Monthly Archives: September 2014

Shofar RSVP

ב”ה

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As part of the New Year celebrations, we Jews trumpet a ram’s horn, called a shofar.  The sounds range from a triumphal blast celebrating the coronating of The King (ie G-d), to the jagged cries of a child (ie us) yearning for our Father.

Just two days ago, I was spending the holiday with the Ferris family (may they live an be well) in Berkeley, when a new friend plopped down on the sofa beside me and inquired (as if I was supposed to know!), “Why is the shofar small at one end and wider at the other?”

“Do you want a physical explanation or a spiritual answer,” I asked.

“Whatever you want to give.”

As I sat there doubting whether my dim memory of high school physics was up to a scientific explanation, I was inspired to offer this: “To remind us that even the smallest act of kindness, like the breath as it travels outward and away from us, can have large and profound effects, transforming the world into a better place.”

“Interesting that you should say, ‘act of kindness’.”

Which got me thinking more kabbalistically: in the sounding of the shofar, we have the warm breath (or ruach, which also means spirit in Hebrew and can be seen as the sefirah of chesed or lovingkindness) traveling through a cold, rigid ram’s horn (which we can think of as the sefirah of gevurah, or strictness), and the resulting trumpeting can be seen as harmonizing beauty (which corresponds to the sefirah of teferes).  (I’m no kabbalist, but I know enough to be dangerous!)

The diffuse breath, by itself, has little discernible effect on the world, and an inert ram’s horn even less.  But together, they can make a penetrating sound, a beautiful call to the soul to awaken once again, a call to return to G-d and celebrate His Kingship.

And as I mulled over this idea (which had only popped into my head as my friend had asked his question) it occurred to me that I could apply this insight to my own life in a slightly different way:  The circumstances of my life can sometimes feel confining and rigid, like the ram’s horn.  I chafe at having to get a 9-5 job, or perhaps I dread a particularly challenging relationship that I need to deal with.

Rather than retreating from these challenges, or resenting the burdens, perhaps I need to embrace the circumstances, call forth more spirit from my soul, and step into these narrow spaces more fully, with my innermost being.  And then maybe, like the shofar, my life will come alive with a mighty and awesome sound, a tribute fit for the coronation of The King.

I suspect that is the invitation The Master is issuing to me, to all of us.

May we find the inspiration within ourselves to respond to the call.

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Slowing down

ב”ה

Feeling sick today, with a bug that’s been with me over Rosh Hashana and Shabbos (ie, the past three days).  So no fasting for me, despite the fact that it’s a fast day (Tzom Gedaliah).

That means both letting go of the fast, and not going very fast.  :>

I think there’s a grace to practice when sick.  Letting go of the “to do” list, the upcoming deadlines and projects around the house.  Just being here with this body, with this spirit.  Slowing down.  Letting go.

I usually find a spiritual message waiting for me in there, like a gift yet to be unwrapped.  Some correction (small or large) that I need to make in my trajectory or my outlook.

I haven’t seen it yet this time around.

But the day is young.

What do you do when you’re sick, Gentle Reader?

The garden of my relationships

ב”ה

I prefer to eat organic food.  I’m sure that the conventional produce is grown only with the finest synthetic pesticides available for ingestion, but… no thank you.  I was amused when a comedian (Jimmy Fallon?) quipped, “‘organic food’, or, as our grandparents used to call it: ‘food'”.  We have introduced so many man-made chemicals into our food supply that we have a special name for food grown with only naturally occurring elements.

Water seems to be following a similar path.  I remember as a child drinking water from fountains and faucets everywhere we went.  But now, we have bottled water.  Bottled water!  We actually pay money for a plastic container filled with water.  Unthinkable when I was young.  But in these modern days the water that came into my sink in Saint Louis Park (Minnesota) had such a taste that I used to trudge to the co-op and shlep jugs of “reverse-osmosis” water home.  If I remember my son’s school project correctly, this is due to an old creosote processing plant in the area that closed over forty years ago.  Forty years, and the water still tastes awful.  We reap what we sow.

So today I was wondering about air.  Is that the next basic human commodity that we will poison to such an extent that we’ll bottle “fresh air” and make it available at every gas station across the country?

Okay.  “Simmer down, Shimon,” I hear you murmur.  Things aren’t that bad.  And if that were the sum total of my curmudgeon-mind musings this morning, I probably would not have posted.

