We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Soul Curriculum

Samain                                                                     Joe and SeoAh Moon

big-ben-clockface-super-teaseFed the dogs at 4 a.m. today. Didn’t mean to, but the ever interesting saving of daylight rendered it so. We’ve stopped saving daytime as of 2 a.m. this morning, so I’m up an hour “earlier.” I will say no more. Longtime readers of this blog know my feelings. I’m glad we’re back to standard time.

The Joe and SeoAh moon is high in the south, over Black Mountain, hanging above and to the right of Orion’s still visible left shoulder (his left). That’s one reason I’m glad to be up this early. I can see the dark sky and the wonders that it holds.

soul trait profileMussar works with the idea of a soul curriculum. This old Jewish system of character development, as I’ve said here before, works with middah, or character traits, for example: awareness (watchfulness, accounting for the soul), gratitude, joy, humility, loving kindness, honor, truth, awe. (for one full list see). A soul curriculum encourages the practitioner to find those traits which are already strengths and to build on those while identifying the traits that are less well developed for more work. (an example, not mine)

In my case awe, truth and awareness are traits I count as strengths. That doesn’t mean they’re automatic or always available to me, just that they’re in my quiver. One of the things I find useful about mussar is that it doesn’t assume, or even anticipate a sudden, self-help like jump to perfection if only you follow these steps. In fact it emphasizes the incremental nature of this work, the difficulties all of us face in it, and a certain tolerance for our tendency to go off track in our efforts.

curriculumofthesoulv2On my soul curriculum right now are joy, simcha, and gratitude, hakar hatov. There are and will be others as the months, weeks and days of this new year roll round, but right now I’m searching for those places in my day where I can say thank you and those instances where I experience joy. By having them on my curriculum I mean I’m actively working with them, using a focus phrase: Thanks and Yes! in this case. I’ll write about them here because that’s a way of reinforcing and integrating them in my life.

A brief word about theology. Mussar works with or without a belief in God, or at least, the traditional belief. All of the traits have  relevance in a secular view of the world. As a pilgrim, I’m learning about them because they’re helpful to my daily life and I really like the people engaged in this work. It’s also a common language for Kate and me as we negotiate our daily lives.

A pilgrim sees what is on the path and engages it, often without question, knowing that the path winds on beyond this place. Right now mussar and kabbalah are on my path just as Christianity, existentialism, and paganism have been on it, too. The pilgrim does not lose what he’s been taught. It all goes into the journey, enriching it, making it deeper, better.

Still on the ancientrail.

Thanks

Samain                                                              Joe and SeoAh Moon

mysticsHakarat hatov, Hebrew for gratitude, literally means recognizing the good. My friend Bill Schmidt often quotes Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” In the 1980s I had a Jesuit nun as a spiritual director. She suggested I keep a gratitude journal because, she said, gratitude is the root of all spirituality.

As the Hebrew suggests though, there is a step just before gratitude, recognizing the good. We can live a life full of bitter disappointment amidst a bounty that would make others cry for joy. One Hasidic author I read said, “For example, a person has a drive to make ten million dollars and (regrettably) achieves it. Now he wants twenty…he nullified the value of the ten million in his mind.” Getting to Know Your Soul, Bilavi Mishkan Evneh.

20171016_070053Or consider our home here in Conifer. We have running water, indoor plumbing, a boiler, a gas stove, a microwave, a refrigerator. We have food in the refrigerator. We have a car in the garage. Three different perspectives on this seemingly so what list: 1. a person living in a refugee camp. 2. a person living in a favela in Rio 3. a homeless person in Denver or right here in Conifer. Not so so what now, is it?

But. We could look up the mountain, see the mini-palaces some folks have built up there and say, “We would be truly happy if only we could live there.” Or, when we see the occasional Maserati or Lamborghini or Ferrari on the mountain roads, which we do, we could say, “How much better life would be if only I had one of those.” This would be nullifying the ten million dollars.

“Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes, “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted.””  Alan Morinis, Jewishpathways

gratitudeHow much better for our souls to recognize the love Kate and I share, the dogs that grace our lives, the material blessings we have, and they are blessings in the most theological sense of that term, as the good surrounding us, supporting us, allowing us to feel joy.

