Ticket to Ride: Pre-Passover 2015

Tree

When I was younger, playing at Disneyland, we went on all the classic rides, and also bought “E-tickets.” They cost triple and guaranteed more screams and thrills. I carry in my pocket more computing power than first took men to the moon, so I’m sure that 1970’s special effects would seem as hokey now as 1950’s effects did then.

But E-rides challenged you. They took away your sense of time and space. Hard to hold onto small-ego You while hurtling though darkness at strange angles, lasers shooting all about, heavy metal blasting. One either retreats into denial or the boundaries between self/other get much thinner very quickly.

We’re at the gate on one of Judaism’s E-rides. In the rhythm of the sacred year we move between slow times and deeper, more intense, periods. We do have the seventh day metronome of Shabbat, tick-tocking like a heartbeat, to keep us grounded. But now we’re entering a bigger set of sevens. Seven weeks of meditations on aspects of the divine as reflected in self. Time to take a hard look, to see where you’re getting things right, and where you’re not.

All your New Year’s vows and promises, sacred and secular, are past. Most of us had just settled in to appreciating nature’s budding and blooming. Daffodils and birdsong. Feeling renewed without much stress or effort. Life was gonna coast happily.

Now comes Passover. The retelling of the exodus from slavery. We’ll land at the foot of Sinai once again. But this time, instead of brisk walk, we get fifty days to walk the path, one step in front of the other, one day at a time.

This process is called The Counting of the Omer. It’s the kind of thing that introspective people long for. A mandated and validated form of navel gazing. We meditate on the lower seven positions (sephirot) on the Tree of Life. Each an attribute of the divine, and an attribute of self as we mirror the divine. We meditate on them in succession:

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.

You can do it alone or you can pair up, with someone you know very well, or someone you want to. You can study, share, articulate, open, and generally clean yourself out, one to the other. This kinda study- buddy system is chevruta. It can be two people or more. But think intimacy.

Can you find ten minutes a day for seven weeks starting Saturday evening/Sunday? If yes, I promise you’ll be different on the other side. Can’t say how. Pretty sure for the better. Definitely softer and more peaceful. You don’t have to do anything more than breathe and open your heart, thinking about the attribute. No giving up gluten or sugar or checking your email when you get twitchy. You just have to show up and listen.

Got your E-ticket? Get on board.

Getting Clean: TorahCycle Tzav

VayechiIn the psychological thriller Descent, author Tim Johnston sets up several interlocking pairs of troubled relationships, mostly father /son, but there’s just enough pervasive misanthropy and sense of imminent threat, that you’re just never quite sure when everything’s gonna erupt. And then, hope against hope, with not a shed of evidence to even hint you should imagine, you find yourself rooting for one of the meanest ones to become a hero, to be moved by sense of humanity you’ve had no reason to believe is there.

That’s the holy spark. The essence of being that on a soul level each of us recognizes in the other. No matter how unlikely it may seem on any given day.

That’s what this getting holy is all about. Seeing and being those people.

All the rest, in the words of the great sages, all the rest is commentary.

Hide and Seek: TorahCycle Vayakhel-Prkudey

Yitro

In the mid-80’s a British illustrator came up with a clever set of visual puzzles that challenged viewers to identify a playful character amid throngs of other similarly-clad folks. It reminded me of a game that readers of the Sunday NY Times played, in the days of the great Al Hirshfield. He signed each week’s entertainment cartoon with a number, like 3 or 5,  by his name: that was how often the name NINA would be hidden in the angles of his cover story drawing.

They’re variations of hiding the truth in plain sight. Challenging and simple. And like the optical illusion of the old/young lady or lady/vase, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee, or believe it took so long, or that you could ever not have seen it. But until you do, there’s so much mystery and searching.

This and recent readings have focused on the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelis would cart with them through decades of trekking. The instructions are given twice, in such tediously exquisite detail that one finds oneself hoping against hope that there’s a revelation so simple and obvious waiting for us once we perceive it. In the interim, there’s counting and measuring of objects as diverse as dolphin skins, spices, and jewels.

We’re told that HaShem will hover over the mishkan in a cloud, so everyone will know they are not alone on their journey. (Always a deeply satisfying reminder: Spirit is with you!) Moses alone will be invited in to talk face-to-face, like you and your best buddy over a cuppa. Come in; sit down; receive the word. That’s when the system works well and you’re in synch with your guides, listening to and hearing one another.

When I was far younger, and every incoming call was a blush-evoking maybe-a-date, my father would answer the phone saying just too loudly, Nobody home! on the principle that anyone too easily cowed was someone I’d be better off without.

That’s how the mishkan works. Your inner Moses has to be brave and smart enough to receive truth. And the universe generous and lined up for you to actually hear it. (Note to self: it helps to be listening.)

Each of us has our own cues: a deer on your walking trail; a synchronistic message from a loved one; a vibrant dream; or even a bright penny by your feet. When things like that appear, we listen a little harder.

The mishkan’s like an extra antenna. Designed to operate on all channels like a SETI beacon beaming out and scanning the heavens, hoping we’ll meet another set of souls with a different cosmic address,

We’ve got a lot of trekking in front of us. But having the mishkan with us helps keeps out feet and souls aimed pretty much aimed the right way, assuming we can hear the directions.

However you think of your mishkan, this is the perfect time to visit it. You’ll find something much deeper and more profound than Waldo.

Thumbs Up: TorahCycle Ki Tisa

BoIn gladiator movies there’s invariably a scene when the honorable protagonist has a sword pointed at the throat of prone combatant, while evil Romans signal thumbs down, so the defeated’s life can be given for their amusement. Our hero throws down his sword and turns away, in essence saying I choose mercy even at the cost of my own life.

Most of us make much less important decisions, with less serious consequences, with much more fanfare and ado than they deserve. Too rarely do we demonstrate the qualities that’re at the core of this week’s reading. In addition to the Golden Calf story, we’re told of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which in the mystery traditions transmute into a thirteen-petaled rose signifying both forgiveness and remembering.

In our lives I see them as the ability to say to yourself: Stand down. Put those sharp emotions and feelings aside. Put your weapons, your anger, and your destructive patterns away. Give yourself, and whatever you’re pointing all that negativity at, a break. Take a breather. It’s kinda like a time-out period for grown ups. A good kind.

For a little and maybe longer, you surrender to something that’s better than the way you might feel or act reflexively. You give up the helm. Stop trying so hard to do, make, please others, or struggle. You look at your crap and you say simply, Ya know. Let’s try something different this time.

In Torah metaphor it’s dawn. You can stop wrestling. All past failures gone and forgiven. Evaporating like an old bad dream. Sunk cost, as an economist might say. Time to move on in a better direction. Don’t look back, because it won’t be pretty.

Because while you were out carousing, getting caught up in office politics, or in personal dramas, you were pretty much dead to the world as far as living with awareness goes. The more you prattle stories about how you’re trying as hard as you can, unappreciated, entitled, victimized, needy, afraid, blah blah blah, you’re really building a golden calf instead of getting more godlike. And like the Jews condemned to trekking penance, you’re gonna have to serve your time.

This can be a moment of waking up. Albeit it may only be for an instant. But many eastern paths tell us –and hold out for us the hope – that an instant is all that may be needed. A favorite story is of the housewife who, when she hears the chapatti batter hit the splattering oil, suddenly groks the oneness of all things.

Talk about something to pray for.

The next sections of wandering in the wilderness offer us many paths to work on our holiness, assuming we aren’t granted a swift and dramatic revelation. We have yet a lifetime of getting to walk our talk: loving and quarreling, being thoughtful and thoughtless, jubilant and sad, triumphant and questioning, and exploring worlds seen and unseen as best we can.

Sometimes it’s hard to simply take a breath before we do something we will regret. But that’s what a mercy moment is: consciousness knocking hard on your door, hoping you will answer.

Getting Better: TorahCycle Mishpatim

Vayeira 2014

Jack Nicholson has a wonderful line in the movie As Good As It Gets. He’s a selfish misanthrope wooing Helen Hunt, and, in a desperate move to forestall rejection, says, You make me want to be a better man. Who wouldn’t fall for that?!

Like the G word, everyone’s idea of being a better person is different. I’m going to use the word goodness as shorthand. Goodness is not so much observant piety or zen-like enlightenment, either of which might be a worthy goal depending on what matters to you. I’m talking about becoming a kinder, gentler, more compassionate human. The kind of folks we need more of on the planet, if only to keep it spinning towards the light.

How do we become better people? Do it on our own? Through another? After struggle and tragedy? Through gratitude and compassion? Is it a state of grace that sticks, or do we repeatedly need to up the ante on ourselves when we go back to our old, unconscious ways.

This week’s reading and the next are like mismatched twins: instructions on finding the path and then losing it in a dramatic way. It’s a long way to home.

The reading includes the statement We shall do and we shall hear. Note this is directly contradicted later in Torah by We shall hear and we shall do. It brings up the which comes first chicken/egg question.

Do you get better access to your higher self, your guides, whatever divine goodness you believe in if you walk on the right path?

