Months Into the Healing Cycle
On the Edge of Life Your Spirit Soars
Over four months have
passed since I had my pelvis shattered in an auto wreck. The other
morning my son walked by and reminded me of the opening lines from Tale
of Two Cities. He simply glanced at me and said, Remember, It was the
best of times and the worst of times." No doubt this is not the best
spring and summer of my life. It has, though, become the deepest. The
accident may have shattered my body, but it also cracked open deeper
layers within my heart. By the way, being cracked open is intense.
Oftentimes I have felt like
I was back in New Mexico, sitting on an outcropping of rock on the
canyon overlooking the Rio Grande River. Up there the wind always blew
on my face. One summer I caught nearly every sunrise on that canyon
edge just outside of Taos. Every dawn the sun rose blood-red over the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In the evenings, the thunderstorms lit up
the sky. And as the thunderclaps roared down miles of canyon they
sounded like giant bowling balls rolling and smashing off the canyon
walls. Every morning I would sit out there, in prayer, on that canyon
edge at first light. Every now and then I was buffeted by big updrafts
of wind from the river floor. Sometimes that wind would nearly knock me
off my special perch. I vividly remember how small I felt as I held
fast to the rock ledge where I was sitting.
Back then I thought the
metaphor was that sometimes we have to hold on to the edge and find
balance near the precipices of life. I was young and life was still
rich with the metaphors of youth.
This auto wreck, though,
has taken things a few steps further. It rubbed out a lot of those
metaphors and left me staring at life. If I ever thought life was a
metaphor for many things, I can now report that although life may have
metaphors, the edge of life is very real.
Here is a small piece of
advice: It is a good idea, when you find yourself on the edge of your
life, to grab hold of a piece of your spirit. Any small morsel will do.
It not only calms your heart as it flip-flops near the edge of the
cliff, but it truly is a lifeline when you feel yourself falling.
Spiritual updrafts also
blow up inner spiritual storms. No one ever said that spiritual growth
is a gentle experience. I can report some of these upsurges have
literally taken my breath away. Some have made my spirit soar and some
of them have scared the hell out of me.
In the midst of crisis the
spirit does indeed soar, and spirit soaring that is filled with
inspiration teaches us about the Love of Heaven. Spirit soaring can
also be frightening. The scary stuff bumps us into what I like to call
the Awe of Heaven. Awe, after all, is always tinged with Fear. I much
prefer the Love experience, but the suffering I have gone through since
my accident has led me to understand that the nature of growth includes
a very heavy dose of the experience of Awe -- Awe clothed in the
garment of Fear. What I can report is that both of these experience
are, by their very nature, incredibly strong. They stretch you out all
the way from Earth to Heaven.
One Said It Was Going to Be Easy
A teacher of mine once
commented about the spiritual path by remarking, No one said life was
going to be easy. If I ever had any doubts about that simple truth,
they are gone forever. The accident changed all that. While there are a
lot of exalted lessons happening here, it is also true that what I have
learned has come courtesy of the tough lessons dosed with pain.
What I knew before about
suffering and pain has now changed to what I know and experience in
suffering and pain. From all the wisdom streams I have studied I can
definitely say that all the teachers got the lessons on suffering
right. All the chapters written down through the centuries are accurate
and require our attention. If I could distill it all down to a few
words, I would simply say that suffering and crisis transform us,
humble us, and bring out what matters most in life.
It has not been easy for my
family as far as worrying about and taking care of me. Sometimes I
think it is harder for them than for me. Nevertheless, I suspect on the
spiritual level we are going through the best of times. The irony is
not lost on me. Accidents also open us to a world of meaning. Still in
all, it is a hell of a way to be blessed with meaning. But the truth
is, that is why these things are called "accidents" -- because no one
in his right mind would ever order up a serving of blessings and
meaning this way!
For years I used to teach about and marvel at how the Talmud points out
that just as we bless the good, so, too, do we bless the bad. I always
thought that was a profound concept. It is only now, when I find myself
stretched between the good blessing and the bad blessing, that I
understand how important it is to surrender to the depth of my life.
Nothing that happens is to be ignored. Everything requires attention
and mindfulness. There are spiritual gems to be recovered from the
difficult challenges. I think that is why the great Hassidic master Reb
Dov Ber of Mizrich said, Sometimes we have to sift through the ashes to
find a single spark.
5-Star Crisis Rating
You might wonder what I
mean by the best of times. My auto accident certainly deserves a 5-Star
Crisis Rating. This was, and is, a doozy. The choice we all face in
crisis is: how are we going to respond to difficult challenges? Are we
going to totally fall apart or let loose the best of who we are? (Note
we all fall apart in crisis. The question is for how long?) And as many
of you know from my book, the best of who we are means the best of our
love, caring and compassion.
I consider this the best of
times because I am in the middle of one compelling life drama and it
has tested everything I know and everything I surmised I am. I put any
major life crisis in the category of no stone unturned. Why is this so?
Simply because pretty much every aspect of our lives falls under
scrutiny. When these kinds of things happen, there is no avoiding the
inevitable meeting up with everything we stand for.
Accidents and catastrophic
events of this order of magnitude put your whole being to the test.
Early on I knew I was in the middle of my own unique test. I don't
think it is too dramatic to say I even put a label on my accident. I
put this entire event in the category of Trials and Tribulations.
Living in the middle of
this has shaken out everything I stand for. A good deal of the time I
felt like I had caught the perfect wave. The only problem was that I
also realized that I have never really had a lesson in surfing. Things
spin around in my world so fast that I sometimes experience a profound,
although not particularly pleasant, rush. Most important is to know
that even without all the fancy spiritual lessons, practices, and
teachings, we naturally come prepared to face the tough, gritty,
By the way, that doesn't
mean we transcend everything like a graceful ballet dancer. Anyone who
thinks we can pull grace out of a hat has his nose stuck in a book
under the category of spiritual fiction. We can, though, live with
grace and give love and compassion even when the best of times are
continually marinated in the worst of times. Either way it cuts, life
has meaning and blessings no matter where we find ourselves.
I remember the first night
I got home from the hospital. We rented a hospital bed and put it in
the living room. My wife and boys got everything set up for my arrival.
We decided to put my body in the living room because it is the
prettiest room in the house. It has a view of our fields and the
mountain behind our home. I can check out the deer and wild turkey in
the early morning from the window as they wander around the old apple
orchard up in the field on the left side of the house.
They even put my iMac next
to my bed along with a few of my holy books. Technology and the sacred
are becoming companions in this age. And for those who know how much I
love baseball they hooked up the cable near my bed so I wouldn't miss a
Yankee game. Baseball in the summer is a hermitage for my soul. The set
up in the living room looked even a bit idyllic. Our black lab, Jazzy,
even had room to lie right next to my bed.
As I lay in the hospital
and thought of home it certainly made me yearn for the cozy and the
comfortable. But that first night home turned into a nightmare. An
important fact -- when you are wounded, the smallest adjustments of the
body can instantly turn life into a first-rate torture chamber. In this
case the torture chamber was supplied by the medical supply people.
They made a seemingly simple mistake: They sent along the wrong
That sounds like a minor
issue. I mean, it was, after all, just a mattress. How could a mattress
torture someone? Even on a lumpy mattress you can get a good night's
sleep. But in my circumstance it was a major issue.
The mattress was hard
plastic that folded up into ridges when I lay on it. When the ambulance
folks wheeled me into the house on a gurney and put me in the bed, the
pain exploded in my body.
Here is the medical
situation: My right back side from my backbone to the end of my hip is
held together with wires, screws, pins and bolts. If you can a get a
good picture of that in your mind then you can imagine I was painfully
sensitive to pressure and touch. A hard plastic mattress was just the
thing to grind into me! I confess, I lost it. Five minutes on that
mattress and I was writhing in agony. As I lay down on the mattress on
the right side of my hip, it felt like there were about 10 nine-inch
nails that immediately pierced my skin and sunk all the way down to the
bone to split me open again.
That is not a pretty
picture. Plain and simple, it was a heavy dose of pure agony. This was
really fierce pain. The pain was so immense that it was one of those
times when I thought I simply was not going to make it. The pain was a
Acts of Love Transform Crisis
Well, there I lay. I was
writhing in agony on the bed. My son, Benny, and my wife, Elliesheva,
were looking on with a touch of horror, fear, worry and major
consternation. This was not a pleasant scene for any of us, but they
mobilized and within 35 minutes figured out what to do: They found
another mattress in the house that fit. They simply changed the
mattress and the torture instantly stopped.
Nevertheless, let me tell
you that those 35 minutes made me certain that no spy could ever
survive a full-out torture assault. I know I would have given up every
secret I knew to get out of my predicament. There is little room for
heroics when your body is flat out feeling like you are being flayed
But even here there is a profound spiritual lesson. The lesson is that
sometimes the simplest action or gesture in life can deliver the
wounded and the hurt from their deepest travail. We ought not to forget
that -- it's the lesson that teaches us everything we need to know
about gratitude and love. It's the lesson that can end nightmares. It's
a lesson about holding on and praying for hope. It is a lesson that
tells us that spirituality also needs actions. Talking about heaven is
interesting, but being a vehicle for the sake of Heaven is something
While I lay moaning, my
family not only had to act, but they had to call on their inner
strength to get them through. Even the giver has to persevere. This was
painful for them, too. But, thank God, they also knew this was only one
of many challenges that lay ahead. My lying around in the middle of my
family for all these months has changed everyone's life.
My wife told me that as I
was moaning, she and my son, Benny, went down our little hallway off
the living room to discuss what they were going to do. As they began
talking, Benny -- out of nowhere -- turned and hugged his mother and
said to her, "Mom, no matter what happens we are all in this together.
We are going to get through all of this!"
His simple act of love in
the middle of a crisis, focused them and reminded them about the depth
of their love and how they chose to be, act and respond in the middle
of the fire. When my wife told me this little tale, I said, "My love,
as far as I am concerned, if you want to know what being spiritual is
all about -- well, what went down between you and Benny is a clear
example of what that is all about. Spirituality is grounded in the
personal." I truly believe that to be the case. We often fool
ourselves, thinking that Spirit is somewhere else, in other worldly
experiences, in great rushes or ecstatic visions. I think we all would
be a lot better off if we refocused and understood that the Holy is in
our hands and in our deeds.
The sacred is manifest when
we give of our heart. When we are tender and loving to those around us,
we are in the Spirit and living the Spiritual. If not through our deeds
and actions, how else is the manifest beauty of the Sacred gong to make
it into this world? Our hands and our heart are so to speak the way God
comes into this world.
