Feeling Yourself Again

find yourselfGroup sessions in the jail start with each inmate’s putting a name to how she’s feeling. “Fine” and “ok” don’t actually describe feelings and usually invite further questioning. Often inmates feel anxious, in which case a little conversation ensues to make provision for the inmate to get the support she might need with a particular issue. Inmates also often feel angry or frustrated, and that generally leads to conversation about the emotions underlying anger and their origin not in the present circumstance but in some past experience.

Recently an inmate responded that she felt herself, and that it had been a long time since she felt like herself. She had struggled with drug addiction since adolescence, and on one level she was referring to the feeling of a clear head. She meant more than that, though. She turned to drugs to escape herself. She believed the lie that she deserved the child sexual abuse perpetrated against her, and she hated herself for being that child. And then she hated herself for all the things she did to become someone different. Two months in jail was the first time in her adult life that she stopped running from who she was. As she shed the various pretenses she had donned like armor, she became acquainted with the vulnerable, wounded, sweet person she really was. It was a little frightening but also a relief.

Maybe I’m thinking of her story because I am feeling relieved to feel myself again. I had a close encounter with poison ivy 26 days ago, and I have been a histamine disaster area since then. The histamines drop my already low blood pressure even lower and mess with gastric acids, so I’ve felt light headed and queasy most of the month. The histamine tidal wave started to recede yesterday, and even though my skin is still crawling off me and I look like a burn victim, I am relieved to start feeling myself again.

Or maybe I’m thinking of her story because a friend loaned me Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond. In it Rohr talks about casting off elements of our assumed identity to encounter what Rohr calls the True Self, our divinely created essence. Lawrence Kushner might call it our Holy Spark. There’s a divine, good and true impetus motivating all our actions, even if some of our deeds turn out to be very poorly executed, hampered by badly impaired responses or encrusted with, in AA lingo, character defects. Using either the Christian or Jewish construct, the spiritual work is to surrender those ideas or behaviors that hold one back from recognizing oneself as the dearly loved child of God that one truly is.

It seems like we spend half our lives figuring out who we are or who we want to be and trying to live out that vision for our lives. And then we spend the other half of our lives unlearning a lot of what we thought we learned about ourselves. While it might be painful or frightening to surrender a part of one’s identity, it can also be an unburdening and something of a relief.

Join the conversation. What have you unlearned that helped you find your True Self?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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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.

I’ll Take a Mulligan, Please

Sometimes we veer off course.  It happens to the best and the worst of us.  An adroit reader responding to a post about apologies last week commented, “I wish I could go back and UNDO a few of my sorries.”

Boy, do I identify with that.  I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to magically erase from history, as if they never happened.  If I’m honest about it, though, my desire to undo the past reveals a little unfinished business.

I come from a faith tradition (Christianity) that teaches anyone can be forgiven.  We don’t deserve it, but by grace we can receive it.  The only condition is that we forgive others who did us wrong.  Now that is easier said than done, and I do not want to trivialize how difficult forgiveness can be, but other traditions have a somewhat higher bar.  The Jewish tradition teaches that one must make amends and receive forgiveness from those harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness.  The Twelve Step tradition encourages folks to recognize their wrongs in the Fourth Step and to make amends for them in the Ninth Step.

We Christians can look right past that amends step.  I regularly practice religious confession to a priest, which is a lot like a Fourth Step and a little bit like the vidui, or prayers confession at Yom Kippur.  The Episcopalian practice makes me think hard about my resentments and releasing them in acts of forgiveness.  But the religious practice doesn’t require me to look as hard at repairing the harm I caused.  Of course, I don’t really want to do that anyway, but I can’t help wondering about the wisdom other traditions recognize in making amends.

The conclusion I reached is God doesn’t revise history.  He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good.  When we make amends, we build on our own history, taking something that fell short and lifting it up a notch or two.  It is possible to feel peace with the past, but also to feel disconnected from it.  I speak from personal experience on that count.  I imagine that making amends builds a bridge to that past and redeems it, so that it is no longer something I wish never happened or that I could do over.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner poetically asserts that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and be reconciled to our past.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.  We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do.  This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations.  We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again.  And thereby transform them and ourselves.  When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Join the conversation.  Can you find a holy spark in the meanest, most hurtful things you have done?

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


A Holy Spark

The last post pondered what it is to be redeemed from wrong choices and healed from heartbreak, suggesting it is like finding a reality that was there all along but somehow hidden from view. How do we come into this new way of seeing? How do we seek out what we can’t even see?

There was a time when I focused intently on this question. I filled sleepless nights trying to visualize what my life would look like on the other side of being saved. I thought hard about what, exactly, it means to be redeemed. It sounds silly, but I dissected Mirriam-Webster’s definition. The breadth of the definition surprised me, but I could identify every single meaning of “redeem” as something that in one way or another I fervently desired.

1a : to buy back : REPURCHASE b : to get or win back
2: to free from what distresses or harms: as
  a : to free from captivity by payment of ransom
  b : to extricate from or help to overcome something detrimental
  c : to release from blame or DEBT : CLEAR
  d : to free from the consequences of sin
3: to change for the better : REFORM
4: REPAIR, RESTORE
5a : to free from a lein by payment of an amount secured thereby
  b (1): to remove the obligation of by payment
     (2): to exchange for something of value
  c : to make good : FULFILL
6a : to atone for : EXPIATE
  b (1) : to offset the bad effect of
     (2) : to make worthwhile : RETRIEVE

The returning to God is not merely going back to our original proper course as if we had never veered off.  It’s greater than that. God wins us back, extricates us, pays our ransom, and conquers heartbreak in an act of unceasing unconditional love. I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to erase from history, as if they never happened. That desire is not authentic, though. God doesn’t revise history. He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good. He makes them worthwhile.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner asserts that we should not condemn the wrongdoing, but rather embrace it for what it is.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

Kushner poetically concludes that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and reconcile ourselves to ourselves and to God.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Made in the image of God, that holy spark was always there, even in the meanest, most spiteful and damaging acts. Our journey brings us to healing when we finally can see that holy spark in ourselves and in those who hurt us most.

Join the conversation. Has surrendering to God’s relentless quest for you brought you into a new way of seeing?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.