But, tonight, the Jewish new year begins, and it’s time to evaluate all of our relationships and take a fearless and searching moral inventory.  What to make amends for, what to change, what to foster and encourage.

And it got me thinking: am I so consumed by my own struggles that, like a creosote plant, I’m slowly polluting the environment around me?  Am I taking my relationships with those around me for granted?  They are my lifeline, my source of comfort and strength.   Am I tending to the garden of my relationships with enough natural and organic elements of my heart, or am I giving rote and mechanical effort, too much synthetic pesticide?

I have to be here, that I know.  I have to inhabit the moments I’m given.  Because children grow up quickly, and grown-ups can leave suddenly, and before we know it, we’re looking back over our lives, wondering where the time and the people went and, often, wishing we had done things differently.

How can I avoid that regret?

I plan to practice “dying” a little.  We Jews do this intensely on Yom Kippur (coming up in ten days).  I intend to try on the death perspective all day long, reviewing my life from that vantage point.  What will I pine do be able to differently, or just one more time?

I expect to look at every relationship in my life, every role I play: child of G-d, father, brother, uncle, friend, writer, lover, citizen, consumer, Jew, homeowner, etc.  On my deathbed, what will I wish I had done?

And then, I hope to gather up that wisdom, and, like a gardener, pour it gently back into my daily life in small, loving ways.  Sustainable, renewable ways.  A little here, a little there.

I have an inkling, already, that one of the major things is just opening my heart and soul to others without trying to be something.  Without trying to be anything.  Not trying to have wise answers or know what to say or what to do.  Just sharing the moment-by-moment struggle.  We’re in this together.

I think that’s the most powerful gift we have to offer others.  And ourselves.

But we’ll see (G-d willing!).  Maybe there will be some surprises in there, too.  Things that arise in the space that Yom Kippur creates in time, giving the still small voice an opportunity to be heard most clearly.

I hope, Gentle Reader, that you have an opportunity for such a practice.  And if so, then in the days to come, may you learn much from spending more time listening, more time hearkening to that inner wisdom.

And may we remember to act in accordance with the basic truth of our life here: we’re all in this together.

Rest in peace, Rabbi Barry Woolf (z”l)

ב”ה

R. Woolf #2

Sunday, he was at the bris celebrating an eight-day-old baby entering into the eternal covenant.  Monday, he had entered the eternal realms himself, and his body was being escorted to The Holy Land for burial.  Here one day, gone the next.  Breathtaking.

Rabbi Woolf was a friend of mine.  One of those funny things because we had never spent much time together really, but somehow we had a connection, an understanding between us.  And when we did spend time together it was most rewarding.

He spoke his mind, Rabbi Woolf did.  He’d get a twinkle in his eyes sometimes before he said something he knew might sound outrageous or controversial.  But he called things like he saw them.  I found that so refreshing.  In a world where people sometimes tiptoe around unpleasant truths or awkward situations, Rabbi Woolf would dive right in to the heart of the matter.

He had little patience for hypocrisy or showiness.  Most troubling to him was what he saw as a trend in religious circles towards focusing on the external manifestations of piety (clothing, etiquette, ritual) rather than the inner workings of the heart (kindness, truthfulness, going the extra mile for a fellow human).  And he spoke frankly about it.

I also thank him for his advice in developing my relationship with the woman who is now my fiancée.  She and I have different religious practices, as well as divergent expectations on how to proceed in a relationship.  “Move out to California for six months,” he trumpeted.  “Follow your heart.”  And I did.  And here we are, planning our wedding for the end of October.

So thank you, Rabbi Woolf.  I was hoping to dance with you at our wedding celebration, but I will have to content myself with knowing you are there in spirit.

I was sorry not to be able to bid you farewell yesterday at the St. Paul airport, but I was glad to hear that rabbis from all sectors of the community were there.  A fitting tribute.  From sunny California, I add my tearful wave to theirs.  I’ll miss you.

May your journey be a joyful one, to the heights of the celestial realms.  I’m sure they’re celebrating in heaven.  One of the good ones has returned home.

 

No, no, no.

ב”ה

Looking for a job is an interesting process: no, no, no, no… yes.  Just the one yes, and we’re done.  For many of us, that describes a lot of things: looking for a house, a job, a spouse.  We’re trying to get to the one “yes”, and all the nos along the way feel like wasted time.

