August, 28, 2012
(Photo credit: http://anksexperience.blogspot.com/2010/04/pain.html)
Tick…tick…tick…It was maybe minute 13 or 20 of a 45-minute sitting meditation period at the Awakened Heart Project silent meditation retreat, that I was on last week, when my backache became very painful. Normally, I would offer myself some relief by doing a slow seated twist or hunching over for a few breaths. I normally sit on a cushion with no back support because I usually fall asleep if I am leaning against something. This sit was unique because I was seated at the front of the room facing everyone. I had volunteered to be the bell ringer at this particular sit, and it happened to be the most physically painful sit of the week.
I felt an added responsibility to be still because I wanted to be a model of stillness for the community. The stillness of the outside representing the supposed stillness of the mind inside. But we all know that this is never the case. My mind was concerned and seeking a way to alleviate the pain. This is normal, natural, and mostly beneficial. We experience pain and we do what we can to end it as quickly as possible.
As the time ticked on and the pain intensified, lessened, and redoubled, I decided that I would not move and face this pain for the following reasons: (1) I was not going to die from the pain – even though my mind was afraid of such a possibility, it was just not possible, (2) the time was eventually going to end – so no matter how painful things got, I knew that after 25 minutes or so, I would be relieved of this self-imposed responsibility to be still, and (3) THE BIG ONE – many times in life I cannot just shirk off suffering and it is important to learn that I can sit through it and see what happens.
The first thing that I noticed was that the pain was not constant. Just like most sensations it danced around, punched and retreated. So the possibility existed that any one moment would actually be painLESS, so it would be inaccurate to say that I was just dwelling in pain.
Next, I noticed how the mind will “contort” itself with outrageous claims in order to bring about instant relief. I really did have several thoughts of, “I am afraid that I am going to die.” There clearly was no real danger of dying. But it is interesting to note how close the fear and acknowledgment of death is, even as we all have become experts in denying its presence.
Lastly, and perhaps the most revelatory for me in this experience, is that our pain (experienced by the self, or seen in another) is very much a call for compassion. Pain is our being’s ringtone for closeness, comfort, and love. During the final minutes of the sit, the pain at its peak, my mantra became – “Inhale, feel the pain. Exhale, compassion on this body.” This is when life gets beautiful – when we can experience our deep yearning for love while finding relief in the knowledge that the closeness we seek is just one breath away. Ding…
Compassion From My Bike Seat
July 17, 2012
(Photo credit: http://sf.streetsblog.org/category/community-organizations/walk-oakland-bike-oakland/)
A few weeks ago I was riding my bike to work. It was cool and frosty (for the Bay Area) morning and my head was a bit cloudy. I was coming to an intersection and I spotted a young woman standing at the corner judging if she could make it across the street given the oncoming traffic. She stepped into the street and then noticed me coming. She hesitated, seemingly to wait to see if I was going to slow down and let her pass. I slowed my bike, wanting to give her the time to go ahead and cross the street. I made a slow roll towards her as she stayed her place and stared at me. I continued to crawl forward trying to show her that I was slowing for her. As I just about reached her location, she let out a big huff, slapped her thigh in exasperation and stomped across the road yelling, “I was letting you go!” I in turn shouted back, “But I was letting you go!” And I felt embarrassed and a bit angry that she was now frustrated by my attempt to do a favor.
As I myself began to huff-pedal my bike towards downtown Oakland, a thought arose in my mind, “I will never try to do something nice for anyone ever again!” Thankfully, I caught this thought and made light of it. “Okay mind,” I thought in response, “I won’t do anything nice anymore because one person got pissed off at me.” I realized deeper that I was also judging this person. Who knows what state of mind she was in? Where she was heading? Maybe she had been in a bike accident before? It is impossible to know.
The reminder for me is that this happens too often – where we let one event dictate our future relationships and attitudes towards life experiences. Today I went bowling and I had fun doing it. That was a huge shocker for me, because I associate bowling with something that I hated doing as a child, because I was horrible at it. (I am still horrible, and it can still be fun.) So, I want to challenge you to be more aware of the things you hate in life and those moments that piss you off, and see if you can invite in a bit of reason and humor into those situations. You might end up feeling compassionate instead of angry. That is true transformation.
Living with Uncertainty
May 17, 2012
In New Mexico I (poorly) decided to drive around a ROAD CLOSED sign in late January that was blocking a mountain pass towards Albuquerque. I had seen other cars do the same on other roads, and thought, “Hey, why not my car?”
As I wound my way down to the valley, shadow took over and the snow on the ground became more significant. And with no cell service and no back-up plan, I realized that my car could not handle the thickening sleety snow. I turned the radio off so I could concentrate better and began a slow crawling-speed forward, hoping I could make it out the other side.
When I looked far ahead of me I became very nervous. How long is this road? Am I really all alone down here? Aren’t there bears in New Mexico? (Yes, I learned a lot from my naiveté, and here comes the point.) So to calm myself down I drew my gaze to just a few feet in front of my car. Noting the slow, but steady progress I was making, I was able to let go of some of my fear. And I believe that I learned something about life.
When we try to see the complete path of our life, we can get tangled in tremendous doubt and uncertainty. There are so many unknowns and so many questions that cannot be answered. “Will this relationship last?” “Will my child escape harm?” “Will I land that dream job?” “Will we know peace someday?” I can hope and I can pray, but I can never know.
To deal with this, sometimes petrifying uncertainty, it is good to draw back my focus to some of the more immediate tasks at hand. “What am I doing now to honor my partner and our relationship?” “What skills am I instilling in my children so that they can better handle life’s hardships?” “What actions am I taking in order to compete for the job I want?” “How do my actions increase the peacefulness of my current situation?”
I believe these questions help us to live right on that boundary between what we can and cannot control. We are still driven by our intentions and goals to expand our meaningful selves through time, while we remain anchored in the reality of our present moment.
Every now and then it is helpful and needed to look further ahead, to take the time to remember the limits of our control. We may be able to avoid a far off snow bank. Or, perhaps in the distance the snow has already melted away. By doing so we can appreciate the unknown as a mystery that can make our wildest dreams even greater than we could have imagined.
The Season of our Freedom
April 12, 2012
Spring is here and the taste of Matzah is in my mouth. It can only mean one thing – It’s Passover! Given the increased restriction (or call to awareness) on the foods that Jews traditionally consume on Passover, it is an interesting paradox that this holiday is also called “The Season of our Freedom.” Centuries ago that Hebrews escaped Egyptian bondage and began their journey to self-ruled nationhood, or rather to a One-God ruled nationhood. And so today we remember, oh yes, we are free!
But what does it mean to be free? Heschel wrote, “The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that ‘I can act as I desire.’” Freedom should not mean, “I can do whatever I damn well please,” because if it does mean that, we would quickly strip away the freedom of those around us if their expression of freedom conflicts with our freedom. I think we encounter this definition of freedom on the pre-school playground, “That’s my toy!”
From an existential perspective Freedom always comes with Responsibility. I would venture to say that responsibility bounds freedom before it becomes toxic. We simply cannot do whatever we want or we would destroy the planet (Global warming or not). Life is laced with freedom and responsibility.
At the same time responsibility does not override freedom. Freedom, rather, is the fundamental element of responsibility. If we did not choose to assert ourselves towards a certain cause or caring relationship, there could be no responsibility. And it is in this assertion that we truly express our freedom.
Freedom can become overwhelming. For example, it can be easier to live a religiously observant life if you believe that you have no choice in the matter. For me, when I introduce the element of choice that I have the freedom to walk away from observance and still live a happy and fulfilled life, I begin to question if I really need to be living life in this manner. I can just go eat the freakin’ bagel on Passover, and it really would be okay. But as I shift my mind away from my stomach, I realize that it is MY conviction to carve a personal path in observance that makes the whole ordeal meaningful and even somewhat magical. I come into contact with my POWER to choose.
I think a good challenge for this “Season of Freedom” is to remember all those places that you are actually choosing to engage in your life that you have tucked under the rug for a, “I have no choice!”attitude. For example, your commitment to care for your kids or elderly parents is not without a personal choice. Working 80-hours a week is also not without your personal seal of approval. I am not suggesting that you change anything, only that you become more intimate with your personal power to choose, (AKA your FREEDOM) and to feel empowered even when you feel stuck.
Dealing with “Not Enough”
Feb. 29, 2012
Yesterday I made the mistake of reading an article about work/life balance. I say it was a mistake because instead of absorbing the intended message of the article – (that productivity is enhanced when time is given for respite) – I was struck with the opposite effect – there is so much left undone that I want to still do! I felt my body go into a mild panic about the future. I began to judge myself – I don’t have a clear life direction yet. I am too timid in going after the things that I want in life. And I just don’t do enough.
Somewhere in all this toxic mind chatter I remembered when a professor said to me, “Zvi, you did a lot of work just to let go of doing and settle into being.” He was goading me about my catch phrase meaning through being and the paradox about actively studying being so intensely. That memory acted as a life line as I was able to weed through the bombarding cultural cues of necessary success that had entangled me. I remembered that I did not have to buy into the cultural rules that deemed that I had to do more and more or else I would become less and less.
I did some exercise, reviewed my tasks at hand noting that I was indeed being productive, and after about thirty minutes felt more at ease about my life course.
Social pressure can drive us mad. There is a message wafting in the American air of our big cities that there is always more to do and that who we are now is not enough. We are barely content with being fine in the present moment as many of us are trained to try to figure out the stability of our entire lives right now. At these moments of feeling overwhelmed we can invite in a degree of willingness to our willfulness. We can be honest about the limits of our control and aim for openness as life continues to flow.
Try this: Get out of your head by engaging your body and share some self-appreciation for all that you are now.
The Labels We Live By
Feb. 15, 2012
Yesterday I overheard a heartbreaking snippet of a conversation. I admit, that I am reading a lot into this snippet, being that it was only a tiny piece of probably a more lengthy conversation, and an even more lengthy story – but, a minds got to do what a minds got to do. So here goes.
I was walking home on another chilly NYC late afternoon and a man in his forties stepped out of a building in front of me holding hands with a young girl, maybe age 10. I heard the man say to this child,
“A failure…Failure. Am I a failure? Did mommy ever say to you that I am a failure?”
That was all I heard as we walked in opposite directions. My first thought was to turn around and say to the father, “That question is so unhelpful. Your daughter should probably not be in the middle of the drama between you and your ex-wife.” Of course, I realized that I was totally judging this man with no real understanding of the situation and kept walking.
As my mind continued to play the situation over, I started to think about all the negative labels we carry around for ourselves and for other people and scenarios. I have been here for about 6 weeks now and up until recently, when anyone asked me how things were going I would start by saying, “Terrible. I like the work I’m doing, but I don’t want to be in NY.” Somehow I decided that I had to reinforce the story that I was not content here. Knowing that I will be here until May, this is rather unhelpful.
It seems really important to me to weed out these deep damaging labels that I brand myself and others with. Our brains are meaning machines and will automatically fill in the gaps when information is missing. I see a person, and I automatically trust or mistrust them. I label them smart, scary, sad, or dangerous. There is a protective value to this process, and there is also a downside. Our labels create biases in our behavior and we can begin to treat ourselves and other people unfairly and without wisdom.
Awareness is not only knowing what your mind is thinking. It is also choosing to affirm or alter your mind’s automatic judgments. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice and support, and if we want a more compassionate world, now is a good time to start.
Jan. 19, 2012
Earlier this week I was taking a wonderful yoga class at a studio called NYC Loves Yoga . The class was rather quiet as the teacher was guiding us through an intense sequence of asanas. Personally, I was focused on my body and tracking my breath. Yes, I can be a Yoga goodie two-shoes . The teacher let out a little chuckle and said, “Whew guys, you are all so quiet! Don’t be so sad!” She then continued to teach.
Her words were very familiar to me as I have thought the very same thing when teaching Yoga or other workshops. I am so trained to judge positivity with smiles and good cheer that perceived solemnity automatically registers in my mind as sad, disconnected, and discontent.
In one of my past weekly learning sessions there was one student who most of the time sat with a complete scowl on his face. I see his face and my mind says, “He hates this and he hates me.” Inevitably, he would pop out a question that showed he was closely listening, intrigued, and wanted more information. I had to train my brain to reinterpret his facial expression as concentrated, not angry.
Our sense of personal meaning and the meaning we ascribe to a particular moment can be deeply impacted by our perceptions of those around us. Next time you catch a glimpse of a situation and fling out a negative interpretation, ask your brain to slow down and offer another possibility. Especially with people we do not know well, or with forms of communication that are mostly limited (phone/emails), it is so easy to misinterpret the inner world of another individual. With practice we can learn to keep our judgments open and less harmful. Good luck!
Global Growing with Good Intentions
December 12, 2011
(Photo credit: http://kidsplaceinternational.org/?page_id=16)
I get so excited about the changing world around me. I hope it is not limited to the Bay Area. The strong presence of transgender people is a hint of a nation of prophets, their lives ringing with the message – “Change is possible!” The wealthiest among us are being challenged about their controversial and potentially harmful beliefs. In past generations (and still in some areas today), could one so easily criticize a king or political leader especially in public without facing consequences? In some ways the world is widening its margins of acceptance, while in other ways a global culture is streamlining life through the electronic connections of the World Wide Web.
As we grow as a global community into fuller awareness of the world around us, we have a greater task of responsibility. How will we shape this growth? In contemplative practice, one usually begins with the simple act of paying attention in order to cultivate awareness and presence. We sit and follow the breath, for example, watching as thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise. We get to know our inner-worlds and see that really everything passes in its own time. Out of this truth wisdom comes – “maybe I do not have to push and control so hard, life has its own momentum.”
After a while of riding on this awareness, a natural question seems to arise – Is awareness enough? If we see pain and suffering around us, does the simple act of seeing alleviate it? This is not a question that is answered with a simple yes or no. It seems that the simple awareness that has been cultivated purposely leads to this question. So we go back to our meditation schools and faith institutions and the practice changes. Now we are offered teachings to train our intention to layer on top of awareness. This way, we do not just become aware, but we become aware in a particular way. I am convinced that this dual or multi-layered approach is present in any faith-based practice. I am currently taking a series-class at the East Bay Meditation Center where we are learning to spark our awareness from the qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In Judaism there is a similar approach to character development called Mussar Practice, (www.mussarleadership.org). These practices help to reshape the “I” from which life is lived.
Another example that gets us closer to a global system model is in organizational development. As a start-up becomes established and successful, new staff is hired and a variety of departments emerge. Efficient and thoughtful managing staff will attempt to infuse the growth of the organization with their original mission and values. An expanding hospital still needs to heal people, not just serve more people. A religious institution should remain a place of connection to Spirit while moving to a larger building. Part of growth, on all levels, is to maintain the appreciation of what is core and simple while becoming more complex in other ways.
Thus, when we notice suffering around us, we do heal the world because we are maintaining the simple power of presence in a world that is growing ever more complex and complicated. That is a huge task within itself. And when we add the layers of ourselves as compassionate and kind people, we Super Size the capacity for these values to be infused within the social fabric of this expanding global community. So notice the practice that you are already doing to increase your awareness with greater compassion and celebrate your steps (meditation, prayer, raising children, educating others, Yoga, taking care of yourself). Simultaneous Step 2: Appreciate other people around you who are practicing in some way too.
