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.

Torah Study With Albert and Ernst, Auschwitz, 1944

Very excited. One of my favorite pieces of glass just got accepted into a show at my alma mater (U Penn).

Torah Study framed copy

Here’s what I said in the artist’s statement about me and the art:

I am an artist and writer who creates meditative art for individuals and public spaces. The inspiration for my art comes primarily from Jewish mysticism, which has at its core the idea that everything in the universe is animated by a holy spark. Our job as humans is to do what in Hebrew is called tikkun olam, the healing of the world: creating wholeness from those separated sparks by how we live and treat all living things.

When viewers engage with art, it is important to be fully present. The Hebrew word hineini is how Moses answers God at the burning bush. It means I am here. I am present. Amidst the chaos, mystery, and beauty of this world, I accept what you are asking of me. I am ready to do tikkun olam.

Among my inspirations is the Holocaust, in which both my parents lost many relatives. Though the piece may seem whimsical, it was created as part of a Jewish Day of the Dead series. The skeletons looked so much like Muppets, I started to call them Bert and Ernie, and they became alive. But beneath the ironic title is a depth of mourning, and an echo of the eternal questions of life, death, faith, and meaning.

Also, I’m back in my studio, so if you want to commission a meditation piece for yourself or as a gift, to beautify either your home or garden, send me a text and we can talk about art, healing, and the mysteries of life.

 

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.

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.

 

Waxing and Waning: TorahCycle Bo

Bo 2015Hooray for my intro to oil painting class, which focuses on process: the getting ready, preparing the palette, and the stroke by stoke doing. The careful application of layers of color, each of which changes what has gone before, bringing it forward and transforming it, helping it evolve and emerge.

It’s all about pacing, and, against all my instincts, about patience. Like the moon, waxing and waning in a regular rhythm. Not the fits and starts of impulse alternating with denial and procrastination. Breathe in/breath out; look/stroke; breathe in/breathe out; look/stroke. Watch the change.

That’s at the core of this weeks reading. After the last plague (the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn) and even before the Jews leave Egypt, they’re given their first mitzvah (instruction) about how to organize their new lives: to establish and live by a lunar calendar. It’s a primal rhythm, and one that requires us to look outside ourselves. It lays down a bass line for both timekeeping and for ritual, and establishes a potent metaphor about what’s growing, emerging and possible, and what it is time to forgo and bid goodbye.

Egypt is a metaphor for our heart. The place where we hold pain. We’re used to keeping it safe, even if that seals in what we should release. We can stay locked in slavery to old hurts for a long, long time, until the cycle eventually shifts. Metaphorical centuries before we find liberation, or the first slice of moon in the sky.

We’re used to the rhythm of our solar days. Wake up and do in the light; rest and dream in the dark. A lunar calendar shifts our perspective. Teaches us that whatever’s lousy or hard will shift, and that whatever’s good may also transform, even if that path is not a smooth and reliable arc.

The moon helps us to think about eternity. Nothing more waxing than being born nor more waning than death in the karmic calendar. But we want progress in this life. Rarely Boddhisatva enough to appreciate how our struggles also help us move through our soul calendar.

The moon’s a visual of expansion and contraction pushing against one other, daring and forcing the shifts. Cycles of learning, getting centered, screwing up again, and starting over. Time after time.

But whether the cycles are fast or slow, by their very repetition they teach us we are not stuck. That no matter how hard we are tested and how long it takes for things to shift, eventually they will. That slavery can transmute into freedom. That the heart can and will eventually choose healing.

Our job is to get into the flow. To find the right speed for the circumstances we find ourselves in. For those of us whose “slow” is 3rd gear, it can be exhausting to take things way, way down. To look so deeply within that time seems to stop.

When we look up into the sky we can see the moon waxing and waning, a metronome to our process. Eventually, we get more of something right. We become ready to move on. To choose freedom. To leave the old crap behind and test ourselves on the waters ahead.

 

Testing, Testing: TorahCycle Va’eira

Vaeira 2015When I was young and hospitalized, there was a toddler in the bed next to me. He spent most of the day and much of the night banging his head against the wooden sides of his crib. Surprisingly he didn’t howl in pain, as I certainly wanted to while witnessing his relentless, self-inflicted suffering.