In counseling there’s a modality called the comprehensive resource model. It’s a psychological version of prayer. It asks for help, from all your allies and guides seen and unseen. The simple organizing principle beneath it is this: I need you. Please show up. Guide me and help me heal. Not much beats that feeling of that wind at your back.

I come from the do-as-you’re-told school of karmic homework. For me that’s inner voice more than books of rules. But both paths lead to goodness.

Most of us know goodness by how it feels, whether we’re on the giving or receiving end. Both contribute to a pay it forward world, in which goodness multiplies and spreads like a beneficent virus.

The core teaching is a direct follow-up to last week’s Know your values. Live with goodness and you will hear more — from Spirit and from this world –- about how to become a yet better person. You’ll feel better inside and you’ll keep getting told more of what you need to hear and do to keep feeling that way. And, a great side benefit, to help those around you feel that way too.

Someone posted recently on FaceBook, Once you’re happy why would you be with anyone who doesn’t make you feel that way? No duh. Feel the goodness and you’ll attract more blessings. Maybe even find true love.

 

The Real You: TorahCycle Vayetze

Vayetze

 

Anyone who’s ever spent a night tossing with insomnia knows the hunger for sleep. Those with scary nightmares long for the light of day, while those enjoying glorious Technicolor dreams are in the twilight we can too rarely conjure. Both are places where we’re instructed and guided in the often cryptic and magical language of dreams.

One theory of dream analysis postulates that everyone and everything in your dream is an aspect of you. That it’s a play for and about you, created by your higher self, your unconscious, subconscious, guides, whatever messengers you believe in, all of whom are fabricating an intricate drama–fantastical, threatening, comic, and/or challenging–often built from the characters and detritus of your daily life. Dreams are trying to get your attention. Encouraging you to examine them, from whatever pieces that you can remember.

Some people train more and better recall with a dream journal, recording each remembered fragment. Others claim not to dream at all. Most of us are in the middle, intrigued and occasionally disturbed by faint and incomplete images that escape like smoke between our waking breaths.

Often we’re left with the lingering feeling that we’ve been told something very i.m.p.o.r.t.a.n.t., and that we have a responsibility not just to remember the dream, as crazy or strange as it may seem in ordinary reality, but to interpret whatever messages it’s asking us to understand. To dig beneath the metaphor, camouflage, and irony, catastrophe or black humor, silly puns, strange sounds, and outright instructions in which the dream gods often cloak themselves.

Their messages aim at the various layers of you, at the archeology of your soul. It’s like stripping away layers of old linoleum floors in a rehab house. But in this case it’s the strata of your past, present, and possible futures. I pay special attention when former residences or dead relatives show up, or with images that become especially important if I find myself clearly engaging with them (as opposed to just watching like it’s someone else’s movie).

This week’s reading includes Jacob’s ladder. Angels ascending and descending while he sleeps with his head on a rock. Coming and going with messages, instructions, blessings, and gifts. In the morning he calls it HaMakom, The Place.

HaMakom is the place of understanding, the moment when the messages make sense. When you know with certainty what your dream is telling you and how you’re supposed to proceed. When the landscape of part/present/future gives you perspective on all directions and all possibilities. HaMakom helps you marry insight to consciousness and know how to proceed.

Most of us return to waking life less clear about following through. I remember shouting loudly to an advising guide last week: I can’t! It’s too hard!! That kind of dream is easy to remember in the light of day, and then to examine my own resistance.

Why refuse to accept such clear instruction? Because we don’t live in The Place. We’re distracted by friends, football, turkey, pumpkin pie, and a zillion alternatives to doing what we’re being told to do.

Which is the real you? The dreamer or the one who wakes in the morning? How can you find your HaMakom?

That Other Me: TorahCycle Toldot

shoftim

As a front piece to her new book Small Victories, Anne Lamott cites a Billy Collins poem, In the Evening, the last line of which is And the past and the future?/Nothing but an only child with two different masks.

That’s this week. The yin and yang of us. The cunning and the simple one. The compassionate one; the selfish one. The wise and the innocent, calculating and trusting aspects of self. Dualities we’ve had imaged for us since Cain and Abel. You and that other you. Me and that other me. Nothing but us playing with different masks. Putting on the play of our lives.

Who’s running your show in any given moment is a matter of circumstance, habit, and sometimes intention. Some is trainable, amenable to growth. Other ingredients will stick in place for another lifetime or three. If you’re a witness to your own development, you’re probably aware what energies you’re running on and working on, and at least some of the what you stub your toe on regularly.

