Saturday, August 5, 2017

Personal Reflections on Strengthening Our Capacity for Compassion, Love, and Wisdom

War, economic injustice, and environmental
destruction stem from the illusion of separateness.
Jack Kornfield

Envisioning a Spiritual Revolution

When does it first happen - this turning away from kindness, connection, caring, compassion, and love towards ourselves and others? 

Some will say that this is not their problem, that they are kind and that it is others who are unkind.

Others will say that it is our human nature to be unkind - to be violent, selfish, fearful, hateful, ignorant, greedy, self-absorbed, destructive, competitive, and concerned about only ourselves and those who are like us. They will say that humans are more likely to demonstrate these negative qualities rather than those reflecting peacefulness, generosity, empathy, inclusivity, cooperation, consciousness, compassion, courage, kindness, altruism, and love. 

Many include in their beliefs that we are born with sin and that only those who are "believers" in ________ religion and seek salvation can be saved and will be deemed worthy of the love of our Creator. Those who don't are doomed to an eternity of suffering and damnation.

Still others, and for a variety of reasons, do not stop to ask themselves why we humans act as we do. And some of us make assumptions based on little or no information or exploration.

Most of us do not want to believe that we ourselves are unkind and see the problems in the world or in our own lives as belonging solely to someone else, to an "Other" - other boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, parent(s), other family members or friends, people who identify with the "wrong" political party (i.e. Republicans or Democrats), those who are liberals or conservatives or democratic socialists, those who are Muslims or Mexicans, immigrants or homosexuals, the wealthy or the poor, men or women, this race or ethnicity or that, those who aren't real Americans/Christians/patriots, those who are stupid lefties or idiot right-wingers, etc. And the list goes on.

And, of course, many of us hold the belief system that we humans are of greater value than other animals and, therefore, more worthy than other beings of respect, care, compassion, and kindness. Many could not begin to understand my gradual transition to no longer eating anything with a face, or why it is that I will always save that tiny or huge spider that I discover got stuck in the bathtub.

There is a progression of perceptions, belief systems, and experiences within ourselves and in our lives that can occur when we are unaware of the deeper unresolved pain, fears, losses we carry in our hearts. This simultaneously also results in being cut off from a compassionate and conscious connection with the suffering and pain of others. What we are afraid to face within ourselves will also be what we reject in others. In this way we become at risk of acting out or acting in our neglected pain, and vulnerable to causing harm to others, sometimes without any conscious awareness of what is happening. 

This can happen to anyone. This happened to me, and includes harmful actions I directed toward my own children. Over the years of my healing, I have also consequently come to experience a great deal of humility and empathy for how it is that we humans can act in harmful ways without truly experiencing a conscious understanding of the impact of our actions on ourselves and others, including those we most love.

Taken to extremes, human beings go on to justify some of the many faces of both overt and subtle violence. We declare war against those Others. We demonize those who are different from ourselves. We hunt animals "for sport." We eat what we want, oblivious of and apathetic toward the realities of factory farms and rain forests being cut down. We put a dollar sign on the natural environment and pillage, pollute, and destroy the Earth, believing that the word "environmentalist" is just a con and something to disdain. We judge others to be less than ourselves, and out of those judgments justify or condone prejudice, implicit biases, cruelty, oppression, and many other forms of harm and violence. 

Sometimes we unknowingly collude in the harm of other beings simply by turning away. We become apathetic, uninformed, misinformed, overwhelmed, or shut down. Or we become righteous and certain that the problems in our families, workplace, communities, nation, and world are caused by something that we have no part in. This belief system holds that that which destroys, which is cruel, which perpetrates violence in any way only exists outside of ourselves. If some surface awareness does exist, what is occurring can also be perceived as deserved and warranted or not truly mattering. Mostly, however, violence and the roots of violence are not seen or understood, remaining on the shelf of our unconsciousness waiting for the time where we might muster up the courage to take a peak at that which hurts and scares us more than any external terrorist or foe.

However, and given that many of these realities and belief systems are normalized in our culture, it can often appear rational and justified to see human beings, at least those who we see as Other, as embodying darkness and that this is just the human condition. It's just human nature and there is nothing to be done about it. These stories hold the belief that humans will always be at war, be selfish and greedy, and just not give a damn. Some even believe that the Earth would be better off if our species just went extinct. From this belief system, the perception of our essential human nature as being one of caring, beauty, kindness, and love appears naive and certainly not true. The experience of interbeing and soulful connection with the Divine thread that weaves through all of life can sound totally foreign and ridiculous.