I think about him sometimes when I’m castigating myself for falling short at something I’ve repeatedly tried to do. My efforts are often about physical or emotional healing. Things like strengthening my quads, lowering my blood sugar, or resolving an emotional interaction. If I fall short on my health program or fail to speak my truth, the image of this child sometimes shows up.

I’m not dumb. I know what I should be doing. As my mother once observed, in a painfully quotable moment “If you’re so smart, how come you’re _____.” Fill in your own blank with whatever you’re trying to heal from.

I think a lot about deep personal work. About what we have locked inside and what it takes to release it. About the pain and thrashing we go through along the way, whether that’s self-imposed or comes from the world.

This week’s reading has Moses and Aaron appearing repeatedly before Pharaoh, asking him to free the Hebrews. It’s the classic Let my people go! moment. To which Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart, and stays stuck.

The word for Egypt in Hebrew, mitzrayim, means “the narrow place. We’re each in our own narrow place and aiming for our own promised land. But they’re inter-connected. We cycle between times of light and dark. One question this reading raises is how long we’ll stay in those dark times and places. How long we’ll stay stuck, mucking about until we are ready to choose release.

The message is that you need to stop punishing yourself and others, both for your failings and your wounds. That you need to find compassion and forgiveness to move forward. To lighten up and heal. That means not banging your head against a wall, repeating the mistakes of the past.

Those emotions can be difficult to find and invoke, especially when the world feels hard and bleak, scary and unjust. When we face despair and fear, as in the wake of the terror in Paris, it is especially complicated to access our higher selves. It’s easier to bang our heads and scream, even if we are shouting into what seems like a dark and implacable void. Because it’s not just our own selves caught in this cycle of frustration and anger, but the societies we live in.

If we cannot heal ourselves, how can we possibly aspire to healing the world around us? My only answer: we gotta keep trying, and trying, and trying.

I don’t have any easy answers, or words any wiser than what have been said in the past week. I only know that it is important, even vital, for us each to do whatever we can do to stop screaming, stop banging, and stop hurting ourselves and one another.

It may all get worse before it gets better. But if we aren’t all trying to get better, it’s going to stay worse for much much longer.

Blessings and More: TorahCycle Vayechi

HerTwelveTribesWe’re brimming over with gifts, especially this time of year. Even my peers who have forsworn No more stuff! can’t help ourselves. There’s always one more bottle of wine or limoncello, or a delicacy of salt, vinegar, or baked goods to exchange. Our cupboards overflow with abundance, all the while we’re trying to empty out, bringing donations to food banks and sending old favorites to thrift shops and new wearers.

We love exchanging gifts and blessings, sharing our things and thoughts. But in the parlance of corporate-speak: Is this their best and highest use? How can we best of what we bring to the world promote growth and healing, for ourselves and others?

We recently celebrated Hanukkah, lighting one more candle each night eight times, celebrating the miracle of abundance and light. On that last evening of bright light, some of us felt an undertone of sadness shadowing the joy of celebration. It was an echo of the Game of Thrones refrain Winter is coming…, a warning that light can be subsumed by dark forces, and that we need to move beyond rituals to keep it alive. It’s a reminder of our responsibility to continue the memory of an ancient miracle with the hard work in our daily lives.

Rituals matter, and help reinforce soul commitments. But actions of observance and the rhetoric of prayer can be hollow if they are not backed up with kavannah, deep intention, the rest of the year. Our daily choices and actions are the biggest miracle we can conjure. They’re generally a lot less fun to practice, and without the fun of celebration and presents, lights and good cheer, it can be harder to conjure the energy to stay on track. Many a person trying to give up smoking, rich foods, or alcohol can backslide when results are slow and temptations are more abundant than rewards and changes.

This week’s reading is all about Jacob blessing his sons. It’s a chance to remind yourself of all the strength and goodness you carry within you, all the assets that will sustain you when hard times and darkness come, as they will, or a chosen goal seems so very far out of reach.

