A Very Narrow Bridge

The world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. ~Nachman of Breslov

A Heart to Understand

Here’s something that happened to me this week:

The mom of a kid on Elly’s baseball team told me my ex wife saved her life.

“Your wife,” she said, “Is amazing.”
“Ex wife,” I said, “But she can still be amazing.”
“Whoever she is. She saved my life.”

I expected that she’d tell me about how Elly’s mom had stepped in at the last minute and picked up her kid when she had to work late, or brought snacks to school when she couldn’t, or gave her a ride when her car was in the shop. The things we talk about when we say someone saved our lives. When someone is a real lifesaver.

“She saved my life,” she repeated and just looked me in the eye. Hers were almost teary. Almost. Mostly they were shining. And I got it. I hugged her. I’m not entirely sure why. It was the right thing to do, I guess.

“Next week is my last treatment, but the cancer is already completely gone” she said.

K (Elly’s mom) is an oncologist. But I don’t think it was the drugs she administered that made her a lifesaver to Elly’s teammate’s mom.

I think it was Colorado.

I don’t know if she still does this, but she used to go to Colorado for every year for three or four days of training on doctor-patient communication for oncologists. It’s really a retreat. Spiritual guidance for cancer doctors. A yearly reminder that we are all human beings and that being human is hard.

Doctors aren’t usually taught that. That’s why I don’t usually like to see doctors. It’s why I don’t particularly care for Western medicine. Acupuncturists, for instance, are taught to start from the fact that we are all human beings, all part of something much bigger, and that being human is hard. That’s how it works, I think. By starting with love.

I could write forever about that, but I’m not going to.

I’m convinced that K saved this woman’s life, not because of the chemicals she used to treat her, but because she learned how to talk to her. How to see her as a human being. Otherwise, she could have treated the cancer, put it into remission, gotten her back to normal daily activities. Given her back a normal life. But she couldn’t have saved it.

Because the real thing K learned in Colorado is that doctors are also human and, even if they can’t allow themselves to completely fall apart in the face of illness and death, they are allowed to be affected by it. They are allowed to be a little vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is important.

You know, I think, without question, and I can tell you as a researcher with 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability.
—Brené Brown (Interview from On Being with Krista Tippet)

I hate being vulnerable. Really hate it. I will do almost anything to avoid it. But it still comes up. All the time. I have to be vulnerable sometimes. And it’s a gamble because there are two ways we can react to vulnerability.

We can react to it with violence, or we can react to it with vulnerability.

Reacting to vulnerability with violence always comes from fear. From pachad. The fear I wrote about last time. The fear of phantoms. Of illusions we create in our minds. It’s a reaction that comes from a profound sense of shame. Of victimhood.

Self-described victims are extremely dangerous. They feel justified in anything they do because of that illusion of victimhood, and so they victimize others. It’s all in their heads. They are all in their heads.

When we meet vulnerability with vulnerability, we heal each other. We experience yir’ah—the fear and awe that is Love. And we share that Love. Because there’s nothing else we can do with it. And it’s not easy.

Being a victim is much easier because it means we never really have to grow up. Never have to face the parts of us we may not like. Never take responsibility.
But it also makes us destructive. So destructive.

This week we read Ki Tavo (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 26:1-29:8). At the end of the parshah Moshe is reminding the Israelites that they have seen the great things God did for them, the signs and wonders. Then he says this:

.וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
But up until now Y-H-V-H hasn’t given you a heart to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear.

Until now, the Moment–What Is, hasn’t given you the heart to really get it.

When we live in our heads, we are victims, we are ashamed, and we see ourselves as worthless piles of shit. The Israelites were victims up until that moment. Victims who didn’t have to grow up. Victims who lived in their heads. Creating, over and over again, a mental image that they could cling to: their own sense of entitled victimhood. Victimhood that justifies violence in the face of vulnerability. That’s what victims do.

But when we are vulnerable, when we meet the vulnerability of other people with our own vulnerability, we move into our hearts. In our hearts, we understand. We experience the Love that exists in the Moment. In everything, everywhere, always. We become a part of it. And we heal each other through it.

Elul is half over. We are halfway through our  heshbon hanefesh, our deep reflection on our life for the year. Are we victims who hurt other people, or are we vulnerable so that we can heal them?

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I just want to say, before I say anything else, that the first draft of this was written as a text message to someone. If my writing seems even stranger than usual, you should blame her. I know I do. I’m sort of grateful for that.

Anyway. The title for this blog comes from a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאד והעקר לא לפחד כלל
The entire world is a very narrow bridge and the essential thing is not to be afraid at all.

Except for when we should. Because sometimes fear is the right thing to feel.

Rebbe Nachman actually knew this.

I mean, he wasn’t lying when he said we shouldn’t be afraid. It’s just that he was talking about something else altogether.

He taught that there were two kinds of fear. One of them is pachad, and one of them is yir’ah.

Pachad is the one we don’t need.

It’s illusory fear. Fear of of the world created by our mental constructs—from our misconception of separateness. If we believe we are separate, we believe we can lose or win, or that we can have our heart broken, or suffer humiliation, or generally end up in a really shitty place.

And, usually, that’s what happens when we cling to this kind of fearful view of the world.

Rabbi Alan Lew, teaching in Rebbe Nachman’s name, calls it “… the fear of the phantom, the fear whose object is imagined.”

It’s this sort of fear of illusion that leads us to a sense that we are right and they are wrong. The sort of worldview that makes us believe that some lives are worth more than other lives. That sort of thing.

Frankly, it makes the world a shittier place because it’s very difficult to find compassion when we get so wrapped up in fear. Nachman, like so many other spiritual teachers, didn’t want that for us.

Then there’s the other kind of fear, yir’ah: That’s just love.

Seriously.

It’s the fear that’s associated with connection. The overwhelming feeling that comes with access to the incredibly powerful Love that is the basis of…well… everything.

Here’s what Rabbi Lew said about it:

“It is the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.”

That’s Love, right?

But it’s still scary as hell because it involves having to shed a sense of who we think we are and what we think we deserve. Yir’ah wants to open us up to the truth about Love. It’s everywhere. All the time. It’s overwhelming and huge and really hard to appreciate and understand.

But it’s also very present between us and the people we love. When we see (or feel the presence of ) a person, or a dog—or whatever we love, we realize that the love we are feeling is coming from them as much as it’s coming from us.

We are reflecting back the love in them, and they are reflecting back the love in us. And it’s actually that huge, overwhelming, inconceivable Love. In that moment, that look, that feeling, we are just focusing that Love and bouncing it back and forth to each other.

That’s what happens when an interaction with someone becomes the whole of the Universe for a moment. We allow ourself to open up to that Love. Love, the Universe, God—you can call it what you want. Whatever we call it, we are completely open to it for that moment.

And that’s really terrifying.

And it’s supposed to be.

 

Unresolved

I saw the movie Boyhood last night. I liked it.

At the very end of it Mason, the kid we’ve just watched grow from 6 to 18, is shrooming with Nicole, a woman he meets on the first day of college. “We don’t seize the moment,” she says, “The moment seizes us.”

That’s not a spoiler because the movie can’t really have spoilers. It’s pretty much left unresolved. We don’t know what happens to Mason as he grows up. We don’t even know if he kisses Nicole. (He should. Even I, who has very rarely been present enough to actually notice when a woman wants to kiss me, unless very, very few women have wanted to kiss me in my life, which can’t possibly be the case, knew  they wanted to kiss each other badly).

We don’t know what happens to the rest of Mason’s family. We don’t really know anything. We get no resolution at all, which makes it the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in a while.

Because we don’t know.

We only really know that the moment seizes us. And that’s true. It does. For good or bad, the moment seizes us.

We watch Mason grow up. A 6-year-old has almost no control over his life. As we get older, we have more and more control. An 18-year-old can make his own decisions. (Seriously. Mason. Kiss Nicole.) But even with that control, that ability to seize the moment, we also need to allow the moment to seize us.

