Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
Last month I was called for jury duty and I was surprised how much the experience of sitting for three days in the jury room was similar to being on a silent retreat. Don’t get me wrong: It was not because the jury room was a still container that facilitated deep truth telling and inner exploration. Rather, in the enforced quiet of the jury room, I had a fresh opportunity to notice the judgmental nature of my own mind.
It was pretty extraordinary. I had very strong opinions about my fellow jurors; I could tell you whom I liked, whom I disliked and who intrigued me. I was undeterred by the fact that I had nothing to base any of these judgments on; I hadn’t even spoken to anyone! It was just like many of the retreats I have attended, where I invented whole stories about people based on the sound of their breathing, the pace of their walking and where they sat.
I was grateful for the past retreat experience because I was able to recognize the absurdity of my judgmental thoughts and to lightly remind myself that they were not in fact based on truth. I had a choice: I could entrench around my criticism (which was easy to do in that particular jury room, a breeding ground of entrenchment and judgment) or I could gently renew a commitment to stay open, to be curious and surprisable, and to question my own assumptions.
People often talk about spiritual practice within the narrow context of the actual practice on the cushion or yoga mat or with the prayer book or other sacred text. But to me the fruit of the practice is revealed in other contexts, often where I least expect it. The practice prepares me to notice more quickly: Oh, here is my judgmental mind. Oh, I am on autopilot again. Oh, this situation is triggering a strong reaction. What is in fact the wisest response?
And for the record, sometimes the wisest response is one of strong judgment. I left jury duty with a lot of criticism, not about my fellow jurors, but about the justice system and how it was facilitated in this particular court. Instead of sitting and sniping at strangers in my head, I managed to recognize the larger issue and subsequently channeled my discontent by writing to the judge who oversaw the jury room. I received a sympathetic response – so who knows what will emerge?
The practice manifests in mysterious ways! It is one of the great pleasures of engaging in it.
One morning in early January I left my Upper West Side apartment to go to work. The thermometer read 4 degrees Fahrenheit. I was all bundled up; I finally figured out how to keep my scarf over my nose and mouth without having to hold it there with a mittened hand. But I hadn’t calculated on the wind. When I emerged from the subway in Midtown and walked head-on into the gusting wind, my eye sockets ached, it was so cold. I had never experienced anything like that before.
So you can imagine my glee at the Institute tradition of holding our two January retreats in Southern California. I flew out to Los Angeles and left my down coat in the trunk of the car. I rolled up my sleeves and reveled in the sun. And then I started looking around. Where was the delicate winter grass in the vacant lots and on the hillsides? Why were the sage bushes and sycamore trees looking so dusty and worn? Why were the stream beds so very parched at what should be the height of the rainy season?
I found myself in a complex position. On the one hand, I was so glad to be out of the snowy northeast and in the splendid sunny days of California. I delighted in the blooming magnolias and pear trees in watered gardens and felt the gratitude rise in my ribs. And on the other hand, my chest ached with a panicky dread at the reality of the terrible drought. The worry began with a kind of identification with the suffering of the plants and animals around me and expanded to a much greater fear: What is happening to this land that I love? What is happening to our planet?
And both those perspectives are true. The gratitude and the dread. The delight and the fear. I didn’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, I couldn’t honestly choose between one and the other. They coexist in a single reality. It is just as our liturgy says: You are the Fashioner of light and the Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, Creator of all things. All things: the pleasant and the unpleasant, the beautiful and the terrifying, life and death.
When we start paying attention, we can notice how easy it is to assign a judgment to a particular situation which then smoothes over the nuances into an easily digestible – but false – uniformity. Lisa Zbar, the Institute’s Development Director, sometimes speaks of the spiritual practice of “AND.” It is a practice of truth telling. And it helps us discern the wisest action. The gratitude and delight can nourish us and give us hope.
There is something about waning that draws the attention to change in ways that waxing does not. It is in the evening liturgy, not the morning prayers, that we remind ourselves about the ordered orbits of the constellations and the way that light rolls away from darkness and darkness from light. When the day is new and light is abundant, we prefer to speak about renewal. But in the gathering darkness, we name it for what it is: change.
Similarly, it is during Sukkot and the palpably shortening days that we revisit Kohelet’s words about the ephemeral nature of life. There is a time for everything – and everything passes so quickly.
