Inclusion and Diversity

Acknowledging Our Many Names: My Experience of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz

“Beyond right and wrong, there is a place. Here we can meet each other.”
Rumi

This November morning in 2017 was colder than I had expected it to be. It was our group’s first walk through the streets of Auschwitz 1. We were participants in a “Bearing Witness Retreat” with Roshi Bernie Glassman, who had been creating and leading these unique and meaningful retreats that take place in (former) places of war, hate, suppression and expulsion since 1994.  We were not yet aware, but it also became his last Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz…

Feeling the soles of my feet touching the cobblestones, my fists clenched deep in my pockets, I stayed a little behind our group to avoid speaking. I wondered what self-compassion tools I could use to calm myself as my heart was racing and my mind tried to comprehend the cruelty that once was present here. I brought my awareness to feeling the rhythm of my breath, consciously placing one foot in front of the other, accompanying every step with my breath. For comfort and support I found myself resting one hand on my heart and once in a while also bringing my other hand to the heart for additional support and protection. 

From this first silent immersion on the streets and around the buildings of Auschwitz 1, we continued to the desolate landscape of the ruins of Birkenau, which presented such an unexpected vast space. Being asked to avoid drinking and eating was surprising and became more and more unpleasant with each step. Beech and oak trees surrounded us and created a soft forest floor covered with autumn leaves. It stood in such contrast to the emptiness and grayness of this land in early winter. My mind wandered to how our children would love to play tag or hide and seek under the trees on the soft, mossy forest floor. I reflected on how often we are unaware of the history of the ground we place our steps on, unaware of the  injustices that might have taken place there. Our daily meetings in Council Practice became a pillar of relief for all of us. There we could voice feelings of anger, resentment, shame, confusion, numbness, grief and sadness, and listen to others share similar feelings. In these meetings I experienced a deep sense of common humanity, as we all experienced extremes and contradictions so close together. 

With each day that passed, less rational answers were available. The boundaries between “victim” and “perpetrator” started to dissolve; they didn’t seem to fit the size of the cloth anymore. Something new, unexpected, and intangible started emerging; the felt-sense of not knowing. It felt confusing and uncomfortable at first, but as my inner container grew it started feeling like the most natural way of being with each other and with oneself. At the closing circle on a meadow Roshi Glassman, sitting in a wheelchair, asked us what we had learned after a week of Bearing Witness practice. Our voices, one after the other, named the darkness of the human experience—the shadow, the horror, the incomprehensible… Roshi Glassman simply replied, “This is not what I meant for you to take away from this experience. Instead, I hope you experienced the preciousness of life.”

Bearing Witness in These Times  

I began the retreat, asking, “Where is the good?” I left the retreat learning that finding the good requires a conscious effort of seeing clearly and trying to understand deeply. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk of almost 96 years and a pioneer in interreligious dialogue, has sometimes described the incomprehensible that we humans are capable of doing to each other and that is embedded in the collective field as “something not yet good.” When we bear witness to Auschwitz, we become all the elements of Auschwitz—the good, the “not-yet good,” the known, the unknown. Then, with this awareness what we choose is no longer an act of will, but an act of letting go. When we are able to let go of the concept of who we think we are, we can enter into the space of not knowing. And not knowing is a place where change can begin.

Having grown up in Germany as “a grandchild of war,” I feel that our generation is called to look more deeply at and collectively start healing the trauma caused by war(s). Now, with  the war between Russia and Ukraine and other almost-forgotten zones of ongoing conflict where human beings are living their lives just like us who are reading this article, hopefully, we may wake up more and more to the preciousness of life that Roshi Bernie Glassman had referred to.

Practicing inner peace as a core value and a collective task and practicing self-compassion is not just for ourselves but for future generations who will once more have to live with the visible and hidden traces of war trauma. Learning to listen deeply and bear witness to ourselves, to each other, and to our planet Earth seems to be more important now than ever before, enacting what we yearn for—trust in life.

When we learn to hold the experience of both the victim and the perpetrator in our inner space, we may become more fully alive as human beings. Only then can we become “all the voices of the universe” – of those who suffer, those who cause suffering, and those who stand idly by. Because we are all those people as Thich Nhat Hanh expressed in his poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names.”

Please Call Me by My True Names – Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

If you would like to learn more about bringing self-compassion into your life or go deeper with your self-compassion practice, explore our different programs, workshops, courses and events at https://centerformsc.org/all-cmsc-offerings

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be free of suffering. May all beings live with ease.”

Igniting Self-Compassion in Africa

Vulnerable populations in developing countries have little or no access to mindfulness and self-compassion practices, which limits their ability to support their mental health and wellbeing in dire circumstances. So it is with great joy and gratitude that I share with you that among 30 applications for a Compassion Corp Grant, mine selected along with a few others in late 2021. The award of $1,500 US will be applied to teaching a full 8-week MSC class with a minimum of 15 participants to a group that would not otherwise be able to afford the course. 

To understand the significance of this grant, as well as the opportunities that may also be available to MSC Teachers, I’d like to first share some background on the Compassion Corps Grant and then share an overview of the MSC project I will be implementing in 2022 in Africa.

Compassion in Action Through Compassion Corps

Compassion Corps (CC) is an initiative to bring evidence-based compassion trainings to communities of need at no cost to participants and provide a platform where compassion trainers can unite for the greater good through compassion in action, committed to relieving the systemic suffering of vulnerable populations. 