We need to make it an embrace. We can’t completely chicken out (Harry, I’m talking to you here), and we can’t try to muscle our way through either (Harry, I’m talking to you here.)

A good embrace involves both asserting and yielding. Seriously. Think about it. Think about the best sex, or hug, or conversation you’ve ever had. It was both asserting and yielding. That’s what presence really means. Asserting and yielding.

People talk a lot about being in the moment. Well, that’s hard. Really hard. Almost too hard. Every choice we make leads us to the next movement and it’s really, really hard not to try to hold on to that previous choice. So we need to yield a little to make some room for the current moment. But we also have some choices to make to move us on to the next moment. We might regret our choice. Sometimes we need to regret that choice because the next moment down the line requires it. We don’t know.

Mason and Nicole and their roommates are hiking in the mountains where he’d hiked with his dad years before. In that earlier scene he’s talking to his dad about a girl he likes and how he can’t find anything to say to her. His dad explains that he should ask her questions and listen to her answers. That’s what’s happening with Nicole. They are speaking and  listening to each other. Asserting and yielding.

Their friends are howling and shouting to the sunset, to the canyon, to whatever. They are asserting themselves completely. The scene they are taking in is just a tool for their own egos. And they are missing the point.

When we make room for the moment, when we allow our ego to withdraw so that we can actually be about the action we are doing in that moment, we are getting out of our own way.

We are opening up possibilities. Millions of possibilities, none of which brings any real resolution.

I find that reassuring.

 

Making Room

I’ve been writing about Elly a lot lately. I guess he’s been teaching me a lot lately…

He doesn’t live with me all the time, so when he’s with me I need to do what I can to let him be alive with me. This isn’t easy. It means that I need to balance us. When he’s with me I want to fit all my parenting into the time we have together. But I also need to make space for him to fit all his son-ing into that same time.

I want to feed him, to shelter him, to clothe him, to protect him, to heal him if he needs it, to teach him, to learn from him, to laugh with him, to play together, to listen to him, to reassure him, and if necessary, to correct his behavior.

Sometimes I only have an hour with him on a weekday afternoon.

Not going to fit all that in an hour.

Unless I’m really there with him. Unless I let go of all those goals. And give him some room.

If I step outside those expectations for a moment, and just be present with him for that moment, opportunities to do some, most, or all of those elements of parenting will present themselves. Usually all of them.  Sometimes simultaneously. Because he has that space.

It’s not easy, but there are a couple of thing that have helped.

First, there are the Buddies movies. These are awful movies. They are about talking puppies. Filmed puppies that talk. The kind where they add a voiceover to the puppies. Horrible movies. And I like puppies. Elly loves these movies. He has for years. They make him laugh. Then I start to laugh.

And I thoroughly enjoy myself because I have stepped out of my expectations for a moment. It’s not always going to be about my ideas of what’s worthwhile. He doesn’t run things, but sometimes he gets a turn to make a choice for both of us. And I need to make room for him by clearing out some of my ideas.

Shedding my attachment to outcomes for that moment opens up all sorts of opportunities for deepening my relationship with my kid. For being a parent. Because I’m there.

Second is breathing with him. I sit with him and we just breathe together. “Inhale when I inhale, and exhale when I exhale.”

He used to hate this. It started when he would be throwing one of his (rare) tantrums as a toddler. I would grab him up into my arms, hold him close to me and then just breathe. He’d resist and squirm, but then he’d calm down.

Now we breathe before bedtime when he’s with me. And sometimes just to calm down after being goofy. To calm him, I suppose. I get to stay goofy because I’m a responsible adult.

How did it move from a technique for removing a tantrum to a bedtime ritual he expects? Probably because he hated it when he was a toddler. But even as a toddler he liked being calmed by it. He was calming himself with me present giving him space to do that work.

And he doesn’t know that I’m teaching him to be aware of his breath. Or to control his breath. Or the effect his breath can have on his physical being.

I guess I fooled him, didn’t I?

Finally, I just let him be with himself when we are together. I let him be aware of where he is at that time, within that moment. Without directing him. Sometimes that means waiting while he throws an osage orange against a tree to watch it explode. Sometimes it means just letting him sit by himself and be quiet for a while. Even when we only have an hour together.

This is the hardest one of all and, honestly, I have no idea how I learned to do it. He taught me, I suppose.

I can’t do these things without first being present within myself. Without knowing where I am. What I am thinking, what my emotional state is, how my body feels. So that’s the starting place. I need to be aware of myself in the moment so I can know whether I need to step aside and let go a little, or make a decision and be forceful.

I used to feel like I died every time I’d return him to his mom after spending time with him. I would grieve for the time we spent together and I constantly wanted more.

Then, somewhere along the way, I learned that I can be happy with what I have. I can be a complete parent whenever I am with him, even if it’s just an hour after school. All I have to do is make space for it. And the way to make that space is to start by being present for him.

And getting out of my own way.

 

 

It’s a Good Thing I’m Here

When Elly is scared by something I always say the same thing. I’ve said it for as long as he’s been talking. It goes like this:

Elly: This is scary.
Harry: Well, it’s a good thing I’m here.

It always works. Just pointing out that I’m with him makes him feel better. It’s a good reminder.

I need to remind myself sometimes.

I need to remind myself because I play roles. And I don’t like some of the roles I play, so I need to remind myself that it’s me who’s playing those roles and it’s me who can stop playing them. And the way to remember this is to look for myself within those roles. Because I’m there.

It’s easy to find myself in some roles.

I am a father. That’s just how it is. Like the color of my eyes. Like my height. Like my birthday. It will be true for as long as this life lasts, and probably longer. It’s just a fact of who I am at this point. So it’s easy to find myself.

I’m also the guy who laughs in some of my yoga classes. I laugh and I make smartass comments because I love those classes.

There are other roles I play that aren’t so helpful. Roles I play that make me bitter. Or angry. Or just make me feel sorry for myself.

And I’m in those roles too. The same person.

Right there.

Same guy.

But they are distortions. I am covered up by malas, or encased in klippot (husks or shells that cover up the Light within us and in the world–you have to look it up yourself because I couldn’t find a good link. Maybe this will help. I dunno. It starts out about trees, but I didn’t listen to the whole thing. Sue me.)

Being a father or the guy who laughs while I practice yoga are openings into myself. They are connections. To myself and Everything Else. To the moment. To my path forward. They are exactly the opposite of the malas and klippot.

The roles that I play that make me upset are external. They are there to try to please someone else because, in effect, they are just being a Harry-shaped aspect of someone else.  They are based on me, but they aren’t who I am. I can only be who I am if I remember I am here.

And, yeah, I can’t like every role I play as much as I like being a father or the guy laughing in yoga class. I have to go to work and be the guy who does my job and all that, and the guy who does the dishes and takes out the garbage. But those are responsibilities in which I can be completely present.

We all put roles on other people. All the time. We do it because we’re afraid.

We are afraid of so much. And it’s important to remind each other that we’re here.

Us.

Not our hopes and dreams about each other.

Us. Together.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches four mantras to help us remind each other of this:

My Beloved, I am here for you.
My Beloved, I know you are there and it makes me happy.
My Beloved, I know you suffer and I am here for you.
My Beloved, I am suffering and I need your help.

It’s a good thing we’re here.

 

 

 

What’s Already There

Once when he was pretty little, maybe three or four, I was telling Elly a story. At one point he stopped me and asked where the story came from.

“I’m making it up for you.” I told him. “Just for you.”
“But how do you know what to make up?” he wanted to know.
“I dunno, Habibi,” I said, “I guess I’m just listening to what’s already there.”

I’ve been telling him stories for years. Stories filled with characters we’ve gotten to know very well. Dosa the Spice Merchant; The Witch of the Woods (who is really a healer) and her impossibly old student Samuel; The Librarian Prince; the Spider who wove herself a violin; The Soldier Who Waited.

