About Bypassing

Spiritual-bypassingA few days ago I mentioned spiritual bypassing in my commentary on a short Hasidic text. A few of you reached out to me after that post went out, asking for more about spiritual bypassing: what it it, how can you recognize it, why is it important. 

For a basic introduction, here's a good article by Dr. Ingrid Mathieu: Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Dr. Robert Masters also offers a great essay about bypassing, calling it Avoidance in holy drag. His book Spiritual Bypassing is a classic in my field, and with good reason.

Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over "spiritual." 

(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She's a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts... until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)

It's easy to mis-use spirituality to justify avoidance of things that are painful or uncomfortable, like anger or conflict or boundaries. But this is not spiritually healthy, even though it disguises itself as spiritual. It is a spiritual sickness, disguised as spiritual health.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to experience what is: all of what is. And that includes the things we tend to categorize as "dark" or negative: pain, sorrow, loss, rejection, grief. (I wrote about that recently in my review of Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.) 

The Jewish mystical tradition describes God via a series of qualities that exist in holy balance, such as chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength / judgment). When someone leans so far toward chesed that they reject its healthy balancing with gevurah, that's spiritual bypassing.

When a spiritual leader serving a community where there has been abuse (whether sexual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, or all of the above) ignores the abuse, or urges community members to rush to healing before there has been justice for the abused, that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to feel angry, or isn't comfortable with conflict, so they over-focus on sweetness and light while sweeping their anger under the rug (or encouraging others to sweep anger under the rug), that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to be constrained by someone else's interpersonal or systemic boundary, so they transgress it while convincing themselves that the boundary really shouldn't apply to them anyway, that's spiritual bypassing.

In all of these instances, the quality that's chosen for over-focus -- whether it be healing, or sweetness, or lovingkindness -- is in and of itself a good quality. That's part of the challenge: everyone likes healing and sweetness and lovingkindness, right? But these qualities are only healthy when they're used honestly, authentically, and safely -- and, as the Hasidic text I translated last week suggests, when they're in appropriate balance with qualities like judgment and healthy boundaries.

If I pursue healing at someone else's expense, then that healing is not only false but damaging. If I pursue pleasantries in an abusive context instead of naming the abuse for what it is, then my sweetness is not only false but also complicit in the abuse. If I disregard someone's boundaries because I think I should be exempt from their rules, then my "love" will cause hurt.

Even gratitude, the middah (quality) to which I most often gravitate, can be used in spiritual bypassing. When faced with trauma or grief, if I leap too quickly to "let me find something to be grateful for so I don't have to feel this thing that hurts," then the gratitude practice that's such a core part of my spiritual life becomes a tool for bypassing the thing I need to actually feel.

Spiritual bypassing is what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage:" a sweet topping disguising something rotten underneath.

Spiritual bypassing pretends to make things better, but it actually makes them worse. If a wound is infected, then suturing it and simply hiding the infection will not help the infection to heal. If a relationship is abusive, then pretending that it's healthy will not help the person who is being abused. (For that matter, it also doesn't help the abuser to name and recover from their own trauma.) Spiritual bypassing does serious damage to people and communities.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to feel what we feel, even when what we feel is uncomfortable or painful. Authentic spiritual life calls us to speak truth, even when we'd rather pretend there are no difficult truths to be spoken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to pursue justice, even when we'd rather imagine that if we close our eyes to injustice it will simply go away on its own. 

Any spiritual leader who claims otherwise is not worthy of the title. 

 


New essay on Modah Ani

ModehAni_coverA while back I was solicited to contribute an essay to a volume on modeh / modah ani, the morning prayer of gratitude, edited by David Birnbaum and Martin S. Cohen, to be published by Mesorah Matrix. Longtime readers of this blog know that modah ani is one of my very favorite prayers; I said yes immediately! 

The volume is part of a ten-volume series from Mesorah Matrix, of which six books have thus far been published. I just received my contributor's copies, and wow, am I delighted.

I'm in some phenomenal company. Here are glimpses of some of the essays about which I'm most excited: 

David Ellenson wrote about Modeh Ani and the gifts of gratitude and awareness. Elliot Dorff wrote about how the prayer helps us awaken to the new day. Rebecca Sirbu wrote about how the prayer can have a personal impact on one's life. Aubrey Glazer wrote about the prayer in the context of Shoenberg and the Kotzker Rebbe. 

Dalia Marx offered a contemporary Israeli perspective on the prayer, juxtaposing it with Israeli pop songs. José Rolando Matalon wrote about it in the context of Odeh la-El, a sixteenth-century piyyut. Shulamit Thiede wrote about the prayer and gratitude for the presence of death. Orna Triguboff wrote about the nighttime journey of the soul. 

And I wrote about the prayer as a four-worlds tool for personal spiritual transformation. 

You can page through the book online at the Mesorah Matrix website if you are so inclined.

The volume is available on Amazon for $36 -- not cheap, but I think it's absolutely worth it: Modeh Ani: The Transcendent Power of Gratitude. Deep thanks to the editors for including my work!


The Book of Joy

9780399185045When a friend told me that she was reading a series of dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on joy, my first thought was "I need to read that too." Their dialogues are published in a book attributed to the two luminaries along with Douglas Abrams, called The Book of Joy.

Here's the first place in the book that drew forth my impulse to make marginal markings. This is the Archbishop speaking:

Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

We may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too -- that feels right to me. Joy is not the antithesis of sorrow. It doesn't cancel sorrow out, or make one less prone to the sorrows that come with human life. But joy can help us face our sorrows in a different way.

