What’s It Worth?: TorahCycle Bechukotai

Bechukotai 2014When we make promises we expect to keep them. That’s not just blind optimism, though most often we fail at promises we make to ourselves, rather than others, whom we disappoint less regularly. It’s an expression of hope springing eternal, even if it’s unsubstantiated, even contradicted, by experience.

This week’s reading has instructions on valuing pledges made to HaShem. You know the kind: If you do/fix/make x y or z situation, I promise to be/do/act more or less _______ing.  I promise.

Generally these vows are made in circumstances of need–even desperation–acute or perceived. But there you are. Sworn. Pledged. Ostensibly committed. Some part of you has grabbed the wheel and given it a hard turn in the right direction. (P.S. And this time I mean it. I really do.)

I’m reading a great book on breaking through creative blocks and overcoming resistance: The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. As he says, it’s good for anyone who’s ever said they want to be more creative, start a new health regimen, cure an addiction, or tighten their abs. Read it. Please contact me immediately if it doesn’t mirror your own dance; I want to know your secret.

When you make a pledge you’re supposed to want to keep it. And then do so. This reading details how the loopholes are calculated: what it’ll cost to weasel out of your promise. Many are measured in market value with a 20% markup, though many of us would happily pay double to escape following through on what we’re not quite ready for. Please wait. We’ll start next Monday. Really. Trust us.

I recently organized an event. It was only a qualified success. But I tried. Planned. Did all the right stuff. Why? I had a vision. I was pledged. I had a passion. I made a commitment. I wanted to follow through, and I did.

So what’s the difference between that and say, starting and failing with a diet? What are we willing to put our energy behind, and what do we just give lip service? If we only give lip service over and over again, but never invoke energy, what’s the message? Would having to pay a hefty fine change your behavior? What stops you from following through on your promises?

Often life intrudes. Energies and events get in the way, whether they’re entrepreneurial surges or bouts of insomnia, planting your garden, falling in love, or caring for ailing parents. When they do, what happens to your vows? Do you hit the pause button? Or use them to help get you through the hard and busy times?

I think Pressfield is right: the more important what we’re trying to embrace and accomplish is to us, the more resistance we will encounter. There’s no enemy stronger, cleverer, or more persistent than the obstructions resistance can conjure. So be careful about what you pledge, because each time you do, the cost of not following through goes up. Like yo-yo dieting, you can make a problem worse by not actually dealing with it.

If you want to avoid the costs of delay and avoidance, your first pledge should be to overcoming resistance. If you want help with something, start by asking for that.

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.

Mercy, Mercy: TorahCycle Ki Tisa

Vayeira 2013Have you ever done something so bad you thought you’d never be forgiven? Not a small thing, but something you thought, maybe even swore, you’d never do?

That’s what the Israelites do this week, while waiting for Moses to descend Sinai. They get impatient, worry he might not come back. They violate the No other gods commandment, and smelt their gold into a golden calf. It’s not as small as Don’t think about X and then doing so obsessively. But it’s a helluva lot more than We were restless. Hard to stay calm when your mind keeps chewing over  the insufficient calming of Don’t worry. Be patient..

I just finished two books about guilt and shame. About actions taken which dominate the lives of the people who did them. Both Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands are good reads, though it’s tough living inside the heads and hearts of people in chronic emotional pain. Each needs to find a road to redemption. A way to start over is lots harder and more important than dialing up a pizza or a Netflixx movie.

It means finding and accepting forgiveness. In this story it’s gonna take a coupla generations and forty years of schlepping. A road, a long one, to the promised land. Moses, pleading for them, gets HaShem to say yes to coming along as witness, guide, protector.

Interestingly this same reading includes the thirteen attributes of mercy  (rachamim in Hebrew, a lovely sounding word), including compassion, mercy, graciousness, truth, forgiveness, and pardon.

Imagine if those qualities organized your life, your head, and your heart. Imagine a world slow to anger. Imagine yourself slow to anger.

When Moses returns, his face is so touched with holy light that the people, albeit guilty and ashamed, cannot look directly at him. His face also gets red with wrath as he breaks the tablets.

There was a great NPR riff the other day (though it may have been on Bluff the Listener) about an app that lets you see what someone else sees when they’re watching you. How you look when flushed with joy, red with anger, or blushing in shame. A chance to witness yourself as others see you.

My family didn’t do anger with sound. Instead people retreated to their corner with a book. No eye contact. The app would not have shown their inner turmoil, that churning of anxiety, guilt, and fear of future consequences, even if apologies were said and officially accepted.

External forgiveness is great. But it doesn’t really take hold until you forgive yourself. Imagine extending the thirteen qualities of mercy towards yourself. Imagine being able to bathe in them, wash clean your bad choices and your mistakes. Whatever you said or did not undone but cleared of its power to influence your next forty years. Imagine mercy that releases their hold on your heart.

It takes time for a new equilibrium to settle in. We’ve all learned from our personal shlepping that the road is rarely smooth and level. There are always more tests, reality checks large and small, to test our resolve. But if we let mercy in, and our commitment to change is strong, we can move from this now to a better next.

Time’s Up: TorahCycle Bo

 

MiketzWay down deep in most of us is a hurting, a wounding to heart or soul, self-esteem or sense of self, that has brought us to this moment. It’s caused damage along the way, but also brought us to the knowing, both painful and liberating that we’ve reached the point of no return. It’s time to make a decision that will turn that painful it around, whatever your own special it is.

Remember the owwies of childhood, and your ambivalence about both wishing them gone and wanting to touch them? Change comes if you’re willing to dig deep enough to find and touch your inner sore place. You’ll know it by the way it feels: unresolved and always asking for something, perhaps attention, food, or love.

The source isn’t necessarily something that was done to you. It could have started when you failed to step up and take action or responsibility. It’s almost certainly something for which you have not yet forgiven yourself or another. Omission or commission makes no difference. What you most need to let go of  is its hold on you, on how it defines and organizes your story of life.

Confession. During a recent snow-enforced confinement I played Angry Birds (an addictive game of digital slingshot). There’s one bird on reserve (that acts like a neutron bomb) to use when you’ve failed once too many frustrating times at knocking down the targets.

It would be great to have such a ready tool for ourselves, when we’ve gotten stuck doing our emotional homework. Launch the mighty eagle; blow away all your failures and equivocation.

Our inner pharaoh has said Yes/No, Yes/No, Yes/No once too often. Time’s up. It’s time to fling that mighty eagle at yourself.

As silly as it sounds, some of my biblical imagery goes back to the classic 50’s movie, The Ten Commandments. After the last plague, the killing of the firstborn, the pharaoh who’s said Yes/No nine times prior stands holding his beloved son, his face a portrait of anguish, remorse, and regret. Nothing will make that boy alive again.

With luck you won’t need to go through such deep loss to make progress. But the stark and simple clarity that it’s time now to make changes is an important and compelling insight.

You cannot change the past. You can wish it undone, or pretend it was not so. You can’t erase the hurting. But you can transcend it. Can make your future different than your past. Use the energy you spent being angry, or fearing pain will happen again, to make changes, getting out of the narrow places that have confined and identified you for far too long.

The Jews are chased out of Egypt. You have the luxury of choice. To saying Yes to you and to joy.

We’re blessed this year to have this reading come at the transition between old year and new. A time when many of us make pledges about how we want to behave differently. If you make only one resolution, make it to live free of the pain of the past, and to live with greater awareness about what really matters to you in the year to come.

All Night Long: TorahCycle Vayishlach

Vayishlach2013Let’s get clear. I’m not an advocate of no-pain no-gain. If anything, I honor the high arts of bargaining, denial, procrastination, half-measures, and prayer as sincere, even fervent, alternatives to doing what needs to be done. That’s especially true if the focus isn’t my creative jones du jour, or involves self-discipline in any but brief or minor forms.

Enough about my failings. What about yours? Do you step up and do what’s needed, without avoidance? When you’re given dictums like Eat less, move more; or, Save more, spend less, do you hop to or look the other direction?

