A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Month: February, 2014

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.

Home is The Present

My friends are getting new furniture. And painting. And rearranging. They are spending a lot of time with paint chips, and catalogues, and at furniture stores.

And they are so happy with this project. And so excited to see how it will turn out. And, honestly, it’s amazing to watch. They are making their home reflect who they are. Who they have become over the years.

But there’s more. There’s a lot more at work. They are creating a space that will remind them of who they are. The colors they are choosing aren’t just pleasant to look at.

They are more.

Those colors are manifestations of who they are. And who their children are. And who they all are together, as a family. Even as their kids are getting older.

As they are painting and rearranging, they are noticing that things they’ve owned for years fit perfectly into the new places. That they match the new colors of the walls as if they’d gotten them with this house, this color, this corner in mind.

The hooks they are choosing to put up near their front door are more than a convenient place to hang coats. They are a welcome to those of us who visit. Their house is becoming a place to live their values, more and more.

So of course it makes them happy to do this work. And of course it makes me happy when my friend shows me ideas in catalogues and then waves her arm across the room to explain where a chair or a sofa might go. It is important work. Work filled with joy.

This week we read Ki Tissa (Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-34:35). It spends a lot of time on a shopping list. A shopping list of items to build the Mishkan. The dwelling place.

The Hebrew word: משכן‎, has the same root as one of the God’s Names: שכינה‎ (Shekhina), which is how we refer to the Divine Presence. The Immanent God. It’s sort of the noun form of the idea of Being Present.

The Mishkan was temporary; it was taken down and set back up as the Israelites moved through the wilderness. It was a Place for the Present. No one was pretending it was permanent.

Then, a little way in–past the first part of the shopping list (Can you please pick up a copper basin for the priests to wash their hands in? Oh…right…also and myrrh—500 weight should be enough. And cinnamon…should I write this down for you?), we meet Bezalel.

.רְאֵה, קָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה
.וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָל-מְלָאכָה
…לַחְשֹׁב, מַחֲשָׁבֹת
See, I have called Bezalel…by name, and I have filled him with the Divine Spirit, wisdom, understanding, and the deepest knowledge of every craft…to design designs (to think thoughts)

Bezalel is chosen to be the master craftsman, the designer, of the Mishkan, the home for the Presence. 

For a guy with no lines, Bezalel has a lot to do. And that name. Bezalel means “In the Shadow of God”

But Bezalel has within him some pretty remarkable gifts. The Divine Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. The Deepest Knowledge. And, with these, he can design designs. Think thoughts.

He’s been called by name. He’s been given these amazing gifts. And all he has to do to make it happen is be himself. Be true to himself. Be present. He’s creating a home for that Presence. One that will be more than the copper, gold, silver, wood, cloth, spices, water, and fire that are going into it. They are lovely, these elements, but there’s so much more going on here.

So much more.

Because all these items, all these designs, and plans, and choice…all this work is about creating space for the Presence. One that’s a manifestation of the Divine within him and that can only happen with all that work. That work to build something that manifests that Divine within all of us.

Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. Deepest Knowledge. We all have them. It’s just that sometimes they are in the shadows.

My friends are busy at their work. Similar work. Maybe even the same work. Building their own space for the Shekhina. For the Present. And all they have to do is be themselves.

And they are having so much fun.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

Benno: Ha, ha. You’re a spiritual teacher whether you own up to it or not. Ha, ha!

Harry: Am not!

Benno: You are this thing you are. And I, personally, really don’t care what you call that. Colleague, friend, advisor, teacher…don’t care. I just like that we have the conversations that we have.

Yes. My friends are really like that…some of them are even worse.

It’s easy to repeat the question “Who do you think you are?” to yourself. It’s easy for me to repeat it to myself, anyway.

But am I the best judge of that? I’m not sure. I think maybe not always.

I have all sorts of ideas of who and what I am built up. Some of them are right and some of them are very wrong. Sometimes I am able to just be who I am, unapologetically. Sometimes I get myself tied up in Gordian knots and I have no idea how to cut through them. So I try to be something else. Try to present people with what I think they might want me to be.

But that doesn’t work. When I try to prove how mindful, smart, thoughtful…whatever else…I am, I just end up asking myself again: “Who do you think you are?”

And the more I choose—or avoid—titles for myself, the worse it gets. Sometimes to the point of absurdity:

“You call yourself Shabbat-observant, but you just turned the light out in the bathroom?”  or “You call yourself a yogi but you leaned on the horn and called the guy in the Escalade an asshole to yourself for driving like that?” or even “You call yourself a loving father and yet you would buy conventional bananas instead of organic?”

I’m not always completely mindful. Of my spiritual practices, of my temper, of what I eat. You can ask around, people will tell you it’s the truth.

But those same people, some of those same people at any rate, will tell you that I am mindful, smart, thoughtful and a whole bunch of other things. Because, they see me.

Me. Not their conceptions of me. Or my conceptions of myself.  Me.

And they know that I am what I am, and who I am.

Because I opened to them. I just let them see me. Whether it’s upside down in the yoga studio, or at the bagel place, or in the meditation hall, or wherever. I just opened to them.

And it was terrifying.

And that’s hilarious.

The other day I read this:

It is essential to surrender, to open yourself, to present whoever you are to the guru, rather than trying to present yourself as a worthwhile student. It does not matter how much you are willing to pay, how correctly you behave, how clever you are at saying the right thing to your teacher…. Such deception does not apply to an interview with a guru, because he sees right through us. Making ingratiating gestures is not applicable in this situation; in fact it is futile. We must make a real commitment to being open with our teacher; we must be willing to give up all our preconceptions.

—Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (39)

You can substitute any number of titles for “guru”, “teacher”, or “student” and it will still be true.

Those titles don’t matter because we are these things we are and the people to whom we truly open ourselves don’t care what we call ourselves. They will always see us for who we are no matter what. And we will always see them the same way: Honestly, compassionately, and with love.

The trick is that we have to also send some of that love to ourself.