Category Archives: General

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.

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Humility Teachers

ב”ה

A young man goes out behind the wheel for his first driving lesson.  He has a tendency to drift to the right, so the instructor gently tells him several times, “steer a little more to the left”.  He makes it through the session with increasing confidence and later meets up with a friend to tell her all about it.

“Oh, you have the same instructor I do!” she exclaims.

“Isn’t he so wise,” he rejoins.  “Don’t you just love the way he says, ‘steer a little more to the left’?”

“He never says that,” she avers.  “It’s always, ‘steer a little more to the right’!  Maybe you weren’t listening as well as you thought.”

“I could have sworn he said, ‘steer a little more to the left’.  In fact, I’m sure of it.”

This story illustrates the problem of promulgating a single set of “rules” or “teachings”, as if the same insights apply to all people at all times in the same ways.  If you’re a person that drifts to the right, the message you need to hear is “steer a little more to the left.”  If you’re a person that tends towards the left already, “steer a little more to the left” would be an unfortunate directive to receive; a serious accident could result (G-d forbid!).  So I’m often cautious in putting out generalized truths, because they might land poorly for an individual who actually needs to hear something different.  (In fact the rebbes of Psischa didn’t write down their teachings for exactly this reason, if I understand their history correctly.)

Adding to the difficulty: often the messages that we are open to hearing aren’t the ones we need to hear.  Perhaps we are comfortable going to the left; we lean to the left; we drift to the left.  It’s easy for us to hear someone tell us to steer a little more to the left.  Which means the appropriate message –“steer a little more to the right”–  sometimes has to come in an emphatic, dramatic or difficult manner.  And G-d obliges us by raising the volume on the message until we start hearing it.  He starts with a soft whisper and, if necessary, ends up using an oncoming car to get our attention (G-d forbid).  “Steer a little to more to the right.  We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

This is all by way of introducing what I call “humility teachers”.  This practice of seeing certain difficult situations/relationships/people as humility teachers is not something I would encourage you to do if you (a) have any experience tolerating abusive behavior, (b) have low self-esteem, or (c) are a “people pleaser” or conflict-avoidant.  If you would place yourself in one of those categories, please be cautious with this practice; you may be better served by  intervening to alter the situational dynamics, rather than accepting the situation as a message from which to learn wisdom about yourself.

Most of us have at least one person in our lives that we find frustrating.  They misunderstand us, they don’t exhibit compassion or kindness towards us, and, in fact, they may be hostile and critical when we encounter them.  Often we become defensive or self-conscious around them, and this can make the problem worse.  When I find myself in these situations, I try to ask why G-d is placing this person and these harsh words in front of me.  And for me, the answer is usually to teach me humility.

This understanding (usually) immediately transforms any impatience or anger that I may find building up inside.  This person is just a messenger from G-d, who understands me completely, loves me infinitely, and decided that in this moment I need to be told by this fellow that I’m not as smart as I think I am, or that I’m arrogant and condescending, or that people like me cause all the violence and hatred in the world.

So I try and take whatever kernel of truth there is in their words and meditate on it carefully.  I review their speech and what I understand of their frame of reference.  I reexamine assumptions I may be making about myself, or things I have overlooked about how I may come across.  How can I improve?  (I also examine whatever fear or insecurity leads me to become self-conscious around them.  Why am I seeking their approval, and what do I fear?)

This perspective sometimes allows me to be gracious in the moment, and even grateful to G-d for sending the message in a relatively mild fashion.  And at other times I still find myself acting an utter fool with the person, and the wisdom of the message I only uncover later.

It is said that the great Rabbi Akiva, who at forty years of age was an unlearned peasant who didn’t even know the alphabet, was sent by his refined wife into the marketplace in such a way that caused everyone to ridicule and mock him.  Once he became inured to this treatment, she sent him to the Jewish elementary school for him to learn with the little kids.  Because he had developed a “thick skin”, he was able to tolerate the teasing of the small children as he learned to read and write at such an advanced age.  He went on to become one of the greatest sages of Israel.  But first he had to endure some rough humility training.

So when G-d sends us difficult people or situations, it’s for a reason.  If we ponder that reason and act on the message, we will heal, grow and draw closer to our potential.  If not, I find that G-d will send the message again and again, often at a louder volume each time.

But these challenges are not always an opportunity to just “turn the other cheek”, as it were.  Sometimes these difficult situations arise in order for us to find creative and gracious ways of asserting ourselves.  As I said above, it’s almost impossible to generalize; G-d speaks to each of us individually in the language we best understand, giving us the arising moment that our soul needs right then.  Sometimes He says, “steer a little to the left” and sometimes He says, “steer a little to the right”.  And sometimes He says, “now is not a good time for you to be driving!”

The important thing is to listen as best we can.

May you hear the divine messages heading your way, and may you find the strength and courage to act upon them.  If you have a relationship with The Divine, may your understanding of the Origin of difficult situations lead you to better accept them more easily and learn from them more fully.

Gentle Reader, if you are open to sharing, I’d love to hear a story about what course corrections you understand G-d is sending you today, or has sent you in the past.

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.

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.