By the way, that is why I
suspect King David wrote in the Psalms -- the simple statement that
"goodness and compassion should chase me all the days of my life." If
we hunger to live the Spiritual, we hunger to serve and to give. The
deepest experience we can have in this life is the joy that fills our
hearts when we love and give to others. If somehow we can remember
that, we are bound to chase after the highest spiritual delight we can
experience -- the experience of the doing the good and living with
Reflecting Mirror of Our Lives
Later that night after
everyone had gone to sleep and as I lay comfortably in bed, I thought
about a little teaching in the Talmud that says "in whatever way a
person chooses, that is the way they are led" (Makkos 22:6).
It occurred to me after
weathering that round of pain that we do have choices on how we walk on
our path in life. Lying there I realized that while I certainly was not
able to pick the road on which I am currently walking, I can choose how
I want to be on that road. I can go down this road with a measure of
I realized that the road we are all on is a reflecting spiritual mirror
of who we are. It just takes a bit of courage to give yourself a look.
But if you look, you surely are going to see where you are led.
As much as we may not like
to admit it, we never really know who we are until we are tested. Life
does fill us with exacting measurements of our spirit. It's a hell of a
way to discover the depth of life, but still and all when you are in
the middle of it, all the choices get really simple. For me, this
nothing more than a case of "to be or not to be." For me, that is the
"question." And when faced with all this pain, I am going to try to
choose to be. I am not going to be a "not be" person.
Mysteries are Evident" or How to Take Out Soul Insurance
Opens the Heart
What is self-evident is
that my body got wrecked. What also is clearly evident is that
precisely because I was struck down, I had to learn to live with
But here's the kicker: The
pain is responsible for doors being opened in my heart. How strange it
is to have something so brutal bring out so many deep changes in my
life. There is, of course, a deep mystery at work here. The core
understanding, I suspect, flows very much from wisdom that teaches that
"by failing to accept your suffering, the pain you feel will be much
more acute and harsh." (Chesbon Hanefesh 76-77).
Implied in that teaching is
that by accepting, something else will happen. From the beginning I
simply accepted that where I am and was, was "meant to be." Why fight
accepting what had happened to me? I saw that as an extraordinary waste
of time. Instead, I chose to accept where I am and was. The result was
simply that by doing that, I found I could let go and be. It freed my
mind up enough to pursue my healing. It opened new doors to the
spiritual realms; new doors to contemplation and meditation.
But again, it is a hell of
a way to discover things lying deep in the soul. Still in all, there is
a deep connection between "broken-ness" and Spirit. When we suffer, it
is not just the body that gets broken -- so, too, does the heart. It is
never easy looking at life and seeing dreams vanish, hopes disappear,
or even life events and plans get more than put on hold.
The flip side of being helpless is that there are only a few avenues
open to you. As I lay in the hospital, everything I was accustomed to
was gone. No plans, no dreams, no visions of what I was going to do and
be next. Believe me, I am a very driven person and to have all of that
just pulled away was startling. And I could not do a thing about it. I,
the helper, was now turned into the "help me" person. In a moment, my
life totally changed.
Was that sad? You bet it
Was it simple to process?
No way! I have been on a life track for a lot of years and to have it
all vanish left me floating in a void of sadness.
Was that a good place to
be? I think so.
To change, I knew I had to
let go. To be fully in the present and attend to my needs, I had to
drop everything I had thought about what I was going to be doing with
my life. I was attached to that and letting go was sad -- sad and
poignant. But it was not depressing. The pain was depressing, but not
this. I welcomed it once I understood that what I needed to do was find
a new dawn in my heart.
There were times late at night, as I lay in the darkness in the trauma
ward, where I found myself quietly marveling and chuckling at my
predicament. For years I have given so much advice about these kinds of
matters to so many folks, and now I had to find out if I could take
some of my own advice. I found a lot of humor in that -- a wonderful
role reversal. I also found a lot of truth.
Bottom line? If I could summarize a spiritual aphorism that goes with
all of this, I would say that Rabbi Scnhuer Zalman said it pretty
clearly when he wrote: "A broken heart is not the same as sadness.
Sadness occurs when the heart is stone-cold and lifeless. On the
contrary, there is an unbelievable amount of vitality in a broken
And that is the truth.
There is and was -- in all this pain and sadness --a lot of vitality.
There is a lot of spiritual juice in all of this. Why is this so? Well,
what else is there to do in circumstances like this but to turn your
life over to God? Dependency here opened me to the recognition that I
was dependent on God. Where else could I hang on?
The ancient understanding
that suffering opens one to God certainly is on my mind. I do not claim
to have fathomed the mystery. I just know it is a good mystery. This
mystery includes, after all, the story of my life.
And the irony is that I
appear in this little section to be the protagonist. And even better,
that I don't have a clue as to the story's ending. But I am not free
from trying to fathom the meaning and preparing myself at every turn in
the road to accept what comes my way.
Prepared to Let the Meaning Flow
Along the way I have been
comforted by some wisdom words that have kept me in focus, especially
in the really rough times. I try as much as I can to remember to keep
my eye on matters at hand. I see this like a spiritual Boy Scout
mantra. You remember the motto -- "Be prepared." I have found it is
truly important not to run from challenges in life. This certainly is
one of the bigger life lessons here. Not running away is useful for
anyone who tries to flee from their lives. Bottom line -- when you
think about it, how can you run away from being you?
