The Meaning of Vulnerability

What does it mean when we feel vulnerable? On the one hand, it seems obvious. It means we recognize we can disappear at any moment, die or be hurt. Or that we can lose someone or something we cherish, and feel awful and frightened by that possibility. Vulnerability is a component of nightmares, fear and anxiety.

 

On the other hand, the meaning of vulnerability is more complex than it might appear.

 

When I was young, my Grandmother lived with my parents, brother, and me for half of the year. She was a short woman, suffering from difficult health problems, yet still lively and feisty. We lived in a ranch style house in a suburb of New York City. One evening, when I was six or seven, the two of us were home alone. Our dog, a Welsh Terrier named Peppy, started barking and my Grandmother and I noticed a man outside the back door to the house. Instead of first calling the police, she went to the closet and got two big umbrellas. She kept one and gave me the other, and we ran to the back door, ready to strike him if he broke in, which he did. He was quite a brazen or stupid thief to try to rob a home when a dog and two people were around. As he came through the door, we both started hitting him with the umbrellas. But he was bigger than both of us combined and easily knocked us to the floor….

 

To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project, which published the piece.

Trying to Read the Tea Leaves in the News

It seems that a dramatic, and hopefully not too traumatic, time is approaching. A time where either a greatly anticipated dream or dreaded nightmare will be enacted before us and weave the lives of all of us into its plotline. There is so much going on it is difficult to digest or keep it all together. Here is my attempt to try to understand at least a portion of what is happening so maybe we can bring about more of the anticipated dream and end the nightmare.

 

First, there’s Mueller, an apparently intrepid, moral, hard working person, a military hero, a Republican dedicated to the rule of law and to his responsibility to find the truth, seemingly heading closer and closer to finding that truth and completing his investigation. So many of us hope he will provide the answer we anticipate. But will he?

 

Secondly, there is the evidence provided by the more centrist and progressive news media (media that uses a variety of sources to cross-check the veracity of information they publish), and from Trump himself, of collusion with Russians to interfere in his election. He has, for example, bragged to Russians about firing Comey to ease pressure on the investigation of Michael Flynn. We have multiple campaign and administration figures with ties to Russia that they lied about, at least four (Manafort, Prince, Flynn and Kushner) trying to establish hidden communications with Russian government figures, and some of the same people and others working to acquire and release stolen emails. Yet, Mr. trump says there was no interference or collusion and thus he threatens our democracy. We have Cambridge Analytica, who was hired by the Trump campaign to help with their social media campaign, stealing information from Facebook in order to better spread misleading social media posts. And who knows what the investigations into Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels will yet reveal.

 

We have so many examples of obstruction of justice by this administration, of interfering with and trying to undermine the rule of law and the institutions meant to enforce the law, that our minds are reeling. We have Trump attempting to fire Mueller and succeeding in firing Comey and McCabe, threats against Rosenstein, attacks on Jeff Sessions as Attorney General for not protecting him, and for not prioritizing the President’s well-being over the Attorney General’s sworn duty to the American people.

 

Trump, apparently, not only interfered with the Mueller investigation but put pressure on the DOJ and the Inspector General to create counter-investigations of Hillary, McCabe, Comey and even President Obama. In other words, not only does he lie about what he does, but he famously counter-attacks. He tries not only to dehumanize but actually destroy the lives of those who disagree with or oppose him. Democracy depends on political figures being able to compromise and work with even those they disagree with. Not this administration. As Comey said it: “Americans need to stand up and realize that… We can have ferocious disagreements about all kinds of issues, but we shouldn’t have any disagreement about what is at the core of America, which is a common set of values.”

 

And right-wing media, like Fox News and Breitbart, acts as the voice of the right-wing, supporting and sometimes directing Trump’s mission (he often seems to repeat lines and misinformation supplied by Fox news figures), obscuring and attacking the Mueller investigation. They have claimed all the evidence from the CIA and FBI, not exactly leftist or progressive strongholds, are all faked, and continue to shout “Lock her up” when possibly the most corrupt politician to ever lead this nation struts around the stage of history. According to a report by Politico in January, Russian trolls are taking advantage of this by spreading Fox News stories to derail the Mueller investigation.

 

We have corruption, nepotism, and the President profiting financially from his position to a degree never seen before in this country. The Economist magazine called it “monetizing the Presidency.” He has made millions from GOP, foreign governments, etc. holding meetings and staying at Trump owned properties. He gets money every time he vacations at Mar-A-Lago and his other resorts. And that is just the beginning. Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the bipartisan organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said Trump’s first year in office “was the least ethical first year of any presidential administration in modern history.”

