mindfulness

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.”

10 Self-Compassion Practices for the Crisis in Ukraine

By Chris Germer, PhD and Kristin Neff, PhD

Center for Mindful Self-Compassion Co-Founders

 

The world is in shock as Ukraine is mercilessly bombarded by its neighbor and thousands of innocent people are being senselessly killed or injured. No one knows how or when this crisis will end. The war is taking a toll on everyone, especially following in the wake of the global pandemic. Fortunately, nations are also pulling together to help Ukraine protect itself and individual citizens are opening their homes to refugees pouring out of Ukraine. 

Most of the world’s population is witnessing these tragic events through the news media, physically distant from the war. Questions naturally arise: “What can I do?” and “How can I take care of my heart and mind as this horrific humanitarian crisis unfolds before my eyes?”

Below are 10 self-compassion practices from the Mindful Self-Compassion program that can help you bear this terrible tragedy, along with brief explanations. Most of the practices can be found in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and for those practices marked with an asterisk (*), free guided recordings are available on the CMSC website page, “Guided Meditations and Exercises.”

  • Giving and Receiving Compassion* – When we are exposed to disturbing news from Ukraine, we experience real, personal pain. That’s because the human brain is designed to feel what others are feeling. Of course, the people in harm’s way suffer much more than those who witness it. How do we access the resource of compassion in a way that excludes no one, including ourselves? The practice of breathing compassion in for ourselves and out for others can help us remain open to suffering on all sides, and emotionally connected despite the intense and disturbing emotions that may arise.  Please remember to breathe in for yourself as often as you need before breathing out for others. Also, if an impulse arises to follow your exhalation into some form of action on behalf of others, go ahead and do so. 
  • Self-Compassion Break* – This practice helps us to validate our pain (including vicarious pain), connect with common humanity, and bring kindness to ourselves—comprising all three aspects of self-compassion. First, we need to be able to say, “This is a moment of suffering” and to allow the experience to be as it is, at least for a moment. Then we remember, “I am not alone” and that everyone suffers, although not in the same way and to the same extent. After that, kindness is the most natural thing in the world. 
  • Fierce Self-Compassion* – When there is injustice in the world, there can be no lasting inner or outer peace.  Therefore, sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is to take a stand against oppression. That’s fierce self-compassion—protecting against the occurrence of suffering as best we can. The three components of self-compassion – mindfulness, common humanity and kindness – manifest as “brave, empowered clarity” when aimed at protection. When thinking about the injustice happening in Ukraine, we can use mindfulness to see clearly and be present with what’s occurring.  Common humanity allows us to become empowered as we stand together as nations in the free world.  And kindness manifests as bravery and courage, as exemplified by Ukrainians defending their homeland but also by those outside of the conflict being willing to make sacrifices to help those in need of protection. You can practice a Fierce Self-Compassion Break to cultivate this energy, if you like.
  • Compassionate U-Turn – To bring compassion to yourself, ask yourself, “How would I treat a friend or loved one right now who was feeling like I am?” and then do the same for yourself.  You can also offer yourself kindness in the form of soothing touch—gently touching or massaging the part of your body that is holding the most stress. Or you can offer yourself encouraging words—asking yourself the question, “What do I need to hear right now?” and then repeating those same words, over and over, for yourself.  
  • Soles of the Feet – When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we need to anchor ourselves in the present moment. We suffer unnecessarily when we ruminate over the past or fret about the future. To come into the present moment, you can take a walk, feeling the changing sensations in the soles of your feet, and if you like, imagine that you are leaving a compassionate footprint on the earth with each step. You can also anchor yourself in the present moment with any of your senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. 
  • Affectionate Breathing* – Another way of staying present, and also receiving comfort when we need it the most, is by feeling the rhythm of our own breathing. Affectionate Breathing is less about developing concentration and more about allowing ourselves to be internally rocked and caressed by the rhythm of the breath.  If you notice yourself observing your breath, at a slight remove from the breath, see if you can just feel the physical sensation of the body rhythmically breathing in and out. This practice helps create a sense of inner safety and trust in the midst of an emotional storm.
  • Loving-Kindness Meditation* – Loving-kindness meditation taps into the power of language, but also connection and caring. When you feel the suffering of the Ukrainian people, take a moment and see if you can find words that capture your deepest wishes.  For example, “May you be safe and free from harm” “May you be free from suffering.” Then, whenever you experience empathic distress, quietly repeat your phrases. To sustain your compassion, please don’t forget to include yourself in the circle of your compassion. And if you feel inspired to take action on behalf of the Ukrainian people, that will also benefit yourself.  When compassion is in full bloom, it is omnidirectional.  
  • Being with Difficult Emotions* – If you find that your compassion is becoming overshadowed by difficult emotions related to the war, such as anxiety or despair, or if you start demonizing a whole group of people because of the behavior of their leaders, you might try working with the emotion directly to prevent unnecessary suffering. Toward that end, try labeling the emotion in a kind and validating way, “Oh, I’m anxious!” Then see if you can bring your attention into your body and find where the emotion resides in your body. Finally, “soften—soothe—allow.”  Let the affected part of your body soften and relax, and then offer that part of your body soothing touch or kind appreciation: “There is so much pain here. Thank you for holding it for me.” You can also bring kindness to yourself, perhaps with a hand over your heart or supportive words (“You are feeling a lot of pain right now. Have courage.”).  Then see if you can allow the experience to be just as it is and allow yourself to be just as you are.
  • Core Values – No matter how disturbing events may be on the world stage, we do not have to abandon our core values.  For example, if compassion is a core value for you, you can continue to see compassion all around, even during a war, such as in acts of kindness by Ukraine’s neighbors toward the refugees. You can also help others to see what you see, sharing stories of compassion. Finally, you can do small acts of compassion in your daily life to keep the flame of compassion alive.  In other words, no matter what’s happening in the external world, you can remain true to your innermost promptings.
  • Savoring and Gratitude – When it is obvious that the suffering of others is much greater than your own, we must still give ourselves permission to enjoy our lives. Practicing joy is essential for anyone who wants to be of service to others. We have to charge our own batteries. We can savor simple things like a piece of fruit, stretching our legs on a walk, talking with a friend, or petting the dog. Gratitude is another way of enjoying our lives—noticing and giving thanks for the little things that enrich our lives that we tend to overlook, such as running water, morning sunlight, or chopping vegetables. The list is endless.

Any of these practices can help you to bear the emotional distress of a world in turmoil. They work by shifting our attitude and physiology from a state of threat to a state of care and connection. The most important thing is to remember to practice. When the distress of the Ukraine crisis reaches a point where you’re aware of how much you’re suffering, that’s the time to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion practice will also help you take the most useful course of action, if such is called for, based on the conditions of your life.

Thank you for embodying the healing power of compassion during these difficult times.

With Care,
Chris and Kristin

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If you would like to attend an online or in-person event with Chris and Kristin, the next available program where they are teaching together is the Mindful Self-Compassion Core Skills Workshop starting Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Learn more or register here.