It’s March of this year and I’m not thinking about the Omer yet.
In fact, I’m thinking about very little.
I’m at a week-long silent meditation retreat, where I spent the first few days overcome with fatigue, struggling to stay awake, and navigating the accompanying internal noise.
“Why did I do things so last minute and get here so tired?” says my accusing mind. “What’s the point in having spent the money on this retreat if I can’t even stay awake through the sits and the dharma talks?”
“Go easy,” my gentler mind replies. “And try to remember that all of this is practice, the fatigue included.”
Then, as the fatigue fades, I find myself with as quiet a mind as I can recall.
And now, on the last night of the retreat, as we start to leave the meditation hall for our last formal walking period before bed, I push myself off the cushion, wait for my legs to uncramp, and make my way to a small room where I’ve done a lot of the walking the past couple of days. The room is dark and, besides me, unoccupied. I’m a little saddened. There are never many people in this room, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. But there are usually at least a couple of others, and that’s another reason I like it.
I find a spot on the side, leaving room for fellow retreatants who I hope will appear, and take small steps, giving full attention to each one as best I can – the feel of my toes pushing off the floor, and the feeling of landing. I notice the way my arms move for balance, and the pulsing in my arms and fingertips. Occasionally, the wooden floor creeks below my step.
As I reach the wall and turn around, the aloneness strikes me again, and I console myself.
Sure, it would be nice to have others here, I think. This retreat has underlined for me that when I get home, I need to find a sangha where I can be supported in my practice, and support others. But even so, most of the time, my practice will be alone, meditating on a cushion at home. Maybe this is a good transition back to that solitude.
The thoughts having been worked through, I try to leave them aside, and resume walking, returning my attention to footfall, foot rise, breath, torso, limbs.
The door opens, and I am immediately soothed. As my fellow retreatant finds a spot and begins walking, even though we go at different paces, and sometimes in different directions, and even though I may never learn his name or say a word to him, I feel fortified by this companionship.
It’s not words through which I know this. I know it in my bones.
And as quiet as my mind has gotten, in the presence of my fellow sojourner, it becomes quieter still.
II – Yesod during the Omer
It’s May of this year, and we are in the sixth week of the counting of the Omer, the passage from constriction to liberation to revelation. To be more precise, it’s the week of Yesod, often associated with connection, a precious commodity now that Covid has circled the globe. Sanghas have gone online, but online isn’t working for me, so instead, here I sit at my perch in the ravine, among streams and rocks and trees.
I look at my watch. I’d like to linger, but I need to get back home.
I step into my place a couple of minutes before 7:30 in the evening, just enough time to wash my hands, and get on the balcony. I wait for the clanging somebody I can’t see always makes at this moment. Then I join in, artlessly drumming on the doumbek, a gift given to me twenty years ago, which I have never used until now. Others start banging pots and pans, someone plays a foghorn, someone else a bass drum, another sets off fireworks. A little girl in leotards dances to the cacophonous symphony, my part in which draws my out here every night, including – or especially – on the days I least feel like it.
This daily noisemaking ritual is intended, of course, to offer encouragement to those working on the frontlines, and I’ve heard from some that they are in fact heartened by it. But in these times of isolation, amidst this community of mostly strangers, I for one am getting twice as much as I’m giving.
III – Yesod after the Omer
Maybe it’s the lengthening and warming days as summer approaches, or maybe it’s the realization that there’s no end in sight to the battle with Covid, but for some reason, the 7:30 noisemaking tapers off. I help keep it going a little longer, as far as I can tell, by flat-palming the drum for as much reverberation as possible, a cue taken by others who appear on their balconies and get to banging. But inevitably, the numbers dwindle to a straggler or two, and I wonder if my unskilled drumming, without pots and pans to accompany it, is more a source of annoyance than pleasure.
I guess I’m not as much of a soloist as I’ve thought.
I leave the doumbek inside, happy to pick it up again should the community ever come back together.