Abrams seizes on this, and brings it back to the Archbishop: "The joy that you are talking about," he says, "is not just a feeling. It’s not something that just comes and goes. It’s something much more profound. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that joy is a way of approaching the world." The Archbishop agrees, and adds that as far as he is concerned, our greatest joy arises when we seek to do good for others.

Coming from anyone else, that might sound insincere, but from Desmond Tutu I am inclined to believe it. Reading his words made me aware that I fear I don't spend enough time seeking to do good for others. But then I realized that he could be speaking not only about vocation or community service, but also on a more intimate scale about trying to do good for people I love. Doing something to brighten the day of someone I love brings me intense joy. (Maybe the real work is figuring out how to broaden the sphere of those whom I love.)

The Archbishop also says some things about hope that resonate deeply for me:

"Hope," the Archbishop said, "is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper..."

"I say to people that I'm not an optimist, because that, in a sense is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is based not in the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable..."

"Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one's chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass."

I love his point that optimism depends on feelings, and it's the nature of feelings to be malleable. Often I know that the way I feel isn't necessarily correlated with how things "actually are" -- intellectually I can see that things aren't so bad, but emotionally I feel as though they are. (Or the other way around.) If my optimism depends on feeling good about the situation at hand, it will necessarily falter sometimes.

Hope, for the Archbishop, is something different. Hope is a choice, a way of being in the world. Hope is an affirmation that whatever challenges, or grief, or sorrow may be arising will pass. Hope says: there is more to life than this, even if we can't see that right now. In a sense, it requires a leap of faith. It asks us to operate on the assumption that there is more to life than whatever we are experiencing right now.

Abrams writes:

We try so hard to separate joy and sorrow into their own boxes, but the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama tell us that they are inevitably fastened together. Neither advocate the kind of fleeting happiness, often called hedonic happiness, that requires only positive states and banishes feelings like sadness to emotional exile. The kind of happiness that they describe is often called eudemonic happiness and is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief...

"We are meant to live in joy," the Archbishop explained. "This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin."

I'm struck by the Archbishop's assertion that we are meant to live in joy -- and that this doesn't mean that life can be, or even should be, devoid of pain. Joy and sorrow are so often intertwined: at the happy occasion when one remembers a loved one who has died, at the celebration of a joyous milestone when a loved one is struggling. We shatter a glass at every Jewish wedding to remind us that even in our moments of joy there is brokenness. Authentic spiritual life calls us to hold this disjunction all the time.

Archbishop Tutu is right that authentic spiritual life also calls us to begin by recognizing what is, and sometimes what is is painful. But we can hold that painful reality loosely, alongside awareness of the gifts we receive from loving others and aspiring to sweeten their circumstance. As the Archbishop also notes, when we seek to do good for others, we open ourselves to some of life's deepest joy. And that's a joy that is rooted not in what we have, but in what we give away -- in the love and caring that comes through us. And because it comes through us, rather than from us, it has no limits.

The Psalmist wrote, "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning."  The "night" in question may be long. It may be personal, or national, or global. But we can live in hope that morning will come and will bring joy, even if we don't know what that will look like, even if we don't know when or how that will be.

 

Related:

Joy, 2009


Deep Ecumenism and Being a Mixed Multitude

Multitude-WebOne of the things I love about the Passover story is that every year the story is the same, and every year I hear it anew. (This is true of the whole Torah, too, but I knew and loved the Pesach story before I knew and loved the whole Torah.) Every year we retell how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And every year, something different about the story leaps out at me and says pay attention.

This year the thing that leaps out at me is the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with us from Egypt. When we left Mitzrayim, tradition teaches, we did not leave alone. A mixed multitude came with us. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."

I imagine us as a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into this community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice. This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell every Pesach, the story we allude to in the kiddush every Friday night and in the Mi Chamocha prayer every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.

Immediately upon leaving Egypt, we came to an insurmountable obstacle: the Sea of Reeds. On Monday night, Ben Solis-Cohen gave a beautiful d'var about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the brave soul who took the first steps into the waters. Nachshon kept going until it seemed that he would drown, and then the waters parted. This is a story about trusting in something beyond ourselves and getting through adversity we didn't think we could get through. Because in and of ourselves, we couldn't. As a theist, I would say God accompanied us, and therefore we became more than we thought we could be. That language may or may not work for you, but what matters is this: when the journey ahead seemed impossible, we found the courage to keep going, and the impossible became possible.

This is the story that constitutes us as a people, and it's not entirely an easy story. After we came through the sea, the waters rushed back in and swept away the Egyptian armies that had pursued us. Midrash teaches that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing, saying, "My children are perishing, and you sing praises?" Both "we," and "they," are equally God's children. The story that constitutes us as a people demands that we ask what price is being paid for our liberation, and by whom. Whose bondage or suffering is the price of our freedom and comfort, and what right do we have to exact that price?

It's our job as Jews to rejoice in our freedom, and it's our job to look at this system, this community, this nation, this planet, and ask how and whether we're complicit in the suffering of others who are not yet free. What is the price of our spiritual freedom, and who is paying that price, and what can we do about that? And considering our complicity isn't enough. It's also our job as Jews to work toward liberation for everyone. Until everyone is free, our liberation is incomplete.

The mixed multitude who left Egypt included people who were not Jews... as our Shabbat dinners here include those who walk on other spiritual paths. On most Christian calendars today is Good Friday. In their tradition, today commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. In their tradition, the price of spiritual freedom for humanity was the death of the rabbi they call Jesus who was both human and divine.

