Monthly Archives: September 2014

What is faith?

ב”ה

Looking over my posts to date, I see no mention of G-d, which is perhaps odd for someone who thinks of himself as a mystic.  But it’s hard, because the whole realm is so laden with emotional baggage (for many of us) and with misconceptions and assumptions, that to even broach the subject can feel overwhelming.  Where to start?

So, as is my practice in many areas, I’ll try to start with something small and see where it leads.  So let’s start with faith.

I don’t believe in faith.  At least, not as I used to think of it.

When I was a child of eight or nine, I remember my mother dropped me off at (religious) school early, and I was sitting in the early prayer gathering of the adult male teachers.  They were finishing up, and I saw some of them swaying in their prayer shawls and murmuring prayers.  “They really believe,” I remember thinking to myself.  “They have this unshakable faith at the core.”  And this was followed by, “Gee, I wish I had that.  But I don’t.”

People speak of taking a “leap of faith”, as if it’s possible to go from no belief to complete belief through some act of will, like leaping over a large puddle.  Or at least, that was how it strikes me sometimes.  That’s a kind of faith I can’t relate to.

I’ve thought about it over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two acts of faith that I can understand:

(1)  The first act that I consider to be “faith” is choosing to be open to the possibility of G-d.  By this I mean looking at the world and the different paradigms for understanding it, and deciding that maybe an omniscient, all-powerful being of some kind could exist.  It’s possible.  But more than just opening the mind to that, opening the heart to it.  Being vulnerable to that possibility.  I think this is no small feat, and is often overlooked or underrated.  This is not suddenly believing in anything.  Just opening to the possibility.  It’s not easy for many of us.  But choosing to explore the possibility of such a spiritual realm is, to me, a great act of faith.

(2) The second act that I consider to be “faith” occurs in a specific context, a context you may or may not have experienced.  It goes like this: I have an immanent experience of G-d.  I am overcome by The Spirit, The Presence, The Closeness, whatever your words are for it, but it is beyond words.  In that moment, I know, with a certainty I cannot explain, that G-d exists and is here with me.

And then, a millisecond later, The Presence is gone.  Doubt sets in.  Did I imagine that?  Did I want to experience it so much that I kind of made it up?  Perhaps it came from inside me and I just wanted it to be more or mean more?  The questions plague me.  That couldn’t really have been that could it?

So in that moment, I stand at a crossroads.  I have two equally valid realities.  On the one hand, when I had the experience, I knew without question.  On the other hand, I now have doubts, rationalizations, explanations, etc.  Both equally reasonable bases for viewing “reality” as I know it.

The act of faith, for me, is to decide to live my life with the first understanding.  “When I knew, I knew, even if now I doubt.”  That is an act of faith I can relate to; an act of faith I have experienced.

As the years have gone by, I have had many experiences of G-d.  Many could be explained (if I wanted to see them that way) as coincidences, intuitions, wishful thinking, etc.  One or two defy my ability to understand them “scientifically” (knowledge of future events, etc.), and sometimes I rely on them if I have a particularly strong bout of “what if we’re just on crack?” (as my son succintly puts it).

But mostly, I go through each day in conversation with G-d (picture Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof), talking back and forth as we do.  I understand that G-d exists and that we have a relationship because it’s the best way to explain my experiences, the only way I can make sense of what happens to me.

But if you’ve never had a direct experience of The Presence, what is your experience of a meaningful relationship with G-d?  How did you come to believe in G-d’s existence?  That’s a kind of faith I have trouble understanding, and I would appreciate your help with it.

So, Gentle Reader, do you have an experience or understanding of faith you’re willing to share?  I’d love to hear whatever you’re willing to offer.

May you be granted an experience of G-d’s Nearness.

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Is it over?

ב”ה

I mentioned that I find 2048 to be an addictive game for me.

I also mentioned that I was close to achieving a 8192 tile (which is severe overkill for the game, whose goal is to create a 2048 tile).

What I failed to mention was that when (if) I got to that level, I would be done with the game.