IV – Yesod after the after
And that is the last occasion of physical community I’ve had until this moment. There has been some hanging out with friends in parks and backyards, and a lot of online – with friends, family, community – that has taught me about both the merits and limits of online. Online prayer has taught me, for instance, that it’s usually harder for me to connect with the Divine when I have to do without physical company. That didn’t used to be true, but after going through the process that concluded almost a year ago of saying Kaddish in shul for my father for the customary eleven months, it’s true now.
So sure, in this solitude, I’m doing okay. “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” I’ve taken to saying, “but fortunately, I keep finding it again.”
Still, to put things as eloquently as possible…
We were not fucking made for this!!!
Tell you what, though. I’ll stand tall if you will.
Tell us, if you would, something about your relationship to connection in these disconnecting times. What is is like to have it so diminished? How have you managed to keep it going?
Four months ago, I set out on a pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai, and invited you to join me. About hallway through, I kept going, and even experienced what might be a little revelation. I abandoned you, though. I didn’t call. I didn’t write.
But I do apologize.
Blame it on the emotional and spiritual dishevelment a global pandemic can bring. And blame it, too, on hod, the theme of the fifth week of the counting of the Omer, which is associated, among other traits, with gratitude.
A slam-dunk, I thought.
For years now, I’ve done Jewish gratitude practices throughout the course of the day, beginning with the Modeh Ani (Thankful am I) prayer upon arising, and saying brachot, or blessings, for everything from the clothes on my back to the steadiness of my footsteps. With hod in mind, the plan was to pay even closer attention to opportunities for gratitude.
But to my disappointment, even dismay, this put me in the face of the flatness I’ve often felt in recent times, from which brachot could not be counted on to save me. Sometimes they would lift my spirits, as I noted the waxing of the moon, the refreshing scent in the air after rainfall, the extraordinary confluence of the efforts of humans and the elements in bringing food to my plate. But discomfortingly often, I would feel like I was going through the motions, doing not much more in reciting brachot than exercising my gratitude muscles to make sure they didn’t atrophy. A worthy habit, but hardly everything I was hoping for.
And who wants to report on that in a blog intended to offer encouragement?
Fortunately, it doesn’t end there.
If tried and true practices needed to be granted some slack – after all, how would you like the pressure of being a practice that more people desperately need than ever? – maybe it was time to try some alternatives.
So with that, I present for your consideration, other approaches to gratitude that have helped in recent weeks.
The Eyes Don’t Have It
I had begun a walk through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the ravines into which it leads, a beautiful urban landscape. And yet, well into the walk, amidst the Norway spruce, silver maple, and mugo pine trees, though I could recognize their beauty, they weren’t lifting my spirits much.
Putting things on pause, I headed to the street for some takeout. And when I was done and about to resume my walk – to push through, as it were – I took a minute to close my eyes and tune in to my other senses.
As my breath offered some settling, the din of traffic was suddenly no din at all, but rather the hum of a human hive on wheels, rushing towards a better moment. The breeze against my bare skin was a cooling balm. My arms and pulsing fingertips were the vessels through which surging rivers of sensation were coursing, proclaiming aliveness. A thunderous clunk jarred my eyes open, and I saw a car pulling an empty, clattering trailer. Something about it made me happy, and it didn’t matter that I had no idea why.
I stood, closed my eyes again, followed my breath for a little while, and resumed the walk, everything seeming both deeper and lighter, every footstep feeling sacred, every vista a gift. I wanted to feel this way forever, but I more or less knew better, and as the good feelings eventually started to leave, rather than grasp for more, I felt grateful to have experienced them at all.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You
A different day, a different walk.
I’m taking a new route out of the ravine, something I’d imagined might be a shortcut, along what turns out to be a noisy road on a searingly hot day. I want the unpleasantness to be over as quickly as possible.
But I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to speed things up is by slowing them down. Inhabiting the moment instead of pushing it away.