For our Christian friends, tonight is a dark night that will give way on Sunday to the brightest of new dawns. The emotional journey of going from Good Friday to Easter does for them what the emotional journey of Pesach can do for us. Remembering the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborns -- remembering the Egyptian army swept away in the Sea of Reeds -- impels us to recognize the preciousness of this life, and to cultivate openness to growth and change.

Following the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, I want to suggest that the best way we can relate to Good Friday is not by trying to be Christian, but by being all the more Jewish. This is what he called "deep ecumenism." From the authenticity of our spiritual practice, we can walk alongside others in theirs, partaking in a universal human journey that has multiple forms. And that journey would be darkened and diminished if even a single one of us didn't take part.

Every religion, Reb Zalman taught, is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be uniquely what it is, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we'd be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in even more trouble! Each community of faith -- including those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular -- needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others.

Humanity hasn't quite mastered this yet... but the rest of the world could learn a lot from Williams campus life. When the Chaplains' Office organizes a multifaith prayer experience after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mosques. When Williams Catholic, or Williams Secular, or the Feast, shows up to cook Shabbat dinner for WCJA. When Feminists of Faith gather on a Saturday afternoon, as we will do here on April 29. This is what it means to be a mixed multitude: not because we're stuck with each other, but because we embrace each other. Because our pluralism is part of who we are.

On Sunday night we'll enter into the seventh day of Pesach, which tradition says is the day when we actually crossed the sea. We'll remember how after crossing that sea, Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels, singing in gratitude to the One Who makes our transformation possible.

That's our job too: to sing out in praise. To cultivate gratitude and joy, without ignoring the things that are hard, either in our past or in our anticipated future. Miriam and the women are my role models in that. They'd experienced trauma and loss, they were on a journey with an unknown destination, they were carrying their whole lives on their backs -- and they danced anyway.

Miriam and the women teach me that no matter what I've been through and no matter what challenges lie ahead, there is always reason for hope and rejoicing. "Look around, look around: how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

This is the story that constitutes us as a people: a mixed multitude, welcoming and diverse -- growing and becoming, taking a leap of faith singly and together -- grappling with systems of oppression -- supporting each other on our various spiritual paths -- aware that transformation is always possible -- with hearts expansive enough to hold both life's adversity and life's joy.

We live into this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight during dinner at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image: "Multitude," by Sam Miller. (Source.)


For those who are struggling this thanksgiving

Header-rabbis-640x97

In the United States today is Thanksgiving, a day for cultivating gratitude and giving thanks. I'm a big fan of both of those things. And I also know that there are times when I haven't been able to access gratitude -- and that feeling cut-off from gratitude can be especially painful on special days like holidays. If you are in that place, or if you think you know someone who might be, don't miss this post from Rabbi David Evan Markus at the Rabbis Without Borders blog at My Jewish Learning. He begins:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Now, let’s get real: some don’t feel thankful today. We might feel like the turkeys got us down. We might feel burdened by hosting, harried by travel, lonely for having nowhere to go, bothered for having to go somewhere we don’t want to go, or pre-triggered by a secular holiday season happier in advertising than anticipation or reality. It’s well to act grateful even if we don’t feel it (a practice worth trying), or imagine Plymouth Rock as the House of God (my post last Thanksgiving), but what if we (or people we love) don’t feel “thanks” on Thanksgiving?

Turns out, we have a turkey for that, too.

Rabbi David tells the parable of the Turkey Prince, which comes to us from Reb Nachman of Breslov, and offers some deep wisdom for those who are struggling today and those who love someone who is struggling today. Worth reading -- today and every day: It's Thanksgiving, But What If One Doesn't Feel Thankful?


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.

Continue reading "Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"" »


Making my morning coffee holy

Cup-of-coffeeSometimes in the morning I find myself singing the words אין מספיק כפה בעולם / ein maspik cafe ba'olam -- "there's not enough coffee in the world" -- to the Rizhyner's melody for Ana B'Koach. (That's the first mp3 of the several on this NeoHasid page.)

And then I acquire a cup of joe, and I change my tune. Instead of bemoaning what I don't have, I celebrate what I do. The blessing I say over my morning coffee is a line from our daily liturgy, and the practice of using it in this way is one I learned from my friend Rabbi Megan Doherty.

In the daily amidah, the prayer which is recited standing and which is central to every Jewish service, there is a blessing which ends with the line ברוך אתה ה' מחייה המתים / baruch atah Adonai m'chayyeh ha-meitim –– "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who enlivens the dead." In modern times, some prayerbooks have amended the final word from מתים to הכל, so that it now reads "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who enlivens all things." Others amend the translation to "...Who enlivens the deadened."

Jewish teachings about resurrection, and how those ideas have shifted and changed over the last few thousand years or so, could make up their own very long post. For now, just take it as read that this phrase is part of our standard daily liturgy, and that these days it's understood in a variety of different ways. (If you're interested in learning more about Jewish ideas on death and resurrection, there's a decent overview at My Jewish Learning: Jewish Resurrection of the Dead.)

With the shifted translation -- making the bracha not about literal resurrection, per se, but about God Who brings life to that which had been deadened -- I've used this blessing sometimes over antidepressants. (See my poem Change, which appears in my second collection Waiting to Unfold.) In general I like the broader translation, and as a poet I think it's an entirely fair way to render  המתים  / hameitim. Anyway, these days I make this blessing over my first cup of morning caffeine.

Coffee

Here's the blessing most people offer.

The traditional blessing over coffee would be  שהכל נהיה בדברו / shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro – "...Who creates all things with Your word." That's the standard blessing which we recite over any food or drink which doesn't have its own blessing -- it's the catch-all for everything else. I like that blessing too. But I like doing coffee differently. It's a sweet little moment of ritual. It helps me sanctify one of the day's most mundane acts. And it reminds me to be thankful for being alive and being enlivened, every day.