All these characters move in and out of the stories I tell him. Sometimes spending months with us, sometimes disappearing for years to make room for new people. It’s a big story. And I make up each part as I’m telling it.

That’s not easy. At all. It means I have to do a lot of listening. I have to listen to him. I have to listen to myself. And hardest of all, I have to listen for the story.

Not easy.

Because sometimes listening is incredibly simple. The story is love. Sometimes that’s loud and clear. Sometimes even overwhelming.

But sometimes that Love story is drowned out by the Wrong story. The story of doubt and shame and everything I think makes me wrong.

And both stories are already there.

They have to be. I wouldn’t know love without heartbreak, I wouldn’t know courage without fear, and I wouldn’t know joy without sorrow. They have to be there for the other to exist.

Last week I was having a hard time hearing the Love story. Maybe because Elly was away and I didn’t see him. Probably not, though.

Really what was happening was that I was spending too much time listening Wrong story. The other voices.

I let them convince me that I wasn’t deserving of those things I want, that my perceptions are wrong, that I’ve over-estimated my abilities. That I’m wrong. About everything.

So I wrote to one of my teachers. She gave me some very difficult practices to do.

And she also said “[The heart] is an empty vessel for light to come through.”

The Love story is loudest when the heart is open. The Wrong story is loudest when it’s closed. That’s why at some of the most difficult times, we feel most constricted. Emotionally and physically.

Sometimes it’s hard to open your heart. Being human is hard. We have to balance a lot. Those things that frighten us and those things we love. We need to accept both. Both are already there.

Both stories are with us for this whole life.

But it’s up to us to choose which one gets our attention.

It Might Get Loud

So… it’s been pretty loud lately. All over the world, and for a lot of people I know.

And for me.

Loud.

And, you know, there are all sorts of sources for this loudness. So many. I won’t go into all of them; I think we can each name something loud around us. Or within us.

We can’t do anything about the external loudness. It’s going to be there, no matter what. I live in a city, and it’s loud here. Trucks are loud, construction sites are loud, Facebook is loud.

The future is loud and the past is often louder.

We are surrounded. Loudness shakes us, rattles us, confuses us and we can’t concentrate.

And we are loud internally.

Fear is loud, shame is loud, desire can be loud, regret is loud, anger is loud. But we can do something about the internal loudness and maybe do something about the external loudness too.

This is from a guy who collects silence:

When I speak of silence…I mean silence from modern life, silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system, which is busy communicating. Wildlife are as busy communicating as we are, but it’s not just messages coming from wildlife. I can name some that have been really transformative in my personal life, but it’s also the experience of place, what it means to be in a place.
—Gordon Hempton, interviewed by Krista Tippet On Beingbroadcast July 4, 2013

So silence is about being present. Silence is about being vulnerable. And that’s the hardest thing to be. It requires courage to be vulnerable.

Each week we read two different parts of the Tanakh in the synagogue, the Torah and the Haftara (which is from the Prophets). This week’s Torah is Parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar [Numbers] 24:10–30:1).

It’s loud.

Zealotry is rewarded (not my favorite), land is divided up (which will lead to more loudness, later), Holidays are outlined. There’s a lot going on. In the midst of all this loudness, God speaks to Moshe. (27:12–13)

 …וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֶל-הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה; וּרְאֵה, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ
…וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ, וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל-עַמֶּיךָ

God said to Moshe, go up this distant mountain and see the Land…
And when you have seen (understood) it, you will be gathered up with your people…

Okay, so I chopped the verses up and my translation isn’t exactly what you might find anywhere else, but here’s what I think it means: In the midst of all the loudness around us, sometimes we need to pause. We need to stop for a minute and really see. And it’s not easy. That understanding can be as hard to reach as a distant mountain.

Not easy.