Enough is a close cousin of gratitude. When we recognize the good we have and that it is enough, then we can be joyful. Happy? I don’t know. Up to you. But joyful and satisfied, yes.

gratitude thank youI am grateful right now for the sound of Gertie sleeping, the miracle that is this computer on which I write, the electricity that powers it, that I woke up this morning, again, that Kate woke up, too. I’m grateful that the air is cool outside and that we have heat inside. I’m grateful l had fruit and vegetables and protein for breakfast. I’m grateful I had the chance to help Jon load the trailer last night. I’m grateful for the time with Joe and SeoAh and for the chance to participate in finding Murdoch. I’m grateful to live on a mountain, in the mountains, with Black Mountain always out my study window. And this list could go on, and on, and on.

So. My prayer, “Thanks.”

Kavanah

Fall                                                                         Joe and SeoAh Moon

But the end is not yet

But the end is not yet

2017 Woolly Mammoth Retreat Question. Three Mammoths are not yet 70, a couple at 70, four mid-70’s and two in their 80’s. All, however, firmly in what I call the third phase, the phase of life after career and family building are usually over. That’s the time frame this question referents.

Since I will not be attending this year, I’m going to write my answer here and send it along to the retreat.

What is our intention for this phase (or the remainder) of our life; hopes, truths, fears, losses, sufferings, challenges, inspirations, duties and non-duties?

It is different now, in the third phase of life. With a career and a family we built our lives to a crescendo and this, this is the denouement*:  the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Other words: conclusion, finale, epilogue, coda, final scene, finish, end.

It is not retirement, at least not any more. This is not the finish line, it’s the period before the finish line, after the race has largely been run. But not all the way. The finish line might be a fourth phase, a sort of lingering in the face of medical challenges that end only one way, death. None of us, to my knowledge anyhow, are in that fourth phase and we have at least one who is still flirting with the end of the second phase, but for the most part we’re in life’s epilogue.

One of the reasons I came up with notion of the third phase was that the retirement model of my childhood was more like the fourth phase, a lingering that, though it might include golf, fishing, a grandkid on the knee, was still a lingering that saw death close by. It was a time of not-working, defined by whatever leisure pursuits one chose.

2010 01 19_3454Not for us. As all of you (Woolly Mammoths at least) know, I entered the third phase from a different vantage point, having left the ministry behind as a full-time vocation in 1991. I focused on writing novels though there was a regressive moment in which I moved over to the UU ministry, at least partway.

I have written several. And I’m not done. My 8th, Superior Wolf, has a finished first draft and I’m working on my 9th, Jennie’s Dead. Not to mention the vampire novel I’m plotting in my head right now, one set around a castle hidden away in the Rocky Mountains. So, the not-working, retirement focused third phase is not for me. I’m having too much fun.

The third phase began in earnest for me when we decided to move to Colorado. Why? Because we were leaving behind not only the political and museum work I’d done for years in the Twin Cities, but we sold our garden, our orchards, our woods, our flower beds. We also stored all the bee equipment we’d purchased over the years. Those were the work equivalent activities of my post-ministry years, equal in some ways to novel writing.

So my intention for the third phase had, at the point of the move, at least these components: a focus on Jon, Ruth and Gabe, continued writing, immersion in the West and the Rockies, seeing what new life Kate and I could construct outside our Midwestern home places.

20171016_070053Of course, and I think this is true even if you remain in a familiar place, the unexpected always shapes things, too. How could we know, for example, that our family focus, the proximate reason for the move, would shift dramatically when Jon and Jen headed into fourteen months (and counting) of an acrimonious divorce. How could we know that in my first physical with our new physician, Lisa Gidday, that she would find a hard spot on my prostate? How could we know that Kate would face challenges from rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s Syndrome?

How could we know, in a more positive vein, that the mountain streams would be so interesting in their seasonal variation, the aspens so wonderful in their monochromatic fall splendor? How could we know that mule deer and elk, mountain lions and bears and fox would become part of our everyday life? How could we know that a small Jewish community, a community of mountain Jews as they call themselves, would become central to our lives?

