Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Most Excellent Human Quality

a Spiral Dance essay

During my usual morning meditation and contemplation time—I start my day with a bit of time for reflection, meditation, etc., as it always makes the day go better—I've been reading a marvelous book on Jewish mysticism. I've read three or four other books on the subject over the years, but this is the best I've ever read. It lays things out beautifully, clearly, and from a deep perspective. Reading this, you realize once again how the core mysticism of so many religious traditions say so many of the same things, that you come to understand that mysticism itself is the core of the religious experience, and the rest of it is just accrued traditions and sidebar ideas. I'm not Jewish, and never have been; but I have been invited more than once into temple to experience that tradition, and I've found a lot of wisdom in the mystical tradition within Judaism; just as I have within Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, and other traditions. I don't label myself as a member of any of those traditions, although I accept the label of student and follower of the mystical wisdom traditions wherever I find them.

The book I'm reading is by Rabbi David Cooper, titled: God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical Judaism. This is what I read when I opened the book at random today, to continue reading, but not feeling like reading sequentially:

It is taught that during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur there are accusing angels and defending angels. If the defending angels do not do their job well, the world cannot continue. So God prepares all defending angels by sending them out to do a task that deepens their understanding. In one situation, God said to an angel, "Go find the most excellent quality of human experience, and return to tell me what it is."

The angel searched around the world. It saw many things. But what most impressed it was an event in which a confused man was standing in the middle of a busy road. To one side another man saw that a large truck was coming down the road too fast and would not be able to stop before hitting the dazed man. So the man on the side rushed out from the curb and reached the other just in time to push him out of the way. Unfortunately, he could not save himself and he was killed by the truck. The angel gathered up a drop of his blood and took it to God, saying, "This, I believe, may be the most excellent thing in human experience, the willingness to sacrifice one's life for another."

God replied to the angel, "You have found an excellent experience, but it is not the most excellent. Go back and find it."

The angel returned to earth and searched once again. It scanned the world, and this time the angel was attracted by the experience of a woman giving birth. The woman moaned and writhed for a long time until as last the infant was born. When she saw its little body, her pain dropped away and a warm ecstasy filled her with love. The angel reached over, took a drop of sweat from the woman's body, and returned to God, saying, "This, I believe, my be the most excellent thing in human experience, bringing life into the world."

Once again, God said to the angel, "Indeed, this is an excellent human, but it is not the most excellent. Try one more time."

So the angel returned again to find the most excellent human experience. It searched very carefully, and being an angel, it could view thousands of events at the same time. Suddenly something caught its attention. A man was running through a wooded area, and he was clearly in a violent mood. The angel quickly reviewed this man's life and found that he had just been released from jail, having served many years for another man's crime. Now, furious, he was out for revenge.

The angel followed him through the woods and saw him approach a cabin. The guilty one lived inside. He was the one who should have served the prison term. When the running man came close to the cabin, he saw a light through the window.

Standing at the window, still bent on revenge, he looked inside and saw his intended victim. The man and his bride of one year had just returned from the hospital with their new daughter. They were as happy as people can be. The angry man looking through the window watched carefully, and slowly his heart broke into pieces. He began to weep and then turned away into the woods, never to return.

The angel gathered up one of his tears and returned to God, saying, "This, I believe, is the most excellent thing in human experience—forgiveness: the ability to transcend anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge."

God congratulated the angel, saying, "Indeed, the ability to forgive is the most excellent gift in human experience. Many other things are important, but this is one of the few traits that distinguishes human potential. As a defending angel, it is imperative that you understand forgiveness; it is the only reason my creation continues. Without forgiveness, all would disappear in an instantaneous flash."

The Jewish mystical point of view is that creation is based upon compassion and lovingkindness. For the Kabbalist, forgiveness does not mean we need to embrace someone who has done a despicable act against humanity. Rather, it is focused on the degree to which we hold on to our anger or our negative feelings.

If the creation were based upon a pure system of reward and punishment, in which punishment would be the instant result of one's actions, we could not survive for long. We do things, say things, and think things that would surely overwhelm us if we had to make instant payment for unskillful behavior. The very idea that there is a time period between one's actions and the resulting "punishment" suggests that the universe is willing to wait, so to speak, for something to mediate the potential punishment.

