Author Archives: shimonwalner

It’s Part of the Game

ב”ה    الحمد لله

After I returned home from volleyball, my friend shared how things are going.  He was feeling discouraged at making the same mistakes, failing recurring spiritual tests; how long will it take him to make the changes he needs to, and would he ever succeed?

So I was inspired to tell him the story of what had just happened at the volleyball game.  It’s an open pick-up game, and I was on a team with a skilled player I had seen before, and a young woman I took to be his girlfriend, who had less mastery over the game.

After the first game, she confessed apologetically that she was had just started learning and was taking classes, and I gave her the feedback that she was doing quite well; I wouldn’t have guessed she was new to the game.

Two games later, our team was sitting out, and as I walked past her, I overheard her listing out to her boyfriend the various errors she had made that had cost the team points.  It sounded like she wasn’t sure she should keep playing.  I was inspired to stop and interject.

“No matter how good you get at this game, no matter what level of mastery you attain, you will always have this same feeling when you make a mistake: that you let the team down, that you should have done better, that someone else would have succeeded in your place.  Don’t succumb to the urge to quit.  Those feelings are part of the game.  Whatever level you play at, whatever game it is, we all make mistakes.  And we all feel bad about them.  So try to make peace with it, try to embrace the learning, because it’s a package deal.  The success and the mistakes.”

And my friend took some heart from that message, thank God.  And it’s true, gentle Reader, that we all make mistakes.  And in those moments after our ungraceful acts, when we have some regret or remorse or self-blame, it’s an opportunity for the darker energies to amplify those feelings in an effort to convince us to quit.  “Give it up,” the internal message reads, “you’ll never master this; who are you kidding?”

The actual “mistake” we made is usually not of that much consequence in the larger scheme of things, but the self-recrimination can really sideline us, take us out of the game, God forbid.

So I hope the next time, when the critical inner voice gets started, you listen for just the microsecond needed to commit to improving yourself, and then turn down the sound.  Because getting discouraged or demoralized won’t help anyone, least of all yourself.

We need everyone playing the best they can in this game of life, and that includes you and me.

On Not Trying

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

Today I watched Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday and was introduced to Father Richard Rohr (http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Oprah-and-Author-Richard-Rohr-Video).  It’s the first time I can remember where I’ve said, “I want to be like that guy!”  Quite inspiring.

My biggest takeaway, however, was a sense that I might be able to get comfortable with not trying.  I might be able to finally let go of my sense of trying to accomplish something important in this life.

As far back as I can remember, I have felt a burden (or a sense of destiny) that I was to do something significant in the world, to make the world a better place.  Not just by living a moral life, but by participating in the larger public life in some important way.  For the better part of my younger years, I attributed this to compensatory grandiosity — children who are neglected or emotionally abused receive the message that they’re not important, and they often feel driven to accomplish something big when they grow up.

In more recent years I have felt like perhaps I actually have a calling, that my desire to have an impact might be part of a larger plan.  But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that regardless of the origin of the feeling, and independent of whether in fact I am called to something, I need to let go of this notion of “having to accomplish something important”.  It gets in the way of living in the moment, and it undermines whatever chance I have at a modicum of humility.

So I’ve understood that I need to stop trying so hard to create an “important” life.  But I haven’t known how to do that letting go.

And today I got some inkling of how it might look to just be comfortable doing whatever the current situation calls for.  Not looking for how it might lead to something else, not trying to figure out God’s Plan.  Just rising to the very small occasion of the present moment and taking the best action I can.  Making the phone call, writing the email, doing the errand, washing the dishes.

And resting comfortably in the knowledge that if The Master of the Universe wants me to do something that I might call “bigger”, then, at some point in time, the arising situation will call for action of a kind that will accomplish His Purpose.

Just being is enough.  Just being here, now, and embracing my life as it unfolds in the space right around me.  That’s enough.

Easy to understand, perhaps, but I think that’s been the hardest thing for me to feel in my gut.  And somehow today, it’s gotten easier after seeing Father Rohr, a man of God who embodied that kind of trust.  So thank you Oprah Winfrey, and thank you Father Rohr, and, mostly, thank you, God, for sending this show my way.

So what does it look like?  From the outside, probably not much different.  I continue to work on clearing the old childhood experiences.  I continue to deepen my relationship with my bride and her son.  I continue to rest into California, my new job, my new and old relationships with people nearby.  (And I hope soon to include some volunteer work in the mix.)

But today I am newly inspired to be content with that, to simply do that to the best of my ability.  Not to try and make my life “important”.

It’s already as important as it’s going to get.  Because The Master has decided I should be here.