Next week we will begin Exodus, the book of being in and then leaving slavery. Mitzrayim, the pace of constriction is a chance to up the ante on yourself. But now, this week, is a wonderful time to remember all the abundant blessings with which you have been endowed. They’ll not only sustain you but help to liberate you.

As you greet the new year, take some time from the nachos and bowl games to do an inventory of the tools and gifts you have at your disposal. They’ll help you reach your goals, whatever they are. On any given day they might help you earn a living, find a sweetheart, or heal an old wound. Think about your intellect, your emotional intelligence, your adaptability and your willingness to work and help. Your spirituality and your physicality. Your heart and feelings. Your senses of humor, compassion, generosity, and curiosity. Think about your genetics and your karmic assets. Each is a blessing that will help you grow into the you that you want to become.

Finding Your Way: TorahCycle Vayigash

Vayigash 2014Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: It seemed like a great idea at the time. You have all these hopes. It’s inspirational to think you have found “the one,” “the answer,” or at that you’re making if not the finest decision of your life, at least the right and best one for that time. One that’ll have great outcomes. Make you happier, healthier, richer, wiser, whatever quest you are on and hope to make a great leap forward pursuing. If you’re in peril or danger, there’s that special relief that you’ve found sanctuary: happily ever after, lush fields, safe home, goats in every yard, and grain for every pot. Good luck with that.

Life is cyclical: this week’s harbor will become next month’s prison. Now we’re being welcomed by a long-lost brother; soon we will be slaves. That’s Torah. In real life, events usually take longer to unfold, and situations are rarely as dire, thought they can feel like it, which helps ready us for the yet next shift.

Torah is a metaphor for evolution. The morals of the next sections: You have to be ready and willing to change to actually change. It may feel great in the beginning but it gets harder. There’s rough stuff and tough times to get through. Freedom and evolution are great goals. Getting there requires hard work. And then more hard work. It’ll feel better before it gets worse, and eventually better again. The in-between matters. How you do it helps determine when you land.

We have one more chapter in Genesis. Remember this all started with creation. From the void till now, we’ve gone through several cycles of starting over, as a species, families, and individuals. We screwed up before, and are likely to do it again. But if we’re living in good faith, trying to improve, to do better each time around, if we’re paying attention to the lessons and continuing to do our homework, the process is worth it. We may never get where we think we want to go. But each new there will teach us what we next need to learn.

For now, we’re choosing to go down into Egypt. To the place that looks good, for now. Like the new love who offers rescue from lonely evenings, or the job that promises income and advancement, Egypt seems like a sure bet. The reading is optimistic: Joseph is united with his family and they’re invited to move in. Smiles, handshakes, and toasting abound.

Part of the message: before you start engaging with new deep work, make peace with as much of your history as you can. The less you’re packing, the better off you’ll be when you enter the murky, mucky parts.

It’s all a mirror of the healing process, however you go about doing it. This is a powerful time to take stock. Not just the end-of-year best and worst lists. But a soul level, What am I working on and How’m’I gonna do it? kind. Asking and answering will serve you well in the times to come.

Letting It Go: TorahCycle Miketz

Miketz 2014The old adage goes, Revenge is a dish best served cold. That suggests it’s better to be tough (so you are not hurt again) and cunning (until you can get even). Not good for anyone, including those who’ve been hurt. Ditto for immediate responses of anger, physical violence, and words that cannot be unspoken. All set us on a path to unhappiness, disease, dis-ease, and a generalized sense that the world is an unfriendly, even hostile, environment.

But hurt is a heavy burden. You know the difference between the lightness you feel when you are joyous and the weight sadness brings to your soul. In the movie 21 Grams, that miniscule amount is the difference between a living person and their empty husk. Would it be more on a very bad day?

Other than spirit itself, what weights a soul? Wounds, sadness, anger, regret, unrequited longing, unhappy memories, words spoken and not, scars of body, mind, and heart.

The grudges and hurts of a lifetime form a subliminal refrain. Something your parent or a teacher said. The ex you can’t get over. A bad review, criticism from a friend, a mistake you can’t forgive yourself for making, the chance you didn’t take. It all festers. Whether we want revenge, oblivion, or another chance, we’re unlikely to get it this time around. We need forgiveness, from and to ourselves and others.

