In advance of Thanksgivukkah
A few Chanukah gems

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.

Like everything else in spiritual life, I find that this kind of consciousness ebbs and flows. Sometimes I'm paying a lot of attention to the grooves I'm carving; other times, I snap awake and realize that I've been carving without noticing. Spiritual life may be a constant practice of noticing that one has fallen out of mindfulness, intentionally shifting focus and paying attention again, and then noticing that one's fallen out of that attention again! But when we wake up and recognize that we haven't been paying enough attention, it's worth looking at the grooves we may have carved without active intention. (As my teacher Reb Zalman has taught, the mind is like tofu: it takes on the flavor of whatever it's steeping in. Different metaphor, same truth.)

It's a long time since I've done anything with clay, though I used to really enjoy amateur pottery when I was a kid. Though it's been decades, my fingers can still remember the feeling of dipping into a bowl of slip and smoothing away the lines or cracks in a given clay creation. How can we do that with our hearts and minds? Having recognized the places where we've missed the mark in our thoughts and feelings, the grooves we didn't mean to carve, how do we smooth them away and return to the soft blank slate on which we can seek to carve new channels for our thoughts and feelings to follow?

A dear friend of mine who works as a therapist tells me that the conventional wisdom in her field is that it takes ten days to drop a habit, and thirty days to gain a new one. Ten days of a negative practice or thought are enough to engrain it as a habit. And as far as un-doing that habit -- if you practice something daily for thirty days, she says, it becomes a new habit (or in the metaphor I've been using, a new groove on heart and mind.) When you find yourself returning to the old groove, she says, just try to notice that -- without judgement -- and then redirect your thoughts in the opposite direction. If you catch yourself dreading the darkness, gently redirect your thoughts to a reason why the darkness can be velvety and lovely. (For instance: it's easier to sleep in when it's still dark in the mornings!) And so on.

Jewish tradition offers tools and techniques for keeping our minds steeping in a marinade of gratitude and mindfulness. One of these is the practice of making blessings -- over food, over our experiences and activities, over the wonders we see in the world.  (We read in Talmud that each of us should strive to make 100 blessings each day.) Blogger Lindsey Mead just posted about noticing the beauty in what is: What you see is what you get. I think the process of attention and wonder which she describes is part of the process of carving these new grooves. No one can live in a constant state of radical amazement and wonder. It's impossible to fill every single moment with gratitude. But we can maintain the intention of keeping ourselves open to wonder when it arises, and to seeking wonder even in the mundane or everyday.

It's also important to be kind to ourselves as we do this work. To forgive ourselves for the times when we've accidentally fallen into thought patterns which we didn't mean to cultivate -- found ourselves in grooves we didn't mean to carve -- marinated our consciousness in a broth of negativity instead of the gratitude or kindness which we had meant to aim for.

Maybe this week is exactly the right time for noticing what grooves we've carved, and for beginning the work of carving new ones as needed. Thanksgiving (in the United States) is an opportunity to practice gratitude. And Chanukah is a festival of rededication. As the Temple was rededicated with that vial of oil which burned for eight miraculous days, so we can rededicate ourselves to this work of discernment and change. We can rededicate the sanctuary of body, heart, mind, spirit. We can clean out old anxieties and habits which are no longer fruitful, and bring light to our own darkest corners.