Thursday, December 26, 2013

Being Here, Getting There

(or: The Call of the Chauffeur)

Recent controversy has brought to light the growing popularity of "Call of the Shofar" - a Jewish-oriented weekend workshop for self-actualization - and concern among mainstream Chabad-Lubavitch community leaders that it may be inappropriate for Chassidim to seek resolution of their issues 'outside the fold.'  While the conversation continues, there is an emerging consensus that the community can do more to serve the perceived needs.  Here are some of my initial thoughts and responses to this issue.
An embodied soul arrives here in this manifest reality with a mandate, a sense of mission – a hardwired desire to pursue a purposeful life: a life of service, creativity, productivity and the betterment of the world. We encounter a fragmented, competitive, often cruel and seemingly irrational world; our job is to do all we can to transform this world and render it whole, harmonious, meaningful, and kind.

While in essence this mandate is about serving G-d and doing for others, and “not about me,” since we are all imperfect the effective pursuit of this purpose also calls (ironically, some might say) for self-rectification. In order to get the job done we often have to learn how to get out of our own way. By the same token, however, healthy selflessness calls for a healthy sense of one's own personal strengths. The balance of the two helps us create loving, mutually empowering relationships, among other components of a meaningful and enjoyable life.

In this generation of ikvasa d'meshicha especially, Chassidus (Chassidic philosophy) tends to emphasize action on behalf of others rather than self-absorbed attention to “self-improvement.” Nonetheless the inner work of self-cultivation (or perhaps better, self-transcendence) is an important component of the work at hand. This is true both in terms of the mitzvah of avodah shebelev (the 'service of the heart"), for those who are healthy enough and well-trained enough to effectively work on themselves with the tools of hisbonenus and tefilah (meditation and prayer), and in the sense of self-healing – overcoming internal conflicts, weaknesses, emotional turmoil or negative habitual patterns – for those of us who are challenged with a personal sense of fragmentation.

Chassidus presents a complete model of both the structure and the dynamics of consciousness. Or, if you will, the anatomy and physiology of the human soul, mind, heart, body, and behavior. (Pathology too – which raises the question of a distinction between spiritual growth and therapy. More about that another time.) In principle, Chassidus offers us unerring guidance toward our fulfillment of life's mission – an accurate roadmap and wise advice as to how to get from where we are to where we are destined to be. In practice, many still struggle and falter along this path, grow bitter or pessimistic, or even lose sight of the purpose of life and abandon its pursuit. Still others have yet to discover the path.

My wife and I are educators and healers. We've been Chabad program directors and school administrators, teachers and mashpi'im (mentors), nutritional pioneers and health care providers, coaches, entertainers, and trainers in meditation techniques. After more than four decades of learning how to walk the walk and reaching out to others along the way, it is our perception that prevalent methods and existing institutions still leave much to be desired – and that people are growing clearer and more articulate about what it is they really want.

Our day jobs place us at the threshold of that new direction. Frumma currently teaches young women in Seminary and High School, travels as an inspirational speaker, and serves as a Torah Life Coach. I am currently a licensed practitioner of Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine, and am researching and writing about the converging sciences of physical wellness, emotional intelligence, and the refinement of consciousness. Together we are developing a formal course to train people in coaching skills. We see our emerging role as contributing to the development of dynamic new curricula and training programs that apply core principles of Chassidus to the cultivation of behavioral, emotional, cognitive and spiritual well-being: a whole-systems approach to individual coaching and group workshops that internalizes traditional teachings and puts wisdom to work in real life.

Collaboration is our preferred working model, so we encourage anyone of kindred spirit and aligned intention to be in touch with us and share insights and goals.

Frumma's website is at
Our emails are and, respectively.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

On TM and Jewish Meditation

Our old friend Reb Gutman Locks (once the guru of Central Park, now a dynamic denizen of the Western Wall in Jerusalem) recently wrote a blog post about meditation that put a bug in my brain.  His post is here; my response is below.  There is much more to be written about this... 

I respectfully beg to differ with both the premises and the conclusions of your blog post on TM and Jewish meditation.

