Linda: September incudes the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur which is the last day of the High Holiday season that begins with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah. The ten days in between the two are called the “Days of Awe” and are a time of reflection and contemplation of the previous year. We are invited to envision the new year with particular regard to the kinds of things that we will need to do in order to live a life that will embody our highest ideals and deepest values.
To those of the Jewish faith, Yom Kippur is considered the most sacred of all the holidays and it literally translates into “Day of Atonement”. Atonement has to do with making amends or reparations for anything that we might have done or said that may have caused any harm. In religious traditions, “atonement” refers to the process of restoring to wholeness our connection with the divine that may have been interrupted as a result of our words or actions. The dictionary states that the origin of the word “atonement” comes from the merging of the words “at one”.
From a spiritual perspective this means that when we are living in harmony with natural laws we have the experience of being “at one” with the spirit of the divine, however we may choose to identify it. Consider this definition of integrity: the alignment of our deepest values with our words, thoughts, deeds, and feelings.
Few if any of us are capable of living in a way in which we consistently embody our deepest truths. Putting aside a day to focus upon the errors that we have deliberately or unconsciously committed seems like a pretty good idea. We can’t correct something that we don’t recognize; and we’re unlikely to recognize it unless we intentionally set aside the time to take our own personal inventory. This process isn’t exactly at the top of most people’s “to-do” list and with good reason. Identifying your “sins”, or times that we “missed the mark”, generally doesn’t feel particularly good and most of us would rather do something else, anything else, rather than feel the feelings that come up when we acknowledge to ourselves or others, where we’ve fallen short.
Left to our own devices, most of us are inclined to avoid this kind of introspection and would be more likely to engage in one of the many activities that are readily available rather than to involve ourselves in self-confrontation. The problem with living a life of compulsively refusing to face ourselves is that we inevitably continue to replay the same patterns that cause suffering to ourselves and others. And we fail to learn the lessons that can free us from our habituated behaviors.
Setting aside a day or a period of time for self-reflection seems an excellent idea for anyone who seeks to bring greater harmony and balance into her or his life. Then we can restore any broken places in which the connection between us and the divine has been interrupted. In seeking to restore an inner balance in which the truth of our heart is more fully integrated into our actions, we enhance our own level of self-trust, self-respect, and self-worth. We also bring these same qualities more fully into the lives of those around us, and in so doing impact the world at large. We are both the givers as well as the recipients of the gift of this self-honoring as are those around us. Whether we engage this practice primarily for ourselves or for others, everyone is the beneficiary. This is “enlightened self-interest”.
It is customary to fast on Yom Kippur, as fasting tends to concentrate the focus of our attention towards that to which we are dedicating ourselves, intensifying the process. It is a form of dedication to a purpose higher than that which ordinarily drives our daily lives, one which supports our commitment to honor the truth that underlies our perceptions. Gandhi called fasting “the most sincere form of prayer”.
The process of atonement involves more than simply acknowledging the acts that we have committed that have created tears in the sacred fabric of our lives, but acts of omission as well. That is, those times when assistance was called for but we failed to provide it, when help was sought but we denied it, when compassion was needed but we failed to provide it, when forgiveness was requested, but we withheld it. We are also reminded that we are as much in need as anyone else of our own forgiveness. Withholding compassion from ourselves for treating ourselves abusively or neglectfully is as much a transgression of our sacred responsibility as is anything that we do or fail to do with others.
Naming the failing is an essential step, but the healing cycle isn’t complete until we take the next step of making amends. The word ‘amend’ means to correct or rectify an injury, to set something right, to restore the original balance. This may require us to address the person with whom there has been an injury. It could involve some action or words such as an apology, a repayment or compensation for a debt, an offering of forgiveness. Amends can be giving anything that is an expression of a commitment to provide restitution to restore integrity to the situation or relationship. These action steps are essential ingredients to the process of promoting wholeness, and without them the process is incomplete.
The reward for honoring the spirit of atonement is the experience of being at one with yourself and with the world. Imagine what you would feel if one day you left home and became hopelessly lost for a long time and feared that you would never find your way home again, never see your loved ones, never feel safe again. Then miraculously you found your way home where you were greeted with joy by everyone that you loved. That’s how it feels. To ATONE feels just like being AT HOME.
It’s not necessary to be Jewish to create a day or time of self-reflection and atonement. We can give ourselves the gift of inner reflection on a regular basis. For most of us once a year probably isn’t enough, but it’s a good start. And it’s not the amount of time that we spend doing it, it’s the sincerity in our heart to set things right again that determines the outcome. Enlightened self-interest is in everyone’s interest!
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