An Evil Twin is Born
November 22, 2011
In synagogues this weekend we will read the story of Jacob and Esau. I believe that this portion contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts and holds an important message about meaning. Here is the scene (Genesis, Chapter 25).
Esau, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esau wants some of that soup!
Esau: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!
Jacob: You want my soup! Trade me your status as the first-born!
Esau: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?
Esau swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esai came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite an issue!)And the rest is history – the children of Jacob and the children of Esau become eternal archetypal enemies. Not so wonderful!
Growing up I always learned about Esau as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esau really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.
“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”
Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Jacob and Esau seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condone a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.
So was Esau a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esau knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esau, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a G-d in the world, things seem to just happen.
Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Jacob way” of looking at the world and an “Esau way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?
Un/fortunately, I think about these topics way too much and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.
This week, I feel bad for Esau. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esau’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this story teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person. As we see in the story of Esau, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.
Despair in Denver
Nov. 9, 2011
(Photo credit: http://www.artbycedar.com/blog/2008/07/08/cosmic-dance/)
Two days ago I was boarding a plane from Denver to Oakland. As I made the slow march down the boarding bridge to the plane, I overheard a one-sided conversation of a man behind me.
“I am doing much better,” he said to someone on the phone. “I do not feel sad all the time anymore. That feeling of emptiness … of what is all of this for … it’s a little lighter. When she left me, I just didn’t know what to do…”
I took a quick glance behind me and saw a man in his late thirties, sharply dressed, neat and clean. His face was calm and his presence collected. I was in utter disbelief that he would share such private feelings in such an open space. I was also feeling grateful to this man, who could so boldly share about his personal nightmare of despair.
I wanted to hug him. I wanted to slip him my card and imagined that reading some of my thoughts would heal him. I wanted to say, “Hey brother, I hear you!” And even the cliché words, “Don’t worry, it gets better,” came to my mind. Of course, I only know that for me it does get better, and then I feel lonely again, and then I feel supported and loved again. The dance of human existence between wholeness and emptiness. Not only the dance of the person, but I imagine that we are tuned into some larger cosmic dance of complete fulfillment (Shabbat), interspersed with utter chaos (6 days shall you work).
Sometimes, in moments of despair the only possible choice is to hunker down, acknowledge the pain, and wait for a glimmer of hope, of connectivity to reveal itself. We are generally very skilled at this process as we have exercised resiliency in the face of disappointment countless times. The failed exam. The rejection from a job opportunity. The lost love. So many lived experiences have stripped us of our inner peace. And yet, mostly, we continue to smile another day. Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House,” highlights this point exquisitely, thus I leave you with his words.
“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
Oct. 4, 2011
As I walked the streets of Mexico City, I noticed something quite amazing. On countless occasions, as I caught the passing eyes of restaurant waiters of street cafés, taxi drivers waiting for their next fare, or security guards casing the crowded streets, I was offered an enthusiastic, “Buenos Dias!” (or Tardes, or Noches – depending on the time of day). The people of Mexico City seemed primed to offer a blessing to any passerby. It gave me a feeling that no matter what political and/or economic turmoil is at play (and in Mexico there is plenty) the fact remains that each person has the power to uplift and support another. I tested this phenomenon out multiple times. Passing someone from behind, or as they were looking down, I would say, “Buenos dias!” And without fail, like a spring release catapult, a gregarious reply of “Buenos!” came flying back at me. I think it is a challenge to always be primed to offer goodness to another, especially when we are feeling lonely or disconnected. Mexican people have tons of problems, yet they are able to snap out of their own limited stories to create an uplifting connection with another soul. I felt that there was a sense of family pulsing through the city like I have never experienced.
On Yom Kippur we are called together to spend a day in prayer and introspection. We take a break from eating, wear white, and wear similar footwear. Even between different Jewish groups (Sefardi and Ashkenazi, for example) where specific liturgy might vary, we commit to the same flow of prayer service. It is our sacred duty on Yom Kippur to help each other remember how connected the human community is to each other and with the world around us. On Rosh Hashana we crown G-d as king, and on Yom Kippur we crown each other as agents ofTikkun Olam (repairing the world).
We are taught that we take on excessive devotional practices so we might resemble angles and be closer to G-d. So what is an angel? One perspective is that angels are messengers that pass energy from theSource of Life to all manifestations of life. This is like the bio-electric charge that bounds neurons to activate our physical body. On Yom Kippur, when we take time to intend towards a more perfect world and inspire each other to do so, we are elevated to the status of angels. It is said that an angel has only one task to accomplish. Is it not true that no matter what dress our life story wears, underneath we are always tasked with the service of making the world around us better in some way?
During our daily morning prayer services (Shabbat and Holiday included), right before the Sh’ma we proclaim that the angels “give permission, one to the other to sanctify their Creator.” How perfect a metaphor for us this Yom Kippur to show up to synagogue, not only to pray for a good and successful year, but to give permission to each other to engage in our life purpose for the new year that has just begun!
Let’s Hear it for the Body!
Sept. 15, 2011
This might be a difficult post. The gist is that we should have complete gratitude and respect for the body that enables us to live our lives. The reason why this is a precarious idea is because the honor that is owed to the body stems from the fact that it takes the brunt of all the growth that we do in life. Our body is our ultimate sacrifice and payment for being alive. One of its major functions and miracles is that it decays at an almost imperceptible pace. Every interaction that we have (positive, negative, and neutral) takes its toll on the body. When we experience and express anger, anxiety, even joy, pressure is put on the body and in a way it is wounded.
Today, when I boarded this Delta flight to New York City, which will enable me to take part in a joyful celebration, there was a startling sign posted in the jetway. There are possibly hazardous fumes in the jetway that can cause cancer. My heart and mind are full of excitement and anticipation, while my body, quite possibly is inhaling poison. I do not think anyone can live without incurring harm. I am not going to stay home from now on. Even if you lock yourself away from all any possible impairment, there is still a tremendous physical burden that results from loneliness. What can we really do? As far as I can tell, at this point in reality, our bodies were not made to last forever. I am going to die.
Yoga, swimming, crying, and laughter are all tools that can incrementally wash trauma from the body, increase flexibility and strength. The bodies of Tai Qi Masters still do not last forever. The decay of the body and the cessation of it biological functions, what we call death, creates the possibility for a life that is full of meaning. Death creates the urgency to live fully. It is what most of us fear most that pushes us towards creativity, joy, and constant discovery.
Given what we put our bodies through, let’s treat our bodies with the most compassion possible. Celebrate your body. Help others to rejoice in their own bodies. We might not know why we are here, but let’s choose compassion and appreciation for our greatest gift and teacher.
Affirming the Ego
August 31, 2011
I think the Ego has received a bad rap in the development of our cultural “enlightenment philosophies.” The Ego has become a word that is used to point to something internal that must be tempered, punished, put down, or even nullified in order for us to fulfill a higher purpose. In my own readings I have found this usage of the Ego to be damaging. Though this might not be the intent of certain authors, it makes me feel that I have something sick that I carry around with me and no matter how much I try, I cannot fully overcome. I am no expert in Psychoanalytic theory, though it seems clear that the Ego serves an extremely important function in the way human beings interact in the world. The Ego is a function. It takes the base drives and desires that are most primal and enables us to enact them in a secure way that is connective to the people and world around us. The Ego is a tool of transcendence that elevates thoughtless impulse to meaningful action. Halleluyah!
As Ego is often equated with the Self, I think we can see the Self in a similar light. I try not to use the Ego/Self so casually and certainly not connected with words such as nullification or pathology. On a recent meditation retreat (Awakened Heart Project), the thought arose, “Cutting off the Self is like severing the end of an electrical cord.” Without an Ego we cannot access meaning or connect with broader states of mind – psychological or spiritual.
What has been feeling more integrative is to translate the New Age use of Ego/Self as the false sense of separateness, which is perhaps only one small sliver of the Ego function as Freud intended. I do think that our culture has become so individualistic that we struggle to empathize with the suffering of another without thinking “Thank G-d that is not me!”, nor truly rejoice in the celebration of another without thinking “Hey G-d! Can’t that be me!” There are times (not always) when this sense of being separate should be put down, admonished, or even nullified. Mindfulness is a compassionate way of keeping separateness in check.
My meditation teachers (most recently Rabbi Jeff Roth, Sylvia Boorstein, and Norman Fischer) helped me to see that separateness can be overcome by paying mindful attention to the accessible workings of the Ego/Self – the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise when you turn your gaze inward. It’s a jungle in here! Erratic pains and pleasures move and shoot through my body. Baseless judgments erupt attacking people that I have never spoken with. Moods swing like a dysfunctional pendulum. The insight hits home, “I have so little control over what is going on inside of me and it impacts my actions tremendously. This goes for everyone else too.” The walls of separateness melt against this tender connection when understanding that, as Sylvia taught, “All of us can mostly only act how we act.” In this process, the Ego/Self does not disappear. Rather it is affirmed and strengthened as an ever-changing process that helps us to unite our internal and external worlds.
August 17, 2011photo credit (http://www.jub.si/en/about-jub/druzbena-odgovornost/)
Here is an excerpt from Viktor Frankl’s “The Doctor and the Soul” (Third expanded edition). It is definitely worth reading the whole thing and best read more than once. Frankl discusses an amazing practice of appreciating the time gone by and the dual nature between an individual and his or her responsibility.
“Time passed is certainly irrevocable; but what happened within that time is unassailable and inviolable. Passing time is therefore not only a thief, but a trustee. Any philosophy which keeps in mind the transitoriness of existence need not be at all pessimistic. To express this point figuratively we might say: The pessimist resembles a person who observes with fear and sadness that his/her wall calendar, from which s/he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who takes life in the sense suggested above (without pessimism) is like a person who removes each successive leaf from his/her calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors – after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. S/ He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life s/he has already lived to the full. What will it matter to him/her that s/he is growing old? Has s/he any reason to envy the young people who s/he sees, or wax nostalgic for his/her own youth? What reasons has s/he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that young person has, the future that is in store for him/her? “No thank you,” s/he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past – not only the reality of work done and loved love, but of suffering suffered. These are the things of which I am most proud – though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
All that is good and beautiful in the past is safely preserved in the past. On the other hand, so long as life remains (transcendent life with a capital L), all guilt and all evil is still “redeemable.” This is not the case of a finished film, or an already existent film which is merely being unrolled. Rather, the film of this world is just being “shot.” Which means nothing more nor less then that the past – happily – is fixed, is safe, whereas the future – happily – still remains to be shaped; that is, is at the disposal of human responsibility.
But what is responsibility? Responsibility is something we face and something we may try to escape. The wisdom inherent in common speech thus suggests that there are counterforces operating in human beings which attempt to relieve them of their natural responsible-ness. And in truth there is something about responsibility that resembles an abyss. The longer and the more profoundly we consider it, the more we become aware of its awful depths – until a kind of giddiness overcomes us. For as soon as we lend our minds to the essence of human responsibility, we cannot forbear to shudder; there is something fearful about man’s responsibility. But at the same time something glorious! It is fearful to know that at this moment we bear the responsibility for the next, that every decision from the smallest to the largest is a decision for a all eternity. That at every moment we bring to reality – or miss – a possibility that exists only for that particular moment. Every moment holds thousands of possibilities, but we can choose only a single one of these; all the others we have condemned, damned to never being – and that , too, for all eternity. But it is glorious to know that the future, our own and therewith the future of the things and people around us, is dependent – even if only to a tiny extent – upon our decision at any given moment. What we actualize by that decision, what we thereby bring into the world, is saved; we have conferred reality upon it and preserved it from passing.”
Finding Your Voice
August 12, 2011
Wisdom comes to us from every corner of our existence, even the darkest places. Below is a teaching from Rabbi Ronnie Cahana who is currently in the beginning stages of recovery from a serious stroke. His words come from blinking his eyes and the patience of his loving family who help to transmit his voice. The teaching below is an inspiration to me as it relates to a struggle for all of us to find our voice no matter what the challenge is. May Rabbi Ronnie have a speedy recovery and sustained love from his community and family.
ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם מתיר אסורים
Blessed are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who releases the bound.
An uncle of mine, an Israeli gentleman farmer, liked to say, “Just add more phosphorus; nothing should ever stop growing.” The latter part of the sentence still intrigues. I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that all of nature devolves into mulch. Creation has more spiritual content than that. No, G-d’s Creation gives meaning from the Beginning to the End. Pursuing the knowledge of G-d at every juncture of life is the purpose of Judaism. We must chase after G-d in every encounter and always distinguish between good and evil in cold nature.
Not long ago, our morning minyan (Jewish prayer group) took on a challenge at the breakfast to bring to the table our personal stories of deep Jewish wisdom. Perry Lande, may his memory be blessed, brought a teaching that still impresses me. He said that he was taught by his father, Shepsel, before he joined the Canadian Army, that HaShem gives everyone “four amot” to take care of—about 6 feet square in land and air. If you keep yours b’seder, in order, he told us, then usually everything comes out alright. An ama is about 1 ½ feet—the distance between our organs and our limbs. We measure an “ama” by our reach—the space from our elbow to the tip of our longest finger, which is exactly where we put our tefillin shel yad on while making the bracha of love to G-d.
Taking care of our own spheres is a deep secret of how we can tend the divine garden and make it perfect. However, in times of crisis, we need to open our ”arba amot” and reach out to others and for others. No ordeal should be experienced alone. How wondrously close all of G-d’s creatures are to each other and what an impact we can have in each others’ lives. I know that I have experienced this miracle and beyond. I’m asking for us all to expand our reach, even as I cannot find mine just now.
From this vantage at the Montreal Neurological Institute, I’m deeply inspired by our Jewish values. Our Jewish Community doesn’t allow anyone, any family, to feel isolated and our Beth-El family outshines my life. As I am trying to find my own shofar voice—naturally, brokenly, triumphantly—tekiah, shvarim, teruah, (steady and broken calls) I’m calling out to shul in gratitude: tekiah gdolah (great strong voice). And please collect your wisdom stories for the shul, share them and forward them around.
We always read a specific Torah portion, Parashat Dvarim on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av (Jewish day of communal mourning) to dispel the loneliness of the Hurban, the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Moses cries to G-d, “How can I bear this people alone?” How odd this statement. He did not even want to start the mission. You recall that he told G-d that he couldn’t speak, but, in fact, we never see this evidenced. Moshe was the most effective, eloquent orator ever. He was G-d’s mouthpiece. How could he ever say that he was a stammerer?
The Five Books of the Torah are filled with G-d’s speech. In Bereshit (the first book), G-d calls out everything in nature and gives meaning to Creation. In Shmot (the second book), G-d names the People and gives us purpose. In Vayikra (the third book), G-d calls us personally. In Bamidbar (the fourthbook), G-d speaks to the Jewish People from the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). Now we begin Dvarim (the fifth book) - Elu Dvarim – These are the words.
Moses does not think that he cannot speak; he believes that the people cannot hear or understand G-d’s meaning and the beauty of life. Moshe feels alone if he doesn’t connect Israel to G-d. We are imprisoned if we only have a relationship with our G-d alone. We need community to find G-d together.
