Joansdatter’s ethical guide is the NASW Code of Ethics, to which she has sworn an oath to uphold. Here are a few notable excerpts:
The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.
Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. “Clients” is used inclusively to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. These activities may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation. Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs. Social workers also seek to promote the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’ needs and social problems.
The mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values. These core values, embraced by social workers throughout the profession’s history, are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective:
dignity and worth of the person
importance of human relationships
The Code outlines these six core values as follows:
Ethical Principle: Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.
Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest. Social workers draw on their knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to address social problems. Social workers are encouraged to volunteer some portion of their professional skills with no expectation of significant financial return (pro bono service).
Value: Social Justice
Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.
Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.
Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person
Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.
Social workers treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society. They seek to resolve conflicts between clients’ interests and the broader society’s interests in a socially responsible manner consistent with the values, ethical principles, and ethical standards of the profession.
Value: Importance of Human Relationships
Ethical Principle: Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.
Social workers understand that relationships between and among people are an important vehicle for change. Social workers engage people as partners in the helping process. Social workers seek to strengthen relationships among people in a purposeful effort to promote, restore, maintain, and enhance the well-being of individuals, families, social groups, organizations, and communities.
Ethical Principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.
Social workers are continually aware of the profession’s mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards and practice in a manner consistent with them. Social workers act honestly and responsibly and promote ethical practices on the part of the organizations with which they are affiliated.
Ethical Principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.
Social workers continually strive to increase their professional knowledge and skills and to apply them in practice. Social workers should aspire to contribute to the knowledge base of the profession.
How often do you meet someone who hears you? Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say? And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say. Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter”?
If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens. He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time. Mortal. Fragile. Fallible. But infinitely valuable and good.
And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them. Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise. Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind. Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.” And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.
You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person. You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak. You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love. Because you love them you want to hear them.
You want to hear them. But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really. They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me! You never listen to me!” Stinging words. But it is okay. You are allowed to be imperfect. Forgive yourself, maybe by putting a hand on your heart and murmuring silently, “forgiven, forgiven.” Recognize what you are feeling, accept what is and treat yourself with kindness. Only by accepting and loving ourselves can we accept and love others.
Sometimes we are unable to listen, to hear others because we ourselves are so nervous, so relentlessly anxious that we can’t stop the chattering egotism of our own minds. We can become so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently and compassionately to someone who needs us to hear them, and to whom we want to listen. To listen is to love, to love ourselves and the person to whom we are listening.
Nervousness is just a habit. If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion. Emotions are okay. They are real. Sometimes they are responses to thoughts that may seem to be true but are not really quite right. We don’t even need to figure out where the train of thoughts and emotions took off from or seems to be going. We can simply acknowledge that we are “thinking” and, again and again, return to our breath and our hearts and the loving activity of listening.
Relationships are like textiles woven on a loom. The longer you’ve been together, the more complexly and deeply are your interwoven heart-fibers. The break may come abruptly, sharp scissors shearing you apart, or a slower degrading of the warp and the woof, leaving both of you ragged and frayed and yet still clinging together. It can be hard to know where one person begins and the other ends. And when the end comes, you stay tangled up with one another, although the life blood that kept the whole webwork alive has been cut off. Your heart fibers beat fainter and fainter until they die or transform into something else, passion burning down into affection or worse, something festered and sick. Best to avoid that. And you can.
It’s painful. There is no way around the pain, now matter how quickly or slowly you pull yourselves away from one another, as you know you must. Pain is in the parting and pain in the aftermath, the bereft state. No way around it.
I know this well, as I’ve been now through more breakups than I care to count. And this last one has been especially difficult, because there was so much passion, so much that was good, so much that I wanted to hold onto. And also this was a pretty long relationship–nearly six years–and I had great, golden hopes for our future together. So, if you find yourself in this situation, consider the following tips for getting through:
Praise yourself: Find something positive to say about yourself, however small, every single day.
Don’t trash your ex. Just don’t. You can talk about how you were not compatible, how you finally couldn’t make it work for whatever set of reasons, but when you thoughtlessly put your ex-lover down, thinking that this will make you feel better, you are actually putting yourself down. If he/she was such a loser, what does that make you for hanging on to him/her for so long? No. Celebrate what you loved about him/her, the good you had together, and recognize that relationships come to an end for many good reasons, some of which may be out of your control.
