Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"

GoT-220x300Have you ever felt that a book's arrival in your life was a perfectly-timed gift? That's how I felt when I received my copy of Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, new this month from Ben Yehuda Press. As I delved into the book, that sense deepened.

This book was not easy for me to read, but I am grateful for its presence on my bookshelves, and I know that I will read it again.

"Joy and sadness are not opposites. Sometimes, they coexist, like two consonant notes of a complex yet harmonious chord," Jay writes. Most of us would probably prefer joy, and probably try to avoid sadness. Sadness isn't something we want to focus on. That's part of the backdrop against which the book is written:

At our contemporary moment, the ordinary sadness that is part of a life richly lived is often stigmatized, shamed, deemed a kind of American failure... Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the surrender to sadness that causes it to pass -- not the suppression of it.

I know that I have shamed myself for my sadness. I so value gratitude that when sadness arises I can feel like I'm failing. Sometimes my mental monologue has demanded, what's wrong with me that even with all of these gifts in my life I still feel sad? But I've come to see that being aware of sadness is not a sign that something is wrong with me -- rather that something is right.

I try to cultivate gratitude: first thing in the morning, last thing before sleep, and a million moments in between. And that doesn't cancel out the fact that learning to sit with sadness can help me connect with God. As Jay writes, "The art of being with sadness, and other unwanted houseguests of the mind, brings about an intimacy with what is -- what the mystics call the One, the Divine, the Beloved."

The book is clear that there's a difference between sadness and depression:

[A]s someone who has experienced depression at times in my life, I feel qualified to say that sadness is not the same thing. Depression is a medical condition, a function of brain chemistry. It can be crippling, devastating, bleak. It makes it hard to live one's life. Subjectively, I experienced it as a dullness, a kind of lessening, or graying, of all emotion. Sadness, on the other hand, is part of being human. So is loss, pain, and loneliness. These are not veils in the way of feeling; they are feeling.

A thousand times yes. Longtime readers know that I experienced postpartum depression in the months after our son was born. I have experienced depression in other ways at other moments in my life. Sadness and depression are not the same, at all. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-livable. Sadness is not like that.

Sadness hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But sadness passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes I can feel that joy even while the sadness is present. That's the experience at the heart of this book, for me.

Or, in Jay's words, "When the desire to banish sadness is released, sadness cohabitates with joy, and gives birth to holiness. More moments merit being named as Divine. After surrendering the fight to stay afloat, I drown, but find I can breathe underwater." There can be release in letting go.

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When we are mindful


Judaism believes in the particularity of time, that certain times have special spiritual properties: that Shabbat has an extra degree of holiness; that Pesach (Passover) is the time of our liberation; that Shavuot is a time unusually conducive to revelation. But they have these special properties only when we are mindful. If we consciously observe Shabbat, Shabbat has this holy quality. If we don't, it is merely Friday night, merely Saturday afternoon...

That's Rabbi Alan Lew z"l in the book I reread slowly each year at this season, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Every year I start rereading the book around Tisha b'Av, the day of deep brokenness which launches us in to the season of teshuvah, repentance or return. Every year I find myself drawn to some of the same passages I underlined last year or the year before -- and every year some new passages jump out at me, too.

This year the first new thing I underlined was the quote which appears at the top of this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about sacred time, and about how being aware of where we are in the rhythm of the day and week and the round of the year can help us attune ourselves to spiritual life... and also how being unaware of where we are, or ignoring where we are, can damage that attunement. It's as though lack of mindfulness were a radio scrambler which keeps us from hearing the divine broadcast.

One of the things I love most about my Jewish Renewal hevre (my dear colleague-friends) is that we are jointly committed to seeking mindfulness. To living with prayerful consciousness, as my friends and teachers Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Marcia Prager taught us during DLTI. Knowing others who care about this stuff as much as I do is restorative. It lifts a weight of loneliness off of my shoulders. My hevre inspire me to try to be the kind of person, the kind of Jew, the kind of rabbi, I want to be.

There's much in ordinary life which pulls me away from the awareness I want to maintain. Away from consciousness of Shabbat as holy time, and of its internal flow from greeting the Bride to rejoicing in the Torah to yearning for the divine Presence not to depart. Away from consciousness of the moon and the seasons, and from the process of teshuvah (repentance / return.) Ordinary life is full of obligations, frustrations, distractions, and a whole world of people who don't care about the things I love so deeply.

Sometimes it's a little bit alienating -- carrying this tradition around with me like an extra pair of glasses, an extra lens which shapes the way I see everything in my world, all the while knowing that most of the people around me don't have this lens and probably don't want it, either. Sometimes it feels like an exquisite gift -- as though I had the capacity to see a layer of beautiful magic which overlays all things, because I'm willing to open myself to this way of seeing and this way of being in the world.

Without mindfulness, Shabbat becomes plain old Friday night and Saturday. Without mindfulness, the new moon of Elul coming up at the end of next week is just a night when we'll be able to see a surprising number of stars. Without mindfulness, Yom Kippur doesn't atone -- it's just a long day, maybe one we're spending with grumbly stomachs saying strange words in a language we don't understand. I don't want it to be like that. Not for me, not for you who are reading this, not for anyone.

There's nothing wrong with plain old Friday night and Saturday. (And so on: plain old new moon, September days instead of the High Holidays...) But because I've tasted the transformation that's possible when consciousness of holy time enlivens those hours and makes them new, I want to make these holy times more than "just ordinary." I want to sip that nectar again, and to come away with my spirit renewed. Because I know that diving deep into Jewish sacred time sustains me like nothing else.

