I have been struggling with self-compassion--with holding all the different parts of my self in nonjudgemental regard. Buddhists talk of "maitri" which is translated as lovingkindness. Psychoanalysts talk of dialectical thinking--of not repressing and labeling. Psychology researchers like Brene Brown advise compassion, connection, and empathy as means to self-acceptance. The idea of being present to things I dislike in myself or are ashamed of and being kind makes sense to me intellectually, but it's hard to do. It's hard to feel ok about being "in process". So often I feel broken even though it's an unkind word to use. And I don't want to be self indulgent. Does Judaism have any teaching on this work of developing a more accepting and centered kind of personhood? One that leads to generosity toward others as well as one's self?
Dear In Process,
The idea of being broken, or brokenhearted, is essential in the Jewish faith. The shofar’s blast on the High Holy Days is a piercing cry meant, precisely, to break open one’s heart. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov instructed:
“…cry out to God from the very depths of your heart. The darkness will crack and deep counsel will be revealed…”
Our Pslams tell us:
“God will not despise a broken, shattered heart.”
And, as Leonard Cohen famously put it: “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
Still, I deeply relate to your struggle, to the real stigma surrounding lives that are in process, and the shame that accompanies this experience.
This is not theoretical for me. I experienced a type of brokenheartedness that felt unbearable after the birth of my first child and I lived in the shame of that struggle. The emotional pain was in my body - where my heart is - and I would hold both my hands to that place on my chest when I prayed. During those days and months, I wore my baby girl, her heart to mine, and walked through Prospect Park right after sunrise and before sunset. Everyday. It was hard - it felt impossible - to sit still in my own being, and so I walked and I prayed.
Those days are very difficult for me to think about, but I also remember a grace, a lush sereneness: the expanse of white-pink sky as the season was changing to winter, the gray branches nearly bare, the crunch of sticks under my boots - how empty and wide that landscape stretched out - and how close to God I felt during those walks. As I started to feel better, I didn’t take those walks as consistently; I could sit in my own skin again. (And I do wonder sometimes how to maintain the type of connectedness that I feel when brokenhearted, in the moments when I am - thankfully - not as broken.)
At the time, a very wise friend told me that I was lucky; this suffering was the flip side to my sensitivity, my poet’s heart, to everything that would make me a wonderful mother.
She was right; I was met with so much mercy as well as other kindred spirits once I accepted this part of myself and shared it with others, who in return revealed their own brokenness. When I try to pinpoint the location of the compassion that you are asking about, this feels like the place.
I’ll be honest with you; when I first received your question I was not flooded with examples of self-lovingkindness from my Jewish education. It took me a while to enter this inquiry through the lens of Judaism. But brokenness resonated. And brokenness is the route I have taken to understand self-acceptance and forgiveness, which I believe lead to genuine compassion for others and oneself.
Even on the most joyful of days - a wedding - it is Jewish tradition to smash a glass and allow that fracturedness into our consciousness. To be brokenhearted is to be human with a heart that swells of love, pain, forgiveness, strength. Embrace this; you are "in process" of being alive. Be kind to your dear self.