Who Makes Darkness?

ב”ה

I enjoyed watching Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday yesterday.  (Yesterday wasn’t Sunday; I watched online at http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Barbara-Brown-Taylor-Video.)  She observes that people in the spiritual/religious realms encourage us to stay in “the light”, whereas she advocates embracing our experiences of “the dark” as being rich for learning.

(I also appreciated that she eschewed giving a simplistic or reductionist 1-2-3 approach; I find those one-approach-fits-all formulas to be lacking.)

The question I pose (to myself, or to you) is who do you think made the darkness anyway?

For me, the answer is the G-d made (and makes) everything.  Everything.  Good and bad, light and dark, sublime and ridiculous.  I don’t expect to fully understand why Hashem has done so; as He said, “My Ways our not your ways; My Thoughts are not your thoughts.”  But I do search for lessons and meaning in the difficult times.  I usually find profound love behind the difficulties.  And when I can’t find it, I trust it’s there nonetheless.

I’m preparing for another round of intense therapy in the months ahead.  I’ve contacted an old therapist (who helped me untangle difficult issues in the past) and we’re scheduling some dates for some new work.  This entails going through old painful experiences, many of which I pushed to the far recesses of my mind and memory.  Exploring them brings up powerful unpleasant emotions and fears, unmet needs and terrifying ordeals.  I can’t say I’m exactly looking forward to that.

But in the process, I reclaim vital life energy, I heal, and I emerge more whole, more humble, and more able to be present for others.  It feels like the best way forward.

May you find the strength to linger a little longer in the difficult spaces of your life to see what you can learn there, and may you find unexpected grace and healing in the process.

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.

Marriage: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

ב”ה

I’m married!

Last Monday, just a week ago, my wife(!) and I were married in Piedmont California amidst family and friends.  A beautiful ceremony blending my traditional practice with my wife’s renewal approach, followed by dancing and eating and toasting and dancing.  And then flying to Minnesota to celebrate with friends there.  And now back in California.

After the ecstasy, the laundry.

There are all sorts of gift boxes to unwrap (thank you, everyone!) and thank-yous to send out.  The rooms of my wife’s house (where we’ll be living) need to be rearranged to reflect this new reality, and the cell phone accounts, and the dishes and the new joint financial structures to put in place.

But it’s all quite lovely to have to figure out, thank G-d.

During the course of figuring out what our ceremony would look like, we had many occasions where our practices were in conflict.  No compromise seemed possible; I need it this way, she needs it that way.  For example, it came as a surprise to my wife that in the traditional ceremony, the groom presents the bride with a wedding band.  It’s a one-way gift; there is no exchange.  In fact, an exchange would cancel the required gifting.  For her, a joint commitment should be reflected in an exchange of rings; we’re both committing to the relationship, we should each give the other a ring.  Hard to find a middle path there.

Our first attempt was to do both actions (in two ceremonies, one traditional and one renewal).  That would have resulted in my wife having three rings: an engagement ring, a traditional wedding band, and a ring from the exchange of rings.  We were walking down this path, meeting with an artisan/jeweler showing us her wares, when she said, “Of course, this is very important; you only have one wedding ring!”  My bride  resonated with that sentiment: she should have only one ring.

What to do?

And so we walked forward trusting there would be a way, and G-d answered our prayers with this inspiration: I gave her a plain wedding band in the traditional ceremony, and for the exchange ritual I gave her a second ring that fit over the first one to create a single ring.  The ring she gave me had a similar design (two levels already crafted into a single ring).

So, we have matching rings, and I was also able to give her two rings.  Pretty amazing the way it turned out.  And there are other stories like that, where we had conflicting needs and no apparent way to resolve them, and we stepped forward trusting G-d would show us a way.  And He did.

In mystical circles, marriage is considered a three-way partnership: bride, groom and G-d.  One plus one plus one makes one.  That has been our experience as we walked toward the wedding canopy, and I trust it will continue to be our lived reality as we walk down this life of marriage together.

So far so good, as we move forward amidst the mundane details of day-to-day life, grinning ear-to-ear at each other, making our way through our “to do” lists, the ecstasy and the laundry.

Gentle Reader, I welcome any advice that you have on what practices help nurture a strong marital relationship.