We also read my favorite moment in the Tanakh, from I Melachim (Kings) 19:11–12. Eliyahu is hiding in a cave and he sees this:

וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה…
וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

There was a huge, strong wind that was tearing the mountains and smashing the rocks to pieces in front of God; God was not in the wind. And after the wind, there was an earthquake; God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire; God was not in the fire. And after the fire, the thin voice of silence.

Loud. Ra’ash, the word for “earthquake,” also means “noise.”

But God’s name here, the name I prefer, is “What Is.” That’s the way I think of God. We’ve talked about this before, right?

God is What Is.

And that’s after the loudness, the storms and the noise and the fire.

What Is. The Present. That’s in the Thin Voice of Silence.

And that’s within us. And we can get to it. We can find the silence. But it’s so hard to do. It requires being vulnerable. Because we can’t do it without acknowledging love. And that takes more courage than traveling to a distant place, and more effort than climbing a mountain because love means being vulnerable. It just does.

But it’s here. And we can find it in a game of catch, or in a walk in the park, or sharing a meal with someone, or in a conversation with a friend, or in one of those hugs that you think might be too tight, but really isn’t. It’s in all those places and in our breath.

Right now.

The Shape of Silence

I am drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book.

It’s silent.

It’s early in the morning and it’s quiet—my favorite time of day.  But what I’m experiencing is silence, not quiet. It’s the silence I only feel when my son is waiting for me to wake him up. A defining silence. A silence with a shape.

Once I was in a yoga class and we were chanting with the teacher. It was a small class, but it was a small room and it was crowded. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t hear the people next to me.

I couldn’t hear their voices.

It’s hard to pick out a single voice in a room with a lot of people chanting together.  I tried listening to the person next to me.

Nothing.

Then I noticed the silence around her voice.

Not her voice. The silence. And I got it. We were chanting because of that silence. That silence in between our voices. The silence that connects us.

Our voices move into that silence and the silence makes room for them. It doesn’t resist. It can’t because without our voices in that room the silence couldn’t exist. And without the silence we would never hear our voices. They would be mixed together. Competing.

We need that silence because silence creates humility. I could hear because of the silence around me. If I had only been listening  to the sound of my own voice, I would have missed the beauty of other voices and I would have been worse off for it.

This week we read Parshat Hukkat (Bamidbar [Numbers]: 19:1-22:1). The Israelites are in the desert and there is no water. Miriam has died and her well, which had provided water until that point, has disappeared. God tells Moshe and Aharon to assemble the people and speak to a rock in their presence and it will provide water for them to drink. It doesn’t work out that way. The story goes that Moshe hits the rock with his staff and, because of this, he’s not allowed to enter the promised land. Because he hit it instead of speaking to it.

Actually, he does speak. Just not to the rock.

… וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם…
He said to them, “Now listen, rebels, can we get you water from this rock?” (20:10)

Then he hits the rock.

I’m not sure it’s the hitting that’s the real problem. I think it’s the speaking to the people, rather than the rock. To me it sounds like he’s speaking to hear the sound of his own voice. He’s not speaking to the silence of the rock or, even more to the point, to the silence of the water. He’s talking to the people. To the rebels. He’s talking in opposition. About how great he is.

He should have spoken to the water. The water would have given him more shape than just talking did.

Water is yielding, it makes room for us. It moves out of the way to accommodate our shape, the same way silence gives our voice its shape.

It’s time to wake my son, so I open the door to his room. He’s awake. Reading a book. And the silence between us is a connection. It gives shape to our relationship: A son-shaped silence and a father-shaped silence.

Sinking In

I’m in the shower.

I’m being very thorough.

Not that I’m not always very thorough—I am.

Shut up.

As I wash between my toes, I realize that I am silently narrating what I am doing. I used to do this when I would give Elly a bath. When he was tiny. “Now we’re washing your feet, we’re getting them super clean…”

I’m washing between the toes of the left foot and I’m relaxing my right foot on the floor of the shower—standing on all four corners. Then I switch feet and balance on my left while I clean the right.

