Stop hiding: let yourself go free

_91021013_thinkstockphotos-517519673The festival of Purim (coming up this Saturday) is a holiday of concealment. At Purim we read the Scroll of Esther, a delightfully bawdy Persian court soap opera which doesn't appear, at first glance, to have much to do with spiritual life or with God. Jewish tradition doesn't shy away from this oddity -- we embrace it and find meaning in it.

The quintessential act of Purim is להתחפש, a reflexive verb which means to dress oneself up or to conceal oneself. We do this when we dress up in costumes on Purim. Esther does this when she hides her Jewishness (until the moment comes for her to reveal herself and in so doing save the day). God does this in concealing God's-self entirely; God is never even mentioned in the megillah (though to the discerning eye God's presence may be subtly manifest even so.)

Purim is about the self-reflexive act of hiding. But what happens when we shift that verb and make it no longer reflexive? We get the verb לחפש - to search. And searching is one of the quintessential moves we make before Pesach. On the night before Passover begins, there's a tradition of lighting a candle and searching our homes for "hidden" hametz (leaven), a physical hide-and-seek game that represents a deeper inner searching. We read in the book of Proverbs (20:27) that our own souls are God's candle -- just as we search for hidden leaven by the light of a physical candle, God uses our souls as candles to illuminate all that's hidden in the world.

When we search for hametz, we're not just looking for bread crusts. We're also seeking spiritual leaven, the puffery of pride and ego, the sour old stuff within us which needs to be discarded in order for us to move toward freedom.

The shift from להתחפש to לחפש, from concealment to searching, is the fundamental move we're called to make as spring unfolds, as we move from Purim (festival of masks and concealment) to Passover (festival of searching and liberation). At Purim, we may be hiding -- from others, and even from ourselves. Maybe it feels dangerous to let ourselves be known. Maybe there are truths we don't want to admit. Maybe we think there are parts of ourselves we have to hide in order to move freely in the world. Maybe we think we are better off if we conceal the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or the parts of ourselves which don't meet others' expectations.

But in order to move toward freedom, we have to turn the reflexive verb outward: we have to move from hiding (from) ourselves to searching for what's been hidden. If God hides in order that we might seek, then it stands to reason that so do we. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden from the world. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden even from ourselves. The hopes and yearnings that we've tried to keep under wraps, the sorrows and fears that we've tried to hide, from others and from ourselves.

May we do that unearthing through therapy, or hashpa'ah (spiritual direction), or a writing practice, or a prayer practice. Maybe we do that unearthing through conversations with a trusted friend who can help us see ourselves more clearly than we could see on our own. Maybe we do that unearthing through studying texts and delving into the passages that resonate with us. There are many ways to do the work of searching for who we really are. What's important is that we light the candle and we do the searching. Passover will come in the fullness of time no matter what, but the journey of the Exodus will mean more if we're willing to do this inner work.

The hametz we need to root out is not our imperfections (because everyone is imperfect) but the way we try to hide our imperfections, the way we shame ourselves for our imperfections. The internal narrative which says that we are only lovable, or only worthwhile, if we keep parts of ourselves -- our quirks, our mistakes, our tenderest places -- hidden. The need to conceal oneself can become a kind of Mitzrayim, a place of constriction. In order to emerge from the tight places in our lives, we need to stop hiding. We need to move from concealing ourselves to searching for ourselves in order to let ourselves go free.

And the journey takes us one step further. We move from concealment (Purim) to searching (Pesach) to revelation (Shavuot.) Purim's reflexivity primes that pump: first we own (and prepare to relinquish) our own hiding. Then we search for our deepest truths and begin to experience the freedom of wholly being who we truly are. Only then can we be ready to receive revelation anew. The journey to revelation begins right now. The places where we've hidden our hearts from others or from ourselves aren't impediments to the journey: they are the spark that will ignite the inner spiritual journey of our transformation.


 Dedicated to Rabbi David Evan Markus, from whom I learned this teaching.

Image: hide-and-seek, from the BBC.

