Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 1 – Project Birdbrain

(The latest in this series about the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, and the role they might play in helping us – Jews and non-Jews; believers, agnostics, and atheists – live with more gratitude, presence, and even compassion.  Part spiritual reportage, part suggested practice.)

Though barely begun, the day has already stopped going according to plan.  Fortunately, there’s a beefy guy in a powder blue t-shirt dancing through the subway station, helping me believe in equanimity.

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Birdness in the form of duckness (Toronto’s High Park)

It had been my intention to ease myself into Monday morning with the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night

I would give myself a leisurely stroll to the subway on a quiet street, attentive to morning birdsong, and then as best possible, other qualities of nature.

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Not exactly what I would have seen on the street, but you get the idea (High Park again)

But that’s before, as I prepare to leave home, I discover my glasses have gone into hiding.  In no time, blessing is replaced by curses.  My curses.  “Where the &**&^%!@ are my glasses!?” I keep repeating, as I check and double-check bookshelves, tables and, desperately, between pillows.  “Where the &**&^%!@ are my glasses!?”  Sometimes, to switch things up, I elaborate, “Where the &**&^%!@ are my &**&^%!@-ing glasses?!!?” 

By the time my glasses reveal themselves on the bathroom windowsill, I’m tight for time.  I’ll have to take the bus to the subway.  Charging along the sidewalk, I try to remember that hurrying, while making mindfulness more challenging, doesn’t have to preclude it.  I tune in to my breath, and listen for birdsong.  The most audible bird has a nattering, taunting sound. 

Nearing the stop, I focus on a different dimension of the brucha.  Though commonly rendered as “rooster,” the original meaning of the Hebrew sechvi is uncertain, sometimes translated as “mind.”

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the mind the ability to distinguish between day and night

Just as the rooster responds to the morning light with a spontaneous, instinctive crow, so the human mind responds to the world, our birdbrains instinctively guiding actions we never notice.

The bus is full, but the driver opens the backdoor for some of us to squeeze in.  Perched on the edge of a step, my body simply knows how to keep upright, shifting weight to compensate for the lurching from side to side, or the sudden break at a crosswalk.  A guy below me has contorted himself, his arm raised and bent backwards to grip the pole behind him.  He might have needed to think it through when he first took the pose, but now his conscious mind has moved on to other things.

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Sometimes it’s the “blandness” that delivers the light and colour (High Park subway)

At the subway station, everything we are doing is routine.  And extraordinary. 

Dozens of us pouring in, dozens more flowing out, instinctively establishing laneways, not slowing down and never colliding.  It’s then that I see the beefy guy in the powder blue t-shirt sprinting up the stairs, spinning and sidling through the onrushing crowd with nimble grace, till he reaches the transfer dispenser, hits the button, collects the transfer he’d forgotten earlier, and merges back into the crowd charging down the stairs.  Someone ought to tell him how magnificent he is.

On the subway, using mindful attention as my alibi, I spy on the human tableau – the Asian woman with the Mao haircut, her lips pursed, eyes slightly crossed, listening animatedly to her travelling companion; the Latino guy with the Blue Jays cap, fury in his face, fingers pressed hard into the book he’s reading about a serial killer; the young woman I think of as Nubian, in turquoise dress and jean jacket, her headscarf purple and her music player hot pink; the dark woman in the khaki shirt, her eyes wistful and filmy, as if staring at something that will never come back.

The subway sounds its chimes, snapping me out of reverie, and I think about my birdbrain.  How, without my attention, it has been filtering information from other chimes at other stops, quietly monitoring where I am, looking out for my station.  Because noticing begets noticing, I follow my sustaining breath for a while, the rise and fall of my chest which most of the time I take for granted.

At St. George station, most passengers disembark.  Those who remain put on a synchronized subway performance, bodies swaying in unison, compensating for the subtle rocking of the train.

It all happens so effortlessly, one might wonder whether it’s worthy of a brucha at all.  But invisible to us and out of our minds are those who couldn’t have managed the subway stairs, or the elderly who avoid rush hour for fear of crowds, and later in the day will have to apply mindful effort to occupy a seat, and again to rise from it.

At Yonge and Bloor, as I change trains, a transit workers calls out, “Today is Monday, May the fourth.  May the fourth be with you.” 

“That’s awful,” I say, hoping my tone is conveying that I think she’s terrific.

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Finding nature where it lives (in this case, Montreal).

Near my office building, I’m faced with a large sign outside a construction zone for a condo: This city moves fast.  And these will too.  An effort to panic that part of my birdbrain worried about safety and shelter. 

A sparrow flies past, inches from my eyes, and lands in a parking lot.  And because noticing begets noticing, my ears attune to the birdsong in the air.  Looking up, I am unable to find the source of the melody, but catch sight of a seagull soaring above the rooftops, its flapping wings wide and shiny below grey clouds.

I recite the brucha again – Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah– and step into work.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • In the nicest of ways, periodically stop and ask yourself, “What have I just done?” Not as a criticism, though.  Anything but.  Rather, as an opportunity to consider the ways in which you navigate your way through life with ease, even when you don’t notice.  And because speech can be powerful, taking us from fleeting appreciation to heartfelt gratitude, you might want to say the brucha aloud:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night

  • If you like the intention, but aren’t doing the practice, make an appointment. Tell yourself that for the next ten or thirty minutes, that as best possible, you will tune in to the things you wouldn’t normally notice that come to you so naturally.  If your mind drifts away, that’s simply because you’re human, so when you realize you’ve drifted elsewhere, gently bring your attention back and keep going.
  • Our days are filled with plans – and circumstance that get in their way. If that happens for you today, in spite of any quashed hopes, consider ways in which blessing remains before you.  You might even want to recite a blessing of your own creation to sanctify the moment.  It’s okay.  Say it quietly enough, and no one will think you’re a religious nut.
  • Keep in mind those who might have greater difficulty than you navigating through the day, perhaps because they’re physically or even socially disabled. Offer them compassion, a smile, acts of kindness subtle or large.

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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Mindfulness, Montreal

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