ברוך אתה ה‘ אלוקינו מלך העולם מתיר אסורים
Rabbi Ronnie Cahana
Goal Setting and Goal Straining
July 31, 2011
This morning I took a bike ride up the lovely Berkeley hills heading towards Tilden Park. I set a loose goal for myself that I would bike up to the park entrance. It has been a while climbing with my bike as I have been traveling, and the ride proved harder than expected. I started breaking the ride into pieces in my head. First stop was at the corner of Los Angeles Street. I reached my first goal, got off and took some time to drink water, stretch and breathe. The next stop I picked was a little park that is almost near the top. As I pedaled up, I began to feel the strain in my knees. I began to consider how I could easily get stuck to think that the arbitrary goal that I set for myself was the actual point of the ride. I was not riding my bike to get to any park, rather I wanted to get my heart rate up, sweat a bit, and delight in the beautiful scenery of the bay out in the distance.
In that case I was fulfilling the main purpose of the ride at that very moment. I am a determined person who is engaged in a challenge and aware of my being.
When we set goals for ourselves we have to ask ourselves what is the true purpose of the journey and how will a goal serve my journey or distract me from it. For example, we might enroll in a 4-week course to gain a skill. We might easily confuse completing the course for actually becoming proficient at the skill. The desire to learn something becomes confused with the need to finish the class. This is a criticism of the American education system where there is a strong norm that each stage of school should take a certain number of years. As a result we have cohorts of people competing to stay neck and neck with each other instead of making sure that they evolve and mature at their own unique pace.
Think about a goal that you have set for yourself. Completing law school. Cutting down on sugars. Mastering a complex song on piano or guitar. Now check in with yourself: have you become so focused on the finish line that you have stopped appreciating the growth that occurs in the striving? Can we begin to help each other remember that we are living our purpose despite a complete success or failure? And what is this unifying layer of meaning? More and more, I believe it is to express our essential being in a way that supports others to do the same.
July 14, 2011
I recently received a practice question from a former retreat participant. With this person’s permission, I am posting it here and suggesting an answer for all to read. Please read on.
I participated in your Contemplative Shabbat retreat and am looking for ways to use this in daily life…recently I have been choosing silence during the day (until I start work) and this has been helpful…I am wanting to know if you have any advice on how to deepen this experience.
I am most inspired by the experiences I have had with silence where I would feel a rush of love and oneness for another person that I was observing…this happened often at Friday night Shabbos meals where I was a guest at someone’s house…and was simply observing.”
There are two main elements that stand out for me in this inquiry. The first is a desire for integrated silence in daily life. What might it mean to have a relationship with retreat silence when we are running around during our busy non-retreat lives? The second element is about creation. How can we take a moment and transform it into an experience of unity? I believe that this is THE question!
I would like to answer these questions within the framework of Discovering and Creating meaning as written about by Paul Wong and is one of the themes in my dissertation. The cycle of a meaningful existence goes somewhat like this –
I have an experience and feel a deep connection and affirmation with my essential being. I have a sensation that this is meaningful. This is Discovering Meaning. Then, using the information that I know how to affirm my core sense of being, I manipulate my environment in order to Create further experiences of meaning. Soon I discover something else, or in greater detail, which I experience as meaningful and I can become more skillful in creating moments of meaning in my life.
Often we have an acceptance moment in retreat silence that reminds us, “I AM WHO I AM AND THAT IS GOOD ENOUGH.” This is perhaps one of the highest forms of self-affirmation and self-love. You are witnessing clearly all the issues about yourself that have been labeled problems and things to change, and the drama around these temporarily softens. “IT’S ALL OKAY.” With this lens you gaze around the meditation room or dinner table and notice that everyone in the room is who they are and they are good enough too. We experience this affirmation as a Discovery of meaning, and it can feel very good. (I do not think we have to be ashamed of saying that it brings pleasure.)
Now for the next piece. How do I use this information, that silence helps me to affirm the essential being of myself and others, in my daily life? The first thing is to celebrate this discovery. You do not have to throw yourself a Spiritual Sweet Sixteen, but in a way this discovery is a rite of passage and you can take time to experience the joy of knowing what gives your life meaning and share this with friends and family. Sharing your appreciation of silence with others will draw a support network near you. Community is another important element of integration.
My teacher Shoshana Cooper cautioned me that if I want to continue on the Contemplative Path I will need community. This does not mean living at a retreat center. Rather we can connect with like minded people near and far, online forums, and read books that “wake us up.” Part of being human is having a capacity for the creative. Play with your daily schedule and figure out the best time for formal practice (i.e. sitting, walking, contemplative study, prayer) and use your creative mind to entice and incentivize your practice. For example, I will eat this piece of pie and will say blessings of gratitude before and after and come back to the awareness of taste through each bite.
My last thought on integration is religion. Frozen dogma is quite dangerous. Agreed! Religious practice though is a time-tested and powerful toolbox to connect with yourself, the world, and the greatest mysteries. I would not write it off completely. Explore, explore, explore!
Finally, it is important to consider the difference between grasping on to past experiences and setting open intentions about what we would like to create in the world. This is discussed by Gerald May and in the fourth theme of my dissertation – Willfulness vs. Willingness. Sharing a meal with people we love and seeing them with the eyes of acceptance is a holy experience. I think it is very beneficial to have an intention that your future encounters and gatherings will have a similar quality. I also have learned that we can never completely recreate a moment, nor fully expect that what we plan will manifest. While this post talked mostly about the euphoric encounter with silence, there is also a lot of pain that one might encounter when they are getting to know themselves better. Acceptance comes in waves, and between those, the waters of mind can be quite polluted. Set intentions as you move forward in life, be mindful about uselessly crushing yourself to the past.
Moments of oneness … I do not think it is within our capacity to know how to always bring these about. There is a mystery in the universe that can turn on at any moment and we can glimpse the deep connection between all life. When you happen upon these (and practice definitely increases the chances that you will notice a moment of deep connection) the best you can do is acknowledge that this moment will never happen again and say thank you with all your being to all you are Being right now.
If you found this post useful and have a question of your own you would like me to address, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
July 6, 2011
I recently learned that my second cousin died, possibly of a drug overdose, maybe accidental, maybe not. Coby was born to a very religious family in one of the most religious neighborhoods in Israel. I remember the first time I met him. I was in my early twenties and he was a young teen.
When his entire family (two parents with about 12 children) was hurrying to sit at the Sabbath table, Coby remained still laying on the living room couch. He had to be coaxed to join us. I had a sense then that he was not really “into” the sort of religious doctrine that his family prescribed to. Unfortunately (perhaps), my assessment was right. I re-encountered Coby a few years later in Brooklyn. He strayed from the religious path. His parents, not sure what to do with him, sent him to America. Perhaps they hoped he would get straightened out in a new environment, or maybe it was easier for them to have Coby out of their hair for a while.
Coby did not find his faith in the traditional way that his parents had hoped. He returned to Israel and served the necessary time in the Israeli army. Afterwards, or maybe in the army, Coby started drinking and maybe using other drugs. I saw Coby at a few family functions over the years. He was always drunk and his behavior was belligerent. A family rule was established – he could be at family parties only after his father had left. He could talk to his mother only if his father did not know about it. His father treated him as if he did not exist.
I do not know if this banishment caused Coby to take his own life. There are demons that live inside of us that do not need a helping hand to cause damage. I imagine though that Coby could have received more love and support for the choices that he had made – from his entire family (me included) and from the society that he lived in.
In a meaning lens, it is very possible that Coby’s entire orientation to meaning depended on his affiliation with a specific religious dogma. Like many of us, the frameworks that raise us up shatter beneath our weight of experience. Perhaps Coby was never able to find a replacement meaning framework that made sense to him. Perhaps he could not imagine another type of affirmed being outside of religious identity.
Coby’s story serves as a sad reminder to me about how much impact we have on each other when it comes to finding our place in the world. No one will ever know if hearing words of acceptance from his father would have saved his life, though I think it terrible that Coby had to die never hearing them. May we not hesitate to affirm the value of the people in our life. May we find ways to disagree with one another without eradicating the other’s sense of self. May Coby’s soul find complete peace as it rejoins the source of all meaning.
Do I Really Matter?
June 6, 2011
We all live at the brink of meaningful living. We peer behind us and see a path that is hopefully coherent and is somewhat secure. In front if us, a void that simply drops off with the question, “Does it really matter?” “Do I really matter?” Many of us want to know the truth: Nu! Does my life have some objective meaningful, or not? This is a courageous question to ask, a scary inquiry to ensue, and a sobering thought to attend to.
This fundamental question can be asked in many different ways, for all the various frameworks of meaning that exist:
Is there a G-d? Does G-d care about me?
Does the universe unfold in some perceivable pattern?
Am I truly free to do what I want despite what society allows?
One the one hand, believing in objective meaning is comforting and filling. It comes with a sense that we truly matter and are whole. On the other hand, belief in objective meaning can lock us into a path of action that might no longer be suitable for us, or potentially seen as evil. There is no perfect answer.
I approach this inquiry using a framework that I learned from Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. She teaches that instead of trying to being right, aim to be effective.
Ultimately, at this stage of my own human awareness, I do not know the absolute truth about objective meaning. Thus asking the question can be a symptom of, or lead to, rumination and dissatisfaction. As aware beings though, we have the ability to choose how we perceive the world. Frankl taught that we can always choose the attitude in which we approach life. Therefore, at times it might be more skillful, or effective, to believe that your life has objective meaning (i.e. during an episode of depression), while other circumstances might call for a perspective where there is a certain degree of flexibility and freedom (i.e when wondering about transition).
Like many binaries (meaning versus no meaning), we can transition to a spectrum mentality, where we are always sitting somewhere between the extremes of complete purposefulness and utter meaninglessness. Depending on the situation and our unique needs of the moment we can choose to shift towards one end or the other. We can thus approach life with an open attitude towards meaning, as something dynamic – in part owned by us, and in part beyond us.
Compassionate Meaning Making
May 25, 2011
This morning I received a very upsetting e-mail. The content is not so important, but when I finished reading the note I felt angry, attacked, and anxious. My mind started darting around trying to find ways to cope with these feelings. I thought about calling someone and sharing what had happened, but I realized it would be too early to phone people. I thought about reading a book, but felt that I would not be able to concentrate. So instead I sat down and waited for the train.
I closed my eyes and put my mind in my belly. I often feel my feelings in my belly. There were some pretty rage-full thoughts and some harsh emotions. I decided to let the tape of angry thoughts play on, but tune my awareness to what I was feeling. At one point I began to push the thoughts away, but caught myself do this, and reminded myself that it is okay to be angry.
I felt deeper into the sadness and anger. I was worried that I had upset someone. And I found a tiny little spot inside of all of this jumble of ill-will where I felt space. It felt like the relief of an exhale. When my awareness touched this space, my thoughts shifted to those of compassion for the e-mail’s author. This person was sharing a reaction to something that I did not have complete control over. My mind began to compose a response e-mail that began with, “I want to respond to your note with compassion for the huge transition that you are in…”
The train came and I opened my eyes. I was angry again. Another wave of anger. There was a lot more to that moment than the anger caused by an e-mail, and the anger was still present. Soon the compassion came back. Several hours later, the anger and the compassion are still dancing within me.
I responded with an intention of compassion to myself and to the e-mail’s author. And now I am writing about the experience. All of these things are helping.
Anger, sadness, anxiety, and all harsh emotions are signals that it is time to sit down and pay attention to what is going on inside. It is hard to fit these negative feelings into our past experience so that they can be made meaningful. It would be so much better if we could simply eradicate them!
Alas, they exist and a skillful person should intend to increase compassionate outcomes despite negative experiences. This means that we maintain an intention that our experiences will be integrated into our past as memories where compassion was present. The acknowledgement that something needs attention is the first step towards compassionate meaning making.
Engaging with Spirit
May 10, 2011
Viktor Frankl taught that people exist on three unified planes. The first is the somatic arena, our physical body. The second is the world of thoughts and feelings, the psyche. The third is the noetic realm, which Frankl, not happily, accepted the translation of spirit. Frankl knew that the word spirit would lend to purely religious interpretations of his theory. This was far from what he actually intended with his engagement in the noetic sphere.
For Frankl, the spirit was not limited to the metaphysical or to that relating to the Divine. He believed that the spiritual part of us is the inner bellows which ushers in intuition and inspiration. The spirit is the subtle doorway between nothingness and belief in your personal power of creativity. This experienced portion of the human life can be strengthened or dismissed, just like the physical body and it has personal and cultural rules that keep it healthy. According to Frankl, a healthy soul is the cornerstone of a healthy being.
Religions definitely corner the market on spirit engagement, however they are only lenses that work for some people and not for others. Though with the plethora of choices out there, between Eastern and Western soul systems, it is hard to imagine someone not finding a docket for their spiritual attunement in some form. And of course, it is equally hard to imagine, that any one system can completely contain any one dynamically unique and ever-changing human being.
In order to deepen our understanding of the noetic sphere, we might ask ourselves, what elements in the world nurture the part of me that keeps me feeling alive, fresh and renewed? Some answers will probably be exact activities that you are already doing, and some of these activities might involve not-doing, resting, and a bit of inaction. Of course, your list should change in times of transition – personal or seasonal. And it is also quite okay if something on your list actually does lead you to a temple of some kind, even if it is a different one than you are supposed to go to. We are all just trying to figure it out, all of us (our teachers, religious leaders, and parents included).
April 29th, 2011
Viktor Frankl created his theory of meaning-based psychology, or logotherapy, under the heavy weights of his predecessors, Freud and Adler in Vienna. He corresponded with Freud in his teens and became a student of Adler as a young adult. At some point in his early career as a psychiatrist, he realized that the theories of his mentors had become crystallized and no longer relevant to the culture around him. He is quoted saying,
“At that point I suspended what I had learned from my great teachers and began listening to what my patients were telling me – trying to learn from them.”
His renewed inquiry into the experience of his patients caused him to break ideologically with his then mentor, Alfred Adler, and he was kicked out of the circle of Individual Psychologists, and had to find his own path as a Logotherapist (Meaning Therapist).
How challenging and necessary is it to ask the questions that are thought to be completely answered? In our own lives, we have to question our purpose anew multiple times, perhaps with each transition, perhaps even with each breath.
Like old texts, we have to breathe new life into the pages of our own story, time and time again, to keep them fresh and relevant. As Frankl stated, when old models seem stale, it might be time to suspend what you think you know about your journey, and begin to listen closely to the world around you with a willingness to discover something new.
Be a Tourist in your own Life Story
April 27th, 2011
As I stepped out of Penn Station onto 7th Avenue, I felt nothing special. I have stood at that exact location, by the entrance of Madison Square Garden, multiple times and I was just barely noticing the increased chaos of New York City around me. I looked across the street and saw the familiar Reiss Restaurants sign and smiled as I remembered getting to eat free pizza with a friend and his dad who worked for the Reiss company. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I was playing a distraction game with myself – trying to balance my disposable coffee cup on the ledge of a square planter outside the station. I noticed that aside from dirt and some garbage, the planters were bare.
Suddenly I was spun around by the voice of a young boy exclaiming, “Wooooow!” He had emerged from the underground escalator, wide-eyed and mouth dropped in awe. Accompanied by three adults, he was dressed for a day of site seeing, with a ball cap on his head and knapsack on his back. Was this his first time in NYC? The adults around him supported his excitement. “Isn’t it amazing here,” one woman said in response. And in my own mind, I chuckled and responded casually, “Oh yeah. It is.”
