What If? : TorahCycle Tzav

KarmaRide 2013If you ran the world, how would it spin?

Everybody’s idea of happiness is different. (For some clues about how different, take a handful of buzzworthy quizzes.) Your idea of relaxation might be a four-star beach; your friend’s could be backpacking. You might aspire to being a musician or a CEO. Another’s dream is being a priest, a seeker whose job is to make ritual and to bless.

This reading tells us about the seven-day purification process for Aaron and his sons to become priests. But because I think this whole story is really about/for us, it suggests how to shed whatever’s keeping you from living not just holier but happier.

So, what would make you happy?

Most folks want to change something: from their bodies to a bad job, an unhappy relationship, or an unhealthy habit. We hope the payoff will be a better life, a good life. I’d like to expand the “good life” to be more than a satisfied sense of achievement and self-indulgence. I’d like it to include goodness in the moral and ethical sense.

One of my favorite bumpers stickers has always been If you want peace work for justice. Collectives, whether they’re tribes, nations, or political parties, tend to have goals that seem complicated. Individuals are easier. They mostly want to be happy. To not have to fret about safety, love, or money. To know the bills will get paid, that there’ll be food on the table, and that the house and kids are squared away. That there’s hope for the future.

Social equity breeds peace. Happy people are less likely to fight or kill.

If you decided to initiate yourself as a happier person, what would it take? Making and keeping vows? Making more time for your own priorities? Doing more for others? How would you do it and how will you know when you’re there?

The classic Buddhist answer is to shed desire. But for most of us there’s always one more nagging gimme, big or small, profound or silly.. The classic Jewish answer is similar: be happy with the life you’ve got. See everything that happens to you–no matter how undeserved or painful it may sometimes feel–as a chance to step up and show your faith.

Those may be the enlightened views, but small steps are a great start. Happiness with ourselves can amplify our caring and compassion for our friends and neighbors. And happier, more satisfied, people make this a better planet to hang out on.

We’ve all seen zillions of internet and email promises of Just 10 steps to [insert goal]. They generally include buying vitamins or pills, CDs, or books. But what if, as this reading suggests, taking seven days to focus on initiation could actually change you. Commit to doing any one thing, and actually stick to it. You might not become a priest, but what if you could become more/less  _____________?

What if you committed to one change for the next seven days, just to see how you’d feel on the other side? Nothing dramatic, just a single right step, repeated consistently. I’m going to do it, and pay good attention along the way. Please join me.

Yes, Me: TorahCycle Vayikra

Va'eirahThe most common answer from kids to Who Did This?!? is Not Me! It doesn’t change much as we grow up.

We’re quick to put distance from our flaws and failings, especially once they’ve been discovered. We try hard to be noticed for achievements, but are often surprisingly shy to accept praise, even when it’s well-deserved. Such a strange mix of seeking on the one hand, and hiding on the other.

Who did this? Not me. Ummm……., Yup, me.

We need to take credit for the good we do, and responsibility for the not-so-good. It turns out better in the end. Dodging rarely does, as politics often proves: It’s not the misdeed that screws you, but the cover up.

This week’s reading, the first of Leviticus (a book primarily about laws and rules) is about what to do after we’ve done wrong. Atonement rituals, specifically sacrifices, for spiritual transgressions, bad actions, and sins real or even merely possible.

Lots of places to set the bar. And many bendy, twisty things to do once you get there. I’m a metaphorist, so words are as real to me as offering up critters or grain. I’m hoping sincerity counts on the scales of justice, as well as literal sacrifice.

Regardless of form, it’s useful and healing to have atonement rituals. You might get there by truly saying Sorry, by making a peace offering, or by sacrificing in measure and kind, or with your time and energy. All to wipe the slate clean, or at least cleaner.

The first step is simple and necessary: taking responsibility for your words and deeds. First to yourself–in whatever squeaky voice of conscience you use. And then to whomever you’ve wronged. Even when it stings, it feels good to raise your hand and say Yes, me. And then to do what needs to be done.

We know we’ll feel better on the other side. So why’re we so slow to raise our hands?

