Our story. The one we may be telling ourselves at this moment. Or, the one we may have been telling ourselves for years. No matter how deeply rooted, often-expressed, or right-sounding it seems – it is not the entire truth of who we are.
We are many stories. And, each one of these stories is larger than any personal narrative we may construct about ourselves.
Some years ago, when I was learning Torah with a group of women at my synagogue, our esteemed rabbi began our first class by asking each of us, “What’s your story?” The individual responses his question elicited were as unique as we were. All of the responses, however, were deeply personal – some of them, quite intimate.
I remember one woman sharing that she had grown up in a religiously observant household. Her father and brothers were Torah scholars; but, her desire to learn in this way was neither encouraged nor valued. As an adult, she was taking time to engage in study – to learn Torah, to deepen her connection to her faith, and to strengthen her religious practice. Another woman spoke about her desire to become more proficient in reading and speaking Hebrew. She had always longed to discover and connect with the more nuanced meanings of prayer and religious texts that would come through a better understanding of the Hebrew language. And, she longed for the feeling of unity with Jews all over the world through the spoken and written word.
Then, there was the woman who seemed quite visibly shaken by the rabbi’s question – “What’s your story?” She was in her mid-fifties and spoke softly with her head down. She had, she said, lost both of her parents within the past year and had decided to enter into Torah study with a group of women in the hope of getting her life back together – of regaining the feeling that she belonged to something – of, finally, healing her brokenness. In the midst of this longing, the rabbi offered – “So, you are here with us. You’ve lost your parents. It seems you are an orphan.” With this startling final revelation – that her story going forward might be one of abandonment; that she could, even as an adult, become an orphan – she burst into tears, left the group, and did not return.
Our story. Whether the rabbi was simply expressing the story she was telling herself at that moment, or the one she thought she might be telling herself for years to come – it was too painful to own, and it was not the whole truth of who she was.
Author Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life teaches us the value and efficacy in being fully present for our experiences through awareness and of knowing that we are far greater than any one story we tell and come to believe about ourselves.
In our holistic approach to education at Caroline Center, trainees are given exposure to mindfulness techniques that allow them to question their own narratives – the stories they may have carried with them since childhood or for a very long time that often have threads of sadness, notes of inadequacy, or themes of hopelessness. These internal narratives, no matter whether their undertones are overly negative or positive, can wear away at a life over time through sheer lack of authenticity. We must come to see these internal narratives as they really are: “constructs of the mind;” “fabrications” to which we have become accustomed; and, recalcitrant patterns of “pure thought” that have varying degrees of distance from one’s life experiences and greater self.
My two favorite chapters in Mindfulness for Beginners have great titles - "You Already Belong" and "You Are Never Not Whole." On the journey to mindfulness, these titles suggest both a great place to begin and a worthy end toward which we should aim. As our most recent class of trainees prepares to enter their new professional careers in a few weeks, I would like to offer these words from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book as simple, yet profound, (and profoundly practical) meditations:
You are never alone. And you already belong. You belong to humanity. You belong to life. You belong to this moment, to this breath.
You are never not whole. Walt Whitman said in “Song of Myself:” I am large! I contain multitudes! It’s actually true. We are like universes. We are boundless.
Being mindful means belonging to something greater. Being mindful means being boundless. Being mindful means being more.