 

 

Related: Morning blessings with Drew, 2013. Also, if you like the idea of prayers relating to coffee or tea, you might enjoy this pair of Caffeine (tea and coffee) Litanies I saw on Twitter recently.

 


More from Kenyon

Last night Marie Howe gave a poetry reading. I'm a longtime fan. I still remember a commencement address she gave at the Bennington Writing Seminars some years ago, and I read an excerpt from her poem "What the Living Do" every year during yizkor (memorial) services at my shul on Yom Kippur.

Her reading was lovely -- from the serious (including the aforementioned poem, of course; and she also read one of my very favorite Jane Kenyon poems ever, "Let Evening Come") to the raucously hilarious (I can't wait until that Mary Magdalene poem is published so I can point y'all to it.)

Today may be my most densely-packed day of the week. From morning meditation to teaching all morning; to an afternoon book-signing along with Marie, Rodger, and Amy Frykholm; to teaching an evening workshop; to leading the evening meditation -- it's going to be a very full day, but a sweet one.

There's much about the experience of this retreat which feels familiar to me. Being in a temporary  community of people who seek to be spiritually open is familiar to me from ALEPH. Sitting down at meal tables and talking about writing life is familiar to me from long-ago Bennington residencies.

But when I've done writing retreats in the past they've been secular, so the integration of writing and spiritual life is a new adventure. And when I've done spiritual retreats in the past they've been Jewish, so being in spiritual community also with Christians of various stripes is also a new adventure.

I'm grateful this morning for the modah ani melody running through my head; for those beloved to me who while physically distant are nonetheless in my heart; for breakfast table conversations about prayer gear and retreat centers, and for discovering more about how interconnected we all already are.


The first five gifts from Getting It... Together

The first gift of the "Getting It... Together" weekend came when I arrived in time to sit in on the last hour of a morning class. The week leading up to this celebratory weekend was "smicha students' week." The ALEPH ordination programs students, faculty, and some musmachim (alumni), have been here all week learning, praying, being together. I got to sit in on the last hour of Reb David and Reb Shohama's morning class, which meant that not only did I get to see some dear friends teach, but I also got to hear the new melody for the angel song which Shir Yaakov had written during the class. (Holy wow.)

The second gift of the weekend came during the opening program, when I got to hear our special guests -- among them Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, and Rodger Kamenetz -- offer reflections and remembrances of Reb Zalman. I particularly remember Reb Moshe making us laugh and also reminding us of Reb Zalman's profound teaching that each of us can be a rebbe -- and it's not only that we can, but that we're obligated to. And Rodger's words to Reb Zalman, spoken so sweetly, about how in Reb Zalman's voice and heart one became lebn, beloved.

We closed that program by singing again the three-part zhikr which we sang at the Remembering Reb Zalman celebration last year. The power of those melodies and words is multiplied in the experience of singing them with others to whom they have meaning. Then came the gift of evening prayer. I got to daven with two of my beloveds beside me, and others in front of me, and still others behind me -- like the angels in the angel song.  What was I just saying about the power of prayer being redoubled in the experience of singing with others to whom the words of our liturgy have meaning? That.

The fourth gift came when two of the ALEPH student hazzanim led us in the full Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals. Which we sang with all of the well-loved rigamarole, from pounding on the tables, to the silly and sweet after-joys of the niggunim which naturally follow. ("What's the fifth letter of the Hebrew alef-bet?" "HEY!" Yai, di dai, di dai, di dai dai dai di dai di dai di dai dai dai dai dai, HEY!) I rejoiced watching people who are dear to me dancing arm in arm as we sang praises. Then there were niggunim and zemirot. Shabbat melodies, sung with gusto and heart. Songs of yearning; songs of joy.

And then I retired with a few dear friends, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of fig arak and two guitars, and we sang and reminisced and sang (and sang) for another few hours. It was as though the davening had never stopped -- prayers, Hebrew songs, melodies old and new, we just kept singing. I stayed up far too late. I woke far too early. Usually I guard my sleep fiercely! But I woke with a song on my lips and in my heart, and the joy of the melody lifted me. Perhaps I have been temporarily transmuted into an angelic being who subsists not on food and sleep but on the sheer joy of togetherness and praise.

 


Prayers for the morning, part 1: Gratitude

Modeh AniAfter I posted about afternoon prayer recently, my mom wrote back to tell me that she liked the post and the prayer, and to ask whether I could share a brief morning prayer, too. It seemed likely to me that if she were interested, someone else might be too. My very favorite prayer is a morning prayer:

 

מודה אני לפניך
מלך חי וקים
שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה,
רבה אמונתך.

Modah ani l'fanecha,
melech chai v'kayam,
shehchezarta bi nishmati b'chemla,
rabbah emunatecha!

I am grateful before You,
Living and enduring God --
With mercy You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!

 

It's only one sentence, but it holds so much. "I am grateful" -- I begin the day with gratitude. "Before You" -- the reminder that even if I am feeling isolated, I am not alone. "Living and enduring God" -- I assert that I am speaking to the force which enlivens all things, and which endures forever.

"You have mercifully restored my soul to me" -- that phrase depends on the assumption that while we sleep, our souls are in God's keeping. While we sleep, our souls are sheltered and cared-for by God. When we wake, our souls return to our bodies. This prayer reminds me to notice that I am alive!

"Great is Your faithfulness"-- sometimes the last clause is my favorite part. One might imagine that emunah, faith, is something we are meant to have in God. But this prayer asserts exactly the opposite. God has faith in us. I begin my day by reminding myself that someone -- some One -- believes in me.

