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.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Nachamu Nachamu

There could hardly have been a more deliciously apropos moment for the advent of a brand-new granddaughter than Erev Shabbat Nachamu - the eve of the Sabbath of double-dip consolation.  Relief, and rectification: corporeal comfort, here among us in flesh and blood, yet resonating with the transcendent source of solace in the realm of ascendant souls.  One is tempted to say "v'dai l'mayvin" – let that suffice for those who know the back-story.  But the inner story of this double nechamah is just too rich to let slip without an attempt to bring its esoteric underpinnings down to earth.

Briefly (there's soup on the stove that needs stirring,) the double expression "nachamu nachamu" signifies a final, complete redemption that, unlike all prior reprieves, will never fade or fail or revert to chaos.  How could that be possible, in an imperfect world where the only certainty is uncertainty, where pleasure inevitably gives way to pain, where the only apparent constant is change?

It's been said that had Moses led us into the Promised Land instead of Joshua, his right-hand man, there'd have been no subsequent exile. Moses was in touch with the immutability of G-d's grace.  He was unshakeable, invincible; he could weather the vicissitudes like a flame in a windless place.  But people tend to get the leaders they deserve. We did not merit to be led by a Moses to the civilized side of the river.  Joshua brought us home, but eventually we blew it - and the winds of change blew us away.

Thirty some-odd centuries down the pike, we may have learned a thing or two.  The Chassidic masters, our latter-day Moseses, have shown us how the miraculous and the mundane are one – how we can live within the confines of time, where we need to be on time, yet taste changeless eternity. We can be consoled in this world, and partake of a headspace where there's no consolation required.

That's the way it felt at 3:15 this morning when we stood in the hallway of Mount Sinai (the hospital, not the holy mountain - though they're not all that dissimilar) and heard that first cry of our new-born daughter and granddaughter. My son-in-law and I, after being allowed back in the delivery room and taking the requisite photos and video clips, stepped outside into the night to bless the moon.  It's a monthly ritual, performed while the moon is waxing full, that imbues the cyclical fickleness of the lesser luminary with something of the non-stop steadiness of the sun.

The moon and the sun are sharing their double dose of consolation and redoubling it in us.  I'm inclined to say that it doesn't get any better than this, except that I'm quite confident it will.

Mazal tov, mazal tov, and Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mothers' Day

I woke up this past Sunday morning from one of the stranger, more vivid dreams in my recent memory to an equally uncharacteristic thought: this was the fortieth Mother's Day I had experienced since my mother left this mortal coil and moved on to those greener pastures (the ones the G-d she wasn't sure she believed in had always told her He'd maketh her lie down in.) I've always considered Mother's Day and Father's Day to be commercial contrivances without much meaning - perhaps a step up from Valentine's Day, but still. Hallmark holidays have always aroused in me more cynicism than genuine sentiment.  And I know I'm not alone; I've observed that mothers on Mothers' Day, like fathers on Fathers' Day, frequently accept the cards and gifts and obligatory accolades with both a broad smile and a sharp eye out for some sign as to whether or not the honor will last past the day.

And yet…

Maybe it's Facebook, and all the friends who  posted photos of their Moms. Or maybe I've actually matured, evolved beyond the wry, sly negativity and the faux-rugged-individualism with which I've long masked my abandonment issues. They do say it takes forty years to really learn a lesson. Whatever the dynamic that brought me to this unprecedented point in time, I posted a Mothers' Day note on Facebook yesterday that I meant, from the heart, and that I hope I'll go on meaning - whether or not it suffices to make amends for my slightly scrooge-ish performance in prior years. One of my friends thanked me for it, and in the same breath she inquired as to what's up with my blog, which I've been neglecting in recent months.  I took the hint (thanks, CE) and am therefore reiterating those thoughts here, where they're perhaps more likely to hold me to them in days to come.

On this particular Mothers' Day, I wrote, it's appreciation that I feel compelled to express - simple, uncluttered, uncomplicated appreciation. Thank you, Ma. And thank you, all you other mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law, stepmothers, mothers-to-be, wanna-be mothers, and mothers of invention. I'm grateful to the long-gone ancestry of mothers of mothers of mothers. Though my own mother-memory extends just a couple of generations back, and scantly at that, this is one of those precious moments when the heart feels warmly what the mind finds unknowable. I'm grateful to the mother of my children, and to my children, some of whom are already mothers, and some of whom will be mothers before long, and all of whom have been blessed with the ability to see and feel and bring to fruition what it means to make room within oneself for another's gestation, birth, and growth. And that includes the boys - because fatherhood would not be fatherhood if it did not embrace within itself some smattering of motherhood. And vice versa.