But when I got whacked,
nearly "bought the farm," and finally gathered my wits together, I
truly saw how this accident -- or, in fact, any major big-time life
event -- does get one's attention. I vividly kept recalling the
teaching that says, "When you find yourself in a difficult situation,
the first thought to focus on is that the situation is a test and
challenge." (Chochmah Umussar, vol. 2 p. 62)
I now see that teaching in
a new light and try to hold fast to it.
Just so we are all clear on this -- it takes a lot of grit to hold on
to things like that in the house of pain. But let me tell you, it is a
hell of lot better thinking and meditating on meaning and purpose than
lying in a cesspool of suffering 24 hours a day. To know for a fact
that there is something to be learned in the middle of crisis is a
whole lot better than being totally lost in a world devoid of love and
I do want to keep all this
spiritual stuff in perspective. God forbid, someone might think the
growth curve is upward, exciting, and continually revelatory. Well, it
is not. Life is not that way. Growth is not that way. Spirituality
certainly is not that way. I would avoid anything that tells you
When I think about my crash, though, it still almost stops my heart.
The paradox between the crash and what has happened since then
stretches my mind taut.
My hands still get cold and clammy. My eyes still sting when I shut
them. Occasionally, my hands get cold and clammy. It's true -- there
are great mysteries in life, things we can feel but not completely
understand and see.
Into the Heart of Pain, Attitude and Forgiveness
The Middle is Mystery
In the middle of the
mystery of pain, there are precious jewels to be harvested. There are
gifts of the heart to be experienced. There is incredible beauty and
poignancy in discovering the love in this world. I may have gotten pain
dealt to me in spades, but I also can tell you I have gotten more love
and compassion poured over me, through me, and around me than I ever
Often, I was asked by the hospital staff why I seemed to be happy most
of the time. They would say, Look at what happened to you. Doesn't it
ever really bother you?
While I confessed to not
being in a continual state of joy (to say the least), I also clearly
understood their question. In reality, their question was not directed
at me, but at themselves. They were asking, Would it be possible for me
to be happy if I were in Yehudah's shoes? I suspect that everyone
harbors such thoughts. We all wonder how we are going to respond to
some crushing crisis. We all wonder if it will break us. These are
We wonder, too, about how
we will handle pain. And beyond that, we wonder if we really will be
able to make amends and straighten out our lives if we are caught the
in the middle of a buzz saw.
You see, there are really
three hurdles to overcome in crisis. There are probably more, and in
fact, are, but for simplicity I think three major hurdles are
sufficient. The hurdles are dealing with pain, attitude, and cleaning
up the heart.
Pain management is a huge
issue in the hospital or for anyone who suffers from chronic
debilitating or life-ending pain. I will discuss in a later issue the
"Pain Wars" that I had with my doctors. But briefly, if you do not get
proper pain management, it is extremely difficult to heal or keep your
wits about you.
I have been living with
various stages of intense pain now for over six months and had to fight
for proper management every step of the way. Proper pain management
equals the ability to use your mind and focus your consciousness.
Without it, life is a living hell. When the pain volume is turned up
high, all you can do is writhe, cry, and pray for sleep.
There are some physicians
who have enough compassion and common sense to treat their patients'
pain. Good pain management is essential. Still and all, I find it
ironic that we live in a world today where everything is focused on the
physical. We somehow have the notion that if my pain is managed, my
life will come together. Nothing, of course, could be further from the
In any life-threatening or
profound crisis, handling pain is only one of the steps, but pain and
suffering are also great teachers. They point the way to our inner
world that needs sewing and mending. Sadly, we live in a world where we
are so afraid of sufferings teaching that we organize our lives around
anesthetizing the messages of our anxiety or pain.
Let me report to you from
the front lines of the trauma ward, where pain doesn't stalk the
corridors and hide in waiting. Pain on the trauma ward walks freely
around, touching everything and everybody, 24 hours a day. Even with
its brazen fierce presence, though, so many folks I met there did not
listen to its roaring message. For many folks, once they got the meds
and the pain went away, they ran back into the cave of denial about
I don't, in general, like
blanket, sweeping statements, but I will give you one anyway. There is
physical pain and there is psychic pain. Don't confuse the two and
think that when the physical pain goes away you are all right
psychically. Lives spent avoiding the teaching of anxiety, suffering,
and pain only punched our issues down deeper into our heart. The longer
we avoid dealing with our lives, the more trouble we find at the end.
Issues not attended to in life can come roaring out like a devouring
monster if left buried and medicated. I know that some of you reading
this now are aware of the truth of the last sentence. My advice always
is: Deal with it now.
Attitude is also -- if I
may be so bold -- everything. Attitude is everything. It is very
important in life and especially in trauma to not fight the truth of
who you are. I know I have said that before, but it is worth saying
again. Where your attitude is, so be you. Where your attitude is, so be
your consciousness. No matter what has happened in life, we have the
capacity to choose how we want to be. Allowing ourselves to be guided
by our core values unlocks a profound spiritual blessing -- the
blessing of living in the moment with grace, dignity, warmth, kindness
The Talmud pulls no punches
when sages teach that the way an individual travels on the path, that
is the way they are lead. It also cuts this teaching another way. The
way an individual travels on the path, that is how they are judged.