I’m reminded of going up stairs. Most of us consider time on the stairs “wasted”; the stairs themselves are just an impediment, an obstacle in the way of our being in the place we want to be (the second floor).  We often don’t even notice them going by, because we’re focusing on what we plan to do when we arrive upstairs.

Ever see a toddler work the staircase?  Both hands get planted on the next stair, twist to the side to get one foot up, the next foot up, repeat.  And when they get to the top?  They want you to take them down the stairs so they can do it again!  Over and over again, it’s so fun!

Where did our joy of climbing stairs go?

And we drive much the same way.  I just want to get there.  Why are all these other drivers in my way?  The red light is too long already!  Can you remember when you first slipped behind the wheel, perhaps at fifteen?  The thrill of the engine turning over, putting it in gear the first time?

My overall point here is that life is made up of many more “on the way” moments than “arrival” moments.  And if we focus too much on the arrivals and ignore the way, we lose much of our life to auto-pilot.

As we enter in to the new Jewish year, this snare is very much on my mind in a general way, and as I look for work and experience the “no, no, no…” I am mindful of it in a specific way.  I think there are two aspects here:

(a) repetition.  Our brain is bombarded with enormous amounts of data flooding in moment to moment.  To help us cope, the brain detects patterns in the data, and filters out whole sequences of input as “another climb up the stairs” or “another drive to work”.  After ten seconds in a bakery, our mind loses awareness of the lovely aroma that delighted us when we first entered.  We just stop noticing.

So if we want a fuller experience of the bakery, we sometimes need to step out, and then step back in.  Clear the palate between experiences.  Switch it up.  Make it fresh.

In concrete terms?  Drive a different way to work, change up the speed you take the stairs, do something left-handed (or other-handed), add a new spice to the recipe, wake up an hour earlier, listen to a genre of music you think you have no interest in.  Or, with any activity, pretend this is the first time you’re doing this, or that this is the last time you’ll ever be able to.

(b) “bad” stuff.  It’s easy to categorize things that happen to me in terms of “good” and “bad”.  I got turned down for a job, that’s “bad”.  But that’s a rather limited view.  Ever regret having taken a job?  Wished you’d never been hired for it?

I’m reminded of the old story (Zen?): a farmer’s horse disappears.  They neighbors comisserate, “that’s terrible!”  Farmer just says, “Is that so?”.  The next day, the runaway horse returns with a whole herd of wild horses (which means the farmer is suddenly a wealthy man).  The neighbors are exuberant, “that’s fantastic!”  Farmer just says, “Is that so?”  Next day, the farmer’s son breaks his leg trying to tame one of the horses.  The neighbors are sympathetic, “such a shame!”  Farmer: “Is that so?”  Next day, the army sweeps through town, forcibly inducting all able-bodied young men.  Farmer’s son is spared because his leg was broken…

You get the idea, of course.  What appears “bad” in the moment may turn out to be incredibly good fortune when viewed in a larger context.

But our farmer has the equanimity to let go of the in-the-moment judgement and adopt a wait-and-see attitude.  Or perhaps our farmer is just amused at the whole notion of evaluation in the first place.

For me, I find it helpful to see every event that I experience as something hand-picked for me by The Master.  Exactly what I need at this time and place in my life.  So I turn it over in my mind to see what I might learn from it.  Is this “no” from a potential employer giving me feedback about my skill set, my job search technique or my path in life?  Is it an aid to humility, perserverance, faith in G-d?  These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I get the “no”.  I try to receive it fully instead of just racing past it in search of that “yes”.

And in this way, I try to make the most of the “negative” experience.

And sometimes, I can actually be grateful for the “no”, if not in the moment, then shortly thereafter.

And sometimes, I can’t, and I just smile at myself and say, “Shimon, I guess you have not yet arrived at the top stair in the insight and wisdom department– but let’s enjoy the climb.”

So, Gentle Reader, what do you do when “negative” things happen?  Any strategies you care to share?

May you enjoy more and more of the moments with which you are blessed; may you discover joy wrapped in each one.

Addiction Strategies

ב”ה

So I said I’d talk about some strategies I have used for dealing with my addictive tendencies with computer games.  I have no idea if any of these will help anyone else (i.e. you!), but if something resonates, try it out.