I took in my surroundings again with newly fashioned tourist eyes. The swell of traffic spotted with Yellow Taxi cabs, the enormous buildings towering overhead, the huge Coca-Cola billboard and endless row of shops and restaurants – indeed , I was standing in a tremendously exciting place. I reflected on the gift of being a tourist when traveling, and how I grew up with the message that it is not cool to be a tourist. In truth, there is a tradeoff when a place ceases to be novel. It is easier to take things for granted and harder to find reasons for gratitude.
This exercise of seeing through the eyes of a tourist, or a stranger, can also be used when the meaning and magic seems to have faded from our life story. In those moments when we feel stuck, or uncertain – during the times when we feel challenged or defeated, I have found that taking a stranger’s perspective into our own narrative can help to increase the wonder and gratitude of who we are and the life we are living.
Hearing your own story of struggle, as if it were the first time, can emphasize the strength you possess to survive. Noting the stress that you face with fresh ears can increase the urgency to seek out help, and cultivate gratitude for the people in your life that you can turn to. Your stories of hardship, grief, and pain can take on new guises of personal adventure, empowerment, and inspiration.
As Spring arrives and people around the globe explore rebirth and freedom, I bless us all with the ability to be tourists in our own lives so we can exclaim WOW! when considering the meaning of our personal journeys.
March 27th, 2011
In the 1920’s my great-grandparents left Bialystok (actually, pronounced Bee-a-wi-stalk), Poland for Israel with my grandfather, Naftali Bialystotski, safely conceived and latched on in his mother’s womb. On the streets of Tel Aviv, my grandparents met and began their family. In the late 50’s my father and his sister, along with my grandparents, boarded a ship to New York City. They settled in Brooklyn and it was there that my mother and father met, and eventually, in 1979, I was born. In 1980 my parents decided that our family name, Bialystotski, was too long and too foreign and so they chopped off and changed several letters and settled on the surname Bellin.
About 85 years after my great-grandparents, Chaim Nachman and Bella Bialystotski, left Bialystok for Israel, I boarded a train from Warsaw to see the town where they went to school, married, and began one leg of my family’s journey. Bialystok is a town known for two interesting and related facts. First is that this small but mighty city was always characterized by a diversity of languages and cultures. People in the streets of Bialystok spoke Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, German, and Yiddish. Market sellers and consumers haggled in Czech, Slovenian, Italian, and Arabic. Even today, Bialystok is thought of as a city of diversity.
This crossroad of many languages seemed to inspire the second interesting fact about Bialystok. The language of Esperanto was created on its humble cobble stone streets. Esperanto was a language crafted to promote simple communication between all people. It is spoken by an estimated 1.6 million people worldwide, though does not have the usage that its creator, Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, had wished. Based on only 16 simple rules, the language is supposed to be intuitive for anyone to learn. One way of exploring Bialystok is by following the life of Zamenhof and the development of this unifying language.
Tomek, a new friend and my local tour guide, and I took the route of witnessing the destruction of the Jewish community during World War II. Counted among the Jews that were killed by the Nazis were the families of Chaim Nachman and Bella who stayed behind. Perhaps the most tragic story that is known from that time period is that in 1941, about 2,000 Jewish men, women, and children were locked inside the Great Synagogue and burned alive. The building was completely destroyed. Today, a solemn monument marks the location of the shul. A stone path is weaved in the shape of a Jewish star and the beams of a huge battered iron dome rests lopsided on the ground. When I encountered this monument, I wondered if local kids climb on the dome, like a jungle gym. If I thought of it, I am certain it happens. The Jewish past in Bialystok is a wisp of smoke, just barely visible.
As we know, the story above is not unique in Poland. Yet, on this trip I witnessed another side of the Jewish community in Poland. I encountered a vibrant Jewish scene in Warsaw that has reset and restarted. Excavating Jewish identity and remodeling a Jewish life within the cultures of their surroundings. I believe that my new friends that are living in Warsaw must be very talented at knowing when to simply ignore the past and when to show resilience in facing the trauma.
Making meaning from the place we call home takes courage. At home we know the depth of the darkness that can be present and we also learn the exact tools needed to bring light into this darkness. On Friday night, I sat in a room in the main Nozyk Synagogue of Warsaw with 30 other young Jewish people from Warsaw, Moscow, and Stanford. This gathering gave my Polish peers the opportunity to show and affirm the meaning and vibrancy in the place that they call home. Over this past weekend, giving the young Polish community the chance to affirm their meaning was nothing short of holy work. And concurrently, witnessing the rebirth of a home for Jewish people, for me, in Poland was nothing short of life-altering.
Reviving the Spirit of Jewish Budapest
March 22, 2011
SRYL (pronounced, She-rye) is a hip 3-story coffee shop/bar in downtown Budapest. It is the only bar in town (probably the country) that has a mezuzah on the door. Generally an establishment with such a ritualistic item on its entrance would be frequented by the traditionally observant Jewish community of a town, or religious tourists that are in search of Kosher food to eat. SRYL is different. The bartender has dreadlocks, not side locks, and the clientele are mostly local youth who are the central figures to Jewish revival in Budapest. SRYL is a clubhouse of sorts; an urban phenomenon that serves the social function of a synagogue. In its walls the next generation of Hungarian Jewish leaders meet and plan Jewish festivals and cultural demonstrations. They discuss politics over packs of cigarettes and shots of apricot flavored Kosher palinka (traditional Hungarian spirits).
Until 1990 religious life was heavily regulated in Budapest. Prayer services were held in secret sanctuaries and young children were scurried into apartments to be taught the fundamentals of their faith. Before Communism, the Jewish population of Hungary was almost completely destroyed by Hitler and the Hungarian police. Survivors all have miraculous tales of escape; the stories are the treasured inheritance of the young Jews living in Budapest today. The stories of the flames which once stoked the flesh-burning incinerators, now fuel the passion of a new vibrant life for Jewish people in Budapest.
In Budapest, I had the honor of spending Shabbat and Purim with the Dor Chadash (New Generation) and Moishe House communities. After spending the day soaking up the horrid past of Jewish people in Hungary, I prayed joyously with young Hungarian Jews in a progressive Jewish home/community center. The following evening I heard the story of Queen Esther being read simultaneously in Hebrew and Hungarian, while the scroll’s words were being projected onto the wall of a local posh club.
It simply amazes me that a new excited generation of Jews exists in Budapest. They are asking the same questions of Jewish tradition that we do in the U.S. How do we make Judaism more inclusive? For gay people? For women? For Jews who are not traditionally seen as Jewish? They also ask the fundamental questions of identity. I am Jewish, so what? What does it mean for me? My community? My past? My future? I believe the seed of an answer to these questions can be found in a quote by Hannah Senesh. Born in Budapest, her life story embodies the flame of passion that still exists in the streets which supported her earliest footsteps.
“One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world.”
Teachings from Below the Surface
March 20, 2011
Wow! Sometimes you ask a question and you get an answer! I was sitting in a Kiev cafeteria eating vegetables in different forms and mulling over this question – what happens to the spirituality and religion of a people when religious life is banned? It is quite a shocking thought for me. I cannot imagine a world in which people can get into serious trouble for stepping foot into a Church or Synagogue. If we acknowledge the impact of religion on meaning, as a provider of a global story which one locates him or herself in, the gravity of a spiritual biopsy is deeply felt.
The image for me is like white washing, or maybe grey-washing, a beautifully colored mural. There are ornate churches throughout Kiev, though many that I have passed are now banks, museums, or various municipality centers. There is a very strong Ukrainian pride and culture that is embodied by large statues of ancient warriors. For me, there is a distinct flavor in Kiev with its underground tunnels linking winding markets of food, clothing, and souvenirs. But what of the stories of the spirit which have been denied? Where did they go and where are they now?
I made my way down to the Metro and was pleased that the car was not a sardine can situation as it had been in the morning. I felt confident on the Metro, taking the route that has become quickly familiar to me. As I was preparing to exit the train, a man drew closer to me and began to speak to me in Russian. I apologized and said, “English.” He answered, “Oh, okay,” and began to turn away. He then dismissed the language barrier and neared again. “I want to invite you to the Church of Christ,” he smiled at me. “Oh,” I replied, taken by surprise. “Jewish,” I pointed to myself. “No problem,” he bounced back, “Me too.” And with that he glanced back down at what he was reading.
I am no stranger to subway proselytizers. Let’s not forget the underground New York Time Square Jesus dwellers with their large white signs with bold black lettering, tables full of every language booklets, Christ-soup for the soul. This mousy man, quiet but clear, caught me off guard and while I considered the encounter as I stepped onto the escalator, the symbolism dawned on me. The spirituality of those denied it went underground. Deep down below the surface of the city to the dark tunnels where the life blood of the city flows through gritty chatter of merchants selling connections and familiarity.
Later that evening, I sat with about 15 Jewish Ukrainians in their 20’s and 30’s. We talked about recognizing the presence of G-d in the world around us, no matter how “un-spiritual” our environment seems. The people around me were successfully drawing the meaning from spirituality back to the surface. One participant stated, “If I do not learn about my tradition, in one generation or two, it will be gone.” We continued to talk about the challenge we both shared to practice our faith in a way that was relevant to our current lives. It seems to me that today in Kiev, the home is the place that people live out their beliefs and reconnect with faith traditions. The home is like the hospital for the soul, acting as the safe space – sanctuary, to heal the distanced spirit.
Reflections on Freud and Religion for Believers and Non-Believers
March 14th, 2011
Letter from Sigmund Freud to Members of The B’nai B’rith Lodge, Vienna, May 6, 1926:
“What tied me to Jewry was – I have to admit – not the faith, not even the national pride, for I was always an unbeliever … But there remained enough to make the attraction of Judaism and the Jews irresistible, many dark emotional powers all the stronger the less they could be expressed in words, as well as the clear consciousness of an inner identity, the familiarity of the same psychological structure … at a time when no one in Europe would listen to me and I had no pupils in Vienna, you offered me your sympathetic attention. You were my first audience.”
The active Viennese Jewish community that I am visiting is very traditional. Their practice and approach to Jewish life mimics the old world architecture of their rich and beautiful surroundings. While Sunday night bowling with a very diverse crowd of Jewish peers significantly differed from my Shabbat experience, the organized community that I have seen could be classified as Orthodox to Ultra Orthodox. Many people, inquiring about my work, expressed how touched they were that non-observant Jews would care about sustaining a traditional Jewish community.
I have to admit that I struggle with a similar question on a personal level. My current “day job” is to teach Judaism to 20 – 30 year olds living in Jewish community houses throughout the world. I enjoy the global aspect of my job and the opportunity to have interesting conversations with people from different cultures. I learn a tremendous amount from each encounter. I do not do my job to make people more religious, even though I help people gain access to religious rituals and texts. It is hard for me to frame my work outside of a religious context and this bothers me. Making people more religious is not a goal that I work towards, nor is it part of my meaning structure.
When I visited the Freud museum in Vienna, I came across the quotation printed above. Freud seemed to spend a lot of time struggling with his own identity as a Jew. He did not necessarily believe that the Biblical stories and characters existed in the exact manner that they were written. He seemed to deny that the Torah was a uniquely Divine document. These were common thoughts in Europe at the time. Still, Freud’s identity as a Jew persisted throughout his life, and some say that his knowledge of Judaism influenced his exploration of the human psyche.
Freud’s words spoke directly to my own struggle, and I believe to the power of religion for people on the whole spectrum of complete non-believers to extreme fanatics. He said,
“But there remained enough to make the attraction of Judaism and the Jews irresistible, many dark emotional powers all the stronger the less they could be expressed in words, as well as the clear consciousness of an inner identity, the familiarity of the same psychological structure.”
The first element that jumps out at me is the meaning that one receives from connecting to a communal story. Ascribing to a faith gives one a story that reaches far beyond their limited sense of self. It is the aspect of the transcendent that is key to a sustainable sense of meaning. I believe that this is what Freud meant when he wrote, “the clear consciousness of an inner identity, the familiarity of the same psychological structure.” Choosing to unite oneself with a communal story, or psychological structure, enables the individual to locate themselves clearly in this world. The sense of knowing one’s place is synonymous with the experience of purpose and value.
Freud’s statement also intrigued me when he stated, “many dark emotional powers all the stronger the less they could be expressed in words …” Admittedly, I am not sure of the exact context of this statement, but it holds resonance for me when I translate it into my own story. Undeniably, life is full of struggle and sadness. The world faced terrifying occurrences last week. Thousands of people lost their lives in a flash. The safety blanket of personal control ripped out of our hands. There were dark emotional powers at play which defied simple language as a form of expression and healing. Encountering our mortality by force can pulverize our sense of meaning into dust. Even our language can lose its function of expression. Our individual story vanishes like thin wisps of smoke. The role of religion is crucial at this point, as it provides a strong safety net for the individual who has lost his or her footing in their world. It is perhaps a harsher way of experiencing a merging with the transcendent via the nullification of the self. There is healing in the connection with the collective story that all religions provide.
Though G-d is not mentioned in the above paragraphs, G-d is not excluded from them. For the believer, G-d is the collective story and the individual story. G-d is the witness to the self losing its way. G-d is the path that can no longer be seen and the place of limbo where one loses oneself in. No matter what one’s access point to religion is, there is always a connection to the meaning that religion provides. May we all find comfort and meaning in our stories within stories.
Joy, Suffering, and Everything in Between
March 10th, 2011
On Tuesday night I visited Moishe House London. It is a hip community house that hosts programs and events for (mostly) young Jews living in London. I have the pleasure of being connected to this amazing crew through work. As a preparation for the Jewish holiday of Purim, I taught a session about how one might approach the custom of getting drunk. We are taught that one should get so drunk that she or he cannot tell the difference between the curses and blessings in our life. There is a textual connection made between the use of alcohol and the discovery of hidden secrets about oneself, about the world, and/or about G-d. Given the tendency to drink to an unhealthy state of oblivion, I thought that this was a worthwhile community discussion to have before celebrating.
There were about 20 people in the room coming from a variety of Jewish and cultural backgrounds. It was awesome to be part of a discussion that included people that relate to their Jewish identity in different ways. Some people seemed to express their faith in a traditionally overt way, while others seemed to engage in Judaism in a more casual manner. I have always found, and it was true last night, that this diversity makes for a wholesome discussion.
One of the themes touched on in the discussion was the importance of creativity. Many times we get stuck in the first impression of an experience and it takes a good dose of creativity to reinterpret a circumstance for the better. For example, if a relationship does not work out I can easily get stuck in the story that there is something wrong with me, or more likely, that there is something completely wrong with the other person. That judgment can easily persist and effect new relationships. A valuable exercise is to use my creative mind to expand my understanding of what transpired in a way that leaves room for more fruitful interpretations. In the dating example, I might consider that the timing was off, or that there was mismatch in personality or communication styles. This won’t necessarily make the break-up seem peachy keen, though it may reduce the unhelpful finger pointing.
