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?

The gifts of the labyrinth

14391957582_88ea0e30fe_nMy mind was jangling.

The first full day of this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders was intense and busy. From morning prayer to conversations over breakfast to beginning to guide my small group through our group project to an "intra-faith dialogue" session (each group convened in its own prayer space and talked about whatever's arising for us so far.) Conversations over lunch. A faculty meeting. Two hours of learning with Dr. Judith Plaskow (which merits its own post, God knows.) More group project planning.

By late afternoon I was feeling attenuated, stretched a bit thin, reverberating like a drumhead. So I headed for the meditation labyrinth behind the fire circle.

The thing I love about walking labyrinths is that I never know exactly how I'm going to get to where I'm going, or how the return journey will proceed. It's not like walking in a straight line, or even in a spiral from one point to the next. It goes this way, then that way. Doubles back on itself. Allows me to think that it's taking me to one place, and then does a bait-and-switch and suddenly I'm facing in the other direction.

14389989631_7ae66575b1_nSome of this, of course, stems from my practice of only looking a few steps ahead of where my feet are actually walking. If I stopped and scrutinized the labryinth, I could probably try to memorize its twists and turns. But that would defeat the purpose altogether. For me, a meditation labyrinth is about slowly walking and letting the journey unfold however it may. It's about the little surprises along the way. I know that I'm headed for the center of something beautiful; I know that when I leave the labyrinth I'll exit down the same forest path which brought me here. But between those two points I aspire to be open to surprises.

If there is a better metaphor for this kind of "dialogue of the devout" (in Reb Zalman's terminology), I don't know what it is. Each of us came here prepared, on some level, to be challenged and to be surprised. I suspect that each of us also had some notion of where we thought we were going, where we thought our conversations would take us, what would be easy and what would be hard. And I'm willing to bet that the journey of these four days is bringing each of us to some surprises.

Once I reached the middle of the labyrinth, I thought, "ah, okay, now it'll take me back out again, that should be straightforward." And then the path went somewhere I didn't think it would go, and without my conscious volition my feet sped up. Wait. Was I confused? Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? How could this possibly be the way toward the exit? And then I took a deep breath, got a grip on myself, and slowed my walking to my intentional and contemplative pace again. Of course I hadn't stepped "off the derech," off the path; the labyrinth just had a few final surprises in store for me before it returned me to the place of ingress/egress.

The real surprises always come when we think no surprises remain.


I wrote about walking a meditation labyrinth (and, for that matter, about Jewish-Muslim learning) at the ALEPH Kallah in 2011: Seeking and finding.


Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.

Right here, right now

Quote+--+Today+I+Will+Live+in+the+Moment"Take a moment to settle in to being here," I say aloud. My eyes are closed but I know there are three other people in the room this morning; I heard them walk in, each to their own place in the sanctuary, and I waited until the sounds of their arrival had ceased.

"Notice how you're sitting in your chair. In your own time, draw your attention from your toes up to the top of your head, and if you find places of tension, breathe into them and let the tension go."

"Now we'll move into a practice of following our breath as it comes and goes. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably do -- memories of the past, anticipations of the future -- just notice them, gently, and then let them go."

Like goldfish swimming away, I think.

"If you need something to focus on beyond your breathing, try this mantra. On the inhale: right here. On the exhale: right now. Right here, right now."

Hey, I can write about this, I think. I yank my mind back to right here, right now. Right here, right now.

At the midway point of our meditation, I'm planning to offer a teaching about the practice of teshuvah before new moon -- looking back over the last month and letting go of the places where we missed the mark, at moon-dark, before the new month begins.

Since it's almost new moon. Adar 2 starts right after Shabbat. Adar 2 means Purim. Hey, do all of the Purim spiel actors have their scripts? Okay, that was another stray thought. Letting it go. Right here, right now.

There was a sticker on the door from UPS. I wonder what's in the package? Right here, right now. Inhale, exhale. Maybe it was something for the family trip that's coming up. Right here, right now. The trip isn't happening yet. Stay in the moment.