Our spiritual work is our life as it is

Here-and-now_0"I would be more spiritual if my circumstances were more perfect."

That's the "first illusion" cited by Ward Bauman in "Letting God be God," an article in Presence about lessons learned from Meister Eckhart.  (And wow, is it a familiar illusion to me!) Bauman writes:

Meister Eckhart is emphatic that our spiritual work begins where we are right now, because God is in our circumstances as they are....

Eckhart goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to spiritual work. The sense that there might be perfect circumstances that would allow us to be more spiritual is simply an illusion. We cannot escape our circumstances for some better or more spiritual condition. Our spirituality is never dependent upon the exterior conditions but rather upon the inner condition of our heart....

Our spiritual work is our life as it is.

I read the article while sitting with my sick kid who was curled up on the couch watching cartoons and found it surprisingly relevant. I know that Meister Eckhart was a Christian monastic. Rearing children was not part of his life's work or his spiritual practice. But his point that "our spiritual work is our life as it is" can be a deep teaching about spiritual life and parenthood.

There's a temptation to imagine that if I hadn't been home with my sick kid, I might have done something lofty and "spiritual" with my day. But I know that in truth, spiritual elevation arises in the attention and intention I bring to whatever is at hand. That's true whether I'm leading my community in prayer, or checking my son's temperature for the umpteenth time today.

The struggle to remember that spiritual life is "our life as it is" (not as we imagine it could or should be) isn't limited only to those who are rearing young children. Anything can feed the illusion that if only my circumstances were more ideal I would lead a "more spiritual" life. If only I had the perfect job, or if only my relationships were in better order, or if only life were different.

"If only I could afford to hire a cleaning service, I would spend more time praying" -- so goes the fantasy, anyway. But the real work is what my Hasidic forebears call avodah b'gashmiut, "service in / through corporeality." Can I find God's presence even in cleaning my house or tending my kid? Can I remember that spiritual life is always and only ever right here, right now ? 

The place to encounter God's presence is this place. The time to open to God's presence is this time. Not the imagined place-and-time when all the obligations will be taken-care-of, when all the tangles will be untied, when all the obstacles will be surmounted. The "obstacles" themselves are opportunities to search for meaning, to open to something greater than myself.

As this week's Torah portion reminds us, God can be in this very place! It was true for Jacob who dreamed of a ladder linking heaven and earth, and it is true for me in my living room with the LEGOs and the in-ear thermometer and the kids' Motrin. My circumstances will never be perfect, and neither will I. The work of spiritual life is finding holiness in the here and now.

Writing one's own deathbed prayer

It's a strange experience, writing one's own deathbed prayer.

The vidui is the confessional prayer which some recite every night before sleep, and some recite every weekday / non-festival morning during tachanun (the penitential prayers), and some recite every month during Yom Kippur Katan (the "little Day of Atonement" which precedes new moon), and some recite every year on Yom Kippur, and some recite before death. (I blogged about this, and especially about the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, earlier this fall: the vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.)

The daily variant, the Yom Kippur variant, and the deathbed variant are slightly different -- but only slightly. In each of these, we reach out to God (whatever we understand that term to mean) and we ask forgiveness for our misdeeds and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, so that the karmic baggage of our actions won't follow us into the world to come.

There are classical texts for the deathbed vidui, and they are lovely. Here's one (from the Reform Rabbis' handbook:)

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to and end, let me die, I pray, at peace. If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven. Protector of bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

But nothing says that one has to use the traditional text. So as part of the Sage-ing class I'm taking (in my final months of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah / Spiritual Direction program), I've been charged with writing my own vidui. My own deathbed confession. The prayer I imagine saying to God as I prepare myself to die.

On the one hand there's something more than a little surreal about this. I don't expect death to be coming for me soon; how can I honestly write a deathbed prayer when I have no intention of dying in the next several decades at least? But on the proverbial other hand, there's no telling when death will knock on one's door. We read in the Babylonian Talmud that Rabbi Eliezer declared: "Repent one day before your death," whereupon his disciples asked: How does one know which day that is? "Exactly," answered the sage. "For that reason, we ought to live our lives each day as though it were our last."