I put out this question to a handful of rabbi friends on Twitter, curious to know what short morning prayer they would highlight. They suggested elohai neshama, which reminds us that we wake each day with pure souls, and asher yatzar, which reminds us that our bodies are miracles.

Stay tuned for a little bit more about each of those. Meanwhile, I'd love to know (via comments on this post, or via Twitter conversation -- I'm @velveteenrabbi) your favorite morning prayer(s) and/or gratitude practice(s). What have you found to work for you, as the best way to begin your day?

 

Related:

Melodies for gratitude , 2011;

On gratitude and thanks, 2013;

Privilege, prayer, parenthood, 2014.

 

Image source: Esther Zibell.


Praise psalm for spring sunrise

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For the sunrise at seven this morning
for our son bounding into the bedroom

for Mommy look at the sunrise
come see the beautiful sunrise

for the sleep I rubbed from my eyes
and the slumber from my eyelids

for my dry throat croaking of course I do
for the pastel sweep of pink and orange

every bougainvillea bloom in the world
piled up across the horizon

for it's pink! it's orange and pink!
although a few minutes later

he said aww, now the orange is all gone
and I said that's why I'm so glad

you woke me at exactly this moment --
Halleluyah.

 


Earlier this week I taught a short psalm-writing workshop at Congregation Beth Israel as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. One of the things we did during that workshop was cultivate material we could use in writing our own psalms of gratitude and thanksgiving. Then we took some time to write together. Here's what I wrote.


Gratitude for my body

I sat down this morning wanting to do some writing, and when I let my mind clear, what emerged was this subject. Even as I was writing this post, I had the sneaking feeling I had written something similar before -- but I intentionally didn't seek out that older post until I had finished drafting this one. It turns out that I've written almost this exact post before -- two years ago in deep midwinter, just like now. Apparently this is stuff I think about a lot, maybe especially at this time of year.

 

13058I don't manage to say 100 blessings every day. Actually, I'm not certain of that; it's not as though I'm keeping score, making a note on my phone every time I remember to bless. There may in fact be days when I organically offer a hundred moments of gratitude to God. But I suspect that most days my count is lower than that. Still, one blessing I offer every day is the asher yatzar. Here's how it goes:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being; You formed the human body with wisdom, and placed within it many openings and closings. It is known before Your throne of glory that if one of these were to be opened where it should be closed, or closed where it should be opened, we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise. Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

I first became conscious of this blessing as a practice because it was printed on laminated posters which hung just outside the bathrooms at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York. The words were there as a reminder to us that in Jewish tradition, even the act of elimination can be sanctified with words of blessing. I'm pretty certain that when I first encountered it I was charmed by the fact that we have blessings for pretty much everything. But I know it didn't really hit home for me then.

The blessing made a whole new kind of sense to me once I landed in the hospital with that second stroke. It is known that if one of these were to be closed where it should be opened... if a blood clot, for instance, should travel to the brain and block the flow of blood where it is needed... I would be unable to stand before You, indeed. My own brushes with illness have brought this truth home for me in a new way. And although I am (thank God) healthy and hearty now, the blessing's truth remains.

The truth is, having a body which more or less works most of the time is a flat-out miracle. Most of us don't tend to think of it that way, because it's incredibly difficult to live in the world while also feeling genuine wonder at every single miracle which occurs. My heart is beating: that's amazing! Hey, it's still beating: amazing! My kidneys are filtering my blood without my conscious control: amazing! No one can live with that awareness all the time. But our lack of awareness doesn't negate the miracle.

When I became pregnant I started experiencing the blessing in yet another way. Because I was a stroke survivor, and pregnancy increases the risk of stroke, I needed to inject myself with blood thinner every day. I am one of those people who shies away from needles even at the safe distance of seeing them on tv, so I was anxious about having to begin every day with an injection. So I developed the practice of reciting the asher yatzar while administering the blood thinner each morning.

Pregnancy also offered me new opportunities to marvel at the things my body does without my conscious intervention. Not only does my heart continue to beat, not only do my organs continue to do all of the things they're meant to do, but somehow my body knew how to grow a human being. I certainly wasn't driving that bus. My body knew what it was doing without me needing to be in charge. My body knew how to grow and change in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.

And then our son was born, and the injections ended, and my relationship with my body went through a rollercoaster of changes: wonder that I had grown a human being from component cells, amazement that my body could produce the nourishment he needed, and then exhaustion and postpartum depression which deadened me to the wonder of my body (and of anything else.) I think there was a period of time when I wasn't saying many blessings for anything at all, my body included.

These days I silently recite the blessing every morning while I'm doing the incredibly mundane task of moisturizing my skin. This is a kind of routine wintertime maintenance for me. Between the cold dry air outside and the heated air indoors my skin gets dry and itchy at this time of year. It's a minor affliction, and it can be averted with a little bit of lotion. I try to use the moisturizing time to cultivate gratitude for my body. And as soon as I reach for the lotion, the blessing pops into my head.

Along with the words comes a melody. I sing them silently to myself using the trope, the melody-system, for Song of Songs. In rabbinic school I learned to use that melody for the sheva brachot, the seven blessings at the heart of every Jewish wedding. (I think that's a beautiful tradition. It makes sense that we would sing wedding blessings using the melody-system designed for Tanakh's great love-text.) So if it's a melody I associate with wedding blessings, why am I humming it to myself?

Because one of those seven blessings begins with the same words as the asher yatzar blessing -- "Blessed are You Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who creates the human being..." The wedding blessing goes on from there in a different direction, but because I have sung those words so frequently to this melody, the melody and the words have become intertwined. So when I am reciting the asher yatzar blessing to myself in the morning, that's the melody which arises.