I think because we’re used to hugging the midline. Dodging blame even when it’s due, and ducking praise even when it’s well-earned. We may feel guilty for saying Not me when we need to. So when we’re appreciated, we’re more modest than we should be.

That’s how karma accretes. Like a snowball getting bigger as it rolls downhill, the layers that shield our holy self grow each time we don’t step up. Jewish mysticism calls these layers klipot. Think of them as husks or veils. Coverings that conceal your inner holy spark. Every time you do anything less than be your highest and best self, you add more klipot to your holiness.

These rituals help thin those layers. They’re meant to happen soon after we blow it, not to wait for the annual fall confessional, when we core dump all our sins. Don’t wait; step up now.

There are wonderful website and postcard projects where people can take their darkest secrets and toss them overboard with anonymous confessions. Not as direct as an apology, but a good first step in saying Yes, me.

However big or small your sins, imagine how much lighter you’d feel if you did that. How much brighter would your holy spark shine? How much happier would you be?

In The Wilderness: TorahCycle Bamidbar

BamidbarBamidbar literally means, in the wilderness. Which an English major would deconstruct to the place that is wilder, less tamed, than where one has been.

It’s an interesting concept, an Outward Bound kind of exercise: survive three days in a wilderness with a jug of water, a handkerchief, and a knife; maybe if you’re lucky a covering sheet for the rain or cool evenings. Instead, most of us have homes and jobs, sets of beliefs and practices, and good friends/partners to help get us through. Oh yeah, no three days: we’re in it for life. Pun intended.

And each of us finds ourselves, in various ways and times of our lives, in wilder-nesses. They can be the phases between jobs or relationships. The months or years we gave away in the wrong ones. Times of waiting, wishing, and hoping. Or times of intense self-talk and questioning. Often these experiences can lead to big transitions, both in and after the wilderness.

BTW these wildernesses are not necessarily bad, though they often feel threatening or scary because they represent the unknown. They’re intrinsic to being human and sometimes where we do our best work on the path of growth. But we don’t always greet them with “hooray” or “welcome.” They’re not always pleasant. In fact we often greet and  experience them as periods of angst and discomfort, especially when we don’t know what the future holds, and aren’t always sure we’re going to like it.

Before, during, and after such times is a great opportunity to take an inventory of your assets, your own unique constellation of inner tribes. Your primary component parts. Your inner knife and water. What protects and strengthens you. What helps you and keeps you safe. What emboldens you. Each serves a purpose.

If you’re reasonably integrated, you can point them in the same direction. If you’ve really been doing your homework, even aimed towards the same goal. In biblical metaphor that’s the promised land, or the messianic age. You probably have more humble aspirations. Most of us do.

When we list important traits like integrity, intelligence, and curiosity, we sometimes forget that we’re equally well served by qualities that are sometimes underappreciated by others. (“Stubbornness” a friend shrieks from the sidelines, while you preen with pride at your “tenacity.” ) Truth is, we need some grit to protect our mushy innards, and also need to show enough softness that people move towards us. We need to know when to step up and when to wait. When to talk and when to shut up. And to be able to speak simply and clearly, from the heart, when you feel open and cogent enough to do so.

Perhaps the promised land is the where and when you can live in the wilder places as happily as you expect to live after you survive the times of testing.

Exercise: Make a list of who you think you are, using big nouns and adjectives. Hang onto it. Do this exercise a couple more times in the next coupla years. It’s a great way to see how you’ve grown.

Give Yourself A Break: TorahCycle Behar-Bechukotai

BeharSomeone once observed that Judaism’s greatest gift to humanity was not monotheism but rather the idea of a Sabbath. A time to hit the pause button, taking the seventh day to be, not do. A time to live off the labors of the previous six and give gratitude for creation. Not just one day a week, but every seventh year. And amazingly, in the fiftieth year, to have what’s called a Jubilee year. In Biblical times Jubilees included freeing the slaves, a bold act of socio-economic re-engineering. There’s lots of planning and trust involved.

There’re suggestions (okay instructions) for how to be and yes also do’s/don’t’s about how to spend your time and energy. But they aren’t organized around running errands, getting your lawn mowed, or cheering for your favorite team. They’re about taking time to rest, to pray, to learn, and to make love. Not a bad day, and one many might yearn for Monday through Friday.

When you think weekend, do you also think to-do lists, even the ones that include fun line items like friends and playtime? What takes priority? Why does scheduling regular down time sound so unrealistically pie-in-the-sky? Why’s it so hard to give yourself a break?

One reason: we’re trained since childhood to value of our lives by what we accomplish, by what we can point to as products of our skills and talents. To be able to say proudly, I made that!, whether that’s a misshapen vase in a pottery class or a knockout PowerPoint presentation.

So what happens if you give yourself a break? If you trust, as we’re told to do, that the work you’ve done in days/years one through six should be enough to provide for you in the seventh? That it’s okay to vision and dream, not labor?

You’ll have to trust that the rest and regeneration you’ll get from not doing, from not being in motion or crossing something off your to-do list, is also a benefit. Ditto not fretting that you’ll be more harassed and stressed just by finding relaxation time, or fearing you’ll pay for it later. That there are benefits to what outsiders might write off as day dreaming.

These benefit are short-run and long-, tangible and immeasurable. Benefits that will pay off in ways your now you doesn’t yet have words or imagery for. But remind her to say thanks later, when she realizes that gifting yourself some chill and mellow has not just slowed you down and softened you, but given you a new sense of possibility.

Exercise: Take some daydreaming time each week. Organize your world to insulate yourself from your regular reality for at least a few hours on a regular basis. Get some colored pens. Write down how you wish your life looked and felt. Repeat every seven days. Write down whatever you’re dreaming of, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. You can make it pretty later, when you have more time and energy. Then we’ll work on making it real.

Why We Pray: TorahCycle Emor

EmorEvery spiritual practice has rituals and observances. Why? To know ourselves. To honor creation. To create community.  What’s at the core? Creating communion with however you think about the creator, the eternal life of all the worlds. My shortcut word for this connection is prayer.

One of my favorite poets is Rumi, who talks to and about G-d the way one does to a lover. With adoration, passion, and longing. With a deep and wondrous sense of the ecstatic. Holiness filled with joy.

When you meet a person who’s going to become important in your life there’s an almost electric moment of wow. Energetically it’s like how Legos feel when you press them together. That satisfying little pop into place. Held.

I think that’s why we have prayers and song. Why the words get into our bloodstream like cosmic earworms dialed to the right channel. Pulling us towards the holy like one Lego calling to another, reinforcing itself on a cellular level. Like the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, I greet the holy within you.

I assure you, I’m not that gracious if you cut me off in traffic. But I get it in theory. And think we all need to practice the grace that’s embedded in the idea of graciousness.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, just wrote a lovely little book called Help Thanks Wow, three essential prayers. It’s a great distillation of when folks pray, even those who don’t often walk into a temple, mosque, or church. Those prayers said with a sincerity that ritual obedience does not always engender.

But still we gather for services, festivals, and holidays. My Lego and yours, together. Rubbing our stuck places against one another. Hearing in the off-key singing and occasional cough the complex friction of family. Learning how close we can come, and where our boundaries are. Where we love and where we don’t.

I’m always amazed when I’m reminded the heart’s a muscle. Like others it can get flaccid if you’re lazy, or dirty with plaque if you don’t feed it well. Soaring with boundless joy or aching with pain, it’s an amazing barometer of how our soul is feeling. All part of why we pray.

We talk to HaShem when we love, when we’re afraid, and when we hurt. We come as seekers. As petitioners. To receive. To bargain. To wrestle. And ultimately to accept.

A few months ago I was thinking about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief. They shed light on how and when we pray. Not always in this order, but she’s pretty perceptive: Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. And finally, acceptance.

Good times are easy. Hooray for blessings with bread and wine, apples and honey. Other times we’re asked go without. To fast. To learn life’s about boundaries and limits as much as access to the infinite and unconditional. Through all these times we pray. If we’re lucky, we find solace, insights, and hope.

Exercise: This week’s a great time to listen for when you pray spontaneously. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling and what you’re asking for.

