart?
 
Both Marian and Bernie are inspirations for my path. I hope that I do not need a stroke or its equivalent to live further into sharing my gifts with the world. Let's be careful here, Oneness is not enough unless it includes two-ness. When we have realizations of our Oneness with all of Life, something deeply rests, our sense of connectedness is profound. We need this big AHHH, this harmony with Life. I have seen that this realization can also lead to a kind of subtle passivity in which we are so open to "what is" and to the big "YES" that we lose our life-giving, life-sustaining "NO".
 
In the Jewish mystical traditions, there is an invitation to argue with G-d. In my opinion, something like this is important. On the one hand, it is important that we deeply embrace Life or G-d or reality "as-it-is", it is our job to embrace IT in all forms. This includes the end of relationships, the death of loved one's and the harrowing diagnosis. AND there is as much room as needed to scream into the dark sky! To wrestle with G-d or fight with "what is".  Then from our basic opening to "all that is", we do our best to ease suffering for all.
 
Finally, I am working with the question of VOW. In Zen, vow means, what is the center of your life, what are you truly devoted to? In the presence of Marian's mission to bring his experience to the world and in gratitude to Bernie's dedication to "saving all beings", I ponder my right actions, my vows, my next steps.  How can I help the light that is in and around all of us to be felt, seen and known?
 
From Rilke-
 "I am circling around God,
around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don't know
if I am a falcon,
or a storm,
or a great song.”
 
 
 
 
 

Reflections: Second letter from the Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat

Dear Friends,

Arriving at Auschwitz this year is so new. I know the buildings and the atmosphere yet, the actual felt-experience is very different from my powerful experience last year. Knowing the basic layout, the astounding immensity of the place, it is so big, and having an orientation to the social/physical setting allows my process to go deeper. It is as if the need to "take it all in" is gone and now it is my bodily responses that is in the foreground of my experiencing.

The trees are beautiful with yellow leaves falling as the days shorten. Nature does not seem to care what happened here. I have the thought that the earth cries, but actually I don't know if that is true or just my story. The land seems so peaceful, the trees radiating stability and calm. Human malevolence could not halt the seasons, the urge to grow, the various expressions of beauty. We must remember this, honor this and give thanks for this reminder.

My first discovery after walking into the gas showers and crematorium is that disgust is stronger than grief. My belly grinds, there is an almost constant churning in my stomach. My body responds before any of the stories or information from the guides. My lips contort in an expression of distaste. Oddly, my heart seems strangely empty. This really surprises me. There is not room for sadness or grief or even rage- the sickening sense of disgust dominates.

Then I notice that my throat is contracted, a kind of gagging. Curiously, it is not that I am looking for these bodily sensations, they seem to arrive at the center of experience spontaneously. Seeing the bales of human hair, mostly women's, that is collected for various German industries to make fabric for uniforms and stuffing for pillows or the thousands of eyeglasses and suitcases- gives context but all that is secondary to my bodily felt-sense.

Where is my heart? I keep noticing an absence in my chest. Belly and throat are clenched, my head is surprisingly clear and bright yet my chest feels empty and not effected. THIS gets clear in a moment of seeing pictures of people in ordinary life.  Ahh- my heart needs individuals, not collectives masses of humanity nor thousands of remnants or pictures with so many people. The individual pictures taken from people's suitcases, not the official, head-shaved photos which are inhumane diminutions of the individual.

This person and that person are more real than 1,300,000 people killed. These wedding photos, families making music together, people enjoying life, smiling with an imagined, joyful future and then, suddenly, a tsunami of unimaginable suffering. Just like that! Regular folks enjoying life and then......Now my heart is breaking open. There is a paradoxical,Talmudic teaching that sounds a lot like Zen- "the one life is of greater consequence than the many". Life is lived one person, one experience at a time. I am so grateful for the grounding sensations of my standing, feet on the floor and of THIS breath and the next otherwise the capacity for processing this would be completely overwhelmed.

During the afternoon meditations, we recite the names of people who died here. This also humanizes, personalizes. These families, often 10-20 from one place, the Adamczewski's from Osnitz or the Katz's from Abtau, lived life as unique individual humans, like you and me. Naming is so important!

In our Embodied Life retreats, we usually take the time for names. I see that even more importantly now. Whatever humans care about they name. In one incredibly efficient building, human beings with names, lives and hopes entered and then are stripped naked, deloused, shaved and, at the last stop, a number is tattooed on their arm. The person who entered that building is destroyed before they leave. The numbers on the skin are fascistic attempts to eliminate humanity. We must stand up for the individual!