My ear itches. Right here, right now. The arm where I'm wearing tefillin is getting cold. Right here, right now. Is it time to offer that teaching yet?

The purpose of meditation, it comes to me, is not to still the mind. As though that were possible! I can't quiet my mind. It leaps and races and chatters and changes the subject constantly. The purpose of meditation, at least as I experience it, is to notice the chatter of the mind. To notice all of the thoughts and desires and smokescreens it places in front of me. Not so that I can make them go away, but so that I can be aware of them. That way, when they arise during the day, maybe I'll notice them then, too, and act out of a place of awareness instead of a place of blind reactivity.

Sometimes it feels almost unbearable to sit still and listen to the chatter of my mind. I want to distract myself, to think about happy occasions past or future, to get up and do something: check email, roll the Torah scroll for tomorrow morning's service, tidy my office, anything to give me a break from my own head. But I sit still, and let my thoughts race around me like puppies chasing each other. I cultivate compassion for the antics of my own mind, the lengths to which it will go to avoid just being in the present. Being in the Presence.

Meditation is like Shabbat, I think to myself. Sit still. Stop doing, and just be. This moment is all there is. Right here, right now.

A short history of Jewish meditation

Buddhistjewishcenterv2-214x300"Would you consider teaching or writing something about Jewish meditation?" a congregant asked me recently. "I think people wonder sometimes whether it's really Jewish."

Contemplative practice in Judaism has taken a variety of forms, and bears a variety of names, but it's been a part of Judaism for a very long time. ("Contemplative practice" is an umbrella term which covers a variety of practices; meditation is one of those practices.) Let's start here: maybe you know that traditional Jewish practice includes praying three times a day. The traditional explanation for that thrice-daily prayer regimen teaches either that we do this in remembrance of the offerings at the Temple of old, or that we do this in remembrance of the patriarchs (or both.)

We read in Torah that Abraham connected with God in the morning, Isaac in the afternoon, and Jacob in the evening, so we do the same. And in Torah, what form did that connection take? In Genesis 24:63, when Isaac went out לָשׂוּחַ / la'suach in the fields, what exactly was going on? According to the classical JPS translation, that verb means "to meditate." So one could make the case that from the patriarchs on, Jewish prayer has always had a meditative component.

Later, during the time of the Tanna'im (the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era), Jewish mystics sought to elevate their souls by meditating on the chariot visions of Ezekiel. This became a whole school of contemplative practices known as merkavah mysticism. Some of their practices were re-imagined and re-interpreted by later mystical and contemplative movements in Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, the sages of our tradition were discussing the proper balance of keva (fixed form) and kavanah (intention or meditative focus) in Jewish prayer. Some went so far as to argue that prayer without the right meditative intention doesn't actually count. In the days of the Tanna'im, communal prayer frequently took the form of variations on known themes, where a skilled prayer-leader would improvise new words on the existing themes of the prayers. Over time, those improvised words were written down, and by the Middle Ages became fixed in more-or-less the forms we know today.

Continue reading "A short history of Jewish meditation" »

The mind is like tofu

Japanese_SilkyTofu_(Kinugoshi_Tofu)Here's the short teaching I offered during our meditation minyan at my shul today. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


I learned from my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth -- who learned from our teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) -- that the mind is like tofu: it takes on the taste of whatever we pickle it in.

What marinade is your mind soaking in today?

Is it a marinade of resentment? She told me she would do that thing, and then she didn't, and now I feel betrayed.

Is it a marinade of anger? On the radio I heard someone from the political party with which I disagree, and now my blood is boiling.

Or is it a marinade of gratitude, of wonder, of readiness to serve in whatever ways the world will call forth today?

We all have recourse to all of these ingredients. Breathe in; and hold it for a moment; and as you exhale, wash the negativity away. Rinse the tofu clean. Once again it becomes plain, ready to take on the flavor of whatever marinade you choose.

As we pray in the morning liturgy: Elohai neshama shenatata bi, tehora hee -- "My God, the soul that You have given me is pure!" Every morning we awake to a clean soul -- a blank slate -- a mind like tofu, ready to take on whatever flavors we steep it in.

