To Turn, Turn and Re-Turn

Today – October 12, 2016, the day I write this article – is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the most important holiday in Judaism. Muslims have the same holiday, called Ashura, which in Islam is a day of mourning, reflection and thankfulness. There are different interpretations in Sunni and Shia Islam regarding what is being mourned, but the essential theme is the same. Jews call it “return.” Muslims call it “remembrance.” They are identical concepts. The Christian version is “repentance.” The idea behind each is that through return/remembrance/repentance we come home to the truth of who we are, our essence.

Since Islam relies on a straight lunar calendar and Judaism on a modified lunar version, it’s extremely unusual for these holidays to fall on the same day. That these holidays align perfectly today leaves me inspired to write about their meaning as it relates to conflict resolution.

Judaism and Islam are far more similar than most Jews or Muslims realize. In both religions this special day is focused on remembering or returning to the truth of who we are. So who are we?

Alan Seid, a local expert in Non-Violent Communication, was recently giving a talk to the Whatcom Collaborative Law Group. He asked each of us to try to recall a time when we had prepared a meal for one or more people and received a sense of satisfaction from watching others enjoy what we had worked to create. Most everyone had had such an experience at one time or another. He then asked what would happen to that sense of satisfaction if the person(s) for whom the meal had been prepared had been ungrateful. When using this example in my practice I use the hypothetical of an honored guest showing up, glancing at his watch and declaring, “I have only an hour and a half; this had better be worth my time!”

Of course one’s sense of satisfaction would be crushed. The truth of who you are – who each of us is – is one who receives satisfaction from giving. In this sense, we are all the same at our core and deeply connected. We receive in giving and give in receiving. But we also have a human aspect, an ego, and thus this sense of satisfaction can be easily obscured. It’s this egoic element that creates our sense of separation.

The world is a confusing, challenging place. There are many things we need to survive in it, and those needs are constantly calling to us. Of course the basics of food, clothing and shelter, but also equally real things like rest, satisfaction, meaning, a sense of appreciation, etc. In our efforts to satisfy our needs, it’s easy to lose sight of the deep truth of our hearts.

Today – Yom Kippur / Ashura – is about coming home to that truth. Some years ago, I was asked speak on Yom Kippur at a community center located in a beautiful restored former synagogue. A community of concerned citizens had come together to preserve and restore it. Now services were being held there for the first time in more than 50 years. It was quite an honor to be asked to speak but my initial reaction was to defer since I’m not a rabbi or religious scholar. At the same time, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

Over the next few days, I pondered. On the one hand, I felt honored and wanted to participate. On the other, I didn’t see any point unless I could speak from my own experience in a way that would have meaning. My experience of Judaism was colored by having grown up in this tradition. So often, people are hurt by the faiths of their fathers and mothers, cutting one off from the essences and meanings of the tradition. For me Judaism reeked of shame and blame, guilt and obligation. Fasting seemed a form of enforced suffering; punishment for alleged sins according to old, worn out codes of ethics that had no modern relevance. The entire holiday seemed antiquated and irrelevant. It was hard to fathom how my words could honor and contribute to the meaning others attached to Yom Kippur.

Fortunately I had a good friend who was a rabbi in another community. When he and I spoke, he noted that my work as a divorce attorney and mediator is highly relevant to the holiday. He said in seeking peace rather than war, I was guiding people toward atonement, toward return – which is the very heart of Yom Kippur and also the heart of conflict resolution.

My initial reaction was something like, “What are you talking about?” Nonplused, he gave me a website and told me to read Maimonides, the brilliant 12th Century rabbi whose ideas remain to this day central to Judaism.

So I read. First Maimonides and then other scholars, historic and contemporary. The theme that appeared again and again, centered on this notion of “return.”

Living, as we do, in this often corrupt and ever-imperfect world isn’t easy. Over time, we become cynical. We become alienated from our environment, from each other, from ourselves, and by extension from God. Yom Kippur is about coming together as a community to look inward and return from alienation and cynicism to our true selves, to our core innocence and idealism. On Yom Kippur we contemplate what is in our hearts and the ways we’ve strayed.

One rabbi spoke of returning to who we were as small children and even earlier, to whom we were before we were born, before we were of this world, when we were with God.

Though I had grown up Jewish and had a Bar Mitzvah at age 13, these insights gave me my first true appreciation for this holiday and for why it is considered so central to Judaism. I realized Yom Kippur is more than the stilted and ossified tradition I had considered irrelevant. Rather, it is deeply spiritual, cutting right to the core of the challenge it is to be human. But how, I wondered, does this relate to my life. I considered my friend’s words: that return is central to conflict resolution. I thought of a divorcing couple I had recently met, with whom I had explored the differences between conventional and collaborative divorce.

