Five Stages: Re-Entry after an Immersive Experience

Much like the Five Stages of Grief, the stages outlined below do not represent a linear process. You can be in Stages 1 and 5 at the same time. You can jump from 2 to 4 and then back to 1 in the span of a day, week, or year. The Five Stages of Grief were developed by a psychiatrist, and were originally meant for people who are dying, not for people who are in mourning. The Five Stages of Re-Entry, on the other hand, are a purely non-scientific write-up based on my own experiences coming home from DLTI, short-term immersive travel, Hillel retreats and trainings, Milton Marks Neuro-Oncology Family Camp, Camp Kesem, and other retreats. If these ring true for you, please let me know. If they don’t, let me know what’s missing. Wishing my DLTI friends a smooth re-entry – only 196 days till we are together again!

Stage 1: Exhaustion

You step off the plane and into your bed. More accurately, you step off the plane, get your luggage, ride home, greet your family, and then get into bed. But in this stage, bed is the target, the be-all, end-all, the ultimate desire. In truth, the exhaustion hit long before you stepped onto the plane, and it feels more like confusion than anything else. You’re at the airport, and for the first time in a week, you interact with people who don’t know your deepest secrets. You resist the urge to tell the Starbucks barista about that one traumatic thing you experienced 10 years ago. You call someone from home to explain what you just went through, but despite your best efforts, you just say “amazing” a lot, because you don’t have any other words yet. And because you’re exhausted, and the only thing that makes sense in this stage is your bed.

Stage 2: Reliving

You wake up and you’re not sure where you are, but you know that your friends are not with you. You get on Facebook and Instagram before you even get out of bed and you relive your last week by looking through everyone’s pictures and videos. You read poetic reflections written by friends who have found words to express the experience. Others are still saying “amazing” and not much else. Almost everyone has posted something along the lines of “Where am I? Where are you? Why aren’t we singing together?” Confusion is part of this stage as well, but since you’ve already woken up in your own bed, the confusion is mixed with the first tinges of longing (stage 3). You check in with your retreat friends, you respond to every picture (even the one where it looks like you have five chins) and you sing along with your videos. You don’t sound as good as you remembered. This may be because your voice is still shot from your week away, or because your voice isn’t the same when you’re singing alone. It’s probably both.

Stage 3: Longing

You’re definitely not on retreat anymore. You’ve gone back to work. You remember the stresses of the rest of your life. You desperately wish you could run back to the middle of nowhere, where nothing mattered besides your own learning, growing, and community-building. But you can’t. The digital memories bring you joy, until you have to stop looking at them, to face a responsibility you avoided on your retreat. Call a credit card company. Book a doctor’s appointment. Respond to another email. Bore someone else with yet another story about your experience. Begin counting the days until your next immersive. This is a long stage.

Stage 4: Acceptance

Some parts of your life outside of the retreat do not suck. You did miss your family and it’s nice to see them. You also missed your favorite coffee shop/coworker/hiking trail/food/etc. You’re connecting with your retreat friends often, and are reassured that they haven’t forgotten you. You’ve gotten more sleep. You’re relocating your routine. You miss everyone, but you’re learning how to live with something missing, and that’s a really important skill to develop, right?

Stage 5: Integration

You’ve found some words to explain what happened. You begin to share them, not only with your friends from your immersive, but with family members, friends from home, and even professional contacts. You figure out how you might replicate some of the lessons you learned in other contexts – for those you teach, or in your own life. You set goals based on your experiences – some of them are unrealistic, and you’ll never reach them. Some are attainable, and when you reach them, you’ll remember your immersive experience, and will likely go through stages 2-4 again, but rapidly, or all at once. When you successfully bring something you learned on retreat into the rest of your life, you reach out to your friends again, and celebrate the moment. You remember why you went on the immersive experience to begin with, and use the tools, skills, and ideas you learned to enrich the rest of your life.

