When I was in one of my too, too many graduate schools, I once took a course in cross-cultural spirituality with Rabbi David Zeller. One thing I recall from the course is David’s assertion that two very useful watchwords, essential to every intimate spiritual relationship, are the heartfelt words, “I’m sorry.” One reason for this, David claimed, is that we all show up in each other’s presence as living embodiments of Buddha’s First Noble Truth: “Life is suffering.” (Which might also be translated, “Self-centeredness is suffering”).
Many of us, and this is certainly true in my own personal experience, show up in the world each day as walking wounded, and deeply concerned about the pains and imperfections in our lives. When we get below the social masks and the conditioned niceties, many of us are walking around with profoundly wounded hearts and fragile egos. Underneath our struggles to find lasting pleasure, true love and the fortune to fund it all, lies a dark secret. Behind and underneath our defenses lives a terror few of us can find a safe place or safe people to readily admit our feelings of vulnerability to.
Of course, wounded is not ALL we are. We are also divine potential instruments of healing and integrated wholeness for ourselves and one another. Simply attend the birth (or death) of any living creature and pay close attention to the big and subtle energies present in the field. Birth and death frequently touch in behind our social masks and neuro-conditioning. They can serve as powerful reminders of what we and our children are all actually striving toward on this journey called life.
At birth, with baby at our breast and the umbilical cord still attached, our first words might very well be: “I’m so sorry.” Why? Well, once we’re over our own pain and exhaustion, and can look at it from baby’s perspective – we’ve just removed her from an embryonic Eden. Not only that, but think of this: the birthing process has caused her to lose 50% of her pre-birth cortex! From Berkeley neuroscientist Marian Diamond’s (and Janet Hopson’s) Magic Trees of the Mind:
By the best estimates, natural cell death can eliminate 50 percent of the neurons in the cerebral cortex before the baby is born, and up to 40 percent of the synaptic connections between nerve cells by the age of twenty-one months. Think of it: Your neural heyday came and went before you had your first serious thought. (pg. 47)
Think of it indeed. Not only have we plucked baby from Eden, but we’ve simultaneously seriously reduced her processing power. And what might she have been processing in utero before all that pruning unfolded?
Breaking the Divine Connection
Some people, like quantum physicist Amit Goswami, think she may have been receiving a direct transmission from the Divine, and she beams in trailing Wordsworth’s “clouds of glory.” If, by giving birth, we have indeed broken that transmission, is any apology really adequate?
The neurological research that Marian Diamond presents above also reminds me of another story that Rabbi David once told: Between our nose and our upper lip sits something called the philtrum, or the philtral groove. Torah legend has it that shortly before we are born our Guardian Angel kisses her finger and presses it to our lips wiping away all conscious memory of the Divine. In the process, might that act reduce baby’s cortex by 50%. (If so, that’s one hell of a kiss).
Love Means ALWAYS Having to Say You’re Sorry
As we set out on our embodied journey, life’s slings and arrows invariably begin to lay down neurological land mines, devices very much like those we’re still clearing from the fields and forests in Viet Nam. Inevitably, we will step on and explode other people’s mines and they will detonate ours. Fully recognizing our common predicament, can an authentic response to such painful triggering be anything other than a deeply heartfelt, “I’m so sorry?” Philo of Alexandria, reputed to be the world’s first theologian, got it totally right when he instructed: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” While caught up in the daily dramas of our lives we might not realize it, but aren’t most of us struggling to clear the neurological IEDs that bar our path back to the Divine? Aren’t we and our children, and all the drug addicts and alcoholics in the world all longing to knock, knock, knock on Heaven’s Door?
Recognizing the enormity of the work set before us, and how difficult and complex it can be, and how heart-wrenchingly painful the shadowplay that often accompanies the journey, it’s difficult to hold myself as anything other than a truly humble practitioner. And while I’m truly sorry, I’m not expecting perfection in my practice any time soon. But then, what do I know?