I woke this morning to the hush of falling snow. I was going to lie in bed until the alarm, as is my wont, until I remembered: borrowed tefillin! Last Friday after meditation I initiated a conversation with Jeff about tefillin; by the end of the conversation he had shown me how to lay them, and had lent me his spare set so I could try the practice before taking the leap of purchasing them.
So today, after performing my morning ablutions, I seated myself crosslegged on the floor cushions in my study. I put on my tallit, and then pushed up the sleeve of my sweater, and unzipped the little velvet bag. I fumbled a moment with the first winding of the shel yad (the one that goes on the hand/arm), and then again with the shel rosh (the one that goes on the head) which needed to be manipulated so the circlet part of the strap would be the right diameter for my head. But I said the blessing as I fastened the leather around my forearm and my head, and then I sat there a moment, drinking in the sensation.
The strap working its way up my arm felt like adornment, and every time I moved to reach for a prayerbook or to shift position I felt the leather creaking on my arm and hand. The little box on my
third eye forehead was just at the edge of my peripheral vision (as Jeff taught me it should be), which gave sh'viti YHVH l'negdi tamid ("I place God before me always") particular resonance.
I said the morning blessings (some of the traditional ones; some using the words of my own heart) and chanted several of the morning prayer chants I learned at Elat Chayyim. I said a few things to God that I'd been wanting to say. And then I did the whole process in reverse: shel rosh off first, then unwrapping my arm, then removing my tallit, folding everything back in the appropriate bag.
As I type this, my left forearm still shows stripes from the wound leather, though I imagine they'll fade by the time I finish my first cup of tea. The real question, of course, is whether I can hold on to the beatific feeling of having started my morning this way once my workday gets underway.
In that conversation with Jeff last Friday, we talked about regular (and irregular) practice, and he said something that intrigued me. He argued that there's a spiritual danger in getting too attached to doing liturgical things "the right way." Getting too hung up on that can lead to a kind of idolatry, in which liturgical or ritual-praxis "perfection" becomes the goal, displacing the real goal of the practice: connection with God.
That makes sense to me. (The Buddhist in me points out that any attachment to externals -- even modes of prayer or names of God -- clouds our ability to be conscious of what's real.) So I nodded when he cautioned me not to let some ideal of what the practice "ought" to be get too important. Still, I was itching to find out what the practice would feel like; today was the first chance I had to find out.
Having tried tefillin precisely once, I'm about as far from expert as one can get. Consider this my "beginner's mind" perspective on the experience:
Wrapping myself in tefillin is a physical act, and I had wondered whether it might feel like giving into literalism. (Nu, it's not enough to pray about connecting ourselves with God; we have to physically wrap ourselves to grok the connection?) Would I feel limited, too-physical? Oddly enough, the sensation was just the opposite, maybe because I knew going in that the straps are just a mnemonic device. They're there to make me mindful of a metaphysical connection that the leather can't begin to genuinely represent.
Tefillin serve as a temporary manifestation of attachment to the ground of being. That connection transcends physicality, and transcends any practice I might use to approach it. I'm just reminding myself of it with a very stylized string around my finger.