A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Month: August, 2012

Eleven Months Part 7: Master Hakuin and Elul.

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”

– Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones p. 7. Also on 101 Zen Stories

I will get to this story later. First, some background:

I loved my ex wife from the moment I saw her. I was 17 and she was the most beautiful girl I could ever have imagined meeting. I loved her smile and her laugh and her deadpan sense of humor.

I loved her intensely, powerfully, helplessly. I loved her when we were together and I loved her for long stretches when we were apart. I loved her through relationships with other women. I clung to her. I loved everything about her, except for her. I wanted her to be someone else, someone she couldn’t be.

We have been divorced for seven years and I have spent much of those years making excuses: She wasn’t available to me, she was too involved in her medical training, she moved us too much, she didn’t respect my goals. The list goes on.

The truth is that what I wanted from her was to rescue me from my pain. From my unhappy childhood. From my lack of confidence. From everything I hated about myself. When she couldn’t do this, I got angry and stayed angry.

I would get angry at her for not paying enough attention to me, for not being there for me, for not loving me enough.

I was wrong. She was there. The person I thought she should be wasn’t. But I couldn’t see that because I was so caught up in what I wanted. In reality, she wanted me to succeed, she wanted me to be happy and fulfilled, she wanted me to be her child’s father.

She didn’t stop trying until it became impossible for her to keep trying. Our son was a baby and she realized how much it would damage him if he grew up in a home with parents who fought as much as we did. Finally she asked me to leave because she couldn’t do that to him. And she hated doing it. She hated me for not being able to come through for her. 

I’m not writing this to say it was entirely my fault that our marriage ended—things are always more complex than that. I am not writing this to say that I still grieve for our marriage—I don’t. Both of us are much happier now, and our son is happy and confident—a wonderful kid. Things have turned out pretty well.

I am writing this because it’s the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul. It is time for me to engage in my heshbon hanefesh, my soul’s accounting. What have I carried around within myself for the past year (or years) that I can let go of? This year during Elul, I have made a deal with myself to begin working very hard to see the world as it is and not how I want it to be. This is not easy, but it is necessary. It means coming to some difficult realizations, like understanding how much my ex-wife really loved me for me, and how I didn’t return that. It means welcoming in all my emotions and experiences, the good and the bad, and accepting that neither the good nor the bad experiences and emotions are the whole of my existence—that both are impermanent.

Master Hakuin is going to be my guide this month. He just accepted things with equanimity.

Think about it: He lived a pure life and he was accused of doing something impure. He must have been angry. I’m sure he was. But he didn’t throw a tantrum and shout “It isn’t fair!” He just accepted his anger along with the situation and said “Is that so?” Is that how it is? Okay, that’s how it is. I will move on and do what needs to be done. His reputation was ruined but he still needed to be a part of the community so he could provide for the baby.

When the girl and her parents came to apologize, he must have been relieved, and maybe angry too. But he didn’t say “See? I told all of you that I was not the kind of monk who would go around getting young women pregnant, but no one believed me!”

When they took the child back he must have been heartbroken. He had cared for the baby for a year, watched her grow and smile and take her first steps. But he didn’t scream “How could you take this child from me now? I have been caring for her! Where have you been, you stupid people? You are breaking my heart!” He just said “Is that so?” Is that how it’s going to be now? I’m going to be heartbroken. I’m going to miss her. That is part of my life now.

Elul is about looking back and letting go of those times when we’ve fallen short of that equanimity and, not being a Zen master, I have fallen short a lot. Heshbon hanefesh is called an accounting, but  it’s not about tallying as much as it’s about accepting. It’s a letting go, but a strange one because it’s about welcoming those things of which we are letting go.

Honestly, heshbon hanefesh is more like meditation than accounting. During meditation we are taught not to stop thinking, but to allow our thoughts to arise as they will, to welcome them, but not to follow them. Instead, we observe them and let them fall away. That’s what we are doing, maybe on a slightly bigger scale, during Elul. We are allowing our lives over the past year arise as they will, we are observing them and letting them fall away. When I do this on the meditation cushion I get up feeling clearer and refreshed—ready to move through the day. My hope is that when I move out of Elul and into Rosh Hashanah, I will feel similarly ready to move through another year of my life.

Eleven Months Part 6: How to Pray

I wrote before about attending shacharit (morning services) every day—particularly in the context of mourning. As the year has passed and I’ve returned to the rhythms of Jewish life and blended those rhythms into my larger life, prayer has become more and more part of my consciousness.

I knew about prayer, I thought. I knew the structure of the service and the evolution of the service over the many, many years since Judaism adopted organized prayer as a spiritual practice. I understood the tension between keva (the formal structure and rules surrounding prayer), and kavanah (the intentional or mindful aspects of prayer). Despite that knowledge, or maybe because of that knowledge, I still need to constantly teach myself how to pray. Praying every day has underscored to me how much prayer changes each day, and I think that’s part of why there is a fixed structure. Structures, like yoga asanas or fixed prayers, provide a profound opportunity for reflection and even for creativity.

So I’ve made a list of various ways to pray, depending upon my mood, or my level of energy, or my spiritual needs. I wrote them for myself as a series of intentions to hold as I sing through the service; the “You” in this list is me.

  1. Enter the room.
    Your attendance means something here. Everyone in the room is counting on you. Without you and nine others, no one can pray the complete service. More than that, your presence counts for everyone in the room as well. Be there, be present.
  2. Say hello.
    Acknowledging that you are here with other people is how you begin praying with them.
  3. Imagine you don’t know the words or their meanings.
    You don’t know the nusach. You don’t know anything about this prayer service at all. Let the others sing it to you. Notice how they use their voices, the rising and falling of the music, the changes in tempo and pacing. Be receptive—that awareness is the opposite of passivity.
  4. Imagine you know the words to the prayers, but not their meaning.
    Pay attention to how those words are formed by the shapes you make with your mouth and your breath. This can be a gateway to understanding more about yourself.
  5. Know the words and their meanings.
    Count the number of times certain words come up, or simply note when they do. Try the Hebrew words for: Love, Compassion, Earth, Wisdom, Kindness, Gratitude, Redemption. Choose one each day. Try to take that word with you when you leave.
  6. Sit up straight when you cover your eyes and say Shema: “Listen.”
    Feel the vibration of the word travel down your spine to its base in your tailbone. Listen to your back body. What do you have held there?
  7. Vary your pitch.
    If you lower your voice an octave during the prayer that begins emet (true), when you get to the word yafeh (beautiful), you will feel it through your entire body.
  8. Match pitch.
    If you match pitch with the person sitting next to you, the moment of singing in unison with that person will remind you of the connection you have with that person. You are in this together in a very meaningful way.
  9. Stand
    Feel the floor underneath your feet. Feel the earth beneath the floor supporting you, holding you up.
  10. Open up.
    As you stand to pray the standing prayers, move your shoulder blades toward one another and keep the sides of your body long. Your heart will open and your spine will gently stretch. Remind yourself of the strength of the connection between your mind and body. There is no difference between them, really.

I use this list a fair amount. Some mornings I wake up excited to see where some of these practices bring me and I find that I leave the synagogue feeling the same way I do when I leave my favorite teachers’ classes. Some mornings—more mornings, even most mornings—I rely on the structure of my list to get me focus myself on being present as I pray. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Those days I struggle to keep up, to keep my focus, even not to be annoyed at the fact that I’m at the synagogue at 7:30 in the morning when I have a meeting at 9:00. Those mornings, I have done something just by walking through the door.