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: