by Miki Kashtan
Mourning is an act of softening. It supports us in softly closing the gap between what we want, envision, or long for, and what actually exists. In the absence of mourning, we are likely to try to do it with some degree of force: either by trying to force ourselves not to want what we want, or by trying to force what is out there to conform to what we want. Mourning is a continual soft pathway to accepting reality without numbing ourselves, without distracting ourselves, without blaming ourselves, and without engaging in a spiritual bypass. Mourning brings tenderness to everything we put into it.
The first and most elemental mourning practice I know is simple and radical: to let mourning be when it arises. Whether I am teaching, facilitating, or participating in a meeting, when mourning shows up, in me or in others, I do what I can to remove any obstacles to it flowing. I think of it as radical because it almost universally involves crying, which almost everyone apologizes for doing and tries to package and stop. It almost always takes conscious and active will and effort for people to settle into crying instead. Allowing the mourning, especially when crying, challenges societal norms. It is a small act of disrupting the conversational infrastructure that supports the status quo, one of the ways I think of what I regularly do.
This practice is one that supports the flow of mourning once it arises. And it’s not enough. Because I talk of mourning a lot, and because of the crisis state we are in now, many people are now asking me for guidance on the other part: how to enter the field of mourning. I have so far had little to offer. I’ve asked a number of colleagues to write guest posts on the topic of mourning, and I anticipate more of them arriving in the coming weeks and months in addition to the one from Sarah Peyton that’s already posted here. And, meanwhile, I am offering one bit myself: my own nascent mourning practice.
It started when I made the decision to go to Israel for a visit to be with my sister Arnina for her 70th birthday. For various reasons, both political-social and familial, I anticipated this visit to be hard on me. And while preparing and setting up support for it, the idea arose that a close circle of supporters would produce a mourning challenge for me as close to every day as possible: a topic to mourn, and the number of things to mourn about it. All via email, with brief responses. Couldn’t be simpler.
As I am writing this piece, I am still in Israel, still doing this practice. The rest of this post is a selection of the topics that arose in that activity, with no editing except a couple of bracketed context adding, very few tiny bits for clarity, and changing names so as not to expose anyone, as I want to share the very rawness of what I did. At the end, I come back to reflecting on the practice and the gifts it gave me.
After sharing with my little spontaneous “mournings support group” about Israeli culture and how much it’s one of toughness and disdain for what is perceived as weakness, I was given a few mourning challenges that are specifically about that.
Lack of softness
The assignment: “5 mournings around the lack of softness in Israeli culture. If you want something more specific it maybe on how it is manifesting in the patterns that are coming up in you being there.”
- I am mourning for the girl I was, and all the children who are born and grow up here, all the moments of having to force softness underground in order to fit in. It’s useful to remember some events in my childhood as being that particular training. Very, very sad.
I am mourning that this lack of softness is so intertwined with both fear of annihilation and the capacity to inflict violence and harm on others in a vicious endless loop: the more violence, the more fear of reprisal, the more numbness needed to survive, the more capacity for violence that creates.
I am mourning how this means that the bar is so, so high for anyone who wants to bring in the soft qualities. I am thinking of Nava, and how hard it would be for her to bring this into her context, a lot of compassion for her. And my encounter with the people from her community, the intensity of should energy around values that are mostly the same as ours, though enforced!
I am mourning the feeling tone in the streets. Even in quarantine, from inside Arnina’s apartment, always hearing parents screaming at their children. Fights. Intensity. Harshness in the air. I feel my body contracting as I am even writing this. Even right now I am hearing that from some neighboring apartment. The population density here is really high.
The impact on me
The second assignment in this series came in response to my first mourning in the previous one: “5 mournings more specifically on the impact of child Miki of being raised in this context.” One bit of context for one of the mournings: when I was eleven, I was blackmailed by a classmate, in the most literal sense of the word, for months.
- This is a very difficult assignment. Because it invites me to look squarely at my childhood, and there are so many memories that quickly fly through me that are really painful, and I get flooded with numbness about them right away… Because it’s hard to distinguish family from peer culture… Because the memories are intense and not always very clear about what happened, so I can’t tell if they are or are not related… Because I don’t know what impact they left on me, each one… So I guess this is #1, though written after a few others: that this experience got me to this level of confusion and overwhelm that this practice would be difficult.