First of all let me stipulate that you are correct in saying that the teaching of TM as presented by the guru to whom you refer (and with whom I studied extensively more than 40 years ago) was rooted in Hindu/Vedic idolatrous philosophy, and that he was somewhat disingenuous in characterizing the mantras as meaningless. However it's important to draw a distinction between the methodology itself and those teachings. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (with whom I studied in subsequent years, and whose public statements, private letters, and personal guidance inform my perspective on this topic) did precisely that in encouraging medical and mental health professionals to train people in "kosher" forms of meditation, some of which were based on that same methodology. It is a method most clearly explained in Dr. Herbert Benson's seminal book, "The Relaxation Response." A certain prominent Rav and mentor in the Chabad community, when asked for a halachic ruling as to whether this form of meditation was permissible (inasmuch as it had been derived from TM) researched the matter and concluded that for a person in whom the method might evoke an attraction or temptation toward the idolatrous philosophies associated with TM it is forbidden; but for one who either has no such associations or who has demonstrably broken free of such associations, the technique itself is permissible.

Now to the technique itself, its value, and its relationship with Jewish meditation. I think the categorization of this form of "mantra" meditation as entirely passive, as opposed to the ideal of active Jewish meditation, is erroneous and misleading (with due respect to my old friend and colleague Schneur Zalman Stern, whose article of some years ago first suggested this distinction.)  

(The original Chassidic text of the Alter Rebbe that S.Z. Stern cites in that article does not use the terms "passive" and "active."  I don't agree that those terms do justice to the Alter Rebbe's intent.   This is not the place for an in-depth discussion of that original text - and I am traveling at the moment and don't have access to my copy - but I do hope to find the time to write more about this before too long.)  

Suffice it to say here that just as there are passive and active aspects of Jewish meditation - and in particular the specific form of Chassidic meditation known as "hisbonenus" (or "hitbonenut") - there are also passive and active aspects of the far simpler meditation technique that was taught as TM, or mantra meditation, or the relaxation response technique. I will try to explain what I mean, by stepping back to gain a broader perspective on the dynamics of the mind.

Conscious thought emerges in our cognitive experience from a latent, "supra-conscious" source of thought deep within the soul. Some of the Chassidic literature explains this idea through a metaphor: the mind is like a river, or "stream of consciousness," whose rushing waters have their source in hidden wellsprings deep beneath the surface. The purpose of meditation is to open the conscious mind to the connection between the still, calm, powerful source of thought (i.e. the well, the deep) and the actual thoughts we experience (downstream, as it were) in our efforts to perceive and understand the truth and communicate effectively with the world at large.

Albert Einstein famously said that problems can never be solved on the same level of understanding within which they arise. To solve the problems we face, we have to get to a higher level of awareness, and then bring that deeper insight and clarity to bear in addressing the issues at hand. 

For example, suppose you are stuck in a negative emotional state - say, anger, or anxiety. (It happens to all of us. Or at least most of us.) Emotions tend to have a life and a will of their own; they are resistant to change, and especially resistant to other people's efforts to talk us out of feeling what we're feeling.  So how do we change negative emotion to positive feelings?

Applying Einstein's rule of thumb, we'll need to call upon a higher, more flexible, less stubborn part of ourselves. Intellect would seem a likely candidate; after all, our intellectual faculties are more reasonable. The mind is generally more willing to see things from an alternative point of view than the heart, the liver, and the nervous system, and therefore more open to change.  So why not use our intellect to reason with our feelings, and thereby feel better?  In other words, solve the problem from a higher level than where the problem arose.  Does it work?  Sometimes. It depends on two things: first, whether the heart is willing to listen to that higher wisdom. And then, whether the mind is really wise enough to be able to offer the right perspective to the heart, and say it with enough empathy and patience for the heart to hear. The first part is about letting go of the old stuckness and stubbornness, the negativity that doesn't want to quit.  The second part is embracing the positive - knowing where to go, what to do, and how to do it once we've come unstuck.  The first is passive: letting go.  The second is active: getting going.

That's where meditation comes in, in both its passive and active roles. The passive aspect of meditation consists in training the mind and heart to let go of the way they've been thinking and feeling until now, and let in illumination from a higher source.  The active aspect of meditation is about developing that higher light, cultivating an idea, using the rational mind to grasp and understand a higher truth in all its details and ramifications so that we can put it to work out there in the world. The passive part is the art of detachment - not a forsaking of the world, but rather, a release from the bondage of an attitude and mindset that are no longer working. Its purpose is to free us up and empower our active engagement in transforming the world into a better place.