This mindful shower takes a long time. And it gives me a chance to pay attention to my body. To trace meridians, to feel energy moving up and down my spine, to notice the muscles, and bones. And scars.

When Elly was a baby and I would give him a bath I was always amazed that he had no scars. Every night I wondered how long he would go with no scars. How long could the boy last without getting hurt? How long could I protect him?

I’m in the shower to wash off anything that can come between me and the water I’m about to sink into. The dirt. The oil. The dust. But also the distraction. It’s preparation—realization before I stop for a while. Before I pause.

I have scars. I have muscles. I am aware of my own energy. This body is a nice place to live. It has history. Power. Holiness. I need to remember that.

Out of the shower, I walk down the seven steps and into the pool of rainwater. I stand still for a moment, getting used to it.

There’s something different about this water. It’s not quite clear, and not quite cloudy. It’s holding the light from the fixtures overhead, rather than reflecting it. There’s a closeness to this water. It is as if I am not so much in it, as it is around me. Mikvah water is called mayim hayyim. Living water. And it feels like that.

Exhaling, I empty out my lungs and let myself go under completely. Opening my eyes, I see that the warmth of the light I noticed on the surface is even more pronounced down here. I lift my feet up and I’m suspended underwater. I’m not floating and I’m not sinking. I am neutral and it is silent.

I break the surface, inhale deeply and recite the blessing for this experience. This completely weird experience. This unlikely moment. And everything that went into it.

Another exhalation and another sinking. I watch the air leave my lungs through my nose and bubble to the surface.

My yoga teachers taught me that the pause between the exhalation and the inhalation is the gateway to our deepest Self. I break the surface and inhale again. Pause. Exhale underwater. Pause. And break the surface for the last time today. Pause.

This past Shabbat we read Vayikra (Vayikra [Leviticus] 1:1-5:26) It’s all about sacrifices and it’s pretty boring. I think Rashi must have been bored too. But the name of the parasha (and the name of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew) is וַיִּקְרָא. It means “And He called.”

Rashi notes that every topical section starts out with some description of God speaking, calling, saying…something to Moshe. But there are also subsections. He wonders why there are subsections. Why bother? The subsections are about the same topic after all.

The answer is so that Moshe will have a chance to pause and take it all in. God is teaching Moshe some very specific things that need to be done. Maybe unpleasant things. Difficult things. But necessary things. Best pause for a minute and let them sink in.

I came to the mikvah this morning to mark the beginning of a change in my life. I am going to change what I do for a living. Completely.  It will involve going back to school. And learning. A lot of learning. Some of it will be boring. Some of it will piss me off.

And it will involve sacrifice. A lot of sacrifice, probably. But it’s what I need to do.

Best pause and let it sink in.

Enough to Get Us Here

I am sitting in my apartment. Right now. I am sitting at my kitchen table and I am writing this. And this whole scene is completely unlikely.

The table. The computer. What I’ve learned so I can write this. The plant in the corner. The light above my head. They are all products of thousands of variables. The wood for the table was grown.The lightbulb is burning because of electricity. The seed was planted in soil. The aluminum for the computer was mined. The plant was watered. And all of these things came together tonight. Right now.

And me.

I am about to write about something I learned. And the series of moments that taught me that are each made up of thousands of elements. Thousands of variables.

I read some books. Because I found teachers. Because I walked in to a yoga studio. Because my friend loved it there. Because I made a friend.  Because we made a very short, very silly, film. Because I moved to Washington. Because I was heartbroken. Because my son was here. Because my ex wife got a job. Because my son was born. Because I loved her. Because I met her. Because we both worked at a Jewish camp. Because I loved Judaism. Because I studied Torah. Because I loved the people there. Because I was born into my family. Because my mother wanted another child. Because my parents met. Because they walked into the same room. Because they lived in the city where they lived. Because their parents came for jobs. Because they were in America. Because their parents wanted a better life. Because they were born….

