Posts Tagged: Jewish spirituality
Several years ago, the New Yorker featured a cover that showed a woman sitting in the lotus position, ostensibly meditating. You can tell she is so wound up that she is about to jump out of her skin. If you look carefully in the direction of her baleful glare, there is a little fly, innocently tooling around.
One of the reasons I find this image so funny is that I have been there myself so many times. I sit down to meditate or to pray with great zeal and focus – and then, something interrupts my plan. The drive I feel to engage in practice ends up eclipsing the practice itself; my focus shifts to how my plan was derailed and that I couldn’t meditate or pray as I (or my ego) wanted.
There is a seeming paradox between zeal and contemplation. Zeal is about acting now with a great sense of passion and confidence. Zeal is impatient, directed, quick. Contemplation, on the other hand, usually evokes “sitting with the issue” for a while. It is slow, receptive, internally oriented. How, then, can zerizut (zeal, alacrity) be a contemplative practice?
One answer might be one of my favorite teachings from Sholom Noach Berezovsky, also known by the title of his book, Netivot Shalom. “First comes effort,” he taught in multiple places. “Then comes a gift.”
When it comes to spiritual practice, it is important to draw upon our zeal. Zeal enhances our motivation, helps us overcome our inertia, commit to the effort. Spiritual practice is similar to going to the gym. It’s not enough to know about the benefits; you have to actually go to the gym before any transformation can take place. Zeal helps us make the effort and return to it again and again.
And then comes a gift. It’s not “the” gift; it’s “a” gift. We don’t actually know what will happen when we engage in practice. Sometimes we get distracted and annoyed. Sometimes it seems like nothing happens at all. And occasionally something very sweet and still and connecting opens within us. But whatever happens, whatever the experience is, is a gift.
So first the effort, and then a gift. When we stay focused on the effort, we can get so stressed by a small “failure” that we can forget why we are engaging in practice. But if we can lighten our grasp on the expectation created by our zeal and look up and see what is true in this moment, we can find our experience – whatever it is – to be rich and filled with grace. Or as the Irish poet, Galway Kinnell wrote:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
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!
Our July retreat season is underway and what a pleasure it is to gather together in person with our far-flung community at the Trinity Conference Center in beautiful West Cornwall, Connecticut! Our first retreat, which was an open retreat, focused on cultivating gratitude, and our second retreat, which is happening now, is for our seventh cohort of rabbis. Here are a few highlights of the retreat on gratitude:
- An early morning walk by the Housatonic River with banks of orange lilies, sightings of herons and a beaver waddling between the rocks at the river edge.
- Observing how the process of asking questions about the Torah portion – and not answering them – transformed a strange fairy tale with a talking donkey and things happening in threes into profound insights about experiencing Divine guidance and skillful responses to obstacles and ambivalence.
- Watching a whole roomful of people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds open their hearts in song.
- Exploring real obstacles to gratitude, such as being uncomfortable with receiving from others or confronting challenging situations, and how we and Jews in ages past have tried to overcome these obstacles.
- Savoring trout that was caught that same morning, along with cold mint pea soup, fresh local tomatoes with pesto, salad with raspberries and walnuts, seitan with a ginger sauce, roasted carrots and “white chocolate blackberry dream” (which is exactly what it sounds like).
- Welcoming our beloved Shabbat with radiance and joy.
- Learning that the Hebrew work for “thanking” (lehodot) can also mean “acknowledging” and practicing saying “thank you” or “Yes, this too” to whatever arises, through prayer, yoga, meditation and traditional texts.
- Using freshly picked rosemary, thyme and sage as the spices for Havdallah.
If you were at this retreat (or if you have been at other retreats at Trinity), what have been some of your highlights?
I just returned from vacation, where I went hiking from village to village in the Atlas Mountains. The Atlas Mountains are very steep and rugged, but people have lived there for as long as anyone can remember. The villages cling to the sides of narrow valleys in neat, terraced rows of mud and stone houses, walnut and cherry orchards and small plots of barley and peas. The trails between the villages are narrow and rocky, created by goats and shepherds over centuries.
As we walked along these ageless paths, I found myself remembering a story I heard as a child, one of those stories that kept me awake wondering at night. There is a huge mountain a mile high. Once every hundred years, an eagle flies low over the mountain and brushes off one grain of sand from the top with the tip of its wing. Think of how long it would take to wear away the entire mountain! And yet, that is only the first second of infinity.
We often think of mountains as the symbol of solidness and durability. One of the teachings of mindfulness, however, is the experience of impermanence, as we observe how the breath moves in and out, how sensation changes, how thoughts arise and pass. And as we hiked, I was struck by how the mountains too are changing all the time due to the rivers washing down rocks and sand, the ice and snow carving the stone, the huge boulders that fall down to the valleys, the footsteps of hundreds of people and animals pressing down, even the alpine flowers that push up through the rocks. These mountains are in fact wearing slowly down. It is just a matter of time and scale.
Of course, if I stop to think about it, I know in my head that not even the mountains are exempt from the law of change. But to look up the valley and experience that fact took me aback for a moment. Then I thought of the blessing for seeing tall and lofty mountains: Blessed are You, God, who performs the work of creation. Who continues to perform, over long and short periods of time.
And I realized again: It is such a blessing to be small and ephemeral, to see the beauty of the world inside us and around us, to glimpse the preciousness of this life, its fragility and glory, and to share it with joy with those around us.