So with each footstep, I say, “Thank You.” And again. “Thank You.” I keep repeating it. And with each “Thank You,” I am enlivened by things I’d been unaware of only moments earlier – a soft breeze rustling some leaves, birdsong on my left and birdsong on my right, the feel of a pebble under my foot, the glint of sunlight off a door handle.
“Thank You. Thank You.”
I’m in the ravine on a morning where sadness is a stronger force than I would like, and the walk isn’t making me happier. I could turn back, but I trust that forward is best, perhaps by way of the catharsis of a good cry.
Perching myself where the brook runs over some rocks, I let tears flow. Hitbodedut or self-seclusion, comes to mind.
The version of hitbodedut taught by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzslav is to find a spot in nature and pour one’s heart out to God in an uncurated, stream-of-conscious way. The rationalist in me wants to roll its eyes, but the rationalist in me has proven it doesn’t have all the answers. So if it’s on my mind or in my heart, I say it. I talk and plead and thank – by the rocks, on a footbridge, on a path.
I feel some loosening, some healing. Something sustaining.
Blessed are You, source of all being, who grants strength to the weary
Baruch Atah Adonay, I add, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’asani Yisrael
Blessed are You, source of all being, who has made me of the people yis-ra-el. A god-wrestler.
Yes, thankful for all of this. Even as it becomes clear that, at the moment, gratitude practice is only carrying me so far. Fortunately, I’ve been given capacity – which I take less for granted now than ever – for finding other sources of strength, other ways of servingthat I must now explore.
Baruch Atah Adonay, chonein ha’da’at
Blessed are You, source of all being, who bestows knowledge.
Well, I like to think I’ve done a solid job here of illustrating how difficult accessing gratitude can be at times like these, and what might help. But I’m most definitely a work-in-progress on this. Care to offer a guy and his followers suggestions or counsel on tapping into gratitude or what to do when it’s elusive, based on your own experience?
(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage throughthe 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 netzach, or endurance and eternity, covers the period April 30-May 8. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)
It’s going to be different this time. I’m sure of it.
And it’s about time, too.
If you’re bored one day, and think seeing the lesser angel of my nature might be entertaining, check me out on an off day when I need to put in a call to customer service at my cable and internet provider. Even before the call is made, I’m bracing for endless prompts and “then press pounds,” until at last I’m finally told to hit zero if my call “is about something else.”
My calls always seem to be about something else.
While waiting for the customer service representative who will draw the short straw and be forced to attend to me, I not infrequently get into a spat with the recorded messages.
“We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes.”
“That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that. How about staffing up for your new normal?”
“Your call is very important to us – ”
“Oh, I know. You’d be bereft without me.”
“- and we appreciate your patience.”
“Don’t give me too much credit.”
If the unfortunate rep who gets me sounds too scripted for me tastes when asking how I’m doing today, they’re likely to be met with “I’m fine” in an icily cool tone, the subtext of which is “I’m done, so let’s not bother with pleasantries.” And they’re certainly not asked how they’re doing. Once I’ve explained my issue, when they repeat it back, whoa are they if I have to correct them – especially if they began the call by saying they could certainly fix my problem. My words may be civil, but they come slowly and reluctantly, as if I don’t know how much longer I can suffer this conversation.
No, not me at my best.
Hopefully, somewhere along the way – early in the call, ideally – I catch myself, and make adjustments, remembering the rep is under the watchful ear of a supervisor while dealing with many a crappy customer, and I summon my more pleasant, cooperative self. Too often, though, the call ends with my having made the rep’s life less pleasant than it needs to be. Maybe I regret it soon after the fact; but by then, there’s nothing to be done.
But something is going on these days.
We are now in the fourth week of the counting of the omer, the week of netzach, commonly translated as endurance and eternity. The week of pushing through on the journey from the constriction of slavery to revelation.
Netzach seems an invitation to ask, “How am I enduring these difficult times? And what from these troublesome days might I like to see survive into the better days that will come?”
Among other things, my newly acquired habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator comes to mind. As does the opportunity I’ve taken advantage of to give daily attention to the same group of trees from my balcony, and watch their day-to-day transition.
But what would I like to see endure that benefits more than me?
I am seated on the meditation cushion, doing Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice. Typically, the practice begins with extending good wishes to oneself – for instance, silently saying, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” And from there, those wishes are extended concentrically outward, such as to a being from whom we’ve experienced unconditional love, other loved ones, those about whom our feelings our neutral, people we find difficult, and finally, all beings.
When I was first introduced to the practice, I confided resistance to one of my teachers. How would others, I asked, benefit from my silently and stealthily wishing them well? “You may not change them,” he said, “but you’re going to change yourself.”
And he was right. I wasn’t long into the practice before I saw that it helped me more easily and consistently access patience and compassion for myself and others.Even if cable company reps are too frequently given cause for skepticism.
Lately, something has changed when I do metta.
When I get to the juncture where I’m to wish safety, happiness, good health and ease to a person about whom my feelings are neutral, I can’t come up with anyone. Visualizing others I’ve only glancingly encountered, my feelings are anything but neutral. It’s clearer than ever that they’re carrying the same burdens as me, and why it is they should be wished safety and good health. Though I don’t know them, I know enough that I’m feeling too much compassion to have only neutral feelings about them.
Then, when I try to bring someone to mind who I find difficult, I’m similarly challenged. Maybe out on the street and in the ravine, my judgement and ire are triggered by those who are less heedful of physical distancing than they should be, but here on the cushion, it’s a struggle to remember what they look like, and to think of them as difficult. They, like me, are just trying to manage their way through a time none of us are equipped to handle. So most times, I settle for people I’ve found difficult in the past, but towards whom I feel kindness now.
Even before I pick up the phone to call the cable company, I can feel the difference in my body. I start to brace myself for the menu options and pound keys, and discover I lack umbrage. And the small degree of resentment I’ve managed to marshal dissipates entirely when I get a new recording informing me that the long wait times I can expect have to do with prioritizing customers in need of emergency services. While I wait, I think about the economic fallout from these days, and what it means for the job security of the rep with whom I’ll be speaking.
So when I finally get through, and am required to speak to multiple people, and given multiple answers to my one question, I recognize this for the small stuff it is. I still don’t ask the reps how they’re doing, but it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because my instincts tell me they’re too busy to get into it, and also, I fear that their script will require them to answer “fine, thank you,” even though that’s likely not true. But I’m hoping that the cooperative and friendly tone which is coming from me is just as good.
“I see friends shaking hands,” Louis Armstrong once sang for us, “saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, I love you.”
When the call ends, maybe my better angel has shown up and I’ve made the lives of people who are required to serve me a little better than they would have been otherwise.
It’s not that this has never happened before, but it seems to be coming more easily right now.
And so, let conduct of this kind be my way of enduring these times.
And also, let it be something more.
I don’t think my teacher was entirely correct in saying that metta would only change me. Because the greater my capacity to connect with patience and compassion, the better I make the lives of everyone I encounter, and by extension, the lives of all they encounter, and so on, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
Let this be the netzach, the eternity, that comes of these times.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say, you and me both, we’ve got this.
In anticipation of writing this post, I invited others to convey how netzach – endurance and eternity – has played out for them. And with that, it’s my pleasure to share the following reflections from David Orenstein
My Omer Netzach
Like many of us, daily walks are an expression of Netzach during this shutdown pandemic Omer.
Early in the shutdown, I decided that I would take an early morning walk, in my Riverdale neighbourhood, first thing every day. That is first thing after I feed the cats, bring in the Globe and the Star, maybe check for the Moon, planets and stars, perform my morning ablutions and get dressed. Getting home from the walk I make breakfast for our household.
Back in mid-March, the weather was not always pleasant but I was determined. But in addition to the push of improving my health and maintaining a regular schedule, was soon added the pull of the pleasure of moving my body and the scenic local parks, gardens and architecture.
