Tag Archives: spiritual

It’s Part of the Game

ב”ה    الحمد لله

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

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.