What is intention? It’s an important idea for Jews. Kavanah**, or intention, can determine the religious efficacy of prayer and ritual. If the intention, the kavanah, is not sincere and focused, the prayer or ritual is considered deficient.  I’m not trying to be theological here, or, maybe I am, but not in a traditional sense. The kavanah of our third phase is critical, I think. It does need to be sincere and focused to prepare and establish an orientation of our heart/mind.

kyudo3_250Intention matters a great deal because, unlike Jewish prayer and ritual, so much of our life is unknown. What can we bring to life as it twists and turns, zigzags its way? A willingness to treat life with love, care, awe, joy will allow us to navigate the planned and the unplanned with grace. That is my intention for this (and, for that matter, any) phase of life, now this third phase. I will be open to the new, approach others with chesed, loving kindness, embrace awe, seek out the joyful and the laugh filled.

Whether I write, spend time with family, hike in the mountains, learn the ancient Jewish ways in their modern clothing, engage in the day to day with Kate and the dogs, or maintain relationships in the far away, I intend to laugh, love and play. After that? Well, there is no after that.

 

 

*1752, from French dénouement “an untying” (of plot), from dénouer “untie” (Old French desnouer) from des- “un-, out” (see dis-) + nouer “to tie, knot,” from Latin nodus “a knot,” from PIE root *ned- “to bind, tie.” etymology online

**”Kavanah comes from an ancient verbal root also found where the object or subject is the “heart”. It connotes “to direct, to prepare, to establish”, an orientation of mind, heart, intention. According to Moshe Halbertal, it implies concentration and sincerity…” wiki

Yes or No

Fall                                                                       Joe and SeoAh Moon

fear2Fear. Been thinking about it. It explains a lot of the political abyss threatening to swallow our democracy. Friend Tom Crane sent me a collection of articles about the neuroscience of political orientation, material I’d read in different places, but neatly summarized. It got me going.

Fear on the part of the white middle and working classes, fear about their jobs, their children, masculinity, the other taking, taking, taking, terrorists sneaking into our country, the future found their perfect amplifier in Donald Trump and his populist message. But Trump is not the problem. He is a problem, I’ll grant you that, but not the problem. Fear is the problem.

Fear_is_enemy2Meanwhile, my side of the abyss has focused on fear of a changing climate, the oppression of minorities, lgbt folks, the poor. Since liberals are more highly educated and usually wealthier than the white middle and working classes, we are more able to take our eyes off survival and focus on larger, more abstract issues. This feels more righteous because it seems selfless, disinterested when compared to chauvinism and day-to-day economic fears.

In the moment, the one defined by the nature of your real life, however, concerns about shrinking viability as a “race” (yes, it’s a false signifier except for those in the grip of its occult power) and as an individual will always trump (pun intended) concerns that seem far away or downright evil. This is a political reality suggested by Maslow’s hierarchy.

Fear is the killer

Fear is the killer

I’m trying to grasp the fear, to feel it from both sides. Not easy. For either side. This exercise is made more difficult by the apparently different neurological realities of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives have a larger amygdala, making them more inclined to fearful responses, while liberals have more gray matter in the cerebral cortex, making us more able to cope with complexity.

This means, I think, that liberals fears are felt less intensely and drive our politics less powerfully than those of conservatives.  The larger context for those things we fear may be more apparent to us, more capable of diminishing how large they loom in our lives.

fearsWithout going into exactly how it stimulates this thought (too complicated for a blog post) kabbalah sees yes and no as two of three primary pillars of creation. It seems to me that liberals are the yes, we can do that for others, folks. Conservatives are the no, there are limits to what we can do, folks. Another way to name these pillars is possibility and limits. Liberals see possibilities; conservatives understand barriers. Neither, by itself, is adequate.

Yes needs limits. No needs the push of possibility. We need, again, a politics that recognizes the interlaced need for Yes and No. Somehow we have allowed the difference between Yes and No to become absolute. We have allowed difference to become not difference, but a yawning chasm, one crossed only by the flimsiest of bridges. We might fall! We need the dialectical tension of hope and practicality. In fact, kabbalah suggests that not only do we need it; we are it. We are neither yes nor no, but both. Not knowing this is a form of sin, I suppose. In our time it may be the original sin.