First, I find it helpful to categorize the ways in which I get sucked into the addictive behavior, because different strategies are helpful in different situations:

(A) Slippery Slope  It’s late at night, I’m tired, and I tell myself “I’ll just check my email.”  Then I glance at Google News.  Then it’s a quick scan of Facebook.  And one little game.  Seven hours later the sun is peeking in through my window as I huddle intently over my little game.

(B) Just one  I’ve had a tiring or frustrating day out in the world, and I deserve just a little something for myself, how about twenty minutes of fun with a game?  And again, hours go by, because after those twenty minutes, I keep going.

(C) Angst  Meaning falls out of life, the world goes grey, and I want to hide out in a little game.  Or “fast-forward through time” as my son puts it.  (This is similar to wanting to escape from other kinds of difficult emotions, like difficult relationships or unpleasant childhood memories.)

1. Avoidance
For me, in the context of computer games, Avoidance strategies include:

  • Routing the domain name of the game to a different IP address (so the site isn’t available on my computer)
  • Setting up a “managed child account” and blocking the web site
  • Putting the computer on a timer to turn off at a certain time
  • Having a friend call at a certain time to check in (“back away slowly from the computer, Shimon”)
  • Putting the computer away (I stored my iMac for several months and only used smaller devices on which I never play these games)

Notice that most of these I could undo in the moment, if I truly wanted to.  They served to slow me down and force me to remember why I had created the hurdle, why I was trying not to play this game.  And very often, these strategies were successful in situations (A) and (B) above, where there wasn’t a great deal of emotional intensity going on, just “laziness” or “bad habits” in using my time (or failing to go to bed).  I’m reminded of Andy Rooney, “Go to bed!  Whatever you’re staying up for isn’t worth it.”

Dilution/Containment
The second class of interventions are ways of trying to reduce the intensity of the addictive process, with the hope of lessening the size of the negative impact on my life.  In this category I place:

  • Setting times: won’t start playing until at least 11am, will stop by 10pm
  • Between each game, I have to close the browser window and: (a) look at some other web site, (b) get out of my chair and do some pushups, (c) step outside and take at least one breath of fresh air, or (d) contact a friend (via email, Facebook, text or phone).
  • I can play only after I finish my (short) “To Do” list, or after some other productive activity, like doing the dishes, the laundry, handling my “in” box, etc
  • I can only play the game on a specific device (and trying to make that environment less comfortable, or less attractive than doing other things)

This set of possibilities can be effective even with the class (C) situation above, where I’m avoiding intense emotional states.  Again, these little “rules” can be overridden in the moment, but I nonetheless have often found them effective.

Substitution
The third class of interventions includes trying to move myself from a seriously addictive game to something slightly less harmful to myself, or sometimes to something mildly productive.

  • Alternate games of addiction with smaller, less addicting games.  (For me, for example, a game of 2048 got to the point of taking an hour or so, whereas I could knock out a simple, less-addicting “bubble game” in ten minutes.  Alternating the games made it more likely I could stop after a “bubble game”.)
  • Get engrossed in a book, especially science fiction or mysteries (with their own worlds)
  • Get out of the house (errands, a walk, a cafe, anything)
  • Play volleyball (or any other sport or workout regimen)
  • Watch something on Hulu.  (Again, generally a waste of time, but less addicting for me.)

The substitution strategy was relatively easy to do with (A) and (B), but I often even found it helpful with (C), especially if I could start the substitute activity immediately, instead of starting the game, rather than trying to interrupt myself after playing an addictive game for hours.

Redirection
This last class of strategies involves short-circuiting the “turn on the game” action and getting myself to do something positive, and, for (C), potentially even addressing the underlying causes of the difficult emotional states.

  • Call (or visit, or video chat with) a friend
  • Write in my journal
  • Pray or meditate
  • Converse with G-d (speaking out loud, often throwing a tantrum)
  • Write an angry or emotional letter to someone (with no intention of sending it)
  • Sleep  (which can be a problem for some people, but for me is usually quite positive)
  • Visit nature

And there you have, in a nutshell, a list of things that I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, over the years, to address my addictive tendencies which sometimes manifest in all-night gaming sessions.

I would often affix a message to my computer monitor to remind me of some of these interventions.  In fact, at this moment I see on my iMac a little sign: “We close at 10:00pm.”

Do you have any strategies you’ve found effective in dealing with addictive-like habits or behaviors?  I’d love to hear them; I might find something I can use.  I have not found any of the above to be 100% effective.