 

Last week Trump, once again, hired new lawyers, namely Rudy Giuliani, Jane Raskin, and Marty Raskin. Giuliani claims he will negotiate an end to the Mueller investigation in weeks. Trump  must be feeling the heat. However, many Republicans in Congress are still colluding with Trump to undermine the FBI and Mueller—but not all Republicans. A rare few have recently developed a conscience and backbone. There are bipartisan bills in both the House and Senate to protect Mueller. And Tom Steyer is not the only prominent figure calling for impeachment.

 

Yet, even some supposedly liberal media, as well as Democratic politicians like Cory Booker (D-NJ), have been warning Democrats that calling for impeachment, at least before all the “facts are in,” would hurt the party in the next election and cause even more political division. The evidence is not clear. Polls cite, believe it or not, increasing support for Trump. Yet, according to CNN, at least 43 House Republicans have announced retirement, more than in any recent Congress, and Democrats have been winning  a great majority of this year’s special elections. I guess it’s possible to create even more division in this country—but is it true that running on a platform calling for impeachment would undermine the Democrat’s efforts to defeat Republicans? Or is it some sort of spin to stop the Democratic party from getting too progressive?

 

Rosenstein said last week that Trump was not a target of the Mueller investigation (at that point?).  And Comey, a conservative Republican, said that he thinks Trump should be removed from office by the voters, in 2020, not impeached. Comey said in an interview with NBC, that impeaching Trump wouldn’t solve the present crisis. He claims we need a total political “reset.”

 

I realize that impeachment will not only be difficult to accomplish but will elevate the drama. But can we afford to wait to 2020? Can our psyches stand it? Can our democracy, the environment, the economy, and our position in the world endure his actions much longer? By 2020 he might have undermined the democracy so completely, undermined voting and civil rights and the legal system so deeply, given so much money to the super-rich, colluded with Russians so effectively, that we will no longer be even a shadow of a democracy.

 

And how much should the left and center reach out to the right? I think our economic interests, at least, are very similar. But will those who support Trump ever accept the fact of his corruption and possibly traitorous collusion with a Russian dictator? Or should the emphasis for Democrats be on exposing and reversing the policies the super-rich have been using for years, policies like the recent GOP tax cut, to steal wealth from the middle and lower classes to give it to themselves, and thus undermine the quality of life for millions?

 

I can’t read tealeaves and don’t know what will happen. I only know what I want to happen, and even that is filled with holes and contradictions. And I also know what I feel. I know I will have to be more alert, more able to calmly analyze what I hear, and more ready to act than I ever did before the 2016 election.

 

This moment can be seen as a call to courage, not unlike the call to adventure that is so common in literature, mythology, and movies, the moment when a character steps forward into the unknown to meet a challenge and thus grows into a full and mature person. In real life, it is never just one call. And there are so many of us—all the secondary school students opposing gun violence, all the women in the “me-too” movement, all those people who have gone to the streets and the phones. When we get down emotionally, maybe thinking of those others who are with us and need us will be helpful. This moment is a call to all people with a heart, a conscience, and a willingness to see the humanity of others, to act for the common good. To act to protect the Mueller investigation, to get people out to vote in November, and to do what we can to stop this administration’s assault on the lives of a great majority of us.

Overcoming A Fear of Awareness

In these times, how much awareness can you allow yourself? Too much awareness can feel alarming.

 

Recently, a friend told me mindfulness does not work for him. He has asthma and the last thing he wants to do is focus on his breath. Asthma can be so frightening and painful. But focusing on the breath is only one possible point of focus for mindfulness practice. There is a whole universe to focus on.

 

You can focus on something that is easy or enjoyable for you to think about, like the feel of your hands resting in your lap, or your butt touching the chair as you sit in it, or your feet resting on the floor. Or noticing whatever sensation is arising in your body or thought in your mind.  You can focus on an image of your favorite tree or what it means to have a favorite or to be favored. You can focus on an image of a clear and open sky or what it feels like to have an open mind. You can focus on what arises in you when you think of a particular person, or what happens inside you when you are in love.

 

Instead of focusing on awareness of the breath, for example, you might examine your response to simply being aware in that particular moment. What is the quality of your awareness now? Is it jittery or calm, tired or deep? When you have painful memories, you not only fear the object remembered—you fear the feeling that accompanies the memory. You fear fear. Whatever it is that has caused pain in the past is not the primary cause of your suffering. The response to the memory is the primary cause. So make your response your focal point.

 

Fear is both an emotion that can save your life or turn you away from it. It can shake you, but a shaken being either opens its eyes wider or closes them, depending on how vigorous the vibration and how you interpret it.

 

When anything is too frightening or difficult to focus on, you can shift your focus to analyzing the components of the emotion. You then shift your mind from being fearful to being analytical. Notice where in your body you feel what you feel. Notice if any sensations or thoughts arise. Notice how the feelings come and go. Certain thoughts might increase the fear, while others, or the absence of thought, might quiet the fear.

