Looking with the Eyes of Our Hearts

Looking with the Eyes of Our Hearts

The first word of the Torah portion we read as Elul begins is “Look!”–”Re’eh!” Look, really see, that before you today, this day, is a blessing and a curse. Choose life!, we are told in this parasha (Torah portion). It is right here before you, in the life you are living now.

The core practice this month is to practice looking with the eyes of our hearts at what is before us and inside us, this life in its complexities and contradictions, its messiness and its authenticity.

Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory writes in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: “Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our beholding our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter.”

Elul calls to us with daily shofar blasts to help us wake up, to hear and behold ourselves more clearly, to engage in the practice of cheshbon hanefesh–a spiritual accounting–in order to help us better discern how to make choices that are life-affirming blessings.

It’s not necessarily obvious how you and I are to do this work of looking deeply and open-heartedly into the life we have been living, or not living, this year, in order to choose the life-giving path of blessing going forward. Alan Lew suggests three practices to help us to see ourselves more clearly and with greater perspective: prayer, meditation, and/or, focusing on one thing.

Lew writes that “the Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. The infinitive form of this verb is l’hitpalel-to pray-a reflexive form denoting action that one performs on oneself”, and in this way, it can be a way we come to know ourselves more deeply and clearly. For me, prayer is a need that my soul has. Just as my body has the need to drink in order to hydrate, the soul within has a need to pray for spiritual hydration, for being nourished by reaching inward and outward to the Ineffable Mystery by which I am born into each new moment. The practice of praying–liturgically or otherwise–can help you return to the Self of your self, to touch the deep core of your existence, and perhaps in that way to loosen the grips that shame, bias, doubt and the like might have upon you and enable you to get down to the work of teshuva that Elul is about.

During Elul, you can set an intention to devote time each day to rest in the quiet awareness of breath and sensation. You can choose a focal point for your attention, such as breath, or sound, or a visual anchor like a candle flame or a flower. Let yourself drop into the present moment, and pay attention to all that arises and passes in your awareness. Saturating your attention in the present moment of your life, Lew writes, can help you see yourself more clearly. Meditation can help you to “see that [you] are something larger than yourself. This is an essential aspect of Rosh HaShanah–seeing [yourself] as not just a discrete ego, but as part of a great flow of being.”

Focus on one thing:
Truth be told, for some of us, prayer and meditation may not be helpful tools; the resistance to engaging them is too great. Lew writes that many of us “will never get over finding the daily prayer service tedious and opaque. Many others will always either be frightened to death or bored to tears by the prospect of meditation.” For some of us who have experienced trauma (including religious trauma), prayer and meditation may for now harm more than help. The simple practice of focusing on one thing in your life may be a more helpful way to see your life more clearly.

You can choose to practice focusing on just one thing for this month of Elul. Lew suggests that you focus on one fundamental and simple aspect of your life, and “commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul”. Since everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives, paying attention to one thing–like when we go to sleep, or eating, or how we engage on our cell phones through the day–we can begin to see our patterns, aversions, desires, and the like more clearly. Focusing on one thing in our life this month can help us see ourselves more clearly and help us wake up.

Lew writes, “So we can pray, we can meditate. Or we can simply choose one thing in our life and live that one small aspect in truth, and then watch in amazement as the larger truth of our life begins to emerge. The truth is, every moment of our life carries with it the possibility of a great blessing and a great curse, a blessing if we live in truth, a curse if we do not…All that’s required of you is to see what’s in front of your face and to choose the blessing in it.”

May you choose blessing in your life as this year begins to draw to a close, and may we together know the blessing of wise discernments and loving hearts.

How Spiritual Practices Impacted my Bearing Witness Outside the Glynn County, GA Courthouse

How Spiritual Practices Impacted my Bearing Witness Outside the Glynn County, GA Courthouse

On Thursday November 18, 2021 I traveled to Brunswick, GA along with eleven other Jewish clergy to bear witness and offer support to the Black pastors, the community and family members gathering at the Glynn County courthouse during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, 25, was shot while going for a run in a suburban neighborhood. The chase and shooting were caught on video footage. Local rabbi and IJS Hevraya (alumni) member Rachael Bregman invited Jewish clergy to join her in Brunswick to bring spiritual comfort, solidarity, and to support the local community.

When I heard the call, my immediate response was YES. I don’t live there now, but I grew up in Georgia. While there are many parts of my upbringing in the South that I appreciate, I also find that when I walk on Georgia earth, I feel horror that any large tree I see might have borne “strange fruit”, a phrase referring to the 1937 song likening the many Black people lynched in the south to fruits hanging from trees. When I learned of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, I became nauseous. The same nausea I feel when the stirrings of “strange fruit” move through my body when I am on Georgia soil.

Reflecting now, I ask myself: what motivated my discernment to participate in this action? What enabled me to stand with others for the long hot hours, awaiting Reverend Sharpton’s arrival for the prayers and calls for justice? And what inspires me now, looking ahead? I noted several things.

First, years of regular spiritual practice have shaped my heart, mind, and my nervous system so that my soul and my body could move in sync throughout this journey after my initial response was to participate.

Additionally, years of contemplative daily prayer have forged in me the language for feeling myself part of something larger than my individual body and ego mind. The injustice around me is an affront to the God Who lives in me and in all of us. There is no difference between me and another human soul. This clarity strengthened my conviction to study and learn about the history and prevalence of racism in the USA, and further forged in me the clarity that I cannot stand idly by and look away from the suffering around me.

Likewise, regular mindfulness meditation practice helps me pay attention to emotions, thoughts, sensations, be they pleasant or unpleasant, and bear witness to them with less reactivity. No doubt, the years sitting in meditation helped me stand steady and more open, as strong emotions such as grief, rage, and the physical discomforts of thirst and heat were blazing all around on the courthouse lawn and steps.

Years of yoga and somatic practices enabled me to stay grounded in my body, and to center my attention on the bodies around me. When I noticed that many Black pastors and others crowding together in the hot sun, were sweating and seemed to be suffering in the heat, I registered that in my consciousness–rather than pass over that recognition as I focused on “important” matters. Because I noticed, I could enlist colleagues and together we located cartons of water bottles (that would have been discarded), and carried them to the courthouse steps where we distributed the hydration to Arbery family members, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others. Had I not been transformed through years of body-centered spiritual practice, I would not likely have paid attention and been able to help serve those I prayed to be of support to on that day.

Lastly, twenty years of practice in spiritual direction have formed in me the desire to look for God’s presence in whatever is unfolding around and inside me. Pausing to listen for the sacred in the chants or see the sacred in the signage or in the faces of those I looked upon, and to listen to the stirrings in my own spirit as I moved through the day, I could better sustain an intention of remembrance: remember I am bearing witness to God’s presence here today, in every human being I encounter. Seeking the face of the divine, my heart remained more open and less at the mercy of my own preferences, judgments and opinions in that volatile and fractured situation.

Looking ahead, though I am wary about the implications of this and other trials, I believe even more strongly that spiritual practices can help bring clarity, insight, and strength as well as the capacity to remain soft and open, willing, more hopeful, and to bear witness from loving intention. The practices also cultivate the potential to stand our ground, and to notice where suffering might be attended to. Perhaps you, too, might take stock of how your spiritual practices equip you to meet the present moments in your life when you might feel called to respond and engage.

May we each be empowered through our practices to meet what is ours to meet, so that together we might bring blessing and love, advocacy and change, right where, when, and how it is needed most.