And, gentle Reader, the same is true of you.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

ב”ה     الحمد لله

I’ve been busy lately.  Both with working at my new job, and with healing from old trauma.  The work of the job involves sitting at the computer coding, debugging and testing Java/Groovy/JavaScript code.  The healing from trauma involves looking into the loving eyes of my big-hearted wife and allowing old pain to surface.  It’s the latter that’s more challenging for me, requiring as it does copious tears and even more trust.  But it’s coming along, thank G-d.

Last night I was reliving some moments that had arisen; apparently as an infant, my head had been banged against the wall (in an effort to silence my crying).  As I write that, I experience a certain amount of disbelief (perhaps on your behalf?).  How could I remember that; can I be sure it really happened; is some part of my subconscious just making this up?  But then, as I ask those challenging questions, another part of me is quietly confident that indeed, these events, and the tears that come from remembering them, are real and abiding.

And last night, as I trembled with the old fear and with the infant’s lack of certainty whether I would make it through, an odd question arose.  “Should I stay or should I go?”  It felt like somehow, in that moment of yester-year, my soul had asked whether I should leave this world.  I found myself struck by the enormity of that question.

And it occurred to me that perhaps it was a question worth sharing with you.  Because each of us, in every moment, is ultimately confronting that same question, “should I stay or should I go?”  Apart from the vagaries of our mood, our emotions, our daily successes and failures, are we really wanting to continue to be here?  And if so, for what purpose?

I am convinced that each of us is here for a unique purpose, that we each have a special contribution to make to this world.  Are we up to the task of embracing that purpose?  Not in every moment, and not without regularly pausing for rest (and certainly not without setbacks), but in the larger scheme of things, the question lingers: “Should I stay?”

I don’t think it’s an easy question.  Because we would like some awareness of what our purpose here is before we evaluate whether the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are worth opposing for that purpose.  Some of us have a clear sense of life purpose.  Some of us have fleeting glimpses.  And some of us struggle for any semblance of meaning.  But I think even without rational understanding, it’s possible to have an intuitive awareness that there is a larger purpose and context to our being here.  And it’s possible to trust that there is intention to our lives.

Perhaps that intuitive sense is enough to keep us going through difficult times.

I hope so.  For me, I apparently answered the question many years ago with “l’ll stay”.  There were times in high school where the only reason I stayed was because leaving would have meant they had won; that the abusers had vanquished me.  Today I have reasons that involve my children and my wife, my extended family, my friends and my colleagues.  But mostly, I have this sense that I’m not done here yet.  That there is work for me to do, work that I can only do after healing from these old wounds.  Contributions that I want to make, whatever they turn out to be.

So tonight it’s back to the loving arms of my wife to cry and heal, and tomorrow it’s back to the computer desk to code and debug.

And after that, who knows?

But even without knowing, I’m happy for the path and grateful for the adventure.  Even when it hurts.  I’m staying.

Right Foot, Left Foot.

ב”ה     الحمد لله

There’s a pattern I see in the world of spiritual exploration.  There are a lot of books and videos and talks about people who have been through a lot.  Often the story of how they found there way back out of the pit (or dark night) is inspiring, uplifting and encouraging.  We may read their book in the hopes of learning their secret[s] and increasing our joy or our gratitude, our sense of abundance or our connection to The One.

But I don’t find as many people (outside blogs) talking about their struggles right now.

I used to think that if someone struggled with, say, depression, then they clearly had not worked out their issues, or certainly had not achieved some great spiritual height.  If they had done so, then I thought their struggle would be a thing of the past.  Even when I heard that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrestled with depression I thought it showed that he wasn’t as great as I had once thought.

But greatness isn’t about the end of struggle.  Greatness is about finding increasing grace around our struggles.  Not being graceful.  Just increasing.  At least, that’s my thought today.  And we can learn something from folks who have been, and continue to be, in the forefront of these difficulties.

Today I am in a place of great struggle.  Difficult, powerful feelings from very old days of trauma seem to be surfacing.  No content.  No “video at 11”, as I like to say.  Just ennervating, debilitating sadness, fear, futility.  To be clear, I should say that this is not to the extent that anyone needs to be concerned for my well-being; there are people suffering from things like this who are overwhelmed and shut down.  Thank G-d I am in a place to be able to weather the storm.

And that’s what I’m doing.  I put one foot in front of the other.  Or I just stand.  Or just sit.  I lay in bed and read Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy (which I highly recommend).  Or I veg out playing silly computer games.

Or I come here to post.

My purpose in doing so is to maintain a certain honesty about the proceedings here.  I’m not always balanced, thoughtful, insightful and mystical.  Some days (thank G-d not so often!) I’m just making do.  Getting by.  Letting the waves of unpleasant experience wash over me.

And I do trust that this is part of a healing process.

I am in a deeply loving relationship, and I believe that to the extent that our intimate relationship is available as a healthy vessel for healing, any (and all) unhealed experiences present themselves for transformation and healing.  As we are ready and as the relationship is ready.

So I honestly take this as a very good commentary on my new marriage (and my new marriage partner, ie my wife!).

And I look forward to working with these feelings within the context of the relationship.

However, at this moment I’m heading back to the mindless bubble game, as futility and nihilism make their presence felt yet again.

But before signing off, let me wish everyone a most lovely Christmas (if you celebrate), a happy new year (if you follow the Gregorian calendar in that way), and a most glorious morning tomorrow morning, as The Master of the Universe brings the sun out to shine down on us once again.

As Scarlet O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Let’s make the most of it that we can.

We’re All in This Together

ב”ה     الحمد لله

It’s a lovely time of year.  We’re in the middle of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights commemorating religious freedom and miracles in olden times.  And of course many folks are experiencing the spirit of Christmas.  And some celebrate Kwanza, or Winter Solstice or what have you.  It feels like the time of year when we all, in our own ways, try to open our hearts to our fellows and celebrate our common humanity.  Which is a lovely thing to do.

It’s a contrast from the rest of the year.  In our everyday mentally we often walk around seeing everyone as distinct and separate.  We may try to see a G-dly light emanating from their soul, but our picture of the world is usually like this:

menorah_top

Everyone doing their their best to shine forth their light.  On a good day, we can give each other the benefit of the doubt and see that we’re all created in the image of G-d.

But for me, the miraculous beauty of this time of year is that we have an opportunity, when so many of us are opening our hearts, of seeing that we’re all in this together.  We all breathe the same air, we live on the same planet, what we do affects each other in ways large and small, seen and unseen.  And we all struggle with the daily choices we have, wherein we try to be the best person we can, we try to make the choices that we’ll look back on later and smile at a moment well lived, well done.  And sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we wish we had a “do over”.  But it’s the same for all of us, here on this earth, and our choices affect each other every day, from whether we hug our children to whether we smile at the passersby; whether we let someone into the lane ahead of us, or whether we visit the sick, aid the poor, comfort the distressed.

Because we’re all connected, we’re all in this together.

The reality of our situation, when we have the eyes of wisdom to see it, is really more like:

menorah

May we find it within our hearts to love our neighbor as our self during this holiday season.

And may G-d bless you, every one.

Walking the Walk

ב”ה     الحمد لله

As I posted previously, I’ve been living here in Oakland and wondering what to do to connect with the larger community here, especially in light of the latest police-related deaths.  And then, in what felt like a gracious gift from On High, I got an email from my stepson’s school, which listed a protest march scheduled for Saturday.  The exquisite way this event fit into my life and schedule is hard to describe, but I’ll try.

  • I don’t always immediately read through the school emails, but this one I did
  • The event was billed as a peaceful demonstration, appropriate for family and kids
  • The organizers were calling for specific action, rather than just expressing anger/outrage
  • The timing was the afternoon on the Sabbath, comfortably after morning services and the kiddush lunch that follows, a time when I’m always free
  • The location was a half hour walk from the synagogue.

This last point was crucial, since on the Sabbath my only mode of transportation is my feet!

And boy did I use them yesterday.  Approximately nine miles, all told.  But it was great to see all walks of life walking together, a spectrum of ages, a range of colors, all united in purpose.

I felt connected, purposeful, and part of something larger than myself.

So it was a nice first step, if you will.

And today, the ache in my legs feels like a well-earned reminder of precious time on this earth well spent.

Now That’s More Like It

الحمد لله‎   ב”ה

So I’m living here in Oakland now.

I’ve been feeling the need to connect and/or be responsive to the people around me.  I see a fair amount of suffering and poverty, as well as the slightly hardened way many people walk when they are surrounded by folks in need.  And I need to do something different.

I have been doing my usual thing: I smile to people as I walk, and I give to folks who are in need, but I feel like I’ve been blessed with a lot and I should share more of it.  Share more of my money, my time, my self.

There have been protests here lately as well, and I haven’t taken the time to find out where and when they are, and if there is some agenda there that I can support.  I was actually traveling on a road trip through Saint Louis back in August when Michael Brown was shot.  I was 25 miles away when it happened.  Feels odd to be so disconnected from the aftermath.