Do Unto Others: TorahCycle Kedoshim

KedoshimIn Kedoshim is the dictum which the great sage Rabbi Akiva called a cardinal principle of Torah, and of which Hillel said, (supposedly standing on one foot with his life in the balance): This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary: What is harmful to you do not do to others. 

Holy writings are loaded with variations on this theme. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s inspirational and aspirational to imagine treating others the way we want to be treated. A “pay it forward” consciousness, with the implicit reward that if we act with goodness, we too will be treated well. It implies a world that’s fair and just, something that, on any given day, you may have the joys of experiencing. Less so if you are homeless, hungry, or broken-hearted, times when you may feel the world has betrayed your best hopes and intentions.

There’s another flip side to this coin, because we’re not always as good to ourselves as we wish others would be to us. How do you avoid treating yourself badly, or stop yourself from treating others in the worst ways you treat yourself? Or as you may feel the world has unjustly or poorly treated you? Crankiness and anger breeds more of same. Bad enough in people; horriffic and dangerous in nations.

There’s a wave in the zeitgeist these days, the concept of “the other.” Self in other forms. At its worst it’s racism and xenophobia: the other is difference made manifest, not equal or worthy. At its best it acknowledges sameness and kinship with kindness and compassion.

I deeply believe that we’re all pretty much the same at the core. With huge exceptions for psychotics and psychopaths, or individual tics and neuroses, most of us want  to be loved, to live in peace, to provide safety and opportunity for ourselves and those we care about. To make the world a better place, not a more anxious or fractured one.

So why aren’t we good to one another? Why don’t we live up to a favorite bumper sticker: If you want peace, work for justice.

Things too often turn to crap when what benefits me is not so good for you. The zero sum game that’s led to millennia of disputes over land, wealth, and power. We need to get past our greed and insecurities to create a better now and a better future.

Judaism has a great concept of the world to come. It’s usually discussed in terms of a messianic age. But I prefer to think of it much closer and accessible, a world of peace, harmony, and equity. One we humans should strive to manifest here and soon.

Exercise: Make a list of what you think are your core values. Think about everything from honesty to kindness, dependability to compassion. As your week progresses, pay attention to how you react in various circumstances, from the easy ones to the most challenging. See what triggers your better self and your worse one, how your treat inner and outer others. Take good notes.

Spring Cleaning Your Soul: TorahCycle Tazria-Metzora

TzariaWe all have secrets, past or present. Things we’re afraid folks would judge or reject us if they knew. Things we wish we hadn’t done, or might even be secretly glad we did. Life choices we’ve made that led to a loss of autonomy, authority, power, or pride. Almost always they’ve tarnished our integrity and self-esteem and become embedded into our sense of self.

Nothing’s heavier on the soul than shame. Even guilt or grief, tough and strongly debilitating, take a back seat to the blemishes we fear have stained our souls.

There’s a powerful scene in Ursula Hegi’s wonderful WWII novel Stones From the River, where the protagonist, a dwarf living in a small German town, is being interrogated by a Gestapo officer. He’s fascinated by her and asks how she goes through life looking as she does. She says (roughly), Think about your most terrible secret. Now imagine walking around every day, having your shame pinned to the outside of your heart for everyone to see.

That’s what this week’s reading is about: secrets and shame revealed, and then healed.

Spring’s when we clean our garages and closets. So now’s a great time to release any darkness you’ve been carrying. To undo the hold of whatever’s diminishing you, whether it‘s a memory, fear, guilt, unrequited longing, or sense of powerlessness in any aspect of your life.

It helps to believe you deserve to be healed. (Yes, a little catch-22, but hopefully you’ve grown since it appeared.) Helps to be ready to sincerely let yourself off the hook for bad thoughts, bad choices, bad relationships: situations where you gave away too much or asked for too little. Times when your diminished self-esteem made you feel smaller than how you now know yourself to be.

Spirituality offers many cleansing rituals. Everything from silent retreats to the confessional. Judaism has the mikveh, a deep bath that involves three complete immersions: one to release the hold of the past; one to release any illusions that you control the future; and a third to remind you to be fully present in each moment of now.

I always want the water warmer, a comfy rebirthing. But the ritual’s in part about waking up. About feeling yourself open with the shock of saying, This is who I’ve been. l I forgive myself my past. I welcome a purer me.