Another related theme that emerged in the discussion was about the need to gently hold the reality that suffering and joy always exist concurrently. In order to live a full life, we have to be open to both of these extremes. In our daily lives, we experience one or the other. We celebrate a birthday one moment; we mourn the loss of a loved one in the next. It is very hard, and perhaps impossible, to feel both fully at the same time. When I am experiencing sadness, and I become aware of the joy of another, I begin to question, “Why me? Why do I have to be the sad one?” And in times when I am happy, it is hard to truly empathize with another’s suffering. On Purim, with its bizarre call for intoxication, we practice letting go of this dichotomy. Freer from our inhibitions, it may be easier to be joyful in troubled times, and connect with suffering in times of great joy – without one state detracting from the other.
I strongly do not believe that wine is the only way, nor the best way, to experience these pearls of wisdom. Any ongoing mindfulness practice, from Eastern meditation to Western prayer, can help you achieve creativity and perspective. The effects of such practices are more sustainable, and definitely easier on the body.
Ultimately, people do not engage with religious communities to find or understand G-d. A religion is a story based around a community of people that engage in an ongoing evaluation of morals and beliefs as they encounter the experiential world. In other words, it is a communal form of meaning formation.
Europe or Bust
March 7th, 2011
Ahh, traveling. Today marks the beginning of my adventure to 5 different European cities over 3 and half weeks. I will be visiting London, Vienna, Kiev, Budapest, and Warsaw. This is a work inspired trip, as I will be visiting young Jewish communities in each of the cities. My mission is to get a behind-the-scenes understanding of their perspective on Judaism and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality given their cultural contexts. Hopefully this will translate in the improvement of my ability to serve them as a Jewish Educator.
One of the greatest assets of the religious life is that religion is a comprehensive meaning system. Religion is a monocle that an individual can look through in order to make meaning out of almost any experiences. Religion defines the purpose of existence, the role of humans, and helps to frame life’s ups and downs.
Yes, religious systems have their challenges. How do you understand war, death ,and illness in a world governed by a benevolent God? How can life be both predetermined for beings with free will? We can throw these monkey wrenches into the religious systems, though for the believer there is also comfort in not have to, or not having the ability know everything.
As I spend time with my contemporaries who live parallel lives across the globe, I want to maintain the following question: How does your relationship with Judaism add to, or detract from your sense of personal meaning? I hope to share anecdotes and interpretations of my experiences that will offer a rolling reflection on this question.
To get things started I want to share about my first stop – a layover in Calgary.
First stop on my trip is in Calgary. I am very surprised by the diversity of the folks traveling and working in this airport. Granted, I did not research anything about Calgary because my intention is a quick roll through. Flying over the mountains and vast stretch of tree spotted snow banks, I imagined an oasis mountain town that is thinly populated with muscular tree leveling lumberjacks with flannel shirts and dirty jeans. I certainly did not expect to be eating airport sushi amongst Latinos, Asians, and observant Middle Eastern looking Muslims. Already my trip is proving to educate me about how little I actually know about the world outside of my world.
Be Kind onto YOURSELF
March 3, 2011
During the month of February I participated in a 28-day meditation challenge organized by Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness, and several other contemporary works on meditation. The final week was dedicated to “Lovingkindness” meditation. The idea is to repeat with your internal voice phrases where you wish positive things to yourself, friends, people in need, difficult people in your life, complete strangers, and finally, all being everywhere.
In the past, I have practiced this kind of meditation with a more complex set of rules. I enjoyed Sharon’s approach because it was so simple. Just choose phrases that seemed alive for me and would be relevant to a wide range of people. Now sit or walk and repeat them to myself. Lovely.
I found this practice most helpful when I caught my mind berating myself or someone else about something. For example, I was unsure how a class I taught went. I went on auto-pilot for a minute or so, thinking about all the things I could have said or should have done differently. When I finally came to, I realized I can spend sometime using my simple phrases, “May I be happy. May I be peaceful.” There is nothing wrong with self-evaluation, but I needed to leave the past in the past. It was too late to change anything, and I had already noted what I might do differently next time.
A few years back, I taught a meditation class to High School students. We were discussing the judgmental mind’s tendency to nitpick all of our actions apart. I shared how meditation can help to soften the ceaseless self-bashing. One student took issue with this. She said she was concerned that if she shut off her inner critic, she would always think she was doing great and never challenge herself to grow. I affirmed her concern and promised her that we will never eradicate the voice of judgment – just not happening! I also expressed my concern for how frequently we shit on ourselves and how it is really okay to extend gentleness and compassion to ourselves.
This truth was affirmed by the recent article in the NY Times about self-compassion.
Loving anything, including yourself is a PRACTICE.
May you experience increasing lovingkindness towards yourself.
Silky Blue Pajamas
Feb. 15, 2011
I want to share two meaningful experiences which occurred in the last week. They seem to reflect personal breakthroughs with mindfulness practice. I won’t get too excited about breakthroughs, it just means that there is more room to fall. I also think it is important to celebrate overcoming challenges. And with that, here we go.
First story – Defeating the Bluesy Mind
There are times when I am heading towards depression that I look around at people rushing by me and my thoughts become very judgmental. “Where are all these people going? It is all so pointless to just run to a job. What are we all doing!” This mindset usually rears its ugly head on my own commute to work. The underlying judgment is about myself of course, when it is harder to see the meaning in what I will be attending to over the day (i.e. my job!).
Yesterday was such a morning. My job actually is very meaningful. I get to connect with Jewish communities worldwide and contribute to their vibrancy. But alas, I really felt like not going, and somewhere, deep within, I was questioning just about everything. That is my signal of impending depression. Caution! Well, as I ascended the escalator, I took note of all the people dressed in their business casual best spilling out of the train station. And the thoughts began, “G-d, where are these people all going? Do they even realize that they are alive!” I witnessed these thoughts and instead of going down the mind-depression route, I answered my own question.
“YES! They do realize that they are alive. These are hundreds of unique people off to contribute to the world in hundreds of unique ways, ways in which only they can. And I too am going to contribute in my own special way to the betterment of the world today. In a way that only I can.” I wanted to grab people by the face and stare into their eyes and shout, “We are wonderful!” I settled for a good inner giggle and an extra hop through the office building’s door. I had disarmed a recurring foe of self-doubt.
Story two – My Silk Pajamas
This story is dedicated to Sharon Salzberg and Sylvia Boorstein, two heroic teachers of awake-fullness. This morning I began with a train ride to work and read chapter 3 of Sharon’s Real Happiness. This week we will attend to our emotion and thought worlds and take time to sit with, explore, investigate, and NOT identify with them. In this chapter, Sharon tells a story she heard from Sylvia about a woman who runs to buy new silk pajamas when she discovers that her car tires have been stolen. The pajamas symbolize the object of desire that we run towards to distract ourselves from negative experiences. . I must admit , I was not too keen on the story. I thought it was great that this women did something to take care of herself before jumping in to fix the problem. Let’s fast-forward …
I arrive to work for an unusual morning. I was interviewed for a study that explored my sexuality in relationship to my work in the world. I figured it would be no biggie, just share some intimate details about myself and move on. WRONG! As I began sharing about my past experiences of sexual development, I became flooded with emotions. I shared this casually with the interviewer, but did not go into too much detail. Thankfully, the conversation switched to my work in the world. There was less emotional engagement around this topic.
During the interview, and continuing after, I was experiencing this strong lump of feeling in my chest and gut. My thoughts whizzed, “I am going to take a walk and get coffee to decompress.” My mind became obsessed with this potential cup of coffee. Thinking about the café and the strong roasted flavor of the coffee. The imagined reaction my body would have to the caffeine input.
Aha! I see now. The coffee is my version of silk pajamas. I realized that I did not actually need coffee at that moment. I needed space to breathe and attend to my feelings.
I closed the door to my office and shut the lights. I began to breathe and feel. I imagined diving into the feeling. There I discovered fear and emptiness, loneliness and frustration, joy too and at the route of it all – the desire to protect myself. It was a squeezing and clamping down of the memories and their associated feelings. I told myself that it is okay to protect myself and also okay to let go. There is no present harm. I stayed with this exploration for about 10 minutes and then resumed my day. The feelings did not totally subside, though they became less intense. And I was prepared to be present with the next activity of my day. I disarmed the need to quickly feed myself in the face of negative feelings.
“I’ll Have One Meditation To Go, Please.”
Feb. 3, 2011
Oh the airport. What a place to trigger anxiety and impatience. I showed up with ample time to make it through security and get to the gate. But before I arrive at security, there it is … THE LINE! My thoughts begin, “Which path should I choose?” “I don’t want to be behind her.” “Don’t want to seem pushy.” “How many bins does this guy need.” “Hurry up, hurry up.” And suddenly, out of nowhere, “Hey, you are on crazy auto pilot man, take it easy.”
I realized that this moment was a great place to practice concentration. Come back to the breath and come home. So I started over. Noticing impatience, sure. Anxiety, of course. But also acceptance. I can’t actually make the line go faster. I have time and everything is going to be okay.
Now let’s remember that I still have a cold. I remember hearing about this, but flying with a cold is a crazy experience. The pressure in my head was slightly off for most of the ride. When it was time to descend the pressure in my ears grew to a tremendous pain. I felt like gouging my ears off to release the tension. I was afraid that my ear drums would burst. And there it was again, “You’re not going to die. Come back to the breath.” So I sat and was in pain, and breathed. And noticed. The pain increased and it decreased. It was sensation, just sensation. And finally, after 25 minutes (!) it passed. I still feel like my head is a hollow melon, but I was grateful for the practice.
Feb. 2, 2011
I am participating in a 28-day Meditation Challenge organized by Sharon Salzberg to promote her new book Real Happiness. I will be cross posting my meditation experience with my blog on her site:
Waking up yesterday morning with a stuffy nose and soar throat, meditation did not seem too appealing. I am committed though, so I made sure to get up early, stretch a little, cough a lot, and get on the cushion. Thankfully, Sharon has created a little CD that is tucked in the back of the Real Happiness book.
I allowed myself to be guided in breath concentration. And I simply followed directions, return to the breath, return to the breath. Start over and over. The jewel of the first track is when Sharon says that coming back to the breath is like finding a friend at a party. It is not as if you banish every one else from the room, but rather you get closer to who you want to be close to you. There is something very active about concentration. It is a choice, over and over again – what do I want to attend to.
I have been sitting for over 10 years, with a practice that ebbs and flows. Coming back to the breath always feels like coming home. Something softens within me and releases. Like eating a bowl of chicken soup when you have a cold, perhaps.
I am learning that connection to the breath is a connection with my very own vitality. It reminds me, “Oh! There is life inside of this body.” Taking time to focus on that, rather then the shifting story of being alive is the root of being able to establish a sense of meaning in any situation.
The Dance of Meaning Formation
Jan. 24, 2011
The process of meaning formation can be quite paradoxical when we consider the individual versus collective aspects of the process. We are born into a world that has a working meaning structure. Through culture we are provided with rules that shape our experiences, our beliefs and attitudes. How awful it was to hear my father express delight in my more rebellious stage, “I was just like you when I was your age!”
On the other hand, in order for a life path to be experienced as meaningful, there must be a degree of individual choice – my own assertion of my core being by walking one path while closing the door on countless others. Is the choosing simply a figment of my imagination? Do I need to trick myself into believing that I have freedom to create my own values and purpose in order to experience meaning? I believe that some earlier existential philosophers, mostly Heidegger and friends, would say yes.
Lest we despair into a soulless world, there is an alternative. From a more modern meaning model perspective (that of Park and Folkman), there are two converging spheres of meaning that are constantly dancing with each other. One is Global Meaning – the world that we are born into with beliefs, systems, values, and morals. Global Meaning is what holds our sense of self together in relationship to the world around us. It is the ground which we work hard to hold constant. The flip side is Situational Meaning – this is the continuous process which occurs when the waves of the here-and-now wash up against our Global Meaning.
Global Meaning – G-d is good.
Situational Meaning – I get mugged.
As the present moment (getting mugged) meets our established perspective (G-d is good) we can be thrown into a process of evaluation – How does this moment uphold or challenge my worldview? I believe that in this question the affirmation of the self occurs. And it is certainly no illusion.
Thus, while we are born into a seemingly neatly wrapped package of meaning, beliefs, and values, we still have the moment-to-moment task of evaluating this “gift.” We express our sense of personal meaning when we allow new experiences to meet our established worldview. An image comes to mind of a bubble filled with and surrounded by air. The air inside and out represent the messages and signals that we live by. The thin fragile glossy film represents that experience of the meaningful self which mediates this dance of what and how we allow the outside to enter into us.
And just in case you are wondering, I think that popping that film, under the right circumstances, can be awesome.
Laugh with the World
Jan. 18, 2011
Last night I attended a gathering which commemorated and celebrated the death of my friend’s mother. She died one year ago. My friend, who was bravely moving through tears and laughter – tears of joy and sorrow, laughter of absurdity and appreciation – echoed a comment through the evening that life is certainly chaotic and that things often do not end up in the way we’ve planned.
I learned a saying in Morocco, “Laugh with the world and the world will laugh with you.” This statement provides a nice alternative to the similar phrase, “Man plans, and G-d laughs.”
Finding simple and sustainable meaning often begins with managing one’s expectations about what the world (universe or God) can actually offer us. People of privilege learn conflicting messages – don’t count on the world, and the world is invested in my happiness. There are times when I have to let go of my belief that everything good will come to me. It is the only way to see what I actually have to appreciate, rather than harping on an expected future to bring me joy.
People who grew up in places of under-privilege have to overcome the learned voice that devalues their existence. They are often in touch with the magic of small moments and this is a gift to all people.
I think that I have to learn to laugh more with the world. Chuckle, giggle, chortle — so many opportunities to burst my bubble of taking myself too seriously. When I am able to pop my expectations of what I think my life should look like, I can attune myself to the truth of who I am, and begin to have greater appreciation for who the Other (G-d, spirit, friends, family, etc.) is in my life.
Jan. 11, 2011
Last night I encountered a familiar conversation. I was speaking with a friend about spiritual practice. I was sharing about my engagement in traditional religious practices and she was countering how these no longer spoke to her. I immediately began to defend my beliefs which seemed to strengthen her conviction to put them down.
Eventually we both took a breath and examined what was occurring. She felt as if I was trying to convince her to believe in what worked for me. I was responding as if her choices were invalidating my own. My friend acknowledged that while she did not see eye-to-eye with me regarding our spiritual practices, she greatly respected the meaning that I gained from religious tradition. I explained the root of my defensiveness and all ended in peace.
While the conversation culminated in sweetness, the lingering thought remained: I find meaning in something that someone else finds totally meaningless. I believe that this statement cuts to the core of existential conflict. Is there any objective truth to what I find meaningful?
In the West, the running secular perspective is generally, no. I have to create the illusion of meaning out of a meaningless universe to buffer the ever-present sentiment that I simply do not matter at all.
The Western religious answer is mainly, of course. G-d created you with a purpose to fulfill on Earth, to serve G-d and glorify G-d’s name, thereby creating a more peaceful world. My purpose in life is to make the world around me a better place to live.
These two perspectives can be seen as two extremes of a spectrum, with most of us ebbing and flowing between both methods of maintaining a sense of meaning. I can believe in a meaningful world set up by a Higher Power and also be involved in piecing together my own value in the world. Ultimately, I need both – belief in myself and something beyond myself to abate the terror of meaninglessness.