There has, of course, been a lot of emotional response to the event.  So many of us think we know what happened, even though we weren’t there, even though the eyewitness testimony is so all over the map.  Because we tend to see events like this through a pre-determined lens of however we already understand the world to be.

But what I see is that even though I have little idea exactly what happened in Ferguson, I do see communities that are so angry and resentful over years of exclusion and mistreatment that a single incident of this kind can induce riots.  What kind of a country are we living in when a large segment of the population is that bitter?

And there of course the over-reactions to those reactions, and so on.  A lack of any kind of reasonable public discourse, it has seemed to me.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read Chris Martin’s http://chrismartinwrites.com/2014/11/26/open-letter-to-the-parents-of-michael-brown/.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do.  But I do appreciate the thoughtful and feeling response to tragedy.  Nicely done.

Are You Sick of It?

ב”ה

I’ve been sick lately.  Cough, sore throat, hard to sleep at night.  A steady supply of cough drops and hot tea (thanks to my wife!) and water and coughing.  Ugh.  Thank G-d this rarely happens to me.  But when it does, I take notice.  And this one was hanging on, as if to underline the fact that I didn’t get it yet.  By which I mean I was not understanding the message.  Because I understand that everything happens for a reason, and getting sick generally means I’m missing something and am being forced to slow down (I missed two days of work) and focus on my life until I figure it out.

And, with the help of a friend who had a message for me, I think I’ve figured out what I’m supposed to do here.

To set the context, I’ve recently accepted a computer programming position.  It was not my first choice of how to spend my time; I was hoping to change careers and become a full-time author or speaker or live some kind of life of service.  (Well, programming is a kind of service, I suppose.)

But that’s the point, really.  I was spending my time before and after work hours trying to figure out how to change my livelihood to more spiritual pursuits.

The message, as I read it, is to let go of that and settle into my new life here.  Do my work 9-5 (well, 7-3 really!) computer work with all my heart, and, away from the job, focus on my first year of marriage, my family relationships, getting my finances in order again, and things like that.  Daily living.  Exercise, diet, volleyball and bridge.  Walks by the water with my beloved.  You get the idea.

So that means setting aside all the projects I have going:  two phone apps I was gearing up on, getting my novel published, writing a book on spiritual practices, and, yes, trying to do something with this blog.  Worthy endeavors every one, I think, but the message feels clear that now is not the time to focus on them.  To everything, there is a season.

So, Gentle Reader, it’s possible that I may occasionally write a post here.  Something quick, just jotting down some thoughts, perhaps.  But I need to set aside my own expectation of a weekly well-edited profound post.  My time and energy needs to be focused more on the people around me.  (And I hope that includes some meaningful volunteer work, please G-d!)

So thank you for reading, and do feel free to check back in a bit; one never knows, do one?

See What I Mean?

ב”ה

Part One
My glasses have gone on hiatus.  I remember wearing them 24 hours ago, returning from a poetry reading at a Berkeley bookstore, and since then, I have no idea where they are.  Usually this kind of absence is momentary or fleeting, and I have a system of sorts to help me: I’ve designated one spot in each room where I place my glasses if I take them off in that room.  This reduces the number of places they usually might be, an important strategic point, since ironically the most important physical possession to have when looking for my glasses is… my glasses.

Since I use them to drive, this could theoretically be catastrophic (for me, for other drivers, and especially for innocent pedestrians), but I have my prescription sports goggles (that I use for volleyball, racquetball and running), so I can still get around even if I look more strange than usual.  Which means this is primarily an annoyance.

What do you do when you have misplaced something?

I usually do three things.

First, I search the most likely places.  I went through each room of the house.  I started with the chosen put-my-glasses-here spot in each room, and then expanded my search to all kinds of would-never-put-my-glasses here places.  Nowhere did I see my glasses.

Second, I retrace my steps.  I thought back to the time I knew I last had my glasses.  I clearly had them after the bookstore event, because if I had driven home without them, I would have noticed.  But I blanked out when I imagined coming inside and taking them off anywhere afterwards.

Thirdly, I do what I should do first: I check in On High.  This usually starts with a whining, “Really?!  Was this necessary? Why you gotta do this to me?” and progresses to inquiring if there are any things I’ve left undone, unsaid or unattended that The Master of the Universe is bringing to my attention.

Sometimes, God is being helpful in a masterful way, like when I’m in a rush to get somewhere and head out without my glasses.  I come back inside to get them, and in the course of looking for my glasses I discover another needed item (like my wallet!).  Without the “inconvenience” of misplacing my glasses, I would have arrived at my destination completely unprepared.  So the “annoyance” of misplaced glasses turns out to be a kindness from On High.

More often, however, there is some other lesson being pointed to, and the instruction is often related to the item I can’t find.  For example, I found it fitting that on my road trip out to California from Minnesota this last time, when I was planning to get married and stay out here, I misplaced my Minnesota driver’s license.  To me this was symbolic of letting go of my identity as a Minnesotan to embrace creating a home with my new bride (and her son) in sunny California.
I view my life as a canvas on which God and I together create an artistic work of a lived life.  I see symbolism and grace in the details, and I hope to contribute my part towards making it a masterpiece.

My sense of the lesson of my glasses was not coming into focus, however, and I remarked to my wife that I didn’t think I would find my glasses until I next davened (did my traditional prayers).  Praying increases my connection On High, and I often have increased intuition and awareness during and afterwards.

Part Two
Later in the day, I went to my usual davening space and saw my glasses sitting atop a tall adjacent cabinet.  This is a place I never put my glasses.  But there they were, resting comfortably on their high perch, waiting for me.

I took this as a sign that I had gotten the message.  That I wasn’t seeing how important my daily prayers are in my life and so The Master had gotten my attention, via my glasses, to redirect my focus.  (And in fact I had missed saying my prayers both that morning and that afternoon, an unusual dereliction).

It often goes this way.  I interpret my life almost as you would a good movie or a great novel: everything means something, everything is placed where it is for a reason, and there are meanings and hidden symbolism available to the inquisitive and open mind.  And while not every situation discloses its secrets so easily, I find my life richer for being in this conversation with The One.

May your life reveal its hidden meanings to you, Gentle Reader, and may you gather in the hidden meanings and act appropriately on their messages.

The Merit of Being Unrefined

ב”ה

So I was sitting in our back yard, relaxing on Shabbos, mentioning that I had eaten only a little challah at the post-service meal at the little minyan where I was praying that morning.  Our guest asked why I didn’t eat more of the delicious rich egg-bread which is a staple of meals on the Sabbath.  Perhaps I was reducing my gluten intake?

No, not really.  Well, sort of.  I think in our culture these days we over-refine foods.  Foods are often so processed (or genetically engineered) that they lose their connection to the earth and are stripped of their basic nutritional value.  Bleached white flour, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and ingredients that only chemists can pronounce.  I’m also wary of food grown with pesticides that leach into the produce as well as into the environment.  “I’m migrating towards being a coarse ruffian,” I answered.  “I aspire to be less refined.”

As I reflected on that back-to-basics theme in regard to food, I realized it also applies in other areas as well.  Most of the movies I see advertised these days are remakes of older movies, or yet another sequel in a series of films whose pilot was of dubious quality to begin with.  It feels like Hollywood is just rehashing the same old stuff again and again, with each iteration farther removed from any grounding in the real world.  Special effects, increased violence, graphic depictions and unrestrained profanity don’t make up for a fundamental lack of human complexity in the characters and plot.  I want a story that touches my heart or challenges my mind.

And in the arena of public discourse, much of the news feels like gossip to me.  He said, she said, they reported, so-and-so commented, etc.  There’s less original reporting and analysis on the events themselves and more gushing over what other people are saying about it, and speculation about popularity and potential public reaction.  We get further and further away from actual happenings and caught up in blogosphere echoes.

I suspect we’re in danger of doing ourselves a similar injustice mentally as well.  Perhaps it’s the California vibe I am newly immersed in, but I feel there’s a danger in overthinking our internal experiences as well.  Getting caught up in classifying and clarifying and processing and sharing to the point where we’re on our phones composing texts to other people (in reality or in our minds awaiting the next online opportunity) and not spending enough time in deep attentiveness with ourselves and others, actually experiencing the here and now.  Watching a sunset, looking deeply into our lover’s eyes, walking barefoot on the grass.

Sometimes fresh broccoli is more appealing than a rich tiramisu dessert.

(Okay, so maybe I just stepped over a line there.)

This is one of the things I treasure about the Sabbath.  I unplug.  I stop trying to change things or report on things or participate in molding the world in some fashion, or even trying to understand how things work.  Instead, I focus on prayer and gratitude, on community and family, on simple things like eating basic foods, telling old stories and conversing about our inner lives.  Reading a book, playing some games together, taking a nap.  Simple, refreshing and nourishing.

Like having a friend over in the backyard in the beautiful sunshine, and thanking God Almighty for the opportunity to live and breathe in His world another day.

Gentle Reader, do you replenish and nourish yourself regularly?  If so, what does that look like?

May the coming week inspire and uplift you.