That forgiveness is a huge step. It means acknowledging who and how you were, what you needed then, and how you’ve changed. You gain perspective and freedom.

Immerse as often as you need to. Every time you do, you’re pouring holy water on your soul. You’re whitening the spots and scars. And strengthening your ability to forgive yourself. It does get easier with practice and time. You’ll know it’s working when you start to feel lighter and cleaner. When you can remember hurts with a rueful smile instead of pain.

Exercise: Write each thing you’re ashamed of on a piece of paper. Then burn each page and watch it go into ash.

Choosing Your Path: TorahCycle Shemini

SheminiIn Shemini we’re told of Aaron’s sons who are killed instantly because they came into the sanctuary with “strange fire.”  I read that and think, How can any form of worship be wrong? And so unacceptable that they’re zapped like flies on a summer patio.

I come from the “pray often, and how you want school.” In a garden, on the sofa, wherever you are now, should all be valid, if you come with deep sincerity and an open heart. Prayer is a conversation we’re always in, even if our attention sometimes lapses during brunch or basketball.

Two aspiring priests, dead: overzealous, impetuous, not mature or learned enough? I’m empathetic with their impatience. I call it my wake up thin fantasy. It doesn’t work. But I keep hoping it will, that desire will make up for what’s lacking in practice.

I accept service, compassion, and prayer as spiritual cornerstones. But too often life feels like the sign in the repair shop: There’s fast, cheap, and right. Pick any two. Because sometimes that’s  all we can handle.

So what’s the right path if you’re striving to feed your soul? How can you enter your sanctuary with any incense and emerge regenerated and inspired? Even inspiring?

We’re sent here in our human birthday suits. Back to learn our lessons, day by day, mistake by mistake, peeling away the layers of ego one by one. Getting it right when we can, even if we get it wrong a coupla dozen times along the way.

Our higher self’s here getting dirt under its new fingernails while also teaching our hearts and souls. We’ve got lots to do, and it’s easy to get distracted. Some of us easily; perhaps less so for the diligent and pure of heart. To make up for our lapses, we get excited. And in our zeal to be holy, we sometimes reach for the wrong incense. Then possibly, zap, in some form or another.

In my bookkeeping of the holy, everything should count, including trying. Perhaps I’m doomed to be zapped. But I think any part of you that‘s striving for greater compassion and wisdom is on the right track. I honor a practice where intention counts as much as form. What’s required is sincerity and awareness.

I recently joined an interfaith prayer group. All spokes on the same wheel, praying for the same things. The right incense that all share is mindfulness. Is living in gratitude. Is saying thanks, to one another as well as to the unseen, for the richness and magic of our world.

It’s transformative and it works. It’ll lead you places you might not predict. To becoming a softer new you. One who’ll talk to HaShem more often, not out of fear of being zapped, but as a loving friend.

In the end, of course, we all get zapped by our own mortality. But by living with awareness and intention, we can do some good while we’re here.

Exercise: Think about your practice. What’s working and what’s not? What do you need more or less of? How’re you willing to step up? What will you do today, and again tomorrow?

Day By Day: Passover 2013

omerPassover begins on Monday night. If you’re Jewish, you know the story. If not, envision the 10 plagues and Red Sea parting stories you’ve seen, heard, or read. More deeply, it’s about getting out of slavery, leaving what in Hebrew is called mitzrayim, the narrow place.

Most of us aren’t literal slaves, but our lives include constrictions great and small, imposed by self or others. These narrowings can take many forms. A process of accretion: fewer risks and repeated choices, everything from friends to food. Staying too long in a job or relationship. Not acting how and when we know we should.

Nothing wrong with depth. But the absence of breadth can also lead to an absence of deep breathing. To a familiarity that can lead us to avoid looking closely or often enough into the mirror of self-scrutiny. When narrow places become damaging it’s important to change. Now’s a great time to recognize them, and lighten their grip.

Those whose close folks are insightful, articulate, and brave may get told what we’re not always ready to hear. Too often we respond, You want me to do what? No thanks. I’m comfy right here. Please pass the chips.