This week finds Jacob travelling to reconcile with the brother he wronged. He’s laden with gifts and an army, hedging his bets, as most of us do. We offer our adversary (self or other) both carrot and stick, hoping one will work if the other doesn’t. [Note: What’s a strategy to us might seem foolish or random to an observer. Without consistency, insights are harder to discern. Sigh.]

Jacob wrestles until dawn with a stranger, an angel. A silent and important emissary of the divine. Part of the message: step up, and don’t give up. If you do, you risk staying stuck wherever you are in your process, like when someone yells “Freeze!” in a childhood game.

Continuing until dawn doesn’t ensure a decisive victory. Jacob ends up with a permanent limp. But his name is changed to reflect his commitment and a big chunk of his old bad karma drops away. The message: If you actually work your program, something will change. Not exactly as you might predict or wish for, but for the better.

I’m fascinated by the wrestling metaphor. Not the bombastic faux battles of cable TV. But with the premise that no matter where we go, we’re always gonna come face-to-face with our stuff.

If you ask me to summarize the personal growth story, soul-wrestling would be its verb. It takes place in many domains, from deep dreamland to cold light of day. We are invited and frequent visitors.

Your adversary may wear the face of a mysterious stranger or someone you know. May come at you in a red satin cape or a clown costume, with flowers or with a chain saw. May sound like your internalized parent, a disappointed partner, or an angry boss. But your real nemesis is always your own stuff.

The good news: When our procrastinating and half measures fail, when we’re on the run from our failings, our higher selves show up to change the channel. To give us a real wrestling match. To help us find what we’re made of. And to send us on our way with a deeper knowledge of our own strength and possibilities.

We don’t always hang in. We’re scarred and scared and we sometimes give up, say Uncle. It’s okay.

We still have lots of wrestling ahead of us. But this reading reminds us that it’s time again to go deeper. To embrace your resolve and your endurance. To work your program. Wear your scars proudly; give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. Then move forward not weakened by the struggle, but strengthened and renewed.

Your Evil Twin: TorahCycle Toldot

Toledot 2013

We’ve all got them. Not just one; more like a handful. They usually appear as counterpoint to however we’re trying to be. Typically at inconvenient, even critical, moments. The shadow sides of who we aspire to become, even if we generally act more evolved.

There’s no mistaking when they show up. Like an anti-fantasy. You’re aiming for charming: out comes the truth teller or the boor. Need to be articulate or persuasive: stupid brain takes over. Your evil twin embarrasses you. It also steers you to self-sabotage, both active and passive, decisions both made and avoided.

To be clear, your evil twin might be something I aspire to. My best self might be someone else’s evil twin. We’re all here doing learning different lessons. So our shadow selves take different forms and bring different lessons.

This week’s reading’s about two brothers. Opposites: bookish vs. hunter, sly vs. forthright, strategic vs. wanting immediate gratification. The one who lies and cheats to gain an inheritance? After his own tough homework, he’ll transform into a revered patriarch. There’s hope for us all.

Torah’s enacted in a time when we lived more outside. Sat by the fire after dark. Looked at the stars and shared stories. Who a person was, was in part who they were told to be.

Who “you” are is how others speak and think about you, as well as who you feel on the inside. A gap between aspiration and action can exist even when it’s just you watching. But when your twin takes the wheel, your foibles are prime time.

We tend to see what we want and surround ourselves with folks that seem to like and accept us. If our shadow has little need to appear, we can coast pretty easily through our days. No need to look into our darker corners.

But each time your inner twin reaches for the foresworn chips or chocolate, picks a bad relationship, acts stubbornly, selfishly, or foolishly is a chance to look deeper. To ask what your hidden, hungry, unfulfilled self really wants.

We’re attracted to certain types of people or situations. We know when we’ve met our kin, whether that’s religion or voting pref, profession or sexual orientation. Your twin feels safe, and less likely to act up or out.

Other times we seem predestined to butt heads. Things and people that don’t fit so nicely, no matter how you might want them to. That electric bristling of not liking. Nothing seems to come out right. Murphy’s law condemns every word and action. What a playground for the evil twins!