I am quite certain that we fear changing attitude for a very simple
reason -- fear of the unknown. While we might not like the crappy side
to ourselves, it is what we know. It is easier to delude ourselves into
thinking and identifying with what we know than risk to be what we can
The thought for most folks
in that department is downright scary. I understand that and certainly
recognize that it is rare to have a blockbuster transformation. But
still and all, there is virtue and merit in trying.
And then sometimes by the
grace of God, we get occasional gifts in life. Crisis is one of those
gifts. Crisis has the capacity to open us up to change. The trouble is
that it comes with these teachers called Suffering or Pain. We are
generally afraid of those teachers. We want to run away from them and
push them off with denial and medication. But what if we knew that as
tough as they are, these teachers truly are realized masters or angels
sent to us to wake us up to our lives and to transform our attitudes?
I am speaking here on a
personal level. This is not a global discussion about suffering. I
think we all agree that every conscious person must be involved in the
struggle to extinguish suffering in the world. But that is a different
The issue here is -- if I
am caught up in one of the chain-saw cycles of life, where I find
myself having to confront the Two Masters (Suffering and Pain), what
course and direction do I choose to take? After pain management, what
precisely do I do to learn, change, transform and grow?
What truly in my life can
motivate me? For me, I must confess that in the middle of the buzz saw,
I made a conscious decision to stay with my core; to let that light be
the beacon for myself and my relationships. Most of all, I was
motivated to do this for my children. I wanted them to see what was
possible in crisis. I wanted them to know that their father deemed it
worthwhile, even in the middle of hell, to be a person who does not let
go of what is precious in life.
I did it for them and in so
doing, did it for myself. Remember, though, I do mention the middle of
hell. I would never want anyone to think that attitude equals
perfection. Or that I did not cry my eyes out at times. I belong, after
all, to the school called the spirituality of imperfection.
for the Heart of Life
Let me share with you some
wisdom teachings that are my spiritual companions in life. I carry a
lot of teachings around in my mind and heart. In fact, I consider a lot
of these teachers my best friends and lifelong companions. In my
tradition, a holy book can be your best friend. Teachings that are for
the ages are alive to me. They are alive in spirit and, as such, I
carry them as living charges of pure wisdom inside my consciousness.
After all, when I met them I knew them instantly. Most of them zapped
my mind on the first encounter and woke me up.
Suffering is meant as a
teacher to anyone who sees it or hears about it. The suffering of
anyone in the world can serve as a tool to learn lessons that will
elevate us. (Toras Avraham, p. 54)
It is rather clear that
what we encounter in life can allow us to grow. Ignoring the world
around us is akin to ignoring the deep meaning found in life. The
message is: Pay attention!
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 100b)
states: Do not worry about what might possibly go wrong the next day.
One never knows what will occur. Perhaps tomorrow you will no longer be
in this world and you will have worried about a world that is not
"Be here now" is a strong
injunction to embrace the life we have in each moment. Straying away
from life in the present, through, creates constant worry. Not paying
attention to message in the worry is not paying attention to the life
message given now.
Seeing Life as It Is
If things do not go the way
you wish them to be, you should then wish them to be the way they are
in reality." (Magadolai Hatorah Vachssidus , vol 20, p. 107)
Again, it is OK to see your
life as it is in the Here and Now. If you wish to transform your
reality, it is a good idea to get a true fix on where you are now.
What Life Expects From Us: Words From the concentration camp
It did not really matter
what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We
needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think
of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life -- daily and
hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in
right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the
responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill
the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. (Viktor Frankl
-- Mans Search for Meaning)
If we realize that life is
asking us to respond with our core values, we awaken to the
preciousness of beauty of our life and others. We awaken to the moment
and care. We abandon spiritual practice and embrace life. We do not
worry. We do not flee. We act with grace, strength, and compassion. We
act even with imperfection, but we act.
With pain managed and
attitude transformed, then it is possible to look at what needs mending
in life. When we yearn to touch with love the souls of ourselves and
another, to sew up old wounds -- to mend lifes traumas -- ironing out
the wrinkles in life becomes paramount. Making amends and forgiveness
are the keys that unlock the heartland of spirit and land of the soul.
For many of you who have been with me on AOL at my live conference for
the last two years or so, you know that this section has been our
topic. (If you are interested in an in-depth look, I suggest you go to
the Addiction & Recovery forum at AOL and download transcripts
of our conferences on forgiveness.)
Now, of course, there are
no instant miracles to fix ones heart. But even if the bottom-line
result of our all our search for forgiveness doesn't miraculously bring
about a "perfect healing," it does allow us to live our lives so that
we no longer ignore the consequences of not only what we do, but what
has happened to us.
Each day we all face the
opportunity to accept a precious gift -- ourselves and those we love.
One of the keys to opening the door to that gift is forgiveness.
I have found that there are
seven principles that unlock forgiveness. They are:
1) Forgiveness is a choice.
2) Forgiveness is for the
sake of ourselves.
3) Forgiveness heals deep
inner pain and wounds.
4) Forgiveness is letting
go of anger and resentment.
5) Forgiveness is not tied
to forgetting. It is tied to remembering.
6) Forgiveness cant be
willed, but depends on the willingness of the heart.
7) Forgiveness doesn't let
someone off the hook. It strives, where possible, for reconciliation.
The simple truth is that
after facing our pain, and transforming our attitudes, we are ready to
mend our relationship to ourselves and others. We come to this
threshold precisely because we no longer flee from anxiety, pain and
suffering. We thirst for something more. We seek to drink from the
wellspring of our soul, not the bitter waters of our denial. In
essence, at this point we have no choice; we seek to forgive.