In addition to the transition to the darker, colder time in the Northern Hemisphere, we are noticing other changes, as well. Our beloved teacher, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, is beginning to teach less for the Institute; she will be formally leaving the staff at the end of the year, although she will continue to teach in a variety of contexts, including the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program. And in the larger community, the recent Pew study has found that cherished forms of Judaism in America are falling away.
We might see these changes as wanings. But, as Sheila herself, as well as Rabbi Art Green, discuss, the liturgy has it right. Darkness and light make way for each other. Familiar forms shift. New ones arise. Our practices teach us to pay attention with friendly curiosity. What is happening now? What will happen next?
One of Sheila’s most quoted stories is about a woman who suffered a stroke. She was left with two words in her vocabulary: “unexpectedly” and “temporarily.” And really, what else is there to say? We are constantly being surprised and change is constantly in and around us.
But perhaps there is one more word to add to the spiritual lexicon: “love.” Love for our teachers and fellow travelers, love for the ever-evolving world, love for our always surprising lives, love for the Divine that moves through it all. Love that transcends all the waxing and waning.
So much of our spiritual life is about remembering to remember, trying to really wake up and live our precious lives.
It is so easy to be lulled into sleepiness: the sleepiness of busyness, of mindless technology, of the closed heart and the superficial.
We know those things are hevel, meaningless, but we keep falling asleep anyway.
Nachman points out that “hevel” also means “quickly evaporating breath”.
On Rosh Hashanah the shofar plays a miraculous role: it transforms this meaningless, quickly forgettable breath into that primal cry that inspires trembling and being riveted wide awake.
The shofar then is actually the medium of transformation, the renewal of creativity and possibility.
May the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah reawaken the possibility of transformation for all of us.
And may our practice make us into living shofarot, human alchemists who can change spiritual sleepiness into vibrant attention.
And with a new burst of creative possibility, perhaps the New Year might yet bring peace and lasting blessings to all the world.
Ken yehi ratzon.
May it be so.
I recently learned the Yiddish phrase: “Iz geht schon auf Elul.” It’s just about Elul. Even though the sun feels like the height of summer, the soul’s season is moving steadily towards teshuvah, towards turning back to the way we know things ought to be.
One of the advantages of the holidays beginning so unusually early is that we have different metaphors from the natural world to inspire this work of teshuvah. For example, look at Queen Anne ’s lace, the common summer wildflower. As you can see from the photo, the flower is actually a fractal, a series of the same pattern on an ever smaller scale. The whole circular structure of the flower is made up of smaller clusters, arranged the same way as the entire flower. These smaller clusters, in turn, are made up of circular clusters of petals, also in the same pattern.
Spiritual practice works in this same fractal pattern. Working on an intimate level is a different manifestation of working on a more public level, but it is in fact the same work. When we consider teshuvah and turning back towards the way we know things ought to be, it can be overwhelming.
How do we take on the big issues, the long-held doubts and angers and pain?
How do we in fact forgive ourselves and others?
How do we realign ourselves to be truer to our soul’s desire?
How do we even allow ourselves to glimpse what our soul’s desire actually is?
Spiritual practice reminds us to start small. Set an intention. Maybe it’s to say a blessing before eating with real gratitude and humility. Maybe it’s to act more generously today. Maybe it’s to pay attention to one breath. Then, in the course of our day, we will forget. Our attention will wander. We will act according to old habits. We will get tired and discouraged. And yet – that is the opportunity to practice teshuvah!
This is the cluster of petals level. In these small moments, we can wake up and remember: Oh yes, my intention was to do this thing, but I forgot. But now I remember and so I can return and act according to my intention. I can return non-judgmentally. I am not a bad person because I forgot. People forget. It’s part of the human condition. That’s why we have Elul – to help us remember to remember.
Returning to our intention with compassion in the context of spiritual practice is actually practice for returning to the bigger intentions of how we live in the world. Perhaps we could say that if the petal level is analogous to the personal arena, the small clusters made up of the many petals are analogous to the interpersonal arena of our lives. The more we are able to gently forgive ourselves and return to our intention, the more we are able to forgive others in our lives and return to our intentions regarding those relationships. And then the whole flower could be analogous to our whole world.
Elul reminds us: