I have been slowly reading my friend Nancy Mujo Baker’s new book on the Zen Precepts. I say slowly because it takes me two or three days to read each chapter, slowly digesting. The chapter on the 7th Precept, Not Elevating Oneself and Blaming Others, triggered thoughts on a new approach to finding one’s passion. In this way, it speaks to the question which keeps coming up as I share Bernie’s social entrepreneurship teaching. So many people find it difficult to identify a “cause” that they really feel in their gut.
“I want to do good in the world, but there are so many problems. I don’t know what to do.”
Mujo’s chapter has suggested a new approach, a possible route to finding your passion when the more obvious pathway, following your compassion, leads nowhere or everywhere. This alternative is counterintuitive. It takes courage. Begin with whatever or whomever you despise the most. Work with your Shadow.
As I do the exercise myself, the first answer which arises is “bullies.” Bullies terrify me, always have. My father grew up being bullied. Growing up Jewish in Halifax, he had to fight his way home from school every day. Daddy taught me to fight back. “Hit the bully as hard as you can. Even if you get beaten up, if you hurt him, he’ll think twice about starting with you again.”
I was more coward than fighter. I spent most of my childhood avoiding physical confrontations but as a young professional, I carried Daddy’s teaching with me. Attack me in a meeting and I will hit back as hard I can. You may hurt me, you may hurt me more than I can hurt you, but I will hit you with everything I have, embarrass you, humiliate you if I can. You will think twice about picking on me again. I made plenty of enemies with my aggression.
Along the way, I learned to modulate my anger. A big lesson occurred following one of our Encounter groups at Brookdale.
Every Friday afternoon, the community psychiatry team gathered in Justin’s office. I think there were six of us, two psychiatrist/psychoanalysts, Justin and Geri, the department administrator, another social worker, a social psychologist, and myself. I was by far the youngest member of the group, the least experienced member of our team. I was always on guard. I don’t know what Geri said to me, but I must have felt attacked. I did as I always did. I hit back with everything I had.
After the meeting Justin talked to me. “Geri was really devastated by your anger. I don’t think you realize how scary you are when you’re angry.” My takeaway: I didn’t need to use all my anger all the time. Sometimes a small dose of anger energy would be sufficient.
And I was learning to channel the energy of my rage against bullies. This was the energy that fueled my passion for Civil Rights and for my support of Native American treaty rights. It was the energy that fueled my passion for levelling the playing field for people living with mental illnesses. This is the energy which flowed into building our charter school network.
The Other Side
Mujo’s chapter reminded me of the importance of looking at the Shadow, something I experienced with stunning clarity during the first Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. My Auschwitz experience did not lead to a successful project, but it showed me how this process could work.
Sitting zazen in a great circle on the tracks at Birkenau, feeling the energy of all the souls that seemed so present at Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was easy to see that I could have died there. What if my grandparents hadn’t managed to emigrate, Daddy’s from the Ukraine, Mommy’s from Romania. Born at the end of 1942, I might have been two years old when Mommy told me we were only going to take a shower as we lined up with all those other mothers and children. Did I understand anything else? I’m sure Mommy would have. She would have been an active part of the resistance.
Sitting on the tracks as a light snow falls, the beauty of the snow, mantling my shoulders, I am awed by the curved beauty of the prestressed concrete fence posts, snow-crested too, even knowing that the original steel posts had been repurposed for bullets and bombs to feed the Nazi war effort. It was so strange to see beauty in this horror. I can hear the birds singing. The evening before, Peter Muryo Matthiessen told us that the birds have returned to Birkenau because there is grass again. By the end of the war, there were no birds. All the grass had been eaten by the inmates of the camp. Could have been me.
Sitting on the tracks, the guard towers loom above. It is a very uncomfortable feeling at first: I could have been a guard there too. If I had been born instead into a German family just a few years earlier, I could have been a member of the Hitler Youth and a soldier in the SS. Maybe I would have been “rah-rah Fuhrer” or maybe I would have been too much of a coward to resist. I could have been up there in the tower with a gun.