And here's an important key: so-called "passive" techniques also involve our active intentionality; and "active" meditation practices also require that we be adept in the passive art of detachment. 

In the TM-like meditation method of the relaxation response - generally characterized as a passive technique - the meditator is actually, rather paradoxically, exerting an effort to discover his or her inner effortlessness.  One is in a sense exercising one's letting-go muscles, learning how to do without overdoing, try without trying. This skill in turn enables a person to pursue any and all activities (whether they are meditative practices or actual, productive, creative work) freed from the egotistical delusion that "I am" the one who is getting it done. Knowing how to let go to the inner empowerment from a higher power, we become better able to serve as agents of the Al-mighty in all our tasks and challenges.

Optimally, this double-edged art of passive release and active engagement is integrated into all our pursuits - especially prayer (tefilah), Torah study, and the acts of kindness by which we change the world - so that meditation becomes something that we don't have to self-consciously "do," but rather, the way we live.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Things Akiva Taught Me

In the summer of 1972 I returned from travels abroad to Binghamton, New York with the intention of studying Torah.  I had danced around with Jewish observance for a year or two; now I was prepared to make a commitment. To my great good fortune, Rabbi Baruch Akiva Greenberg was sitting there on the couch in Meir Abehsera's living room when I walked in.  He became my first serious teacher and remained an enormous influence in my life (mostly at a distance) over the next four decades.  Akiva's soul ascended from this world on Shabbos Parshas Emor 5752 - at this writing, just a few days ago.  This is my attempt to deal with the feelings.

In those early Binghamton days we had a small, informal, part-time mini-yeshiva that met for a few hours a day at Beth David Synagogue.  The core of the curriculum was Akiva's class on Chumash (Parshas Shmos) with Rashi's commentary.  There were a half-dozen or so of us, sometimes more when visitors passed through, with Hebrew skills that ranged from mediocre to non-existent.  Akiva's method was for each one of us to read and translate aloud every pasuk and every Rashi (in Rashi script, which was a whole other unfamiliar alphabet in itself.)  We would not move on to the next verse until everyone had said.  It took forever.  It tried our patience.  Improbably, we loved every minute of it, and we learned how to learn.

Before long we came to realize what astute Jewish educators all over the world who knew him know - that Akiva Greenberg was a master teacher.  More significantly, we came to see what the thousands of students whose lives he has enriched, and the thousands more who have been touched by those thousands, have seen.  That quality, that humanity, is something that cannot be so easily described. 

An old friend and former partner of mine once said that when he was around Akiva, he felt he was in the presence of greatness.  He had enough sense, of course, not to say that in Akiva's presence - he would not have gotten away with it.  Akiva was very adept at disarming anyone's tendency toward sanctimony, whether with a wink or smile that said (without saying) "cut the crap," or with his inimitable way of undercutting his own holiness with humor: "the only problem with going to the mikveh is you can't smoke your pipe in the mikveh…"

One of the earliest and most important pieces of advice he gave me was when I was preparing to marry, and trying to sort out the Torah approach to the sanctity of marital life vis-à-vis my generation's more casual attitudes. The books spoke a lot about kedushah - holiness.  Just what that meant was not so simple, I thought (and still think.)  Akiva offered a single sentence that was immediately pragmatic, but that also continues to deepen my understanding to this day.  He didn't need to repeat or reinforce what the books were saying; as usual, he saw what else needed to be said.  "Relax," he said, "and the kedushah will take care of itself."

Akiva was always exacting and precise in his singing and in his storytelling.  The niggun goes just so, without shortcuts; when a fal is supposed to be sung twice, you sing it twice before moving on to the next.  When a story the Tzemach Tzedek told about the Horadaker was heard from the Vizhnitzer, you say it over in their respective names.  He taught us that it matters that we get it right, that the legacy is transmitted without distortion or embellishment.

I even learned from the way he would bang on the table while singing or teaching a niggun.  A Modzitzer waltz would inevitably be accompanied by one firm klop of the left fist, followed by two gentle brush strokes of the open right hand.  What this conveyed about the appropriate balance of chesed and gevurah, kindness and severity, I cannot begin to explain.  I can however say with some certainty that when the Gershwin brothers wrote "I Got Rhythm" this was in large part what they had in mind.

