By Alan Briskin
This blog is a reflection inspired by an active dialogue between Kathia Laszlo and me, as we co-design our upcoming retreat Unfolding Wisdom scheduled for April 16th – 19th at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA. This piece is a response to Kathia’s blog “Learning, Leadership and Spirituality.”
Reading Kathia’s posting on the threads woven through her life gave me pause to consider my own. We are made up of these threads and their weaving gives shape to our lives. Consciousness of how we weave and re-weave these tangled strands reveals that the narrator of events is as critical as the events themselves. We create the narration and the narration shapes who we are, and then we forget. Remembering our wholeness is recognizing the co-arising nature of both narrative and narrator. The poet Rumi says it with a most clever twist: “Do you remember how you came into existence? You may not remember because you arrived a little drunk. Let me give you a hint: Let go of your mind and be mindful. Close your ears and listen.”
My listening occurred in the dark womb of alienation. I was sixteen with no language for having a felt sense of beingother. I felt little connection with my family or lineage; Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania observing customs and rituals from a religion that bore no resemblance to my experience of the world around me. Nor was I inspired by the professional aspirations that surrounded me in the working class/middle class neighborhood of Queens, New York where I grew up. Seared into my brain was the image of the accountant who lived across the street, trudging home at the exact same time every evening, head down, shoulders slumped, an advertisement for the fatalism of conformity and the despair of successful assimilation. Dramatic responses to desperation were woven into this world, but ones I could not foresee at the time. And not just for me: one classmate would become a famous playwright, another a porn star legend, and a third, director of the C.I.A..
In 1970, I left the country.
I left with a powerful intuition that there was something beyond the confines of what I knew. Somehow, and I have no idea how, I felt a deep knowing that feeling other was a calling card for meeting others like myself. But it was not rebellion or individualism or a new religion that I sought. Rather, it was others who shared a belief that there were better ways to form community, create life affirming settings, and delight in a radical freedom of thought and connection. The road would not be straight or easy or painless. I would have to meet myself in the guise of strangers, adversaries, and false prophets. Alienation would heighten my awareness of pretense and force me to look deeper into myself.
I recall weeping one night, during the first months I was away from home, frightened that I would be rootless and aimless for many years before anything became clear to me. It was an early, if challenging, foreshadowing of a voice deep within that spoke honestly to the egoic narrator who wanted to be in control of his destiny. I learned to befriend this voice, quieting my monkey mind enough for it to be heard. I not only learned to listen but to regard this voice as authentic.
THE SECOND THREAD
Authenticity is a perilous word for me as I resonate with the wisdom of comedian George Burns who spoke of the importance of sincerity, saying “once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Sincerity, and its cousin, authenticity have the same shadow side - appearing to be something you are not. We are inexorably drawn to what others project onto us or want us to be for their own needs. Why not? We understandably want to be liked, respected, admired and receive all the rewards that come with that. If you are a teacher, minister, humanistic manager, consultant, spiritual mentor, or thought leader, there are ways to talk and behave that win approval and suggest you are an authentic person. And once you can fake that, your goose is cooked. The small voice inside, the one that brings up uncomfortable truths, is told to take a hike.
This doesn’t mean authenticity has no legitimacy or that one must distrust all positive or metaphysical thoughts as deception. But there is something more to authenticity than wanting to appear honest, enlightened or of higher consciousness. One of the leaders of humanistic psychology, James Bugental, offered guidance for this search. It begins with an understanding that internal experience cannot be reduced to mechanistic parts, psychological, social or neurobiological. And it continues with a conviction that we are intentional creatures seeking meaning, value, and creativity. If we are truly to be authors of this search for authenticity, we will encounter shadow, error, joy, grief, as well as an intuition that we are not separate from others, nature, or the larger Cosmos. If this doesn’t thrill you and terrify you, then faking it might actually be prudent. On the other hand, the search entails finding compassion for oneself and others, knowing that loving others and oneself is the medicine for healing the coarseness and wounds of the body and soul.
THE THIRD THREAD
I was fortunate in my own journey to meet a wisdom figure who I viewed and still view as authentic, in part because he was so clear he was an unfinished work. I first met him at his home and found him a bit disheveled, rummaging through his refrigerator like a very large Yoda. Sitting together in his study, I was excited to be with him. He looked at me intently and asked, “Remind me again, why are you here?” His name was Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, co-founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.
I had come to interview him about collective wisdom. What was it about groups that held healing and magic? He went into a riff about the past three hundred years of Western thought, a tale woven together by theories of separation. I attempted diplomatically to interrupt him and bring him back to the subject at hand when he read my body language and lifted up his own hand. “Wait!” His rebuke startled me. Sitting directly across from him, I had the insight that if I wanted to learn something new, I would have to keep my mouth shut. And I did.
But we weren’t finished. Later he asked me to experiment with him, practicing finishing each other’s sentences. He compared this to jazz, each person taking turns leading, listening and supporting each other. Individuals in a group, he explained, could become synchronized to each other, “a way in which people just looked around, saw what needed to be done, and pitched in at the right place and in the right order.” Beyond achieving better group dynamics or enhancing individual development, this form of ensemble work could bring something new into existence. I was hooked.
In our final conversation, many years later, and shortly before his death, Reb Zalman described to me that, as a society, we were entering a 4th turning. This would be a time of integration of male and female energies, guided by the work of the divine feminine. The task was to turn from triumphalism, a belief that one’s vision of divinity was superior to others, to a real engagement with and understanding of other traditions. And it included not just mental engagement, but embodied commitment. He recalled with delight a time when Tarthang Tulku, the Tibetan teacher, joined him in synagogue and together they danced with the Torah.
I owe him a final debt for bringing forward a third thread in my life that I was reluctant to acknowledge, let alone share with others. We each have a direct connection to the divine, an openness to a divine will. The Hebrew root for this concept is navi, translated into English as prophet. In English, this has come to mean one who foretells the future. But its Hebrew origins are more subtle and complex. In Reb Zalman’s mystical tradition, we each have capacity for an openness to something larger than human consciousness. Navi suggests just this kind of openness or hollowness, as a reed flute functions as a hollow instrument for musical sound. Prophecy is the result of this openness; the sound we make from opening, hollowing ourselves in order to speak something from beyond that needs to be heard in the here and now. We each have this capacity, call it deep intuition if you like, but it’s a skill we need to cultivate. And we need each other to harmonize, so it is not simply a lone cry in the wilderness.
The threads of one’s life are woven together in a tight knit of paradoxical qualities. For me, I learned to reach out to people from the experience of alienation. To seek authenticity from the deceptive nature of pretense and find what is good in people. And with prophecy, I found a way back to my lineage, but without the insularity or implicit triumphalism. What is it that T.S. Eliot said?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.