I remember being shoved
awake after seven and a half hours of surgery. I was in the recovery
room. The staff worked on me for hours to bring me back to
consciousness. (I, of course, remember none of that, but rely on my
Finally, in the wee hours
of the morning, I drifted back into this reality. A doctor was right
next to my face asking me questions. He asked, Do you know where you
are? I replied, No. He then asked, Do you know you were in an accident?
I answered, No. He asked further, Do you know who you are? I said back,
No. He then brought my wife in and had her come really close to my
face. He then said, Do you know her? I looked back at him and said, Of
course, that is my holy wife!
I think that says a lot
about reconciliation, forgiveness, and -- truly on a core level --
being straight with love. You see, my wife and I have this rule that
says we will hassle the truth forever. If we have a problem we talk it
out. If it entails reconciling we will work it out. Even before I went
under the knife, the last thing I said to her was how much I loved her
and my kids. I told her if I didn't come through the surgery and if
there was any stone I left in this world unturned, I asked for her
forgiveness. I told her to tell my kids the same.
The point here is that it
is a good idea not to leave any secrets lying and festering in your
heart at the end of the day. It is important to not tell yourself,
Well, this much I can do but further, no. I have done enough." Or "I
have been through enough in life that I don't have to face everything.
Or, "My life has been hard enough, I don't have to make amends on
And the point was when that
when I said goodbye to wife before surgery, I did not know if I was
going to make it back, but I knew the eternity and holiness of our
relationship. I knew that if I was leaving, I wanted to be straight.
Love is very, very deep. It is something I suspect goes beyond even
personal identity in a lifetime -- that certainly was indicated by my
reply to the doctor.
Sometimes when we cannot even find ourselves, I believe our soul mate
or our closest friends can transcend any loss. Just thinking about that
experience rocks me back on my socks.
Helplessness You Can See
Mending and reconciling
opens up new vistas of seeing the world. It turned part of my hospital
journey into an entirely different perspective. Visitors turned into
healing visitations. And the real genuine healing visits were, to me,
like spiritual visitations. They lifted my spirit. They soothed my
soul. They caressed my wounded body like a cool healing breeze. I
learned who were my friends, found new friends, and saw some of them as
When you are totally
helpless there is profound irony at work. From the state of
helplessness you can see. I often reflected on this. I certainly had a
lot of time to reflect. There I lay for weeks in excruciating pain. I
could not move. I could not turn over. I could not sit up without
assistance. I could not walk. I was catheterized. I could not wash
myself. I could not clean up after myself. I had to have someone help
me do everything. I had a 23-inch stitched and stapled wound from the
top of my pelvis down my thigh. At the bottom of the wound was a big
drainage hole dug out of my flesh, oozing and open on my thigh. It was
there to heal all the inner damage and prevent infection. I was
attached to a morphine drip. I slept countless hours.
And yet I could see things
in people more clearly than any other time in my life. Go figure that
out. How is that possible? The moment of total helplessness is at the
same time the moment of spiritual vision.
One thing I am certain
about is that we will be a lot better off in life if we recognize and
accept the fact that some heavy things are inevitably going to happen.
We are going to get sick. We are going to experience deep trauma. We
are going to die.
Every great spiritual
tradition recommends contemplating these facts of life. Every tradition
teaches that cultivating awareness of the experience of these big
issues is part of the path to awakening. To put it rather bluntly, any
problem not attended to today will make an appointment with us at some
later date. The Talmud recommends that after making a fearless
inventory of ones life when facing critical problems, if no solution
presents itself, then look toward the day of your death and awaken to
The recommendation is that
we can prepare ourselves and strengthen ourselves. Crisis and adversity
are, it seems, cornerstones of spiritual healing. I call that taking
out Soul Insurance.
Just how do you take out
soul insurance? Soul insurance requires a willingness to make the
initial down payment. Put simply, the down payment is our willingness
to deal with and face our fears. It challenges us not to be immobilized
by our fear. Fear is the immobilizer of growth and healing. We have to
remember that fear flourishes and counts on our ability to avoid what
frightens us. It makes us avoid being ourselves. It makes us avoid
making contact with others.
But to arrive at the gate
of our souls, we have to pass through the gate of fear. Granted, that
is not a pleasant prospect but it seems if we can take a closer look at
what we fear we think is coming, we can bring our anxiety into the
present and, hopefully, to some degree disarm it. The notion is to make
it less toxic and make us less reactive. And by all means not to let
fear keep us from being who we are, need to be, and to reach those who
We ought not let fear take
us away from our caring and loving others. We ought not let fear
immobilize us from giving others a hand. We ought not let fear stop us
from bestowing kindness. We ought not let fear close us off from the
During the first half hour
I was in the trauma hospital, I found myself lying on a gurney in the
hallway of the Emergency Center. The hallway was loaded with people
like me. Dozens of wounded. My first taste of triage (i.e., those of us
not close to death) meant I got the hallway. We could wait; high-risk
patients got immediate attention. I was lying next to a young man who
was 15 or 16 years old. He had been shot in the stomach a few months
back. He was hemorrhaging again and his mom brought him in for more
surgery. The head of my gurney touched the head of his. We could not
see each other, but we could talk.