 

 

 

Kabbalah says so, too

Fall                                                                                  Joe and SeoAh Moon (and Murdoch, too)

from Post Secret.

magical

pope

 

Yes And No

Fall                                                               Joe and SeoAh Moon

ein sof

ein sof

Kabbalah. Spinning, spiraling, dancing. A curiously long lived wrecking crew barely known even to the tribe that gave it birth. Long lived because its roots may well be in an oral tradition forbidden to be written down, an oral tradition that extends centuries before the destruction of the second temple in 70 c.e. There is no way to know if that’s true. It surfaces in written literature during the middle ages, around the 1200’s in Spain.  Like the mishnah before it, the impetus for writing kabbalistic thought down was a fear that the knowledge would be lost due to persecution, the dispersal and/or death of the rabbis who carried the knowledge.

As a wrecking crew this line of thought systematically dismantles whatever it is you think you know, about life, about the cosmos, and scripture. Let me give you an example of this last. When Abraham takes his son Isaac to altar as a sacrifice, the story is not about Abraham and Isaac, but about two key energy channels coursing through all the worlds that are: Yes and No, Faith and Will. So. Faith takes Will as a sacrifice, at what it thinks is the command of the ein sof, the infinite one behind and within all. This is yes saying yes without regard for consequences. The angel, the messenger, says No, Faith, no affirmation is worth the sacrifice of choice. There are limits in the world. Take this ram as a substitute and preserve your ability to choose wisely. At least this is my version using what I know now.

fools-journey-kabbalah

fools journey kabbalah

Rabbi Jamie says that when a kabbalist reads the Torah, and I imagine the megillah and the Psalms and the prophets and other sacred books, they do not see stories about individuals but stories about the key metaphors for understanding existence. This is a truly radical inversion of the religious story that seems to be told in the Tanakh.

In fact, here’s one more step beyond even this radical notion that we discussed last night. Anshel asked Rabbi Jamie if God cannot sit or stand, how can God say? Talk. A question gleaned from his reading of the Psalms. The kabbalists, the Rabbi said, would invert the metaphor. Humans, he said, are the metaphor, not God. In other words we have used our own body as a way of understanding the ein sof, the infinite in and behind all.

Holidays-3-paganism-18189677-470-432So, I asked, can we say God is made in the image of man? Yes. We can say exactly that. This makes wonderful sense to me. As limited creatures, bound to a body, grounded, living a life that will end in death, we struggle to see, to peel back the layers of the world we know and find what makes it so. As we do, we utilize what is available to us, our bodies, our knowledge of life and death, our consciousness, our relationships with others, with animals, with the animate and inanimate.

As a pagan, I try to do this, try to work backwards from the world I see to the world I cannot. This is what I call revelation. The Great Wheel is the sephirot writ in the language of plants. It is, of course, a metaphor, too, one offering the book of nature as a Way. This correlation between paganism and kabbalah is rich for me right now. More as it develops.

 

Well. OK.

Fall                                                                             Harvest Moon

shame-quote-2Shame. It’s a quiet burning just under the skin, a turning of the inner face away from the self, embarrassed. What have I done? I suppose its power comes in the possibility that the person who acted like this could be the “real” me. And, it doesn’t have to be an egregious act to call it up.

Example. Mussar says, pay attention to how much space you take up. Do not dominate your environment, for example. Leave plenty of room for the other, for their response, their reaction, their choices. On the other hand, do not shrink into the background.  Leave room for yourself, your reaction, your choices. There is no sphere of life where this idea does not apply. Work. Family. Synagogue. Church. Recreation. Community affairs. Politics. All spheres of human interaction.

In mussar each character trait exists in a polarity, say patience-anger or humility-pride. Neither pole is always best, the dynamic of mussar suggests that in certain situations either pole may be appropriate, though the sweet spot is in the balance between them. Patience, for example, should not be allowed to subvert the need to take action. Anger should not be allowed to control or force a response. The key is to know when to be patient, when to allow anger to show. So we try to remain in the middle space, ready to use which trait will produce the most human, most needed act.