Modah ani l'fanecha: I am grateful before You.

Mah norah hamakom hazeh: what a wonder, what a miracle, is this very place, this very moment.

Hineni: Here I am, ready to serve.


Shabbat shalom!

Following the breath as it comes and goes

Oie_deep_breathThere's something poignant about leading meditation on a morning which will contain a funeral. Following our breath as it comes and goes, knowing that soon we will turn our attention to someone whose breath no longer enlivens.

In Genesis 2 we read that God formed the first human being out of earth and breathed into its nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim), the breath of life. In modern parlance the Hebrew נֶשַׁמַה (neshamah) is usually translated as "soul."

Every morning we pray  אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (Elohai neshama she-natata bi, tehora hee) -- "My God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure! You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time..."

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that every breath is a prayer, because with every breath we pronounce the ineffable Name of God.

What is it that enlivens us? It isn't merely breathing, in this age of ventilators which can keep the lungs moving after brain activity has ceased. But without breath, there is no life.

When that enlivening breath is gone, a person's body is no longer that person as we knew them. It remains holy because it once held a soul, but it becomes almost a figurine, a likeness of the person we once knew.

After life, we return our bodies to the adamah, the earth, from which Torah teaches the first earthling was made. The body returns to the earth; the soul-breath returns to the Source from which it came.

I opened and closed this morning's meditation with a practice which I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle. The first breath together: a reminder that I am mortal. The second breath together: a reminder that those around me are mortal. The third breath together: a reminder that because of those first two truths, this moment is incomparably precious.

This moment is incomparably precious.


Image source: cauldrons and cupcakes.


Chanukah and the obligation to sit still and notice

One of the customs of Chanukah is to sing a couple of hymns after we light Chanukah candles. One of them is Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages." (Here's an abbreviation of the traditional version. Here's Reb Zalman's version, which is singable to the same tune but celebrates the miracles of Chanukah in a different way.) And the other hymn is Hanerot Hallalu, "The lights which we light." Here's that second one:


"We light these lights for [commemoration of] the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our ancestors, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations." (From Talmud, Sofrim 20:6)

This little song is often overlooked and is not well known. Which is a shame, because it's quite wonderful.

Hanerot Hallalu teaches us that we light the candles of the chanukiyyah in order to remember miracles and wonders, and that their light is holy -- so holy, in fact, that we're not supposed to use that light for ordinary things. Instead, our job is to just enjoy them. To look at them. To contemplate them, and their small beauty, and to cultivate an upwelling of thanks and praise. In this way, Chanukah invites us into contemplative practice.

The Shabbat candles which we kindle each week are also holy. But they don't come with this same obligation. It's perfectly permissible to eat one's Shabbat dinner by the light of the Shabbat candles. But the Chanukah candles aren't meant to be used in any mundane way. The shamash candle, the "helper" which lights the others, casts ordinary usable light. But the eight candles in the chanukiyyah proper are there not to give us light to do the dishes by -- they're there to give us a meditative focus, something to look at as we coax wonder and gratitude to arise within us.

At this hectic season -- Thanksgiving and "Black Friday" just past, Christmas and New Year's on the horizon, everywhere around us a tumult of coveting and shopping and spending, the academic semester racing to its finale -- the very idea of taking the duration of the Chanukah candles as a time for quiet and meditation seems like a miracle. May we all be blessed to find our moments of stillness and peace as the candles burn low.

Here's a choral setting of Hanerot Hallalu. And here's a solo setting of an unknown melody. If your tastes run more toward a cappella, here's Six13's version. And here's a simple sung version, accompanied beautifully on piano.

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.

Continue reading "Carving new grooves on heart and mind" »

Why am I, and how can I integrate? - questions from Toldot

Here's the short d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning during the contemplative Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרשׁ אֶת־יְי: The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself: if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְי לָהּ
שְׁנֵי גֹייִם בְּבִטְנֵךְ
וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ
יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:

And God said to her:
two nations are inside you;
two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb.
One shall prevail over the other;
elder, serve younger.

If this is so, why do I exist? Or: If this is what's happening, why am I?

This is a fundamental question, and perhaps one which those with a contemplative bent know well. Why am I? Why am I me, and not someone else? Why is this life mine?

The word Rivka uses for "I" is anochi. Usually in Hebrew one uses the simple ani, I. But Rivka uses a kind of royal I, the same word used by God.

Rivka takes this question directly to that Anochi, to God, to Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. That four-letter name can be understood as a form of the verb "to be" in all tenses at once: Was-Is-WillBe. Rivka takes her existential question to the Mystery at the heart of all things.

And that Mystery replies: there is a duality inside you. A pulling this way, and a pulling that way.

Continue reading "Why am I, and how can I integrate? - questions from Toldot" »

Unify our hearts

92fd4b_dcab2ba869a873df4b2e9ea442f81d70.jpg_srz_1600_1200_85_22_0.50_1.20_0וְיַחֵד לְבָבֵנוּ לְאַהֲבָה וּלְיִרְאָה אֶת שְׁמֶךָ.
V’yached l’vavenu, l’ahavah u-l’yirah et sh’mecha.
Unify our hearts in love and awe of Your name!

Unify our hearts. Perhaps that means the hearts of each of us in this room. Or the hearts of each of us in our community around the world. Unify our hearts, make our hearts beat as one.

In love and awe. Or, some would translate, love and fear. These are the two paths, the two doorways into serving God. Ahavah, love, is sometimes connected with chesed, lovingkindness which overflows. Yir'ah, awe, is sometimes connected with gevurah, boundaries which restrain.

There's a Hasidic teaching which says that awe and love are two wings, and that when they beat together, that's what lifts our prayers up to God. Another Hasidic teaching holds that most people come to serving God through the path of fear and awe, fear of judgement and of falling-short, but that the path of love is the higher one.

Another way to understand this verse is: unify the disparate parts of each human heart. Unify the love in our hearts and the awe in our hearts. Help us to bring together our awe -- our radical amazement, our awareness of our own insignificance in the vast span of the cosmos! -- with our love.

A practice. Breathing in, we inhale awe. We inhale amazement. We inhale that sense that compared with God, compared with the universe, compared with the vast sweep of human history we are but specks of dust. And breathing out, we exhale love. We exhale compassion. We cultivate love for those around us, for those we meet, for those whom we know and those whom we don't know. Breathing in: awe. Breathing out: love.

Unify our hearts in the love and awe of Your Name.


This is a written (slightly expanded) version of a teaching I shared during my shul's meditation minyan this morning. See also Rabbi Shefa Gold's teaching and chant Unifying the heart.

The image illustrating this post is calligraphy by soferet Julie Seltzer and features the words for love and awe, which, she notes, are intertwined and can be read either horizontally or vertically.

A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma

Evolvingdharmacover3"The Western world is on the cusp of a major transformation around how we understand the mind, the brain, and what to do about them. Meditation and other forms of contemplative practice, once the provenance of religion, then later of 'spirituality,' are now in the American mainstream, in corporate retreats and public schools, as a rational, proven technology to upgrade the mind and organize the brain, buttressed by hard scientific data and the reports of millions of practitioners."

That's the opening of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, by Jay Michaelson, due out in October 2013 from North Atlantic Books. Jay writes:

"The original source of these cognitive technologies is the dharma, an ancient word meaning the way, the path, or the teaching. In the most general sense, it can simply refer to the truth of how things are: the laws of the universe, and of the mind...

What was once a monastic tradition of meditation, virtuous action, and wisdom teachings (samadhi, sila, and panna) is now, depending on where you encounter it, a technology of brainhacking; a way to build insular thickness in the brain; a way to lower stress; a mystical path filled with unusual peak experiences; a way to grow more loving, compassionate, and generous; a method to get ahead and gain an edge on your competition; or any number of other things. Love it or hate it, the dharma has evolved."

This new book aims to explore the evolution of the dharma through a variety of lenses. There's history here; there's neuroscience; there's personal experience. There's also a straightforward narrative voice which is unsentimental and occasionally quite wry.

This is a story of monks and soldiers; a history as well as a tale told from my own cultural position, conditioned by my age, gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and all the rest; a narrative of maverick teachers, online communities, Occupy, self-loathing, stress reduction, religion, sex, power, and Google.

Who wouldn't want to read that?

Full disclosure: I've been blessed to work with Jay off and on for a number of years. He is the founding editor of Zeek, "a Jewish journal of thought and culture," where I used to serve as a contributing editor. I come to this book as a colleague of the author's, as a rabbi, and as someone whose own spiritual life has been strongly shaped both by Judaism and by the import of Buddhism to these shores. Those are some of the lenses I bring to bear on reading this book.

Continue reading "A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma" »

In which I compare my monkey mind to Curious George.


Monkey mind looks like
Curious George: hopping
and screeching, animated
with exaggerated expression.

It swings from idea
to idea: Doctor Who, the Arctic,
the Iraqi psalm melody
from last night's dream.

Listen to the birdsong!
How do they do that?
Is it time yet?
What am I forgetting?

Maybe it's not a monkey
but a pinball machine,
flashing with each bounce
and ricochet. And I say

thank you monkey mind.
Thank you pinball machine.
Thank you, synapses firing
to wake me to this day.

Something stills, slightly:
I'm a pond still peppered
with raindrops, but now
I remember and greet

flashes of silvered gratitude
like ponderous ancient koi
doing their slow pirouettes
in my mind's cold depths.



"Monkey mind" is a common metaphor for the mind's relentless chatter. It derives from the Buddhist idea of the mind monkey. And Curious George is a character in a popular series of kids' books, now also in a PBS cartoon. When I picture my own monkey mind, he's the image that comes immediately to the forefront of my consciousness.

This morning during meditation at my shul I did a variation on this four worlds gratitude practice, and I invited us to thank God for our monkey minds and to thank our monkey minds for doing what they do. (I heard one of my fellow meditators chuckling at that notion.) It is funny to thank God for monkey mind! But when I stopped resisting my mind's spinning and instead said thank you for it and to it, I felt different.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


A squirrel who wants to meditate

I clear my throat in the silence of the sanctuary. Eyes closed, I offer the following:

The Baal Shem Tov -- regarded as the founder of Hasidism -- offered the following teaching about what to do when you are engaged in prayer and foreign thoughts bubble up in you. When this happens, he said, don't castigate yourself for having these thoughts. Rather, recognize that the thoughts ultimately come from God.

He would say: if you are distracted from prayer because you've been caught up in fantasy about a beautiful woman, remember that the woman's beauty comes from God, and so does your desire. Don't think of it as getting in the way of your prayer; make it part of your prayer. Lift it back up to God.

The same is true for us. Whatever bubbles up in us, whatever thoughts or distractions -- whether about a beautiful woman or beautiful man, or about politics, or whatever it is -- we can just recognize what comes up, without judgement, and recognize that it comes from God, and lift it back up.

Some moments later, I am distracted from my meditation by a sound.

Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble scrabble thump.

Thump thump thump.

I open my eyes. A squirrel is peering into our sanctuary through the glass door. He takes a few steps away, then flings himself at the door, scrabbling to get in.

Then he tries the next little window. Scrabble scrabble thump.

And the window beside that. Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble thump. Thump.

Squirrel with churro. Photo by Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries.

By now I am holding back giggles as silently as I can. The squirrel is trying diligently to enter our sanctuary, poking and scrabbling at every single one of our small low windows, taking a few steps back and then flying through the air to bang into the glass again. THUMP. THUMP.

Our other meditators have also opened their eyes. We are all laughing. We have been sitting here in silent meditation every Friday morning, some of us for years on end, and we have never seen anything like this at all.

"Obviously he wants to meditate too," one of the women offers. "Their little lives are so busy."

Scrabble scrabble thump. THUMP.

A second squirrel has appeared on the patio and is watching the first one, head cocked. I imagine that he is thinking: what on earth are you doing? Why do you want to get in there?

Then the two squirrels run away. I close my eyes again and return to silence, but the silence is different now, charged with our laughter.

Sometimes thoughts bubble up. Sometimes it's squirrels. It all comes from God.

If this makes you grin, don't miss The squirrel said to the Buddha.

Thinking ahead and staying put, or, how a toddler is like a meditation bell

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.

Walking meditation

Had there been a small plane taking off from the tiny North Adams airport this morning, the pilot would have seen half a dozen people walking very slowly in meandering loops around the mown grass behind the synagogue.

We moved like bridesmaids in a wedding procession: step -- pause. Step -- pause.

Some of us had our eyes closed. One person stopped and stood, rooted to the great rotating ball of the earth.

One person's tallit fluttered like irridescent rainbow wings.

With whatever is best

The Holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) teaches us that our every intention and acton changes the whole world, either driving us away from God or bringing us closer, either healing the world or harming it.

So writes my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg in his essay "Blessings in the Darkness" (in Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal, a publication of ALEPH, 2003.) In that essay he introduces something he calls the Chesed (lovingkindness) Meditation. He and his wife Bahira adapted it from Rabbi Jeff Roth, who adapted it in turn from a Buddhist metta meditation. I first experienced this meditation at a Tuesday afternoon mincha service on retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2005.

Reb Shaya writes:

This is how we do it:

Begin with yourself. As you inhale, say internally, "May I be blessed with..." As you exhale, imagine yourself as you finish the blessing, "shalom, peace and wholeness."

Continue that breathing/imagining pattern. "May I be blessed with...simcha, joy. May I be blessed with...r'fuah, healing. May I be blessed with...whatever is best."

Why begin with yourself? It is the airplane principle: before you help someone else with her oxygen mask, put yours on first. If I am under-blessed, how can I bless? So resist the temptation to skip that part. Don't feel it's too egocentric, but rather that we all deserve to be blessed! All of us!

After going through this with oneself, Reb Shaya teaches, one can offer this meditation with someone else in mind. Imagine a loved one, and as you breathe, think to yourself: may this person be blessed with wholeness. May they be blessed with joy. May they be blessed with healing. May they be blessed with whatever is best.

If that's easy -- and it may be -- stretch yourself a little. Imagine being at the grocery store, in traffic, at a gas station, and seeing someone you don't know. Can you find it in yourself to say these same silent blessings for a stranger? (I would add: imagine interacting with someone online: a blogger, a commenter, the people who comment on news articles. Can you offer these blessings for them?)

Reb Shaya doesn't stop there. It's our obligation, he writes, to offer these blessings even for those we actively dislike:

Because someone who feels fully blessed would not do the things they do! We want those who play the role of the enemy for us to be truly happy. Happy people don't intentionally harm and destroy. It's critical that when I'm blessing someone difficult, I am not hating them. When we bless we channel the holy energy of blessing through us. In the very act of blessing another, especially one whom we feel the least like blessing, the intensity of blessing required to overcome our own inner resistance spills over into the world.

Maybe my favorite part of this practice is the final line: "...with whatever is best." I may not know what's best for me. I may not know what's best for you, or for the stranger in the check-out line at the grocery store, or for the person I can't help finding challenging. When I offer this blessing, it's an opportunity for me to relax gratefully into the humility of not needing to know what's best. I'm not in charge. At best, I can try to make myself a conduit for blessing, but the nature of the blessing -- that's not up to me.

We offered this blessing this morning toward the end of our Friday morning meditation minyan. I hadn't looked at this essay in a while, so I didn't remember that one of the lines is a blessing for healing; now I'm not sure what I offered this morning, though I think it was the quartet of peace, joy, wholeness, and whatever is best. (Same general principle, anyway.) It was a really sweet practice, and when it was over, after the closing niggun and the closing meditation bell, we sat in the sanctuary and beamed at each other. What a lovely way to begin the ending of my week.

Thanks, brother Thầy

This week I've brought a few more of my books to my office at the synagogue. As I add each one to the bookshelves, often I am tempted to open them and remind myself why I wanted to bring them in the first place. This afternoon I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace, and the page to which it opened told me this:

Even though life is hard, even though it is sometimes difficult to smile, we have to try. Just as when we wish each other, "Good morning," it must be a real "Good morning." Recently, one friend asked me, "How can I force myself to smile when I am filled with sorrow? It isn't natural." I told her she must be able to smile to her sorrow, because we are more than our sorrow. A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty. When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves.

I'm struck by the notion of smiling to one's sorrow: not despite it, not through it, but to it. And I'm moved by his suggestion that each of us can choose to which emotional channel we turn. I think he's right that we are "more than our sorrow" -- and that even in the midst of sadness or anger, one can choose to try to tune in to the channel of compassion and kindness.

I am not a serious student of Buddhism -- not in the way that many of my friends are -- but I have learned so much from the Buddhist teachers who I have encountered, both in person and in print. I haven't read this book in years, but I'm glad it remains on my shelf. What a lovely teaching to carry with me for the rest of the day and into tomorrow morning's meditation minyan. Thank you, Brother Thầy.


Teachings for the new month of Iyar

We've entered the lunar month of Iyar. This month unfolds entirely during the counting of the Omer. And I just read some really beautiful teachings about spring, the counting of the Omer, and meditation. Here, have a taste:

Did you ever hear the expression "something's in the air"? when we can feel something, but it's just out of our reach, and yet we know it's there, that's when we say "there's something in the air". Judaism tells us that at all times, there is "something in the air". At any particular time, there is a spiritual influence, an ineffable influx, just beyond us, waiting to be tapped into. The minute we tap into it, it becomes a part of us, and we become imbued with it...

During the month of Iyar, meditation takes on special meaning, because it's connected with the exodus from Egypt. The exodus required a spectacular burst of spiritual energy in order to spring us out of captivity in Egypt. But, once having achieved the hurried exit from the land of limitations, it was incumbent upon us to start incorporating that sudden burst of spiritual revelation into our lives. The way we do that, during the month of Iyar, is by meditating.

But how do we know upon what to meditate? The answer is: it's in the air. It's been in the air since Pesach, since the exodus, since the onset of spring. "It" is the spectacular burst which sprung us out of Egypt, and into a state of freedom. Our meditation must be on this burst of energy, but in such a way as to integrate it into our own lives. The way we do that is by counting. The commandment of counting the "omer", requires that for every day for forty-nine days, -seven weeks-, we take a facet of that initial spring energy, meditate upon it, and integrate it into our personalities. The word for "counting" in Hebrew is the same as the word for "telling" or "narrating", and it also means to "polish", or make shine. By counting, we are actually accessing this spirituality which is "in the air", and internalizing it in order to make our personalities shine.

Read the whole thing: Iyar - Jerusalem Connection. (You may find that some of what's on the page is a bit esoteric, and that some of it focuses on Yom Yerushalayim in a way which may not be universal, but I think there's some really beautiful material there.)

I love the idea that Judaism teaches us that all times, there is "something in the air" -- a spiritual tenor or tone to every moment of the day, to every month of the year. And I love the idea that at this season, through the contemplative practice of counting the Omer and focusing on how the divine qualities of lovingkindness and boundaried strength and harmony (and so on) unfold in us, we can access what's uniquely in the air at this time of year. A sense of transformation, maybe. A readiness to go beyond the initial plunge into the Sea, and to continue on toward the moment when we will celebrate our reception of Torah, our covenant with God -- or, framed in different language, our encounter with the ineffable which has left us, and will leave us, forever changed.


Four worlds gratitude practice

A moment of gratitude for this body.
Notice what it feels like to be in your body today.
What sensations are you experiencing? Which parts of your body are clamoring for attention?
If you can, cultivate gratitude for being alive in this body right now.

A moment of gratitude for emotions.
Notice all the emotions which arise in you.
Love, joy, hope, fear, sorrow: sift through them like jewels falling through your fingers.
If you can, cultivate gratitude for the world of emotion.