By now these walks are the best part of my day. As I write, in early May, there are daily changes in the flowers and trees. I’ve worked out quite a variety of interesting return trips. Also I can meet friends and neighbours for short, safely distanced schmooze sessions.
This evokes an earlier period in my life when endurance in walking paid off. Many years before I retired from teaching and was still working, I was feeling perpetually exhausted and emotionally drained. Not only was I teaching my classes with a total of up to 180 students, but I had the heavy commitment of being a member of the local union executive for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Toronto, along with political commitments and involvement with scholarship, culture and a social life.
So I decided to start my day with a twenty minute walk, on a slight uphill grade, to the Christie subway station. This project also started in challenging March weather. Luckily as my willpower and determination wore off the more clement weather and the burgeoning neighbourhood gardens made this early trek a positive pleasure.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
How about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in findingthat 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?
(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of theOmer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, 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 gevurah, or strength and boundaries, covers the period April 16-23. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)
Damn. I really wanted the walk to the ravine.
But the wind is fierce, whipping wind chimes out of tune, and banging on the lids of garbage bins. And those are big garbage bins.
Maybe the ravine’s not such a good idea right now. Or the long walk to get there. There’s a reason the street’s so empty. This is the kind of weather that rips branches from trees and gets people hurt. And should I really take the chance of being injured when the last thing the medical system needs right now is an unnecessary wound to fix?
Okay, I’ll make it a short walk. A block or two. At least, with the street so empty, it feels safe to stop and take some pictures without messing up everyone else’s physical-distancing rhythm.
Damn. And crap.
The memory card is full. And I hate to delete images from a memory card, even if I have back-ups.
The pharmacy’s only a few blocks away. I’ll get a new one there.
No, no I won’t. I can’t. Maybe the person working the cash where the memory cards are is an essential service worker, but my wanting one is not an essential need. It wouldn’t be right to enter their space just for this.
I find some shelter, turn the camera on again, take a calming breath, and start removing images.
And I think about stairwells, and have a conversation with myself about chopped liver, and my gevurah grade.
It’s the second week of the counting of the Omer. The focus with which this pilgrimage began last week was the Divine and human trait of chesed, or loving-kindness, the perfect foundation from which to build any practice. But unchecked, loving-kindness isn’t without its problems. It can mean going along just to get along instead of having necessary but difficult conversations, or bypassing the broccoli to get to the ice cream.
And man, have I been going for the mental ice cream lately.
That’s where the second week of the Omer comes in, with its overarching theme of gevurah, variously translated as strength, courage and discernment. Often, when one works with gevurah, it’s in the form of boundaries to temper indiscriminate chesed, so that our valuing someone else’s wants or our own doesn’t lead us to forget what we and they actually need.
It’s true that, in the main, people have risen to this difficult occasion, staying at home and, when they go out, practising physical distancing. And the trajectory of illness is looking promising. But, as mentioned in a comment to my previous post, there’s also a fair amount of heedlessness going on. People just going on their way or coming up from behind as if others didn’t exist. And others not stepping aside to give a wide berth to elders lugging heavy groceries.
In some ways, I don’t mind swerving out of the way to make room for others, even if it means going up embankments in a ravine or down alleys on a street. I enjoy the zigging and the zagging, and finding new angles on the world.
But in other ways, especially in that moment between the heedlessness and my finding a passage towards physical distance, I burn with a fiery alchemy of anxiety and self-righteous judgment. Among the greatest hits of my mutterings are, “What part of six feet don’t you understand?”, “If you’d take your head out of your cellphone, maybe you’d be a little less clueless”, and “If you don’t know how to run in place, then maybe you shouldn’t be running at all.” And the unmuttered transcending theme is, “I’m scared. For myself, the old people, the frail people, the young people we never imagine getting ill. I’m scared because I don’t know how to deal with all this uncertainty about health, jobs, livelihood, and because the book I’d begun writing has come to feel like it’s about a world that has gone away and will never come back. And the heedlessness isn’t helping!”