Shame-Test-940x690Getting to the point here. I’m a student, probably since my first conscious thought. How the world works fascinates me. History, too. Literature. Art. Religion. Philosophy. Politics. Last night for example, before I went to sleep, I focused on my breath as I often do. I began to wonder, “OK. I know about inspiration, the lungs take in air, blood in the lungs binds the oxygen to the hemoglobin. But what about expiration? How does that work? Where do the exhaust gases, the carbon dioxide, come from? How do they get expelled? Why don’t the two processes interfere with each other?” Still don’t know the answer, btw, but I’m going to ask Kate at breakfast.

As a student, I’ve always been rewarded for speaking up in class. Classroom participation, remember that one? At age seventy it’s a long ago embedded part of my behavior. I’m aware I can dominate a class, so I try to be circumspect, not to follow every rabbit down every hole, though the desire to do so is always there. Where do the exhaust gases come from? Why does god put the angel with the flaming sword at the gates of Eden? It’s the way my mind works.

Yesterday in mussar Rabbi Jamie asked us to be aware of those who don’t speak or speak less often. To be sensitive to what they might be wondering, sensing, have to offer. Oh. Oops. He means me, doesn’t he? Well, probably, but also the others who tend to speak up frequently. Still, even the possibility, the likelihood, that part of his comment was aimed at me, made me go pink around the ears.

cone-of-shame-dog-funny-pictures-lolI shrank back in my chair, at least metaphorically, vowing, again, to keep my hand down. To keep that curiosity publically in check. To filter my thoughts, about whether they need to be expressed.  Hard for me. I’m eager when it comes to learning and part of learning is bouncing ideas off each other. But there’s that balance idea, the sweet spot between curiosity and taking up too much space, the need to honor the contributions and questions of others, to not privilege my own at other’s expense.

Letting shame dominate my response, however, is not helpful. Shame can lead to exclusion, to fear of being in a certain situation, in a certain group of people. And, paradoxically, it can also lead to an inflated idea of a particular moment’s meaning. Oh, I’m so bad that I can’t show my face here again. No. Learn the lesson. Keep it available as a guide, as a lesson, not as a definer of the Self. We are all more than even our worst mistakes and shame alerts us, usually, to the slighter mistakes, not the worst ones.

I’m talking to myself here. Writing does that for me. Gets me down to the root of an experience. So, here’s what I’m saying. Yes,Charles, modulate participation, but don’t go quiet. Yes, accept the observation as relevant, but not as a diminishment.

 

 

 

 

Metaphor? Of course.

Fall                                                                               Harvest Moon

kabbalah8The tree of life, the tree of immortality guarded by the angel with the flaming sword; the tree itself still growing in paradise, concealed by language, by our senses, by the everydayness of our lives; the path back to the garden often forgotten, the exile from paradise a separation so profound that we no longer know the location of the trail head and even harder, we no longer have a desire to search for it.

Metaphor? Of course. But in these three words lie a trap for the unwary, a trap in which I allowed myself to get caught and held, a mindhold trap. My life seems like a sine wave of grasping, then losing the significance of metaphors.

When young, I felt the mystery behind the communion wafers and the grape juice at Alexandria First Methodist. At the tenebrae service, when we extinguished the little candles with their paper drip guards and the sanctuary went dark, I thrilled to the change from ordinary experience, sensed the power rolling over us as the memory of crucifixion and death came hurtling through the centuries to land in our small Indiana town, in the very spot where I sat.

The sunrise services held on Easter morning lit up my whole inside. The power of the tenebrae had been defeated and life did go on forever, death only a mistake, an illusion, misunderstood as a cruelty when in fact it was a gateway. I suppose on those days, repeated over many years, I had a glimpse of the path back to the garden.

My mother’s death, I think, shattered this instinctive faith. Those feelings occasioned by grape juice soaked squares of bread, darkness and the rising of the sun, were a true path and one I lost when the brutal reality of grief smeared the way.