These people and situations are in our lives to teach us. Yes, the lessons reflect a side of ourselves we’d rather not  be known for. But seeing and naming are good ways to bring your shadow into the light. Not always pleasant but necessary to grow,

Think about people and situations that push your buttons, where your not-best-self pops out of the woodwork. What do they have in common? Knowing will show you the parts of you that need more work and integration. They’ll almost certainly offer you more chances to do your karmic homework.

Showing Up: TorahCycle Vayeira

Vayeira 2013

Sometimes we’re asked to do things we don’t want to do. Dinner at your least favorite relative’s. Job-hunting. Dieting. But these are mild and paltry compared to Abraham’s task: to take his son to a mountaintop and sacrifice him.

I’m jumping past an abundance of deep theological issues to ask what happens when you’re asked to do the seeming impossible.

This reading pivots on the word hineini, I am here. An answer given three times. Hineini’s about showing up. About bringing along every part of yourself, faith to doubt and everything in-between. Integrated, even for one instant.

The old quote says Life is made up of moments. Rembrant’s great painting of the Isaac sacrifice depicts the moment when everyone is completely present. It speaks to the exquisite tension of not knowing what will come next. The peek-ahead/fast forward part of you that wants to but doesn’t.

What does being fully present require? It means dropping all fear, all doubt, all attachment to past or outcome. It transcends reason. There’s a trust in the flow that says, If I really show up, what follows will be as it should be.

There’s a big concept in spirituality about surrender: “letting go and letting God.” In contrast to the western idea that we’re responsible for what happens to us. Countered by the Greek idea of fate, or the Islamic inshallah, as God wills it. Or eastern karma: you get what deserve; but your earned betterment might not show up this incarnation.

These days there’s lots of mixed messaging about conscious co-creation. “The Secret” offers us everything, if we just want it enough. The accusation “control freak” judges us harshly for trying too hard to bend the universe to our desires.

How can you find the right balance? Start by releasing what keeps you tied to old patterns. Put them on the altar and let them go. Show up for the change you profess to want.

Sometimes we must sacrifice exactly what we most cherish. Our closely held beliefs. Our addictions. Things we think we cannot live without. Precisely what keeps us tethered to our old patterns.

But it isn’t easy. Even to let go of what seems obvious to release (your anxieties, your painful memories, your sadnesses). They’re entwined in your roots. Part of your identity. Become so much a part of you that you’ll need the knife to cut them out. You may fear the process will hurt, or that their absence will change you too much. Yes, ouch.

But what if you could put anything that holds you back on an altar, and poof have it gone? Like an angel appearing. Your problems solved.

In earth reality it doesn’t happen so simply. Our lives are a complex symphony of surrender and control. Showing up, doing, hoping, and praying in a busy, awkward, uncertain dance. All in the hope that a wise and useful answer will become clear.

This week, think about the hardest sacrifice you could make in the service of your goals. Open every receptor you have. Listen to what you’re told. Then ask yourself how you can be fully present to follow through.

The Rebel: TorahCycle Korach

KorachGetting to goal takes longer than we want. There’s lots of muttering Are we there yet? Nope. This week’s about self-sabotage. The part that of you needs something to rebel against, even if it’s yourself.

There’s times, individually and collectively, historically and personally, where rebellion is appropriate, honorable, and necessary. Times to resist injustice, to stand up for what’s good and right. When your integrity’s in collision with what’s going on around you, stand up, even if you put yourself or what’s dear to you at risk. This ain’t that.

I walk in the early morning when wild turkeys also stroll about. As I get close, the big toms puff up their plumage and brush their wing feathers against the road. It makes a deep, rustling sound. It might threaten another turkey. But for me, that tom challenging for turf is a distraction, not scary. He’s all show, no power. And shouldn’t stop me from staying on my path.

The week’s story’s about why we cling to false displays of strength instead of embracing our better inclinations. It’s about why we heed what holds us back. The habits that keep us treading quicksand until we’re submerged and swallowed. Our inner enemies, cloaked in all their self-righteous finery. The voices that lead us down the wrong road, or keep us from the right one.