You might still be wondering how come I felt resolved at the end of the conversation with my friend. Respectfully, or not, she still left me with a seed of doubt. It is true, my friend did not affirm the ultimate truth of my life’s path. Though, who can?
In our conversation she did bestow a great gift upon me, one that people should strive to do for each other in each encounter. She affirmed the being within me which has the power to transform my perceived world into a meaningful existence. She reminded me that I exist and that this existence matters to her. This is the foundation of meaningful relating.
This past weekend, Dec. 10 – 12, I co-lead a Contemplative Shabbat retreat at Pearlstone Conference Center near Baltimore, MD. I leave the weekend feeling that I am doing the work that I am supposed to be doing. The group consisted of 22 people from New York, DC, Philadelphia, Virginia, Boston, and Baltimore. My co-director was Rabbi Jacob Staub of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Jacob is a mentor and friend of mine through the Nehirim community. I feel that our personalities blended well and we created a beautiful container for the group to engage in contemplative practice.
Silent retreats at Pearlstone have a unique challenge that I have not encountered in other settings. We share space with other groups that are talking. At first, I was concerned about this fact. Last retreat, I managed this by reserving a completely separate space of the facility. This year, that space was not available. Also, I wanted our practice space to be held in one of the newer and nicer rooms of the main building. My concern increased when I learned that one of the groups would be a middle school group from a local Yeshivah. When the students checked-in for their retreat, I noted that their rambunctiousness exceeded my imagination. I seriously wondered if this would work out. Our group ended up in a separate wing of the main building. We had our own meeting room (with several huge windows looking out on the beautiful grounds of Kayam Farm), took our meals in a smaller private dining room, and had access to a connected private lounge area. I protected our sacred space by posting signs on all the entrances – “Entering SILENT SPACE. Please enter and exit QUIETY.” To my delight, our space was seldom “invaded,” and only by the kitchen staff when they were dropping off food.
Our group also shared the intention that we would be impacting the groups around us by our contemplative practice. The other groups were told that they were sharing space with silent Jewish meditators and they can expect to see people walking slowly and not answering their greetings of “Good Shabbas.” (Though we were holding a gentle silence, so it was still in practice to regard others in a way that seemed the least disturbing to one’s inner peace.) It was fun for me, almost a game, to demonstrate to other Jewish people that we were dedicating a Shabbat to slow down and see what was going on inside. I hope that some of those guests will find themselves at a silent retreat one day.
During the retreat, I wanted to give an example of how a desirous thought can occupy the mind. I used an example of sitting and thinking about kissing a man. This felt risky for two reasons: 1. Talking about sexual intimacy in general, and 2. Coming out in such a causal way in a public space where I was holding a professional role. I considered that thoughts about sex come to everyone’s mind during meditation at some point and if I was going to talk about sex, I might as well be honest and not waist energy hiding. I knew I was sitting with progressive-minded people, though there was still that moment’s hesitance – “Is this okay?” I feel good about my decision to open the space up for sex to emerge with less shame, in general and for same-sex intimacy. Similarly, Rabbi Jacob talked specifically about painful memories that can arise during meditation practice. Through our teachings, we created an environment where any piece of anyone’s story was safe to notice, acknowledge and to gently send off. We bring our whole selves to the cushion, might as well be whole with that!
During individual sessions I listened carefully to what participants were reporting. I waited for a thought to come through intuitively and then, if there was space, I shared it. I learned that my initial response should be acknowledgment and an honoring. What thoughts, judgments, and feelings arise for a person is real and true for the person. Before I attempt to loosen a judgment, or create perspective in a thought by guiding an individual back to the practice, I first need to let the person know that they have been received and heard. A key word that resonates for this Shabbat is honoring. Empathy first.
Perhaps the most intense experience I offer on retreat is what I call, “Dynamic Breath Practice.” In this past retreat, I guided the group through two 10-minute sessions of Rebirthing breath work (continuous deep full inhales, completely relaxed exhales). After each session I posed the question for contemplation, “Who am I?” I think it is the most intense because it can be physically demanding to sustain this kind of breath, and there is a quick integration of body-heart-mind that leads to rapid energy release. I know that there is more for me to learn in guiding such breathing sessions, especially with the mix of group dynamics. I would like to commit to learning more.
Finally, I want to share about one assumption that was put in check for me. After retreats that I have attended, I generally have felt a sense of love and connection for the people that I have sat with. My experience is that there is something in the silence that bonds people together, perhaps more solidly than regular social bonding activities. I have received similar feedback from my friends who have attended meditation retreats. What I think I should not do (which I did this weekend) is say that people can expect to feel bonded when we end the retreat. I feel it created a general expectation about the quality of group cohesion for the individuals sitting. Also, perhaps people were waiting to feel a strong sense of connectivity develop as the weekend progressed. It is probably the case that not everyone at the end of our retreat felt completely integrated into the group. There were also probably those that did not care about feeling close to others in group.
All in all, I am looking forward to growing in this work, leading Contemplative retreats. I feel very nurtured when I get to hold this kind of space for other people. I hope to integrate more of my meaning work into retreat leadership – having personal meaning emerge as a theme that is touched upon and explored through my talks and contemplative exercises.
From Frozen to Flow
Dec. 7, 2010
Last week I fell behind in my practices of Yoga and meditation. I was feeling very tired and it seemed like my body and being could use some more rest – some mornings to sleep in and some mid-day naps. After a few days my back and shoulder (left side) began to ache and my mood, not-to-subtly, aimed towards low. For me, this is part of the practice of attunement to my energy cycles and working on balance. I decided it was time to go to a Yoga class.
I woke up the next morning and drove in the rain to an 8am class at 7th Heaven Yoga in Berkeley. During the class my mind wandered through up-dogs and my body ached in forward folds. Thoughts came up that I should have just stayed home. And I also began to notice the organic loosening of my tightly held muscles. Finally, it was time for Sivasana (corpse pose). I lay down, my body at rest, though this time really at rest.
I walked back to my car. The rain had stopped and my mood had cleared. The thought arose, “Whoever does not believe in the power to bring the dead back to life has never taken a Yoga class before.”
There are many ways that one could understand the essence of the transformation that I just described. I choose to ascribe the following meaning to this experience: The Yoga, with its focus on breath linked with movement (Vinyasa), allowed all the stuck and static energy within and around me to begin to flow anew. Energy here being thoughts, emotions, blood, breath, and fluids. The image of a melting creek comes to mind.
As we plunge deeper into the months of darkness and colder weather I want to take this story with me as a reminder of the tools that are accessible to help life flow between resting and progressing.
The Beginning of the End
Dec. 1, 2010
The first day of December. How often December slip by without any thought to the forthcoming new year? In Jewish tradition, the month before Rosh Hashana is reserved for intense reflection and soul-searching. There is certainly great cheer and showing of good will in December, but there is not much intention around real lasting change.
Interestingly, tonight is also the first night of Hannukah. In the Jewish faith we being sparking our inner light by contemplating the flame of external candles. One today, two tomorrow, and so on, until 8 flames burn brilliantly on the final night.
For me, combining the conclusion of 2010 with the start of Hannukah is taking on special meaning. I am able to bring in more awareness to the transition period between 2010 and 2011 guided by the light of Hannukah — awakening my inner light.
So, for the first day of December and the first night of Hannukah I wish to share a blessing of opening to a greater sense of self-awareness – to better our own beings, communities, and the world.
Planning vs. Experiencing
Nov. 27, 2010
(Image from: http://www.polyvore.com/xrissas_art/collection?id=57224)
My mind likes to do a funny thing. When I realize that I am enjoying an experience, instead of staying with the enjoyment, my mind jumps in and begins to plan how I can maximize this feeling, perhaps by planning a schedule around whatever the activity is, or thinking how I can share this event with others. For example, when I finish a day-long retreat my mind immediately starts to plan my next morning’s 6 am Yoga, followed by a 7 am meditation sit, and then a 7:40am prayer. (This has not really happened on my own since 2000.)
Of course, it is great to plan how I can continue my enjoyment. If I know something is healthy for me to engage in, I should see if I can continue my engagement with whatever that experience is. On the other hand, it is important to note that planning removes me from simply experiencing. In a way, when I am laying the groundwork for for the future, I am potentially missing out on the available benefits of the present.
This balance between planning and experiencing is similar to the two aspects of meaning that bring us a sense of meaning fulfillment. These aspects are meaning through doing and meaning through being. When we are tuned into the doing-side of meaning, we have to look forward to what will come next. Reaching one goal, means its time to look forward towards the next accomplishment. When we integrate being, there is an allowable breath to appreciate the vitality which is affirmed by the doing. The acknowledgment that one’s existence warrants meaning, with or without the completion of a specific goal, is like plugging an appliance into an energy socket. There is meaning in what the appliance does, though the source of meaning – the raw meaning – is supplied by the life force which sustains the action. This life force is our core being – the stage on which our life takes place.
1. Consider an accomplishment from your past – no matter how “big” or “small.”
2. List the qualities within you that allowed you to reach that success.
Nov. 25, 2010
Thanksgiving is here! In grade school I learned about the Native people that lent their skills to the foreign White man so that they could survive. The strangers learned about corn and fishing. I also learned about how the White explorers tricked the Natives out of their land and banished them to a few undesirable corners of this great land. As I got older, I became aware of the implicit contradiction.
Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday which is founded on the very idea of how not to repay kindness. Many people return home for conflicting family reunions, where we stuff our faces and ignore each other by watching football on T.V. It is certainly interesting from a meaning perspective how a culture can experience a kind of amnesia related to our history.
The connection between gratitude and experiencing life as meaningful is well proven in research. Today we have an opportunity to contemplate meaning across races and religions. In the midst of all of life’s challenges and chaos we can take a collective pause and ponder, “What are we, as Americans, grateful for?” And if we dare, to go a step further, we might ask, “How can I do my part so that those in my community can also experience a sense of gratitude?”
Know Thy Story
Nov. 21, 2010
Today I had the honor to learn from two story-telling Sages, Sylvia Boorstein and Naomi Newman. They co-led a workshop called The Dharma and Story which explored the place for personal story in contemplative practice. During the day the teachers discussed how we have to be very careful about how we speak about our story in light of insights that arise from meditation practice.
It is true that often times we are frustrated with what life has to offer us because we are stuck in certain beliefs and perceptions that frame the event. We take issue with the story that we create around an experience. For example, I realized today that I am holding on to anger towards my brother because I believe he purposely tripped me when we were younger. Regardless of the story’s accuracy, how long will I be angry at my brother for something that happened over 20 years ago!
In contrast to these types of stories, which rise and fall out of our psyche like bubbles of wax in a lava lamp, there is the sacred story of who we are. The story that we use to track our being in the world and its expression. The story of self that becomes the tool for our personal growth. For example, I was named after my grandfather who died 30 days before I was born. This fact has shaped my relationship to many people in my life and gives me insight into my origins. A fact like that is not meant to “get over,” or to be “filed away.”
During the day, we told the story of our life in a variety of ways. The take-a-way for me was that I can tell my story from multiple perspectives. The ability to do so allows me to get unstuck from a particular world-view when needed. This allows for compassion to enter when I can see a multi-faceted view of myself and others in my life.
1. Write your story from birth to this moment in one half-page paragraph.
2. Flip the page over and do it again.
Nov. 19, 2010
We experience times when it is hard to face the truth. When life deals us a hand that is painful, our first reaction can be, “No! It’s impossible.” We’ve all been there personally and part of the global community. 9/11. The Tsunami. A death of a loved one. Sometimes it is a natural disaster and other times a travesty conducted by the hands of people. What shatters the bubble of our disbelief is summed up in Biblical phrase, HaKer Nah (הכר נא) – Please recognize.
This phrase Haker Nah and its use in the Bible is baffling and paradoxical. On the one hand, the phrase is used to rip apart someone’s reality. It is used to make a person face a truth that alters a fundamental part of how their world operats. For example, Jacob becomes a depressed father in mourning after his sons force him to believe that his son his dead. On the other hand, we have the word Nah (please), which attempts to soften the brutal shattering.
I think that there is a crucial life lesson. wrapped up in this phrase. In order for healing to occur acceptance is the first barrier. And it can be extremely difficult and painful to achieve. We have to be gentle with ourselves and others, softly stroking the awareness to see what we refuse to see. Push ourselves to glimpse quickly and then turn away, again and again until we are ready to face some real terror.
And what is waiting on the other side of acceptance. In religion we are not left alone to suffer. This is where the power of ritual in community becomes crucial. For Jacob, slow healing ensues with the process of sitting Shiva (mourning rituals). Perhaps this is when the meaningfulness of religion touches us most.
May we all grow from our pains softly, gently, and in the right time.
Nov. 15, 2010
The power of story still surprises me. When we peek into the experience of things and want to get a sense of the “truth” we often rely on counting, percentages and statistics. These are great tools to help us incline toward what we might expect in the future. Numbers tells us that an individual will most likely be born heterosexual, that a white man in America will probably be more successful then other men, that a baby will be born after 9 months.
But what about difference and diversity? The spice of life that keeps us guessing and learning more about the world that we inhabit. When we enter into the realm of personal story life itself become art. Each person is a wise navigator of their own reality. We have to be our own teachers, Rabbis, Priests, and saviors.
Ultimately, we can be helped along our path, but we alone can really know if we are walking along authentically. That thought can be daunting. Can rip the seems of our safety net apart, leave us dangling by a thread.
Freedom happens in the out-breath of loosening our desperate clutch on the thought that we will plummet. “Sink or Swim!” Ha! What about floating! Or snorkeling? Or Surfing? We have no idea where our life is heading, or what we are actually being called to.
Meaning is two-fold. It is the safety net that is very necessary to connect point A to point B. And it is also the entire foreground and stage on which the drama of life takes place. Meaning cannot fail you. You can fail meaning by not realizing its presence.
1. Think about a time when you had to make a tough decision in your life.
2. Reflect on the amount of struggle and energy you put into making your decision. Imagine making the decision with a letting-go attitude. What might have been different?
Nov. 7, 2010
I started reading the memoir of Stephen Levine who is a Buddhist meditation teacher and has worked a lot with people who are dying. He reflected on the difference between the “will to live” and the “will towards mystery.” The “will to live,” he wrote, can be dangerous, because we can seek to just feel alive even if that means engaging in unhealthy patterns. The “will towards mystery,” to understanding and encountering the deeper secrets of the universe, is a stronger pull, because it exists no matter what the state one’s life is in.
Viktor Frankl wrote about the “will to meaning.” The insatiable drive for purpose that fuels our actions. Often times a sense of meaning helps us to understand our lives, so we do not have to face the dread of not knowing. Meaning can be a space-filler for the existential angst which come from having a limited understanding of the nature of things – of life and death, of God, and good and evil. Meaning allows the “illusion” and/or real relief that things make sense. Meditation, for me, is the practice of sitting with the dread of not knowing. In the sitting and vigilant noticing, I breath through the fear and start to taste the liberation – that it is okay not to know how my life will turn out. It is okay not to have a clear picture of what God is and what God wants. It is okay to to feel lost and unsure. We all are. Acknowledging this fact awakens compassion and creates the potential for more peace.
