Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Suggestion for Losing the Rat Race: Casual Conversation

Image result for rat maze cheese

"So, how's the shul?  When do you think you'll be ready for the next step in your career?  How many years have you been there now?"

For those who know me, I've done a lot of teaching about cheese over the past year, related to my kashrut supervision, but I want to write about a different wedge of cheese today, the prize at the end of the rat-race.

Over the summer, I had the chance to attend several rabbinic gatherings and conventions, where important communal and spiritual matters were indeed discussed.  But I wanted to draw attention to the more casual conversation.  At one convention, I was asked some permutation of the lead question by some half a dozen well-intentioned colleagues, and that was just on the first day.  As soon as I heard the question, I was bothered, but had to think about why. 

The thoughts came quickly.  "What does the next step mean?  Surely, it means a more prominent or larger synagogue, or one with a larger budget, and presumably a larger salary, perhaps?  But I'm happy where I am . . . I've established meaningful relationships.  My wife and I are as happy as we've ever been.  I have a constructive and loving relationship with my community, " I thought to myself.  And then, the thoughts got broader, and rebellious, and defiant; "Religious service isn't supposed to about salary, or fame, or prominence.  It's about people, and the Divine, and meaning, and community," I thought to myself. 

Upon further reflection, I don't think that those colleagues (many of whom are my friends) who asked the question intended anything sinister by it; I'm sure I ask similarly toned questions on more than an occasional basis too. They, my colleagues, devote their lives to serving community.  And if money were their aim, there are many more efficient means of acquisition than the rabbinate, generally speaking (It's important to note that I do feel Rabbis are adequately compensated, generally, and this is not a complaint or even a discussion about that topic).  So why the question?  My hypothesis is that our patterns of casual conversation have been shaped by our society's prevailing rat-race mentality, and that the modes of conversation subtly shape us in return.  

Rats race through a maze, perhaps endlessly, perhaps for cheese, and so humans race through the busy maze placed in front of them, seeking our "cheese."  Money, fame, validation, attention - different flavors, but a similar singularity of purpose.  Whatever the aim, the problem, just to spell it out clearly, is at least threefold: a)  Often, the aim at the end of our rat-race isn't, in fact, the single principle we'd choose to be controlling our lives if we were in control  b) Because we're in an endless race, and can never get enough of the "fix," we're never fully satisfied, or happy, or present, and always at a baseline of partially anxious and planning for the next-stage.  To my mind, this is the meaning and great wisdom behind R' Eliezer Hakappar's aphorism that "jealously, lust, and the pursuit of honor remove a person from the world" (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4); they're all consuming, never satisfied, and prevent appreciation of any station. c) There's a finite resource at the end of the race, and we're in competition with others to make sure there's cheese left over for us. A modified zero-sum game.  

It's certainly not just a feature of rabbinic conversation.  How often is improving the country conflated with a higher GDP?  How often do we make important life decisions with an over-emphasis on the economic impact?  Is the spiritual or interpersonal impact an equal or more primary component of our decision-making process?  Perhaps, economics are more concretized.  But perhaps, just perhaps, it's because money is the most common wedge of "cheese" at the end of our maze.  

In the fall of 2015, I was at a wedding, and didn't know many people at our table (the newlyweds were friends of my wife from graduate school).  Though our table consisted of people and couples in similar life situations, few knew each other.  It occurred to me that the baseline mode of casual conversation in this setting was to inquire about career.  "What do you do?  I'm an engineer.  I'm a graduate student.  I'm in between jobs.  Etc."  But is career the only or  main salient feature of life?  It can be, but need it be?  So I decided to ask a different question, partially because I had already been outed as a Rabbi by the standard question, and because people seem to give clergy license to veer from the standard script.

I asked a different question; "Where are you in life?  How is your life, at the current moment?"  "How do you want me to answer?", asked one engaged respondent.  "However you like."  Now, the experiment was fun, but I also think it worked.  Table discussion shifted from dry description of career progress to more interesting conversation about personal journeys, paths, doubts, and hopes. 

Recalling that experience, I wonder aloud how we can re-frame casual conversation markers as Elul sets in. What questions can we ask that don't double as walls of the rat-race maze?  What are our most preferred sources of meaning?  Which ones won't leave us constantly chasing the future, but will aide our lived experience of the present moment?    

Try asking a different question and see how it goes!  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On Coffee Shop Sermon Writing

Image result for seven stars providence

This is a inner-reflection of what happens when you try to write a sermon after consuming a latte at Seven Stars with too much caffeine.  Instead of a sermon, you get a poem, and a prayer.  You never know what life will bring.  

Veins feel like they're bursting . . . Self!  Keep it together.
So excited to be so insane.  I feel like I'm spinning out of control. 
And I love it! But wait, I'm usually a control freak.  Should I be concerned?

An entire sabbatical to write and I struggled to formulate a solitary thought.
Now, would it were that time would freeze
And an infinite string of letters, words, passions cloaked in thoughts would come racing forth.
With the fury of A large breaking wave but the volume and speed of floodwater rushing through the constricted opening of a broken dam.

Inspired.  The thoughts are rushing so quickly that the speed multiplies itself and adds excitement.  
Not enough speaking slots.  When will I write this all?  Who cares?! 
This feeling carries all the exhilaration of a an upside-down roller coaster and a ride that spins but without the nausea.

Mindful moments and slowing down.  Yes.  But now the speed and excitement of passion, passing through my mind like a race car, with a whoosh of air, now another, in this moment and the next.  
Can barely make it out.  What is it?  
Huh. There's this beauty I see in noticing quickly, even deeply, but not being able to think. 