Why don’t we change? Why don’t we listen to our higher selves?

The reasons are pretty consistent. A messy stew of denial, resistance, inertia, stubbornness, laziness, fear, guilt, shame, doubt, and probably others my denial won’t let me recall.

Pay attention when your inner rebel speaks. Listen carefully. Then look carefully at what it’s asking you to say Yes or No to.

Several years ago I made a deep commitment about how I wanted to use my time here, and what it would take to get ready. I knew my Yes would become an axis for my life. Would require leaving narrow places of my own making.

My inner Korach has rebelled often. Yikes. Enough. I don’t have the discipline this journey requires. But time and again I’ve been guided back, sometimes kicking and yelling, and others through gifts of joy and leaps of faith. I believe each of us, no matter how habituated our resistance, deeply wants to live our best self, not our worst one.

It requires making and keeping to your deepest intentions. To persistently shining light into every dark corner. To believing that becoming the people we aspire to be is possible. But to emerge into wholeness, we first need to confront and channel our inner rebel. Need to let the old pains and hurts we’ve shoved down deep come fully to the surface. Need to experience all the sorrow, anger, shame, and tears that accompany that release. Not fast or easy. But necessary.

Only then can we find the courage to say Hineini: I am here. I am ready.

This week: Look at an aspect of your life where you’ve consistently fallen short of your goals. See what patterns keep you from moving forward. Set an intention to change at least one of them.

No Straight Lines: TorahCycle Behaalotecha

BehalotechaIf personal progress were linear and long-lasting we’d all be the people we wish to be and sometimes imagine we are. We wouldn’t battle recidivism or doubt, wouldn’t have to haggle with ourselves every time we’re confronted with choices or temptations, and would know how to get from here to there and from now to then in a manner that’s far easier and more effective than how most of us seem to journey .

Instead, many of us live much of our lives in the conditional subjunctive. The tense that says If only, Only after, the kind of If/when, If/then states of being that help explain why we, like the Israelites, need many years to get to where we think we want to go. We alternate huge sprints of positive and powerful momentum with periods in which we lurch along in bumpy spasms, or, worse, feel painfully stuck.

While we’re travelling, our goals may change. The journey will certainly change us. Things we thought we couldn’t live without may later seem shallow or hollow. Actions or events we never valued may inspire us. Gifts that appeared like manna from heaven lose their luster, or conceal big challenges. And when we’re in pain we sometimes become whiny, greedy children.

Despite the pejoratives, what we complain about also sheds light on what’s missing from our lives. Helps inspire us to get our butts in gear again. Though sadly too often we complain about what’s missing, rather than appreciating what’s good, and how far we’ve come.

Aspirations are great. Are you prepared to have every wish satisfied now? Are you ready to be at goal, whatever that is? Or do you recognize how you grow from the struggles of the journey?

I’m not talking gigantic crises. But rather the benefits from  weeks, months, and seasons spent examining the spots on your soul, whether they’re injuries you caused yourself or wounds imposed by others. These come from unconscious actions and careless speech more often than intentional desire to do harm. But they still cause pain, and keep us tethered.

Every time we’ve been hurt or wounded, every time we’ve suffered sadness, disappointment, regret, fear, jealousy, envy, or any of a host of painful experiences we hobble ourselves. The reason progress takes so long is that we’ve become practiced at embedding these into our hearts and souls, and at projecting those negative feelings onto others. Every time we do, we add another layer of pain that needs to be removed, sooner or later, to get to goal.

The active present tense is a great way to clean those spots. And now’s great time to look yourself in a clear bright mirror, and take an inventory, chakra by chakra, of your emotional traits, habits, and history.

Use your now to get to goal. Focus on one goal at a time and look both backward and forward. See what your journey has taught you, and also what old baggage you’re carting around that’s making you heavy, slow, or stalled. Take some time this week to compost it by the side of the road, so you can move forward with new inspiration and enthusiasm.