Meaning Beyond Privilege
Nov. 2, 2010
Over the weekend, I presented on my favorite topic — meaning through being. I was challenged by someone in the crowd who asked about the privileged nature of the pursuit of meaning. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs humans are not free to consider things like meaning and passion before their more basic needs, such as food and shelter, are met. Who has time to worry about purpose when they are not sure if they will have food to eat!
Funny thing though. When I worked with addiction clients living in a rehab shelter the possibility of living a meaningful life, by changing the course of their existence, became a huge motivator and focus. Some people had nowhere to live, children taken from them, complicated by other illnesses and ailments, yet meaning was still relevant.
The realization of meaning through being offers value to any individual in any situation. If you are here, you are worth something. It can be that simple.
Speaking in the Present
Oct. 27, 2010
I want to share a fun and challenging meaning practice that I learned from a wonderful teacher named, Shantam Zohar. It is very simple, though strange. Speak in the present. Even if you are talking about the past or about the future, state what you want to say in the present. Speaking in the present voice reminds me that life is happening in the present. And that is exactly where meaning is, right in this very moment. It pulses alongside life.
The best is when we state our intentions in the present voice. So instead of saying, “I wish I was more joyful,” say, “I am joyful.” This does two things. It hits you with the possibility of being joyful right now and it reminds you that you already have the capacity to be joyful.
Here is a short example from the end of my Embodied Judaism class at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.
Zvi: Alright everyone. Let’s have a beautiful day.
Rabbi Angel: We are having a beautiful day.
Zvi: Yes, you are right. We are having a beautiful day.
From Birth to Death
Oct. 25, 2010
Over this past weekend I lead a creative prayer service with a few of the West Region residents of the Moishe House (www.moishehouse.org). The service was in a Jewish context though it was universally accessible and even included a song that I learned from an elderly African American Baptist woman who was a patient at a hospital in D.C.
1. Take 5 breaths as if they were your last.
At my Berkeley Birthday party, I asked, “What gives your life meaning? Why is meaning important? How do you know your life is meaningful? (Write what’s in your heart!)”
When I see the reflection of my light in the eyes of those I’ve touched, then I glance in the mirror and see all my ancestors reflected in my eyes, I feel connected to the great spirit in all things, and I can breathe deep, and stop looking for the meaning in it all.
My life has meaning when I see that all people are connected to the world around us, and that I am a part of this perfect system of madness.
Having people over to celebrate and SHOW love makes this moment meaningful – Zvi
Sexy ladies. Zvi! Julie! Connecting….
I don’t know if my life is meaningful…but I love it and appreciate existing!
Sexy landscapes and homescapes. Learning the wisdom to transform myself.
Community. Meaningful interactions with those around me. A spiritual practice (although maybe that’s too easy of an answer?)
I give my life meaning through my attitude and actions. Meaning is the storyline we weave into the fabric that holds our lives in connection to the universe. If my life is meaningful, it is because it is.
Relationships give my life meaning. Connecting to things, people, plants, rocks, the sky, whatever I am walking by, being in dynamic relationship with the world around me gives my life meaning. Being in deeper relationship with myself, and feeling how that makes everything brighter. Being in service to the divine in all that is gives my life meaning. Meaning is important because without it I would be a nihilist & that would suck. I don’t KNOW that my life is meaningful; I am just pretending that it is meaningful & that seems to be working so far.—rebecca
Recognizing the interconnectedness of people and experiences that have shaped my being makes life meaningful. – Rachelle
Learning from Rocks
Oct. 20th, 2010
So beautiful. I was given a piece written by Martin Buber, where he reflects on his work, I-You. Buber teaches that a rock reciprocates in a relationship by serving as a constant reminder that the other exists. If there is anything to learn from a rock is that it is present.
As beings and relationships get more “complex” — from rocks and plants, to motile creatures, to humans, to loved ones — it can get harder to remember that any encounter is an opportunity to reconnect with one’s being and meaning. It is harder, though not impossible.
It is a huge deal when we stop expecting out parents to be perfect and allow them to simply be beings in our eyes. Humans with faults, challenges, and struggles. This insight often softens a path to healing with one’s parents. It did for me.
The realization that we are all on a similar journey in this mysterious life can serve as a glimpse into the being nature that is reflected back even in the most chaotic relationships. At those moments, it becomes a choice — will I allow myself to touch into the meaningfulness of this connection? With a bit of courage and faith, I believe we can.
Oct. 19th, 2010
I want to think about the question — how can meaning help when someone is in the depths of depression?
Depression is generally associated with meaninglessness. When I am empty, alone, completely torn apart with no hope in sight, the concept of meaning is almost laughable. The cognitive pattern of depression include self-deprecating thoughts – “I am unlovable,” and “I am worthless.” We also lose the meaning of the world around us, echoing the tortured voice of Ecclesiastes, “All is vain.”
How do we even begin to sew meaning back into life when the possibility of meaning seems so distant?
I really do not have the answer to that question. I cannot imagine that anyone really does have a full-proof solution for meaninglessness. When you are in the depths of depression any suggestion of action can seem impossible.
Therefore, I think we need to seed ourselves with the simple mantra, “I am.” It is a phrase that strengthens and highlights our sense of being — of aliveness. Luckily, we say, “I am,” hundreds of times a day – connected with any affect, any doing, any experience. Pay attention to all the moments that you affirm your being. It is astounding if we actually acknowledged the power of the statement, “I am,” and spoke it with intention.
1. Say “I am” like your really mean it.
2. Contemplate the meaning of the phrase, “I am.”
Reclaiming Earth Spirituality
Oct. 15, 2010
I feel it important to add on to the idea of Earth as the context for meaning from my 10/10/10 post. I often hear people talking about the misappropriation of nature-based religious practices. I remember being at a ritual in a Jewish context that involved fire. I do not remember the exact exercise that was enacted, but those involved were able to ask for healing by throwing unhelpful patterns and energies into the flames to be burnt away. I found the ritual to be meaningful, as it was framed in a specific context of sacred work.
When I read some of the workshop reviews, several people came down very harshly on the leader. “How dare we enact a native people’s ritual! This is a misappropriation of another’s culture.” That was the gist of the criticism. I became quite concerned that perhaps we were disrespectful of Native American culture. I thought more about it and this is what I came to: If Native spirituality grows from the Earth, then as someone who lives on this planet, I too am able to tap into this spirituality. All mainstream religions seem to have grown from the Earth, as their roots are tied in with the agricultural cycle of seeding, to growing, to harvest. My relationship to the Earth does not necessarily involve those processes, and so perhaps it is time to listen to the Earth once again to learn spiritual connectedness. And this can be done completely within the context of my own “main” religion. No one group owns a spiritual path, especially one that involves appreciating and attuning to the natural world.
So where does this leave me? I will not buy Native American headdresses and peace pipes at rest stops or trinket shops across the country. I will go out to nature and stoke a sacred fire, put my ear to the ground and listen deeply for a path to healing.
I’m Coming Out
Oct. 11, 2010
Happy Coming Out Day! It has taken me a while, but I am happy to say that I too am a Gay man!
One thing that I have not yet written about is negative meaning. When we define our lives and selves by what is harmful, restrictive, or damaging. The big message in the news lately is that when society denies that being Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Trans is a viable life path, we create the very real possibility of harming people that define themselves through those labels. We essentially say that the way that a person organizes their being is wrong. It is like destroying a candle flame by crushing the remaining wax. It is very possible that the teens that killed themselves this month were already dead before they committed suicide. Their essential being was squashed by the judgement that their meaning was dangerous and of no value.
As a social system we have to be aware how we can negate the value of people that we encounter. When we ignore the front desk attendant at our office building, we might be saying, “You do not exist.” When we tell a child that what he or she likes is ugly, or dull, he or she might hear, “Conceal who you are.” Take responsibility for the ripple effect that you have on those around you.
1. Practice actively affirming the people in your life.
Oct. 10, 2010
Welcome to the auspicious day of 10/10/10 — deemed by 350.org as a Global Work Party day. The meaning that you attribute to the planet is essential. How do you make sense of the relationship that you have to the Earth? Are you here to own it, or make it work for you? Did you grow from the Earth and so owe it respect, like you would the parent who birthed you? Maybe, you are part and parcel of the planet, so misusing it is like using your head for a hammer?
In the realm of meaning, where context is so important, we are not separate from the Earth. Our relationship with our natural environment is the source for the development of meaning. Humans developed a sense of collaboration in order to accomplish our most simplest tasks of eating, reproducing, and the like. Without a world to interact in, the meaning of being human unravels.
I grew up in Brooklyn, amidst traffic and buildings and little appreciation for trees and mountains. Over the past several years of traveling and encountering the Big Sky of New Mexico, the arches of Utah, and the Redwoods of California, the preciousness of nature has pierced my heart. I invite you today to let the seed of stewardship be planted within you too.
1. Take a quite walk around your block and contemplate the presence of nature. (It’s so close!)
2. Consider the meaningfulness of being a protector of the planet.
Revelation in Dreams
Oct. 8, 2010
This week I saw the film, Inception. It was a total mind trip that questioned the thin line between dream and waking realities. Our dreams have a significant impact to the meaning of our life. According to the Talmud, an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter. Careful though who is involved in helping you to understand your dreams, because how one interprets a dream has impact on how the dream influences your life.
When I work with a dream in a therapy session, I allow the client to guide the symbolic interpretation of the dream. Often times a dream can help us to process what we refuse, or do not give time to when we are awake. Perhaps more important than the content of the dream is its emotional quality. When I wake up from a dream I ask myself, “What am I feeling right now?” As part of integrating experience with understanding, or in meaning terms, in establishing coherence, dreams can allow us to experience feelings that might be too painful to deal with when we are awake. For example, we might experience shame, guilt, or anger through a dream state if dealing with those emotions was not an option while we were triggered to feel them.
What we feel and how we label feelings play a huge role in how we attribute meaning to a circumstance. I have a good friend named Rachel Kriger, a talented acupuncturist in Baltimore, who helped me to learn this. Whenever I tell her I am anxious about something she asks me, “Are you anxious or excited?” I can then use her question to peel back some layers of my feeling and notice a bit more complexity than I primarily experienced. Other feeling pairs that I have noticed are: lonely and tender, frightened and excited, angry and hurt. Perhaps this complexity is carried out in the dream world,which can break the rules of our standard reality — allowing us to feel more authentically what it means to be alive.
1. Next time you are feeling a “negative emotion”, ask yourself, “What else is there?”
Light and Meaning
Oct. 5, 2010
How can meaning be both everlasting and something that we must create moment-to-moment? Both of these ends of the spectrum are completely true. At least, they are both essential for you to experience a sustained sense of meaning in your life.
The question makes me think of light. It exists in two simultaneous forms — as an isolated particle and as a fluid wave. The particle is likened to meaning that we must stitch with each breath. I have to continuously sew myself into my environment in order to have a sense of value. Alternatively, like a wave, I can trace patterns of purpose throughout my life, that sometimes seem to transcend my experience of limited “I”.
The truth is there is no objective reality as to which is more correct as far as figuring meaning out. We experience meaning as both a sustained calling (the wave) and as isolated moments (particles). It is a gift to be able to discern which approach to meaning is needed at a particular time in life. When we feel powerless it might be a good idea to tap into the small moments of meaning to grasp our creative power. Alternatively, we might need to be humbled by the acknowledgment that we are not solely in control of our experience of meaning.
1. List 3-5 things that you find meaningful about this moment.
2. Flip the paper over and list 3-5 things that shape your life as purposeful.
Losing My Mind
Oct. 3, 2010
I spent the day at Spirit Rock in a workshop taught by Dr. Daniel Siegel (http://drdansiegel.com). We learned the importance of “mindsight” — the ability to understand our own inner world and the world of another person that we may encounter. Dr. Dan’s research looks at how our early patterns of attachment to primary caregivers shape the way in which we engage in relationships throughout life.
The picture he painted was not as simple as if you are treated well as a child you will be a well-adjusted adult, and if you are raised amidst trauma and confusion you are basically a lost social cause. His theory has one extra element which adds an important layer onto the relationship between our past and present. A well-adjusted adult understands his or her past, no matter the prowess, or lack thereof, of the caregiver. In other words, if you are able to find meaning in your past experiences you can have appropriate distance from them, no matter their valence or intensity.
The found meaning represents a willingness and comfort to examine one’s roots. During his talk, I was hit by a significant memory. I was teaching a 6th or 7th grade class which was getting unruly. I know that kids can be cruel, and their lack of respect really got to me. At the pinnacle of the frustration that I was experiencing, I put my hands on my hips and repeated a line that bubbled up from a memory of my 5th grade teacher who was in a similar struggle to get the class’ attention. I did not intend to mimic this teacher who was also probably at her whits end, but lost in my emotional storm, she emerged. Sad to say, my angered plea for control (the exact words of which I do not remember) was met with more laughter.
When this story first came to mind, I quickly pushed it away, not wanting to see myself as the center of humiliation. Noticing that this response to my memory was not optimal, I took a few deep breaths and allowed the story to play out again on my mind’s stage. I clearly saw how I copied the behavior of my own teacher, and I allowed myself to feel the shame of literally loosing my own mind.
To find meaning in this experience, does not mean that I have learned something deeply insightful from it. It is more that there was a click, an “aha moment,” that I was open to seeing. Dr. Dan might call this a moment of inter-relational neural integration. I am probably far from stepping back into an elementary school classroom as a teacher (totally not my calling), but having the awareness of what lurks beneath the surface is beneficial for facing future meltdowns. I do hope that my mind’s representation of my frustrated teacher will find eternal rest!
Oct 2, 2010
What is present for me in this moment?
I awoke at 6am with an unsettled feeling. My mind went into immediate overdrive, thinking about the future – all the What ifs? I have a practice that was taught to me by a good friend. If I find myself awake too early, and I can’t go back to sleep then it is a good time to pray.
Prayer is a great practice, whether you believe in God or not. Why? Because it helps us to gain perspective on the rightful place of our “I” in the world. Even if we have a lot to do with the creation of our own reality, we do not create alone. The Other is involved. God, your friend, your co-worker, or boss — everything is a representative of the Other which co-creates your world. When we pray, we acknowledge the Other in all of its forms. Prayer can be directed to God, to the universe, to the still place within, or perhaps just to mystery in general.
I pray to remind myself, “Oh yes! It is not all about me!” This is a stepping stone towards greater attunement and compassion for all the others in my life and for myself as well.
1. Mentally set aside your doubt for 5 minutes.
2. Pray for what you desire and also for what you do not even know that you need.
Writing your Own Story
What a strange trip it’s been. I just spent the past 4 days on an organic farm near Half Moon Bay in California celebrating the Jewish festival called Sukkot. The organization that arranged the retreat, Wilderness Torah (http://wildernesstorah.org), has a mission to change the culture of Jewish community by reconnecting people with the natural world. We ate meals prepared from local and organic ingredients, prayed in a way that honored the relationship between Jewish tradition and the Earth, and spent plenty of time simply being and breathing in a beautiful setting.
If you can’t tell, the experience was very meaningful for me. I was reflecting why this would be so. What did the experience hold that reminded me of my sense of value and purpose in the world? If we look at meaning as a reminder from the world around you that you exist, the meaningfulness of nature immersion is pretty obvious. The world around me ceases to be a foreign planet that I am alienated from. The fields, the waters,and my breath all have a special place in the flow of life.