You achieve temporary enlightenment, and it feels, for lack of a better word, amazing.

 

Where Do Untold Stories Go?

Do we bury them like sacred texts?
Do the stories turn into seeds underground?
If the seed splits like the Red Sea, and a stem starts to grow, where does it go
If it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing,
If it never blooms?

Where do untold stories go? I’ve been not-asking this question for years in various community leadership roles. Because it’s not about me. We talked about it at DLTI. As a leader, I “tell the stories that communities need to hear, instead of the stories that I want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s more than an honor. It’s a blessing to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch and crack and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow.

I have built a life out of soil and I’m good at it. I am soil when I facilitate grief groups, when I teach new Hillel professionals, and when I serve as a coach and mentor. I always thought that I make great soil because I am  comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, in the past few months I’ve learned that while I’m very open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. I’m open about things that others feel vulnerable sharing, but my stories are highly curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they might play in others’ stories. I share my experiences when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s not vulnerability.

At DLTI last week, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In the labs, our teachers offered feedback and guidance on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell and showed a hint of their own stem. During the labs, our teachers showed us how to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, how to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders ARE the soil, but we are also IN the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but just a little more than I’ve let on in the past.

In a conversation with one of my beloved teachers on Friday, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try out this whole vulnerability thing. There was going to be an open mic night on Saturday, and I planned to tell a story that is vulnerable for me. The story I shared last time we were all together, at Smicha Week, was a little bit vulnerable, but it’s a story I’ve told before, on stage and on live radio. And its vulnerability is cloaked in humor so that I don’t really have to feel the raw seed of the story in public. This time, I would stretch, and tell a story that has been longing for soil. I’d tell a story that truly makes me feel vulnerable.

I practiced throughout the day, and on Saturday night, I was ready. I told a few friends about my plan. I was going to be brave. I was nervous, but I was ready.

And then, every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split open their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and the most beautiful, vulnerable stories were blooming all over the sanctuary.  However, I noticed that the kahal was starting to feel a little worn out from all the emotion – a few people left (it was late at night at the end of an exhausting week), and those who were left in the room looked drained from the heaviness. Everyone else’s stories until that point had been just right, but another heavy story would have been too much in that moment. Lightness was necessary. I pulled a friend outside for a reality check to make sure I was reading the room correctly. He agreed with me. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell, because the story I wanted to tell was really, really dark.

When it was my turn, I told the kahal that I had planned on telling a tough story, but that I felt like we could use some simcha (joy), so I was going to tell a different one. I shared a story I wrote a long time ago that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift them up. The tone was right on. And afterward, my teacher congratulated me: “That was davvenen leadership.” It was, and I was proud.

…until I was sad. Devastatingly, crushingly sad. I figured I was just tired. It was a long day at the end of a long week. Where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me. The seed was still there, ready to burst, the stem threatening to crack everything open. I remembered all the moments in previous leadership roles when I so desperately needed to tell my story, and chose not to. When I felt the tears welling up during a group song circle, I realized that 1am was not a great time to analyze my feelings, and I decided to go to bed. A friend stopped me on the way to my room and offered to listen, but I was too drained to tell the story in the moment. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.

I knew something was up when I didn’t feel better in the morning. I went to shacharit (morning) services and felt tears pulsing behind my eyes the entire time. A friend approached me during breakfast and asked how I was doing. I said that I was having a tough morning and was going to sit in the sanctuary for awhile to cool off. She offered to join me, with no pressure to share anything. I said yes.

When we were alone, she asked what was wrong and I decided to explain everything. She acknowledged that I did make the right choice in the moment, and then pointed out that this was a different moment. She asked if she could hear the story I didn’t tell the night before. At first I hesitated, but I saw that she meant it. So I let the seed crack open.