What are you thinking?

ב”ה

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So I’m driving along on a California freeway, six lanes in each direction.  Six lanes.  The traffic is relatively light, so we can all choose whatever lane we want.  But I notice no one drives in the rightmost “slow” lane; my fellow drivers are spread out across the remaining five lanes.  Is there a stigma to that “slow” lane?  Indeed, the driver in the left-most “fast” lane is going the slowest of all.

I realize I’d like to pass, which I would have to do on the right, but I can’t because the driver in that lane is also going relatively slowly.  And I find myself growing annoyed at this situation.  “What are these drivers thinking?” I ask myself.  If they want to drive slowly — fine!  Pick a slow lane.  Why dawdle in a fast lane?  If we all chose our lanes thoughtfully and cooperatively, everyone could go just the speed they want.  No problem.

And it’s not just these two drivers, either.  All five left lanes have relatively slow cars in them.  Cars approaching from the rear that want to speed along have to weave in and around many of these sluggish cars.  In fact, the irony is that the fastest drivers end up using the slowest lane a lot, because it’s usually empty, creating the dangerous situation where the fastest vehicles and the slowest merging on-ramp traffic vie for the same space.  Crazy.

“Why, why, why?” I self-righteously ask as I shake my head and condemn my fellow travelers’ lack of safe and considerate driving choices.  And, just moving here from the Midwest, I leap to the stereotypical explanation that Californians in general are so caught up in their own experience that they are oblivious to the needs of the other drivers around them.  Unfair, I grant you, but that’s where my mind goes.

So I pause.  I take a breath and remind myself that G-d has created this moment for me for a reason. What might He want me to learn from it?

The thought blossoms in my mind: is this how we look from On High?  We’re all going about our daily individual lives, caught up in our own experiences, our own families, our own Facebook pages, and all the while–  people relatively nearby don’t have enough food to eat, families lack shelter, children face terrible schools, whole communities are losing hope.  There’s a crisis demanding our attention, and yet we go trudging along, day by day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that our inaction keeps such a system in place.

What are we thinking?

G-d seems to have infinite patience with us, but I have to say, “Why, why, why?”  Why are we, one of the richest nations on earth, failing to provide for our fellows in such obvious ways?  Do we really think it’s fair and good the way things are for the least well off?  That their suffering is somehow their own fault?  Even the kids growing up in some of these neighborhoods and schools?

I had a conversation recently with my soon-to-be brother-in-law.  When we look back at the 50s, we wonder how people could tolerate such a blatantly racist system of separate public bathrooms and schools, sitting in the back of the bus, and so forth.  Surely we would never have been so complacent, right?  But what will generations hence say about our tolerating the huge inequity in school systems between rich and poor communities?  The glaring and increasing gap between the rich and poor overall?

Lovely questions to ask, I say to myself.  Ultimately, I’m asking these questions of myself, Gentle Reader.  And I’m not at all sure what I’m going to do about this.  When I was younger I did social work for a time, helping families in difficult situations.  We didn’t solve all their problems, but I know I did feel, at the end of the day, that I’d made some kind of positive difference in their lives.

But I feel we need some kind of systemic change here; a more widespread change of awareness, a change of heart.  We need to find ways of working cooperatively, not just on the highway, but in communities as well.

I feel this acutely myself right now.  Moving to Oakland, where plenty of folks are suffering, I find it difficult to contemplate taking a six-figure computer job and just ignoring their plight only a stone’s throw from my house.

Part of the difficulty, I think we all readily admit, is that these problems seem so large and intractable that we don’t know where to start.  So we don’t start, and we end up doing nothing at all.  Which is clearly unsatisfying.  Even volunteering one weekend a month would be better than nothing.  But somehow that feels inadequate as well.

And this is something I need to figure out.  It’s bothering me.  I can’t just poke along behind the slow moving driver in front of me, thinking self-righteous thoughts.  I need to act.

Gentle Reader, what do you suggest I do?

The Spoonful of Sugar

ב”ה

For the past several weeks I’ve been waking up to some intense and distasteful emotions.  Mostly a mix of fear, dread, and a desire not to have to make my way through another moment or another day.  An unpleasant experience which includes an almost nauseous sensation in the body.  Blech.

