How Caretaker takes care of me
Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home

Inspiring awe, cultivating joy

I retweeted that message a few days ago. It comes from my friends and colleagues at A Way In at Mishkan Shalom, and the questions it raises have stayed with me. What inspires our awe? How can we cultivate joy? I was glad to see these questions crop up in my Twitter stream amidst tweets about the World Cup and about injustices both large and small and about everything that's agitating people in the news. (I'm always glad to see people using Twitter for contemplative purposes.)

Awe is an essential component of spiritual life. The Hebrew יראה / yirah is one of the two quintessential ways we're meant to respond to God. (The other is אהבה / ahavah, love.) I feel awe when I gaze at a beautiful vista, or experience the power of nature, or encounter ancient history by walking in a place where people have walked for thousands of years. I felt tremendous awe when our son was born. I also feel awe when I name a baby, join two people in marriage, or stand before my community for a funeral. 

Joy is essential too -- which is not the same as happiness or cheer. (I've written about that before: What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?) I feel joy when I bless our son on Friday nights; when I am reunited with people I love who live far away; when I sing the beloved melodies of the Days of Awe; when I look around the table at the faces of my loved ones at Pesach or Thanksgiving or Christmas eve. Often music, singing, great stories, and feeling known and understood bring me joy.

I think it's not accidental that this tweet uses the language of cultivation. These spiritual qualities don't necessarily arise on their own. Each of us needs to tend to her own spiritual soil, to nurture and nourish these seedlings so that they will grow. We can practice receptivity to moments of awe -- which won't necessarily make the awe arise, but may make us more inclined to notice it and experience it fully. And we can practice receptivity to moments of joy in the same way, creating space in which joy can arise.

Drawing out the cultivation metaphor further: I've learned that there are certain subjects, emotions, states of being which poison my soil. And just like in a literal garden, if there's a little bit of toxicity in my soil, the things I'm cultivating can still grow, though they may be impacted by what nutrients are and aren't available. But if the soil becomes too poisoned, then awe and joy can't grow there. Reb Zalman talks sometimes about the "spiritual vitamins" which we need. It's also important to avoid spiritual toxins.

Prayer and meditation are the most effective tools I've found for this work. I don't only mean liturgical prayer and regular sitting-in-meditation, though both of those are part of my practice. I also mean what Reb Shawn (Rabbi Shawn Zevit) and Reb Marcia (Rabbi Marcia Prager) called "living with prayerful consciousness." Can I bring a sense of prayerful awareness to every moment in my day? Can I approach ordinary time with the meditative ability to step back and notice my own thoughts arising?

Paying attention to the transitions between weekday and Shabbat, and to the journey from one festival to the next -- paying attention to when my heart and soul feel expansive, and when they feel constricted -- having the discernment to pull myself away from places, ideas, and activities which feed anger and ego instead of awe and joy -- these are some of the items in my contemplative toolbox. They don't necessarily inspire awe or bring joy, but they make me more receptive to both when they arise.

For those who are so inclined: I'd love to hear your answers to the questions posed by the folks at A Way In. What inspires your awe? How do you cultivate joy?