A Very Narrow Bridge

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

Category: Prayer

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.

Eleven Months, Part 3: Not at Some High Place Along the Way.

This has been moving through my mind for the last couple of weeks:

Birth is a beginning, And death a destination.
And life is a journey:

From childhood to maturity; And youth to age.
From innocence to awareness; And ignorance to knowing.
From foolishness to discretion; And then, perhaps, to wisdom.

From weakness to strength; Or strength to weakness
– And, often, back again.
From health to sickness, And back, we pray, to health again.

From offense to forgiveness, From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding – From fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat – Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning And death a destination.
And life is a journey, A sacred pilgrimage
– To life everlasting.

(Gates of Repentance, p 283)

It’s a poem from the Kol Nidrei service in Gates of Repentance: Reform Judaism’s machzorIt was written by a rabbi named Alvin Fine.

Growing up, my rabbi read it almost every week at Friday night services. My mother loved that rabbi.

“…Victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey…”

I wish my mother had gone to services more so she could have heard this man, for whom she had so much love and respect, repeat those words. She didn’t and I think, up until the end as the paramedics worked to resuscitate her for the final thirty minutes of her life, she hoped for some victory. Some victory that never came, but to which she was so attached that she missed out on massive amounts of potential happiness, and mired herself in misery and anger.

I’m on the table at the acupuncturist when the intern’s supervisor comes in and tells me, in no uncertain terms, that living primarily in my head is not viable. “In the end,” he says “The body always wins, so listen to your body now before it’s too late. That body will win—it will die.”

We don’t get a lot of time here and our bodies remind us of that most days. But listening to those reminders can enrich our life. Thich Nhat Hanh, in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, explains that “…Looking deeply at our own suffering can help us cultivate understanding and compassion…”

“Life everlasting,” I think, starts with compassion.

Eleven Months, Part 2: Yoga and Tefillin

My arm hurts a little. Probably because the small box of Torah verses strapped there is digging into it as I pray.

“Bind them (mitzvot) as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet (totafot) between your eyes” (D’varim [Deuteronomy] 6:8)

Jewish mindfulness is pretty literal.  Those words are bound to my arm and to my head with leather straps. Why actually do this?  Isn’t it much better to take the verse from Deuteronomy as a metaphor? The teachings of the Torah are to be treasured, “like a piece of jewelry.”

Nice, right?

Nice, but not quite enough, at least for me. I like putting tefillin on. I like the fact that when I enter the synagogue each morning, I have to pause, to concentrate on wrapping the straps around my arm. I can’t just walk in with my mind on something else. I have to be where I am. I like the slight discomfort reminding me that I am bound to something much bigger than myself, like this teaching, or the people with whom I am praying.

Fast forward to a yoga class. The teacher is giving us a lot of instruction for Ardha Chandrasana, the pose we are in:

“Be aware of your foot planted on the ground, the rotation of your lower leg, your femur should be moving back toward the wall, settling into your hamstrings. Are your shoulders equally open? Your upper foot should be engaged, as if it’s also planted on the ground. Is your upper leg working as hard as the lower leg? How is its rotation affecting your groins?  Stretch out through your side body to lengthen your spine. Now, keeping your hips even, try to dial your sacrum to move your tailbone towards your thigh, like we did in Trikonasana….”

“Wow,” I say, laughing, “You gave us like fourteen different things to think about during that pose.”

“Yeah,” comes the reply, “But you’re not thinking about anything else, are you?”

In another class, the teacher “invites us to enjoy Eka Pada Rajakapotasana.” There is no enjoying this asana for me. Being true to my smartass self, I ask the teacher “Ever notice how when you ‘invite us to enjoy’ something, it’s going to suck?”

Sometimes yoga asanas involve some discomfort. Sometimes exploring our connection to something bigger hurts, maybe just a little, like having a box strapped to your arm. But concentrating on all the various parts of an action keep us in the moment.  The word yoga literally means “yoke.” Yoga binds us to existence. Putting on tefillin is another reminder of that.