I love praying the asher yatzar blessing to this melody because it makes the prayer feel like a love song both to my body, flawed and imperfect as it is, and to the One Who creates me anew in every moment. Singing a love song to my body isn't always easy. I know I'm not alone in looking in the mirror and seeing everything I like least about this physical form. But this blessing reminds me to look beyond those things to the miracle which underlies them. My heart is beating: that's amazing!

I can't live in constant awareness of these miracles. But if saying the blessing every day offers me an opportunity to glimpse the wonder again for a moment, that feels like enough.

 

Related:

Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

A daily love song to my body, 2013

 


Midwinter means

Midwinter means a world of white outside my window. Fine lines of white limn every branch and twig. The distant hills vanish beneath a scrim of snow.

Midwinter means fragrant clementines like tiny hand-held suns. When I puncture the peel with my thumbnail, the cat gives me a reproachful look and leaps off of my desk.

Midwinter means listening to Värttinä in the car. I don't speak a word of Finnish but their music comes from long nights and crisp snow.

Midwinter means the decadent pleasure of hand lotion and lip balm softening my thirsty skin.

Midwinter means the pleasure of watching juncos and chickadees flitting to and from the birdfeeder on the deck. From feeder to railing to roof and back again.

Midwinter means a dozen kinds of hot tea, usually with milk. Black tea with apricot. Earl Grey in all of its variations. Chai. But green tea with toasted rice, I drink plain.

Midwinter means the eye takes a keen pleasure in vivid colors against the white and brown and grey of snow and trunk and slush. Red boots, purple coat.

Midwinter means I scatter crumpled tissues like misshapen snowballs everywhere I go.

Midwinter means the repetitive rhythm of wrapping paper, fold and crease and tape in place.

Midwinter means last summer's wood burning bright, a stand-in for the sun which will always return.


Gratitude, Thanksgiving, and the golden land

 

Image removed: a still from "This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers," 1973. (Removed because a reader observed that it perpetuates the very negative stereotypes which I had intended for this post to call into question. My apologies for causing hurt or offense.)


Today we remember a long-ago feast of gratitude. Perhaps that feast was held by Pilgrims along with their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped the colonists survive the hardships of a brutal winter marked by sickness and loss (which had come after a difficult transatlantic crossing). Now there was a good harvest and sense of plenitude. (See Thanksgiving History | Plimoth Plantation.) That's more or less how the story unfolds on the Peanuts "This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers" special, and if Charles Schulz illustrated it, it must be true, right? (Hint: depends on who you ask.)

As a Jew I've always felt some identification with the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution and set off for a land where they could worship as they chose in peace. The same was true of both of my sets of grandparents during the 20th century. For many Eastern European Jews America was the Goldene Medina, the golden land of opportunity where all were equal and where religious freedom was guaranteed. In America anyone could get ahead if only they were willing to work hard. Something in me will always resonate with this vision of the United States as a place of equality and freedom.

Of course, the Pilgrims' arrival here was the beginning of an era of European colonization which left this land's Native inhabitants disenfranchised. That complicates the religious freedom narrative a bit.  European religious freedom and expansion came at a high cost. Between European notions of land ownership and that era's triumphalist sensibilities -- not to mention "manifest destiny," the establishments of Indian reservations, and the import of smallpox and other European diseases --  the colonists set in motion a paradigm shift which would badly damage the fabric of Native life.

The tale of the First Thanksgiving may be biased mythologizing. And the fantasy of an America entirely free from prejudice, where anyone could "bootstrap" their way to prosperity, turns out to be not exactly the whole truth either. Both that classic Jewish immigrant story, and the Thanksgiving story as I learned it when I was a kid, are sanitized and rosy-hued. Intellectually I know that there is more to both of those realities than the neat narratives can explain. And yet there's something about these stories which is still compelling for me, even though I know they're not the whole truth.

What do these tales do for us? What purpose do they serve in our psychospiritual lives? I think the persistence of these stories shows us something about how we want to see ourselves and our nation. I think both stories encode a yearning for a home where harvests are plentiful, gratitude is free-flowing, and opportunities abound. They can teach us something real and true -- not about the way things were or are, necessarily, but about the way we wish things were.

In Jewish tradition we say that Shabbat offers us a taste of the world to come. When we tell these old stories about America as a haven of perfect equality and freedom, about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down in harmony, about a place of opportunity where a Jew can aspire even to the highest office in the land, I think we're seeking that same kind of taste of what it would be like for our nation to live up to our holiest ideals. Maybe today we celebrate the abundance, freedom, and thankfulness which characterize the America of our deepest hopes.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate.

 


A psalm of gratitude for walking by the water


SEASIDE PSALM


For the asphalt which received my blue sandals.
For the homeowner who planted two palms
    and a banana tree despite the latitude.
For the piles of broken seashells
    at the base of the mailbox.

For robins puffing out their medaled chests
    on manicured lawns
for the impromptu composition of birds
    marking a melody on telephone wires
for the tabby cat resting beneath a rhododendron.

For sky blue as a freshly-pressed shirt
and Long Island Sound glinting in the sun.
For the homeowner's association
    which allows pedestrian acess to land's edge.
For water splashing joyfully on the rocks.

For the smooth wooden bench of the gazebo
and the smell of salt in the air.
Even if my fingers tapped on my keyboard
    the infinite clatter of pebbles dragged by the sea
    I couldn't type enough of a thank you.