Any certified compassion teacher can apply for a modest grant (generally ranging from $1,000-$2,000) to pay for their teaching time and expertise to support the community in which they’re working. Certified teachers offer the full 8-week program of either Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), or Compassion-Based Cognitive Training (CBCT) to approximately 20 people. ​ 

In addition to a license to teach, CC grantees must demonstrate a degree of cultural sensitivity towards, and understanding of, the communities they wish to serve. The stories of each grant are meant to inspire prosociality and compassion among not only the participants, but also the trainers. 

The vision is that each program has the potential to not only influence those who are directly affected, but an ever-expanding network of compassion and generosity. CC was initiated in 2016 by Margaret Cullen (Compassion Corps), certified MBSR teacher and founder of MBEB. 

Global Partners

My idea for the grant was designed based on the existing pre-pandemic CMSC connections to our partner Global Engagement Institute for our Kenya and Vietnam “Globally Engaged MSC Intensives” (and hopefully a future one in India) and a more recent local partner Mental Health Hub (mHub) in South Africa. My intention for the grant was to 1) strengthen these relationships and 2) share the grant with another MSC Teacher in one of these countries..

I am honored to teach together with Dr. Susan Gitau, who is a Lecturer & Chair of the Counseling Department at Africa Nazarene University, Kenya, as well as an Accredited Senior Counselor Supervisor and Counseling Psychologist Consultant, Trauma Counseling Expert, Certified Mediator, MSC Teacher, and currently a participant in CMSC’s Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy (SCIP) Professional Training Program.

Target Groups

The target groups for our course throughout the first trimester of 2022 will include counselors in the Kenya Counseling & Psychological Association (KCPA) Kiambu County and the Ministry of Education, the Kenyan National Police Service, and Faith Based Institutions working with vulnerable communities and counselors drawn from Kenya Defense Forces and Kenya Prisons Department. The counselors who have supported vulnerable individuals and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic in different sectors will be given priority for the scholarship. Most helpers suffer from burnout and performance anxiety in therapy. This has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to many helpers withdrawing from practice and frustrating clients in return. Therefore, self-compassion is very relevant in helping them cope with the subsequent helplessness and possible client harm that comes from it.” 

MSC Co-Teaching and Building a Local MSC Community

In addition to the counselor participants, four seats will be reserved for the Susan Gitau Counseling Foundation Volunteers who contributed to the translation of the MSC Teacher’s Guide (TG) into the Swahili language but had never done an MSC course. A few spots will also be reserved for mHub staff (mental health professionals) in Kigali, Rwanda, who are working with different sections of the Rwandan community in local mental health centers that work directly with different low-income communities. Most of the mental health professionals in Rwanda don’t have access to services through which they can learn new skills to develop their professional capacity to serve the most vulnerable populations in their country so these scholarships are very meaningful to the long term health of their communities.

Walk Mindfully, Listen Deeply, Grow Globally

From experience many of us are aware that it doesn’t work to “parachute” into a community to teach compassion. Before learning to teach MBSR, MSC and other mindfulness-based formats, my professional work had focused for 15 years as a consultant working globally in international development cooperation, most often in Central and South America and Africa. I am grateful for having been able to see so much of this world and immerse myself into an array of diverse communities and cultures, and I have been blessed with receiving amazing hospitality even in dire conditions. My vision is to combine these previous professional experiences in development cooperation projects with teaching compassion-based formats to vulnerable populations that have no or little access to these practices as a form of capacity building leading to ownership within the local communities. Ideally, this project will provide a mutual learning path in all directions, with participants eager to learn from one another and nourish our felt experience of common humanity. Co-teaching with Susan will allow us to build synergies that may fertilize additional MSC teaching opportunities in Africa and involve more local MSC teachers.

More about this exciting experience will be shared with you as we implement the project. We hope it will encourage, inspire and ignite you. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions at [email protected]

Mirjam Luthe, M.A. is the International Affairs Manager for the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, a certified MSC Teacher, a certified MBSR teacher, trained in the Mindful Schools Curriculum, Council Practice, and contemplative dialog. She has worked in many developing countries and stands for a socially engaged practice.

Celebrating the New CMSC Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee

As the Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, (DEIB), I am very happy to announce that the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC) has recently established a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) Committee which is a standing committee of the CMSC Board Board of Directors.  

The key objective of this committee is to advance the DEIB organizational needs, resources, opportunities, and outreach of global communities on behalf of those who have experienced social-cultural disparities and under-representation.  

Members of this committee will focus upon developing important DEIB policies, procedures and initiatives.  I have been appointed as the Chairperson of this important committee, and I would like to share the names of the dedicated members of our new committee as follows: Sade Ojuola, Gabriel Menegale Wilson, Dina Aish, Markus Bohlmann, LaTonia Clark-Chalmers, Lucy Chan, Dennis Emano, Cassondra Graff, Noriko Harth, Bill Johnson, Vesna Lakovic Van Kempen, Meera Murthi, Laila Narsi, and Oori Silberstein.  I am extremely appreciative of their heart, soul and passion for this work. They are all working diligently to bring greater social and cultural inclusion and equity to CMSC.  

I would also like to acknowledge and honor the American civil rights activist and leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This year, the annual celebration of his extraordinary life, advocacy and social justice achievements was held on January 17 in the United States. Here are two quotes that express Dr. King’s deep convictions about diversity, social equity, leadership and allyship:

“DARKNESS CANNOT DRIVE OUT DARKNESS; ONLY LIGHT CAN DO THAT. HATE CANNOT DRIVE OUT HATE; ONLY LOVE CAN DO THAT.”

“WHATEVER AFFECTS ONE DIRECTLY, AFFECTS ALL INDIRECTLY.  I CAN NEVER BE WHAT I OUGHT TO BE UNTIL YOU ARE WHAT YOU OUGHT TO BE.  THIS IS THE STRUCTURE OF REALITY.