Breaking down, broken down, into the pieces of self, the shards of who I am. These remnants that I need to explore here and now. My process very personal, but somehow still needing to unwind and offer some of it here in this public space. This place here is pretty perfect ground. I am at the Vajrapani Institute about an hour outside of Santa Cruz. My cabin is named “most secret.” I love it for many reasons, not least of which, is that very little about me has ever been “most secret.” To prove the point, here I am sharing from “most secret.”
I hope you enjoy the humor in this as much as I do. There isn’t much else about this process that is funny. It’s actually been pretty brutal, which feels right. This kind of self-examination and introspection, that anyone on a spiritual path has to engage in, is a fundamental step. It precedes and follows all progression. For me, it is a yearly cycle tied to my community and the religious calendar I am aligned with. I do the work alone, but I do it with several million other Jewishly engaged folks. So, I’m alone, but not really.
All of my faults are faults others have, but they are my unique shards of self. Each one of them has some sharp edges and while looking at them I am pierced and I bleed. I am breathing heavy and crying and working, working and my heart is pumping fast and I feel it pounding against my chest. There is such pain here, especially around the wounds I’ve generated in those I most love. I can’t talk about that here. That content is most secret because it isn’t just mine to share. I can only talk about the things that don’t involve someone else or that someone else has given me specific permission to share.
Or I can talk about this process. I want to scream from the mountain tops and howl and shout and rant and rage: “Figure your mess out, do it now! What are you waiting for? Can the planet take anymore of our obtuseness? Can those we love put up with more of our obliviousness and take one more hit to the heart? Have all the homeless and hungry been fed? Are the wars over? Can’t someone please make it all stop?”
The suffering on this planet, right NOW is so immense, black hole size large. What is one small drop of my self-examination and correction in the face of this? It’s a small offering against the tide of a very large current. Especially, if it is just me making the effort. But, it isn’t just me. Everywhere I go there are people making this effort. Every person who wakes up a little more, who extends a little more, who tries a little harder and who grows their heart muscle a little more is making this journey with me, and we are making a difference.
Even in the random novels I read, the not religious ones, the ones just for pleasure, there are offerings and reminders that link me to this time of truth seeking. This little bit came to me while taking a break from self-examination (as if the Holy One will ever let me off the hook): “Truth is everything. We do not know it, we do not know how to get it, we do not have it in our possession, God will zap it on us like a police warrant as we arrive breathless at the gates, it is entirely beyond us, truth, bloody truth, but it is everything.”¬on Canaan’s side by Sebastian Barry; Penguin Books 2011. This wonderful novel is one of the “advance uncorrected proofs—not for sale” books that I get from Northtown Books. I highly recommend it. It was very lyric, topical, painful, lovely and so moving. It’s been on my shelf for a year and came out last August, so it should even be in paperback by now and I am grateful I read it.
Then I also read this text: “Our tradition regards regret for past wrongdoing as an essential step on the road to t’shuvah and self improvement. This is why Elul, the month preceding the Days of Awe, is regarded as one of introspection or cheshbon ha-nefesh literally, “an accounting of the soul.” It is this inner examination that leads to regret for those shortcomings that have prevented us from achieving our God-given potentials. This regret, in turn, propels us to make restitution for the wrong we have done, to effectively turn to our higher selves and, hence, behave in improved fashion in the New Year.” A Faithful Heart—Preparing for the High Holy Days: A Study Text based on the Midrash Maaseh Avraham Avinu by Benjamin Levy: UAHC Press 2001
Shards spread out before me, they make a pretty mosaic mess. I have lots of mending to do. The hardest work will require profound changes in how I live my life. It isn’t enough to do this haphazardly or partially, at least not for me, not as I approach fifty, not with the suffering on this earth as it is. I just don’t have a sense of endless time to work with. I know I can’t save the world, despite my always having wanted to. I’m no longer twenty and thinking I can do everything that needs doing. I’m coming up to fifty and looking at what is left for me to do that is doable. I want to be effective, not just effusive.
I’m listening right this second to one of my favorite songs, by Rabbi Jack Gabriel. It just came through my headphones as I typed the previous sentence: “These are the desires of my heart, have compassion, do not disappear, Eyla hamda libi, hosana vi’alna titaleyv.” In the song, the lines are repeated multiple times and it has a quality of longing. This saying is from our prayerbook, and in the original it is a plea for the Holy One to grant us pardon. I love this rendering though.
So, before I disappear, my heart desires compassion.
Compassion writ large!
Another funny moment among the shattered and piercing ones here is that, for the last few years, I have been signing my letters and emails not just “Love, Nicole,” but “Big Love, Nicole.” As I walked in the door to the Vajrapani institute, for the first time, I neglected to notice the sign on the other side of the door. My daughter, who was with me for the first two days of my retreat, pointed it out to me. It was a picture of their founder Lama Yeshe with the words “Big Love” in cursive written across his chest. It is the saying of this place and one of the Lama’s teachings. So, everywhere here, there is the feeling of Big Love.
I can definitely get behind that!!!!
Gathering up the final remnants and making a neat little pile to examine further, there is one last crucial piece. All the rabbis I’ve read agree that it is important to say what you’ve done wrong, to name your mess/your shards out loud. It is not enough to just put them in a journal. Posting them on facebook won’t count either! I am not talking about confessing to another person or restitution here, but the first part, the preliminary part. After you’ve broken down and found your shattered parts, name them and ask for forgiveness out loud from whatever you believe in. If you do this exercise, I promise, profound changes in you will unfold. And, even if you don’t have any specific belief, call out anyway. Practice believing in a force of loving kindness and BIG LOVE that has your back and knows you intimately and has compassion for you. Practice trusting that you can change and that the world will have less suffering. Practice really makes perfect, and the more practicing we do, the more perfected the world will become.
Nicole shares with you from two worlds, her home, and also from her quiet “most secret” cabin in the mountains outside of Boulder Creek, California, in the haven of quiet and Big Love that the Vajrapani Institute created. She sends you strength of purpose and great gobs of love to do your part of the work.
This piece has been adapted but it was originally published in the Arcata Eye, September 26, 2012 ©Nicole Barchilon Frank