When I taught the master class on spiritual writing on City Island a few days ago, I asked everyone to write a paragraph about something for which they are grateful, using as many details and sensory descriptions as possible. Later in the morning, after many conversations about psalms and poems and words for God, we took fifteen minutes to draft psalms of gratitude, drawing on the raw material from the earlier generative exercise. I did the exercise and drafted a psalm along with everyone else. Here's what I wrote.


The scent of memory

Lilac+bushI'd never encountered lilacs until the end of my first year of college. That was my first year living in New England, and my first Berkshire spring. Suddenly, as exams approached and the end of the year loomed, the tall bushes alongside the President's house and all around town sprouted flowers, and their fragrance was unbelievably beautiful. I remember my then-boyfriend picking sprays of lilac and bringing them to me in my dorm room. (That boyfriend has now been my spouse for almost sixteen years.)

I loved the lilacs' color palette of white and pale lavendar and deep purple. I loved the way they transformed otherwise ordinary greenery into a profusion of color. The color of lilacs reminded me of mountain laurels, which bloomed all around my childhood house in San Antonio in the spring; the scent reminded me of wisteria. But lilacs aren't quite either of those things. They are deeply, unmistakeably, themselves. I will always associate them with spring in the Berkshires when/where they and I first met.

(Alas, no one has developed a way to share scent through the internet. So unless you know the scent of lilacs and can hyperlink yourself to that memory, I can't share it with you, though I wish I could.)

This morning as I exited my car and made my way to Tunnel City Coffee for Torah study with the local Jewish clergy, the scent of lilacs caught me by surprise and quite literally stopped me in my tracks. I looked over and saw that the tall lilac bushes alongside the parking lot have, since last week, exploded like fireworks into a wild riot of lilac blossoms. I stood there and just breathed for a few moments, drawing their scent deep into my lungs, reawakening the neurons which called forth all of my lilac memories.

Now that I've lived here for many years, the season of lilacs carries other associations -- not so much the end of the school year (though the coffee shop this morning was packed with students frantically preparing for exams) as the long-awaited coming of green to our hillsides, the counting of the Omer and eager anticipation of Shavuot, the time when the forsythia bushes are shedding their yellow blossoms in favor of new leaves, the cusp of what will become summertime but isn't quite there yet.

I recited the blessing over blooming trees with our son some time ago. (Well -- we said the blessing after a fashion, in our own way.) But this morning as I scented the lilacs on the breeze, I said a shehecheyanu, the blessing sanctifying time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has kept me alive, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment! And then I went on my way... but I will carry the scent of lilacs with me through my day, with gratitude and with a smile.


Thank you, God, for the flowers on the trees

Tree-blossoms-pink-spring-flowering-trees-baslee-troutman-baslee-troutman-fine-art-printsOur son has been really excited about the slow unfolding of spring. Never mind that it's been in the forties and raining. Ever the optimist, he asks every morning if today's the day he can wear short sleeves. He literally jumps for joy at the sight of daffodils. And today we glimpsed the year's first blooming tree.

"Look," I said, pointing out the car window, "that tree's starting to bloom!"

"What does bloom mean?" he asked.

"Bloom means flower," I told him. "That tree is going to have flowers." I spotted another one. "And that one, too!"

"Wow! I didn't know that! I thought flowers grow on the ground."

"They do," I agreed, "and also, some kinds of trees have flowers in the spring. Actually, there's a special blessing to say when you first see trees blooming," I told him. "Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam --"

And then I faltered. I haven't said the blessing over blooming trees since last spring; I couldn't remember exactly how it went. "And then you thank God for making the beautiful trees and their flowers and everything in the world," I concluded.

"I can't say all of that," he told me primly. I guess even in English, that's a mouthful.

"You could just say thank you for the trees and their flowers," I suggested.

"Thank you God for the flowers on the trees!" he crowed, satisfied. And then he had an idea. "When it's Friday night we could say 'Shabbat shalom, trees!'"

"We could," I agreed. Thank You, God, for this kid, I thought, as we drove on.

 

(You can find the blessing for blooming trees, along with some commentary, here: The Annual Blessing Over Trees.)


A short teaching from Reb Zalman on how prayer can change our minds

Prayer"There is a mantra in our heads which says to us that we are no good and we need to change."

"Like erasing a tape by using a high pitched sound, beyond audibility, which then allows the new stuff to be recorded, we need a newer, more positive mantra so that we can change how we think about ourselves."

"This is what davvenen / prayer is for."

-- Reb Zalman, in A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation
(available as a pdf download from the ALEPH Canada store.)

 

"There is a mantra in our heads which says to us that we are no good." Who among us hasn't heard that voice? Sometimes I associate that voice with the voice our sages called the yetzer ha-ra, the "bad inclination."

In the traditional understanding, each of us has a good inclination and a bad inclination. For our sages the bad inclination and the good inclination are always inevitably bound up together. We need both of them. (There's a great midrash about how the rabbis once managed to imprison the yetzer ha-ra and for three days, until it was freed, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Without the tension between our impulses, between good and bad, there's no fruitfulness, no generativity.) But one of the ways I've experienced my own yetzer ha-ra is as the voice of excessive internal critique.

Sometimes that critique is productive and nudges me to do better, in which case I should listen to it. Other times it just makes me feel lousy, in which case I should ignore it. The challenge is discerning which times are which! I remember talking in rabbinic school with my friend (now Rabbi) Simcha Daniel Burstyn about how the yetzer ha-ra is the voice which whispers to us that we don't have time to daven properly, with full intention, so we might as well not even try. It makes the perfect into the enemy of the good. The way to triumph over it is to plough ahead and engage in our practice, even if we know we're not going to do it with perfect full heart and perfect focus and perfect everything. Even if we know we aren't going to be perfect.

