“I just returned from an amazing three day retreat that inspired me to new levels of love and appreciation of everything Jewish.”

— Shifra Bemis

Posts Categorized: Executive Director’s Blog

A Complex Position

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.

Waxing and Waning

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.

To Become a Living Shofar

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.

Repeating Patterns

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:
Start small.
Start practicing.
Let’s go.

Summertime Travels

Summertime – the great annual habit-breaker. If we are lucky, we have the opportunity to look up from our usual routine and try something new.  Often that newness involves travel.  And it’s curious:  some of us sit still to try to reconnect with clarity and insight.  But there are some insights that are easier to come to through motion.  It’s like when we stand in front of a wooden fence.  When we stand still in front of it, all we see are the slats, blocking what is on the other side.  But when we walk by it, we can often glimpse the garden through the cracks between the slats.

And yet, the moving itself is often the least pleasant part of the traveling.  We like to arrive at our destination, but dealing with traffic, lines, security and all the rest of it is a whole different story.  It can feel more like the fence, slowing us down, herding us along, keeping us out.

Reciting tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, can serve as an intention to help us transform the often harried experience of traveling.  The traditional Hebrew asks God to guide us in peace, to let us take each step in peace and to help us reach our desired destination alive, joyful and in peace.  It asks that we be kept safe from any kind of danger along the way and that we encounter only kindness and graciousness from those we meet.  Here is a link to the prayer:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefilat_HaDerech

Imagine if we took this on as a blessing practice.   If we began each journey with this blessing, evoking that sense of peacefulness and security for ourselves, then, from an inner place of joyfulness and peace, we might be able to bless all those people with us in those endless lines and crowds – perhaps even the really annoying ones – with the same blessing.  May you be guided in peace!  May you reach your destination safely!  May you encounter only kindness and graciousness!  May your prayer be heard!

That kind of inner spaciousness can transform the burden of travel into an opportunity to enjoy each encounter.  It can tear down the fence around the heart altogether.   (And of course, the summer traveling– the moving from place to place, the crowds, the aggravation, the pleasure, all of it – is nothing less than a facet of  – and practice for – our life journey, in which we can only pray to reach our destination in peace.)