After reliving the bitterness of slavery… and a harrowing journey to escape oppression, it’s time to examine our capacity to love.Gold Herring’s Omer Self-Care Workbook
We start this year’s examination of the divine/human attributes, the Sefirot on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, with Chesed, the first of seven traits or essences in the lower (earthly) Sefirot.
Chesed is love and lovingkindness, mercy, compassion, generosity. Embodying it presents us with several challenges.
How do we develop more love when reserves run dry, when hatred would rather stay put, or love cannot overtake our disdain, resistance, and fear? Can we address the source of the hatred? Can we find a way to meet the person or situation and open dialogue, even if forgiveness may not be possible?
The first step is to admit the breadth and depth of our feelings. But before we address our motivations or assumptions, we must first ask if we love our Selves. If we don’t, how can we ever fully love another, especially if they have caused us pain? How can we love those we were raised to treat as Other?
The Challenge of Chesed
We are called on, in these surreal and dangerous social-political times, to come from a place of love. To find even a shred of compassion if we are going to survive—let alone thrive. We must learn how to have difficult conversations so we aren’t immediately at war with those whose opinions or actions we diametrically oppose, or with those who cannot see or hear us in our humanity. If we don’t first love ourselves enough this cannot happen.
For people of faith, when we feel or remember that we are unconditionally loved by a Divine — whether we call that Presence G’d, Shekhinah, Havayah, Adonai, Yah, Spirit, HaShem, the Source of Life or another name — it helps us to love ourselves, with enough love left to give to others. Talking directly to Source, doing Hitbodedut, or writing/speaking a prayer can facilitate this.
When we are unable to feel G’d’s presence, we must have nurturing systems in place so that we don’t feel alienated from ourselves or others. An alternative practice is to turn to those who love us unconditionally, see our beauty and fullness, and reflect back that we are worthy of love.
How Chesed Shows Up In Our Lives
Who and how do we love? How does it move through our veins, our heart, our belly? Bring these questions (and others I pose below) into your meditations and prayers.
How do we express our lovingkindness? Do we remember to show our love to those we treasure, on a daily or weekly basis? Or do we too often take them for granted? At home, my partner and I rarely go to sleep or leave each other, even briefly, without a kiss.
Love is one of the things our body and soul require for growth, development and contentment, if not happiness. From a psychological standpoint 60 years ago, love and belonging were the third tier in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, right after our most basic human needs (for air, food, clothing, shelter, sleep) and safety & security needs (health, work, family.)
Charlie Toledo, Executive Director, Suscol Intertribal Council recently commented on the importance of being born into love. “Being seen by a parent or other family member who focuses their gaze on you when you’re a baby, is [vital].” She also noted, “Undivided attention is a gift we can give to family, friends and neighbors.” Clearly human beings have a need for Chesed in the womb, at birth and throughout our lives, in order to thrive.
That need never goes away. We see ourselves reflected in others’ eyes and words, one reason we have to choose our friends, our associates, our partners very carefully.
Defining The Love of Chesed
Do we recognize when we give away too much of our love or are generous to a fault? When our need for love becomes obsessive, or our giving of it overflows to an extreme, it becomes unhealthy; we may suddenly find we have no reserves left for ourselves. Chesed then needs to be balanced by Gevurah (which Reb Nadya will address next week).
How do we actually define love in today’s culture? What does it mean to be loved? When is it thrilling, flattering, blissful, supportive, nurturing? When is it oppressive, possessive, overwhelming, suffocating?
How do we measure it; how do we know if we’re giving someone enough love? Can we recognize when it is overflowing, magnanimous, generous, or self-damaging, depleting, or reaching a point where we can no longer find ourselves?
I began this piece talking about self-love. Have I always loved myself? Probably not. Certainly, there have been times I chastised myself for making a mistake or having the wrong answer. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to learn from these moments.
And now? At the risk of sounding egotistical, I will write something that just came through as I was completing this post:
How do I love me? Let me count the ways…
The Practice (created for this post, March 30, 2023)
Here is a practice you may want to try, inspired by several teachers: one of my Women’s Spirituality MA students, who 18 years ago created and led a self-love ritual; Reb Nadya, who asked us to do a self-love exercise for Wisdom School ten years ago, and a dear friend and colleague who brought a mirror and a ritual back from one of her pilgrimages to Kerala, India.
- Pick up a small mirror, a journal and pen. Go to a space where you won’t be disturbed or interrupted for about 10 minutes.
Look at yourself in the mirror (at least 8-10 seconds, longer if possible)
What do you see?
How would you describe her/him? Write this down in your journal — in a full sentence, if possible (or more)
Put the mirror down. Take a deep breath in, and exhale for as long as you can. Take 2 more deep breaths, increasing the length of both the inhale and the exhale as is comfortable.
- Pick up the mirror again, and gaze into it again.
Who do you see?
Write it down – in a full sentence, if possible, beyond just a noun or your name.
Take 3 deep breaths as before.
- Look in the mirror one more time. Inhale slowly, and exhale slowly.
Ask yourself: What is there to love about you?
Journal your response; take as long as you need until you have at least three things written down.
Smile as you say au revoir to your reflection – not “goodbye,” as you may on occasion wish to meet yourself again in this way.
Kohenet Ruach D’vorah Grenn, Ph.D, Mashpi’ah Ruchanit
She co-directed the Women’s Spirituality MA Program, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology/Sofia University in Palo Alto, California, and founded Mishkan Shekhinah, a movable sanctuary honoring the Sacred Feminine in all traditions. Her Talking To Goddess anthology includes sacred writings of 72 women in 25 spiritual traditions. Other publications: Lilith’s Fire: Reclaiming our Sacred Lifeforce; “The Kohanot: Keepers of the Flame” in Stepping into Ourselves (Key & Cant); the Jewish priestess and Lilith entries in Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions.
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