A Terrible Case of the Shpilkes
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
The other day I was sitting in meditation with a terrible case of shpilkes, the kind of restlessness that feels like agitated energy all through the body. It was interesting to observe what was going on. One part of me was obsessively checking the clock: could I get up yet? How about now? Another part was noticing how strong the desire to get up was and also the fact that I had a decision to make: to return to my intention of sitting or to give in the restlessness.
We often teach about the importance of “holding the pose,” of staying present despite the fact that things are getting uncomfortable. It could be remaining in warrior pose as the legs start to tremble; it could be getting up to pray despite the desire to hit the snooze button; it could be continuing to speak up for a cause you believe in even if the pendulum seems to be swinging more and more decisively in a different direction. The Torah speaks of offering a tamid sacrifice, a continual sacrifice, every day, morning and evening (Exodus 29). There is something important in hatmadah, engaging in a regular, disciplined practice regardless of whether we feel like it or not at any particular time.
What is the value? Doesn’t it make more sense to engage in spiritual practice precisely when we are in a receptive state of mind? That is certainly more enjoyable, but in my experience it is more complex than that. A regular practice is an opportunity to explore all the different facets of this being alive: being wide awake, falling asleep, feeling filled with peace or wonder, or feeling agitated and impatient. It’s not always about whether the experience is pleasant or not. One of the central claims of the Hasidic movement was that there is no place, no experience devoid of Divinity (leit atar panui mineh). In that case, this human experience, with all its variations, is worth witnessing.
But if I only practice irregularly, then I might think that the experience is supposed to be a certain way. Actually it is different all the time; I see that precisely because I keep coming back over and over again. My intention is to hold the pose—in each time I practice and in returning each day to the practice itself.
On that particular morning of the terrible shpilkes, I actually got up two minutes before the bell rang. In the end it was a decision: I am getting up now. I am not going to beat myself up for it or conclude that I am a bad meditator. This too is part of the human experience. Tomorrow I will sit again and recommit to my intention to sit for the full time. Maybe it will be different. This too is hatmadah. This too is part of the practice.
Cedar and Reed: Talmud Study
by Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell
In the passage that follows from the Talmud (Ta’anit 20a,b), two models of strength are offered. These are two approaches for holding the pose when “all the winds in the world come…” Notice, as you read, how you manifest as being cedar-like and reed-like.
*Ecological note: The prevailing winds in the Levant are from the west and north. The root system of cedars has adapted to buttress the tree against these winds. Winds from the south are rarer—but when they come they can uproot even massive cedars.
B. Ta’anit 20a, b
מה קנה זה עומד במקום מים וגזעו מחליף ושרשיו מרובין, ואפילו כל הרוחות שבעולם באות ונושבות בו – אין מזיזות אותו ממקומו, אלא הולך ובא עמהן. דממו הרוחות – עמד הקנה במקומו… מה ארז זה אינו עומד במקום מים, ואין גזעו מחליף, ואין שרשיו מרובין, אפילו כל הרוחות שבעולם נושבות בו אין מזיזות אותו ממקומו, כיון שנשבה בו רוח דרומית – עוקרתו והופכתו על פניו…לעולם יהא אדם רך כקנה ואל יהא קשה כארז, ולפיכך זכה קנה ליטול הימנה קולמוס לכתוב בו ספר תורה תפילין ומזוזות.
… [The] reed stands in a place of water, and its shoots replenish [themselves when cut] and its roots are numerous, and even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they cannot move it from its place. Rather, the reed sways in [the wind] until the winds subside—and the reed still stands in its place…[The] cedar does not stand in a place of water, and its shoots do not replenish [themselves], and its roots are not numerous—when all the winds in the world blow against it they will not move it from its place—[however,] when the southern wind blows against it, it uproots [the cedar] and turns it on its face…A person should always be soft like a reed and not be hard like a cedar. And therefore, the reed merited that a quill is taken from its ranks to write with it a Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot.
Questions for Study, Discussion, and Meditation:
- What qualities define being cedar-like? Reed-like?
- What are the keys to the reed’s success?
- What would these qualities look like as part of your own life?
- Why do you think that the reed “merited that a quill is taken from its ranks”? (Note: in many Sefardic Jewish communities scribes still use reeds today; Ashkenazim primarily use feather quills); i.e. what do you think the connection is between being reed-like and bringing holy words into the world?
Cedar and Reed:
Guided Meditation for Holding the Pose
by Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell
(click below to play)
Embodied Meditation on Savlanut: Patience and Forbearance
by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg
Be sure your spine is straight.
Scan your body for places of tension and take a few deep breaths into those areas.
Prepare to sit for five to ten minutes without moving at all.
Be sure to set a timer for the number of minutes you choose.
Allow your attention to rest on the sensation of the in breath entering the body and the out breath leaving the body.
When the desire to move at all arises, remind yourself of your commitment.
Notice any unpleasant sensation or discomfort that you want to alleviate by moving.
Instead of moving to be more at ease, bring attention to the place where you are not at ease.
Become interested in the sensation even if it is unpleasant.
What are its dimensions? What does it feel like?
Is it changing as you observe it?
What is the quality of the attention you are bringing to your own discomfort?
To your desire to move? To realizing you cannot move until the bell rings?
Can you bring a soft, loving, tolerant awareness to this experience?
You are practicing savlanut –– patience and forbearance –in this moment as you stay connected in a loving way to this unpleasant experience.
Continue to soften your awareness.
Notice any frustration, irritability or anger and offer those feelings or thoughts the same soft, gentle and loving presence.
Notice any fear that arises in the body or the mind.
Bring the same loving presence and sense of connection to the thoughts and sensations of fear.
Rest in the powerful quality of savlanut –patience and forbearance.
Rest in the spacious energy of savlanut.
Savlanut Focus Chant
Recorded by Cantor Richard Cohn
Et Hakol Asah Yefeh vIto
The Eternal One makes everything beautiful in its time
(click below to play)