The last two summers, I’ve sat weeklong silent retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. If you’ve been to IMS, as it’s commonly called, you know that you couldn’t ask for a lovelier setting for a silent retreat. The rooms are spare but comfortable, the food is delicious, the grounds are well cared-for, and the meditation hall…the meditation hall is a delight. Cavernous yet intimate, this hall comfortably sits 100 meditators on mats or chairs. Light streams in through tall windows in what was once the main chapel for a Catholic novitiate; there is nothing quite like experiencing a thunder storm in this sanctuary. After sitting in that hall for over 100 hours I have, you might be able to tell, a deep affinity for that place.
Last year, in the thick of a retreat, in this lovely hall, one of the teachers said something like “whether you’re a man or a woman…” and I felt a twinge. Like so many of us who travel in activist or queer-friendly spaces, I felt that ouch of language that carries a “microaggression” in the parlance of today—what psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines as a "brief, everyday exchange that sends denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” In this case, the group being folx who identify as genderqueer, nonbinary or trans, whose reality doesn’t fall into the man/woman paradigm. It was a moment, to be sure. In many other contexts, you could have expected a call-out, that cultural phenomenon that aims at interrupting actions or behaviors deemed beyond the pale. But, since it happened in the context of a silent retreat, something different happened.
Over the next couple of days, unbeknownst to me, what developed was a call-in. It happened between some yogis and teachers, unfolding, no pun intended, through a series of notes passed back and forth on a board, as is the custom at IMS. It was an expression of hurt, in private, to the agrieving party, with the intention to be in relationship about that hurt, and to do something different about it.
At the end of the retreat, there was a reckoning, a communal calling in where people were given the space to air their hurt, which by this time, after many more days of silence, had been refined somewhat into action. Not everyone left okay, but they were going to be okay.
This process brought the external manifestation of friction and discontent in alignment with the vaster internal landscape of feelings and intentions. It brought those misinformed words and the corresponding ouch in sync with the invisible container of relationship, which can hold complexity and contradiction.
The invisible is greater than the visible.
Rosh Hashana is known as Yom Harat Olam/the day the world is created. Not only the birthday of the world, but, kabbalistically speaking, when the world is birthed anew. Each year. Birthed, as I wrote in an email last week, with limitless possibility. So it is for ourselves too. And while that’s what’s happening metaphorically and energetically, it is also true that the world is (and that we are) the product of a long chain of circumstances, conditions and consequences of our past actions. The internal slate may be clean, but the external one is indelibly etched and carved by the past.
Rosh Hashana is a step on a journey into the interiority of our lives, of our souls. We predicate ourselves on the idea that the internal, the invisible is greater than the visible, and the idea that what happens on the inside affects what happens on the outside.
The invisible is greater than the visible.
And the pathway for this psycho-spiritual work of the invisible changing the visible we call teshuva. Usually translated as repentance, teshuva literally means return, as in returning to your highest self, a more perfect state of being. It also means answer, as in returning to the person who posed a question of you or challenged you.
There is a beautiful teaching on teshuva by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a turn-of-the 19th century hassidic master. It begins
דַּע, כִּי צָרִיךְ לָדוּן אֶת כָּל אָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת
“Know,” he says, “that you have to judge every person generously.” (1)
Dan le-chaf zchut—this wonderful tongue-twister, literally translates to judge on the scale of merit; to give the benefit of the doubt. The teaching continues:
“Even if you have reason to think that person is a rashah gamur, completely evil, it is your job, it’s necessary, to look hard and seek out some piece of goodness, some corner within that person where they are not evil.”
Taking just that much. Think of someone who’s really pissed you off this year—not even talking about political figures, but someone in your day-to-day life who trolled you on Facebook or broke your heart or did something that you might deem unforgiveable. What would it be like to try find a bit of good in that person? You could spend your entire life trying to embody the practicality of this one sentence!
“When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you really may raise them up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuva.”
Can you start to get this? Finding that bit of goodness and judging the person that way allows them to come to teshuva. I think part of what he’s talking about is this concept of complimentarity and non-complimentarity, which may be familiar to you if you’re a fan of the Invisibilia podcast.
Complimentarity, in this context, is responding to behavior with similar behavior. Someone smiles at you on the bus and you smile back. Someone flips you off in traffic, and you return the favor. It’s our natural instinct as social and socialized animals. Non-complimentarity is doing the exact opposite. It may be a familiar tactic if you’ve ever worked in childcare or parented: a child does something naughty and, instead of reprimanding them, you may chose to bring them in close. You flip the script on the situation. By seeing that their quote-unquote “bad” behavior is the expression of an unmet need—that jot of goodness crying out—and attending to the jot of goodness itself, you can bring that child back from that behavior.
By focusing on that little bit of good in a person who seems all bad, says R’Nachman, by breaking the cycle of complimentarity, and truly giving them the benefit of the doubt, you draw out something unexpected and you open up the possibility of teshuva.
“And everyone has this little bit of good, lest you think otherwise,” he continues, “there has to have been at least one little mitzvah/good deed that this person has done in their lifetime. One nekuda tova/dot of goodness, that by finding it and elevating it, that person is changed.”