During the 49 days that start Tuesday evening you can participate in a ritual called the counting of the omer. It’s a time to open yourself to new ways of seeing and being through a daily practice.

The meditations are tied to lower seven positions (sephirot) on the Tree of Life. Each is an attribute of the divine, and an attribute of self as we mirror the divine. We meditate on them in succession each week, focusing on how they reflect and refine the theme of the week:

  • Week 1   Chesed: unconditional loving-kindness
  • Week 2   Gevurah: restraint, justice
  • Week 3   Tipheret: beauty, harmony compassion
  • Week 4   Netzach: energy, zeal, endurance
  • Week 5   Hod: glory, splendor, creativity
  • Week 6   Yesod: foundation, possibility
  • Week 7   Malkuth: living in the earthly kingdom with our inner spark aglow.

We examine and illuminate these traits in ourselves each day, seven times seven, shining light on our hidden places, and improving at least a little into our better selves.

If you’ve never done this before, keep it simple. In week one, concentrate on loving-kindness. Every evening, every morning, and a few times during the day, really take it in: that you are loved by a loving G-d. That your job is to reflect that love back into the world. To be gentler, more open, more giving. To practice gratitude. Week two, think about boundaries, about where you’re too tight and where you’re too codependent. When you’re too judgmental or your edges impermeable. Where you could soften. And so on.

You can google for more detailed instructions or daily prompts, and find numerous interpretations of the sephirot and their interactions. Go with what speaks to you. Journaling the omer is a wonderful practice. Your questions matter as much as your insights and answers. Even with the best of intentions, it’s difficult to do well for 49 days. But go as long and deep as you can, and jump back in even if you lapse.

You can listen to others, or guide yourself. There’s no wrong path if it opens your heart.

Learning Light: TorahCycle Tzav

TzavThis week’s reading has two important themes: the initiation of priests and the ner tamid, an eternal light. A flame that should never go out, mirroring the holy in each of us. A clear and glowing reminder of the cellular dynamic: you connected to the spark and pulse of a living universe.

While we’re doing the daily dance of mortgage and dieting, the priests are tending the sacrificial fires. Keeping that holy flame burning to remind us of why we’re really here. Their process of initiation is different from regular folks. But we’re all on the same journey, just a different path.

I’m not a good Buddhist. I buy into the story of self, reinforced in each living moment. Also that we’re part of a bigger story, eternal mind, a great big love dance of souls. But I believe we’re here working out our personal karma. With luck we evolve, make progress, however large or small, and help others along the way make progress too. That we go through life doing our karmic homework piece by piece as various forms of initiation. Leaping and dancing in some nows, howling in pain in others.

And through it all the everlasting light. In synagogues it hangs above the ark. In our hearts it’s the holy spark we each sense through our joys and tears, the deepest and most elemental piece of ourselves. The part that always knows home, and the part that’s always yearning for the next initiation.

Sometimes we’re sugar junkies, hoping for the epiphany road. Other times we’re farmers, steadfastly plowing the fields of our consciousness. Other times priests, accepting and making offerings and sacrifices. We learn through joy and sorrow, delight and tragedy, depending on the moment of our lives.

But we’re all here learning pretty much the same lessons: to be good, and to become better; to care about others; to be open; to love; to heal what and where and how we can; to share what we’re learning.

It’s great when there’s laughter or cake along the way, when we have the abundance of goodwill that comes from loving family and deep friendship. But there’s lots of days when life’s just going out to the fields to tend the vines, checking if the grapes are ripe yet, straining for a whisper of the divine presence. And times when life hurts. Because instead of joy there’s sorrow, and instead of cake there’s not.

That’s when we’re taught the next layer of initiation. When we data mine our aching hearts for the lessons we’re supposed to be learning. When we open to hear the new syllabus we’re being handed, and swear again not to fall behind in our homework. If we remember to study by the light of ner tamid, we’ll be guided by that holy radiance, and be comforted and taught by our holy spark.

Exercise: Think about which events and times of your life have been your greatest teachers. Do you learn more or better through joy or sorrow? What lessons are on your plate now and how’re you doing with your homework?