A moment of gratitude for thoughts.
Notice what thoughts are swirling in your mind.
What stories have you been telling yourself about things past or things which haven't yet happened?
If you can, cultivate gratitude for the world of the intellect.

A moment of gratitude for spirit.
Notice the spiritual impact of this meditation: what has it opened up for you?
For the moments when you feel spiritually alive, and the moments when spirit feels inaccessible:
if you can, cultivate gratitude for the life of the spirit.

This is the gratitude practice I offered at the close of this week's Friday morning meditation minyan. (More or less. I wrote it down afterwards.) It's based on the four worlds paradigm which is so central to (my understanding of) Jewish Renewal. And it's based in my own perennial need to kindle and sustain gratitude. Please feel free to use or adapt it if it speaks to you. Shabbat shalom!

On meditation

The subject of meditation came up in conversation recently with one of my loved ones. They asked whether meditation is difficult, whether it's something one needs to go to a class in order to learn how to do. Or, they quipped, can one learn it on the internet?

What I said -- or at least, what I think I said; what I meant to say -- was no, meditation is not difficult (not in any technical sense, anyway), and classes are not necessary. Of course, I added, there are many different kinds of meditation. But here is the kind I try to practice:

Sit still. Take a few breaths. Try to focus on your breath as it rises and falls, as it comes and goes. Try to notice each breath: now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out. Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out.

The mind will wander. That's what minds do. My mind wanders all the time. Whenever I notice it wandering off somewhere -- worrying about something that hasn't happened yet, or rehashing something that is already over -- I gently bring it back to this moment right now, this breath. In and out. And in. And out.

I try to be attentive to what arises in me as I sit and breathe. This is a very good way for me to figure out what I'm anxious about, or why I'm feeling wound-up, or what emotions exactly are roiling in me -- joy, pride, sadness, fear, whatever the case may be. Meditation isn't about tamping down my inner clamor, per se; it's more a practice of noticing.

Often there is some anxiety or worry or sadness tickling my consciousness somewhere. As I sit, eventually I notice it. I mentally say to it: I see you. I hear you. I recognize you. You've done your job. You can go now. And then I exhale and try to let it go. Whatever it is, I try to name it and let it go.

Sometimes I sit with a mantra, a word or phrase which I repeat in my mind and heart. Sometimes it's "Right here, right now," which I learned from Lorianne years ago. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. A reminder to be in the moment, this very moment. Resist the temptation to return to yesterday or anticipate tomorrow.

Sometimes I use "Heart, open." Breathing in, I say to my heart, heart? And breathing out, I ask it to open. With each breath, I try to open up: to myself, to whatever is arising in me, to whatever I am feeling and experiencing. To whatever comes my way today. The first two words of the shema work well in this way, too. Shema, Yisrael. "Listen, O Israel." Listen up, self. Listen and remember the unity of all things. And now, again, listen. And now. And now.

Sometimes, before I stop, I spend a few moments setting the conscious intention of being kind and compassionate. I envision compassion and kindness as a kind of soft light, and I imagine enveloping in that light first myself, then the people around me, then people further away. To people I love, and then to people who push my buttons. I see how far I can imagine extending that sphere.

And then I return to my day.

It's not difficult in the sense of having an elaborate process or lingo one needs to master. One needn't be able to sit in any particular position. What's difficult, often, is making the time to do it. Reminding myself that this is important and that I am calmer and more awake when I manage to do it regularly. And being compassionate toward myself even when I don't manage to do it as often as I would like.

There's no way to "fail" at meditation except not to do it. I do feel honor-bound to mention that if this kind of practice leads to enlightenment, I have yet to "get there" myself; this is not a practice which will turn you into someone who is instantly wise and serene! But I do find that this practice makes me more attentive. Sometimes it gives me a sense of perspective. And I think both of these help me get closer to being the person I most want to be.

I lead a weekly meditation group at my shul on Friday mornings at 8:15am. If this interests you, and you live nearby, all are welcome; no previous experience with meditation required.

Meditation resources: