Self / No Self

Below is my first Toastmaster speech. The assignment was called “The Ice-Breaker” and the task was to introduce myself to the group.

Hello everyone. Today I’ve been asked to introduce myself. Sounds easy, yes? But I ask:

Is there an abiding self who can be introduced?

Am I the nice Jewish girl from Chicago, never questioning the many rules of an orthodox religious practice?

Am I the radical anti-war activist attending six meetings a day, building People’s Park in Berkeley, demanding Third World Studies, and marching in the streets?

Am I the feminist working for women’s rights when the mainstream media and even public television found the movement to be amusing, even laughable?

Am I the artist, disillusioned with political activism, trying to create a new reality through art?

Am I the wife and mother, shaping a more evolved next generation?

Am I a research writer and graphic designer, contributing to public health? And learning to mediate at the university to help people to better communicate with one another?

Am I the humanist rabbi trying to foster interfaith dialogue with the goal of increasing understanding between people of all beliefs and trying to help alleviate suffering?

Am I the doting grandmother (bubbe in Yiddish) whose heart aches with love for her three grandchildren?

To be honest with you, I am torn between two ways of looking at this idea of the self. The first way is one that is inspired by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen. He said (this is a very loose rendition):

“To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”

But then, there is the Chassidic tale about Rabbi Zusya:

Rabbi Zusya, a wise and pious man was near the end of his life and he was weeping. His students gathered around and asked him, “Rabbi Zusya, why are you crying? You have led an exemplary life.” Rabbi Zusya answered them. “When I die and go to heaven, the angels will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses, leading the people out of Egypt?” They will not ask me, “Why were you not Solomon, offering wisdom to the people?” They will ask me, “Zusya, why were you not Zusya?”

No Self / Authentic Self

So, who am I – this person standing here before you all? Is there an abiding self who can be introduced? Would we want there to be such a self? If so, is there a thread that holds these selves together into one self?

Some people say that we are the stories we tell.

In that case, I am the forgotten self, the authentic self, the nice Jewish girl, activist, feminist, artist, researcher, designer, mediator, mother, rabbi, bubbe, toastmaster attendee, and I’m very happy to meet you.

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Moving from fear to joy

Have you seen the “horse learning about water” video? Some say this video has gone viral. I try to understand why. Here’s the link, if you would like to see it for yourself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAQLkI3EpMk

I’ve been pondering why the video has so much power. For those of you who may not have access to the video, I’ll briefly describe it. We see a pre-teen girl sitting on a horse, leading it toward the bank of a body of still water, likely a pond. The horse is clearly afraid and backs up. 1HORSE APPROACHING WATER The girl leads the horse again – again the horse backs away. In the next scene we see the girl, now off the horse, leading the horse by the reins toward the water. 2HORSE LEADING ON FOOTThe horse backs away again. But the girl is patient and persistent. She puts her foot in the water, and circles of water radiate from where her foot entered. She does this repeatedly and the horse looks at the rings of water and appears interested and puts its hoof in the water to3HORSE GIRL SHOWING WATER CIRCLESo. Slowly, the horse appears to be more and more comfortable in the water. The girl leads it in further. The horse splashes the water with glee. 4HORSE SPLASHThe girl laughs and laughs and the horse, its comfort level quite high at this point, keeps splashing and splashing. The joy of the splashing is punctuated by the girl’s infectious laughter. Pure joy is expressed by the horse and by the girl. If we empathize with these two beings we experience deep fear, patience, curiosity, and joy all in a period of 2 minutes and 19 seconds!

I wonder why I am so taken with this video. I begin by googling the symbolism of horses, since I know that if I had seen a mouse, or even a small child get acclimated to this water I don’t think I would have responded as strongly as I did. My search is unsuccessful – I mainly find posts about spirit animals and the meaning of horses in dreams. These posts do not resonate for me at all. I’m left to my own imagination – so here goes:

Horses are powerful creatures. The level of fear that I experience if I identify with this powerful creature is high. I am that horse and I feel the strong discomfort of discovering something new that scares me to the core of my being. Something guides me, though, to face up to this fear. I see someone else modeling comfort with water, and I realize that with this support and guidance, maybe I can try to face my fear. Not only is the fear overcome, but also the experience that follows is indescribably joyful.

I find myself wondering about what I’m afraid of. What is standing in the way of my joy? My first thought is that I am afraid to express my feelings to family and friends. I grew up in a fairly non-expressive family, the reins held back because of fear of total loss of control and mental illness, a real and persistent problem in my mother’s family. As I write this, the tears come, so I think this is real. The water in the video perhaps symbolizes life and the free and full expression of emotion. This is what I have to learn to splash in and not back away from. Luckily, I have the good fortune of having a persistent guide, who, though I resist again and again, keeps grabbing my reins and pulling me toward the water. Perhaps this is why the viral horse video has so much appeal for me. How about you? What is your fear? What stands in the way of your joy?