Research the benefits of single-hood. Watch a movie (here is a good list), find a cartoon, an article, a book, a painting or sculpture or song that celebrates the fabulous possibilities that deciding to take a break, take a breath, and be simply yourself, can bring. Remember why you are not settling. Every time you want to call your ex, look for something that inspires you to appreciate the benefits of being single.
Be really nice to yourself. Get a manicure or pedicure. Take long baths with candles and lovely things to read. Get a facial. Gained some weight? Buy yourself a few outfits that fit and make you feel attractive. Nothing worse than spending all day in clothes that feel too small. Be comfortable, but don’t spend the rest of your days in sweatpants and crappy t-shirts. Recover your sense of dignity, beauty, elegance. So what if you’re not as thin as you used to be. The sexiest women in the world have love-handles.
Get some exercise and breathe. Walk, ride your bike, garden. Move your body, activate your heart in a way that benefits you, not someone else. Get outside, or stretch inside. Even five minutes of stretching (try cat-cow) can help you feel better.
Appreciate life. Is the weather fabulous? Enjoy it. Cold and gloomy? Get cozy at home in the kitchen–make a pot of soup. Smell the aromas–of the flowers or the soup. Be grateful for the beauty and comfort around you, however small or insignificant. A weed blooming between the cracks in a sidewalk is a wondrous universe of life and power.
It’s raining and dreary, so I decided to stay home instead of stumble through the Ashtanga class I thought I would go to. I rolled out my mat in my own studio/office and put on a new playlist and moved through as many of the postures as seemed sensible. For the past 12 months or so, I have been going to various physical therapists who have instructed me to avoid yoga. Well, actually, the first guy told me to avoid forward bends, and the second woman said to avoid backbends, so I stopped feeling confident in my body altogether.
Last week I went to an Ashtanga class (the one I avoided tonight). I felt I had aged ten years. My arms buckled in chatturanga and I could no longer squeeze myself into any kind of bind. Humbling.
I teach a Trauma-focused yoga class to women in therapy at a community health center every week, and there I tell them to pay attention to what they feel in their bodies, and to make choices based on what they are feeling. I’ve decided to practice what I’m preaching and spend a few minutes each day writing about it.
Things I noticed today: my stomach feels bulky and heavy and in the way. My neck feels tight when I bring my ear to my shoulders. I clench my teeth. I felt angry today, not irritable, but appropriately angry, I thought. A co-worker was rude and unkind to me. Another challenged my judgment. My back went up. I’ve been carrying anger around in my belly and my neck.
It was surprisingly lovely to arrive in my body during sivasana, to dwell in my awareness of the sweat cooling my forehead and chest, my lumbar spine and hips settling down towards the floor, my abdomen resting as my heart slowed down, the sound of my breath and a quiet, soothing swishing sound filling my ears. It was surprisingly difficult to stay there, to remain simply in being.
The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience. Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds. But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences. The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world. So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself. She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love. She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.
The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.
If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy. I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours. I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below. I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it. I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.
There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go. He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress. The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest. I turned around and looked for a boat. When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.
I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off. But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before. This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.
I crossed a trash-filled stream on a metal suspension bridge. Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water. The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella. I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool. Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”
Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.” This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye. Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply. But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so. If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck. I love this greeting! Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you! It feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another. Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.
In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me. She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked. “Do you like Nepal?” “How long have you been here?” “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand. I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence. I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately. She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.” The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together. As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me. I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled. I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.
After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little. I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road. My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment. She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command. I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content. I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me. Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay. You are going with me? I can go alone.” She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road. The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.” I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone. The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there. I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack. I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine. She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer. We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest. It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.
I began to worry about her health. It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on. Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds. Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from. A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for. To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English. This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa. They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys. Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion. Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.
They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed. They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers. To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa. They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep. One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others. After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself. The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them. I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle. Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa. The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms. To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart. The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.