So today I got there, and so today I’m done with 2048 (G-d willing!).

This will be a lovely test for me.

And so my musing natural goes to this process and what would be helpful to me in staying done with this addictive game.  And one of the things I find helpful is to declare my intention to friends.

So, Gentle Reader, I count you among my friends today when I ask you to support me in my intention to be done with this addictive game.

And I ask: have you ever found it helpful to publicly declare an intention to do something difficult?

May your way be clear, and your spirit strong today.

Hobbies vs Addiction

ב”ה

I have hobbies.

When I was doing social work for a living (many years ago), I found myself doing computer programming in my spare time for fun (and playing bridge).  When I switched to doing programming full-time, I sought outlets to play violin more.  When I stepped back and saw that pattern, I concluded that I was drawn to those hobbies as a way of balancing out the right-side-of-the-brain activities and the left-side-of-the-brain activities.  You might call them complementing hobbies.  Using the right brain most of the day?  Harmonize with a left-brain activity.  And vice versa.

But none of those hobbies compromised my ability to stop doing them after a reasonable amount of time; they didn’t impede my long-term goals, or leave me filled with regret the next day.  (On the contrary, I felt balanced and more whole afterwards.)

Whereas the activities in my life that I consider addictive, do leave me frustrated and shaking my head at myself the next day, as I end up slogging uphill through my schedule with too little sleep, and nothing to show for the wasted time but muddled thinking and a vague sense of frittering my life away.

For me (and of course, this may be totally different for you), I don’t engage in the addictive behaviors because I’m drawn towards them as much as I’m trying to get away from something else.  The computer game is the most convenient escape, the most mind-numbing activity that is at my fingertips.

For me, it’s important to spend a little time focusing on what I’m running away from, so that whatever strategies I devise are more effective.

The things I’m running away from seem to fall into three general categories:

(1) An unpleasant, present-day happening that I don’t want to deal with.  Large or small.  IRS notification of audit; a hold on my credit card I have to call in to release; a message to call back someone to work through a disagreement.  These are relatively small in the scheme of things.

(2) Unfinished pain from childhood (or past relationships).  Sometimes issues are stirred up that have deep roots, and the unhealed wounds are painful to feel.  I can find myself reaching for the keyboard to numb my feeling state, dampen the emotions, or push away memories.

(3) Angst.  I seem to suffer from bouts of existential angst.  It’s not exactly depression; I’m not sure what to call it really.  But from time to time, life loses its beauty and meaning, and I find it hard to keep going.  Nothing is interesting, my energy falls flat, and I just want to be done.  (My son characterizes this as wanting to “fast-forward through time”.)  At these times I am quite susceptible to crawling into a little meaningless game, with its own little rules and goals, and abandoning my life and the bleak, foggy greyness that comprises those moments.

So depending on which of these is “up”, different strategies are helpful.  Of course, sometimes they all hit at once, and then… oy.

So I think next up will be the Avoidance, Dilution, Substitution, and Redirection Strategies I sometimes use, but for now, I’ll sign off this musing with questions:

  • Do any of this ring true to your experience?  
  • Do you distinguish between hobbies and time-wasting, addictive behaviors?  
  • And if you have the latter, do you think you’re drawn to the addiction for its own sake, or because you’re running away from something?

Until next time, may your heart be filled with gratitude and calm.

Taking stock

ב”ה

 

The Jewish month is Elul.  It’s a time of taking stock of one’s life and one’s relationships.

So that’s the spiritual practice I’m musing on today.

Going through every area of my life, the relationships I have, the roles I play, etc, and reflecting on how I’ve been doing, what my goals are in that arena, and making lists of changes and actions to take.

A fearless and searching moral inventory, some might call it.

Ever do that?

I highly recommend it.

And now I’m off to do exactly that.

May you be inspired to take stock of your life this month, and may it help you set a stronger course in the direction of your deepest aspirations.