Once I started talking, I stopped crying. When I finished, I felt lighter. Another friend had joined us in the meantime, and he offered to hear it too. I shared the story again. The stem began to bud. My friend pointed out that if I felt lighter every time I told it, it was a good thing I didn’t tell it all at once. Now I could experience the lightness and the bloom over and over again. I had no idea how much I needed to tell that story, but I’m so grateful that I finally did.

I still think this is a story I’d like to tell the kahal at some point, because it’s part of who I am, and I want my sacred community to know about this part of my journey. But my holy teachers were right about reading the room and responding. And in the meantime, I learned an important lesson about vulnerability and openness. Next time, I’ll plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” I was open when I chose to share a lighter experience on Saturday night. I was vulnerable when I shared with my friends the next day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to do both, but I’m learning every day.

Where do untold stories go? Do we bury them like sacred texts? Do the stories turn into seeds underground?  As leaders, we have countless opportunities to lean into vulnerability. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I learned, even soil needs soil sometimes.

Reflections on SmichaWeek18

And with that, my first rabbinical intensive has ended. I’m at the airport and am slowly reentering the rest of my life. I haven’t touched work email in over week. I ignored personal business emails for over a week too. Last Friday I was at Kesem spending time with children I’ve known for eight years. This past Friday I was at Shabbat dinner with another community, newer to me, but also precious. It’s hard to find the words for what this week meant to me. So I’m going to start with what I learned, and see where it takes me.

1. I am not alone. I am supported by an incredible community of fellow students, travelers, and seekers, who share my values and who are not afraid to have hard and important conversations. They are invested in my journey, and I am invested in theirs.

2. “We will build this world from love.” I felt fantastic potential in the people around me this week. We are going to change the world, and we are going to do it together with caring communities from all faith, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

3. My fellow seekers are extraordinarily talented. I am humbled in the presence of people who come to this space with so much knowledge and experience, and who are still open to continue learning along with me.

4. “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” I am blessed with phenomenal teachers and mentors. So many inspiring educators and role models in this program!

5. Skills! I learned a new way of teaching Torah this week and I can’t wait to try it out in Hillel. I also learned a new way of engaging big feelings about painful issues, and I’m looking forward to using it in my own life, as well as in conversations I facilitate with others.

6. I am ready to learn how to build an inspiring prayer experience. I was so moved by the beautiful shacharit, mincha, and maariv services this week (morning, afternoon, evening). The voices rising together, the power of our dancing, the joy and pain, wonder and stillness – such glorious elevation. The Saturday morning Torah service pulled me out of my life and into the story in a way that I’d never experienced before, and will never forget. Just like I won’t forget the power of the healing service my friends led for one of our fellow seekers on Tuesday night. What we summoned, created, and experienced was bigger than each of us alone.

7. I am way better at dealing with conference FOMO than I used to be. I skipped several mincha prayer services and went to bed earlier than some of the others – and I have no regrets. It was the right choice, each time. This used to be really hard for me, so I’m proud of myself for moving beyond my need to be everywhere at all times.

8. I learned that I can be present and at peace during a very busy week. I had no idea that some part of me knows how to stay calm, without getting swept up into the madness of what’s happening next and what’s happening after that. My re-entry goal is to learn how to bring these feelings of peace, wholeness, and connection along with me, even when my inbox is exploding and urgency is tugging at my sleeve. I will be more effective if I’m approaching tasks from the contemplative, authentic, and playful energy I felt within and around me this week. I felt it even though most of our days started at 6:30am, included six hours of classes and many more hours of discussion, and continued until midnight. I’ve proven to myself that I can do it now. I’m going to remember that for my next intensive, and for the work week ahead of me.

With that kavanah (intention) in mind, I am going to head off now to check work email and to get the inbox in some kind of order before tomorrow. More reflections are coming later, I’m sure – and in the meantime, I am so grateful. I didn’t know how much I needed this, I am thrilled to be part of this community, and I am grateful to work for an organization that supports my participation in continued growth and learning.   Sending hugs to all of you as we continue to build this world from love 

Songs and Suffering

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway?