We climbed for an hour or two. My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey. That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be. Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often. I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.
I began to flag. I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy. Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips. Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill. I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me. I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips. I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream. I would not have made the final trek without it.
I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye. All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money. “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.
I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world. There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch. One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera. I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.
There were also a few groundskeepers. Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above. All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time. I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk. I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure. The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it. The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.
I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda. The doors are locked but I can see through the screens. The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen. There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps. There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest. This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.
I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara. I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me, It is always this way with a breakup. One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding. Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough. The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.
I would like to be friends with him. Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend. I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection. I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked. Many of my needs were unmet.
Things changed. They do that. I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses. There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.
Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another. I loved the easy way we lived together. He comforted me.
My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.
Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart. I do not know how to do it. How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive? Why am I holding a grudge against him? What am I afraid of if I let give up this war? Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear? What do I fear most of all?
That I am weak.
How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him? By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:
Dearest Timothy, Namaste:
My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up. I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.
I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.
I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.
I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.
I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.
I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.
I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.
I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.
I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea. I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret. I also know that these fears are not my fault. That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance. I meditate to survive them.
I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another. Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me. When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us. I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.
Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you. You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard. You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email. You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did. You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft. All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend. Thank you.
The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”
The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair. I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind. She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.
She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:
This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.
Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering. She is wisdom.
A story tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.” Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.
In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:
Wisdom speaks her own praises,
in the midst of her people she glories in herself.
She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,
she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…
Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens
and walked through the depths of the abyss.
Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)
Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman. Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says
Although she is alone, she can do everything;
herself unchanging, she renews the world,
and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,
she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;
for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)
Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason. But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight. She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it. She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics. Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,
All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,
Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.
Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
"I am not ashamed." A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening flight from the hilltop.
From "Do Not Be Ashamed" by Wendell Barry
When I was 17 years old I decided to have sex with my first serious boyfriend, who was very nice Catholic boy at my public high school. He was sweet and we were in love. My parents, a doctor and the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, were really cool and had been quite open with me about reproduction and sex since I was about 3, but I still didn’t want them to know. It wasn’t really their business. I was going to have sex and I knew the consequences. I didn’t want to get pregnant and I didn’t want to contract a disease, so we were going to use contraception. We did what lots of my peers did. We went down to Planned Parenthood for free contraception, which we got after going through some mandatory sex education classes. We had to wait about a week, I guess, in order to get started. We waited. We protected ourselves most of the time. But we were in love and heat and so we slipped once or twice.
My mother was the one who figured it out. I had been throwing up in the mornings for a couple of days, and she announced, in a matter-of-fact and slightly disgusted voice: “you’re pregnant.” Of course I was going to have an abortion. My parents were certainly not going to let me have a baby, and I knew I wasn’t ready. I had taken care of my sister since she was born and had a very good grasp of how much work, money, and commitment was involved, and I knew I wasn’t old enough to take it on by myself. Being pregnant felt a lot like being infected with a horrible disease. I was sick and wanted the source of the nausea out, fast. I didn’t think I had a “baby” inside of me. I knew very well that, at about six weeks, what was growing was a mass of cells about 1/6 of an inch long and presently much more like an insect or a worm than a human being.
My parents were Seventh-Day Adventists from a medical family who themselves had come from pragmatic farm folk. An abortion of a human fetus in the first trimester was not a lot different from the abortion of an unwanted litter of kittens: regrettable and sad, but necessary. Unfortunate, not tragic. My parents made me and my boyfriend pay for the procedure to teach us to be more careful in the future.
I was, for the most part. But I was also extremely fertile, I guess, because I got pregnant again, at college, with my second serious boyfriend. That time, I recognized the symptoms all by myself and escaped the serious disapproval and lectures that would have come from my mother and father. They would not have berated me for having sex, or for having to get another abortion, but rather for being careless and stupid. They didn’t need to scold me about this, because I had already internalized them well enough to lambast myself. I felt that I had been reckless, irresponsible, and foolish, not just with my own life but also with life itself, with the potential life growing within me. I did not choose lightly or cavalierly, but also did not think that I had been immoral or that it terminating it was anything like murder. I had been thinking a lot about infanticide, ironically, since I was currently reading all of Euripides and had become especially enthralled with Medea. I toyed romantically and self-destructively with the idea of myself as a Medea but never really believed my own hype.
