Tag Archives: G-d

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.

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

light_bulb

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?

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.

The garden of my relationships

ב”ה

I prefer to eat organic food.  I’m sure that the conventional produce is grown only with the finest synthetic pesticides available for ingestion, but… no thank you.  I was amused when a comedian (Jimmy Fallon?) quipped, “‘organic food’, or, as our grandparents used to call it: ‘food'”.  We have introduced so many man-made chemicals into our food supply that we have a special name for food grown with only naturally occurring elements.

Water seems to be following a similar path.  I remember as a child drinking water from fountains and faucets everywhere we went.  But now, we have bottled water.  Bottled water!  We actually pay money for a plastic container filled with water.  Unthinkable when I was young.  But in these modern days the water that came into my sink in Saint Louis Park (Minnesota) had such a taste that I used to trudge to the co-op and shlep jugs of “reverse-osmosis” water home.  If I remember my son’s school project correctly, this is due to an old creosote processing plant in the area that closed over forty years ago.  Forty years, and the water still tastes awful.  We reap what we sow.

So today I was wondering about air.  Is that the next basic human commodity that we will poison to such an extent that we’ll bottle “fresh air” and make it available at every gas station across the country?

Okay.  “Simmer down, Shimon,” I hear you murmur.  Things aren’t that bad.  And if that were the sum total of my curmudgeon-mind musings this morning, I probably would not have posted.

But, tonight, the Jewish new year begins, and it’s time to evaluate all of our relationships and take a fearless and searching moral inventory.  What to make amends for, what to change, what to foster and encourage.

And it got me thinking: am I so consumed by my own struggles that, like a creosote plant, I’m slowly polluting the environment around me?  Am I taking my relationships with those around me for granted?  They are my lifeline, my source of comfort and strength.   Am I tending to the garden of my relationships with enough natural and organic elements of my heart, or am I giving rote and mechanical effort, too much synthetic pesticide?

I have to be here, that I know.  I have to inhabit the moments I’m given.  Because children grow up quickly, and grown-ups can leave suddenly, and before we know it, we’re looking back over our lives, wondering where the time and the people went and, often, wishing we had done things differently.

How can I avoid that regret?

I plan to practice “dying” a little.  We Jews do this intensely on Yom Kippur (coming up in ten days).  I intend to try on the death perspective all day long, reviewing my life from that vantage point.  What will I pine do be able to differently, or just one more time?

I expect to look at every relationship in my life, every role I play: child of G-d, father, brother, uncle, friend, writer, lover, citizen, consumer, Jew, homeowner, etc.  On my deathbed, what will I wish I had done?

And then, I hope to gather up that wisdom, and, like a gardener, pour it gently back into my daily life in small, loving ways.  Sustainable, renewable ways.  A little here, a little there.

I have an inkling, already, that one of the major things is just opening my heart and soul to others without trying to be something.  Without trying to be anything.  Not trying to have wise answers or know what to say or what to do.  Just sharing the moment-by-moment struggle.  We’re in this together.

I think that’s the most powerful gift we have to offer others.  And ourselves.

But we’ll see (G-d willing!).  Maybe there will be some surprises in there, too.  Things that arise in the space that Yom Kippur creates in time, giving the still small voice an opportunity to be heard most clearly.

I hope, Gentle Reader, that you have an opportunity for such a practice.  And if so, then in the days to come, may you learn much from spending more time listening, more time hearkening to that inner wisdom.

And may we remember to act in accordance with the basic truth of our life here: we’re all in this together.

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.

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.