—Rabbi David A. Cooper, from God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical Judaism, pp. 243-244

I know many people who can't let go of their anger. They nurture it, they feed it, if it starts to cool they stoke it up again. They treat their angers and hurts as though they were their beloved children, nursing a grudge beyond all reason. Of course, reason isn't involved.

I've heard many argument about revenge being justice. Some legal traditions openly define justice as revenge tempered with mercy. That's a pretty good working definition, for practical use. But none of these definitions recognize that human law and divine law aren't same; and divine law tends to be far more forgiving than we do.

There are many people I've wronged in my life, and many who have wronged me. Who am I to judge them? Who am I to judge myself? Perhaps there is more going on than I can know, for now. Perhaps each person who comes into your life who hurts you is not a trial and a punishment, but someone with whom you have some sacred contract designed to make you grow up. Perhaps each trial and tribulation is, while not a test, not a punishment, a chance to choose to take the higher road. Each opportunity gives you a choice about how you respond to the experience. We always have the choice to take revenge–an eye for an eye—and we always have the choice to forgive—go, and sin no more. Perhaps that person who hurt us for no reason offered us a lesson to be learned, not about taking revenge, but about seeing our options. And there are often third options.

There are a few points that Rabbi Cooper says in his last two paragraphs that verge of what I've heard the Dalai Lama say: that creation is built on lovingkindness; that the universe is willing to wait to something to mediate the potential punishment. When I encounter such wisdom, it comes from many traditions, from within many religions. It supports my belief that mysticism is at the heart of the world's great religions, and that at core most mystics are saying the same things. Mystical experience isn't for the select few: it's at the heart and core or every tradition, and it a universal human birthright. The rest is local knowledge, local tradition, time-bound and place-oriented, and not as universal. So I find wisdom in all the world's great spiritual traditions, and am more than happy to look into each tradition for what wisdom is there. Sectarian differences are all about who's right and who's wrong, not about what's universal wisdom. I don't think God (or Whatever) actually cares who's right and who's wrong; that's all human law and philosophy, not divine law and the action of grace.

I perceive reward and punishment, the desire to punish for a slight, the anger we carry, the hatred, the desire to be in-the-right (and show everyone else to be in the wrong), the thirst for revenge against those who have hurt us for no reason—I perceive these to be functions of what depth psychologists call the personality-ego. It's the ego that gets offended when slighted; it's the ego that holds onto anger against all reason; it's the ego that feels attacked and must both defend against attacked and also lash out in anger at the attacker. This is all egoism. It's never the higher self that wants revenge, when justice is nothing more than revenge; it's always the lower, basic, egoistic self. Which of course is a really hard part of the self to give up; because when the ego gives up control, even though its control is never more than illusory, it feels like it's dying, and fights mightily to stay alive, in control, in the seat of apparent power. Fortunately, angels are far more kind and loving than most people's egos.

I find it compelling when, in the story, the angry man's heart breaks into pieces, he weeps, and gives up his vengeance. It doesn't even matter that the guilty man never knew how he was forgiven—his own karma, his own lessons in life, are for him to learn, on his own. The wronged man need not intervene. His desire for revenge was for himself, to make him feel better about himself, and like most desires for revenge have nothing really to do with the other person; and when the wronged man lets that all go, he is freed to go live the rest of his life in peace. He frees himself. No higher power frees him, he does it himself. Not even an angel can do more than show you your choices; it's still you make them, and live with their consequences.

I think a lot of people are afraid or unable to forgive because they don't realize, or want to realize, how nobody has responsibility for their lives and choices but themselves. I can think of a few professional victims of my acquaintance who are angry and bitter at everyone and everything, and continue to insist that both their suffering and their revenge must come from others. They have completely given over their power to others: both as victims, and as victors. These are gay men who I have met, who insist that they never did anything wrong, that some outside force is punishing them for no reason, and if they could just get that outside force to back off, they could live their lives in peace. Sound familiar? I've felt that way myself.

What I've learned, though is that forgiveness—and we could also call it mercy, or the action of grace—trumps all my little-ego feelings of being slighted, or of guilt for having wronged others. The action of grace removes karma far more rapidly than we can imagine or believe; forgiveness is also about the future, the good works a person might yet do, the redemption they might yet find. The defending angel has a trump card, once it understands forgiveness: if there is a chance this person under question could do something good, could bring more light into the universe, for someone, someday, then mercy is more appropriate than condemnation.