In this week’s reading, Joseph, now a governor of Egypt, looks down from his dais at the very brothers who sold him into slavery. They’ve come petitioning for sanctuary and grain.

What’s a guy to do? Embrace and thank them for initiating events that brought him to high position? Or hide behind the masks of office and test them, see if they are worthy of his help?

It’s the rare person who would choose the former. But bearing a grudge keeps him caught in a dark place too. He escaped the pit and slavery, but they cast a shadow on his soul. The forgiveness he is working on towards those who wronged him will benefit him as much as those who treated him badly.

Often times we bury our wounds in our bodies. We encapsulate them emotionally but they fester in our aching backs or sour tummies. They simmer, keeping us unbalanced, hurting, and unavailable to be fully present

It’s amazing what letting go of old pain can do to heal us. Recent studies have shown that memory transfers cellularly to future generations. So lineages of abuse and trauma get multiplied. What if we infected one another with forgiveness and goodness instead?

Q: How can we interrupt the cycle? A: No revenge: cold, warm, or otherwise. Keep releasing the anger, grief, and sadness, no matter how old or seemingly small. Remember it; look at it and let it go; then sweep out of your soul. Rinse and repeat. You’ll know when you’re clean.

From Peter Heller’s new novel The Painter:

      It’s not possible to hold that much pain.

There was a silence and then she said, Even the earth rests. The moon swims up, thin as grass, and the stars, and you can see every one. It is a much quieter song.

 

Which Now?: TorahCycle Vayashav

JosephThe old Zen instruction goes simply: chop wood, carry water. The occasional crisis notwithstanding, most of us live simply much of the time. In ancient times we were shepherds and farmers, busy herding and tilling, hoping the wolves stayed away. Now we go to work, hang with friends/family, cheer for our favorite teams, generally live a comfy, settled reality. Then, just when things seem sorta predictable, along comes something or someone to shake us up, challenge us, make us move out of our comfort zone, sometimes for love, curiosity, or adventure, and others kicking and screaming every step of denial along the way.

In this week’s reading we’re given the Marvel-worthy tale of a pesky younger brother, a dreamer, sure he’s the handsomest and smartest guy in the room. To make it worse, he’s foretelling upheaval and doom, the end of life as we know it.

The Joseph story is so wonderful because despite all the crap that’s done to him, it’s a story of survival and eventual triumph. His and maybe our own. He has amazing access and prescience, chaneling the signals, hints, and whispers that are all around us into the story of what’s coming, even if we can’t see it on our path.

He’s sold into slavery by his own brothers, narrowly escaping death. I see him lowered into the pit in the hands-up/don’t shoot position. Surrendering to a fate that no one would choose but is clearly his road. If you can foretell what follows, maybe it’s not so bad. if you’re the one in the pit, it must suck.

Biblical Hebrew has no tenses. It’s all a matter of interpretation. Was it then or is it now or will it become? Are you in the pit, climbing out, or does it loom ahead?

In real time our winter (like-a-bear-wants-to-be-hibernating) self is responding to all manner of December distractions. The go out/stay in rumblings fighting it out. And just as we officially declare the season of wood stoves, cocoa, and great books, the ratio of light to dark is shifting to brighter, a fraction of a day at a time. Pure cognitive dissonance. Are we trying to climb in or out?

There’s a great holiday in a couple months to celebrate “when the sap remembers to being to rise.” In the meantime, it’s still dreaming in the roots. The Joseph story says, this is the time to deeply listen. To become a little more prescient, to hear the secrets and portents the universe is whispering in your ear, about what is and will be, now and in times to come.

Use what you are told, so that when light shifts into spring you will emerge into your new, sappier, self. The one who spent winter listening, watching, cogitating, and ripening, letting all your guides and muses pour insight into your ears and soul. Be that you. The one who sees what’s coming as though it were now.

Because it’s all about tense. Past present future now. What the Buddhas and cosmologists tell us is true. Everything is present. Whether you’re a prince or in the pit can be a matter of perspective and attitude. And when it’s not, all the more reason to listen up and pay good attention.