Conventional divorce is essentially adversarial. Even though many cases settle without going to court, the process pits spouses against each other, often deepening and aggravating existing conflicts. Healing almost never occurs. Perhaps most important of all, it frequently harms children, the innocent ones, sometimes leaving them scarred for life.

Collaborative divorce is designed to be emotionally safe for all members of the family. Both spouses agree not to take the case to court. Everyone commits to act in good faith and make peace rather than war. A coach helps the spouses work through the emotions that have obscured their concern for one another. A child specialist gives the children a seat at the table in an emotionally safe way, where their needs can be placed front and center without their having to take sides. All experts are jointly retained and neutral.

In traditional divorce, the value of tangible assets, like home equity and retirement, often obscures the value of intangible assets, like creating, nurturing and preserving the good will necessary to remain full partners in parenting children. As a result, intangible assets tend to get trashed.

This particular couple had a 6-year-old daughter. I asked what it would be worth to raise her together, to be at the same school functions and graduations. I told them that collaborative divorce poses the question: “What would it be worth to dance at your daughter’s wedding?”

The wife immediately got it. She was fully engaged. She understood and appreciated the collaborative perspective. But the husband seemed distant and angry. His arms were folded, his expression impassive. So I paused and said I couldn’t help noticing he seemed upset.

He thought for a moment and his eyes began to tear. He said, “I’m not the one who wanted this divorce. I hoped we could work things out.” He felt angry and justified in his anger. He had envisioned divorce as a battle and had, in fact, already consulted an adversarial attorney.

But in his tearing up and speaking his truth something remarkable was taking place. He said that, although it would be hard to set aside his anger and pain, he wanted to honor the marriage by treating his wife with kindness. He spoke of not wanting to hurt anyone, particularly their daughter. He saw the wisdom of working together. He had, in essence, returned.

About a week later, I was retained by the husband. The wife retained another collaborative attorney. This was some years back, before we used coaches and child specialists routinely, so the process was much harder than it would be now. Over time, the negotiations proved challenging. The husband remained deeply hurt. When issues arose – sometimes over visitation, sometimes over money – he would get angry, raise his voice and say hurtful things. Each time this happened, he and I would go in the other room to reflect and regain perspective. Each time, he would calm down and then go back to the conference room to apologize to his wife and ask her forgiveness. Over and over he was willing to look inward, face his pain, remember who he was, and return.

All this hard work paid off in an agreement that met everyone’s needs. As I thought back on these events, I realized that clients can be great role models. This man had displayed humility, determination and courage, facing his anguish and returning again and again to the deeper truth of his heart. Reflecting on this, I wondered where in my life I need to return. Who are the people I want to forgive. Who are the ones from whom I want to seek forgiveness. In what ways can I forgive myself.

As I thought about this, for the first time I realized that fasting is not punishment, but rather a means of turning one’s attention inward. Yom Kippur no longer seemed to be about guilt, suffering and obligation, but rather a personal journey of renewal.

Many years later I discovered the Sufi spiritual path. Sufism is a path that brings one to the mystical inner teachings of spirituality. Through its practices one receives a direct tasting of spiritual energy. It also just happens to be the mystical branch of Islam. As I studied Sufism, I discovered the beauty of Islam and also came to a much deeper appreciation of the beauty of Judaism – as these paths are at their heart one and the same.

Back then, however, I had no idea I would ever develop an interest in or appreciation for Islam. In fact, the very notion would have seemed ridiculous. But I was interested in spirituality as it showed up across faiths. At the time I served as liaison between the Historic Stone Avenue Temple and the Tucson Multi-faith Alliance. Thus, I thought often about the ways spiritual paths converge. This recognition of commonality between faiths can serve to sharpen insights and deepen their impact because it focuses our attention on core truths.

As I thought about the essence of Yom Kippur, I recalled the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” It’s the one that begins: “‘Tis a gift to be simple; ‘Tis a gift to be free.” The second verse goes: “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. To turn, turn will be our delight till by turning, turning, we come ’round right.”

This is the essence of both Yom Kippur and Ashura: To look inward with humility, find the places we’ve strayed from the truth of our hearts, and then turn, turn and re-turn – to ourselves, to each other, and to God.

As a collaborative attorney and mediator I am blessed with the opportunity to support people in turning back to the truth of their hearts again and again.

Having begun this journey with Maimonides, I want to close this article with the words of the 13th Century Sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi (as translated by Coleman Barks). Rumi was a master at looking within to find the truth of one’s heart and living in its presence. He wrote:

Today, like every other day
We wake up empty and frightened
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do

[1] Each Islamic holiday moves back roughly ten days a year as it travels through the seasons, cycling through the Gregorian calendar every 36 or so years. Jewish holidays move forward and back within a limited range of dates that keeps them within the same season and usually within the same Gregorian month.