And I skipped a lot. I skipped some very important steps. But I only have so much time to write. And there are only so many atoms in the Universe. But every moment and every moment that moved toward that moment was equally filled with complexity. And chance. And miracles.

This week we read Parashat Vayakhel (Shemot [Exodus] 31:5-38:20).

Shabbat and then another shopping list. Really a list of things people brought for the building of the Mishkan. And Bezalel. He’s back with the same job. He’s still called out by name. He still has within him The Divine Spirit, Wisdom, Understanding, and The Deepest Knowledge. Which is cool. I like Bezalel.

And this:

 וְהַמְּלָאכָה, הָיְתָה דַיָּם לְכָל-הַמְּלָאכָה–לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ; וְהוֹתֵר.
And their efforts (at donating the items needed) were enough to do the work. More than enough. (36:7)

So we had a shopping list last week. And this week everyone brought in the items on the list. More than they even needed to. And then they finished designing and building the Mishkan.

But a couple of things happened last week that I didn’t mention. Interesting things.

The first is when Moshe and Joshua are heading down from the mountain. Joshua hears what he thinks is a battle. And Moshe listens and he says something weird.

.וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה, וְאֵין קוֹל, עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה; קוֹל עַנּוֹת, אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ
He said: It’s not the voice of heroism, and it’s not the voice of weakness. I only hear the voice of singing. (32:18)

That’s not all that weird, really. What he hears is the Israelites and their party with the עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה, the molten calf they started to worship out of fear when Moshe took so long on the mountain.

Then there’s this:

 .וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָעֵגֶל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, וַיִּשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ, וַיִּטְחַן, עַד אֲשֶׁר-דָּק; וַיִּזֶר עַל-פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם, וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And [Moshe] took the calf that they made and burnt it in the fire until it was dust. And he threw it into the water so that the Israelites would drink it. (32:20)

Okay, so that’s weird, right? I understand getting rid of the calf. But why the whole water thing? Why did he want them to drink it?

Rashi cites the Talmud and says Moshe wanted to test them. If they were completely guilty and they drank the gold water their stomachs would swell up and they would die. Others would die in different ways based on their level of guilt.

But then, very soon after that, the Israelites bring more than enough material to complete the work on the Mishkan.

It doesn’t make sense to me. If so many people had been involved that Joshua and Moshe could hear their singing from so far away, how was it that there were enough who escaped punishment (and who would be willing to give up so much) to complete the Mishkan? Were they scared into it by seeing all the punishing happening? I refuse to believe the Mishkan, the Place of Presence would have been created out of fear.

In Taoist thought there are five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each one has different properties, different, seasons, organs, and different emotions with which it is associated, and each one interacts both positively and negatively with another.

Fire weakens metal, so it makes sense to burn something made of gold when you want to get rid of it.

But metal strengthens water. Metal gives water its properties. So mixing gold with water underscores the water’s wateriness. Water is the element associated with calm, wisdom, and flexibility. Maybe it’s the water that calms them. Water opposes fire. The angry fire that Moshe uses to destroy the calf would have been put out by water. Maybe the calming water gives the Israelites the courage to access those gifts within them: The Divine Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. The Deepest Knowledge. Maybe that’s what happened. I don’t know for sure.

Here’s what I do know: I know that we all have those elements within us. We all have wood, fire, earth, metal, and water aspects. We all contain The Divine Spirit, Wisdom, Understanding, and The Deepest Knowledge. I’ve seen it at work and it’s just true.

And I know the זמרת יה, the Divine Song, the sound made by all those elements and molecules and moments that came together to bring us to where we are—me writing, you reading—I know that Song is not a song of heroism and it’s not a song of weakness, it’s just the Song singing each moment into the next.

And I know listening for that Song makes it impossible not to realize that we have more than enough material within us to create a place for the Present.

Look back and think about what got you to this moment. The incredible set of circumstances that had to happen to get you here. It seems impossible. This moment seems impossible. But here you are. Here we are. Me writing, you reading. All that that impossibility bewilders me and it makes me so grateful.

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