A Very Narrow Bridge

The world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. ~Nachman of Breslov

Month: August, 2014

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I just want to say, before I say anything else, that the first draft of this was written as a text message to someone. If my writing seems even stranger than usual, you should blame her. I know I do. I’m sort of grateful for that.

Anyway. The title for this blog comes from a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאד והעקר לא לפחד כלל
The entire world is a very narrow bridge and the essential thing is not to be afraid at all.

Except for when we should. Because sometimes fear is the right thing to feel.

Rebbe Nachman actually knew this.

I mean, he wasn’t lying when he said we shouldn’t be afraid. It’s just that he was talking about something else altogether.

He taught that there were two kinds of fear. One of them is pachad, and one of them is yir’ah.

Pachad is the one we don’t need.

It’s illusory fear. Fear of of the world created by our mental constructs—from our misconception of separateness. If we believe we are separate, we believe we can lose or win, or that we can have our heart broken, or suffer humiliation, or generally end up in a really shitty place.

And, usually, that’s what happens when we cling to this kind of fearful view of the world.

Rabbi Alan Lew, teaching in Rebbe Nachman’s name, calls it “… the fear of the phantom, the fear whose object is imagined.”

It’s this sort of fear of illusion that leads us to a sense that we are right and they are wrong. The sort of worldview that makes us believe that some lives are worth more than other lives. That sort of thing.

Frankly, it makes the world a shittier place because it’s very difficult to find compassion when we get so wrapped up in fear. Nachman, like so many other spiritual teachers, didn’t want that for us.

Then there’s the other kind of fear, yir’ah: That’s just love.


It’s the fear that’s associated with connection. The overwhelming feeling that comes with access to the incredibly powerful Love that is the basis of…well… everything.

Here’s what Rabbi Lew said about it:

“It is the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.”

That’s Love, right?

But it’s still scary as hell because it involves having to shed a sense of who we think we are and what we think we deserve. Yir’ah wants to open us up to the truth about Love. It’s everywhere. All the time. It’s overwhelming and huge and really hard to appreciate and understand.

But it’s also very present between us and the people we love. When we see (or feel the presence of ) a person, or a dog—or whatever we love, we realize that the love we are feeling is coming from them as much as it’s coming from us.

We are reflecting back the love in them, and they are reflecting back the love in us. And it’s actually that huge, overwhelming, inconceivable Love. In that moment, that look, that feeling, we are just focusing that Love and bouncing it back and forth to each other.

That’s what happens when an interaction with someone becomes the whole of the Universe for a moment. We allow ourself to open up to that Love. Love, the Universe, God—you can call it what you want. Whatever we call it, we are completely open to it for that moment.

And that’s really terrifying.

And it’s supposed to be.



I saw the movie Boyhood last night. I liked it.

At the very end of it Mason, the kid we’ve just watched grow from 6 to 18, is shrooming with Nicole, a woman he meets on the first day of college. “We don’t seize the moment,” she says, “The moment seizes us.”

That’s not a spoiler because the movie can’t really have spoilers. It’s pretty much left unresolved. We don’t know what happens to Mason as he grows up. We don’t even know if he kisses Nicole. (He should. Even I, who has very rarely been present enough to actually notice when a woman wants to kiss me, unless very, very few women have wanted to kiss me in my life, which can’t possibly be the case, knew  they wanted to kiss each other badly).

We don’t know what happens to the rest of Mason’s family. We don’t really know anything. We get no resolution at all, which makes it the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in a while.

Because we don’t know.

We only really know that the moment seizes us. And that’s true. It does. For good or bad, the moment seizes us.

We watch Mason grow up. A 6-year-old has almost no control over his life. As we get older, we have more and more control. An 18-year-old can make his own decisions. (Seriously. Mason. Kiss Nicole.) But even with that control, that ability to seize the moment, we also need to allow the moment to seize us.

We need to make it an embrace. We can’t completely chicken out (Harry, I’m talking to you here), and we can’t try to muscle our way through either (Harry, I’m talking to you here.)

A good embrace involves both asserting and yielding. Seriously. Think about it. Think about the best sex, or hug, or conversation you’ve ever had. It was both asserting and yielding. That’s what presence really means. Asserting and yielding.

