Tag Archives: faith

Eating My Lima Beans

ב”ה    الحمد لله

I hate lima beans.  Always have.

I remember in third grade, sitting at the dinner table long after the others had left, staring at the seven lima beans my mother insisted I had to eat before I was excused.  Finally I consumed them, in the most painful manner.  I would ladle one enemy bean onto my fork with my right hand and clutch my water glass in my left.  I moved my tongue to one side.  Then I lowered the lima bean down just inside the base of my teeth, holding my breath so as not to taste it and washed it quickly down with a large mouthful of water.  Like a bitter pill.  One down, six to go.

It didn’t help to be told me they were “good for me”.

It didn’t help to told that people were starving in Ethiopa.  Send them these lima beans; they would enjoy eating them, and then I wouldn’t have to.

My life experience didn’t include the kind of insistent, throbbing hunger that would make me grateful for any kind of food, of whatever taste.  (Thank God I was never so deprived.)

Not only did I not appreciate the blessing of having enough food to eat, I also didn’t appreciate the blessing that someone cared enough about me to force me to eat healthy food.  As an adult, I’ve been with families where the kids fend for themselves and the adults have no interest in what they’re eating.  It’s a blessing to have a parent that –whatever other faults they may have, large or small–  makes you eat something good for you, even when you don’t want to.

But in that lonely dinner chair, all I knew was that my mother, who was supposed to love me, was subjecting me to cruel and unusual punishment.

And I’ve been reflecting on that the past few days, because recently God has been making me eat some adult lima beans.

Today’s lima beans are the bitter experience of reliving some old and painful experiences from childhood.  Intense feelings and memories that need healing.  Most unpleasant.  Oh, I always feels better afterwards, but the sensations themselves are awful to go through, and I throw my little internal tantrums wondering if I’ll ever be “done” with these adult lima beans, and why I have to go through all this, and will it never end.

Just like I did when I was a kid staying late at the dinner table.

Of course, as an adult I know a little bit more about life and how things work.  These days I know that there is One behind these experiences Who loves me infinitely, knows what’s best for me, and would never let me suffer any more than is exactly necessary for my growth and spiritual well-being.

These days I appreciate the cathartic power of these unpleasant adult lima beans, and feel myself growing healthier and stronger as I eat more of them.

And that makes things much more bearable.

But I still get grumpy.

And I still hate lima beans.  Both kinds.

But now, when I’ve cleared my plate for the evening, I can sincerely thank my Heavenly Father for setting them before me and making me eat them.

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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.

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.

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.

Trust Me

ב”ה

I had the pleasure of catching up with a good friend yesterday evening, thank G-d.  He had been to a four-day silent retreat and was relating his experiences, which were powerful.  Afterwards, I was reflecting on my own life, and the message for me in the events of the past six months.

This is a practice I do so constantly, it’s almost a worldview rather than a “practice”.  I understand that every event I experience, every circumstance I encounter, is handcrafted by The Master.  There’s a reason for what happens; nothing is left to “chance”.  (In another post: how this can be true while we also have free will.)  So I find it helpful to ask, “What can I learn from this event?  What’s the message?”

(I think this can be a helpful practice, even if you don’t believe in G-d or karma or “things are drawn to you by the energy you send out”.  I think we can gain insight from imagining: if events were unfolding according to some purpose, what could I learn from them?)

Anyway, in the past six months, as I have pondered various options for my time and energy and livelihood, I’ve noticed a pattern: some interesting possibility falls unexpectedly into my lap, gets postponed a time or two, and then vanishes.  Here are four quick examples:

(1) A friend of mine is working on a software development team where they suddenly need someone with my skill set.  I interview with them, and it looks good.  Then they push back the timeframe.  And push it again.  And again.  (2) A reknowned rabbi is doing a presentation at a bookstore and, in a complete tangent to his main topic, he speaks of a filmmaker and an interesting project.  A few days later, when I speak to the rabbi individually, he proposes to set up a meeting introducing me to the filmmaker– perhaps there will be a writing opportunity for me.  We try several times to set up the meeting, but due to travel schedules, it always falls through.  (3) In the most unlikely setting, with someone I’ve known for years but who is as far removed from the entertainment business as you can get, I find myself explaining an idea for a television show I’d like to host.  In a surreal moment, I hear myself concluding, “I mention this in case you know someone who knows someone who knows Oprah.”  The stunning response: “Actually, I have a childhood friend on Oprah’s team that I just saw last weekend; I’ll email him for you.”  Uncharacteristically, I have to remind the responder to send the email, and equally uncharacteristically, she never hears back from her childhood friend.  (4) Out of the blue, a former colleague calls about a job opportunity with his company.  We set up an interview, which is postponed.  And postponed again.  And then the interview occurs in a most unexpected manner, with unexpectedly disappointing results.

So over the course of a few weeks, I pondered.  Perhaps the message here was:  while G-d can suddenly make an incredible opportunity appear out of thin air, maybe I need to work harder to make something of those opportunities afterwards. But that didn’t really fit because I actually was working quite hard in response to these good fortunes. Then I thought: perhaps I need to have more of a vision of what I want to do, and commit to that vision, before G-d will make it manifest completely– maybe things are coming and going because I’m wavering in what I want to do.  But that didn’t feel quite right, either.

So last night, I had an epiphany.  My friend spoke of his experiences of letting go at this retreat, and after he did so, amazing things happened.  I think this was in my mind (and not accidentally!) when I realized:  G-d is telling me not to grasp too tightly to the opportunities that appear suddenly.  Don’t try to figure out The Master’s plan and think “Aha!  This is what’s going to work” and cling tightly to that idea.  That’s a fear-based response.

Rather, I think The Master wants me to trust.  Trust that one way or another, things will work out; The Master will provide a way.  When things fall from the sky into my lap, be grateful, be mindful, be responsive… but don’t get too attached.  Don’t worry if they don’t pan out, and don’t struggle too hard to make them work if they’re not coming together.  Just do my part, and let it go.  And don’t let it bother me that I don’t see “the answer”.  Easy come, easy go.

Because even though I do trust that things will work out in the long term, I find myself grabbing on to these gifts with too much relief. And I see that I would do better to handle the arising moment as peacefully and gratefully as possible.  A light grasp, an easy touch.

I think that’s the message, and I’m excited about the prospect of improving my ability to practice that trust moment by moment.

And last night, another opportunity may have dropped into my lap, so it looks like I’ll have another good chance to practice.  Just what I needed.  :>

So, Gentle Reader, what’s your take on the events of your life?  Random?  Orchestrated?  Occasional miracles?  Do you think G-d speaks to you through the experiences you encounter as the day unfolds?

May your day be sweet, and may the events bring you joy, however you understand them.

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.