We were talking about davenen, but it could as easily apply to other practices: meditation, yoga, exercise, volunteer work, spending time with one's family. It's so easy to slip into feeling as though, if we can't do something 100% the way we wish we could, then we might as well not try. I still work at noticing that pattern; recognizing it for what it is, without judgement; and then letting it go. Maybe this is why I gravitate toward Reb Zalman's idea that the tape of negativity can be erased (or at least mitigated) through the use of a new mantra which will overwrite the old one -- and that davenen, prayer, is our tradition's primary tool for doing that work.

Davenen is a Yiddish word. In Hebrew, we have two words which mean prayer. One of them is avodah, service. The priests of old performed the service of the sacrifices; in our day we engage in avodah she-ba-lev, the service of the heart, when we offer up our words. And the other word is tefilah, which comes from l'hitpallel, which means to discern or to judge. When we pray, we serve something greater than ourselves; we reaffirm for ourselves that we did not create everything around us, that we are not the center of the universe, that there are reasons to offer thanks and praise. And through our practice of prayer, we can discern things about ourselves. What speaks to you in a particular prayer today may not speak to you next week. There will be days when the prayers feel alive and sparkling, and days when they feel rote. The words don't change, but we do.

And our practices change as our lives do. (See This is spiritual life, 2011, and especially Prayer life changes, 2010.) For me it was becoming a parent which led to that realization. My prayer life couldn't be what it was before I had a child. I was too taken-up with the details of childcare, physically and emotionally. But I learned that my prayer life could be something different, something equally beautiful and meaningful, when I embraced the kinds of praying I was uniquely able to do at that moment in my life. For others, this realization might arise because of a job change -- a move to a new place -- an unexpected illness -- any of life's curveballs. One of the hidden upsides of trying to daven with a newborn was that I figured out pretty quickly which prayers were essential to me, which prayers I absolutely had to find a way to say.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that I am healthier and happier when I articulate gratitude every morning (via modah ani and other gratitude practices), and when I pause to forgive everyone who's hurt me that day as I approach sleep (via the bedtime shema and the forgiveness prayer I so love.) The corollary which I've also learned, to my chagrin, is that when I'm in a tough emotional or spiritual place, I have trouble doing those very things. Or, perhaps it works the other way -- that when I can't access gratitude and forgiveness, that's a signal to me that something is awry and requires tending and care. Being attuned to my prayer life, and its ebbs and flows, helps me stay attuned to my own internal landscape. This is how I understand the the definitions of the verb l'hitpallel, to pray/to discern/to judge -- when I make time for prayer, I'm able to discern what's happening in my interior life.

In that same section of this booklet, Reb Zalman writes:

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav has this wonderful teaching. He says that if I want to undertake to do something good, like I want to learn, then the best way to help myself get started is to spend some time imagining what it feels like to learn.

I love this little teaching, too. If I want to experience gratitude, I can spend some time imagining what it would feel like to get there. If I want to pray with my whole heart, I can spend some time imagining what it would feel like to do that. The imagining becomes a kind of mental road map. If I've "been there before," even only in imagination, that can help me get there again.

One of the great gifts for me of being a working rabbi is that one component of my job is leading davenen. When I lead services, I have an opportunity to recite (and hopefully to feel and to mean) some of the prayers I need to be saying. But on days when I'm not leading others in prayer, my own prayer life varies wildly. Although our son is now four, it's still rare for me to give myself the spaciousness to spend a long time in solo prayer (much less to daven in community) unless I'm on retreat. But there are a few prayers I try to say every day. And sometimes when I'm driving I'll quietly sing as much of the evening service as I know by heart, harmonizing weekday nusach with the tone created by the wheels of the car.

Here's something else that strikes me about this short teaching from Reb Zalman. He says prayer is the practice designed to help us overwrite the voice in our heads -- the one which says "we're no good," and the one which says "we have to change." I think that he means both clauses. Not only the "we're no good" part, but also the "we have to change" part. Maybe practicing prayer can help us not only to discern who we most deeply are, but also to recognize that in our deepest selves, we don't need to change -- we're wonderful already, imperfections and all, just the way we are.

 

Photo source: my flickr photostream.


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" »


In advance of Thanksgivukkah

Thanksgiving (and Chanukah) (and Thanksgivukkah) are almost upon us! In light of that, here's a revised version of the blessing before the Thanksgiving meal which I first posted last year.

 

A Prayer Before the Thanksgiving Meal

We thank You for this meal
and for all arrayed around this table;
for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth;
for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care;
for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves;
for the ones who cooked what we eat today
and those whom we remember as we dine.
Help us to receive this meal as a gift
and to offer gratitude in return.
May the abundance which we enjoy
spur us to care for those who need.
Blessed are You, Source of all being,
Whose abundance is manifest on this Thanksgiving day.

 

If you're looking for a prayer which is specific to this unique confluence of holidays, Rabbi Jason Miller has written a lovely Prayer for Thanksgivukkah. Edited to add: here are several prayers for Thanksgivukkah, written by a variety of different rabbis, at HuffingtonPost; I really like Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's.)

(And allow me to point to one more post about the confluence: Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan's Thanksgivukkah: The True History.)

And speaking of the confluence of holidays, much has been made of the notion that this won't happen again for thousands of years. But Rabbi David Seidenberg makes a compelling case for why Thanksgivukkah will happen again in 2070 -- and offers the beautiful suggestion that on this Thanksgivukkah, we bless our children or grandchildren who we hope will live to see that next Thanksgivukkah.