Like words of prayer that suddenly rush out.  Coming from deep within and hurrying to escape the pink prison bars while the jailbreak hasn't yet been stopped by the sponge-like prison guard who mistakes the innocence for insanity.  May the drug-induced thoughts of this wild soul find their way onto a page and into the hearts of my dear congregation. 

Postscript - I can't help but feel that the main issue to address, in so many communities, and I speak personally too, is the difficulty involved in being in touch with our inner lives.  It's so foundational for our religious lives, for our relationships, for ourselves.  That's why I've been focusing so heavily on mindfulness and chasidut at my shul and in my personal religious practice.  In the spirit of relevance, that's what I'll be blogging about this year.  Sometimes I'll be sharing my own insides; sometime's I'll write about it all.   

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Jewish Yoga - Real or Fake?

"And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in his salvation.  All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like you . . ." (Psalm 35:9-10)

"[M]y heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God" (Psalm 84:3)

Note:  This isn't an academic treatment of the subject, or anything of the sort.  Rather, I'm sharing brief ongoing personal reflections about a subject that I'm in the process of re-thinking and re-working.  I hope others benefit from hearing my (admittedly incomplete) thoughts.

"I love Judaism, and I love yoga, but Jewish yoga ruins it for me.  They're both great for what they are, but mixing them is inauthentic and waters them both down."  Recently, I was speaking to a friend and colleague about the rapid growth of "Jewish yoga," and asked him what he thought; these were the comments he offered.  To an extent, I used to and still do share his initial reaction.  Authenticity is hard to define, but I didn't really "get" the idea of yoga in a Jewish context at all.

As an Ashkenazic Jew with both limited flexibility and body awareness, I've dabbled in yoga before. I was introduced to yoga as a high school student as a technique for stress reduction in a physical education mini-unit, and have very rarely but occasionally taken classes ever since.  Every time I've done it, I've thoroughly enjoyed the work, the challenge, and and the release that come from the various poses and states of mind, but have never made the commitment to follow it through in a sustained way.  I was vaguely aware that yoga, at its root, was and is a contemplative practice rooted in Hinduism, but truly only thought of it in psychological and physical terms.  Sure, there was the Om chant at the end of most commercial yoga classes, but I assumed no one really knew or cared about what they were saying.  They were just mimicking the instructor; following the "cool kids."  Yoga provided increased strength and flexibility. Yoga also provided peace of mind and inner calm, much like meditation, that was incredibly beneficial.  That's more or less the way I thought of it.

Recently, though, through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I was reintroduced to yoga, specifically as a necessary part of a healthy spiritual practice.  Nice - sure.  A Jewish requirement - harder to swallow that.  How could a spiritual practice from India be the necessary basis for a serious Jewish spiritual discipline?  I'm not opposed to synchretic (of or related to the attempted merging of different religions, cultures, etc.) practice per se.  Still, it's a far cry from allowing for synchretic practice to considering it essential or mandatory.

As time has gone on, though, I've begun to sympathize with and even promote the position, and would like to briefly share why.  Many versions of Judaism used to rest on a somewhat fixed bifurcation between body and soul.  As many modern Jewish philosophers, theologians, scholars, and Rabbis have noted, it's now preferable (for a variety of reasons well beyond the scope of this entry) and common to think of this more along the lines of a continuum (as many kabbalists always did) than a duality.  Soul and body represent different manifestations of physical and spiritual reality, intertwined and overlapped.  So too, it used to be common, in a medical or scientific context, to think of hard distinctions and bifurcations between the body and the mind.  Now, however, neuroscience has shed much light on an integrated and continuous feedback loop.  Thoughts, emotions, moods, external stimuli (sound, the weather, lighting, anything really) and physical sensations all interact as part of a complex and dynamic process.  Hunger can promote stress and anxiety; a smile can lift spirits and dull pain.  Full awareneess (call it "da'at" in a Jewish context) and spiritual self-awareness in particular have to incorporate the intellect, the emotional, and the physical.

I'll use a mundane every-day example to clarify my point.  This morning, I was anxious about the slightly over-committed day to come.  Of course, the anxiety wasn't just in my mind.  At some point during the morning prayers, it dawned on me that I was carrying tension related to the stress in my shoulders.  By consciously and intentionally releasing the physical tension, the anxiety quickly faded, and a spirit of background happiness swept in to replace the worry.  Just then, I read aloud the words from the psalm, עבדו את ה' בשמחה, "[W]orship the Lord with joy," that I happened to be up to, and began to smile a bit at the tremendous coincidence of timing.  The inner Chasid inside of me was proud.

Obviously, it doesn't have to be Yoga, and it doesn't have to be Jewish Yoga.  But an integrated modern spiritual practice absolutely requires a body practice.  Modern science has shown us something that the psalmists always knew to be true, that true spiritual service is physical and embodied too, and something vital is missing if it's not.  Yoga happens to be the most highly developed and popular spiritual body-practice in the world today.  Placing it in a Jewish context is indeed highly synchretic.  It can also be highly integrated and natural.  If you view your Jewish practice as integrated part of your life and well-being and not a segmented partial identification, and if you want your spiritual practice to be whole, than a spiritual body practice (not just exercise!) is indeed imperative.  Yoga's tried and true, and certainly helps with the clasically Jewish goal of reaching a state of "da'at", awareness.

I'm sure I'll have more to share as time progresses, but wanted to offer these preliminary thoughts.  In the interim, anyone local (or who is willing to travel) is invited and encouraged to try out Yoga in a Jewish spiritual context with Thrive and the talented Liz Maynard.  See here for more information about Exploring Authenticity, a Purim related Adar Yoga experiment.  משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה - When Adar arrives, we increase our joy!