As I understand it, these are feelings from a certain time and place in my childhood; reactions to trauma that require reexperiencing in order to heal at a deeper level.

So on the whole, I view this as a positive development.  Apparently I’m ready for another stage of healing.  Over the years I have found that my psyche allows things to come up when the time is right, when there is both internal strength for healing and an external vessel suitable for healing.  The “vessel” here is the deep and profound connection with my life partner (the wedding is 12 days away!), and the unconditional love she offers me so beautifully and courageously.  So I see the emergence of these intense feelings as feedback that I’m growing stronger and that my heart trusts this woman in a compelling way.  (And my old therapist, who has worked with me on some of these issues in years past, will be nearby as I move out here to California!)

But the mornings are still tough to experience.

Mostly I take it easy with myself, just sitting and being with the feelings as much as possible.  I do some inner visualizations sometimes to “take care” of the inner part that’s hurting.  Mostly I just try to be gentle with myself and start the morning slowly.  I know the difficulty will pass as the day progresses.

Some folks struggle with the “why me?” question in this kind of situation; railing against G-d that it isn’t “fair” to have to suffer things like this.  I probably used to do that myself (I honestly can’t recall, but I imagine I did).  But these days I’m not really in that space.  It’s true that undergoing abuse is not “fair” from our point of view, but it seems clear that this life required it.  The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years with backbreaking labor and untold abuses.  Not fair.  But those years were a prerequisite for becoming the Jewish people, enjoined to care for the stranger (and the widow and the orphan) because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I enjoy the following thought experiment:  You have an alien friend visiting from another planet and you show them around Earth, sharing your daily routine with them.  In the morning, you go to the gym for your daily workout.  Your friend looks around at the people moaning and sweating in exertion on various machines and with different accessories, and asks, “What kind of torture chamber is this?  What have these people done to deserve this?!”

“They haven’t done anything wrong,” you answer.  “They’re here by choice.  They want to improve and get healthier, so they choose to push themselves to their maximum capacity.  It’s our way of growing, of getting stronger.”

Your friend is skeptical as she studies the surroundings more closely.  “Ah, but this is totally unfair!  Why do some have such heavy burdens and others hardly any?  There is no justice here.”

And you explain that each person has different limitations and different goals (strength versus flexibility versus endurance); each person’s capabilities and goals determine the kind of exercises they choose and the magnitude of weights or resistance that they work with.

And of course the point (which your skeptical alien friend may or may not appreciate) is that I see our lives here in that same way.  Each of us is given the spiritual challenges necessary for our course, the exact exercises that can produce the refinements of the soul that we need.  Each soul is different, has different capabilities and has different goals.  So of course our “fitness programs” vary from one soul to the next.  They are not “fair” as in “the same” as everyone else’s, but rather each regimen is tailored to fit us exquisitely.  Just as not everyone wears the same size suit jacket, it wouldn’t make sense for everyone to have the exact same spiritual struggles.

So I try to embrace the current difficulties as being just the right experience needed for my soul, brought to me by The Master of Infinite Love and Kindness, who only gives us the minimum amount of pain required for us to perfect ourselves.  Not a drop more.  The Heavenly Father, the ultimate doting parent.  “This will hurt a little,” I can almost hear Him saying, “but it will be all right.”

I find this attitude to be my “spoonful of sugar” that “helps the medicine go down.”

My friends, may you find a way to embrace the difficulties of your life in a way that enhances your spirit and allows you to draw strength and wisdom from the challenges you face.

And may you have great success.

Sukkah and Chuppah

ב”ה

Sukkah 2014

One of the lovely miracles this holiday season was the way my [brand new California] Sukkah came together just in time.  Thank G-d.  The classic trips to the lumber yard, hardware store, finding out the lattice wouldn’t fit in my Prius and borrowing a pickup truck, revising the design as I went along, all at the last minute…  to build a temporary dwelling as decreed by The Master at the time and season of His choosing.  And as the sun went down Wednesday evening, there it stood.  Quite amazing.

And now the energy is peaceful and lovely, and we’ve been sharing it with guests, both expected and unexpected.  Every evening I move the table and chairs out and bring in a plump mattress, still wrapped in plastic, and pile sheets and blankets atop it so I can be warm overnight in the chilly evening air.  And then every morning out goes the bedding and back comes the table so we can eat and have guests over.  A nice rhythm.

