learning in unlikely places

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.”

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.”

What I Learned about Self-Compassion—and Life—From My New Vacuum Cleaner

Who would have thought I could learn about self-compassion – and life – from my new vacuum cleaner? SERIOUSLY?

Truthfully, I was initially resistant to getting one of those Roomba vacuum cleaners. Who needs one, I thought. I’ve got a decent vacuum, and besides, vacuuming is one chore I don’t mind so much. But my friends impressed upon me the joys of reading a good book while your Roomba was scurrying around your floors, and then there was a sale, and who can resist a bargain, right? I succumbed.

Little did I know how much my life would change, and how much I would learn from observing Ira – our new I-Roomba, do its thing. There are so many life lessons I learned from Ira, but here are just a few:

  1. When you’re tired and need to re-charge, take a break. No matter where Ira is, whether he’s halfway down the hall or in the middle of the living room, he stops dead in his tracks, turns around, and heads for his charging station. Doesn’t look back, doesn’t wait for a “good stopping place,” doesn’t say “just one more sweep through.” Just stops and heads home to rest.
  2. When you’re at your limit, call for help. When Ira’s bin is full, he stops, makes a particular beeping noise, so we know to come and empty his bin. He doesn’t try to empty his bin himself, or try to stuff some more crap in his bin. When he’s full and knows he needs help, he calls his loved ones – us. And we’re there.
  3. There’s more than one way to get from point A to point B. So be yourself and do it your own way. You may have been taught that the best way to accomplish a task was to be systematic, make an outline, start at the beginning, and then go to the end, right? That may work for some tasks, some of the time. But ha! Ira has thrown that theory out the window. He has shown that there is no one right way to accomplish a task. Ira’s creative with his cleaning. He wanders all over the place. He may work on the office floor for a while, and then wanders over to the bedroom, and then comes back to do part of the kitchen. But in the end, he gets it all done. And it looks great.
  4. Go slow. There’s really no rush. We have a whole lifetime, and there are always more tasks. Ira took nine hours to vacuum our house the first time, and trust me, our house isn’t so big. Now he gets it done in 3.5 hours, but in that time, rests for 4.5. Yes, you heard that right. Works for 3.5 hours and takes 4.5 hours’ worth of breaks during that time. Nice ratio, no?
  5. There’s way more crap down there than meets the eye. Whoa, baby, were we surprised after Ira’s first trip around our house. And I thought I was doing a good job vacuuming. It’s like when you go to a therapist to work on one minor issue that’s come up at work, and in no time you’re talking about when you were 6 and you were bullied by a neighbor kid. Things are always more complicated than they seem.
  6. If you miss something the first time around, no worries. There’s no need to be perfect – perfect is highly overrated. And besides, there’s always another chance to come back around and fix whatever you missed. Ira misses spots all the time the first time through a room. He comes back later and scoops up that clump of dust under the chair.
  7. When you’re stuck, call for help. When Ira gets stuck, does he struggle for hours trying to figure it out on his own? Does he relentlessly beat himself up for getting stuck in the first place? Does he think of all the things he should have done not to get himself there? Not Ira! Call him “No-ego Ira.” He reaches out and sends a text. I’m not making this up. I get a text saying “Help! My right wheel is stuck!” And there I am, ready to lend a hand. He doesn’t get all wrapped up in whether he’s imposing on me, or how many times he’s asked me for favors, and if the number of times we’ve helped each other out are equal. He doesn’t feel guilty for asking me to help. If he’s in some corner of the house somewhere and gets himself wrapped up in the fringes of a rug or a stuck under a sofa, he sends a text, and that’s it. End of story.
  8. There will always be obstacles – it’s what you learn from them that matters. You can continually hit your head against the trouble spots in your life – making the same mistake over and over again – or you can figure out where they appear and go around them next time. Ira learns where the table legs and door frames are by bumping into them – sometimes repeatedly – and the next time out he avoids them.
  9. When faced with potential adversaries that want to bring you down, ignore them. Ira frequently encounters a puppy that wants to play with him, throwing a toy right in his path, or an aging cat that’s ready to pounce. He remains unfazed, focused, mindful, and simply continues on his way. Being reactive is simply not in his system.
  10. When you finish a long and arduous task, celebrate! Ira shouts out a gleeful little series of tones when he’s done cleaning.

Watching Ira on his journey around the house is such a learning experience. No wonder I’m not getting my work done …