May your days be filled with actions and choices that bring you joy as you look back on them.

Trust Me

ב”ה

I had the pleasure of catching up with a good friend yesterday evening, thank G-d.  He had been to a four-day silent retreat and was relating his experiences, which were powerful.  Afterwards, I was reflecting on my own life, and the message for me in the events of the past six months.

This is a practice I do so constantly, it’s almost a worldview rather than a “practice”.  I understand that every event I experience, every circumstance I encounter, is handcrafted by The Master.  There’s a reason for what happens; nothing is left to “chance”.  (In another post: how this can be true while we also have free will.)  So I find it helpful to ask, “What can I learn from this event?  What’s the message?”

(I think this can be a helpful practice, even if you don’t believe in G-d or karma or “things are drawn to you by the energy you send out”.  I think we can gain insight from imagining: if events were unfolding according to some purpose, what could I learn from them?)

Anyway, in the past six months, as I have pondered various options for my time and energy and livelihood, I’ve noticed a pattern: some interesting possibility falls unexpectedly into my lap, gets postponed a time or two, and then vanishes.  Here are four quick examples:

(1) A friend of mine is working on a software development team where they suddenly need someone with my skill set.  I interview with them, and it looks good.  Then they push back the timeframe.  And push it again.  And again.  (2) A reknowned rabbi is doing a presentation at a bookstore and, in a complete tangent to his main topic, he speaks of a filmmaker and an interesting project.  A few days later, when I speak to the rabbi individually, he proposes to set up a meeting introducing me to the filmmaker– perhaps there will be a writing opportunity for me.  We try several times to set up the meeting, but due to travel schedules, it always falls through.  (3) In the most unlikely setting, with someone I’ve known for years but who is as far removed from the entertainment business as you can get, I find myself explaining an idea for a television show I’d like to host.  In a surreal moment, I hear myself concluding, “I mention this in case you know someone who knows someone who knows Oprah.”  The stunning response: “Actually, I have a childhood friend on Oprah’s team that I just saw last weekend; I’ll email him for you.”  Uncharacteristically, I have to remind the responder to send the email, and equally uncharacteristically, she never hears back from her childhood friend.  (4) Out of the blue, a former colleague calls about a job opportunity with his company.  We set up an interview, which is postponed.  And postponed again.  And then the interview occurs in a most unexpected manner, with unexpectedly disappointing results.

So over the course of a few weeks, I pondered.  Perhaps the message here was:  while G-d can suddenly make an incredible opportunity appear out of thin air, maybe I need to work harder to make something of those opportunities afterwards. But that didn’t really fit because I actually was working quite hard in response to these good fortunes. Then I thought: perhaps I need to have more of a vision of what I want to do, and commit to that vision, before G-d will make it manifest completely– maybe things are coming and going because I’m wavering in what I want to do.  But that didn’t feel quite right, either.

So last night, I had an epiphany.  My friend spoke of his experiences of letting go at this retreat, and after he did so, amazing things happened.  I think this was in my mind (and not accidentally!) when I realized:  G-d is telling me not to grasp too tightly to the opportunities that appear suddenly.  Don’t try to figure out The Master’s plan and think “Aha!  This is what’s going to work” and cling tightly to that idea.  That’s a fear-based response.

Rather, I think The Master wants me to trust.  Trust that one way or another, things will work out; The Master will provide a way.  When things fall from the sky into my lap, be grateful, be mindful, be responsive… but don’t get too attached.  Don’t worry if they don’t pan out, and don’t struggle too hard to make them work if they’re not coming together.  Just do my part, and let it go.  And don’t let it bother me that I don’t see “the answer”.  Easy come, easy go.

Because even though I do trust that things will work out in the long term, I find myself grabbing on to these gifts with too much relief. And I see that I would do better to handle the arising moment as peacefully and gratefully as possible.  A light grasp, an easy touch.

I think that’s the message, and I’m excited about the prospect of improving my ability to practice that trust moment by moment.

And last night, another opportunity may have dropped into my lap, so it looks like I’ll have another good chance to practice.  Just what I needed.  :>

So, Gentle Reader, what’s your take on the events of your life?  Random?  Orchestrated?  Occasional miracles?  Do you think G-d speaks to you through the experiences you encounter as the day unfolds?

May your day be sweet, and may the events bring you joy, however you understand them.