And so, two weeks until my wedding and I’m both caught up in the stress and craziness of planning such an event (during the Jewish holidays!), and delighted and thankful that my beloved and I are joining our lives together at so many levels.

There are many parallels drawn between the Sukkah and the chuppah (wedding canopy).  They’re both open structures, both fragile (in the human sense), both under G-d’s watchful provenance, both filled with joy and gratitude, and both invite communal support and celebration.

And it occurs to me that perhaps my bride and I should make some kind of yearly practice of putting up the wedding canopy again (as we will the Sukkah every year), and reexperiencing the joy and hope and gratitude of this season.  Because a fancy anniversary dinner and a night out just can’t compare to the awe and splendor of a holy dwelling, consecrated by G-d, witnessed by friends, family and community.  The deep movement of the soul.

I think G-d knew what He was doing when He set out the holidays for the Jews to celebrate, to return to Him, to remember our relationship with Him, and to rest into it completely and joyfully.

And I hope, please G-d, that my future wife and I can celebrate our joining of souls within the rhythm of our marriage over the years in the same beautiful and inspiring way that Jews the world over have renewed our relationship with The One by observing the holy days (holidays) over the generations.

May we have great success, and may you, too, have great success if you endeavor to.

So I ask you, Gentle Reader, what brings your soul to joy and gratitude, and what do you do to mark that, to celebrate it in your life?

Take Any Road

ב”ה

I was sitting on a loveseat during the Shabbos after Rosh Hashana (that is, nine days ago), meditating on the coming year and considering the different paths into which I might invest time and energy.  I have many possible projects: computer work, blog, publishing completed novel, writing next novel, creating phone app, hosting podcast/show, etc.  For the past few months, my mind has repeatedly come back to these options, like a tongue worrying over a missing tooth.  What to do?  Where to focus?  What to choose?

And as I sat on the loveseat, the answer that blossomed strongly in my mind was, “It doesn’t matter.  They’re all the same.”

The larger context that came with this message: The Master arranges my experiences in such a way that what needs to arise for me will arise for me.  If I need a lesson in patience or humility, it will surely come.  If there are insights I’m supposed to share, the opening will present itself.  It doesn’t matter which path I choose, what road I follow.  The Master will ensure that it leads where I need to be going.

And I felt a large burden ease.  The weight of needing to make my life worthwhile, to ensure that at the end of my life (may it be far from now!) I will not look back with regret, or feel I’ve wasted such a precious gift, or squandered invaluable opportunities.  The responsibility (which I’ve felt from a young age) to do something important with my life.

Instead, my obligation is to be as present as I can in the arising moments, and make the best choice I can for each circumstance.  And to trust that The Master will ensure that the right things result over the larger sweep of time.

That, in and of itself, is plenty of work!
And I’m sure my mind will attempt returning to its old habit of pondering and measuring different large-scale options for my life.

But at least now I have an answer to these creeping thoughts that habitually try to direct my life: it doesn’t really matter so much, because in the larger sense, all the roads are the same.  Just be on the road you take.

May you enjoy the arising moments of the day, and may you trust that the series of small choices you make throughout the day will lead you where you need to go in the year ahead.

Unprepared

ב”ה

I’m preparing for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

Which, as I write it, strikes me as ludicrous.  How can one prepare for such a day?

How do you take stock of your life in a serious and deep way, a way that causes you to make amends, change direction, and alter your deeply-ingrained habits?

The truth is, I don’t know.  And each year I enter this day feeling wholly unprepared, no matter how thoughtful I have been in the days leading up to it.

So this year, I’m trying to make peace with that, and just accept that unpreparedness is part of the process.  (Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, wrote a lovely book: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, which I recommend.)

Two things I’m sure of: (1) the more completely I enter into the Day of Atonement, the more I get out of it, the more my life changes for the better.  (2) It’s better to do this kind of introspection once a year and make changes, than to wait for the last days when there’s no more time.

So, Gentle Reader, may your life be changed for the better by the process of repentance and atonement, and may you make choices in the coming year that bring you joy when you look back on them from a future vantage point.

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.

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?