But the memory of that way remained. So I moved up from the instinctive triad of netzach-hod-yesod, forced by fear and loss to skip the next triad chesed-gevurah-tiferet and go to the one easiest for me to access, hochmah-binah-daat. I know these hebrew words may mean nothing at all to you, I’m still at the base of a steep learning curve with them myself, but they do appear on the illustration above so you can see where they are on the tree of life.

In simple, but not simplistic terms, the triads are netzach-hod-yesod, the realm of instinctual behavior, chesed-gevurah-tiferet, the realm of emotions and hochmah-binah-daat, the realm of the intellect. Movement in the tree of life goes from the keter to malchut and back from malchut up to keter, so there is no real top or bottom, only different spots in an ongoing process of creation.

kabbalahBut here’s the trap. Metaphor, of course! I studied philosophy, religion, anthropology in college. Then, after a few years stuck in unenlightened instinctual behavior-the storied sex, drugs and rock and roll of the sixties and seventies-I moved to seminary. The trap tightened. I learned about the church, scripture old and new, ethics, church history. It was exhilarating, all this knowledge. I soaked it up. I remained though stuck in the intellectual triad, pushing back and forth between the polarity of intuitive wisdom, hochmah, and analytical thought, binah, often not going on to daat, or understanding. I learned, but did not integrate into my soul.

There was a time, after seminary, after ordination, as I groped my way around in the work of ministry, that I found the path again. It was in mystical traditions like the Jesus Prayer, or the use of lectio divina, contemplative prayer. I had spiritual directors who guided my prayer life and I meditated often, daily for years, went on private retreats for days at a time. In those years I found my way back to the netzach-hod-yesod triad, traveling again on the instinctual path formed so long ago.

The trap sprung another time, though, as I got better at my ministry, more able to apply organizational development paradigms to congregational life, more able to pull the levers of political power for the good of various purposes: affordable housing, unemployment policy, economic development for poor neighborhoods, fighting off corporate takeovers of those same poor neighborhoods, more able to navigate the internal politics of Presbytery life. I became stuck in malchut, the material world which we experience everyday. So stuck that eventually I could see nothing else and the path disappeared again.

interior_dante_divinecomedy_inf_01_002My heart knew I had gotten lost, in exile once again. In Dante’s words in Canto 1 of the Divine Comedy:

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.

It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death…

I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way.”

This time I knew I had to extricate myself from the subtle trap, get out of the thought world that had me lost in the dark wood, the direct way lost. It was a wild, harsh, seemingly impenetrable forest.

It was clear that for me the Christian faith had gotten muddled up with ambition, immersion in the world of power. And, most problematic of all, it had become part of the metaphor trap. The metaphor had gone stale, had become a barrier instead of a koan. Not the fault of the faith itself, but of my journey within it.

IMAG0650croppedAt the time of its crumbling another path had begun to open for me. Fiction writing emerged when, ironically, I began writing my Doctor of Ministry thesis. Instead of working on it I ended up with 30,000 plus words of what would become my first novel, Even The Gods Must Die. Irony in the title, too, I suppose.

In the train of that shift came a decision to look into my Celtic heritage as a source for my fiction. While researching Celtic religion for the fantasy novels I wanted to write, I discovered the Great Wheel.

It grounded me. So to speak. My spiritual life became tactile, bound up in soil amendments, bulbs, corms, seeds, spades and hoes, fruit trees, raspberries and bees. And, of course, dogs. Always dogs.

Meeting Kate enabled me to move gracefully out of the ministry and into a pagan worldview. I was back in the netzach-hod-yesod triad, but now firmly attached to malchut, the queendom of this world.

Writing fiction found me exploring the chesed-gevurah-tiferet triad, having to reach into my heart for believable characters, story lines. Over the course of those years, the years since leaving the Christian ministry and now, I began to gradually integrate the triads, at least the three: intellectual, emotional and instinctual. The combination of family life, the Andover years, writing, and working as a docent at the MIA began to slowly weave them into my soul.