Eons ago I worked on a project to live “with greater awareness and intention.” On the clumsy, foolish days, I wanna ask How’s that going for ya, honey? But on the good ones, the ones filled with gratitude and wonder, I feel so very lucky to be doing that particular part of the puzzle.

My holiday wishes for us all, May you have many, many more of the good days. And may you understand clearly what the bad days are trying to teach you.

These readings offer us vivid examples of acting from desire and greed, and from nobility and compassion. We’re all of those things, depending on the day. Torah’s a mirror asking us to look at which one we’re being now, so that we can up the ante on our game.

Our attitude and point of view is almost always situational and relative. Even when we get to the big picture, a ten-thousand foot view of where we are in our evolution, it’s hard to hold onto. Our understanding scatters when we’re faced with crises or difficult outcomes. One more time we find “that other me” acting out or pushing boundaries. The big insight is knowing that it’s to help us better understand the lessons we’re here to work on.

We’re rarely appreciative. But karma’s such a patient process.

Physicists tell us that a huge percent of the universe is “dark matter”– the stuff we cannot see that probably makes everything we can see function as it does. To me it’s soul matter, directing the reality we live in. NPR had a story the other day about mitchondrial DNA. It’s what make our cells run; a mere 27 genes out of 20,000 plus, but they function like a battery or energetic motivation. So it’s especially important to pay very close attention when that other you–your inner Esau–the one you’re not always in such a rush to claim–acts out and does something stupid or short-sighted.

Because that’s how our othernesses get our attention. By starting fires in and under us. It’s our job to look at them and listen to them. And to to choose our next steps carefully and wisely.

Fingers Crossed: TorahCycle Mattot

Mattot 2014Sometimes we cross our fingers for good luck. We’re wishing and hoping. Other times we cross them while rationalizing a “white” lie (to protect someone’s feelings, though as often it’s our own self-interest). And sometimes when we promise something we cross them because we want a great big loophole to vault through later.

This week’s reading deals with the rules for breaking vows: commitments made with sacred intention and obligation. A kind of spiritual promissory note. Often made in times of great stress, and abandoned later when what caused that stress abates. Think hospitals, wars, night terrors, and other forms of acute fear.

More optimistically, individuals make pledges to everything from diets to fund drives. Countries make promises too, as treaties and alliances. But when conditions change, we break our vows. It’s no more honorable in a country than a person, though there’s usually  spin-doctors to wrap the betrayal in flags and slogans.

Making a vow you’re not going to keep reinforces the idea that your word is worthless. Why would anyone else believe your promise to them if you don’t keep your promises to yourself? Why would you make a commitment if you didn’t really plan to keep it? Mostly, because we’re human. Fallible. Filled with good intentions and lousy habits.

Ironically, more often than not we do better at meeting commitments we make to others. That’s part of why behavior modification programs like diet plans, AA, and the like have public meetings. External accountability is often more effective than putting patches on your arm and hoping that you’ll be able to quit inhaling.

I believe in few absolute vows. Thou shalt not kill, is an example of a good one. But as I age I’m becoming more of a relativist. Not just to go easier on myself when I stray from my program du jour. But because I don’t think they work well for really effective change.

I’m finding vows more of a guilt trip than a benefit. Thou shalt not eat gluten, for example, in the absence of actual ciliac disease, is more a chance to screw up than to stare down temptation. The sense of failure that comes with a bagel is worse for me than the actual gluten.

Better to build up our sense of progress and pride by honoring intentions more gradually, more naturally, and more authentically. By making the right choices in each moment, time after time. Not saying something once and hoping I’m done. Because “done” is more often the path to backsliding and recrimination, looking for the loopholes, rather than taking the next step on the right road.

What vows do you make and which do you keep? What would happen if you allowed your deep intention to guide you rather than struggle with a one-time promise?

Too often vow-making and vow-breaking go hand in hand. Far better to choose good in the moment than out of fear or obligation. Regular reinforcement of your intention by making good choices more often is far more effective, llong lasting, and gentler on the soul.

Better to count the times you get it right, not the ones you blow it.

Time Off For Good Behavior: Parshah Behar

Behar 2014Admit it, part of fantasizing a beach vacation is the vision of kicking back to do absolutely nothing without a shred of guilt. You’ve earned it. Sit. Stare. Dream. Drink. Nap. No obligations to do or be anything but be limp and relaxed.

The sad irony is how hard it is to gift ourselves that luxury.

Academics have a great job perk called a sabbatical. Teach six years, then get one off (though research and writing are implied). Farmers do something similar: letting fields lie fallow so the soil can replenish. What comes after is supposed to be richer and more nourishing than what came before.

It requires prep and planning. But if you do it right, life is easier. Time to do…..whatever you want! In ancient Israel, produce was free for all each seventh year. In addition, after seven cycles of seven years, the 50th was called a jubilee year. In a jubilee year, slaves are freed. All of them, freed; poof, chains gone.

When you think about your life, are there times you step back and see the changes? The big cycles and evolutions? Not just in yourself but also in those around you. Seeing young men/women you knew as toddlers or high-schoolers suddenly becoming married and parents?

We get used to life in the day-to-day. There may be changes and bends in the road, but sometimes they’re subtle. Perhaps you’re changing so slowly you don’t notice or create a moment of conscious choice, but when you look back they’re very clear. There’s obvious exceptions like birthdays ending in zero or five, graduations, weddings, and the like. But when do you give yourself a big chunk of time to look around and feel where you are on your path?

The past month I’ve been living in a construction zone. A long, tedious process of deconstruction and site prep, and now the glories of beautification. A change from old to new, with a fallow time in between.

I’ve needed it, and love the bursts of creativity it has engendered. But before that came discomfort. Watching how s.l.o.w.l.y. people work. Surrendering control. Abandoning the known. Forced quietude. Lots more being than doing.

For the record, my meditation practice includes lots of watching quietly. Wood stove in the winter; yard and sky in summer. Each season has a different tune and soundtrack. Different rhythms, but the basic message is the same: Feed your soul.

That’s the core message of this parshah: Take the time to feed your soul.

Maybe you can’t do it for a whole year. But take at least a little time each day to sit and watch. Listen, and give thanks. Work up to doing it one day a week, say, shabbat. Find special times during the year to yourself periods of quietude and perspective. To slow down and be present.

You’ll spend some of your mental energy in the past or future. But there will come a depth of welcome silence that will nourish and replenish you, if you let it.

Summer’s coming. Your jubilee moments may include a hammock, a hummingbird feeder, and or a gin and tonic. Whatever brings you quiet bliss, sit back and drink in the luxurious vibes of your jubilant now.

Brick By Brick: TorahCycle Metzora

SheminiThe protagonist of Stephen King’s novel Dr. Sleep has a deep, guilty, secret. He builds his life around it, hiding it in the foundation of his identity, always believing that no matter how much good he does, he’s still the guy who did That! When he finally spills in an AA meeting, something miraculous happens. He realizes everyone around him has heard and possibly done worse.

We don’t need to build our lives on a dark foundation. Better to build them with our best actions, and clean out old dry rot as we grow.

This week’s reading’s about ritual purification of a house with patches of red and green on its walls. The high priest assesses if it’s possible to cleanse or if it should be demolished. A house can mean a dwelling but it’s also a symbol for self.

For decades I thought in eastern metaphors. I would have said I was a Buddhist or Bu-Jew. A fundamental goal of many eastern religions is transcendence of the self. Goodbye to the idea of I/me. I’ve come to believe that there’s great benefit in elevation through self. Not in a chest-thumping ego way, but in a we’re-here-to-do-good way. So when I hear house, I think of self as our home base in each incarnation.

We’re here wearing earthly clothes exactly because we’re supposed to be working on earthly things. Cleaning up the place, energetically as well as ecologically, while we move our personal karma along. Helping out day by day, in both random and conscious acts of goodness.

You don’t need a scorecard to measure the good you do. It shouldn’t matter if you’re an activist or just in the right place and time to help. Whether you do a big deed or are a willing ear or shoulder to cry on, or a pair of helping hands for someone in need. However you make our collective self happier, sweeter, and more harmonious elevates your self and the rest of us. Your actions reflect the higher and better good, and raise the bar for all of us.

You and I and everyone we know have a unique and necessary constellation of talents and skills. Yes, plus all our foibles and habits and annoyances. But in the toolkit of us, we’ve got everything we need to cleanse this house of ours.

When you arc too far into greed, gluttony, or any form of darkness or sin, your ego attracts mold and dry rot. It doesn’t take a priest to see the changes in your personality, vocabulary, and day-to-day choices. The rest of us observe and feel it all too easily.

We build the houses of our lives brick by brick. By acts of kindness or acts of selfishness. By our caring or our indifference. Now’s a great time, right before Passover, to clean out the dirt before it does damage. Spring cleaning your character as well as your cupboards.

Start by looking for your old splotches. Then get out the bleach and begin paying better attention in each moment. If we can stay more conscious, live with greater awareness and intention, we might be able to prevent what we’d otherwise hide and then need to heal.