“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 Tagged: mindfulness

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!

Solid as a Rock

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.

flowers in rocks

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.