2010 01 19_3454Even so, I sat behind the barrier, the flaming sword, the metaphor trap. Beth Evergreen and Rabbi Jamie Arnold have started me on a journey back to where I began, immersed in the dark. Seeking for the light, yes, but happy now in the  darkness, too. The Winter Solstice long ago became my favorite holiday of the year.

When I left Christianity and took up my earth-bound spirit, I shut off access to the fourth triad, the one subsumed under keter: faith-joy/pleasure-will, and its source of energy, the ein sof, the infinite One, perhaps god in small letters. Today, as I write this, I’m more pagan than I’ve ever been, more embracing of the body, the mountains, the stars, the elk and the mountain lion, than any words from any source.

2011 03 06_3396But. At Beth Evergreen I have begun to feel my way back into the fourth triad, the mystery I first encountered on the hard wooden pews in Alexandria, the one pulsing behind the metaphors of tenebrae, of crucifixion, of resurrection,  and now of Torah, of language, of a “religious” life. I knew it once, in the depth of my naive young boy’s soul. Now, I may find it again, rooted in the old man he’s become.

Your Honor

Fall                                                   Harvest Moon

 

I wrote about the middot (character trait, soul trait) kavod—honor, dignity, respect—a few posts below. With two evenings focused on it, Wednesday at the MVP group, mussar vaad practice group, and the Thursday night Tikkun Middot Havurah, and my preparation for the Wednesday night presentation, I’m ready for the practice.

After considering the trait in group, we then choose a practice for the coming month that will encourage to integrate the trait into our daily lives. As Marilyn said Thursday night, mussar is not self-help since its focus is on relationships with others, of being of service to others. Rabbi Jamie says, “learning how to bear the burden of the other.”

This is not Jewish power of positive thinking, or dress your mind for success. It’s about real change, in your own character, change that makes you better able to be present to the other, the other made in the image of God just as you are.

Practice involves a focus phrase, in my case, Your Honor, and a particular way of inserting kavod into my day-to-day experience. We commit to each other for a practice. I said I’d try—no, not try, I will—each time I read something in the paper that pisses me off politically, which happens a lot, I’ll focus on honoring the humanity of my opponent, or enemy.

Rabbi Jamie thankfully talked me off that precipice. “That may be too much. Try honoring the anger.”

That sort of whipped my head around. Say what? Honor the anger? I agreed with him that trying to honor the humanity of the Trump/Pence/Tillerson/Sessions/Pruitt crowd might be too difficult. But honoring anger? It seems so un-middle class. I mean, we’re supposed to swallow our anger, aren’t we? At least be ashamed of it. So… Honor it? Still, he’s an insightful guy, who has gotten to know me over the course a year plus now, and I trust him. I agreed.

Although I’m only a day into the practice, I’m already very surprised by it. I chose to go with honoring my anger in all situations, not just when reading the blankety-blank news. That means when the guy cuts in front of me and slows down, I honor the anger. “What the hell? You son-of-a-bitch!” Like that.

That last was not a hypothetical. It happened yesterday. I reacted. Hotly. But instead of going into the usual physical demonstration of my feelings, I honored the anger. What made me mad? His behavior put my life at risk and Kate’s life. He violated simple rules, both legal and commonsense ones, for a momentary, unnecessary advantage.

I realized my anger was referented. But in the moment it took to honor my anger, I also allowed a gap between my anger and my reaction. I got to choose how I reacted. That was different than letting the anger surface and take control of me. It put a small pause between a justified reaction and a response. I didn’t have to honk my horn, wave my middle finger, I could recognize the anger, own it, respect it and choose to act, or not.

When I did do the same while reading the news, in one for instance the NRA’s cynical admission that maybe bump stocks for creating automatic weapons require regulation, I noticed again that my anger was referented. Why do they think admitting that one egregious gun modification is too much means anything in the poisonous environment they have created? Why do they insist on adding more and more guns into our social mix? How dare they threaten me and mine with their medieval (sorry for the disrespect middle ages) attitudes rooted in fear?