My problem was that I was broke. I had the luxury of attending school full-time without having to take a job for expenses, but my parents sent me only the bare minimum that I needed for books, pens, paper, and food. So I had to figure out a way to pay for the abortion without having to tell my parents. I was really, really lucky. My scientifically minded, pro-choice Republicans parents would have excoriated me for my idiocy and made me feel a lot worse than I already did, but they weren’t going to disown me or treat me as a pariah, as many much more conservative parents would have done. Also, in California during the early 1980s it was still possible to get a state-funded abortion if you could prove that you had financial need. I did. The State paid and I went on with my life. I found the procedure somewhat grisly, and emotionally exhausting and very, very sad, but I really didn’t think I had done anything particularly evil. It would have been far worse to give birth to a child and release him or her into the uncertain fate of adoption, or try to take care of a kid that I resented and wasn’t mature or economically steady enough to support in a positive and wholesome environment.
I’m really lucky. No one shamed me. No monsters stood outside the clinic and screamed names at me. No judge forced me to develop a fertilized egg that I didn’t want in my body. No one wrote nasty letters or emails to me. No one denounced me. No one made me feel bad about myself for taking what I knew was the most responsible and ethical decision for me at the time. No one threatened to kill me or the doctor who performed the operation.
The next time I got pregnant I meant to. I got really sick again–but it was, as a dear friend and ob-gyn told me, “a good sick.” I did not enjoy being pregnant. I felt invaded by an alien life form. I had been invaded by an alien life form, albeit one who shared some of my genes. But I choose to bring it to term, and I was very lucky that he turned out to be healthy and beautiful and himself. I was ready for him–although it still seemed too soon.
If you have had an abortion, please do not feel ashamed. You have done nothing wrong. Do not listen to those who would take your light away.
I don’t feel like I’m on day 54, but rather much more like I’ve just begun this practice. It’s really hard and I’m not very good at it and I don’t think I ever will be. I hurt my back about a week ago. I don’t know how I did it, and the injury is not serious, but it has prevented me from doing all the sit-ups that the class does. Also, on Monday night, which was my fiftieth day of bikram, I went to an advanced yoga class that I used to go to regularly but have not been to for a long time. The practice kissed my asana. It wasn’t so hard to hold downward-facing dog for 20 breaths, nor to assume a good, strong posture in chaturanga dandasana. What I found difficult was keeping myself in that push-up for as long as Linda, my wonderful teacher, wanted me to. Also, she has quadriceps of steel, and thinks nothing of asking her students to hold their body weight on one bent leg for what seems like hours at time, but which is really only seconds.
There was a time when I found that practice challenging in a pleasing way. Monday night I found it downright exhausting and nearly impossible. The room wasn’t heated to an unusual temperature, but the sweat poured off me as though it were. At times I simply collapsed, face down, on my mat. And I was incredibly sore the next day and the one after that, too.
Still, it was good to be practicing on my grimy old mat, my daily support and comfort. It’s dirty and sweat-infused, but it’s my sweat and that makes it sacred to me.
O, and sivasana is still painful. Especially after rabbit pose, Sasangasana, which I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to do properly. I make the effort. Sometimes more, sometimes less effectively. It freaks my lower back out, unlike camel pose, Ustrasana, which tires but heals my spine like no other pose. I never skip camel, even though I really don’t enjoy it.
Indeed, I don’t enjoy any of the poses, lately. My ham strings are super-tight to begin with and my right one has been injured for months. I am impatient so I tend to strain it when I should simply back off completely.
But the fact that it is injured means that even my favorite pose, standing bow, or Dandayama Dhanurasana, hurts the back of my leg quite a bit. I can get my head to my knee in the various compression poses that we do but only because I am bending my legs way up. I understand intellectually that this is not “cheating” but would someday like to be able to pull out the hamstring instead of protect it endlessly and to no apparent end.