Lying there, I experienced
waves of first-class terror. I knew I had a rough road ahead. My pelvis
was pulverized and shattered; my knee needed surgery. My right foot had
all the tendons and ligaments smashed to hell. My head had a big gash
and who-knows-what-else was bleeding or oozing on my body. I couldn't
take a look. I was afraid I was never going to walk. I had this gnawing
sensation in the pit of my stomach. It is an old familiar friend. I
knew it would take a lot of work to make it go away.
My wife stood next to me
for hours and held my hand. I had my anxiety and I had my love. A weird
combination, but a truthful one. We spent a lot of time talking about
how blessed we have been to be with each other this lifetime. It was a
real heavy scene and a very juicy conversation.
If you wonder why at that
time our topic was love, all I can say is that since I was waiting to
be called to surgery, it seemed that it was the most meaningful
conversation we could ever imagine. Love is, after all, the deepest
topic I know. And we went with it. When everything is being pulled away
from you in life, what is left is what means the most to you in life.
I have seen this time and
time again when folks hit the bottom. It comes about when all your
desperation and fear no longer are an option. It gets that way because
when you are truly helpless and things are obviously so beyond your
control, what surfaces is the depth of what counts in your life. In my
life, the No. 1 item always on my list is my wife and kids, and then
those around me.
As my wife and I poured out our "love talk," I lie there and we even
laughed. The gunshot-wounded kid next to my head, out of nowhere, asked
me a question.
He said, "Man, what kind of
drugs do they got you on?
I replied, Are you asking
'cause I am talking the 'love talk' with my wife, or because you want
to know what they juiced me with? I can tell you my love is real
without the shot of Demerol. What brought you in here today?
He sighed, I was shot in
the gut a couple of months back. I used to weigh nearly 200 pounds. Now
look at me. I have lost so much weight. Had my spleen taken out. Kept
bleeding on my insides and was feeling real weak. My momma brought me
in here again."
Listening to him talk got
me curious. For a moment I forgot where I was. Listening to him took me
right back to the streets. His words were so familiar to me. The kid
wanted to talk. In fact, he needed to talk. He picked me because he had
eavesdropped into the warmth of our conversation and knew instinctively
that anyone talking that talk and putting out that love was safe to
He grew up in, obviously, a dangerous neighborhood. He was scared.
While he couldn't see my face, he could sense our energy. He was in
crisis and so we talked.
I asked him next, How did
it happen? Who the hell shot you? I could hear him let out a long
breath. It was ragged, painful and tinged with what I call "chatter
breath." You know, the breathing you get when you are ready to cry and
I was shot going over to my
girlfriends house. Someone shot me because I was in the wrong
neighborhood. I was told to watch out when I visited her. But I mean,
they shot me. Some gangbanger just pulled up and tried to do me in. He
pumped one right into my stomach. I would have died right there if
someone hadn't 911'ed me and got me to this hospital.
I then asked him straight
out, You don't sound like a gangbanger. Are you one? Or did some son of
a bitch crazy just try to take you out?
His mom piped right in, My
son ain't in no gang. He is a good boy. He goes to school.
Suddenly I realized we were
right in the middle of an important conversation. I said right back,
What a nightmare. Your son has been through such hell. How do you
manage to keep it all together? By the way, my name is Yehudah and this
is my wife, Ellie. I could say, pleased to meet you, except while I am
pleased, this is the not exactly the place I had in mind to meet
They both laughed. The
young man said, I'm Curtis and this is my mom. What kind of name is
I briefly gave him my bio
and told him what my name was in Hebrew and what it meant spiritually.
He simply said, Cool. I never met a rabbi, and I never met a Yehudah.
Our conversation went on
for a while. Actually over an hour. We just laid there, head-to-head,
talking. I learned, in that hour, a lot about this kid. He used to be
athletic, muscular and powerful. He was on his high school basketball
team. The bullet had taken away his muscles, his weight and basketball.
He was in pain all the time and scared. He was afraid he was going to
die. At one point he described exactly how he was shot. Every detail
from the initial thud of the bullet that threw him off his feet, to the
speeding car of gangbangers who drove away laughing. Every detail.
Every sentence was pointed and lyrical.
My wife turned to him as he
finished and said, "You know you sound like a poet. What you just said
could have been written in an incredible poem. I immediately added,
Curtis, do you write?
Suddenly the whole scene
changed. His mom began to smile and cry. Curtis gritted his teeth and
laughed. It seemed as if the whole emergency room went quiet. What
really was happening is we had crossed a barrier and landed right in
the middle of this kids heart. He was shot and I was shattered. We were
lying head-to-head on gurneys and we touched into a place beyond
bodies, pain and fear. It all dissolved in that instant. He began to
tell me the deepest yearnings of his heart.
Right in that hallway, I
met a kid named Curtis -- 16 years old and a secret poet. My wife had
picked up on his core. Only his mom knew of his love of poetry and his
writing. Out of nowhere he began to recite poem after poem that he had
written. He was prolific in his writing and had memorized every poem he
ever wrote. After his poetry reading I said to his mother, Mom, you
gotta take good care of your boy. He is poet with a deep heart. He is a
writer. He speaks from his soul. He has to get better and you gotta
make sure he keeps writing.
the Good in Life
OK, what was happening
here? I guess you realize a lot. But what happened was that in this
bizarre wounded emergency room world, four strangers met and two of the
strangers (my wife and I) recognized and affirmed the deepest secret in
a kids heart. A secret that no one else other than his mother knew
about. It was the one secret that gave Curtis the key to his inner
life. His poetry was the expression of his soul.