Forgiveness must be uniformly applied: we cannot forgive others if we cannot forgive ourselves. We must be able to forgive ourselves for all the ways we have judged ourselves harshly. And we have to start with letting go of hating ourselves for being imperfect, impotent, wrong, unable to help enough, unable to be enough, unable to fit others' ideas of what we're supposed to be, unable to take back our power 100 percent, unable to succeed at our ambitions (and don't forget how ambitious we can be spiritually!), unable to just be enough, be adequate to the day, unable to love enough, unable to care enough, unable to forgive enough. Forgiving myself starts with the realization that I'm neither a superhero nor god: I have limits. Today I can find it in myself to forgive more than I could yesterday—and that's enough. If that's all I can do today, it was a good day within creation. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe I'll do better. Maybe I'll do worse. I have to forgive myself for not always being able to do better, or do more. I live with a chronic illness of which one of the major side-effects is fatigue; I can feel the waves of fatigue literally wash over me, some days, like ocean waves. It's all I can do some days to do one important thing; items fall off the bottom of my To Do list every single day, because of my continuous fatigue. I have to forgive myself for my frustration, for my anger at feeling sick more often than I feel well, for not getting enough done each day. Believe me, some days that is a real challenge. But forgiving myself for my failings and inadequacies is necessary.

And that's why taking revenge is so unnecessary: no-one in the end will judge us but ourselves. We're the ones who weigh our own souls in the scales, and choose what happens next. The gods stand by and guide us, but they do not judge us. This is a LOT of personal responsibility to be aware of—most folks run away from the idea that they have that much power over their own lives. Most folks would rather hold onto their anger and their desire for revenge (which does reinforce the ego's sense of self-importance, after all) than believe how much more power they draw back to themselves by letting that all go. We lock up our personal power in our past, we invest all of today's energy in holding onto what who has hurt us in the past, and so less of today's energy is available for today. It's a powerful thing to live in the present moment; I think many people are afraid of how powerful they would actually be if they just lived for today, with no desire to "fix" the past.

The wronged man whose heart broke into pieces watching at the window, who wept, and went away to live his own life: he understood how much power he had to affect not only the lives of others, but his own future life as well. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."—Gandhi. The man at the window understood that he would only keep himself in bondage, or put himself back in jail, in hell, by destroying the life of the guilty man whose sentence he had served. He realized that he had not the right to seek punishment against the guilty man, because it would harm not only the guilty man but innocents who loved him. He gave up his revenge, not with bitterness, although heartbreak can be as bitter as it is healing, because he knew he had no right to visit judgment on another as he himself had been judged. He could not by taking revenge undo what had been done to him; he could, however, choose to live out the rest of his life starting over as from the beginning, and make it a new life. The guilty man with his new wife and daughter might in fact meet his proper punishment someday; but it would not be up to the wronged man to do it. How could he, who had been wronged, trust himself to stop his revenge before it went too far? So he let it all go, all his revenge, not just some of it, because he knew that whatever accusing and defending angels he had arguing for his life, so did the guilty man have his own. His reckoning, and its timing, its unfolding in time, and whatever mercy given him, was not up to the wronged man, but up to himself, and his own accusing and defending angels.

How can we judge others? How can we know the most fitting punishment for another? Certainly we almost always choose a harsher judgment for ourselves than is necessary. Are we merely trying to drag the rest of the world down into our own suffering? Are we unable to forgive those we hate because they're not suffering as we are? Are we professional victims who demand everyone else be a victim too? We certainly don't judge ourselves well, because we don't have all the facts, or ignore some of the facts, in our judgments of ourselves. Would we do any better towards others? Do we have the right to try? Our justice is always imperfect; perhaps especially the revenge we take on ourselves for those things about ourselves we hate and fear. The wise wronged man knows when to stop, when to acknowledge that it isn't up to him anymore (it never was, really), when to let it go—for his own sake, even more than for the sake of others.

The most excellent human quality is, indeed, forgiveness. And it starts with that person in the mirror.

(Previous Spiral Dance essays can be found here.)

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