Monthly Archives: April 2016

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke

When I awoke this morning, I was disappointed to see it raining outside.  California can certainly use the water during this time of drought, but on this particular morning it’s traditional to burn chametz, and I saw over an inch of water in the outdoor fire pit.  It crossed my mind that I could empty it out and bring it under our roof’s overhang, although perhaps that would be a fire hazard.  My lazy bones suggested that I could do the fire later; perhaps the rain would let up.

But my wife encouraged me to go ahead, especially since our son would soon leave for school, so I dumped out the water, moved the fire pit, and laid down aluminum foil on it.  As I started arranging crumpled papers for the fire, the rain lessened and petered out.

As Scripture describes the holiday of Passover, we are instructed to rid our dwellings of any chametz, which is any food that rises with yeast, like bread.  (Ashkenazic Jews extend the concept to include foods that expand in water.)  Traditionally, we burn our remaining chametz the morning before the first Passover seder.

The chassidic masters teach that the chametz represents our arrogance, being puffed up with our own accomplishments, having an inflated ego, and that Passover is a time to expunge that characteristic.  So the fire eradicating chametz from our dwellings takes on the symbolism of self-improvement through cultivating humility.

As I arranged the crackers and cookies, bread and granola, it occurred to me that chametz can really be anything that comes between us and The Divine.  Anything that breaks that connection or reduces our awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, the Unity that undergirds our world and our experience.  Arrogance is certainly one of those things, because when I place myself over and above others, I lose touch with the fact that we’re all connected, that we’re all in this together.  It makes about as much sense my right ear claiming superiority over my left foot.  But of course it’s easy to fall into the more individualistic, “self”-centered view.

In addition to pride, though, other views that we attach to can be equally damaging to our connection with G*d.  I may cling tightly to a narrative that I have been persecuted more than any other people, or that my personal pain or hardship is greater than others’.  I may carry resentment that I am misunderstood by those around me.  And even though there may be truth in these thoughts, by focusing on the disconnection, I may actually increase and perpetuate the rift between me and my fellows.

So as we lit the fire together (my wife and son and I), and I saw the various kinds of chametz starting to burn, I realized there are many kinds of snares that can reduce our experience from what the Buddhist’s call “great mind” –a consciousness of unity and connection– to “small mind” –a constriction of separateness and struggle.  And I committed myself anew to letting go of as many of them as possible.

And that’s when the smoke started getting in my eyes.

So I thought, “What’s the lesson in the smoke?”

If the chametz represents the obstacles between us and The Divine, then surely the fire represents the passion of the soul to eradicate those barriers and connect to the great Unity.  And in that context, it became clear to me that the smoke is the pain that arises from letting go of the obstacles.

It’s rarely easy to give up those beliefs and habits I’ve become attached to.  I may fear losing my sense of self, my “identity”.  Or I may worry that if I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder from past hurts, as a constant reminder and warning, then perhaps I will allow myself to be hurt again.  And if I give up my resentment at having been misunderstood, then perhaps I will take the chance of showing myself again, and that increased vulnerability may be too scary to contemplate.

Moreover, truly letting go of some of my attachments requires keenly feeling the degree of the pain that caused them, and the pain of having stayed attached to them, and it’s not easy to open myself to those intense emotions.

As I stood around the fire watching the swirling smoke, it occurred to me that while some stances towards the world reduce the pain of letting go, there is no place to stand that is invulnerable.  No matter what our philosophy or approach to life, no matter what our religious or spiritual path, we are vulnerable to both the pitfalls of chametz, and the smoke that comes when we burn it away.  The winds of fate are unpredictable, and each of us takes our turn at struggling to become the best we can be.  And where there’s the fire of self-improvement, there’s the smoke of the difficulty of experiencing the change.

And as these thoughts played across my mind, the sun came out and shone on our little fire.  I kid you not:  bright sunlight flooded the scene.

So my prayer for all of us is that this year, may we see clearly what our next challenge is, what area is best for us to put our growth efforts into, and may we put sustained effort into letting go of those beliefs and habits that separate us from each other and The Divine, and may we have great success in achieving a greater sense of unity for a larger portion of our lives.  May our souls sing with joy as we progress.

And may we remember, when smoke gets in our eyes, that it’s all part of the process of growth.  And to be engaged in the dance of self-improvement is the goal, and the journey is what we’re here for, the process is what our soul’s passion burns for.  And where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

May the light of our fires of self-growth light up the world, and warm all the inhabitants thereof.