What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time -- everything in the year, everything in our life -- conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption.... The passage of time brings awareness, and the two together, time and consciousness, heal... This is precisely the journey we take every year during the High Holidays -- a journey of transformation and healing, a time which together with consciousness heals and transforms us.

Here's hoping. May it be so.


Elul begins in one week. Rosh Hashanah begins five weeks from Sunday.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

Mindful speech

The Christian season of Lent is almost here. I know that many of the Christians I know online choose to use this season as a time to "fast" from particular qualities or forms of internet use -- fasting from Facebook or Twitter, for instance, and using the time they would otherwise have spent on social media in prayer or contemplation. Yesterday I saw a reference to such a practice online. In response I tweeted that even those of us who don't celebrate Lent might consider thinking twice before we type.

Rabbi Josh Yuter asked what I meant by moderating tone. I found myself quoting Rabbi Harry Brechner's threefold rule: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it important?" (I wrote about that in my 2013 post To shame someone is to shed their blood, about the "emerging Gemara" of ethical internet behavior.) In turn, R' Yuter noted that outrage is rarely kind. He has a good point. Our broken world demands justice, and sometimes the need to pursue justice may trump my desire to cultivate kindness.

And, at the same time -- I've found that when I give too much energy to justice and not enough energy to kindness, my soul doesn't flourish. Kabbalah teaches us that God's qualities of chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength) need to be kept in balance. Too much of either one isn't good for creation. I wonder whether each of us has a subtly different balance of healthy chesed and gevurah in our hearts and souls. My heart definitely calls for leaning toward kindness.

I read a powerful article in the New York Times recently -- How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life. (If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it.) There are countless upsides of this interconnected world. One of those upsides is that we can use social media to create positive change. The shadow side is that sometimes we cause harm. We have new ways of hurting each other. Careless statements made online can be shared around the world in incredibly destructive ways.

Most religious traditions preach the importance of moderating one's speech, and Judaism is no exception. In Mishlei (Proverbs) 10:19 we read, "Where there is much talking, there is no lack of transgressing, but the one who curbs the tongue shows sense." And in Pirkei Avot 6:6, moderation in speech is listed as one of the 48 qualities through which one acquires Torah, which can mean something like accessing deep wisdom or accessing flow of blessing from the divine.

As a poet and a liturgist, I try to take language seriously. With our words we can create worlds -- and we can also shatter them. I can always use a reminder to pay attention to what I say and how I say it, both online and off. (And when we reach the period of the Omer, the 49 days we count between Pesach and Shavuot, I might follow Mussar practice and try to cultivate those qualities from Pirkei Avot 6:6 each day -- including moderation in speech, which for me includes what I signal-boost and retweet.)

One rubric I sometimes use is: whatever I'm about to say, would I be comfortable saying it where my teachers could hear me? I have a particular group of teachers in mind -- but it could be your parents, your children, your sensei: someone(s) in your life whose opinion you value. For those of us who cultivate a personal relationship with God, that's another way to make the decision: if you were called before God tomorrow, would you feel glad about this remark, or would you regret having said it?

I'm as prone as anyone to the Someone is wrong on the internet syndrome -- and sometimes my desire to correct all of those wrong people does me no favors. But I'm trying to train myself to pause and to be thoughtful. Over the years I've trained myself to click into the groove of the morning prayer of gratitude, as close to the moment of waking as I can manage. I'd like for kindness and thoughtfulness to be the same kind of reflexive acts, so innate that I don't even have to instigate them any more.


Tempest in a teapot

TeapotI was writing an email to a dear friend recently and acknowledged, somewhat ruefully, that my mind has been spinning in circles lately. By way of illustration, I typed out the several things at the top of my mind. When I saw it all written down, I started to laugh. It seemed comical all of a sudden, and repetitive, and impossibly mundane. Like a boring and familiar grocery list of the things which come up again and again.

The friend wrote back and offered me a mental exercise: imagine a container, she said. Imagine every detail, where it's placed, what it looks like, everything about it. And then take all of these recurring worries and put them in the container and close the lid. You're not ignoring them; you're putting them away for safekeeping. You can think about them later. When she first did this, she told me, the container she pictured was a teapot.

I was immediately charmed by the mental image of stashing away one's worries in a teapot. Like graciously inviting a genie to return to its lamp. Not forever; just for now. Usually "a tempest in a teapot" means something minor which has been exaggerated out of all proportion. And who knows, my recurring worries may fit that bill. But I like the idea of being able to shrink my internal tempests and tuck them away somewhere safe. (Perhaps the teapot is bigger on the inside.)

I read recently that the goal of meditation isn't to "silence" the mind, but to attune oneself to its chatter. I know this to be true, and yet it's always good to be reminded. Thinking thoughts is the mind's job. Of course the mind is always abuzz. Thoughts, reminders, to-do lists, memories, regrets, anticipations, hopes, yesterdays, tomorrows. When I sit still and let myself notice what arises in me, then I can begin the work of relating to myself gently, with compassion, without judgement.

And sometimes, when my mind just keeps yammering about the same subset of things, I think I may try to open up the teapot and gently pour those things inside. I imagine myself saying, "Yes, work deadline, I see you there. Yes, upcoming travel, I see you there. Yes, concern for a loved one, I see you there. You have made your presence known and I acknowledge you. Now it's time for you to go into this teapot so that I can enjoy the now, instead of listening to your clamor about later."


If I were going to pour my tempest into a literal teapot, this would be a good one -- it is made of cast iron and seems pretty indestructible.




There is something satisfying about the tangibility of the beads. I like the way they feel in my hands, the smoothness of them beneath my fingers. I like the feel of one clicking against the next.

They sit in a coil on my desk. Every so often I pick them up, holding them in my left hand. I take one bead between thumb and forefinger, and in my mind I chant Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.

The melody is one which I learned for a Sufi-style zhikr practice many years ago. In that practice, we chanted the words of the Shema over and over, leaning left (shema Yisrael) and right (Adonai Eloheinu) and then forward (Adonai Echad) and forward again (Adonai Echad.) I'm not moving my body now, any more than I'm singing aloud, but I am remembering the movements along with the melody and the words.

And then I click the bead down the string and take the next one under my thumb and mentally chant the lines again.

And again.

I do this while I'm on the phone, sometimes. Or while I'm reading. When the beads are under my thumb, the prayer just keeps repeating itself, a subroutine running automatically in the back of my mind while my forebrain is focusing on my reading or my conversation.

Listen up, you Godwrestlers! The Infinite is our God; the Infinite is One.

No matter what I'm doing, no matter what's happening in the world, everything is part of a deeper unity. God is One. And God is everywhere; as we read in Tikkunei Zohar, leit attar panui mineih -- there is no place devoid of the Presence. Everywhere, everyone, everything, is part of that unity. Ein od milvado: there is nothing else but God, in the end.

I can't walk around all day in mystical awareness of the Oneness of all things. In order to live in the world, I have to be an individual -- a single person, with a single mind and heart and soul. And I love being this person, in these relationships, doing this work in the world. But deep down, I'm not separate from you. Or from her, or him, or them. None of us is separate. We're all part of the One. We're droplets of water falling over the waterfall, and when we reach the bottom we rejoin the Oneness from which we came.

And with every bead I click along this string, I recite a line of prayer which reminds me of that.

Are mala beads an "authentically Jewish" practice? Nope. This is a practice borrowed from Buddhism. (Actually a lot of traditions make use of prayer beads, among them Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. This particular string of beads was a gift from a dear friend who is Buddhist.) But this piece of borrowed spiritual technology adapts well to the Jewish ideal of praying constantly. As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (of blessed memory) wrote, "Prayer comes into full bloom only as we become aware that the soul-breath / the neshamah is always praying."

Moving the beads between thumb and forefinger is a little bit like winding the fringes of my tallit around and between my fingers while praying. I remember winding the silken strings of my grandfather's tallit between my fingers when I was a kid. There's something satisfying about the tactile experience of drawing the fringes between the fingers. Having recently learned how to tie tzitzit, I am extra-conscious of the fact that the windings and knots represent the phrase Adonai Echad, "God is One." Fingering my tzitzit is a reminder of that Oneness.

And because the Shema is my current mantra, fingering these beads is a reminder of that Oneness, too. A way of infusing my workday with a little bit of contemplative practice.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Adonai Echad.




How to be sick well: Toni Bernhard's guide for the chronically ill

How+To+Be+SickThis book is written for people who are ill and aren't going to get better, and also for their caregivers, people who love them and suffer along with them in wishing that things were different. It speaks most specifically about physical illness. In the largest sense, though, I feel that this book is for all of us. Sooner or later, we are all going to not "get better."

That's acclaimed Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein in her introduction to How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard.

The book was recommended to me by one of my congregants who cares for a chronically ill loved one. She described Bernhard's book as "How to be sick well" -- how to achieve emotional and spiritual wellness even when one's body remains sick.

Bernhard became ill in 2001 and has suffered from chronic illness ever since. The first two chapters tell the story of her illness. Beginning in chapter three she shares how her Buddhist learning offered her a way of approaching her illness as a spiritual practice. She wanted to know "how to live a life of equanimity and joy despite my physical and energetic limitations." This book offers her answers to that question.

Early in that third chapter she writes about the power of "just being" with what is:

Just "being" life as it is for me has meant ending my professional career years before I expected to, being house-bound and even bed-bound much of the time, feeling continually sick in the body, and not being able to socialize very often. [Drawing on Buddhist teaching,] I was able to use these facts that make up my life as a starting point. I began to bow down to these facts, to accept them, to be them. And then from there, I looked around to see what life had to offer. And I found a lot.

I struggle a little bit with her language of "bowing down to" these facts. And yet I recognize that there is wisdom in accepting what is, instead of getting caught up in wishing that things were different. I know that in my own life I get into trouble when I get attached to my expectations of how something will be, and I feel more open to blessings when I can simply be with what is.

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Tools for new beginnings

"This Shabbat is Shabbat Bereshit," I say, "the Shabbat when we begin the cycle of Torah readings again with 'In the beginning...' -- or 'With beginnings...' -- or perhaps 'As God was beginning...'"

I'm speaking aloud to those who've come for Friday morning meditation at my synagogue. My eyes are closed but I know who else is in the room.

"It's a time of new beginnings for us too. What will we need as we enter into this new year?" I let the question float for a moment.

"Imagine that you're standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs," I say, "and at the top there is a door. Walk up the stairs slowly, one by one. When you reach the top, the door opens, and inside is -- you! An older version of you, one who has lived through this year to come and knows what you will need. Invite yourself in. Sit down together. And accept whatever gifts your future self has to offer."

We move into silence.

I am picturing the same room I have pictured before when I have done meditations like this. It is cosy and has windows on all sides; I think it's octagonal, like a room in the turret of an old Victorian. There are rugs and bookshelves and an overstuffed chair or two and probably somewhere there is a cat. On the table between the two chairs is a teapot and a pair of cups, and my older self pours me a cup of tea which warms my hands.

"You're here to get tools for the year to come," she says, and I nod. "Excellent. I was hoping you'd drop by."

The first thing she hands me is a fountain pen. I recognize it: it's Dad's old Mont Blanc, the one I loved so much as a kid, which he gave to me when I went off to college. "I haven't seen this in years," I marvel. My older self smiles. "So this is -- what, writing?"