I was made fun of, ridiculed, pressured, and ignored in relation to the physical sensitivities I have about physical contact. By both immediate and extended family. For years. Sensitivities were things not to have. It took me years to come out of the ruins of that to embrace physical contact with other people, and I don’t think I ever freed myself from the humiliation.
I am kind of doing a quick review of me as the child, and I am just feeling so much tenderness for all that happened to me as a child. I can’t differentiate anything in particular. Just a softness within me. A tenderness for that girl. So much innocence that I still carry with me. So much sadness that I wasn’t received in ways that nurtured that quality in me. That I lost so much of it in the harsh context.
At the end of the blackmail period, I came to class one day and tried to say things to the group, including the teacher, about what had happened. The girl who had been blackmailing me said something I don’t remember, and everyone turned against me, including the teacher. I cried a lot and I was made fun of and my tears were being referred to as “crocodile tears,” which I think means that they were manufactured tears, not real feelings on my part. It was a very low moment.
At the end of 3rd grade, I was sent to a summer camp for two weeks. I was picked on by these two sisters for torment. I remember thinking, as they were hitting me, that it would make me stronger to deal with my father hitting me. The whole thing went through the lens of being strong. It was so awful that in the end I asked to be taken home early. My body is still carrying all the bullying from all the contexts where it happened (about five or six different places, in two different countries). In this moment, I am wondering if I was the target, at least in Israel, for not succumbing fast enough to the tough culture. Can’t know.
And then I got this assignment soon thereafter: “6 mournings for what you sense Israeli culture could be and isn’t.”
- Israel could have become an oasis of restoration, of emerging from many centuries of oppression to committing to liberation for all, Jews and Palestinians alike, of grounding in the present and the future instead of reacting to the past. Instead, Israel became a place of fear and oppression of others.
Israel could have become a place where all Jews, from everywhere, are welcome and participate in the creation of a model society. Instead, Israel became a stratified, hierarchical society in which some Jews are ranked higher than others.
Israel could have become a place where all the creative intelligence that Jews have (28% of Nobel prize winners are Jews, when we are 0.2% of the population, something that frightens rather than delights me, as it feeds antisemitism) to come up with innovations such as drip irrigation (which came from Israel) and to make the Middle East self-sufficient and resilient. Instead, Israel diverted many of its resources to creating destructive technologies and to supporting the worst regimes in the world with military training and arms.
Israel could have become a place of true resource flow. The Kibbutz movement started with such utopian ideals of socialism and gender equality [which I abstract out of the larger context of displacement of Palestinians and elitism which eventually developed]. I believe it was the largest fully voluntary experiment in socialist, collective living anywhere. Instead, later generations sold their souls to consumer culture and the Kibbutzim became privatized rich suburb-like places.
Israel could have become a place where differences, overall, are surmounted: it is home to several religions, dozens of ethnicities, and more. Instead, Israel became a narrow-minded, conformist society that puts immense pressure on individuals to go along with everything. Nationalism was forced on us intensely. Stories of military heroism were breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Israel could have become a place of spiritual awakening, grappling with some of the most difficult questions about human nature, the meaning of life and more, in the wake of unimaginable horrors. Instead, Israel became a place of hardening, closing off, religious fanaticism, narrow nationalism, fear of the rest of the world, and in parallel, contempt for the spiritual.
Israel could have become a world leader in grasping and engaging with mass-scale atrocities and developing international procedures, ideally restorative practices. Instead, Israel, along with the US, has not joined the International Criminal Court, an imperfect institution that is, nonetheless, the only one we have, and is actively working to undermine its decision to investigate war crimes in Palestine.
Dynamics of Power, Internalized Oppression, and Leadership
During this time of visiting Israel I worked on a piece that’s not yet ready for posting which I call “Grappling with Our Own Power.” In that piece, I identify three systemic patterns that intertwine in relation to power. Here’s the assignment I received after sharing about that piece with my little circle: “5 mournings around the 3 phenomena in the grappling with power piece you are currently writing.”