 

When you think you can’t do something, and fear or self-doubt is doing the thinking instead of more rational appraisal, practice how to shift from “I can’t,” or “I am not open to this,” to being open. Bring up in your mind the sense of “I can,” and the sense of open observation. Ask yourself: Was there ever a time that I felt I could overcome any obstacle? Was there ever a time that I openly examined some object, person, or idea? What did it feel like to openly observe or think about something? Or: What does it mean, and what does it feel like, to be courageous and able to face whatever arises in your life?

 

Mindfulness means clear observation, or moment-by-moment awareness of whatever arises for you. It is about letting things be whatever they are so you can know whatever is there. It is to treat your own thoughts, perceptions and feelings as valuable sources of learning. Thus, to say mindfulness does not work for you is to say observation does not work for you, or knowing your own mind or world does not work for you.

 

A Mindfulness Practice:

 

Sit up in a chair in a comfortable and stable position, in a place that feels safe for you. Close your eyes now or in a minute or so, or let your eyes rest on the floor a few feet in front of you. Place your attention on your feet resting on the floor. Feel how heavy or light your feet feel, how hot or cold.  You might sense your feet gently expanding, and then contracting, pressing against your shoes or socks, then letting go, relaxing, just resting where they are.

 

And then let come to mind an image or memory of a courageous action, maybe one of your own, or one you witnessed or read about. What was the courageous act? Who did it? What made it courageous?

 

Think about what courage means to you. Does courage have to be dramatic, like in some movies? Or can it be something simple, like sticking up for someone, speaking out, or doing something you never did before?

 

What does it feel like to be courageous? Imagine feeling courageous. Imagine feeling that you could face whatever it is that arises in your life. Just sit for a moment with the feeling of courage.

 

You can practice this exercise on your own or with others. You can record yourself slowly reading the above as a script and then play it back for yourself. If you’re a teacher or a parent, after researching and practicing this and other mindfulness techniques on an ongoing basis, you can lead your students or children in the practice.

 

This exercise is a simple form of mindfulness combined with inquiry. It can help you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings, of how your mind works, and how to more deeply engage with and enjoy the world. I hope it works for you.

The Wasteland of Today

“April is the cruelest month, breeding

            Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

            Memory and desire, stirring

            Dull roots with spring rain.

 

So begins The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot, first published in 1922. It is considered a landmark, one of the most important poems of the twentieth century.  I disagree profoundly with the author’s political and religious beliefs, yet find the imagery truly beautiful and able to reflect today’s world in startling ways.

 

During this hard winter of 2018, I long for spring, but fear it will never come—or, even worse, fear that the meaning of spring will be forever violated. I think of spring as renewal, as a “sea of green” (Beatles) pushing out the “dull roots”(T. S. Eliot). I might be reminded of old memories and longings. But what I see around me, politically and otherwise, is a modern version of the kingdom of the mythical, wounded Fisher King described in Eliot’s poem. ……”

 

This post, originally written in February, was published yesterday by OTV Magazine. To read the whole post, click on this link. Enjoy.

Facing Nightmares and Healing the Wounded World

I am tired of my computer. Like many of you, I go to my email and there are 150 – 250 a day, most asking for money or to save something like, well, the air we breathe or the water we drink, or whales or forests or planned parenthood or NPR or freedom of speech or the right to vote or a public education or our children from gun violence. Nothing important. So I get caught up, reading and checking on what I read, and sign petitions, send emails, or call politicians. And before I know it, two hours have passed. It feels like days have passed.

 

And during all this time, I haven’t talked to or held one physically present human being. Except sometimes, a real person answers a politician’s phone. And we chat, or mostly I chat and say what’s on my mind or ask a question. And if the other person is polite, even if I was angry to begin with, I thank the person and wish him or her a nice day. Because I want a nice day. I want change to happen. But it hasn’t. Not yet.

 

And digital social media can be fun and helpful, but also another tremendous time drain. Several people I know have said they’re taking a temporary or permanent FB sabbatical. I understand. When I’m on social media (which I only do on my desktop, never on my phone—I do have limits), I often notice, like my friends on a sabbatical, a subtle sense of distance from myself. Especially when I look at news shares, I get impatient, and the world can feel like it’s spinning so quickly it’s about to spin out of control.

 

So I ask myself, when I feel an impulse to turn to any social media platform, “Why do I want to do this now? Is it simply habit?” Developing a pause or gap between impulse and response can give us more insight into our behavior and control. How often, once we’re on FB or wherever, do we ask ourselves: “How do I feel now? Do I feel my life has been enhanced, my compassion deepened?” Practicing mindfulness of feelings and thoughts can help reduce both media usage and anxiety, both for adults and children. In fact, without such mindfulness we can contribute to our own oppression, by undermining our ability to think clearly and feel how to create a fulfilling life.