She nods. "Writing is the best tool we have. Whatever the year brings, write through it. Write it while it's happening. Write what you remember after it's over. Write for yourself, write for an audience, just keep writing."

The second thing is my velvet tefillin bag. "I'm wearing these now," I say, because I am -- here in the sanctuary, where my body is sitting -- though I don't have tefillin on in my imagination.

"I know." She gives me a private little smile. "Consider this a reminder about spiritual practice in general. Davenen, meditation, laying tefillin, talking with Shekhinah in the car -- whatever you can do to remind yourself that you're part of something bigger than your own life and that you're connected with the Holy One of Blessing."

The third thing she hands me is a ball of string. "Tzitzit?" I hazard a guess, because I've been thinking about tzitzit lately, and she grins and shakes her head.

"Remember that exercise where you sit in a circle with a group of people and one person holds one end of a ball of string, and throws it to another, who throws it to another...?"

I nod; of course I do, we have the same memories.

"We're all connected," she continues. "One person tugs on the string, everyone in the circle feels the pull. The string represents your connections. Keep them alive and humming. Reach out to people when you need them. Trust that you're always part of a web of connection. You're never alone."

I place the pen, the tefillin bag, and the string into my purse.

We sip our tea. After a while I say "Sorry, I have to--"

"--have to go, I know," she finishes for me. "See you next time."

I return my attention to the sanctuary where I'm seated. "Whatever gifts you've received, tuck them away so they'll be safe," I say aloud. "Say thank you for them. And walk slowly back down the stairs, back to this place and time, back to where we are."

I wonder what gifts my fellow meditators received. And I resolve to follow my own directions, and to take five minutes to write this down before I forget.

Happy Shabbat Bereshit, everyone. Here's to starting the story anew.

Seeking peace

Seek+peaceLately I've been working on finding the right balance between paying attention to the world and its many injustices, and cultivating an internal sense of peacefulness and compassion. Against this backdrop, a friend recently shared with me a teaching from her Buddhist practice. According to this way of thinking, if one increases one's own suffering, one adds to the suffering of the universe; if one increases one's own peacefulness, one adds to the peacefulness of the universe.

My first reaction, upon hearing this, was that it's a way of justifying contemplative practice. It's easy (for some folks) to knock prayer and contemplative practice by saying that we who engage in prayer and contemplative practice aren't "doing anything" to heal the broken world, and that therefore these spiritual practices are self-centered at best. But in this Buddhist way of thinking, if I can cultivate peace and compassion in my heart, I will add to the overall peace and compassion of the whole cosmos.

This makes some sense to me. If I can cultivate peace and compassion, I'm likelier to relate to others with those qualities instead of with impatience or anger. When I am feeling grounded and mindful and kind, I think I'm a better parent; I suspect I'm also a better partner, rabbi, and friend. That's a small-scale change which might have a ripple effect. But can my acts of meditation and prayer shift the peacefulness in the cosmos in a bigger-picture way? When I work on myself, do I really change the universe?

The Zohar speaks of itaruta d'l'ila and itaruta d'l'tata, "arousal from above" and "arousal from below." Sometimes God pours blessing, love, divine shefa down into creation entirely of God's own accord, and that divinity streaming into creation further awakens us. That's (what the Zohar calls) arousal from above. And other times it is we who initiate the connection -- with our cries and prayers and contemplation, we stimulate the flow of blessing and abundance from on high. That's arousal from below.

Contemplative practices -- meditation, prayer, chant, even the internal work of teshuvah (repentance or return) which is the primary focus of the coming month of Elul and the holidays which follow -- are practices designed to facilitate that arousal from below. When we cultivate peacefulness, or enter into teshuvah, or make a conscious effort to practice kindness, perhaps we awaken parallel qualities on high. At least, that's how the Zohar understands it. Our prayers and meditations can awaken God.

The psalmist teaches "turn from evil and do good; seek shalom/peace and pursue it." (psalm 34:14) We usually understand shalom to mean peace and wholeness in an external sense, between people(s). But I wonder whether we can also read it as an instruction to seek internal peacefulness. Maybe when I cultivate peace within myself, I stimulate the divine flow of more peace into the world. (Or, in the Buddhist framing with which this post began, I add to the net peacefulness of the universe.)

"Seek peace and pursue it" seems at first to be repetitive. If I'm seeking it, surely that means I'm pursuing it too, right? But our sages teach that there are no extraneous words in Torah -- or at least that we can find or make meaning even in the most apparently repetitive of phrases. Ergo there must be a difference between "seeking" peace and "pursuing" it. All well and good, but what might that difference be? Here's one traditional answer, from the collection of midrash called Vayikra Rabbah:

Great is shalom, peace, because about all of the mitzvot in the Torah it is written, “If you happen upon,” “If it should occur,” “If you see,” which implies that if the opportunity to do the mitzvah comes upon you, then you must do it, and if not, you are not bound to do it. But in the case of peace, it is written, Seek peace, and pursue it—seek it in the place where you are, and pursue after it in another place. (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9)

In other words: the other mitzvot ask us to make certain choices when opportunity presents itself. But in the case of peace, we have to be proactive. We have to cultivate peace not only where we are, but also in the places where we haven't been yet (or where peace hasn't been yet). We have to cultivate external peace, and internal peacefulness, precisely in the places -- and the hearts and minds and souls -- which aren't yet peaceful. And when we do this work, we can hope that we awaken God on high to do the same.

Inspiring awe, cultivating joy

I retweeted that message a few days ago. It comes from my friends and colleagues at A Way In at Mishkan Shalom, and the questions it raises have stayed with me. What inspires our awe? How can we cultivate joy? I was glad to see these questions crop up in my Twitter stream amidst tweets about the World Cup and about injustices both large and small and about everything that's agitating people in the news. (I'm always glad to see people using Twitter for contemplative purposes.)