What also touched me deeply was taking part in the co-creation of a society. When we are born, we are given a set of rules to live by that we had no part in creating and had no idea if they would actually work for us or not. For example, the train ride from education to occupation is a model in which many people struggle with. On this retreat, though, we all engaged with our ancestral stories of the holiday and of life in harmony with nature. We then took those stories and co-authored the next chapter with our own words, desires, and dreams. We shared in a community experience that honored our tradition and expressed a vision that honored who we are. We allowed ourselves to hear the whispers of nature and Judaism, softly saying, “I am you.”
1. Google your nearest camp grounds, organic farms, or parks.
2. Prepare for a visit as if you were seeing a long-lost friend.
A Meaning Paradox
Sept. 21, 2010
Meaning can be thought as a certain sense of coherence that is present in one’s life as the story of an individual moves through time. Even though all these different events take place, I can trace a “me” throughout. There is comfort in the feeling that this “me” follows a logic across time and space, regardless of context.
On the other hand, if we are not open to our purpose in life shifting and molding, we can become stagnant, bored, and depressed. Meaning, like most things in life, is also in a constant process of reconfiguration — molding and expanding to meet an ever changing world.
Can we breathe with this paradox for a moment? On the one hand I perceive meaning because of the constant sense of I-AM-ness, and on the other hand, I allow meaning to be sustained because I hold it gently, giving it freedom to be altered by my environment. I get the sense of meaning as an anchor, with a deep weight that is rooted in unchanging being, and also has a connecting chain which drifts in rhythm with the passing sea of life. Meaning is all of that, dynamically complex, yet still and simple.
The wisdom of meaning formation is in knowing when to activate or touch in to the specific piece of the meaning spectrum that is needed in the moment.
1. Breathe in the paradox of meaning as laid out in the teaching above.
Spirit and Meaning
Sept. 20th, 2010
In the various contexts of my jobs and wanderings in the world, I have begun to hear quite often the phrase, “I am not into spirituality.” People quickly trash the word because it is mostly associated with heart-knowledge instead of the more comfortable head-knowledge. And I guess it is just hard to grasp onto spiritual concepts – they are hard to prove with observation.
Lately, when I hear this comment, I try to switch the conversation to meaning. Meaning too cannot be observed, but it involves both head and heart, both physical and spiritual. Meaning is something that people are excited to talk about. The topic is automatically engaging.
For me, I do not separate meaning and spirituality. They both are experiences that transcend time and space and are highly subjective. Yet, they are also grounded in our world and spring forth from real relationships between an individual and his or her context. They both make us feel more alive and are connected with experiencing our core being.
I would not say that spirituality is meaning, but I would say that meaning is an access point to the spiritual and that the spiritual is an access point to meaning. Engaging in one can ultimately lead to the other. Generally, after a few moments of pondering meaning the heart opens to let in the possibility of spirituality in as well.
1. Consider how your sense of meaning touches into and expands your sense of aliveness.
2. Bring to mind a moment that you might consider “spiritual.” Note the similar expansiveness as present in the meaningful moment.
Sitting with your Oy’s
Sept. 19th, 2010
Today I spent the day learning with Ajahn Pasanno at Spirit Rock. Ajahn Pasanno is a Buddhist teacher of the Thai Forest tradition. The day-long program was held as a rememberance of his teacher Ajahn Chah whose life sparked a wild fire of awakening all over the world.
During one of the silent sits, I experienced a lot of back pain. I attended carefully to the sensation, imagining an open palm gently holding the back pain. Tracing the pain along the width of my lower-middle back I noted the dynamic flux of the pain sensation, from intense to mild to absent and back again. At some points I would lose focus and my mind would go off into some story, and I would forget the pain completely. When I remembered where I was, and the instruction of paying attention, the pain was fully there to welcome me back.
The question came to mind, “Why would I want to attend to the suffering and experience pain, when I could just get lost in story and not suffer?” I amused myself with some answers and during the Q&A, I asked Ajahn Pasanno for his answer. What he said to me allowed me to reflect on the meaning behind suffering.
Ajahn Pasanno shared that when we get to know our suffering we become aware of its limitations and we can begin to taste that there is an actual end to it. On the other hand, when we are simply lost in our story, we can fall prey to the whims of suffering without an end in sight.
The lesson in meaning here is that the meaning why we suffer is to end suffering. Moving away from Buddhist lingo, bad things are happening, with or without our awareness. When we encounter a challenge (a trauma, an illness) and acknowledge it as such we are in a way choosing to become intimate with this hardship. This is a form of knowing that may be likened to the biblical sense of knowing — deeply and beyond the surface.
Loneliness, sadness, shame, physical pain — these are experiences that are always present for us. To “suffer” is to acknowledge their presence and to change our relationship with them. Instead of sadness happening to me, I invite sadness in to get to know it. And not just any sadness, but my sadness. In that way, it becomes a tool of learning rather than an enemy.
So what of my back pain? It was still there at the end of the sit — and still present at the end of the day. It lead me to explore this significant question too. Sitting with my pain helps me to acknowledge and connect with anyone who experiences any lesser or greater measure of pain. My back pain helped me to cultivate greater compassion — the quality of connection that blossoms from a mutual understanding of human hardship.
Sept 17th, 2010
According to the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur begins this evening . Jews are supposed to spend about 24 hours thinking intently about atonement and repentance. These obscure and complicated words mean a variety of things. Mostly, we are called to reflect and introspect about our year and acknowledge where we went wrong and how we can act better in moving forward.
As with Mother’s Day, you might ask, shouldn’t everyday be Yom Kippur? It would seem that taking time for a daily accounting would be a step in the direction of more meaningful living. In fact, there is a practice of Cheshbon HaNefesh (taking an accounting of one’s soul) where folks review their day before bedtime to see where they hit or missed in their walk through the world.
I would like to utilize Yom Kippur this year for a jump start on these points:
1. Remember that I am a “Change Agent” in the world – my actions have consequences, known and unknown.
2. Sow seeds of Yom Kippur in some regular way – taking time to step back from the hustle and bustle and ask, “Is this who I want to be?”
3. Bring more mindfulness to my relationships – with myself, my community and world, and my understanding of the Divine.
A Great Teacher
Sept. 16th, 2010
Today I was informed that the Pastoral Counseling program chair at Loyola University in Maryland, Dr. Joe Ciarrocchi, entered hospice. I attended Loyola for my Ph.D. in that program. He, like many people, is a nurturing soul that has spent years of his life helping other people through difficult times. Soon after I began my studies, Joe announced to our learning community that he had been diagnosed with cancer. It has been about five years of ups and downs shared with an individual that many have learned from, that many care for and love.
On one of my first days in the department office, I passed Joe in the hall. He inquired about my move to the D.C. area. I told him it was going alright and then he asked me if I had found a prayer community yet. I told him that I was still shopping around and he reminded me how important it was to have a spiritual home base.
Joe knows how to SHOW people that he genuinely cares for them. He uses the wisdom of positive psychology, which is one of his research focuses, in his encounters. This is a man who “talks the talk and walks the walk.” He is a teacher in his approach to life in health and in illness.
I hope I am SHOWING you that there is great meaning in the reflection of my limited relationship with Joe. I can easily lose meaning and shake my fists to the sky and demand, “Why G-d why?!” In times when we face the harsher side of reality we are tossed into the sacred space between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. In these times, we can follow Joe’s example:
1. Reach out to community – be bold to speak your truth, share it and own it.
2. Engage in spiritual practice instead of blaming the unknown.
3. Live the lessons that you have studied and learned.
4. Accept what cannot be known.
May Joe and his loved ones find comfort in the Divine embrace.
Magic and Mystery
Sept. 15th, 2010
How often does this happen to you?
There we were, myself and my housemate, packing oversized lumber into my 4-door sedan. All of it fit in, from trunk almost until the windshield. All of it, except a large piece of wood lattice wall. As we were making the decision that indeed, it was not going to fit, and we would have to tie it to the roof of the car, a stranger passes us, takes note of our obvious problem, and gives us a little smile. He continues to his flat bed truck parked next to my car.
“Where are you heading?” I asked.
“Berkeley,” he casually responds, “How about you?”
“Berkeley too!” I answer with hope. “Can I pop this in your truck?”
“Sure,” he responds, coming to the rescue.
I told him where I lived and he delivered the too-large wood wall to my house. Now what to make of this story? What meaning should I ascribe to this occurrence? I can just see it as a nice guy doing a favor, completely random. I can also allow for a little playfulness and imagine the perfect fate for this angel-messenger to arrive just at the right time.
I choose the latter. Why? Not necessarily because of a deep certainty that a Higher Power was pulling the strings to give me a break, but because life is just a little more exciting when I allow for the possibility of the mysterious and the magical. I believe that in order to enhance the presence of meaning it is a good practice to choose to ascribe the meaning of the moment with magic.
1. Pay attention to your very next neutral or positive encounter.
2. Choose to ascribe meaning to the encounter that makes it more mysterious and magical.
Life Giving Stories
Sept. 14, 2010
Mirrors. They are the key to meaning. When the world reflects your presence back at you the experience is one of meaning. An encounter that reminds you of your aliveness creates that inner sense of purpose and value. Funny how we immediately tag along purpose with aliveness. If we are here, there must be something that we have to do here. Even if it is “just to have fun,” or “make the best of it man,” in our core we sense responsibility connected to our existence.
It is so easy to ignore the connections that remind us that we are alive and valued. I was feeling quite down today, lonely and disconnected. I had two amazing conversations with my co-workers about life and meaning – topics that really get me going. In the moment, I felt nothing. It took telling myself (through a conversation with a third person) the story of having the conversations to realize the blessing encounters that they were.
Soon enough, a little smile crept onto my face.
1. Tell a friend a personal story of a seemingly neutral encounter.
2. Write down three things that the story reflects about your aliveness.
Meaning in Absence
Sept. 13, 2010
We all experience connections that run so deep that there is an immediate clinging, a desire for more. Relationships are the ingredients of the meaningful moment. But what happens when the desire is unfulfilled? Are we now in the state called meaninglessness?
A plausible interpretation, though there is a lot more to meaning when we liberate it from our fulfillments or shortcomings. There is meaning in the fact that I feel a connection with another being. Through the encounter, my essential being is stoked with life. The fire that burns is meaning.
Often times what we call loneliness is actually tenderness – someone has broken through our defenses and has seen us. And we can be left open and vulnerable. Fulfillment my be absent in distance, but meaning is always present. How awesome for two people to connect. I think it is worth celebrating.
1. Bring to mind someone in your life that you connect deeply with, though are physically apart from.
2. Find comfort, perhaps joy, in the eternal presence of the connection which transcends the physical distance.
The Gift of Story
Sept. 12th, 2010
I sat a day-long workshop with Spirit Rock faculty member, Sharda Rogell. The theme of the class was looking at the relationship between story and transcendence. The path of meditation often creates a desire to rid ourselves of our self and our story. We cannot be free if we are living within a limited story of just one possibility.
The problem though, is that without our story we have no access to meaning. The life that you are living – the expression of your unique being in the world – is your springboard to a sense of sustained meaning.
It is a well-known problem. How does one rid oneself of the limiting self beliefs which are needed for essential living? What is the balance point of this delicate puzzle?
My answer in this moment is gratitude and openness. Gratitude for what was and openness for what is to come. With these qualities we embrace who we are without limiting our becoming.
1. Tell yourself a story that you love about yourself.
2. Consider the mystery of what is to come.
Meaning in Not Knowing
Sept. 11th, 2010
It’s hard to forget that 9/11 was an unthinkably scary day 9 years ago. It’s easy to remember the planes crashing into the twin towers, the news of planes in other parts of the country being hijacked and the uncertainty of how the United States would pick up the pieces of this tragedy. It is also just as easy to tuck the memories quickly away, to quickly sweep the feeling of shattered safety under the rug of our awareness.
Meaning occurs through coherence and coherence implies making sense out of the flow of the events of our lives. 9/11 is an experience that will probably never make sense and so we want to cut it out of our story. The only problem though, is that we cannot just cut a piece of our being off and throw it away. So how can make sense out of the non-sense moments of our experiences?
I want to suggest two things. First is to gently feel the experience when you remember a moment that seems impossible to understand. Second is to be open to the meaning in the experience as a moment of incomprehensible mystery. We might never understand why 9/11 happened, or the Holocaust, or Katrina. We can continue to wrestle, to ask why, and to be open to the meaning in not knowing.
Paying Intention and Attention
Sept. 8th, 2010
This evening the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, begins. Like many new beginnings, it can be a complex transition period of joy and sorrow, hope and regret. There is great potential for having a meaningful experience. Reflecting on the past year and cleaning out the cobwebs of lingering un-integrated past experiences is a valuable exercise that should probably be done more than once a year. But one step at a time.
The question being echoed around is, how do I ensure that I will have a meaningful time? It is very easy for me to go through any ritual without any presence, without actually living the moment. It is important for me to remember that meaning grows out of relationships. As in any relationship, I must pay intention and attention in order for me to sense the presence of meaning. If I am engaging in a prayer service I will remind myself why I have chosen to attend this service and then, as I move in the flow of the ceremony, I take note of all the attention cues that are available to keep me engaged. There are words sung and spoken, there are gestures both physical and emotional. Thoughts and intuitions about how the liturgy relates to or negates who I am. I make the service my own by asking myself: what do I need to do in this moment to stay present with the choice that I made to show up? And yes, I lose my way, wake up again, and reset my intention and attention.
By pouring being (through intention and attention) into the experience of the ritual, I penetrate the moment with meaning.
1. Do a routine task with emphasized intention and attention. For example, brushing your teeth or showering.
2. Take note of any meaning that comes out of this “profane” task.
Awaking with Meaninglessness
Sept. 7th, 2010
This morning I woke up with that dreary feeling again.
The sun had not yet broken through the Bay Area fog and I was not looking forward to a day of work. As I neared the BART station, I noticed a guy dressed in slacks and a button down shirt on his bike, riding across the parking lot. I was on foot today instead of my own bike. When I saw him, the thought popped into my head, “I sometimes look like that.” I reflected on how meaningless it seemed for this stranger to rush off to work in his nice outfit. This had been me countless times before – hurrying to make the train to get to work to check e-mail to make a meeting … I began to think on how strange life is, and how meaningless these tasks ultimately are.
Not outside signals, but inside ones. These thoughts are familiar to me. They are letting me know to pay attention to my feelings. I dip inside, and yep. There is sadness with a pinch of emptiness, perhaps a dash of loneliness. I know this feeling.
I take the BART ready to engage in a day with a good dose of blah! As, I reach the top of the escalator, I see a man playing a guitar with a sign that reads, “Times are Hard! Your Nickles and Dimes are just Fine!” I recall that giving charity lifts my spirits a bit. I drop in 36 cents (the mystical number for the Hidden Righteous) and allow a little smile to creep on my face. I think about what else lifts my spirits. I decide to jog up the next set of stairs and then glide and breathe up the next escalator. I remember that gratitude helps, so I review an early morning conversation with a good friend and about other people that support me in my life.
I reach the office door and have already forgotten that I was in a low mood. Later in the day I reflect on the way meaninglessness can be used as a tool to signal enhanced and intentional self-care.
1. Do one thing right now that brings a sincere smile on to your face.