People talk a lot about being in the moment. Well, that’s hard. Really hard. Almost too hard. Every choice we make leads us to the next movement and it’s really, really hard not to try to hold on to that previous choice. So we need to yield a little to make some room for the current moment. But we also have some choices to make to move us on to the next moment. We might regret our choice. Sometimes we need to regret that choice because the next moment down the line requires it. We don’t know.

Mason and Nicole and their roommates are hiking in the mountains where he’d hiked with his dad years before. In that earlier scene he’s talking to his dad about a girl he likes and how he can’t find anything to say to her. His dad explains that he should ask her questions and listen to her answers. That’s what’s happening with Nicole. They are speaking and  listening to each other. Asserting and yielding.

Their friends are howling and shouting to the sunset, to the canyon, to whatever. They are asserting themselves completely. The scene they are taking in is just a tool for their own egos. And they are missing the point.

When we make room for the moment, when we allow our ego to withdraw so that we can actually be about the action we are doing in that moment, we are getting out of our own way.

We are opening up possibilities. Millions of possibilities, none of which brings any real resolution.

I find that reassuring.


Making Room

I’ve been writing about Elly a lot lately. I guess he’s been teaching me a lot lately…

He doesn’t live with me all the time, so when he’s with me I need to do what I can to let him be alive with me. This isn’t easy. It means that I need to balance us. When he’s with me I want to fit all my parenting into the time we have together. But I also need to make space for him to fit all his son-ing into that same time.

I want to feed him, to shelter him, to clothe him, to protect him, to heal him if he needs it, to teach him, to learn from him, to laugh with him, to play together, to listen to him, to reassure him, and if necessary, to correct his behavior.

Sometimes I only have an hour with him on a weekday afternoon.

Not going to fit all that in an hour.

Unless I’m really there with him. Unless I let go of all those goals. And give him some room.

If I step outside those expectations for a moment, and just be present with him for that moment, opportunities to do some, most, or all of those elements of parenting will present themselves. Usually all of them.  Sometimes simultaneously. Because he has that space.

It’s not easy, but there are a couple of thing that have helped.

First, there are the Buddies movies. These are awful movies. They are about talking puppies. Filmed puppies that talk. The kind where they add a voiceover to the puppies. Horrible movies. And I like puppies. Elly loves these movies. He has for years. They make him laugh. Then I start to laugh.

And I thoroughly enjoy myself because I have stepped out of my expectations for a moment. It’s not always going to be about my ideas of what’s worthwhile. He doesn’t run things, but sometimes he gets a turn to make a choice for both of us. And I need to make room for him by clearing out some of my ideas.

Shedding my attachment to outcomes for that moment opens up all sorts of opportunities for deepening my relationship with my kid. For being a parent. Because I’m there.

Second is breathing with him. I sit with him and we just breathe together. “Inhale when I inhale, and exhale when I exhale.”

He used to hate this. It started when he would be throwing one of his (rare) tantrums as a toddler. I would grab him up into my arms, hold him close to me and then just breathe. He’d resist and squirm, but then he’d calm down.

Now we breathe before bedtime when he’s with me. And sometimes just to calm down after being goofy. To calm him, I suppose. I get to stay goofy because I’m a responsible adult.

How did it move from a technique for removing a tantrum to a bedtime ritual he expects? Probably because he hated it when he was a toddler. But even as a toddler he liked being calmed by it. He was calming himself with me present giving him space to do that work.

And he doesn’t know that I’m teaching him to be aware of his breath. Or to control his breath. Or the effect his breath can have on his physical being.

I guess I fooled him, didn’t I?

Finally, I just let him be with himself when we are together. I let him be aware of where he is at that time, within that moment. Without directing him. Sometimes that means waiting while he throws an osage orange against a tree to watch it explode. Sometimes it means just letting him sit by himself and be quiet for a while. Even when we only have an hour together.

This is the hardest one of all and, honestly, I have no idea how I learned to do it. He taught me, I suppose.

I can’t do these things without first being present within myself. Without knowing where I am. What I am thinking, what my emotional state is, how my body feels. So that’s the starting place. I need to be aware of myself in the moment so I can know whether I need to step aside and let go a little, or make a decision and be forceful.

I used to feel like I died every time I’d return him to his mom after spending time with him. I would grieve for the time we spent together and I constantly wanted more.

Then, somewhere along the way, I learned that I can be happy with what I have. I can be a complete parent whenever I am with him, even if it’s just an hour after school. All I have to do is make space for it. And the way to make that space is to start by being present for him.

And getting out of my own way.