Awe is an essential component of spiritual life. The Hebrew יראה / yirah is one of the two quintessential ways we're meant to respond to God. (The other is אהבה / ahavah, love.) I feel awe when I gaze at a beautiful vista, or experience the power of nature, or encounter ancient history by walking in a place where people have walked for thousands of years. I felt tremendous awe when our son was born. I also feel awe when I name a baby, join two people in marriage, or stand before my community for a funeral. 

Joy is essential too -- which is not the same as happiness or cheer. (I've written about that before: What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?) I feel joy when I bless our son on Friday nights; when I am reunited with people I love who live far away; when I sing the beloved melodies of the Days of Awe; when I look around the table at the faces of my loved ones at Pesach or Thanksgiving or Christmas eve. Often music, singing, great stories, and feeling known and understood bring me joy.

I think it's not accidental that this tweet uses the language of cultivation. These spiritual qualities don't necessarily arise on their own. Each of us needs to tend to her own spiritual soil, to nurture and nourish these seedlings so that they will grow. We can practice receptivity to moments of awe -- which won't necessarily make the awe arise, but may make us more inclined to notice it and experience it fully. And we can practice receptivity to moments of joy in the same way, creating space in which joy can arise.

Drawing out the cultivation metaphor further: I've learned that there are certain subjects, emotions, states of being which poison my soil. And just like in a literal garden, if there's a little bit of toxicity in my soil, the things I'm cultivating can still grow, though they may be impacted by what nutrients are and aren't available. But if the soil becomes too poisoned, then awe and joy can't grow there. Reb Zalman talks sometimes about the "spiritual vitamins" which we need. It's also important to avoid spiritual toxins.

Prayer and meditation are the most effective tools I've found for this work. I don't only mean liturgical prayer and regular sitting-in-meditation, though both of those are part of my practice. I also mean what Reb Shawn (Rabbi Shawn Zevit) and Reb Marcia (Rabbi Marcia Prager) called "living with prayerful consciousness." Can I bring a sense of prayerful awareness to every moment in my day? Can I approach ordinary time with the meditative ability to step back and notice my own thoughts arising?

Paying attention to the transitions between weekday and Shabbat, and to the journey from one festival to the next -- paying attention to when my heart and soul feel expansive, and when they feel constricted -- having the discernment to pull myself away from places, ideas, and activities which feed anger and ego instead of awe and joy -- these are some of the items in my contemplative toolbox. They don't necessarily inspire awe or bring joy, but they make me more receptive to both when they arise.

For those who are so inclined: I'd love to hear your answers to the questions posed by the folks at A Way In. What inspires your awe? How do you cultivate joy?

The gifts of the labyrinth

14391957582_88ea0e30fe_nMy mind was jangling.

The first full day of this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders was intense and busy. From morning prayer to conversations over breakfast to beginning to guide my small group through our group project to an "intra-faith dialogue" session (each group convened in its own prayer space and talked about whatever's arising for us so far.) Conversations over lunch. A faculty meeting. Two hours of learning with Dr. Judith Plaskow (which merits its own post, God knows.) More group project planning.

By late afternoon I was feeling attenuated, stretched a bit thin, reverberating like a drumhead. So I headed for the meditation labyrinth behind the fire circle.

The thing I love about walking labyrinths is that I never know exactly how I'm going to get to where I'm going, or how the return journey will proceed. It's not like walking in a straight line, or even in a spiral from one point to the next. It goes this way, then that way. Doubles back on itself. Allows me to think that it's taking me to one place, and then does a bait-and-switch and suddenly I'm facing in the other direction.

14389989631_7ae66575b1_nSome of this, of course, stems from my practice of only looking a few steps ahead of where my feet are actually walking. If I stopped and scrutinized the labryinth, I could probably try to memorize its twists and turns. But that would defeat the purpose altogether. For me, a meditation labyrinth is about slowly walking and letting the journey unfold however it may. It's about the little surprises along the way. I know that I'm headed for the center of something beautiful; I know that when I leave the labyrinth I'll exit down the same forest path which brought me here. But between those two points I aspire to be open to surprises.

If there is a better metaphor for this kind of "dialogue of the devout" (in Reb Zalman's terminology), I don't know what it is. Each of us came here prepared, on some level, to be challenged and to be surprised. I suspect that each of us also had some notion of where we thought we were going, where we thought our conversations would take us, what would be easy and what would be hard. And I'm willing to bet that the journey of these four days is bringing each of us to some surprises.

Once I reached the middle of the labyrinth, I thought, "ah, okay, now it'll take me back out again, that should be straightforward." And then the path went somewhere I didn't think it would go, and without my conscious volition my feet sped up. Wait. Was I confused? Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? How could this possibly be the way toward the exit? And then I took a deep breath, got a grip on myself, and slowed my walking to my intentional and contemplative pace again. Of course I hadn't stepped "off the derech," off the path; the labyrinth just had a few final surprises in store for me before it returned me to the place of ingress/egress.

The real surprises always come when we think no surprises remain.


I wrote about walking a meditation labyrinth (and, for that matter, about Jewish-Muslim learning) at the ALEPH Kallah in 2011: Seeking and finding.


Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.

Right here, right now

Quote+--+Today+I+Will+Live+in+the+Moment"Take a moment to settle in to being here," I say aloud. My eyes are closed but I know there are three other people in the room this morning; I heard them walk in, each to their own place in the sanctuary, and I waited until the sounds of their arrival had ceased.