It’s cold, the first real rain California has seen in a long time. Stanford’s campus is relatively quiet. There are only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people are mostly inside, studying for finals, buying their plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at Florida State University, the students are wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? I talked about it with my rabbi at a beach Shabbat retreat that weekend. The Torah reading for that week discussed the rituals that Jews perform after seeing or touching a dead body. Jews must complete these rituals before they return to their community for prayer. The ancient ones knew. A brush with mortality can shatter us. We need rituals to remember how to be whole again.

School shootings always raise questions. Is it because of guns? Is it because mental illness is stigmatized? Is it both? Maybe school shootings affect me so strongly because I can relate to students, and I’ve made a living out of it. I’ve worked on a university campus for the past seven years, and I was a university student for the six years before that. Students are the reason I get out of bed every day. Their lives are my calling, and their stories are a gift.

Over the past seven years, I have gained their trust. I have heard about their fears and their successes. I cheer them on in their campus musical and theater performances. I support them when they’re stressed about their exams. I coach them through interpersonal challenges. I give them feedback on their application essays and I write their letters of recommendation. I hold them when they cry because a friend has committed suicide or a grandparent has finally succumbed to terminal illness.

This week alone, I have had three conversations about grief, and one about depression. I listened, I validated, and I offered advice when they asked for it. This week I am including a memorial ritual for Transgender Day of Remembrance in my Shabbat service. We will think about this year’s 226 victims of transgender discrimination. We will think about Ferguson, and about the four men who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue two days ago, and we will think about the victims of school shootings, and the victims of genocide, about the Kesem campers who lost their parents this week, and about the Stanford alumnus who was found dead in the Bay. We will remember the ones who have no one left to remember them. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no one should have to grieve alone.

When I read about a school shooting, my first impulse is to reach out. I desperately want to support the students who survived, I want to make sure they have someone to talk to, to process the trauma, to remind them that love exists in a world doesn’t appear to be loving. I imagine what would I say if it was one of my own students in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. I wonder what I would say to the family. I visited a student in the hospital this past Sunday. It was an infection, and he’s mostly all right now. Healing takes time.

When the children and teachers were murdered in Newtown, it was in the week leading up to Chanukah, our Festival of Light. I remember going from one synagogue to another, looking for a place to say the mourner’s prayer. All three synagogues were hosting celebrations for the first night of Chanukah. The laughing and singing children and families felt like a punch in the gut. Wait, I wanted to cry out. How can you sing when so many are suffering? Then I remembered that it wasn’t right for me to think that way. People are suffering everywhere, and always. That doesn’t mean we should decrease our joy. It means we should increase our awareness, we should choose to bring light into the lives of others.

There was another school shooting today, and the rain is still falling. There is work to be done, and there are stories that need to be heard. We cannot suffocate under the weight of these losses when there are days and months marching ahead of us.

We need to remember, and we need to step forward, bravely, one smile at a time. We need to be the miracle, the moment of hope, the brightness bleeding through cracks in the darkness. We need to love in the face of loss, whether or not it touched us personally. We need to laugh sometimes, and cry, and hold onto each other. Because when it comes down to it, we are all we’ve got.

How I Learned to Stop Kvetching and Embrace Mindfulness

I have a thing about the word “mindfulness.” Maybe it’s just my Santa Cruz background, but whenever anyone says “mindfulness,” I picture those way-far-out-there types who have no grip on reality because they’re too busy being “present” to consider their actions in relation to the past and the future. No judgment or anything – it’s just not me. I also associate mindfulness with meditation. Meditation is definitely not me. I don’t like being still. I don’t like slowing down. I don’t like focusing on my breath when I’m trying to solve a problem. I like to just solve the problem and get on with it already. Who has time for anything else? When I want to see change that I cannot enact, changing my thought patterns almost always works best for me. It feels more active, more proactive, and more productive than mindfulness teachings, which encourage people to “just sit with the feeling” instead of arguing or rationalizing yourself out of negative thinking.