Writing one's own vidui is a way of following Rabbi Eliezer's advice, a way of making teshuvah (repetance / returning-to-God) one day before my death. And if I do not die tomorrow, as I sincerely hope not to do, then tomorrow I will be tasked with making teshuvah again. And again. And again. Preparing for dying in this way, I think, is really a way of choosing how to live.

So I've drafted my vidui. Per my teachers' suggestions, I will keep it, and will aim to update it over the years as needed and as my life changes. In it, I address God in the ways which are most meaningful for me; I thank God for my life and my relationships; I ask forgiveness for the places where I have missed the mark, and express my intention to let go of my regrets so that they will not encumber me wherever I am going. I close by asking God to help me release this life and to help me through the contractions of the dying process, contractions which will release me into something I cannot now imagine, something none of us can know.

Writing it was a powerful experience for me. Imagining reading it at my own death, or perhaps hearing it read by a loved one if I am not able to read it myself, is equally powerful. What an amazing meditation.

This is part of what I'm finding most meaningful about the Sage-ing work I am beginning to learn to do: the way it takes the daily and weekly and monthly and annual cycles of teshuvah and stretches them to span an entire lifetime. Over the course of my whole life, what will sustain me? Where will I miss the mark? What will I need to forgive, and for what will I hope that others can forgive me? How will I want to take my leave of the life that I have known?

How do I want to be remembered?

This morning I wrote my own obituary. It was homework for the Sage-ing class I'm taking during this final semester of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) program. And wow, was it a fascinating experience.

Writing the story of my life to date, in condensed but meaningful form, was thought-provoking. What are the details I would want to share about my growing-up, about my formative relationships, about my childhood and my college years and my journey into poetry and the rabbinate?

Then, of course, the obit became more of a "here's what I hope the rest of my life might look like." I hope to live for many more decades; I'm only 36. So I spun out a fantasy of what the next fifty or sixty years might hold for me, and then wrote about it in the past tense, as though it had happened exactly the way I'm imagining.

If, God willing, I live into my nineties, how would I want to be able to describe my life? How would I want to be able to describe my relationships, my work, my impact on the world? How do I want to be remembered?

It's an amazing spiritual exercise. And, not for the first time, I'm struck by the additional power this class has for me because I'm taking it during a fall semester, as the Days of Awe approach. We're well into the month of Elul, the month which offers the opportunity for reflection and discernment before the New Year comes.

This obituary exercise is a powerful thing to do just before the Days of Awe. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Everyday I write the book) teaches us that God opens the book of memory, which reads from itself, as each of us has signed our name through our deeds. What are the actions which I've recorded in the book of memory this year? Who am I, and what do I want my time on this earth to be?

Before you ask: sorry, but I'm not going to share that obituary here! The part which describes the life I haven't yet had feels too personal and revelatory. (Besides, I don't want my advance obituary to show up as a google search result.) I am saving it on my computer, though. Maybe I'll take the time to revise it over the years to come as my life unfolds. If nothing else, someday it will give my descendants a glimpse of how I saw myself while I was still here.

This is spiritual life

On the first day of the hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training program which I began in early 2009, my spiritual director described what her spiritual practices had been like before she had children, and then she talked about how her spiritual life inevitably changed once her kids came on the scene. She was clear that spiritual life does continue; but she noted that it may need to take different forms than it did before. (She said other things too, but that was what really struck me. I was newly-pregnant then, and did not know that I would miscarry a few days later, so I was hyperconscious of everything having to do with prospecive parenthood.)

I remember hearing similar stories from Reb Marcia, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program. At one point during DLTI, she reminisced to us about davening while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her kids to take to school and about singing along with a recording of the morning liturgy in the car. She told us those stories by way of encouraging us to get Hazzan Jack's Learn to Daven! cd and to listen to it often -- and she's right; it's a great way to become comfortable with the full text of the classical morning service -- but I think of her exhortation often now when I daven along with Reb Shawn Zevit's Morning I Will Seek You in the car on the way to daycare.