Also, the heat bugs me. Some days it feels unbearable. I hate to be hot. I lie there and suffer and try not to move too much. As one of my teachers reminds me, fidgeting with clothing or hair or limbs only encourages the mind to race in a thousand different directions. The point of this practice is to quiet the mind. And one quiets the mind by quieting the body and coming into awareness and control of the breath. My mind is a monkey chattering and swinging and screaming and jumping. I often give in to the temptation, the urge, to wipe the sweat and hair off my face. I tug down my too-short shorts. I have at least given up the water bottle.
Yes, some days I’m just a brain-addled, bloated hippo lying on a gassy stomach struggling to get my arms and legs into the air. Locust pose–salabhasana–who invented this particular torture? My legs are straight, my knees are locked. My toes are maybe half an inch from the floor. My breasts and my elbows are smashed against the floor. My upper wrists, which do not like to turn under at all, seem to be completely incapable of forcing the right kind of brace with which to get my legs up.
Some people go straight up into it like this:
But I will never, not in a thousand million years, do that. I make the effort every day. Every day I wallow there, wracking my brain and body to understand how, exactly, I am supposed to bring my weight onto my shoulders. This seems to me a thing impossible. And yet I struggle away.
I don’t flail. Above all, I try not to flail. I try to move deliberately. Either my body will or it won’t. Sometimes I see other people, who have not yet done much yoga, flailing as they try to force their bodies to do things that their bodies are simply not ready to do. They fuss and flap and flutter and steam and break themselves down.
They also serve who only stand and wait, as Milton said. Not that the point of yoga is to serve god, although it might be that for some people. The point of yoga, for me at least, is to calm down enough to think clearly.
I have never been flexible. I have never once done the splits or a cart-wheel. I can touch my toes and may even someday get my palms on the floor with locked, straight legs, if my ham string ever heals. I’m somewhat strong but not particularly athletic and have thought of myself as fundamentally uncoördinated for most of my life. Still, I love to dance and make an effort to walk with some grace. If you can walk, you can dance, the saying goes. If you can breathe, you can do yoga.
Yes, yes, these platitudes really don’t help very much very often. It doesn’t matter that they are true. They’re annoying. And yoga is often painful, and I often don’t have a very good attitude about it. I don’t go because I love it so much or because I’m a masochist or a health fanatic. Right now I am going because I said I would.
I don’t want to go to yoga today. Most days I don’t want to go. Especially when going means starting the Jeep three or four times until the engines runs steadily, and then brushing all the snow off all the windows and the enormous hood, and then sitting and shivering in the car, with wet, freezing hands, waiting for the engine to warm enough to drive it. And there will always be some idiotic, slow-driving nitwit in front of me on the way down there. Then I will have to hunt for a parking place. And endure the incessant blast of Mexican party music from the market below the studio. And trudge up the stairs and wait in line to sign in and hope that I’ve come early enough to get a good spot for my mat.
I almost always feel better afterwards. Some days I feel utterly transformed. I walk in a cranky death-eater and leave like Kuan Yin. Still, I am occasionally so tired that practice only slightly lifts me, and my back feels not healed but racked. This, too, is part of the journey. I never said I was always going to like it.
Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January. So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice. What is different? Sivasana.
Yes! Already! It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat. Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.
I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years. It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort. Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting. Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture. For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve. It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable. The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true. It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.
What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up. This is the usual response of my spine to the pose. Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain. What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create. I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain. That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it. Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.
It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting. Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up. So my resting period ends up being quite short. But it is getting longer. That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.
Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana. Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief. But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief. Where was the pain? The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared. I shifted position on the floor, looking for it. It had to be there. It has always been there. But it wasn’t.
So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson? Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world. Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.
During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity. I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it. I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness. What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.
The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be. There was no pretending this devastation away. In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt. The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became. So I had to learn to give in.
When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.” Of course I would weep. Usually I would cry myself to sleep. I did this for weeks, for months, for years. But it was the only way to make it bearable. Only by focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way, could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity. I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.
The key is learning not to respond. The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it. I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.
To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma. Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic. And sometimes just breathing is traumatic. Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away. Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.
A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life. But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through and beyond it.