 

Addiction: From Lode Runner to 2048

ב”ה

I remember in college I had one of the new Macintosh computers and I enjoyed the game Lode Runner.  More than enjoyed.  I frequently stayed up all night playing it.  And designing new levels for it.  It was a “logic under time pressure” game that apparently my brain goes nuts playing.

Thirty years later, I downloaded the phone app 2048 (because it was recommended to me) and promptly stayed up all night playing it.  (And I mean literally, I was still playing when the sun started shining in the windows.)  I promptly removed it from my phone.  

And then started playing the online version.  Oy.

So I look at that as addiction.  For me, addiction is any activity such that: doing this activity impairs my judgement to choose wisely whether to continue doing it (and the continued doing of it undermines my longer-term goals).

I am reminded of the potato chip commercial “Bet you can’t eat just one!”  Who takes that bet?

Oh, I’m tempted.  “Betcha I can, too, eat just one!”  I think we all want to believe that our willpower or resolve is strong enough to withstand a simple act like eating a potato chip.  We tell ourselves we can have the same intentionality before or after.  One little chip isn’t going to sway me; I’m tougher than a little chip.

But I think a healthier perspective is something like this:  every act we do influences us, changes us, makes us a slightly (or largely) different person.  From the vantage point after the act, things may seem different, and indeed, we may make different choices.  I may like to think that I won’t change, but the fact is, I do.  My biochemistry, neurochemistry, my spirit, my mood… everything can change.

I have several musings on how to deal with this.  I’ve tried many things over time; variously successful, depending on what’s going on in my life.  My disclaimer: I still struggle with it.  Just this past week I was up to 6am playing 2048.  (I tell myself I’m going to stop when I create the 8192 square!  Almost there!)

But before getting in to the things I’ve tried, I want to share the positive side of this “Bet you can’t eat just one!” problem.

The other day I had to do the dishes.  I didn’t feel like it.  I wanted to sit on the couch.  (Or sit in front of the computer and play 2048.)  So I said to myself, “Wash just one spoon.”  Now, I knew the idea was that once I washed the one spoon, I would be in a different place.  I’d be in the kitchen, soapy hands, and I’d probably want to wash another spoon.  And then maybe a fork.  So I knew this little game.

But even though I knew the game, it still worked.  I couldn’t get psyched up to get up off the couch to do all the dishes, but I could challenge myself to at least wash one little spoon.  So I walked into the kitchen with the idea that I would wash the one silly spoon and then go back and sit on the couch.

But after I had washed the one spoon, I was in a different place, and it was easy to do a few more spoons, the rest of the silverware, and eventually all the dishes.  Even though I honestly was ready to only wash one spoon, and even though I knew the hope was to get myself to do all the dishes… it still worked.

This is not always effective, of course, but it’s worth a shot (imho).  And, at the very least, one more spoon gets clean.

Sometimes I apply the same approach to my morning prayers, if I’m putting them off.  Just say the first prayer, Shimon.  The first one!  And after I’ve done that, I’m usually in quite a different place, and it’s easy to continue on to the next one.  And the next one.  (Not always, but mostly.)

So, do you have any activities that you find yourself staying up all night doing (and then regretting it)?

If so, what have you tried, and how successful would you say it’s been?

More from me on my strategies in the next post, G-d willing.

To be continued

ב”ה

It’s been a few days since my last post.  This delay is primarily due to planning for my upcoming wedding(!), but also because I want to modulate my tone here a bit and I’ve been reflecting on how to accomplish that.  My inclination right now is to make things more personal and move into issues and challanges with which I currently struggle.

So my intention is to start the coming week with a post on addictive tendencies, flights from difficult emotions, and what has been helpful (but not wholly successful) for me.

Which brings me to my musing today, which is that when I find myself putting something off, it’s helpful to state my intentions out loud to someone.  Set up an expectation outside myself as an additional motivation.  (“My friend is expecting me to send them a draft of that article by Monday,” or some such.)

So thank you, Gentle Reader, for participating in my spiritual practice for today, by helping me set an expectation of myself to carry on about addiction in the early part of this coming week.

In the meantime, may your Sabbath and/or weekend days be restorative and restful for you.