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.