Systemic pattern #1: the challenge of hearing impacts from a position of power or privilege
- I am mourning a time, in 2005, when we had a small retreat just with a bunch of [my late sister] Inbal’s and my (though I am not sure she was there) closest students of color to talk about racism. We got into intense dynamics for many hours instead of the original purpose, because I was so completely caught within wanting my innocence about whatever it was to be seen, that I had no room to hear the impact I had on a Kenyan woman who was one of the group. She and I are still connected, we fully worked it out and I barely remember the incident except the origin of it: she and I were paired up to make a chicken dish, and she proceeded at a certain point on her own, and without consulting with me removed the skin from the entire dish. I was so upset, both about the loss of the skin and, way more so, about the helplessness of it happening without me being consulted, that I let that take over the whole thing without seeing the impact. And I just reached out to her to offer acknowledgment. I am welcoming that opportunity. [The contact was sweet; we are continuing to correspond about our respective lives.]
I am mourning the many times I don’t even remember seeing this dynamic playing out between other people and didn’t know how to step in: either I didn’t step in at all, or I stepped in clumsily and made things worse.
As a kind of example of that, I am mourning the many times I made an assumption that the people of color in a particular context would simply know that I was there to support them in relation to other white people, and when such dynamics operated counted on their understanding, without checking at all for their consent and experience. I ended up making them witnesses and “forcing” them to absorb certain impacts.
I am mourning the time when I reacted to a male student in a workshop who did some pretty sexist things. I was sarcastic and I was entirely blind to my position as the teacher in the workshops with him as the student; I was only aware of being the female with him being the male. (Of course he wasn’t aware of being the male in that dynamic, only of being the student relative to me as the teacher… That’s when I learned fully about crisscrossing power differences…)
I am mourning beyond my capacity to really touch it that, given this dynamic, there are so, so few of us who have the capacity to support those with more power to receive their impact by making it digestible.
Systemic pattern #2: the challenge of absorbing impacts emerging from internalized oppression
I mourn deeper than I can yet access the reality that internalized oppression exists and keeps all of us enslaved to the existing systems. The level of trauma and agony needed to make that happen are too staggering for me to be able to fully take in. Even the small amount that I can take in shakes me up.
I mourn that internalized oppression results in so many people, the overwhelming majority, having their capacity and dreams stunted, and are less available for the collective project of caring for all of us.
I mourn how little internalized oppression is understood by all of us, and how that results in more separation than oppression alone could create.
I mourn that people are penalized for their internalized oppression and trauma, which only intensifies the impacts of oppression in terms of separating people and in terms of skewing distributions of resources.
I mourn that internalized oppression separates people of the same group from each other.
Systemic pattern #3: the challenge for transformative leaders of receiving more feedback than can be digested
I am mourning how many people don’t step forward into leadership for fear of being attacked. How much loss of talent this means that transformative movements have as a result.
I am mourning that this dynamic is keeping all our movements weaker, because so much energy goes into working out conflicts. I learned of a prominent black woman leader who is in conflict with most of the people who know her and work closely with her. Whether or not this is true, it’s devastating.
I am mourning that in this dynamic so much potential energy that would go into fueling change and standing up to the larger societal structures is dissipated through internal dynamics within movements and communities.
I am mourning how much I, and other leaders, have absorbed in our bodies, especially given that this happens more to women and more to Jews, people of color, etc. I so want us to be celebrated and nourished to be able to do our work.
I am mourning how little this is being talked about and acknowledged, and how far we are from deeper understanding of what’s going on and what can be done about it.
The assignment: “Zooming in on the FBI programme [COINTELPRO] that destroyed the Black Panther movement [which I had mentioned while talking about the above piece I am writing]. 5 mournings about this programme and what it signifies more broadly in terms of where the world is.”
- I am mourning the loss of so much talent, dream, passion in each of the people killed, maimed, imprisoned, or exiled.
I am mourning the loss of creative collective energy that was transforming conditions on the ground in multiple cities for many people, and was entirely clipped and turned into despair, individualized dysfunction, and horror for so many. I haven’t seen anything better than this video (6:46) to describe the horror they tried to combat and were destroyed for.
I am mourning all that had to be done to people so that the people in the FBI in general, and all those who executed their orders, could actually bring themselves to do it; all the loss of humanity within those individuals that led to them believing that the black panther party leaders were enemies.
I am mourning the erasure of all that period, so that new generations are growing up without having that to inspire them.
I am mourning the loss of leadership and vision to both the Black communities in the US and the global inspiration that could offer. I am mourning the dread that is Black existence in the US and the beauty of what seemed so close in the 60s.
Vagabonding or Homelessness?
This was an assignment I gave to myself after realizing, again and more deeply, that while I am vagabonding by choice, I also am operating within a very constrained choice that makes me semi-homeless. I chose to make it seven mournings about being in this odd vagabonding/homelessness situation.
