Category Archives: Mindfulness

Sometimes the camera allows me pay more attention. Not an act of capturing the moment, but being closer to it. Sometimes it’s the reverse, but that’s another story…

Horses and horses and ducks (oh, my) on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of tiferet, or balance, covers the period April 23-30. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

I’ve been perched a while on my secluded rock in the ravine, spending time amidst water, wind, trees, light.

Suddenly, a frantic flapping of wings – a couple of ducks putting on reverse thrusters as they land with a splash in the stream beside me.

I think about going for my camera, but don’t want to make any sudden moves, as I’ve decided I’m the Jane Goodall of omer-counters, a quiet presence around whom the wildlife feel unthreatened.  (Or maybe the urban experience of these waterfowl is such that they’re accustomed and unfrightened by humans, but since this is not my preferred thought, I go back to being Goodall.) 

After a short while, one of them, the more colourful, coasts over closer to me, concentric circles emanating outwards.

“Beautiful,” I think.  “Now, the camera.”

Tiferet, though, has me pause a moment.

In this third week of the counting of the omer, the overarching trait with which one works is tiferet, variously translated as splendour, truth, and balance.  One way in which balance comes into the picture is to find the right proportion of the first two week’s practices – how much open-hearted, chesed (loving-kindness) to extend, and how much gevurah (boundary-making) to employ. 

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Winter 2007 – I’m aboard the Southwest Chief, the train that runs from Los Angeles to Chicago.  I’ve been travelling in stages, and got on about a half hour ago in Raton, New Mexico. 

As always, I’d headed to the viewing car and its floor-to-ceiling windows. 

As we pass through grazing and ranch land, I hear a gasp and a “wow!” from the other side.  I stand up to see a horse galloping alongside the train, its combination of grace and speed providing a thrill of a kind I’ve never known.  I reach back to my seat, grab my camera, take off the lens cover, and turn back. 

The horse is gone. 

I will think often of this moment, regretting that I tried to capture rather than live it.

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Spring 2017 – I am following the arrows, walking the Camino Portuges, the pilgrimage route that runs from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 

I’ve chosen the coastal route, carrying my backpack from village-to-village, the Atlantic Ocean on my left, waves crashing against rocks, locals calling out, “Buen Camino!” 

Somewhere between Matosinhos and Vila Cha I spot a group of young equestrians.  Still on their mounts, most are watching a trio of classmates at the far end of the beach.  Suddenly, their horses are in motion, kicking up sand, hooves a blur of speed.  As they get closer, I think of my camera.  And then, I think of the Southwest Chief, and leave the camera alone so I can simply enjoy the gift of watching them race past, the horses beating out thunder on the ground, the blue-green ocean for a backdrop. 

The trio come to a stop and turn around.  For another charge along the shore?  “Okay,” I tell myself.  “The camera can come out.  But set it up so that if the moment comes, you’re not experiencing it through a viewfinder.”  The moment does come. 

The picture I take is slightly out of focus. The delight of the moment is not.

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In the ravine, I think of chesed as the voice that says, “Yes, take the picture.  Capture the moment.  Keep it for yourself, share and show it off to others.”  While gevurah says, “Not so fast.  These moments come once.  Try to capture them and they’re gone; don’t participate from the sidelines.” 

When the duck drifts my way, tiferet lets chesed and gevurah have their say, then finds a middle path, just as it did on the Camino.  First, be here, in case here goes away.  Breathe in this gift, and breathe it in again.  And then, if it lasts, get out your camera and click.  Unlike the Camino, though, this time my subject is slow-moving, and I could take dozens of pictures till I get the perfect shot.

Gevurah says, “Remember.  You’re Goodall.  Not Ansel Adams.”

Even chesed has me let go of the camera, saying, “Listen to your body.  Your body doesn’t want to work that hard.  It just wants to be here.”

Sometimes, I guess, tiferet has to negotiate between chesed and gevurah, and other times it lets them find their own path to the same destination.

So a couple more pics, and the technology is put aside.  I hang out with the ducks for some time, until a rambunctious golden retriever charges into the water and sends them flapping away.

And with tiferet’s assistance, I am full, still enjoying this opportunity to breath easy.

Your turn…

How about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in finding that sweet spot where tiferet finds harmony between chesed or loving-kindness and gevurah or boundary-making? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer?

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Filed under counting the omer, Mindfulness

Looking for Love on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(As with my previous series on the Jewish Morning Blessings, or Birkot HaShachar, it’s my hope that the spiritual reportage and practices I describe in this new set of posts will be of value to you whether you’re Jewish or not, a believer, atheist or agnostic, as we navigate these unsettling times.  As you’ll see, there’s an invitation at the end to offer your own insights and experience. I’d be delighted if you did.)

As I descend into the ravine, I discover that my side of the path is covered with mud and a runner is approaching.  A matter so benign, I’d have given it no attention a month ago.  But now, of course, everything is different.

The calculations begin.

Maybe I should keep going straight, and resign myself to mud-slopped feet.  Or maybe I can angle slightly towards the runner, and in the way others seem to have, tell myself that where six feet of distance isn’t feasible, four is good enough.

Or maybe there’s another option.  Maybe I can act from a place of chesed [to hear the word pronounce, listen to Warlax’s version here], or loving-kindness, not yet knowing of the reward that awaits, the tears that will come, and how much I yearn for them.

And maybe what I’m exploring will also hold value for you, regardless of your religion or spiritual practice or absence of either, in this upside-down, sideways-spinning time.

But first, a little – and not too much, I promise – theology.  And then it’s back to the runner and my tears.

By the Jewish calendar, we are now in the early stages of the counting of the Omer, a seven-week process in which one numbers off each day between the Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a passage taking one from the constriction of slavery in Egypt through the expansiveness of freedom, and ultimately to the revelation of Torah (or “teaching”) at Mount Sinai.

Somewhere in the 16th or 17th centuries, Jewish mystics, or Kabbalists, mapped the counting of the Omer to their schema for God, who they understood to possess ten key attributes, the “lower” seven of which mirror more human qualities. They assigned each of these characteristics to one of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot,* so that people could give attention to them, and cultivate those qualities within themselves.

It’s a practice that continues today, and one I’ve done in the past.  But we’re in a new world now, and I wonder what it will be like this year to move from Passover to Shavuot, giving attention to each of these attributes, and discover what will be revealed at the end of Revelation Road.

To be sure, I approach this pilgrimage from a place of privilege.  Neither I nor those I love have to this point been felled by the pandemic.  I’m still earning a paycheque, and able to work from the comfort of home rather than by tending to the visibly ill or by bagging groceries for asymptomatic carriers. But even the privileged are suffering.  Suffering from fear for the world’s future and the safety of the most vulnerable.  Suffering from deprivation of the physical company we crave, and missing the activities that enliven us most, not knowing how or when they will be part of our lives again.  And maybe most of all, we are suffering from having the curtain pulled from behind the illusion that we know what tomorrow holds.

The quality assigned to the first week of the Omer, laying the groundwork for all the weeks to follow, is chesed, variously translated as loving-kindness, loving connection, and generosity.

So when I step outside for a walk, I decide to give chesed attention as best I’m able – whether I’m its source, its recipient, or simply its witness.

I do so, reluctantly accepting it will be without the long stretches of green space for which I yearn.  But the beautifully landscaped cemetery near my home has been closed because of insufficient physical distancing.  And though it helps that there’s a small park nearby where I now go for perambulations through its cluster of trees and the fallow outfield grass of a baseball diamond, I’m yearning for a good, long amble.  So I settle for more of an urban walk, stepping into the zig-zag flow of people getting away from one another.  Except for those who don’t.  “What part of six feet don’t you understand?” I want to chide them, chesed eluding me. 

The sun.

Sunlight is slanting onto the street between buildings, its rays offering warmth to my bones that I hadn’t realized they craved. Chesed to the weary.  And a compass by which to direct myself.  Any road I can walk down that directs me to the sun without my having to be on top of other people is the road I want.

Soon, surprisingly soon, the sun delivers me – could it be? – to a pathway into a ravine.

“Don’t mess with me now,” I think.

When the cemetery closed, I thought of taking recourse to the nearby ravines, but the only way in that came to mind were long stairwells only four feet wide or so.  I tried making the case as to why that would be okay – I could turn my back to others if we got close, other people were surely using them, too – but every reason I came up with felt like a justification for my pleasure being more important than others’ well-being, and so I accepted that the ravines would have to wait.

But now, having discovered this pathway, I place one foot after the other and take its measure.  Eleven and a half shoe lengths wide.  Almost ten feet.  If I keep to my side and they keep to theirs, we’re in business.

Suddenly, I’m amidst tall trees and bare branches just starting to bud, carpets of discarded leaves, occasional evergreens a shining contrast to the brown of early spring. 

But as I descend, I discover that that my side of the path is mudded over, and a runner is approaching.

And so, quick calculation.  Do I walk into the mud?  Do I angle slightly in the runner’s direction?  I opt instead for something radical. 

I stop. 

No striving or striding.  I just slide over as far as I can to the side, and stop. 

The intention is to ensure, as best I can, her well-being and mine, and that of everyone we meet.  I can’t say that it’s chesed that’s governed this decision; stepping aside and stopping is something I’ve been doing since before the counting of the Omer.  But it’s helpful to note all the same that the distance I and others have been giving one another these past several weeks is absolutely an act of love.  And even more helpful is the act of stopping, because here, at the side of this path, in this stillness, I really am where I am, tuning in to the trills and tropes of birdsong from either side, the cool of the breeze, the low-grade heat from the sun, its light glistening and giving texture to the ruts in the mud.  We are only now migrating out of the “ugly” parts of the spring, and every bit of this is a blessing.

The runner has passed and I could continue along.  But having stopped, I’ve spotted a slab of rock down by the stream, and it’s clear that that’s exactly where I want to be.  It’s a sharp descent, but falling towards a couple of trees and grabbing their trunks keeps me from tumbling into the muck. I work my way to the rock surrounded by mud and water, perching where no one can approach.  It’s almost too beautiful to bear; the shimmering waters at my feet turning the reflection of the trees into impressionist art, the rippling waters ahead and the swirling waters behind curving downstream, the patch of green on the other bank hinting at the ripening of spring, the soothing and continuous sounds of water pouring into the stream, the tableau of bare, brown trees. 

I could cry.  So I do.

This, too, is chesed.  A reassurance that it will be alright.  An absurd thought almost, and one I would never impose on those enduring physical suffering or loss.  But I am sitting in eternity right now, and know that whatever becomes of it all, it will be alright.  The words ahava rabah ahavtanu come to mind.  From one of Judaism’s central prayers.  With a great love, You love us.

Because my need for chesed is irrefutably insatiable at this time, I have returned to the rock four days running.  A couple of days ago, I spotted an improvised footbridge running across the stream, the sight of which would normally have lifted my spirits, but in these fearful days, generates a war plan instead we have to knock that thing down before somebody comes from the other side!  More spiritual work to do, more chesed to access.  But that’s nothing new; I already knew I was a work in progress.

Each day I perch on the rock, take in the waters, tear up, get bored, make myself stay, fall in love with nature again, get bored, stay some more.  At the fifteen-minute mark, I wonder how much longer I need to stay.  At eighteen minutes, I wonder where the time went.

And each and every day, my walk to and from the rock has allowed me to extend, receive or simply witness chesed

I witnessed it when I noticed that the photo lab I pass on the way has three large and bright signs out, saying “We’re all in this together!”

I received it when physical distancing took me into the road, only realizing once I was back on the sidewalk that I had been trailed by a driver, the sound of whose car had been muffled by fierce winds.  Rather than honk me aside, she had simply slowed down until I was out of harm’s way.

And I offered it when I noticed the homeless guy on the street corner.  He’s surprisingly cheerful, singing with what might be a well-trained voice, and holding a weathered cardboard cup.  I don’t want to get close to him. What I do want is an exemption from loving-kindness.  After all, didn’t I make a donation just last week to Ve’ahavta, the not-for-profit that serves the city’s street people?  I know.  I’ll tell him to walk all the way downtown so they can look after him.  But there’s an alternative that he can actually put to use. “I’m keeping my distance from people,” I call to him, as I pull the only kind of cash I’ve got, an American twenty, out my wallet, “but I’m putting this down here for you.”  As I anchor the bill below a construction pylon, he tells me, now that everything’s sinking in, he’s becoming fearful that even the very coffee cup he’s holding could be a danger to him.  “Be safe, pal,” I say.  “Yeah, you too!” he says.

And I’ve shared chesed, too, enjoying the benefit of the connection it engenders, as I do the dance with a neighbour I’ve never met before. As we get closer, I win the race to the road by a millisecond, so he gets the high ground of the sidewalk.  “It’s better that way,” he says.  “You’ll see the car that’s about to hit you.  I’d only hear it.”

Entering my building, the door won’t open.  I tug at it twice, then thrice.  The fob isn’t working, but the key does.  The maintenance woman inside has words for me.  “Don’t be banging on the door like that!” she shouts.  “If it’s not working, you’re only making it worse!”  “Fair enough,” I say, though I resent being shouted at.  Scowling, she makes room for me, and I pass.  Chugging up the stairs, my resentment in tow, I think about how stressful her job and the rest of her life might be, and I do Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice, wishing her safety, happiness, good health, and ease. When I do this for people who I find difficult, the thought they might have to endure ill-health changes everything.  By the time I reach my apartment and catch my breath, my resentment is gone.

It could come back, of course.  As could any of a number of other grievances with the world.

Which is why regularly topping up on chesed seems like a good idea right about now.

* they also assigned one of the attributes to each of the seven days within the week, but that’s not a part of the practice on which I’ll be focusing in this series

Sneak preview: beginning Thursday night, April 16, the attribute we’ll be working with is gevurah, variously translated as strength, judgment, discernment, and discipline. But keep your attention on chesed as long as you wish. The world can always use more loving-kindness.

Your turn…

Now how about you? Have you experienced chesed (loving-kindness, loving connection, generosity) in these trying times? In what ways have you received, offered or witnessed it? Is there advice you would care to offer to others about how to access it? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.

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Known Regrets, Unknown Paths: field notes from Tashlich

It had been some years since I’d participated in tashlich (“casting away”), the ritual commonly performed on Rosh Hashanah, in which one scatters breadcrumbs into flowing water, symbolically letting go of transgressions from the year past.

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Still in the remedial group, I came late to the endeavour, only taking to the task today – but in my defense, with a degree of forethought and intentionality, filling up three small vials with breadcrumbs, each for a specific set of regrets about the year gone by and a commitment to try to do better in the year ahead.  And setting out with a friend.

Then, standing over a riverlet coursing its way through a ravine, I opened the vials, considering my wrongs and my rights, and surrendering the breadcrumbs one at a time to their journeys.  When the first few moved rapidly through the water, then got stuck at a rock, I started to game the system, eliminating the middleman and sending three-point shots to the more cooperative patches of waters.  I thought about crossing the stream and setting the stuck morsels free, but instead trusted that sooner or later, they would be released from where they were trapped, and so would I. 

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(Lest I take credit where it’s not deserved, this one was not taken by me.)

While closer to me, other pieces of bread also had their passage blocked by a wide stone, but no sooner were they seemingly tethered  for life to stuckness, then they suddenly broke free,  surging over the stone and onward, quickly disappearing from view.

And I recalled one of my teachers at a Buddhist retreat saying, “You have no idea where you are on the path.”

L’shana Tova.  A good year to us all.

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Postcards from Here: visiting radical amazement

(a series on paying attention to what’s right in front of me)

It’s been on my mind to “upgrade” from my current camera, which has served me exceedingly well the past six or seven years to a new one (performs better in low light, indoors, etc. etc.).  I may well give in.  But this past week, whenever I thought about going into a store and checking it out, I found myself preferring instead to be in the street with my tried-and-true.

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Sunday: Montreal metro

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Skylight, Gare Centrale (Central train station), Montreal…might not have seen it had it not been for a two-hour delay in departure…sometimes we need to be forced to notice….I do, anyway

“Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation.

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Tuesday in Toronto

“We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive.

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Wednesday,: momentary siesta for Bay Street

“We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being.”

“Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel*

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Thursday

(spoiler alert: I think I’ll keep an eye out for colour for the next post)

* Thank you, Rabbi Aviva Goldberg for putting Heschel’s reflections on technology and wonder in front of Congregation Shir Libeynu often enough that they’ve taken up residence in my RAM, not to mention my mind.

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Postcards from Here: plus some sapling talk

These days, my writing effort is going into work on a book (assuming I can get out of my own way, and stay there).  But I also want to stay on the blog.  So with your permission, let me introduce a new series I’m calling Postcards from Here.

With it, I’ll endeavour to take time to see what’s before me in the day-to-day, and then, put it before you.  And  if a worthwhile teaching comes to mind – my own or one that merits plagiarizing – I may try to slip it in when you’re not looking.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll actually heed my own lessons.

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Monday in Toronto

 

 

And with that, here are some postcards from last week..

 

 

 

 

 

 

“If you are have a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has arrived… 

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Tuesday

…first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah.”

(Avot d’ Rabbi Natan)

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more Tuesday

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hey there, Wednesday

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Thursday in Montreal

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and Friday

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Fifteen – The Eyes Have It (even when they’re off the clock)

(The last in this series of fifteen posts 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.)

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From an alleyway in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood

This is the one about the two adolescent boys trailing two teenage girls.  And the toddler on one of the girl’s shoulders.

They came out of nowhere, boisterously merging into my sidewalk stroll.  Preferring quiet at the moment, I’m not looking forward to the mindless frivolity which awaits, but that’s life. 

Then I catch one of the boys talking to the other about the toddler.  “There was one time she bit me, and it hurt so much,” he says with wonder.  “Their teeth are so spiky at that age.” 

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Amused in Montreal

That’s one for an adolescent boy’s paternal affection for his little sister, and none for my assumptions about the company I’m keeping.

And so, I recite the brucha to celebrate my defeat…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hama’avir shenah me’eynay utnumah me’afapay

Blessed are You, source of all, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

Then there’s the one about my leaving work and striding to the subway.  Until I think of the brucha, and remember I’m allowed to slow down and pay attention.

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Moon over Colorado

Rounding the corner at Yonge and Dundas, rumoured to be the busiest intersection in Canada, I notice that I keep making contact with fellow pedestrians, their shoulders and arms nudging mine.  I start counting.  In just two minutes, nine people bump against me.  Nine souls.  Nine annoyances.  Pleasant.  Unpleasant.  Maybe later I’ll draw out metaphors about connection.  For now, it’s enough to be aware of something I must have experienced countless times, but managed, with remarkable consistency, not to notice.

So…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hama’avir shenah me’eynay utnumah me’afapay

Blessed are You, source of all, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

In the station, someone discovers she’s not allowed to board the subway with her bike at rush hour, and does a one-eighty, whacking me on the shin with her back wheel.  Make that ten souls.  Ten annoyances.  I look forward to more.

There’s also the one about the somnambulant Sunday on the subway, when I really (maybe) get the brucha.

I’m tired and close my eyes, my other senses tuning in to the thinly peopled train: the way it swings a little from side-to-side or gently lists at an angle, the persistent squeak suggesting ball bearings in need of oil, the gentle thud as we pass over bumps on the rails, making the floor that separates my feet from subterranean muck feel thinner, less stable.

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                                                                                                                                                                                Decarie Expressway, Montreal

I like all this noticing, but it takes focus and it’s the weekend.  I’m about to relax away from it, when I think of the brucha, which has often struck me as redundant – removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids?

But now it’s striking me as a teaching: pay attention, and when you’re done, pay more attention.  So I tune in again, becoming aware of the intermittent breeze wafting from a fan on the ceiling.  And of a high-pitched electronic sound – consistent, not especially appealing, and more discernable when the train slows down.  The doors open and the weighty drone of the mechanical apparatus affixed to the exterior of the new trains eviscerates all other sounds.  When the door closes again, it starts with a thud, and concludes with a click, just to make sure.  Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.  Sleep from my eyes.  Slumber from my eyelids.  Alive.

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Edward Hopper meets Decarie?

There’s this, too: I lift my eyes from my computer as I write this blog post, and see a sun-shiny opening in the monochromatic overcast.  I enjoy it a moment, recite a brucha*, and start to return my attention to the computer.  Then I remember what I’m preaching, and take in more sky.

* To be specific, I recite a brucha I use to sanctify any variety of beautiful visions offered in nature – Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, she’kacha lo ba’olamo / Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who has such beauty in the universe

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • If you’ve given yourself the gift of paying attention to your surroundings but, having reached your saturation point, find yourself getting back to reliving the past or planning the future, consider the possibility that you might be rewarded by staying with here and now.  If it helps, recite a blessing of your own devising for staying attuned, or use the traditional brucha:

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hama’avir shenah me’eynay utnumah me’afapay

Blessed are You, source of all, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

  • Is there someone who has helped you develop an aptitude for paying attention to your surroundings?  Perhaps recite the brucha with that person in mind.
  • Is there someone you know who might be rewarded by being pointed to surroundings they’ve lost sight of?  Without hitting them over the head on the matter, see if you can point them back to where they were.  And if you think it would be the wisest course of action, go ahead and hit them over the head.

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Between Stumblings – Picturing Joy

In the most recent post in my Stumbling Through Blessing series, I described a gloomy moment where I called into question whether I’d truly experienced happiness while walking St. Cuthbert’s Way this past spring.

img_0640In most other moments, during and after the walk, doubt has not been on the menu.  

Here’s some of what joy looked like as I ambled the one hundred kilometre footpath from Melrose, Scotland to Holy Island in Northumberland, England, reached by crossing the North Sea in low tide.  

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If the prospect of a little more joy appeals to you, feel free to join me for additional photographs (about sixty altogether) here.

Also, how about a brucah (blessing)?

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, she’kacha lo ba’olamo

 Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who has such beauty in the universe

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Share & Subscribe

 If you liked this, and want to see more, I wouldn’t say no to additional subscribers.  If you’re on a mobile device, scroll down about as far as you can, and enter your e-mail address in the Subscribe box.  If you’re on a computer, you’ll find the Subscribe box towards the top on the right-hand-side.

 And if you want to spread the word, there are buttons around here somewhere for sharing on Facebook and Twitter…

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