Much of what I describe above is familiar to me because of my own personal lived experiences. I know what it is like to experience a deep sense of separation. And I know what it is to be on a path of awakening.

As an infant, and due to our mother's severe mental illness, I was left for long hours without human touch. Having my twin brother in the crib with me was part of what enabled me to survive. 

Many do not have this experience of severe trauma. Their mothers and/or fathers were attentive and responsive most of the time. They had "good" parents. Yet, as human beings, and to one degree or another, we all experience this turning away by a primary person in our lives, this disconnect, this not being heard or seen by someone upon whom we deeply depend and at a particularly vulnerable and significant time of need. 

And this is when we first learn to turn away from ourselves - to not need what we need, to not see what we see, to not feel what we feel, and to not know what we know. Mistrust, fear, shame, anger, disconnection, judgment, and a deep sense of loss begins to seep into our small bodies. And it is this early separation, this deep experience of not being seen when we needed to be seen and embraced and cared for, that causes the first rupture in our capacity to experience empathy and compassion.

What we ultimately decide to do, consciously or unconsciously, in response to the ruptures that are part of the human experience determines if we will grow, maintain, and strengthen protective walls around our hearts or if we will engage in the work of learning to live wholeheartedly. This is the choice of whether or not we choose, consciously or otherwise, to do our heart work and to become who we most wholly are.

"The work of the eyes is done. Now, go and do the heart work." Rainer Maria Rilke


As we grow older, these crucial choices that each of us make propels us along in one of two directions. Each year of our lives we are either growing more expansive or contracted. We are laughing more deeply and frequently from our bellies, or we have more of an estranged relationship with humor. Our tears usually come easily when we are saddened and flow through us, opening and cleansing our hearts and everything around us; or we shut down our sadness and vulnerability and authentic needs and in its place depression, addictions (substance and non-substance), and inner/outer isolation begins to permeate our being. This direction points us increasingly in the direction of living lives of quiet desperation. We become more brittle and breakable. rigid and critical. And our deeper secrets remain secret even to ourselves. Without a safe place to go with the people in our lives, and within our own hearts, where there is shelter, safety, caring, kindness, and compassion, we shut down and gradually become less and less who we truly are.

If, however, we are able to root into a path of heart, we increasingly grow in awareness of our judging minds and are more and more able to catch ourselves and intervene. We cultivate and nurture a skillfulness which provides us with choices and reminders that we are able to give to our inner critic - and that scared little girl/boy inside - that we are choosing instead to allow compassion, connection, curiosity, questions, humility, and kindness to inform and direct our thoughts, actions, emotions, and needs in our relationships with ourselves and others and the world around us. 

However, if we have not cultivated and nurtured our capacity to work with our judgements and grow in skillfulness related to our hearts and the hearts of others, we are at risk of allowing the relentless inner critic to run the show with little or no boundaries or accountability or consciousness of what we are truly doing.

"There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when we make possibly the most important psychic decision of our future life and that is whether or not to be bitter." Clarissa Pinkola Estés


I lived many years believing that my problems were outside of myself. It was my crazy mother, or my emotionally unavailable husband, and on and on. Then I opened the door to allow feedback that challenged the way I saw myself and my world. I could have said f*#k you! to the counselor who told me that well people don't marry sick people, or to the therapist who said that I was also emotionally unavailable (it wasn't just my former husband!), or to the close friend who told me that my former husband is an alcoholic (at a time when I didn't believe I knew any alcoholics), or to the therapist who challenged me that I too am alcoholic, or to those who first told me that Obama is a neoliberal or that we Americans are a highly propagandized people....... And on and on and on. I could have said F*#K YOU!! and slammed the door shut on each person and on each and every one of those pivotal moments that utterly challenged the world as I knew it. 

But I didn't. Despite my fear and resistance, I was compelled to enter each new doorway again and again, to allow the familiar to fall out from under me, and to endure the not knowing while something new was trying to birth itself within my being and my life. 

The Big Lie is that it hurts less to stay asleep than to do the hard work of waking up, the work of our hearts and souls that is always beckoning. It is painful to stay disconnected! There is no authentic truth in the belief that we can stay "comfortably numb."

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Carl Jung

We all have this choice - whether or not to make the darkness conscious, whether or not to seek the gifts found in all the broken places. The impact of these life decisions is profound. There is a world of hurt, chaos, confusion, suffering, and violence that to some degree we are likely to become unconsciously stuck in and perpetuate each time we turn away rather than move toward our own awakening. We are responsible for what we are.