The Not-so-great Depression

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

I’ve never known how to describe the cyclical mood issue I struggle with.

It’s not what I think of as “The Great Depression”, which is a clinical diagnosis I associate with people who are paralyzed to the point they can’t get out of bed or function in the world.  I have great sympathy for that condition and the people who suffer from it, and I’m grateful to have been spared that trial.

But I do have a downturn from time to time where the joy and meaning are wrung out of my life experience, and nothing seems worthwhile or important, let alone enjoyable or nourishing.  My life feels like a barren landscape, and each step is a painful burden.  Somehow I manage to fulfill my obligations in the world (or, often, postpone them), but it’s a struggle.  James Taylor captures the mood with:

Looks like another grey morning/
A not-so-good morning after all/
She says “well, what am I to do today/
with too much time and so much sorrow.”

She said “make me angry or just make me cry.
But no more grey morning, I think I’d rather die.”

I decided recently to call this my “not-so-great” depression.

I used to think it arose out of the hardships of my upbringing; unresolved issues from the past manifesting as a stalemate between some inner parts of me that are crying out for healing and other inner parts protecting me from opening up and experiencing difficult (potentially overwhelming) emotions.  That kind of stand-off results in a lack of feeling anything. There’s some truth to that perspective, because when I get help and support and allow some difficult things to come up for healing, I generally experience a lightening of mood and a restoration of balance, purpose and joyfulness, thank G*d.

But I’ve seen some of this dynamic in the next generation of my family, who did not (thank G*d) endure anything like what I went through, and so I think some of the propensity to this kind of feeling may have a genetic disposition to it.  It’s unclear.

But whatever the source, when the not-so-great depression comes upon me, there I am in another grey morning.  

I thought I’d share some of the things I do when that happens, because I expect there are others who would benefit from the discussion (and because it feels good to put these things in writing).

One of the things I often do (and have done for years) is zone out, usually with electronics. I have found myself playing a silly computer game all night long, for example.  This dulls my mind and feeling state and allows me to escape the painful feelings, but it also undermines the rest of my life, leaving me tired and cranky, and often frustrated with myself for wasting time.  With the advent of the Internet and cell phones, it is much easier to engage in this kind of activity, and for many it includes watching TV or surfing youtube. I’m glad to be able to say that I do this much less often than I used to, and for shorter periods of time, but it’s still a coping mechanism that can take the edge off, if used judiciously.  So I don’t especially recommend it, but perhaps in limited scope it has a place.

One of the most positive things that rescues me from the not-so-great depression is helping others.  Of course, when I’m feeling depressed, it’s beyond me to actually seek out those opportunities, but if I have a previous appointment that I need to keep (or if someone calls me needing my help), I notice that it helps me greatly to help someone else.  Funny how that works.

Getting out in a beautiful natural setting can also help, and sometimes even just being outside in the sunshine with a fresh breeze can reinvigorate me.  Exercise is good, but it’s hard for me to get motivated to do an individual workout.  If I have a volleyball game on the schedule (or a racquetball game), I generally return from the event with renewed energy and outlook.

Other things that are sometimes helpful: journaling, meditation, prayer, talking with a close friend, getting out for a walk.  Playing music by myself (piano or violin) can be expressive, but rarely changes the mood, whereas playing duets with someone else is often metamorphic.  And listening to music can be helpful as well.

Another thing that I have found useful is to make a list of things that need doing (a short list with generally no more than five things on it), and then start doing them. Actually writing the list is helpful, as it provides an external means of keeping focus. The list is usually mundane chores, like the laundry and the dishes, but it’s a small lift to get things done instead of just veg out; it’s a victory of sorts and it feels good to check things off my list.  

The most productive thing I have found is to be with my loving wife and pour out my heart. This usually involves tears and intense emotions of various kinds, but it’s the most reliable transformer I have discovered.  I generally find it impossible to actually ask for her time and attention, but when she sees me suffering in this way she generally offers, and it works wonders.

I trust that, ultimately, there is purpose to my having these struggles, and I believe I am richer for the experience, even though I can’t feel that at the time.  In fact, one of the things that’s decidedly not helpful is to remind myself (or be reminded) that The Master is sending me this experience.  “I know that,” I think grumpily.  “And thanks ever so much, Master.”  So instead I try to just put one foot in front of the other with the above interventions, and it passes.

I do hope there comes a time when I no longer experience these not-so-great depressions, but until then, I hope these reflections are useful to others.


P.S. There are many other resources out there for depression and related difficulties; here’s one I notice while searching for a graphic: