“One of the life messages I took from the retreat was to notice, instead of being judgmental, during meditation – and during life as well.”

— Lay retreat participant, Winter 2012

Posts Categorized: Executive Director’s Blog

After the Holidays

sunrise over mountainI find it so curious that the Jewish year begins with almost an entire month’s worth of holidays, each one with its own flavor, building upon the one before.  We have the sweet awe of Rosh Hashanah, the intense internality of Yom Kippur, the joy and vulnerability of Sukkot, the ecstatic connection to learning on Simchat Torah.  It is quite a spiritual journey – and can be exhausting!  I hear many people expressing relief that the holidays are “finally” behind us.

Which brings us to that seemingly flat time of “after the holidays.”  Life is back to normal (whatever that means).  We return to the routine and the steadily increasing darkness of the Northern Hemisphere’s approaching winter.  Next week we begin the new month of Heshvan, the famous month of no holidays.  Sometimes it is known as “Marheshvan,” with a connotation of mar or bitterness.  There is no external reason to celebrate; there is nothing obviously interesting or intriguing about it.   In some ways, the whole month is the continuation of Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, which has only one unique feature in the Diaspora:  the prayer for rain for the Land of Israel.

And yet, in some ways, these weeks are actually the fruitful time of the year, not the dramatic holiday season just ended.  We get to begin living out what we thought, embodying the insights, intentions and hopes for the new year.  We get to begin translating the lofty visions into messy, ever-surprising life.  It may be dark; it may be rainy; it may be unexciting.  But moving from the potential to the actual is filled with power and possibility.

This is precisely where spiritual practice has the most to offer, in offering perspective and wisdom when confronted with difficulty and in guiding us towards more kindness, responsibility, gratitude and integrity.   It can even help us find the unexpected shining in ordinary things.  There is nothing bitter about that!

Wishing everyone a mindful transition back to the everyday!

Days of Awe and Compassion

Elul is coming to an end with the grandeur and mystery of the High Holy Days about to begin.  In New York the weather shifted this week too; the sun is still warm, but the wind is fresh and even chilly, signs of colder days approaching.

Last week I mentioned the new building that is being constructed outside our windows.  I have been watching the workers, climbing, moving and hammering, seemingly without a care, on the drop-off edge of a concrete slab 20 stories above the street.  As I write, one man in a neon green vest is clinging to the outside of a plywood ladder, nothing underneath him but a net two floors below, whacking at something with a tool.  He is clipped on with a harness, but from here, it looks pretty terrifying.

Fear.  I remember studying once with Gabe Goldman, a naturalist and Jewish educator.  He told of having led a hands-on workshop about how to handle very, very sharp knives, so sharp that you wouldn’t even feel it if you cut off your finger.  He taught his students how to hold them, work with them, and respect them.  He then followed the workshop with a lesson about yirah, “fearing” or being “in awe” of God.

After the sweet, mellow days of Elul, these High Holy Days, Days of Awe, give us a glimpse of something stronger and a little more fearful.  They encourage us to consider the mystery of the unknown days ahead, days that may hold great blessings and great suffering, and probably a little of both.  They give us the forum to come face to face with our limits and the reality of our mortality.  They challenge us to confront our own vulnerability in the face of the colder days that are coming.

But, like the men outside who are building a new building, a structure that will provide shelter for hundreds of people and stand witness to their labors for many years, the High Holy Days also give us the opportunity to take satisfaction in the work of our hands and to find joy in living this life, in company with fellow travelers, step by dangerous step, even when we feel we are dangling over the abyss.

May 5773 bring all of us more blessings than suffering, more expansiveness than constriction, more peace than conflict, and more joy than sorrow.   May our practices give us tools for wisdom, gratitude and compassion.  And may we find good companions (or a good Companion) for the journey who can support us with courage, love and guidance.

The Institute’s New New York Home

NY Construction

No, that’s not a typo.  Just before Labor Day, the staff at the Institute’s national offices packed up all our books and files and equipment and on Tuesday, under the expert guidance of David Cavill, our Associate Director, and Vito Marzano, our Executive Assistant, we moved into our new space. The rumors are apparently true:  everything is indeed impermanent.

Our new office is a big, open space with high ceilings, wood floors and a row of huge windows facing north.  From my desk, I can turn my head to look across the relatively low police station over to 31th St where construction on a brand new building is underway.  It is 21 stories so far and they have labeled each floor on the outward facing concrete with huge fluorescent orange numbers.  I can also see the decorative design of sphinxes and winged horses on the building directly across the street.