Akiva's table was not a table, it was a spacetime transporter.  Shalosh Seudos would sometimes go hours past sunset and segue seamlessly into Melave Malka.  We danced with the Shpoler Zeide and got beaten up with the Rebbe Reb Zusia and ate soup with the spoon that the Maggid used.  And yet, with all the Chassidus and the mystique, his emphasis always returned to the simple, halachic nuts and bolts.  No matter how arcane the questions, the answers were down to earth.  What's the key to redemption?  Learn Kitzur Shulchan Aruch - the Abridged Code of Law - every day.  In English, because you need to not fool yourself. What should be my kavanah in Krias Shema - the meditative intention in proclaiming G-d's oneness?  Be sure to pronounce the verses correctly, with the appropriate spaces between the words.

Though he was not usually given to big philosophical pronouncements, Akiva once let slip a core motivating principle that I find myself remembering nearly every day of my life.  The highest purpose one can aspire to, he said, is to be able to relieve another person's suffering.  And yet, on other occasions he would quietly remind us of what a delicate thing that can be, how challenging it is to have genuine empathy and not jump the gun with facile, half-baked answers.  Matters of the heart, he would say, cannot be dictated.

A few other gems, in no particular order:

"Anyone can fast by not eating. The real trick is to be fasting while you're eating."

"It’s better to be in chutz l'aretz (the diaspora) wishing you were in Israel than to be in Israel wishing you were in chutz l'aretz."

"When I look at that bookshelf, the books scream at me, saying 'when?'"

Akiva loved old-fashioned comedy – the Marx brothers, Laurel and Hardy – and he availed himself often of the way laughter heals.  I don’t recall him ever referring to Woody Allen, but he epitomized one of Woody's famous lines: "90% of success is showing up."  Akiva modeled steadiness and consistency, but never preached it.  And he did not try to hide his personal pain, or his imperfection; he demonstrated his fortitude in facing it, and in rectifying it.  I cannot imagine anyone knowing him and not having gained strength of character.

Thinking back to that Chumash class back in the day, and about all the myriad yeshiva and college students in the ensuing decades who have sung his praises as the consummate educator, I ponder what it was that made him so.  It seems almost trivial to speak of patience as the key to his expertise as a teacher; but I keep coming back to that.  Not patience as a technique or a strategy.  Not even patience as a cultivated character trait.  It seems to me that Akiva's extraordinary patience as a teacher stemmed from two sources.  First, from love.  And secondly, from silence - from a quietude of mind rooted in the uppermost reaches of the soul. 

The Rebbe Rashab, in Hemshech Ayin Beis, explores the transcendent realm of Kesser (Crown).  He cites the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Kordovero's explanation that one meaning (among several) of the word Kesser is derived from a verse in Job: "katar li z'eir" - "wait for me a bit".  It's an expression of silent, patient waiting for a time when that which is not yet evident will be revealed.  It's a crown we wear when we rise above the neediness to know it all now, when we can detach from the details that don’t yet make sense, when we are able to hear the voice from beyond the veil that says, shaa - this is the way it wants to be, for now.  It’s a crown Akiva wore, and not just when he was teaching.

I imagine his patience is beginning to pay off just about now.  May he be an effective intercessor on all our behalf.

Hamakom yenachem eschem b'soch shaar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim.

P.S…. Dear Akiva,
I'm sorry I didn’t write or visit more often.
I'm sorry I don't remember exactly how all the niggunim go.
I'm sorry I didn’t create more opportunities to make you laugh.
I'm sorry I couldn't heal your illness or take away your pain.
And even though I think I understand how and why you would purposely allow me the leeway to choose for myself how to respond when you'd suggest to me what to do, I'm sorry I didn't always listen.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

King Me

While wishing all cherished family and friends a powerfully sweet successful joyous New Year 5772 and the full manifestation of all our hearts' deepest desires, beyond our wildest blue-sky imaginations yet within our well-grounded grasp... I'm thinking about something I learned the other day that sort of wasn't new, yet in the context of my recent mindset, was - and which blew me away. 