It is possible to stop in an ongoing way, to take a deep breath, and to take inventory of where we are on the continuum of kindness, connection, and compassion towards ourselves and others. The 4th Step in 12 Step Programs is to engage in a searching and fearless moral inventory. As we deepen in our spiritual practices, whatever our tradition, we can learn to increasingly embody this inventory in our daily lives. I experience this inventory as an empowering tool, helping me to catch myself when the old places are triggered and emerge of judging myself and other human beings. Many call this practice mindfulness, or cultivating our witnessing/observing selves. What a beautiful, amazing, and deeply loving gift to give to ourselves and others - mindfulness.

It has now been over 30 years since I was first given this concept of developing a "witnessing self" by a therapist during the first night of a weekend women's therapy intensive. She spoke of cultivating this process of noticing ourselves and our belief systems, our actions, our emotions, our triggers without judgment. I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn't even know what the word "process" meant at that time. My black/white thinking could not make sense of greys and nuance and process. Still, I was curious and worked to stay open, sensing intuitively that this was something important, really important. 

Today I experience this deep and soulful inner bow of gratitude for each gift I was offered that, although I struggled to let in and make sense of, I let in none the less. I have never forgotten this therapist's words and how it was that in my early 30's, a young mother of 2 sons at that time, and scared to death, I was able to receive what was offered and begin at that time to make my first tentative steps of observing myself. This was so foreign! I was so used to being externally referented and directing my judging mind at everyone else!

Consequently, and of course, for quite some time the "no judgment" part of witnessing myself felt unobtainable. Repeatedly I began to notice that I was swept up in judging myself relentlessly each time I tried to observe without judgment. I would end up judging my judging! Today I can have a sense of humor about this, but at the time it was just hard, really hard to take on this whole new way of being in the world. 

The truth is that it took a quite a while, as in years, to be able to simply bring compassion to that very harsh part of myself with greater consistency. Noticing and then putting the bats down and wrapping my inner critic in compassion was a huge shift for me. (This "critic" was often a fearful little 4 year old part of myself who was filled with feelings of inadequacy and feeling deeply flawed, which I compensated for and coped with by unconsciously projecting those self-judgments onto others.) As my healing and awakening progressed, I also became increasingly mindful that for those of us who judge others frequently, this is the layer under our judging. Shame, fear, loss, disconnection, feeling flawed and inadequate is what is most often buried in the depths of our judging minds. AND under all that are profound gifts. 

First, and in my own journey, I found it deeply helpful to understand that I was not modeled self-compassion. And developing this quality that was missing as a child is difficult to take on as an adult. Yet, as we begin to stop pointing all those judging fingers out there onto someone else we are given the gift of sinking into the roots of where all this judging came from and the illusion of what it protects us from...

I weep in this moment as I spontaneously find myself thinking of my 91 year old mom. Her violence was so extreme, some physical, but mostly emotional violence. As she began to be successfully treated for her mental illness at age 86, that fury that had been directed at me and my twin and all those who did not feed her extreme narcissism began to turn on herself. The targets of all her self loathing shifted and now she was the victim. Each and every time my poor mama hauled out those bats to beat herself up with - "I'm such a nuisance!" "Here comes trouble!" "I should be dead!", etc. - I reflected back love and compassion. Love and compassion to my mama who when she was asleep and full on in the grips of her mental illness, sucked the life force out of my twin brother and tried to do the same with me. John never knew the love of our mother. Now, four years into her gradual awakening, my mother is able to embody some compassion and love for herself and return it to me and others. It is never too late to deepen our capacity to love.

This is what we can do for ourselves, for one another, for our Sacred Earth Mother and for all beings. We can learn to open and heal our hearts and love. For many of us, this takes great courage, compassion, support, tenacity, and commitment. My brother was not able to enter this doorway of awakening. He committed suicide in 1978 when we were 26 years old. Some are able do this work and some are not. That said, if my mama and I can sit here today and be able to look deeply into one another's eyes and say, "I love you" and "You're my precious darling" and "You're my precious mama," anything is possible. Truly, miracles do happen! Each and every one of us can make that choice.

"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." ― Rumi


Many of us have already been on this path for some time. We hold the deep commitment to doing no harm. We commit in an ongoing way to making the unconscious conscious. We have chosen to cease the endless running from ourselves. And we are aware of taking ownership of our life choices and how important it is to grow in consciousness so that we no longer blindly project our neglected and unattended wounds onto others. We want to create new ripples. We decide to add to the peace in the world. Which always begins within our own hearts, minds, spirits, and souls.