It's easy to think of spiritual practice as something we do when we can dedicate space and time away from our "regular lives." If I could just get on top of my to-do list, then I could make time to pray. If I didn't have dishes to wash, laundry to fold, thankyou notes to write, a desk to tidy, bills to pay, emails to return, blog comments to moderate.

But all of life can be spiritual life. I can begin my day with modah ani; I can say the blessing sanctifying the body as I moisturize my skin in the morning, or as I use the bathroom, or as I change diapers; when I see my son beginning to walk, I can follow the morning liturgy in thanking God Who makes firm our steps.

There's no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly -- as delicious as that is! Those of us who've had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn't "who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer" -- it's "who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?"

There's never enough time to get wholly on top of the to-do list. (If nothing else, cooking/dishes and laundry are self-generating tasks: cook one meal and eat it, and the next day you're still going to be hungry again.) The time to study a little Torah, or to pray, or to meditate, can't be "when everything else is done" -- because everything else is never done. Besides: Torah, prayer, self-care are important. More important, maybe, than the other things on our to-do lists a lot of the time...though most of us don't inhabit a paradigm where that perspective is commonly shared.

The real challenge of spiritual life -- for me right now, anyway -- is remembering that all of life is spiritual life. As I drive wherever I'm going, God is all around me. God is manifest in the people standing in the grocery check-out line or on the airplane jetway. Every step I take is an opportunity to be mindful of one foot, and then the next; every breath I take is an opportunity to inhale God in, and exhale God out. Spiritual practice doesn't just have to mean meditation, or yoga, or enfolding myself in tefillin and tallit and spending quality time with the siddur. Washing dishes can be a spiritual practice. Babyminding can be a spiritual practice. Self-care can be a spiritual practice.

There's a Hasidic idea of avodah b'gashmiut, service or worship through corporeality, which I love (and which I've blogged about before.) That idea goes like this: physicality, the mundane world in which we all operate, isn't an obstacle to connecting with God -- it's the very vehicle through which we can have that connection. Tending our bodies, tending our children, eating food and clearing the table: all of these are opportunities for spiritual connection. In Hasidic language, the task is one of "elevating the sparks" -- finding the holiness latent in each of these things, and lifting it up to heaven.

Every day is full of sparks waiting to be lifted up. Whatever you're doing right now can be part of your spiritual life too.

Spiritual direction from both sides now

This month I begin seeing spiritual direction clients -- a.k.a. "directees" or, in Hebrew, mushpa'ot. (The name for a spiritual director in Hebrew is mashpi'ah; the two words share the root שפע which denotes divine abundance or flow.) As I've mentioned this milestone to people in my life, many have asked, "what exactly is spiritual direction?" And I've thought: aha! A blog post is in order!

Spiritual direction is a relationship, a process through which one person helps another discern the presence of the sacred in their life. This discipline exists in many religious traditions (I know, for instance, that Jesuit priests in formation are required to be in spiritual direction -- as are ALEPH rabbinic students.) In my corner of the Jewish world, this relationship is called hashpa'ah (which, again, derives from the root meaning abundant flow from God.) In the words of my training program, "Hashpa'ah is the traditional term for the relationship with a spiritual director or mashpia who offers guidance and teaching on matters of Jewish faith and practice, and on a personal relationship with the Divine."

(As the wikipedia entry on spiritual direction notes, this Hebrew term is common in the Chabad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. Among Orthodox Jews who come from the less mystical and more rationalist end of the spectrum, a spiritual director is more likely to be called mashgiach ruchani. A mashgiach is someone who advises on the kashrut of a kitchen, and a "mashgiakh ruchani" is someone who advises on the spiritual lives of others.) In English, the name for this process or relationship is spiritual direction.

