Holy Sparks

reconciliation and forgiveness with shadow selfHow well do you know your shadow self?  A thoughtful commenter got me thinking more about Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and his insights on the evil we have intended or done.  Kushner asserts that even our meanest and most despicable acts have holy sparks buried in them somewhere.

Of course, no one really wants to shine a light on his dark side or his weakest moments.  It’s easier just to move on, to focus on doing better next time and perhaps to maintain our pride by pretending it never happened.

In the Twelve Step tradition, recovery seekers undertake a searching and fearless moral inventory in the Fourth Step.  Twelve Step literature recognizes the Fourth Step as one of the most difficult and avoided steps because we resist acknowledging, much less embracing, the shadow self we will find.  A popular methodology for approaching the Fourth Step wisely starts with identifying resentments.  Those are the things others did wrong, so it’s not quite so challenging to pride.  It is universally true, however, that injuries impair how we treat others, and the Fourth Step approach continues with examining our impaired responses.  A good Fourth Step is complete when the recovery seeker takes ownership for character weaknesses that fostered his impaired responses.

Kushner is suggesting we shine the flashlight a little deeper, though.  He is encouraging us to find that shard of holiness our character defects encrusted with evil.  Yes, I had an impaired response, but what was the impetus for my response?  Was I seeking safety or emotional security?  Was I just trying to feel ok about myself?  Was I looking for love in all the wrong places?  Those are not bad things—security, affirmation and love.  Those are blessed things.  So what went wrong?

Shifting from Jewish and Twelve Step perspectives to Buddhist ideas, we have attachments to security, affirmation and love.  Perhaps early life experiences left me feeling insecure, so my grip on inner security is a bit too tight.  Those attachments become priorities in my interactions with others.  Maybe I’m a bit quick to fend others off because I’m creating a safety zone for myself, for example.  Or I put others down to feel better about myself.  Or my simultaneous desire for and distrust of true love leads me to superficial intimate encounters.

What would happen if I released my attachments to security, affirmation and love, or at least loosened my grip?  Furthermore, what would happen if I increased my awareness, not only of my own vulnerabilities but, more importantly, the vulnerabilities of others?  Perhaps with greater awareness and less attachment, I could encounter another and become aware of his need for security.  Since seeking security for myself would no longer be my top priority, I would be free to engage with that person in a way that creates a safe place for her to be herself and to feel loved.

I have been praying this week for spiritual strength to let my holy sparks manifest in caring and compassionate ways.  In breathing prayers like this, one inhales what one desires and exhales what gets in the way.

Inhale: Awareness
Exhale: Attachments

Join the conversation.  What have you learned from your shadow self?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Iterative Progress

Spiritual maintenance starts with a candid look inward.  For some people, taking an inner inventory feels cathartic and liberating.  For those who are approaching a major life change, introspection can reveal truths that validate their new direction and propel them towards it.  It can give them a new energy and peace for the next life stage.  For others, however, there is just too much pain in the past to confront it all at once.  Twelve Step recovery seekers sometimes describe the Fourth Step “searching and fearless moral inventory” as an onion with layers.  If one doesn’t have the capacity to cut to the core all at once, he peels back as much as he can handle, and then returns to peel back more as he is able.

Some people take this onion layers approach not only to introspection but also to forgiveness.  Forgiving is a key ingredient for healing and spiritual growth.  It is also an obligation in several faith traditions.  Medieval Rabbinic authority Maimonides instructed:

“The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not [forgoing the other’s indebtedness], for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.  Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims] and has asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner [forgiveness.]”

The stakes are even higher on forgiveness in the Christian tradition.  Scripture makes clear that forgiveness requires forgiving and that God extends it under no other terms.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James2:13)

Even with intellectual assent to the moral obligation of forgiveness, and an earnest desire to be rid of resentment, releasing it in the act forgiveness can take time.  Resentment acts like terrible blinders that restrict our view.  After releasing resentment for some aspects of wrongdoing, other more subtle aspects of the offense may come into view.  That gives us yet another opportunity to release resentment in deepening forgiveness.

Progress on the spiritual journey is individual.  Our eyes might be opened to great spiritual insights in a flash, and we may wander in a wilderness of uncertainty for long periods.  One child abuse survivor shared her story of coming into the ability to forgive her abuser suddenly and unexpectedly on this blog several months ago.  Whether your ability to release resentment deepens with effort over time or arrives all at once in an unexpected moment, forgiveness lightens our load on the journey.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered something you thought you had forgiven lurking in your psyche?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual But Not Religious: Forgiveness

Forgiveness just might be the most difficult spiritual work that we do in life.  There are other spiritually difficult tasks, such as putting our trust in a spiritual reality greater than ourselves.  Letting go of attachments to ideas, habits or people that give us sense of security (often a false sense of security) is another difficult one.  Forgiveness requires both trust and letting go.

Forgiveness is the release of resentment and claim to retribution.  It takes a certain emotional energy to keep tabs on what we resent and why.  Sometimes we release resentment because we just don’t have the energy to keep nursing the resentment.  An offender’s expression of sincere remorse can defuse the resentment, making it easier to justify redirecting energy to other things instead.  Forgiveness gets more difficult in the absence of remorse, like if the offender has died or is emotionally incapable of remorse.  Forgiveness is most difficult when it feels like the subject and predicate have flip-flopped.  We may want to be released (passive voice) from the hold the offense has over our psyche rather than releasing (active voice) resentment for it.  How can we reclaim the active voice?