I know what you’re thinking, “sounds nice in practice, but there’s no way I’m going to talk to this person ever again!” Please understand that this is not an instruction to engage someone who is physically or emotionally unsafe for you. Look, perhaps this change happens in the other overtly and directly; perhaps the act of non-complimentarity is this literal dialogue R’Nachman is counseling you to have with the rashah gamur. But perhaps the change is more subtle.
Because R’Nachman’s teaching doesn’t stop there!
“Now that you know how to treat the rashah and find some bit of good in them,” he goes on to say, “now go do it for yourself as well! I know what happens when you start examining yourself: [you find] no goodness at all! … But you too must have done some good for someone, sometime. Now go look for it!’
Keep digging, he says, until you find it. “By seeking out that little bit and judging yourself in that light, showing yourself that that is who you really are, you can change your whole life and bring yourself to teshuva.”
This exercise of digging, of finding the way to see that jot of goodness, of dan lechaf zchut, of giving the benefit of the doubt. This is the very process of teshuva.
Many years ago, Amberly and I had the merit to learn with R’Alan Lew, of blessed memory, whose book has become a classic of the spiritual High Holy Days canon. His teaching on teshuva back then has stuck with me all these years:
"You can start to forgive,” he said, “when you move from the injury that someone has done to you, to the pain it has caused."
Then, he read this passage from the late American Zen Master Charlotte Joko Beck, who pioneered the intersection of Zen and modern psychology.
In our culture the term "forgiveness" is a very loaded word. The idea "to forgive" usually implies that there is some form of magnanimous acceptance of another even though the other did wrong. This understanding of forgiveness is not what forgiveness practice is about; forgiveness is primarily about seeing through our own emotional reactions - seeing what stands in the way of real forgiveness. Real forgiveness has to entail experiencing first our own pain, then the pain of the person to be forgiven; and it is from this understanding that the barriers, the separation, between two beings can dissolve.
We have to first see and experience the degree to which our own emotional reactivity is what stands in the way of real forgiveness. We can then, and only then, truly understand that the other person was simply doing the only thing that they could do, given their beliefs and conditioning. We can then say the words, "I forgive you. I forgive you for whatever you have done to cause me pain. I forgive you because I know that what you did comes from your own pain.
R. Lew added, "when we realize that our pain comes from the same [universal] pool [of pain], we can begin to forgive.” It’s through that understanding of pain as a shared experience that we can find connection.
And I want to propose that this process, of discovering your own reactivity, connecting with its underlying pain, and therefore seeing that the one who caused you pain is living that same experience in their particular way is the process of finding both your jot of goodness and their jot of goodness. Because the part of you that is good is the part of you that is true. True in a way that can transcend all the schmutz crusted onto your life. True in a way that knows that, deep down, the other person also has that jot of goodness.
And this truth is an invitation to call each other into relationship, as I witnessed in that retreat. This truth is the invisible that, however miniscule, can overcome the visible.
According to an ancient teaching found in Talmud, teshuva was one of the seven things that were created before the world was created. (Pesachim 54a) In other words, teshuva, like that between a human and their fellow human, is part of a primordial force in the Universe that’s always been there, awaiting our notice. Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine and a mystic, teaches,
“Teshuva, which is the general elevation of the world and its repair [in other words, tikkun olam], and individual teshuva, which affects particular individuals each in their own way … together comprise one unit. (Orot HaTeshuva 4:3)
“In truth, it is impossible to rise to the spiritual yearning of the redemption of all being without an inner teshuva that is deeper than any transgression or wrongdoing.” Deeper, I would add, than the pain behind those transgressions and wrongdoings.
“Indeed, when an individual returns (does teshuva) in this manner, they, and the entire world are forgiven.” (Orot HaTeshuva 4:5) (2)
Rav Kook is not, and I am not, advocating spiritual bypass: this not about hoping that some nicely articulated thoughts and prayers are enough to stop oceans and polar icecaps from warming at alarming rates, or the rise of illiberal democracy and its nasty cousins, hatred and othering of the different and less powerful, or stop the separation of families at our borders. They’re not.
This is about the power of the invisible to change the visible. It is about doing the work—the really hard work—of a teshuva which is a complete tikkun hanefesh/repair of the soul.
Because the world won’t change if its people don’t change, and what better people to start with than ourselves.
Our challenge is to become emotionally and spiritually resourced in the face of a world that expects us to be overwhelmed and fatigued.
Our challenge is to meet with lovingkindness a world that seeks to exploit our fear.
To gather in community a world that would feed on our loneliness.
To bring relationship to a world that would disconnect us.
This is that non-complimentary flipping of the script. This is the invisible manifesting in the visible. This is teshuva.
The good news is that this hard work is really easy to do because it happens one step at a time. By committing yourself to learn or strengthen your meditation practice. By joining a class or a spiritual exploration group, exploring these issues with others. By deciding to make shabbat your spiritual practice. And by challenging yourself to give up a little bit of your loneliness and step into community.
I would love for that to happen for you at Asiyah, but we don’t hold a monopoly on any of these things. So, if what we do doesn’t do it for you, find someplace else. The important thing is to start. Take one step, then the next and the next. Let the invisible true part of you shape your reality. The world needs you to. We need each other to. May it be so.
(1) Based largely on R’Arthur Green’s masterful translation.
(2) Translation of Yaacov David Shulman