I remembered then, -- it had not been so many years since I like so many of my generation had faced the possible choice between serving in Viet Nam, going to jail, or fleeing to Canada, -- how much I wanted to believe that I would have chosen Canada, but I didn’t know. I never had to make the choice. What would I have done growing up in Germany a generation earlier? I could have been a guard in the tower. It could have been me.
Sitting in the slowly falling snow, this was an epiphany. When that evening, -- we gathered each evening as a large group to share and bear witness, -- Muryo said, “Man is a beautiful animal. And Man is a terrible animal.” I felt that I understood completely.
What Will Be Different?
On the last night of the Retreat, Bernie asked, “What difference is this experience going to make in your life? What will be different when you get home?” I was glad he asked that because I was afraid that Bearing Witness Retreats would become a sort of spiritual voyeurism. I was glad he asked, but I didn’t know the answer, didn’t know if I had an answer. What would be different? Would anything be different?
Not so long after I got back to Staten Island, an answer appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. But as a I reflected, it seemed possible that it came from my experience with the guard tower.
At the time, I was working in the Family Court mental health clinic. One of our main tasks was to evaluate cases of abuse and neglect and then to present our findings to the judge who was charged with making a decision. In one of the familiar patterns, the petitioner is the woman. She is accusing her male partner of physical abuse. There are young children in the home. The woman is asking for an Order of Protection, for the man to be excluded from the home.
My job in these cases is to interview both parties as well as each child who is old enough. In my report to the court, I am supposed to make recommendations. It seems like my colleagues and I were handing hundreds of these cases a year. Often our findings supported the woman’s petition. While many of these situations were extremely complicated, it was also clear that many of these men were bullies, taking advantage of their greater physical size and strength.
While the judges generally accepted our assessment of the family situation, they often opted not to exclude the man. Conversations with the judges revealed that they were reluctant to exclude the man from the home if he had nowhere else to go. As a result, the women often had no choice but to flee with their children. Shelters for battered women were springing up throughout the city and across the country. I contributed whenever one of these shelters was running a fund-raiser.
A New, Crazy Idea
Suddenly, a new, crazy idea emerges: a shelter for perpetrators of violence; a shelter for the bullies. Did it come out of the Auschwitz experience? I couldn’t be sure, but I felt a connection. By that time in my life, I had already been through two divorces. In one marriage, we had “fought” all the time. Stuff got thrown around the apartment by both of us. Pure luck, I think, that neither of us were ever hurt. I could have ended up in the guard tower in Auschwitz. I could have ended up in the dock at Family Court.
Back from Auschwitz, I was ready to talk about a “shelter for perpetrators of domestic violence”. One of my colleagues and I began to hatch a plan. If we could provide a place to live for the “bullies,” judges would be more willing to issue exclusion orders. We would create a play space at the shelter with capacity for supervised visitation so that an excluded parent could maintain contact with his children. Fewer women would need to flee to shelters with their children. The victims of violence would not be victimized again by being forced from their homes.
The idea was greeted with hostility from both sides. Some anti-women’s-libbers saw this as another attack on men. Some feminists thought we would be offering comfort to the enemy. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Prior to my Auschwitz experience, I too would have thought it was a crazy idea. But we did find a judge, relatively new to the Staten Island bench, who loved the idea. I was beginning to see how, with his support, we might pull this off. But then our judge grabbed a promotional opportunity in Brooklyn. Without his support our idea lost its legs. Had it gone forward, it could have taken my social entrepreneurship in a very different direction.
It could have been a wonderful opportunity for me to work with my shadow bully, much as I hated to admit that I had one. There are always these parts of ourselves that we don’t want to look at. Strange as it may sound at first, looking at these parts of ourselves can be a wonderful way for us to connect to our passion.
 Opening to Oneness: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to the Zen Precepts. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2022.