New Office
I am excited to set up our new space, to think about how the external can reflect the internal.  What does an office that is committed to supporting the cultivation of spiritual practice look like?  It’s pretty simple at this point.  We have some plants and a big blue balancing ball; we have a refrigerator, a tea and coffee corner, a common table and enough floor space for meditation or yoga.  We have some bookshelves.  We have windows that open and show us both the sky and the people hard at work in the city around us.  And we have extraordinary people, most of whom are mostly anonymous to you who participate in our programs, whose personal practice and commitment to this common work of integrity and expanded awareness are inspiring to me every day.
If you are in the neighborhood, come by and say hello!  Our new address is 135 W 29th St, Ste 1103, New York, NY 10001.

Feed a Pigeon. Breed a Rat.

Roosevelt Island Tram

Earlier in the summer, I went to Roosevelt Island. There is a red tram that takes you from the east side of Manhattan, up, over the Queensboro Bridge and the East River and then down to the island. It’s great fun.

I was early to meet my friend and so I waited at the tram depot on the Manhattan side for a while. The little plaza by the station was one of those strange places that for some reason attracts pigeons by the hundreds. My eye was caught by a sign that the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation posted on a fence: “Feed a Pigeon. Breed a Rat.” (And just for the record, I did indeed spy a rat, roughly the size of a pigeon, scurrying beneath the rose bushes.)

The sign reminded me of a classic teaching story that I first heard from Sheila Weinberg. A Native American elder is teaching a group of children, sitting at his feet. He says, “There are two wolves. One is filled with rage and hatred and blame and fear. The other is filled with compassion and forgiveness and peacefulness and faith. These two wolves are fighting. And they are inside me.”

One of the children asks anxiously, “Which wolf will win?”

The elder solemnly replies, “Whichever one I feed.”

In my experience, my more negative thought patterns are very similar to feeding rats and pigeons. I have no desire to feed the rats. But pigeons are innocuous. I find them "Feed a pigeon, breed a rat" NY park signdirty and slightly menacing in a weird way, but they’re certainly not on the same level as rats. In the same way, I don’t intend to hold on to things that make me angry, hateful, fearful or judgmental. But I certainly can find myself nursing small grudges or injustices that seem innocuous.

But in fact, they are not. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is exactly right. Feed a pigeon, breed a rat. Cling to that grievance and it inadvertently may shape my thoughts towards something much darker and unwanted.

Of course, there is a place in the world for all kinds of animals, even those we call pests, and anger, fear and hatred are unavoidable – and occasionally even useful – human experiences. It’s a question of appropriateness and discernment. Perhaps the first place we can stop “feeding the pigeons” is with ourselves – by bringing compassion, forgiveness and faith to our mind’s endless capacity for holding on when we might let go.

Walking in the Fields

South of Caesarea on the Israel Trail

 

Summer is winding down.  Elul begins on Saturday night.  The beginning of Elul reminds me of a story I heard from Rabbi Sholom Rivkin (of blessed memory), a kind and learned man who was the Chief Rabbi of St. Louis for many years.

Rabbi Rivkin told that in the old days, if you wanted to go talk to the king, you had to think about who could help you get invited to the palace.  You had to wear your best clothes and learn the court etiquette – how to enter the throne room, when to bow, what to say, where to look.  It was all very complicated and very serious.  But sometimes, the king just went for a walk in the fields.  And at those times, anyone could just start walking along next to the king and share whatever was on their heart.

Elul is the season when the King goes walking in the fields.

I love this story – the imagery, the intimacy, the hope it conveys for coming close to the Divine.  I feel my heart leap up:  Yes!  I too want to go for a walk with the King!  (or the Queen – pick your metaphor of royalty.)  I want that immediate access, the instant connection.  So often I focus on learning the court ritual, or, as we say, “preparing the vessel” – committing to the form of the ritual, dragging my attention back over and over.  I know that the practice is a tool that can create the possibility for those moments of awareness.  Yet I yearn for those moments of grace.

I also love this story because the High Holy Days themselves are like the throne room, not like the open fields.  They are arguably the most formal, complicated and serious days of our whole year.  We (especially we clergy) could get seduced into thinking that the preparation for these Days of Awe is mostly involved with liturgy and choreography.  But this is precisely when God invites greater accessibility of a very different kind.

And so part of my preparation for the Holy Days includes imagining:

  • What would it be like if I could join God for that walk in the fields?
  • How would I say hello?
  • What would I share about my life?
  • What would I ask for?
  • What questions would I be asked?
  • How would I answer?
  • How would I take my leave?

Wishing you an inspiring, heart-opening beginning to these most holy of days!