Is it any wonder, then, that indoors I’ve been soothing myself by diving into the social media vortex, scrolling for connection, information, reassurance? And I get it in the forms of messaging and memes and stories of inspiration. But they often seem mere punctuation for tales of despair and discord, underlining how fragile things seem. When I click on an article, I’m as likely as not to get antsy after a couple of paragraphs before clicking onto the next one, until I feel like I’m taking in everything yet nothing at all.
This is brain dessert. Occupying me for a while, but too much of it is unnourishing, taking up time I could be spending checking-in on people about whom I’m concerned.
I need less flitting, and more focus. A more substantial mind meal.
And there are all these lectures I’ve been meaning to check out on nature and climate change and far-flung Jewish communities. What if I were to tap into those, and see if their substantiveness offers more settling, and makes me more available for others?
I wake in the middle of the night, as usual resolving not to reach for my phone and then give in to the temptation all the same, but this time, I remember gevurah. Instead of the social media scroll, I queue up a lecture on climate change and bird migration. Despite the first few minutes of the lecture just showing the agitation of co-leaders trying to figure out the technology, when the lecture begins and the first slide appears – a photograph of birds in flight – I start to feel at ease, quieted. And I go back to bed.
I’ve made the right choice.
Which I end up mostly disregarding.
I can only speculate why. Maybe, given the length of my evening to-do lists, it feels too difficult to commit a whole hour to learning. And so, the brain dessert diet continues, and I feel like the last person in the world who should be blogging on gevurah practice.
I could really use some ravine calm.
And I set out, only to discover the wind having its way with the wind chimes and garbage bins, that my memory card is full, and find myself here, taking shelter, and talking myself into removing images from my memory card instead of going to the pharmacy for a new one.
When I tap to delete an image, my camera asks if I’m sure I mean it. I choose yes, even though I’m thinking “nooooo!“
And I start having conversations with myself about other things to which I’ve been saying no.
“Think about your decision,” I tell myself, “to pass on the elevator and take the stairs. Nine flights of them. Yes, it’s the only form of exercise you’re getting right now, and yes, you’d been meaning to do it for months. But it’s only since the pandemic that you’re finally delivering. And yes, it’s for your well-being, but it’s for everyone else’s, too.
“And there’s the time you could spend zoning out with television, but you’re using it instead to prepare the contemplative services you’re leading online. And you are picking up the phone to look after others, even if it’s not as often as you wish. And yes, you’re doing all this to feel good, but you’re not only doing it for yourself.”
And then, the subject that trumps them all.
“Think about the chopped liver,” I tell myself.
“No,” I answer back. “Don’t make me think about the chopped liver. Why does chopped liver get such a terrible reputation, anyway?”
“You mean the chopped liver available in the deli over at St. Clair and Yonge serving takeout?”
“Oh, man. I can’t take it.”
“But you can take it. You have taken it. How many times have you wanted that chopped liver sandwich, but – ”
“With sweet potato fries and a coke, don’t forget.”
“- but decided not to get it, because you didn’t think it would be fair to the staff or you, or anyone you or they come into close contact with. So forget your perfect offering.”
“Hey, that’s one of my favourite Leonard Cohen quotes. Keep going.”
“Forget the gevurah you meant to exercise but didn’t. Think about the gevurah you did choose, for yourself and others. Okay, maybe you don’t get an A for week two of the Omer. But you definitely get a B. No. Screw that. Normal times, you get a B. But how normal are these times, when your most common way of answering people who ask how you’re doing is to say that you’re okay, but that you always feel like you’re on the edge?
“B+, baby. You get a B+. Now let’s see what you can do from here.”
Now how about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in general in balancing chesed or loving-kindness with gevurah in the forms of boundaries, strength, courage? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer to others? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.
(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.
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.
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.
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.