It appears that we are in a time of spiritual convergence. The rapid expansion of communications technologies has propelled the writings of countless spiritual traditions through cyberspace, making it clearer than ever that beneath their differences, they speak of the same profound truths. As Gandhi said, “Even as a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves, there in one religion, but any number of faiths,” and “All the great religions of the world inculcate the equality and brotherhood of mankind and the virtue of toleration.”
Before you object that the news is full of people killing each other in the name of religion, reread Gandhi’s words: they describe the teachings of virtually all sacred writings; what we flawed human beings do with those teachings is up to us. Even as wars wage on, a burgeoning interfaith movement asserts that in all the ways that matter, we are one. One sign is the way the same lessons about the human enterprise, individual and collective, come to us from many directions.
I spent last week at a spiritual retreat held in the Santa Cruz mountains, Ruach Ha’Aretz (“Spirit of the Earth”). One of my classes was with Rabbis Diane Elliot and Burt Jacobson, who taught ways to transform suffering to joy, inspired by the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov (“Master of the Divine Name”), Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the 18th-century Polish founder of Hasidism. Very often, his name is abbreviated as the BeShT.
The formula they taught has three elements. (Please bear in mind that this is my simplified take on ideas that have elsewhere been explored at great length and with great nuance.)
(1) Hakh’na’ah, variously translated as yielding, submission or acceptance, means yielding to what is. Very often, our suffering is amplified by our resistance or refusal to accept that it is really happening. How many times have I tortured myself by revisiting the feeling “this can’t be happening” when clearly it is? Too many to count. The BeShT counseled accepting everything that happens to you as if it came from a loving source acting with a purpose. This is often easier after the fact–“that was a tough experience, but I’m glad it happened, because it made me stronger,” for instance–but imagine how it would be to practice such acceptance every day!
(2) Havdalah, distinction or discernment, refers to understanding the nature of one’s situation, exploring responses to it and understanding what it is and is not. To me, the challenge of discernment is to pare away the husks of memory and emotion that we attach to events, to place them in perspective and in proportion. The BeShT made the practical point that ultimate fear ought to be reserved for the ultimate, awesome prospect that one’s life may be taken at any minute; then the rest then falls into perspective.
(3) Ham’takah, sweetening, is what we might call reframing: reconceiving the meaning of difficult events so that we see them in a brighter light, more as lessons than as punishment. For the BeShT, sweetening results from knowing that all things come from the same Source. For me, it is often a painstaking process of lifting my attention one step at a time from how much something hurts to how it might help: “Yes, it hurts now, but it will be better soon, I learned something important from it, and with that learning, I will be able to respond differently next time. I feel better.”
“If you are able to purify your thinking regarding what is good and pleasant about each of the occurrences that happen to you through Yielding, Discernment and Sweetening…you will then be able to hold your footing, and you won’t be toppled by the husks of evil,” wrote the BeShT 250 years ago.
From many different sources, I am at this late date learning that the greatest part of suffering is not sustaining an injury, which often begins and ends in a moment. The greatest part is reliving it, regretting it, turning it over and over in one’s mind until it gathers sufficient force to drive every other thought and feeling away.
I have been thinking how this happens collectively too: at this point, U.S. foreign policy is grounded in the same principle, magnified almost beyond bearing. We were attacked, and our leaders have repeated, revisited, reopened those wounds ever since, with no sign of healing and little sign of learning from this extended experience.
If only we recognize it, a lesson is written in the last few years, one that can be deciphered by growing numbers, and it is this: even the mighty must face the limits of their own power, of what can be accomplished by force. If we yield to the reality of power’s limits, bring our faculties of discernment to it, and sweeten it into learning, we can avoid repeating the damage. As it is for individuals, so for nations: as Gandhi, wrote, “For me the Voice of God, of Conscience, of Truth or the Inner Voice or the still small Voice mean one and the same thing.”
Despite all the background noise, so far as I can see, that voice is growing in volume every day.