The blessing of the broken toe

by Brian on December 8, 2016

in In the News,Mindfulness

donald-trump-close-upThree days before our daughter’s wedding, my wife Jody broke her toe. She dropped a large plata (a hot plate we use to warm food on Shabbat) on her foot. The toe turned purple and I rushed Jody to the nearest Terem emergency center for an X-ray and some advice on proper bandaging.

After the initial shock wore off (and the pain was dulled by some powerful painkillers), our next thought was: oh no, what terrible timing, right before the wedding! How will Jody dance with her daughter? How will she walk her down the aisle? Both had been looking forward to this day for so long.

But then we realized: what happened with Jody’s toe actually represents an important lesson for starting a marriage.

There’s a saying by the Thai meditation teacher Aachan Chaa that, “the glass is already broken.” It’s a metaphor for the understanding that nothing is perfect; that nothing in life goes exactly as you planned.

That glass you just bought will break someday. That new car will get dents. Your relationship will change and be tested in so many ways.

Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s harder than you expected. But if you are mindful of the ups and downs, the proverbial sicknesses and in healths; if you’re not attached to any particular outcome and you don’t resist the unanticipated directions that life pulls you, then you can flow with whatever you’re dealt and build a strong and lasting marriage together.

I told this story under the chuppah at my daughter’s wedding just before her chatan stomped on a glass of his own.

Two weeks later, Donald Trump won the U.S. elections and I realized we were going to need that teaching more than ever.

Trump’s surprise bictory threw my Internet news feeds and liberal leaning friends into a state of profound mourning.

A client canceled a conference call we had scheduled the day the results were announced because he was too overwrought to think straight.

A Jewish learning institute in Jerusalem convened an emergency PTSD circle for traumatized overseas students to counter what might now be called “Pence-Trump Stress Disorder.”

A month later, as the president-elect’s controversial cabinet appointments, victory speeches and inflammatory early morning tweets do little to calm a worried world, that initial shock shows few signs of abating.

Mindfulness teachings like “the glass is already broken” should in principle help us to regain some perspective; to tamp down our attachments and resistance.

“But sometimes things really are scary,” my own mindfulness teacher, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of Or HaLev told me. “And it doesn’t do any good to pretend that they aren’t.”

The key to coping with turbulent times like these is not to get lost in the fear, Jacobson-Maisels stressed.

“We must try to stop and, in that stopping, find our center, our place of stability and openness, which is still present – whatever the threats,” he explained. “And from that place, we can respond – being aware of the fear, but not out of the fear. Aware of the challenge, but not lost in the challenge.”

We’ll get lost again, Jacobson-Maisels warned. “It’s a never ending process, but one that provides additional healing and wisdom each time we do it.”

And ultimately we find our equilibrium. The human brain has the remarkable ability to return to the base level of happiness it had before a trauma. That’s how people can go on following a divorce, a death…or a Trump.

It even has a name: “set point theory.”

Set point theory was coined several decades ago by a team of psychologists at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts who found that people who win the lottery, after the initial euphoria has died down, are no happier than those with, say, spinal cord injuries.

For most people, the lows (as well as the highs) are transient; they even out and you find yourself right back where you were.

Set point theory has been applied to other areas, such as body mass, where it seems we each have a “natural” weight, including the level of fat we would normally carry, and we keep returning there no matter how much we diet.

Set point theory tells us that the trauma of Trump will pass.

“The sun will [still] rise in the morning,” Barack Obama tried to reassure an anxious nation on election night.

Americans will continue to work, play, make love, raise their families and innovate – just as Israelis have been doing over years of intifadas and missiles and existential angst, and as Jews have done for millennia when confronted by pogroms, explusions and genocide.

I’m not burying my head in the sand – the policy decisions of leaders make real differences. Just look at the Venezuelan economy before and after Hugo Chavez.

But if we can remember that “the glass is already broken” and move forward mindfully, we will get through this period too.

That’s the blessing Jody’s toe wants to give to this strange, unpredictable new world we find ourselves in.

Jody first broke her toe over at The Jerusalem Post.

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