- I am mourning how human societies are structured in such a way that there is no way to simply move, disappear, start a new life outside all the tracking of all of us that is happening all the time. In the Middle Ages, anyone could up and go somewhere else. No more. We are a nomadic species now bound to place whether we want it or not.
I am mourning how tough it is that the only two places that make room for me legally are both entirely out of integrity for me to be in.
I am mourning that the situation is tilted in a way that holding onto choice is constrained. I need to re-choose in a context that has few options.
I am mourning the added weight and difficulty that the pandemic has brought to this situation, making it harder to move, making it harder to stay anywhere.
I am mourning, within that, in particular, moving around without being able to actually get to know places and especially the people in them, the way I so love doing when I am in new places: walking around, talking with people, seeing how they live. So one of the joys of moving around is curtailed.
I am mourning having even less in common with the majority of the world population who know their place, even as I am very confused about why we collectively developed attachments to place given that we are nomadic evolutionarily.
I am mourning (and celebrating) that this situation is bringing up for me, regularly, the long history of Jews being on the move, uprooted, never fully welcome anywhere. To this day. We can sort of be welcome as individuals, and not as a group that wants to be a group. Hard stuff.
For My 65th Birthday
The assignment: “5 mournings around how modern patriarchal cultures relate to the process of aging.”
- I mourn that, especially for women, aging is something to hide, to be ashamed of, to manage instead of being one to wonder about, grapple with, and settle into. I mourn women changing their bodies to make the effects of aging invisible, starting with hair dying!
I mourn “you don’t look 65” and all the assumptions that come from it, and I mourn, within it, how delighted women are when told so, and how alone I feel in celebrating my age and my choices rather than how I look.
I mourn that aging and death are both taboo, and the enormous industry that goes into delaying death as far as possible.
I mourn that given the nuclearization of families and destruction of communities, people who age are often alone and without a deep enough sense of meaning in their lives. I mourn that there isn’t, instead, a way to bring elders and children together, two populations that are shoved out of the way for “productive” adults of privileged groups to be able to do what they wish without having to care.
I mourn that the wisdom that comes with age is dismissed because of the intensity of manufactured cultural change that makes elders look outdated rather than wise.
Gifts from the Mourning
A key gift from sharing the mournings with others meant I wasn’t alone in anything: survival patterns I was mourning, discoveries about my culture, and other things I didn’t include here. Not alone even when I couldn’t change what was happening. As one person in the group that gave me all the assignments shared: “You’re not alone there this time. This is different. Even though we are physically not with you. We are here holding your experience with you here. Receiving these mournings. Coming with you to the depths of this blurry, weak, paralyzed survival fuzz that you are in. In this practice and held by us there is a layer of less paralysis than there would usually be.”
Receiving the responses to what I was sharing also served to un-numb me. It was enough, for someone to say: “Wow, intense,” which happened a few times, and brought softness to me, more willingness to see the fullness of what happened to me rather than minimizing it. I could see even more clearly that part of the Israeli survival pattern is to minimize horrors so we can bear them without thinking of screaming for change.
This also brought more compassion in relation to Israeli culture overall. Identifying the vicious endless loop of numbness and violence, in particular, became clearer to me than ever. It almost brings full compassion to the people who came here and started the oppression of the Palestinians. Not entirely. The horror of what they did is so great that the compassion is still tainted with distancing from them.
This practice has deepened and strengthened my visceral clarity about how much support we need when we choose to live from vision and needs and to embrace choice, togetherness, and flow as far as we can rather than living from our conditioning and from scarcity, separation, and powerlessness. I have thought of myself as quite open to receiving support, and I’ve been humbled during this practice to see how much more is needed.
In addition to sustaining my spirit in a soft way while being here, it has served to bring clarity and depth to a number of topics and, unexpectedly, to strengthen and deepen my intimacy with the small group of people I share these mournings with. Some of it was simply through seeing my friends’ humanity in how they responded. Some of it was through opening up things for them, in ways I wouldn’t have imagined, to learn about the world, about me, and about themselves.
This is as good a moment as any for the reminder that mourning is best done with others, not alone. The inner resistance to it tends to go deep, except in socially sanctioned moments of death. Mourning actively is an act of subversion, or reclaiming the fullness of life within us, and our soft energy that can stand up to all that happens and refuse to play along.
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