 

But last March, I learned that my ankle pain isn’t going to go away without another surgery. There’s no rationalizing. There’s no arguing away the the negativity. I am going to be in pain daily. Whenever I try to “look on the bright side,” it feels forced and fake, like I’m trying to pretend it doesn’t hurt, or trying to pretend that I’m ok with all of the continuing limitations on my life-with-one-foot. I felt panicked, frustrated, and furiously angry when I found out about my failed surgery. Then I felt desperate and lost and alone. Then I felt like I needed to talk with someone, anyone, who has been through this before. I felt like the real me, who loves to dance and run and chase kids at camp, is trapped in this cage of a skeleton and I can’t get out.

I put out a call for help on Facebook. If there’s anything I’ve learned from living with this injury, it’s that it’s totally ok to ask for exactly what you need, because otherwise, people don’t know how to help you. I asked if anyone with chronic pain experience had time to talk through this with me, and I was flooded with responses. One of the first things I noticed in my conversations with all of these people is that they all mentioned something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I blew it off the first two times I heard about it because it has the “M” word in it, and I know these MBSR classes are really expensive. But after I heard about it from five different people, all of whom suffer from severe chronic pain, I figured there had to be something to it besides fuzzy meditation stuff.

I had counselor training coming up that weekend, and I didn’t have time to do any further exploration of the “m” word beforehand. I’d been pretty nervous about training because I always want to help. I want to support my coordinators in every way possible, no matter what that means for my foot and my pain levels. I’ve always tried to fight the pain and do everything I normally would, and in the past, this hasn’t worked too well. But it’s hard to fight my natural instincts, and I thought I might be in for a tough weekend, arguing with myself, pushing through pain, and trying desperately to pretend it’s all ok.

In the end, training went beautifully, for the counselors and for me. In reflecting back on why it went so much better than I expected, it all came down to acceptance. By acceptance, I mean acknowledging the pain and just being “ok” with it. Instead of trying to fight it or getting angry about it or having any kind of negative response to it (followed by an attempt to correct any negative response to it) I just accepted it. Yes, I’m in pain. And that’s ok. I can’t help with meal clean-up if I want to go up the hill later. I’d rather go up the hill to participate in the next activity. And that’s ok too. I’m allowed to be in pain. There was nothing I could do about it, so I might as well accept it, right?

It turns out that this is actually a version of mindfulness. Accepting the feeling, giving it space, and then moving on, rather than shoving it back down, or forcing yourself to move on before you’re ready to do that. The result was that I was able to move on far more quickly once I acknowledged the pain to myself.  Saying “It really hurts right now. I think I’ll sit down” instead of “Ok, it hurts, but that’s not going to stop me. I can power through it! Now move it!” actually meant that I could get up again sooner.

Then I got to thinking…what if we applied this to depression? So many times, people end up feeling worse when they try to talk themselves into a better mindset. We associate “making space for the feelings” with “wallowing.” It’s not the same thing. Acknowledging is different. It means saying “I’m sad. And I don’t like being sad, but I just am. That’s ok,” instead of saying “What’s wrong with you? Get off your butt! Do something about it!” Sometimes, there just isn’t anything you can do but find a level of acceptance, acknowledge the storm, and let it pass.

It feels so counterintuitive to me. I want so badly to be in control. I don’t want to wait for the storm to pass. I want to swim through it, I want to throw the raindrops back into the clouds they came from and show that storm what I’ve got. Mindfulness feels, to me, like rising above the storm instead. “Oh look, it’s raining. Things are going to be wet for little while.”

Next thing you know I’ll be one of those people who refers to meditation as a “practice.” Actually, if I ever do that, feel free to just slap me. But seriously…there’s no stopping the rain, no matter how hard you fight. That’s what chronic pain is like. All we can do is reflect and respond, and, as I’ve learned, accept.