The Mittler Rebbe writes in his Shaar Hateshuvah (Gate of Return) that the root of our undoing is prikat ol – throwing off the yoke.

The idea of bearing a yoke is not all that appealing to freethinking American babyboomers like me and my ilk.  That it’s 'the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven' helps – assuming we have some sense of what a King is.  Most of us lost that sense somewhere along the way between the Declaration of Independence, the liquidation of the Romanoffs, and the ascendance of poll-driven demagoguery in place of statesmanship.  An interesting evolution, or devolution – but I don't want to go there now.  Let's assume for the moment that we can appreciate the value of the harness that unites us with the King of the Universe and places our talents at His service. 

If so, what gets in our way?

I've been paying a lot of attention lately to the famous kabbalistic principle that it takes one to know one.  Or as the kids say, when you point a finger at me you've got three fingers pointing back at you.  Or as the Baal Shem Tov puts it, when you see something intolerable in another, it's actually a projection of, a deflection from, something you can't bear to look at in yourself. 

Yet another way of seeing it is as a reactive cycle of shame and blame.  Who doesn't have some dark place inside where he can't stand himself?  We're ashamed, not just of our behavior but even of our thoughts.  As Peter Himmelman sings: "I'm a dirty man – I went and took a drink of dirty water."  And the Yom Kippur liturgy: "Before You I am like a vessel filled with shame and disgrace."  On Yom Kippur we are at our best.  In the presence of unconditional Divine forgiveness we're prepared to own up and face the dark side.  But we may not be so straightforward on some turgid Thursday in February. 

It happens in the blink of an eye: a sudden impulse of awareness of shame bubbles up from the dark recesses of our shadowy side.  It's too painful, too hard to take.  So we turn it inside out and find the nearest target to deflect the shame: we blame.  That awareness was an opportunity to accept the harness of personal responsibility with dignity, to summon the inner strength to change.  Instead, we squander the chance, throw off the yoke, and wreak damage rather than repair.

Sometimes it occurs only internally, in the privacy of our own minds.  And we may not be so aware – it could be beneath our conscious radar.  Next time you look askance at a fellow human being whose very presence irks you no end, step back and trace that feeling to its real source: what is it about him that reminds you of something you don't like about yourself?

It's something all people seem to have in common, from the basically nice guy who can occasionally be a grumpy judgmental curmudgeon, to the sophisticated terrorist who dehumanizes his victims, turning unbearable shame for his own depravity outward to absolve himself.  It lies within the black heart of anti-Semitism, the green eye of the envious, and the red clenched fist of the enraged.

The major, dangerous examples may or may not be within range of our efforts to change.  But the internal teshuvah is ours to accomplish.  Let's seek those moments where we're tempted to turn away, and turn them around.  Those small victories of responsibility over prikat ol, of acknowledgement and self-correction over shame and blame, will generate the energy that will change the world.  Let the King rule and let the good times roll.

Monday, September 12, 2011

wading into the stream

A friend who saw the video posted below said something like, "cool, but, um, like, huh?"

Kinda thought that might happen. Context is everything! To ever-so-briefly explain...

THE STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS is an introduction to the practice of "Hisbonenus" meditation - the contemplative path that lies at the heart of the philosophy and psychology of Chabad. There are numerous other forms of meditative practice. Some are very simple, others more advanced; some are therapeutic in nature, while others benefit healthy people who wish to advance spiritually and creatively. And just as certain practices are universal or culturally neutral, some forms of meditation and meditative prayer are derived specifically from Torah tradition, as taught by the Chassidic masters and the Sages of antiquity.

The video is based on a metaphor found in the commentary of Rabbi Hillel of Paritsch on "Shaar HaYichud" by Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch (the 'Mittler Rebbe').  This simple yet profound teaching blazes a trail toward a deeper awareness of G-d's presence in our world. As such it's also a key to emotional intelligence and ethical self-development.

We shot the footage at Diamond Notch Falls, Esopus Creek, and Kaaterskill Falls in upstate New York, and at Luray Caverns in western Virginia.

There is so much more to be said (and done) about all this.  G-d willing, we'll get there.  In the meantime, for further insight into where we're coming from and headed to, see the recent articles my wife and I have posted elsewhere on the subject. 

More to come; comments/questions/kvetches always welcome.