 

But no matter how difficult it is to face, our political world is spinning, and many of us are getting dizzy and angry from it. It is not a delusion or anxiety nightmare. Our civil rights and the remnants of democracy are threatened and are quickly being taken away. The earth itself is wounded and threatened as our water, parks and public lands are sold off for the gain of a few, and the safeguards on public health and safety undermined or violated. The level of corruption and nepotism is beyond anything ever seen before in this country.

 

So, I might complain about all the emails and calls, but what I really want is Trump impeached and his policies stopped. The nightmare is real, but we can’t afford to treat it as only a nightmare. We can’t run or hide or go on a sabbatical from politics. Like the monsters from nighttime nightmares, when they’re faced, political monsters turn into frightened, vulnerable weaklings—although even weaklings can bite. Even though hearing Trump’s or Ryan’s voice might make us feel sick or angry, when we face what’s happening politically, or when we make calls, march, vote, or whatever, we can feel more of a sense of power. We can feel how much the history of the moment flows through us.

 

We can slow the spinning world and turn the nightmare into something we can work on, face, and, with the help of others, alter. The world, even though it’s wounded, can heal. So, let’s work together on healing the world and ending this nightmare.

The Selves We Don’t See Walking Beside Us

We are all so much deeper than we usually think we are. Not only do we change physically, and constantly, but who looks out from our eyes at any moment of our life changes.

 

I look out my window and the scene appears to be one I’ve seen countless times before. It is familiar, almost banal. Or I walk down a street, in the town where I have worked, shopped, visited friends, and have lived for 45 years. I see shapes and colors, hear sounds, feel the hardness of the sidewalk beneath my feet, but rarely notice my personal or our collective past in the windows, trees, and buildings of the present. I don’t see Ancient Rome in the columns of storefronts or the Holocaust in the doorknob of my home. But it’s there.

 

I recently started reading Elizabeth Rynecki’s book, Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy. The book helped me see how the past exists in and frames the present. The book tells a rich story of hunting down the extensive collection of over 800 paintings and sculptures created by her great grandfather during the 1920s and 1930s in Poland, until he was murdered by Nazis in the Majdanek concentration camp. His work was sometimes stolen, certainly scattered by the war and Holocaust. The art brings alive for us a world now almost entirely destroyed, and which only a few of us can see in our minds but all of us breathe.

 

At one point, Rynecki’s grandfather is telling her a story from the war, and she suddenly realizes “how important, and yet ephemeral” are his stories. She listens, she hears, and then she feels how tenuous the story is. It depends on memory, which can disappear as suddenly as it appears.

 

And I immediately thought of my Dad, who died recently. My Dad, like Rynecki’s grandfather, was not only a beloved person, but a gateway to another world. Not only to a different time but to a different way of being, a way of being that relatives of mine had lived. Just like Rynecki, I feared forgetting his stories and thus losing the connection to this other world.

 

My Dad, as he neared his death, shared stories more and more often, as if he wanted us to carry his memories for him. I think he knew the power of stories to assist recall and carry life beyond death. He told us about his own grandfather, a caretaker of a forest in a Russian land so cold in winter a naked finger would freeze in moments. He told us about an aunt and uncle who blew up trains in the early part of the Russian Revolution. He told us about working in the US war department, where one of his jobs was to write instruction manuals to help soldiers use radar equipment—yet he never, ever saw or worked any such equipment himself. He just read other manuals and used his reason and imagination to write more easily understood instructions.

 

He told us stories about protests during the early 1930s, during the depression, to push for federal programs like Social Security. He told us about how his love for my Mom began, when they were both in high school, and which continued even after her death 71 years later.

 

Such stories make the world come alive for me, make the depth of my history come more alive. Even when the reality is horrific, hearing of my connection to it wakes me up, gives me a sense of power, that somehow history is not just a collection of facts and dates but a current that runs through me and all of us.

 

The more depths we perceive, the more sources of strength we discover. Understanding or at least knowing of our past can free us, not by glorifying or trying to resurrect it or by letting it dictate our present, but by expanding how much of what influences us we perceive. Only by perceiving and knowing what influences our way of understanding the world can we begin to act with any freedom in it. Only with such understanding can we see how each moment of our life is born out of the womb of the past but lives, as a unique creation, as the present.

 

Rynecki’s story, as I read it, touches my own, yet is so different. It is familiar yet unique. It is her story, yet it is, in some mysterious way, my own. Not only because I, too, am Jewish, but because I, too, am human.

 

*For those who celebrate Passover or Easter, I wish you a great holiday.