One of the joys of running a retreat center such as ours is the connection it brings with the People that step into my life when they show up at a retreat. Last summer a retired trial lawyer from California named Frank got dropped off by taxi. Frank had suffered a stroke that pushed him in an entirely new career direction. He was working with people as a life coach and came to Mountain Waters to learn about Hakomi, a body centered form of psychotherapy that supports trauma resolution.
Frank and I hit it off right away. He had a great sense of humour and an alive twinkle in his eye. Frank was an orthodox Jewish man and as he invited my to sing the ancient Hebraic songs and break the bread of sabbath I found myself welcomed into a tradition that I had always kept at
arms length. I grew up in a secular Jewish family in Montreal. But from what I could observe, neither of my parents, or grandparents for that matter, appeared to have any spiritual connection to their faith. To me the Jewish faith looked little different from the Catholic or Protestant
religions that were part of the cultural landscape of Montreal.
There were churches everywhere and a few synagogue, but as a kid I did not have the experience that there was anything spiritually alive happening in those buildings or in those religions.
You see, the judgment I had carried around for years about organized religion was more about what separated human beings than what connected them. Separated by rules and traditions, by the way each of these faiths assumed it was the only true path to God.
Our shared human history was littered with the carnage such beliefs had wrought. In my life the spiritual experiences I had had came in nature, and in moments of deep connection with myself and in healing work with others. Frank, in the open hearted way he shared his faith, carried himself, and shared with others, gave me a new experience of the spiritual dimensions of Judaism.
In Frank’s view of Judaism, it was not a source of separation, but a way of joining. I have been reading Pema Chodrun’s new book, Welcoming the Unwelcome, and she speaks eloquently of the space within us that can foster the polarization we see in the world around us. The voice of judgement we carry in our thoughts and words. Just like mine of organized religion. Separation can exist deep within us. In the difficult life experiences we have pushed away. Hidden from our awareness but able none the less to trigger our reactivity out in the world.
We can use our spiritual life to turn away from the uncomfortable truth of our pain and disconnection. We can sit on the meditation cushion and turn toward calm and bliss, looking to feel more connected to all-that-is. This kind of splitting off of ourselves into a lofty spiritual part, and a disowned shadow part, is what Chodrun is speaking to when she points to the source of polarization within us.
We are hampered in our culture by an over reliance upon the left hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere specializes in language, problem solving and abstraction. Its intelligence is keyed to look for distinction, what separates this kind of experience from that. It
sorts our experience into binary categories of “right” and ‘wrong” either/or, black and white. We have built our culture around this way of seeing the world, with daybook time, the right answers in school, and the way in which we revert to abstract thought as a default mode of function.
The right hemisphere operates differently, but in the world in witch we live, we bring less of our attention here. The right hemisphere sees not the parts but the big picture, it writes poetry, has us experience awe at the colours of the sunset, connects us to the body and to our feeling
states. It is the right hemisphere of the brain that we are using when we find ourselves able to embrace paradox. When we realize there is a deeper truth beyond right or wrong that allows us to embrace both.
I spoke to Frank over the phone a month or so after he had left. In asked him what he had taken away from his experience here with us at Mountain Waters. In his beautiful way of articulating things, Frank said that he had the experience here of staying in one of God’s Guesthouses, and that he continued to carry that with him. As I sat in the echo of what Frank had shared I realized that each of us is tasked somehow to make a new home within ourselves that can contain both the sacred and the inexplicable difficulties that life can bring. This, using Frank’s metaphor, was what it meant to live in God’s Guesthouse .
As Pema Chodrun said, to welcome everything in the front door.
To embrace it all. Past difficulties, self judgement, our own “mistakes”, To shrink the space inside us that has held good and bad at arms length. To learn to use the power of the right hemisphere to connect, not divide. So that we may connect to spirit whatever its source, to those we love, to nature, and to those experiences that bring suffering to our door. For to truly live in God’s Guest house means we no longer get to push anything away. It all belongs as an invitation to gather more of life within our embrace.