"Notice how you're sitting in your chair. In your own time, draw your attention from your toes up to the top of your head, and if you find places of tension, breathe into them and let the tension go."

"Now we'll move into a practice of following our breath as it comes and goes. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably do -- memories of the past, anticipations of the future -- just notice them, gently, and then let them go."

Like goldfish swimming away, I think.

"If you need something to focus on beyond your breathing, try this mantra. On the inhale: right here. On the exhale: right now. Right here, right now."

Hey, I can write about this, I think. I yank my mind back to right here, right now. Right here, right now.

At the midway point of our meditation, I'm planning to offer a teaching about the practice of teshuvah before new moon -- looking back over the last month and letting go of the places where we missed the mark, at moon-dark, before the new month begins.

Since it's almost new moon. Adar 2 starts right after Shabbat. Adar 2 means Purim. Hey, do all of the Purim spiel actors have their scripts? Okay, that was another stray thought. Letting it go. Right here, right now.

There was a sticker on the door from UPS. I wonder what's in the package? Right here, right now. Inhale, exhale. Maybe it was something for the family trip that's coming up. Right here, right now. The trip isn't happening yet. Stay in the moment.

My ear itches. Right here, right now. The arm where I'm wearing tefillin is getting cold. Right here, right now. Is it time to offer that teaching yet?

The purpose of meditation, it comes to me, is not to still the mind. As though that were possible! I can't quiet my mind. It leaps and races and chatters and changes the subject constantly. The purpose of meditation, at least as I experience it, is to notice the chatter of the mind. To notice all of the thoughts and desires and smokescreens it places in front of me. Not so that I can make them go away, but so that I can be aware of them. That way, when they arise during the day, maybe I'll notice them then, too, and act out of a place of awareness instead of a place of blind reactivity.

Sometimes it feels almost unbearable to sit still and listen to the chatter of my mind. I want to distract myself, to think about happy occasions past or future, to get up and do something: check email, roll the Torah scroll for tomorrow morning's service, tidy my office, anything to give me a break from my own head. But I sit still, and let my thoughts race around me like puppies chasing each other. I cultivate compassion for the antics of my own mind, the lengths to which it will go to avoid just being in the present. Being in the Presence.

Meditation is like Shabbat, I think to myself. Sit still. Stop doing, and just be. This moment is all there is. Right here, right now.

A short history of Jewish meditation

Buddhistjewishcenterv2-214x300"Would you consider teaching or writing something about Jewish meditation?" a congregant asked me recently. "I think people wonder sometimes whether it's really Jewish."

Contemplative practice in Judaism has taken a variety of forms, and bears a variety of names, but it's been a part of Judaism for a very long time. ("Contemplative practice" is an umbrella term which covers a variety of practices; meditation is one of those practices.) Let's start here: maybe you know that traditional Jewish practice includes praying three times a day. The traditional explanation for that thrice-daily prayer regimen teaches either that we do this in remembrance of the offerings at the Temple of old, or that we do this in remembrance of the patriarchs (or both.)

We read in Torah that Abraham connected with God in the morning, Isaac in the afternoon, and Jacob in the evening, so we do the same. And in Torah, what form did that connection take? In Genesis 24:63, when Isaac went out לָשׂוּחַ / la'suach in the fields, what exactly was going on? According to the classical JPS translation, that verb means "to meditate." So one could make the case that from the patriarchs on, Jewish prayer has always had a meditative component.

Later, during the time of the Tanna'im (the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era), Jewish mystics sought to elevate their souls by meditating on the chariot visions of Ezekiel. This became a whole school of contemplative practices known as merkavah mysticism. Some of their practices were re-imagined and re-interpreted by later mystical and contemplative movements in Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, the sages of our tradition were discussing the proper balance of keva (fixed form) and kavanah (intention or meditative focus) in Jewish prayer. Some went so far as to argue that prayer without the right meditative intention doesn't actually count. In the days of the Tanna'im, communal prayer frequently took the form of variations on known themes, where a skilled prayer-leader would improvise new words on the existing themes of the prayers. Over time, those improvised words were written down, and by the Middle Ages became fixed in more-or-less the forms we know today.

Continue reading "A short history of Jewish meditation" »

The mind is like tofu

Japanese_SilkyTofu_(Kinugoshi_Tofu)Here's the short teaching I offered during our meditation minyan at my shul today. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


I learned from my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth -- who learned from our teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) -- that the mind is like tofu: it takes on the taste of whatever we pickle it in.

What marinade is your mind soaking in today?

Is it a marinade of resentment? She told me she would do that thing, and then she didn't, and now I feel betrayed.

Is it a marinade of anger? On the radio I heard someone from the political party with which I disagree, and now my blood is boiling.

Or is it a marinade of gratitude, of wonder, of readiness to serve in whatever ways the world will call forth today?

We all have recourse to all of these ingredients. Breathe in; and hold it for a moment; and as you exhale, wash the negativity away. Rinse the tofu clean. Once again it becomes plain, ready to take on the flavor of whatever marinade you choose.

As we pray in the morning liturgy: Elohai neshama shenatata bi, tehora hee -- "My God, the soul that You have given me is pure!" Every morning we awake to a clean soul -- a blank slate -- a mind like tofu, ready to take on whatever flavors we steep it in.

Modah ani l'fanecha: I am grateful before You.

Mah norah hamakom hazeh: what a wonder, what a miracle, is this very place, this very moment.

Hineni: Here I am, ready to serve.


Shabbat shalom!

Following the breath as it comes and goes

Oie_deep_breathThere's something poignant about leading meditation on a morning which will contain a funeral. Following our breath as it comes and goes, knowing that soon we will turn our attention to someone whose breath no longer enlivens.