All religious traditions have teachings of one kind or another on forgiveness.  Some practices such as Jewish atonement celebrated at Yom Kippur and the Christian sacrament of reconciliation focus on seeking God’s forgiveness, for which getting forgiveness from others and forgiving others are, respectively, prerequisites.  In my study of how different spiritual traditions approach confession, I was struck by one difference between these religious traditions and the Twelve Steps.  The Fourth Step searching and fearless moral inventory and the Fifth Step admission of wrongs to God, ourselves and another human being are primarily focused not on getting God’s forgiveness but on getting God’s help to change.  That seems immanently more pragmatic to me.

Ultimately, I believe it is also what allows us to reclaim the active voice.  As long as we focus on our resentment, we keep putting the offender in the middle of the situation.  Our injuries impair the way we treat others, and our impaired responses keep dragging our wounded past into our present circumstances.  When we take the offender out of the center and put God there instead, taking responsibility for how we respond to others becomes more important than what an offender deserves.  When we can honestly say we care more about our relationship with God or the footprint we are leaving in the world than what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch.  Getting to this stage, though, requires trust in a spiritual reality where each person bears responsibility for his own actions.  The act of forgiveness is a response to that spiritual reality, not a response to what our offender does or does not deserve.

Forgiveness also requires us to let go of several things: what we think our offender deserves, what the offender owes to us, and perhaps the relationship with the offender entirely.  Sometimes we hold onto resentment because it is the only thing connecting us to someone we think we need in our lives.  Letting go of ideas, habits or even people may be our most important step towards healing.

Join the conversation.  What helped you let go of a stubborn case of resentment?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Fourth and Fifth Step Healing

“The First Step was easy.  If I’ve gotta do all twelve, then the Second and Third can go pretty quick too, whatever they mean.  But Step Four, that’s where the real work starts.”  The Fourth Step is a searching and fearless moral inventory, and the Fifth Step is admitting aloud the exact nature of one’s wrongs to another human being and to God.

I asked one recovery seeker about his biggest obstacle starting the Fourth Step, and he laughed, “The Fourth Step dread that formed instantaneously the very first time I laid eyes on the Twelve Steps!”  Another recovery seeker, focusing on the quickest possible cure, bought one Twelve Step guide and did the first three steps, but the guide didn’t provide a simple prescription for the Fourth Step.  He bought a second book and did the same.  Disappointed in how the second book approached the Fourth Step, he got a third book.  After repeated disappointment, he realized there was no quick Fourth Step answer.  It had to come from within himself, not from a guide.

Both responses are utterly human.  This blog’s regulars will recall the fable of Sufi Mullah Nasruddin and his house key.  Nasruddin searches frantically for the key to his house outside under a lamp post.  His neighbors come to his aid, and after hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasruddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasruddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Healing, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post and to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think of us than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.

Some report the work of introspection, although painful and exhausting, to be cathartic.  They want to get the ugly secrets they have been hiding exposed to the light of day.  Where the Fourth Step can feel cathartic, the Fifth Step can be intensely emotional.  “Acknowledged in AA literature as one of the most difficult steps to take (and one often avoided), the Fifth Step is also one of the most necessary to long term sobriety and genuine peace of mind,” observes one Twelve Step guide. The guide quotes a life-long Roman Catholic, a priest who had experienced the religious sacrament of confession innumerable times, about his experience of confession in the Fifth Step:

In retrospect, I associate it with a turning point in my life: an experience of inner healing, an event that revealed to me a loving God who had always been so near and yet so far.

Join the Conversation.  Which of the Twelve Steps do you think is hardest?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

An Irresistable Invitation

Elul stirs mixed feelings for me.  The last month before the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days is a time for reflection and preparation.  It’s a time when Jews take stock of their actions over the past year and decide what course corrections they need to turn back to God to live more just, loving and kind lives in the year ahead.  It is a magnificent invitation.  Whereas Yom Kippur sees “the closing of the gates,” during Elul, the gates are wide open for all who take the necessary steps to walk through them.  With such a magnanimous and loving invitation, why do we pause at the threshold or procrastinate taking those steps?

Several traditions ponder this human reticence.  There’s a Sufi story about Mullah Nasruddin searching for the key to his house.  He looks frantically outside under the lamp post and his neighbors come to help him.  After hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house.  “Why are you looking outside?” asks the neighbor.  “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

A friend who is in recovery from addiction described approaching the Fourth Step—searching and fearless moral inventory—in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in much the same way.  When he got to the Fourth Step, he found his Twelve Step guide to be woefully lacking in helpful information for completing the step.  He bought a second guide and worked diligently through the first three steps but again found insufficient direction on the Fourth Step.  He bought a third guide and became increasingly frustrated that the book was short on answers.  At that point, he came to see that, like Nasruddin, the answers he needed could never come from an external
light but could only come from looking within.

Several Christian traditions observe preparatory and penitential seasons, namely Advent preceding Christmas and more especially Lent preceding Easter, during which introspection and confession are encouraged.  Although Catholics receive more exposure to this practice than other Christians, as many as 75 percent of US
Catholics
report they never attend confession, or do so less than once a year.

Several traditions teach the only thing that can possibly stand in the way of God’s love for us is ourselves.  When we make ourselves vulnerable in the act of honest introspection, we are rewarded with intimacy with God and with self.  Moreover, when we expose ourselves to God’s power, he can help us make the very changes we seek.

Join the conversation.  In the face of an irresistible invitation, why do we resist taking an
honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.   Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.