It is said that the vast amount of what we experience as human beings is unconscious. I have found that this process of waking up asks of us again and again to let go of our limited belief systems so that something larger may be born. Surrendering attachments to the world as we know it is hard work and for most of us cannot be done in isolation. It is like we are engaged in rewiring our brains, cutting and deepening new neuro-pathways as we shed our illusions and ignorance and deepen in compassion, love, and wisdom. For those of us who have been engaged in the work of awakening for some time, we understand how vital it is to cultivate wise and caring connections and support. As we seek this support, those resources we need are likely to appear. It is like there is this great spiritual conspiracy aligning with increased synchronicities, teachers appearing, doorways opening, and more - all to assist and support us in this process of coming to know the beauty of our own true nature and that of other beings.

My experience personally and professionally are that there are three aspects of our life journeys which illuminate where we are at risk of getting stuck, or where we are more likely to continue in an ever expansive and evolving way. These three questions can be helpful:
(1) What do we feed ourselves? Are we drawn to that which expands our sense of connection, understanding, awareness, compassion, and caring for ourselves and all others? Or are we feeding our critic and that which increases our sense of separation, polarization, objectification, and belief systems which are grounded in us versus an Other? So vital to be clear about what we are feeding ourselves. 
(2) Who are our teachers? Who inspires us and strengthens our heart muscles? Who do we know we can trust for their deep capacity for integrity, truth, compassion, love, and wisdom? Who supports us in our journeys? If you have no one you can identify as a teacher, healer, mentor, spiritual guide, etc., why? Who might you seek out, from near or afar, who has the capacity to nourish your heart, mind, spirit, and soul? 
(3) What is your role, no matter how large or small, in working to be part of creating a world what has the potential to increasingly work for all? Why are you here? Especially as we grow older, I have found - and many of the great teachers illuminate that - a sense of purpose and meaning is essential to our spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. And if we are alive and breathing, it is never too late to explore, or explore more deeply and mindfully, what we feed our hearts and minds, who we choose for our teachers (mentors, healers, spiritual guides, and other resources), and what it is that gives our lives and this beautiful world we all share heart and meaning.

“In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?” ― Jack Kornfield


It is my belief that we all, in our core being, want to leave the world a better place. Whatever our religious or spiritual tradition or none at all, we are part of the Sacred web of life. We can heal our early experiences of not being seen and develop and strengthen our capacity to See. We can learn to recognize and lower our tolerance for violence, and we can transform our implicit and explicit biases into compassionate awareness. We can work to make the unconscious conscious, illuminating our blind spots and becoming ever more present in our lives and in the lives of others. We can cultivate mindfulness in our every day lives, and we can gradually dismantle the walls we have built around our hearts and minds, transforming what were once obstacles to love into bridges of deep caring and compassion. What was once a very limited circle of caring can expand in an ongoing way, growing larger and more inclusive with each year we are alive, and with the ultimate goal of excluding no one.

This can be a lifelong and deeply organic, spiritual process - a gift we give to ourselves and our loves ones and the world - and whose roots are found in the commitment (1) to do no harm and, (2) to living our lives as a prayer. We can do all this so that at the end of our lives when asked, "Did we become who we are?" we can answer a resounding YES! All the children of today and the children of tomorrow of all the species everywhere need us to wake up. Let's do it!

A Poem

The Love That Will Not Die

Spiritual awakening is frequently described
as a journey to the top of a mountain.
We leave our attachments and our worldliness
behind and slowly make our way to the top.
At the peak we have transcended all pain.
The only problem with this metaphor is
that we leave all the others behind --
our drunken brother, our schizophrenic sister,
our tormented animals and friends.
Their suffering continues, unrelieved
by our personal escape.
In the process of discovering our true nature,
the journey goes down, not up.
It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the      
center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky.
Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures,
we move toward the turbulence and doubt.
We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it.
We move toward it however we can.
We explore the reality and unpredictability
of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.
If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes,
we will let it be as it is. At our own pace,
without speed or aggression,
we move down and down and down.
With us move millions of others,
our companions in awakening from fear.
At the bottom we discover water,
the healing water of compassion.
Right down there in the thick of things,
we discover the love that will not die.

Pema Chödrön

 A Prayer

May we be at peace.
May our hearts remain open.
May we know the beauty of our own true nature.
May we be healed.


We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
Thích Nhất Hạnh 


With love and blessings to us all
on our journeys ― Molly

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