In Genesis 2 we read that God formed the first human being out of earth and breathed into its nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim), the breath of life. In modern parlance the Hebrew נֶשַׁמַה (neshamah) is usually translated as "soul."

Every morning we pray  אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (Elohai neshama she-natata bi, tehora hee) -- "My God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure! You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time..."

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that every breath is a prayer, because with every breath we pronounce the ineffable Name of God.

What is it that enlivens us? It isn't merely breathing, in this age of ventilators which can keep the lungs moving after brain activity has ceased. But without breath, there is no life.

When that enlivening breath is gone, a person's body is no longer that person as we knew them. It remains holy because it once held a soul, but it becomes almost a figurine, a likeness of the person we once knew.

After life, we return our bodies to the adamah, the earth, from which Torah teaches the first earthling was made. The body returns to the earth; the soul-breath returns to the Source from which it came.

I opened and closed this morning's meditation with a practice which I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle. The first breath together: a reminder that I am mortal. The second breath together: a reminder that those around me are mortal. The third breath together: a reminder that because of those first two truths, this moment is incomparably precious.

This moment is incomparably precious.


Image source: cauldrons and cupcakes.


Chanukah and the obligation to sit still and notice

One of the customs of Chanukah is to sing a couple of hymns after we light Chanukah candles. One of them is Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages." (Here's an abbreviation of the traditional version. Here's Reb Zalman's version, which is singable to the same tune but celebrates the miracles of Chanukah in a different way.) And the other hymn is Hanerot Hallalu, "The lights which we light." Here's that second one:


"We light these lights for [commemoration of] the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our ancestors, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations." (From Talmud, Sofrim 20:6)

This little song is often overlooked and is not well known. Which is a shame, because it's quite wonderful.

Hanerot Hallalu teaches us that we light the candles of the chanukiyyah in order to remember miracles and wonders, and that their light is holy -- so holy, in fact, that we're not supposed to use that light for ordinary things. Instead, our job is to just enjoy them. To look at them. To contemplate them, and their small beauty, and to cultivate an upwelling of thanks and praise. In this way, Chanukah invites us into contemplative practice.

The Shabbat candles which we kindle each week are also holy. But they don't come with this same obligation. It's perfectly permissible to eat one's Shabbat dinner by the light of the Shabbat candles. But the Chanukah candles aren't meant to be used in any mundane way. The shamash candle, the "helper" which lights the others, casts ordinary usable light. But the eight candles in the chanukiyyah proper are there not to give us light to do the dishes by -- they're there to give us a meditative focus, something to look at as we coax wonder and gratitude to arise within us.

At this hectic season -- Thanksgiving and "Black Friday" just past, Christmas and New Year's on the horizon, everywhere around us a tumult of coveting and shopping and spending, the academic semester racing to its finale -- the very idea of taking the duration of the Chanukah candles as a time for quiet and meditation seems like a miracle. May we all be blessed to find our moments of stillness and peace as the candles burn low.

Here's a choral setting of Hanerot Hallalu. And here's a solo setting of an unknown melody. If your tastes run more toward a cappella, here's Six13's version. And here's a simple sung version, accompanied beautifully on piano.

Carving new grooves on heart and mind

Clay-heartIt's always surprising to me -- though it probably shouldn't be -- how easily the mind becomes accustomed to a thought pattern, and gets stuck there. Our repeated thoughts carve grooves on the soft clay of our consciousness, and soon a thought process goes from occasional to regular to habitual.

This is one of the reasons why I am so attached to my gratitude practices, praying modah ani in the morning chief among them. When I school myself in the practice of saying thank-you to God for being alive again, day after day, that helps me to wake up in that spirit and to carry it with me into the morning. Or if I pause before eating a piece of toast and say the hamotzi, recognizing the hands which sowed and milled the grain and the divinity which sustained both the grain and the people who turned it into bread, then that shapes my experience of eating.

By the same token, if there's something that's anxiety-provoking, it's easy for the anxiety to become as habitual as the gratitude. (Or even more so.) For some of us, the approach of winter can bring on that pattern. As sunset comes earlier and earlier, a clench of worry can take hold of heart and mind: it's so dark, I don't know how I can live with this. For others, the winter holiday season brings anxiety: too much pressure, not enough money, maybe we feel we don't fit in with what "everyone else" is celebrating or how they're celebrating it. Each of us has different inflection points which bring on this kind of thinking, but it's an experience we all have.

Last spring at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat, I learned about negativity bias -- the phenomenon whereby if one gets nine compliments and one piece of hate mail, the hate mail lodges more firmly in one's memory than the praise. And I also learned that negative / anxious / unhappy thinking tends to reinforce itself. Or, framed another way, the more we focus on what's broken, the harder it can be to see what's whole. And every time we retread that negative ground, we wear its path even more firmly into our hearts and minds.

Continue reading "Carving new grooves on heart and mind" »

Why am I, and how can I integrate? - questions from Toldot

Here's the short d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning during the contemplative Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרשׁ אֶת־יְי: The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself: if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְי לָהּ
שְׁנֵי גֹייִם בְּבִטְנֵךְ
וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ
יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:

And God said to her:
two nations are inside you;
two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb.
One shall prevail over the other;
elder, serve younger.

If this is so, why do I exist? Or: If this is what's happening, why am I?

This is a fundamental question, and perhaps one which those with a contemplative bent know well. Why am I? Why am I me, and not someone else? Why is this life mine?

The word Rivka uses for "I" is anochi. Usually in Hebrew one uses the simple ani, I. But Rivka uses a kind of royal I, the same word used by God.