Last night Yaser, a refugee from Syria, now living in Bern with his sister, "bore witness" to the crisis in his homeland. One person talking about the pain of burying his best friends or being able to save some children from starvation but not others or losing half his body weight from eating only grass and a little flour, pierces the heart even more than the 2000 killed in Aleppo.  He was a dentist in Damascus until the war. Then he was needed in the hospital for emergency care, "no dentists needed with so many dying", he said. His greatest joy was saving a life or easing the pain of someone. These are real people like you and me.  When I read about them in the newspaper, I am briefly touched yet I see now that my inner life maintains a distance. Unconsciously, the people I have not met seem less real than my friends and family. Perhaps this is a necessary distancing, at this moment, I am grateful for the direct connection.

The humanity of the people in the retreat is such a radical contrast to the inhumanity we are witnessing. We have "Listening Circles" where we share what is alive in us. Listening deeply to each other and to the land opens us to the best of humanity.

Like a candle lit in a dark room, the light is astounding. Here in the darkest expressions of humanity, created by people really just like us, comes the LOVE that lives at the core of each human being. This is our journey, here, there and wherever we are.

Can we be that light in the darkness?
Can we not turn away from the darkness and be lighthouses on rocky shores?
Here at Auschwitz I am tasting the destiny of our collective journey.
Without turning from the darkness, we affirm the light!

Thank you for your presence.....

Love.......Russell

First letter from the Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat
Russell Delman     November 1, 2016

Dear Friends,

Greetings to you from Krakow, Poland.

I arrived here two hours ago after a month of seminars and retreats in France and Germany, plus the start of a new ELMP in Switzerland. My wife Linda and I shared the joy of a month traveling and teaching together. The sincerity of the students who are committed to cultivating awareness through the Embodied Life practices and teachings fills me with joy. Also, I extend great thanks to all those who supported us, from the cooks to the cleaners, to the spouses/partners and families who made these journeys possible. Every moment of this life we are supported in known and usually unknown ways. Many deep bows......

Upon hearing of this retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, many people asked me: "why are you going there"? "What is the purpose of a retreat in this place"? Such a challenging and important question!

The most accurate answer is "I don't know". As a great Zen master once said, "'I don't know' is the most intimate". Although "not-knowing" is the clearest, most accurate answer we can give to almost any deep, existential question, it also can feel like a cop out, an avoidance. As another Zen master said "you MUST say something". So with a quivering sense of uncertainty, I will try to answer the question.

Immediately, I notice how this question links to other questions: why did I feel compelled to go to Rwanda for the retreat commemorating the genocide there? Why was I drawn to the San Francisco Street retreat, where we lived and slept on the streets for three days without money? Each of these potent and unique experiences were created by Bernie Glassman, the Zen teacher who is the founder of the Zen Peacemakers. Each event is distinct yet similar? Now, for the first time, I am consciously living with the question, what are my deepest intentions?

For Zen students the most important question at any moment is- WHAT IS IT?  This question implies-  "what is its essence"?, "what is it to be alive at this moment"? and "who am I at the moment of experiencing IT"? These are direct ways of investigating, "who am I"? In my opinion these are profoundly human questions not only Zen questions- we are experientialy exploring "what is it really"?

Beyond  "I don't know", so far, I can say:

Something in me wonders, who would I be and how would I act in these situations?

-    If in Rwanda, would I be one of the few Hutus to shelter the Tutsi's or would I be consumed by the group psychosis and join the killings? Like the father of the young Hutu man who told me that his father was killed by Hutu neighbors because he gave shelter to a Tutsi friend.
  
-    In Auschwitz, would I be one of the very rare, courageous, guards who offered help?
  
-    Would I be one of those unusual prisoners who was not solely consumed with his own survival and shared his bread and heart with others, one who becomes a lighthouse for his fellow prisoners? For example, I think of my current hero, Catholic priest, Maximillian Kolbe who offered his life so that another man who was condemned to death, a father and husband, might survive (which he did)!
  
-    Observing the utterly consistent and intolerable violence against women, witnessed in these genocides and seen in almost every culture on our planet, how can I influence this travesty in the world that we share?

And- how do all these questions help me to open my understanding and my care to the people perpetuating violence in the world today? How can I love the sinner and hate the sin? Who do I cast out of my heart?  With our incredibly polarized political world, can I remember that everyone is a human being trying to get their perceived needs met? Do I need to hate ANYONE?

And this leads me to- what is my response-ability as an affluent, white, American, male in the world today who has been blessed by authentic, transformative, liberating teachings from a young age? These are the questions I have been living with for many years, and I see now that these are a major part of my coming here.

I hope to write more about this investigation. Your reading helps me go deeper and get more precise. On my own, I might just stay with the ultimate accuracy of "I don't know" or linger with other, more superficial, observations.

Just writing that a new truth comes- In addition to the questions above, I am here to learn what I do not already know about my relationship to this precious life! You inspire me. I will write again either during or after the retreat. Thank you for your presence.

Sending Blessings and love.........Russell

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