To have strangers affirm
the most profound part of his life pushed him right past this fear and
depression. It affirmed him as a person. He lived in a neighborhood
where affirmations were dealt out through the barrel of a gun.
Everything precious had to be hidden and kept out of harm's way. The
trouble is that living that way, the sacred treasures of the heart can
get so hidden that they start to lose their power and their meaning. If
you try to protect yourself too much you end up protecting yourself
Curtis had a hard road
ahead. So much for our breathing a sigh of relief when we hear, after a
gun fight, that no one died. When the reports come in that people were
just wounded, taken to the hospital for surgery, and then eventually
released, I hope we realize that there is so much more to the story.
Bullets tear up your insides. The body most likely is never the same.
To heal, you need your soul
and your heart. We also I suspect need others. Our brief meeting in an
emergency trauma center affirmed a kids heart. A few minutes later they
came and got Curtis. He went off to surgery. Right before he left he
reached over and held my hand. I said to him, Don't take what went down
here as something that was just random. In a weird way, and I mean
weird, we were meant to have this conversation. You got talent and
soul. You don't have to be afraid. The road ahead may be long and hard,
but bring your words and your poems to heal you. Bring meaning to the
nightmare of your neighborhood. And share it, Curtis. It is good. It
touched me. It is you.
He just squeezed my hand
real hard. His mother gave my wife a big hug. She, too, took my hand.
She had tears in her eyes. I added, Momma, you have a good boy. You
have raised him right. I bless you that you keep him on the right track
and you keep him writing. Get him through high school. Send him to
college. You know you can do it.
I never saw Curtis or his
mom again. He is another kid I will carry in my heart the rest of my
life. For a couple of hours in the Twilight Zone of my life, I once
again affirmed that wherever we are and whatever might be happening, we
can pay attention to life and what life wants of us each moment. For
that little time, I forgot how hurt I was. I forgot my fear.
I remembered how special
each person is in this world. I remembered how important it is to care.
I remembered in my mind that God is everywhere and available in every
Giving to others is one way
to let go of fear. Giving takes us away from living trapped in the
endless loops of our anxiety. And even if the fear returns -- and it
surely does for most of us -- knowing that we can still care in the
middle of our own nightmares is about as strong a spiritual statement
as we can make about our life.
My accident continually
teaches me that to understand I have to live in harmony with my heart.
One way to find that harmony for me is knowing that I had to face my
fears. And facing fear sometimes means pushing past our fears and doing
something righteous and good. Spiritual life begins with understanding,
encountering, and dealing with fear and suffering.
Fear after, all is, that
which stifles our spiritual growth in life. Fear pushes us away from
the Self. Fear also prevents us from taking risks to grow and
experience life. It is the obstacle that stands in the way of healing.
Healing, by the way, doesn't mean necessarily healing of the body. It
does, though, mean healing the heart.
and Fear as the Teacher
Oftentimes as I lay in my
hospital bed and thought about the real possibility that I never would
walk again, I realized as long as I was afraid of being
wheelchair-bound, I was afraid of envisioning and seeing my life. Not
just life in a wheelchair, but my life in its entirety. Oftentimes as I
lay in bed, I was in limbo and did not have any answers to many
questions that surfaced. I confess that that was really scary. My
quandary was brought on by my fear of being incapacitated. I couldn't
move without help and every attempt to move brought on more pain. I
wondered how long this would go on.
My previous encounters with
pain in general were intense, but did not last for days and weeks on
end. Having my body crushed brought on a whole new awareness of pain --
the intense variety of long duration. I had no real experience of
constant pain that wears you down. Literally, it wore me down. Even
with good pain management, it was always there, gnawing at my insides,
demanding my attention and continually quietly clawing at my insides
day and night.
In time, I learned that
pain is an astounding teacher. And in order to deal with the pain that
is beyond what medication can touch, I had to cultivate and
differentiate different levels and parts of awareness within me. I very
much relied on a technique that I learned from various Hassidic
The technique called Hisbonnenut (Contemplative Meditation) or
Hashkatah, (Silencing The Conscious Mind) allowed me to focus my
attention more toward the consciousness of my soul rather than my
everyday conscious ego experience. I learned through time that that is
where the pain takes up residence. And that the deeper I experienced my
pain and fear the more I saw that it clouded my conscious awareness
which included the view I had of me and the world, and the view I held
of myself when I thought I was in control.
Obviously, I reached a
point where living with pain and fear was intolerable. It took away my
equanimity and challenged my clarity. I had to do something with my
life that was now in the category of "things I could not change.
Hisbonnenut went from
teachings that I always found interesting and that I had even worked
with to taking what I had learned from Masters and really putting it
This is what I mean -- that
pain and fear are the teachers. There was no way I could avoid their
message. It was, after all, a 24-hour-a-day message. So, on one side of
me I had the message grinding a way at me. On the other side, I had
spiritual practices that I had known about for years that now had to
come off the practice shelf and be brought onto the field of life.
The beauty of being caught
in the middle of this is that I was faced with what I love to call the
only alternative and its other possibilities. I had to face this
challenge alone, as I am certain those of you reading this who have
been down a similar path know so very well. There really comes a time
in life when things in the fear and/or pain department become so
stretched that you have to act. There is no other choice. In fact, you
have run out of options. You know -- you tried everything. The only way
out, then, is up.