Rivka takes this question directly to that Anochi, to God, to Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. That four-letter name can be understood as a form of the verb "to be" in all tenses at once: Was-Is-WillBe. Rivka takes her existential question to the Mystery at the heart of all things.

And that Mystery replies: there is a duality inside you. A pulling this way, and a pulling that way.

Continue reading "Why am I, and how can I integrate? - questions from Toldot" »

Unify our hearts

92fd4b_dcab2ba869a873df4b2e9ea442f81d70.jpg_srz_1600_1200_85_22_0.50_1.20_0וְיַחֵד לְבָבֵנוּ לְאַהֲבָה וּלְיִרְאָה אֶת שְׁמֶךָ.
V’yached l’vavenu, l’ahavah u-l’yirah et sh’mecha.
Unify our hearts in love and awe of Your name!

Unify our hearts. Perhaps that means the hearts of each of us in this room. Or the hearts of each of us in our community around the world. Unify our hearts, make our hearts beat as one.

In love and awe. Or, some would translate, love and fear. These are the two paths, the two doorways into serving God. Ahavah, love, is sometimes connected with chesed, lovingkindness which overflows. Yir'ah, awe, is sometimes connected with gevurah, boundaries which restrain.

There's a Hasidic teaching which says that awe and love are two wings, and that when they beat together, that's what lifts our prayers up to God. Another Hasidic teaching holds that most people come to serving God through the path of fear and awe, fear of judgement and of falling-short, but that the path of love is the higher one.

Another way to understand this verse is: unify the disparate parts of each human heart. Unify the love in our hearts and the awe in our hearts. Help us to bring together our awe -- our radical amazement, our awareness of our own insignificance in the vast span of the cosmos! -- with our love.

A practice. Breathing in, we inhale awe. We inhale amazement. We inhale that sense that compared with God, compared with the universe, compared with the vast sweep of human history we are but specks of dust. And breathing out, we exhale love. We exhale compassion. We cultivate love for those around us, for those we meet, for those whom we know and those whom we don't know. Breathing in: awe. Breathing out: love.

Unify our hearts in the love and awe of Your Name.


This is a written (slightly expanded) version of a teaching I shared during my shul's meditation minyan this morning. See also Rabbi Shefa Gold's teaching and chant Unifying the heart.

The image illustrating this post is calligraphy by soferet Julie Seltzer and features the words for love and awe, which, she notes, are intertwined and can be read either horizontally or vertically.

A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma

Evolvingdharmacover3"The Western world is on the cusp of a major transformation around how we understand the mind, the brain, and what to do about them. Meditation and other forms of contemplative practice, once the provenance of religion, then later of 'spirituality,' are now in the American mainstream, in corporate retreats and public schools, as a rational, proven technology to upgrade the mind and organize the brain, buttressed by hard scientific data and the reports of millions of practitioners."

That's the opening of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, by Jay Michaelson, due out in October 2013 from North Atlantic Books. Jay writes:

"The original source of these cognitive technologies is the dharma, an ancient word meaning the way, the path, or the teaching. In the most general sense, it can simply refer to the truth of how things are: the laws of the universe, and of the mind...

What was once a monastic tradition of meditation, virtuous action, and wisdom teachings (samadhi, sila, and panna) is now, depending on where you encounter it, a technology of brainhacking; a way to build insular thickness in the brain; a way to lower stress; a mystical path filled with unusual peak experiences; a way to grow more loving, compassionate, and generous; a method to get ahead and gain an edge on your competition; or any number of other things. Love it or hate it, the dharma has evolved."

This new book aims to explore the evolution of the dharma through a variety of lenses. There's history here; there's neuroscience; there's personal experience. There's also a straightforward narrative voice which is unsentimental and occasionally quite wry.

This is a story of monks and soldiers; a history as well as a tale told from my own cultural position, conditioned by my age, gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and all the rest; a narrative of maverick teachers, online communities, Occupy, self-loathing, stress reduction, religion, sex, power, and Google.

Who wouldn't want to read that?

Full disclosure: I've been blessed to work with Jay off and on for a number of years. He is the founding editor of Zeek, "a Jewish journal of thought and culture," where I used to serve as a contributing editor. I come to this book as a colleague of the author's, as a rabbi, and as someone whose own spiritual life has been strongly shaped both by Judaism and by the import of Buddhism to these shores. Those are some of the lenses I bring to bear on reading this book.

Continue reading "A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma" »

In which I compare my monkey mind to Curious George.


Monkey mind looks like
Curious George: hopping
and screeching, animated
with exaggerated expression.

It swings from idea
to idea: Doctor Who, the Arctic,
the Iraqi psalm melody
from last night's dream.

Listen to the birdsong!
How do they do that?
Is it time yet?
What am I forgetting?

Maybe it's not a monkey
but a pinball machine,
flashing with each bounce
and ricochet. And I say

thank you monkey mind.
Thank you pinball machine.
Thank you, synapses firing
to wake me to this day.

Something stills, slightly:
I'm a pond still peppered
with raindrops, but now
I remember and greet

flashes of silvered gratitude
like ponderous ancient koi
doing their slow pirouettes
in my mind's cold depths.



"Monkey mind" is a common metaphor for the mind's relentless chatter. It derives from the Buddhist idea of the mind monkey. And Curious George is a character in a popular series of kids' books, now also in a PBS cartoon. When I picture my own monkey mind, he's the image that comes immediately to the forefront of my consciousness.

This morning during meditation at my shul I did a variation on this four worlds gratitude practice, and I invited us to thank God for our monkey minds and to thank our monkey minds for doing what they do. (I heard one of my fellow meditators chuckling at that notion.) It is funny to thank God for monkey mind! But when I stopped resisting my mind's spinning and instead said thank you for it and to it, I felt different.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.