A variety of answers to the question "what is spiritual direction" can be found here at Spiritual Directors International. Among those answers, my favorites are Liz Bud Ellman's assertion that "Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday" and James Keegan's assertion that "Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment."

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Our first four days of hashpa'ah

My small stone heart. Apologies for the blurry cameraphone picture.

The first intensive of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah program will end tomorrow at 2pm, just in time for the Shabbaton to begin around 4. I've been trying to figure out whether/how I can write about the hashpa'ah intensive; it's been an amazing few days, but I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to describe.

I can tell you that there are nineteen of us in the program: some rabbis, some rabbinic pastors, the rest student clergy like me. I can tell you that we've been meeting at the Solstice Center, a ten-block walk from the Boulderado, in a carpeted room with a big round skylight. That our group includes half a dozen people from my DLTI cohort, as well as several other people I already knew, so walking in for the first time already felt like coming home.

Our faculty this week has included two rabbis and a psychotherapist, each of whom has spoken at length about how she came to be a spiritual director and about how she does the work of spiritual direction. We've experienced some amazing davenen with fundamental principles of hashpa'ah woven in: holy listening, speaking directly to/from the heart, sacred silence. We've done some powerful work in hevruta, delving into our spiritual autobiographies and exploring what called us to this work. Today we attempted our first sessions of hashpa'ah, and then talked about what worked and what didn't and where we tripped ourselves up and where we feel like we actually connected with the presence of God.

But all of this feels like I'm talking around what we've been doing, not about it. The truth of the matter is, most of what we've been doing has been personal and spiritual and kind of tough to verbalize. The internal work is (and needs to be) confidential; the "professional development" piece isn't all that blogworthy without the emotional and spiritual underpinnings which I either can't discuss without breaking confidentiality, or can't figure out how to describe without sounding purple and overblown.

It's been a really good intensive so far, though. I'm getting a lot out of it, and I think that spiritual direction work will be a meaningful piece of my rabbinate. I'm looking forward to our spring semester (we'll fill two sections of a telecourse called "Issues in Hashpa'ah," so I'll get to hear at least half of my classmates' voices on a weekly basis) and to the summer intensive. Based on my experiences with DLTI, I'm guessing that week two will quickly become even more intense than week one because we'll have all of this week's relationships and experiences to build on.

For now, I'm looking forward to our last session in the morning -- and to seeing how the learning we've done over these incredibly dense four days will percolate in me and through me in months to come.


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Middot through text and practice

"Stand where you are and serve in love: refining our middot through text and practice" was the second class I took at smicha students' week, taught by Rabbi Elliot K. Ginsburg (a.k.a. Reb Elliott, with whom I had the deep pleasure of spending Yom Kippur a few years ago) and Rabbi Shohama Wiener (Reb Shohama, the head of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah/spiritual direction program). As the syllabus explains,

The physicist Neils Bohr once said that the opposite of a simple truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. In our spiritual lives we are often called to balance opposing truths: the need to cleave to those we love and to let go; as Jews to simultaneously embody Yisrael (one who wrestle with God) and Yehuda (one who practices gratitude); to be open to moments of breakthrough and to cultivate the slow, subtle movement of soul. In this course, we will explore some key psycho-spiritual moments in the life of the spirit, drawing on classic kabbalistic and hasidic texts.

Middot can be hard to explain. The term "middah" literally means "measure," and middot are at once divine qualities or attributes, and attributes / qualities / character traits of the human soul. (Here's one list of middot, drawn from Pirkei Avot.) In this class we looked at the spiritual practice of refining our middot -- a theme that runs both through our texts and our lives.

Themes [of the class] include: tsubrokhnkeit, breaking open the heart and keeping the heart open when it isn't being smashed open; discerning what is being birthed and what is dying; and when to leap and when to attentively wait -- how in short to work with the ratzo va-shov, the ebb and flow of the holy spirit. We will also explore some practices of spiritual friendship, and key teachings on anger and equanimity, forgiveness, and self-acceptance / self-worth.

All that in five short days. (No, really.) It was a pretty amazing week.

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