But. Again, I didn’t have to let the referented anger boil over. It didn’t have to come to invective. To an emotional charge that might raise my blood pressure and not have any effect at all on the gun issue. Calm down and honor your anger. Seems like a good practice for the month

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the Texts

Fall                                                                            Harvest Moon

20-the-map-is-not-the-territoryThree nights in a row at Beth Evergreen. Challenging for this early to bed, early to rise guy. Though. Kabbalah fascinated me. I’m beginning to feel my way into the occult, again. The hidden wonders. This time around I may be able to actually hold at arm’s length the cultural vehicles and not resist the message because of the messengers. That is, kabbalah, in particular, has a poetic, evocative, confounding approach that speaks to my sense of absurdity. And, my in but not of relationship to Judaism also allows me a critical distance that I find very helpful.

At the mussar vaad practice group last night we had a discussion about the character trait kavod: honor, respect, dignity. It focuses on realizing the worth of each individual, of self and other, the god-in-me bows to the god-in-you.

There is a distinctively Jewish way of taking up this idea. For instance, a story in the Talmud has rabbi’s discussing whether a man on his way to hear the megillah, scripture written on a scroll (megile) but not part of the Torah, the story of Esther read at Purim being the usual example, must stop to bury a corpse he finds on the road. Yes, the rabbi’s conclude, he must bury the body rather than go hear the reading of the miracle of Esther. Why? Because of the honor due to any person, even their corpse. That transmits the message about kavod in way that’s hard to ignore. Teaching stories are a significant part of Jewish civilization.

BlakeThis story works for me. The imagery is something I can relate to because I’m human. Honor is so important and so often gotten wrong. Think, for example, about the instance of DJT honoring America First; just as Kim Jong Un honors himself and North Korea first. Or the gang member who feels dissed, disrespected, dishonored. A sense of kavod would have prevented the shooting in Las Vegas, the holocaust. It would prevent child abuse and domestic violence. Harming another whose dignity and respect is as worthy as your own is just not possible.

How we honor ourselves and, in turn, honor others is, therefore, a critical issue for our daily lives, our communal lives, our global lives. The kabbalistic conversation about Paradise hidden behind the wilderness of language allowed me, in a way I can’t explain, to peel away words and constructs and feel my way into the place where all pulses and throbs and lives and knows neither time nor space. The words for god, gods, goddesses point to this place, but like Hotei pointing at the moon, they are just fingers, not the moon itself.

Long ago, during the height of the sixties, many of my friends and compatriots were turning to Buddhism, to Hinduism, think Hare Krishnas and Zen. You might think, with my Asian bent, that they appealed to me immediately. No. I wanted, I said to myself, to go where they were going, but with Western cues, ones that were already woven into the fabric of my cultural inheritance. I was studying anthropology at the time and keenly aware of the way culture subtlety shapes our reality-the wilderness of language being no small part of it.

Abraham

Abraham

That’s how I ended up in Seminary. Eventually. And there were moments during sem, moments later during my time in the Christian ministry, when certain Christian traditions pulled me in in a manner similar to kabbalah: the Jesus prayer, lectio divina, contemplative prayer, retreats. The mystical side. As kabbalah is an important mystical tradition in Judaism. I got sidetracked, and yes I believe it was a side track, though, by my political commitments, by my nurture the institution commitments, by my always soft, but extant, commitment to the textual underpinnings of Christianity.

The quasi-Scholastic nature of the religions of the book, and most religions are, in one way or another, religions of the book: buddhist sutras, the tao te ching, the vedas, the koran, the bible, the tanakh, however, pushed me away, as it did Emerson. I want a religion, like him, of a revelation to us, not the dry bones of theirs. So I chose to read the book of nature, to step outside the textual traditions and the wilderness of their dogma, their stories. I’m still out there.

But. With the help of Beth Evergreen and the spirit of reconstructionist thought I’m once again able to be fed by those same texts without immersing myself in their interpretive world, at least not in a, I’d better get this or I’m lost (in the sense of geographically lost, not the metaphysical idea of salvation) sense. This is freeing for me, and Beth Evergreen has made it possible. I can take those cues from our Judaeo-Christian cultural inheritance and hear their powerful messages without becoming entangled in them, enmeshed.

As Leonard Cohen might say, Hallelujah.

November 2017
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