Thinking ahead and staying put, or, how a toddler is like a meditation bell
June 26, 2012
One of the oddities of the congregational rabbinate is that one is always thinking ahead to a liturgical season which hasn't happened yet. Already this week I've solidified our schedule for the Days of Awe. I'm spending time contemplating what my sermons might be, revising selichot liturgy, planning an ad-hoc book discussion group around R' Alan Lew's This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (which I wrote about back in 2006.)
But it's just a few short days after the summer solstice. I want to be enjoying this moment: picking strawberries at Caretaker with my family, enjoying the late long light of evening, getting ready for the congregational Fourth of July picnic next week. And yet I can't help having one foot planted in a season which hasn't yet arrived. I justify it in the name of being organized, planning ahead -- and it is true that this is always the way I have worked best; I am most comfortable when everything is in-progress well in advance -- but I wonder sometimes what might be the spiritual impact of living in the future instead of in the now.
It's a little bit like looking ahead to a much-anticipated vacation. On the one hand, imagining the vacation and planning how it might go can extend the pleasure well beyond the days of the trip itself. First you get to enjoy thinking about it in advance; then you get to go; then you get to enjoy remembering it afterwards! It's a triple blessing that way. And on the proverbial other hand, the danger in this kind of anticipation is that it can provide an easy opportunity to escape whatever's happening now. Plus, getting attached to expectations means running the risk of disappointment if and when something changes or the expectations don't come to pass. (See How to avoid having a strop & the secret to happiness, which Fiona just posted yesterday at Writing Our Way Home.)
So maybe the real question is, what are good tools for maintaining balance? How can I ensure that if I spend all morning with my head in the clouds of Elul and Tishri, I return to the present moment? That if I lose myself in daydreaming about a weekend with friends in late summer, I return to where I am now?
In a funny way, having a toddler is an excellent antidote to the tendency to get lost in the future or the past. Drew lives pretty much in the now. I think he can grasp the idea of immediate future (it seems to be helpful when I outline for him what the morning is going to hold, or how long a playdate is going to last), and I know he remembers the past -- but often he brings the past right into the present, narrating things we did days ago as though they were happening right now. Maybe for him they are.
A toddler is like a meditation bell, forever calling me back to the now. In meditation each Friday morning, I often remind myself (and those who are sitting with me) that the mind will wander; that's what minds do. Having thoughts is what minds are for! So when our minds wander, as they inevitably do, we can notice that without judgement and call them back to the present moment, this breath, right here, right now. Drew does that for me a million tiny times a day. "Want to play catch, mommy?" Catch. Yes. My son is right here, and I was distracted, but now I'm back. "Want to read Oh My Oh Dinosaur?" Of course, climb into my lap and I will read to you.
I remember thinking, last summer, as I was first settling in to my pulpit, that it was a tremendous blessing to have a reason to leave work at 4pm and take my child to a playground every day. (Indeed: that the whole world would be healthier if we all had to stop working after eight hours and spend some time playing instead.) I don't think I knew how true that would continue to be. I'm grateful to be part of a liturgical / spiritual tradition which flows throughout the year, like waves, going and returning: the cycles of day and week and month, the cycles of festivals which lead one to the next. I'm grateful to have reason to place myself out of time, to prepare for the holidays which are coming. And I'm also grateful to have a child who, without knowing it, reminds me every day to return to him and to myself and to right now. Right now. Right now.