“I have been able to find a stronger center in myself to which I can return so that I am not shaken by the daily ups and downs of congregational life.”

— Rabbi Rona Shapiro

Posts Categorized: Executive Director’s Blog

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!

The Subway Shuffle Redux

Hammock on beach

Last week was a big week for me. I left my sublet and moved into my very own New York apartment!  Even though my new home is not that far from the apartment I was renting, I have to find a new grocery store, a new dry cleaner, a new pharmacy. I also have to figure out how to get to work. I used to live on an express stop on the subway, whereas now I am on the local train. Do I walk down to the express stop? Do I take the local and change trains? Do I ride the local all the way? And most important of all: How long does each of these options take?

As I puzzled over the train schedules, I came across this video from the New York Times: The Subway Shuffle

I had to laugh. Ruefully. There is something undeniably funny about the New Yorkers rushing from platform to platform, trying to shave off a few seconds here and there. (And to be honest, when I lived in California, I used to shift from lane to lane, trying to advance a few yards on the freeway.)

But the truth is that there is a cost to rushing all the time.

NYC Subway map The cost is both inner and outer. The inner cost is that when we hurry, we often fail to notice the truth of experience. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira described in his book Conscious Community how important it is to learn how to observe our own inner life because it opens us to being able to sense even more. He said, “Perhaps in your looking you will uncover God’s subtle presence; you may sense God’s holiness.” How do we do that? His answer: “You must clearly, consistently and diligently slow down.” (And he wrote that over 70 years ago!)

And the outer cost is that when we hurry, we often fail to notice the truth of other people’s experiences. The famous “Good Samaritan experiment” at Princeton showed that the most important factor in determining whether a seminary student would stop to help someone in need was not how much they thought about helping others or the nature of their religious commitment. Instead the main factor was how late the students thought they were. In fact, only 10% of those who were hurrying paused to help a man slumped on the street, as compared to 63% of those who were not in a hurry.

It is so easy to forget and get swept away by the busyness of our culture. It is so important to keep remembering to take our time.

*img. source http://www.flickr.com/photos/emzee/139794246/ under Creative Commons

Silence and Shabbat

tiger lily at Trinity

The July retreat season flew quickly by.  For me, the hidden jewel of the season was the silent contemplative Shabbat.  It combined two things that I treasure as part of my spiritual life:  Shabbat and silence.

Shabbat and silence can be surprisingly similar.  To the uninitiated, Shabbat can seem like a bunch of rules, mostly involving things you can’t do.  But those who regularly observe Shabbat know that the structure of the tradition allows for something magical to happen.  By temporarily turning away from the demands of work, entertainment and acquisition, we can make space for experiences of true meaning.

Silence works in a similar way.  By temporarily not engaging in social conversation, I make space to find deeper meaning in my own life.  My habitual thoughts can rest a little.  I give myself time to notice how I am really doing, not just how I want to be doing.  What is going on in my heart underneath all the distractions of life?  What wisdom can emerge from that knowledge?  How does the Divine move through it all?

Some of that I can also do in conversation with someone I trust.  But in silence, I don’t have to explain or justify anything to anyone.  No one will demand an answer or offer a solution.  If I am feeling sad, I can feel sad.  If I am feeling alive and grateful, that’s fine.  I don’t have to define it or describe it or analyze it.  I can just feel it and be it – until it shifts and becomes something else.  There is a comfort and a safety in the silence.  I can lean into it, knowing it will support me and lead me where I need to go.

It may seem counterintuitive that being quiet with a group of other people who are also in silence is much more powerful than silence alone.  And yet, that is true.  (At least, that is true for me.)  I often feel a strange intimacy and affection for fellow meditators, even when I don’t know any biographical information about them.  The silence allows me to remember the fundamentals of being a human being:  the longing for love and meaning, the pain of suffering, the inevitable passing of time.  The realization that I share those things with every other person becomes a lived experience in silence, not just a beautiful thing to think about.

A silent Shabbat – most coveted of days!