Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
It is hard to believe that we are almost at the shloshim, the 30-day initial mourning period, for Rachel Cowan, who peacefully left this world at the end of August. For me, it has been a month of deep sadness and a sense of confusion: even though we all knew this day would come, how can it be that Rachel is no longer among us with her warm laugh, her compassionate ear, her wise teachings?
Another one of Rachel’s enduring legacies is the network of people she wove around her. I came to understand this in a bittersweet way. When I received the news of Rachel’s death, I was just starting a silent meditation retreat myself. It was immediately obvious that my place at that moment was not to be sitting in contemplation in a monastery. It was to be with my people, with Rachel’s people, to reach out, to connect, to hug, to comfort, to weep.
In the subsequent days, including at the memorial service itself, I found it so comforting to be part of the connections that Rachel had created. This is the physical manifestation of the love that Rachel gave and received and that continues through all of us. Some would say it is a manifestation of Divinity itself.
We can add another dimension to this from Sukkot, which we are celebrating this week. The custom of inviting ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah reminds us of the centrality of connection during our festive days. But we are not just talking about our friends and family, the usual cast of characters. We invite our mythic ancestors, the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, kings and wise women of our tradition, to join us as well. This reminds us that connection – and love – is not bound to this physical plane. It is greater than time and space. It is invisible, immeasurable, and yet deeply real. It is a source of comfort, inspiration and joy.
We will be gathering together for one more formal connection around Rachel and her life on October 3 at 11:00 EDT. (We will be taping the teaching for those who cannot attend.) We invite you to join the beautiful community Rachel brought together, directly and indirectly, and to tap in to the love that endures.
In just two short weeks, the High Holy Days will be upon us: a new year, a new beginning, a new opportunity to live our lives a little more in alignment. At first glance it may seem a little odd that Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. If we are setting our sights forward and reconnecting to the possibility that in every moment we are recreated as a new creature, as R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev put it, why would we begin the season with remembering? Why not focus on envisioning?
One answer might be to reconsider precisely what we want to remember. Perhaps the Day of Remembrance is not a call for nostalgia or regret for days gone by. Instead, we might see it as an invitation to recall – and recommit to – our intention, to setting a direction for the purpose for our life.
The High Holy Days are a shining example of a spiritual practice that offers us its transformative power, to live more awake, aware and loving lives. We have inherited beautiful forms, rituals and practices, to help facilitate that. But then we forget why exactly we are engaged with these forms. Nonetheless we continue on and wonder why the rituals and practices are so empty. It’s not our fault that we forget: We are subject to so much information and sensory input that our brains are designed to forget as much as to retain. That protects our sanity (most of the time), but it also saps meaning from our lives.
The practice of setting an intention is there to help us remember to remember. It is helpful to begin each session of practice with an intention. Why am I engaging in this prayer? In this meditation? In this Torah learning? What quality of presence do I want to bring to it and how do I hope it might transform me? It is a small but crucial step of contemplative practice; in fact, it is what distinguishes spiritual practice from just any habit.
So on Rosh Hashanah this year we have another opportunity to remember. In fact, it’s a kind of meta-reminder. The holidays asks us to remember: Who is the person I yearn to be? What is the quality of relationship that I want in my life? What kind of a world do I wish to live in? And then within each ritual of the day, the shofar blast, the once-a-year melodies, the apples and honey, is a chance to practice remembering the intention. How can this particular act help remind me of those overarching questions I am asking about my life?
Shanah tovah to you all! May it be a sweet and intentional year.
Sometimes hitlamdut, cultivating a lens of openness and curiosity, is simple and inspiring. It is reawakening a childlike wonder that brings joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging to this life.
That is not my experience these days. These days I am keenly aware of the voice inside that says, “We’ve seen this before and we know how it is going to unfold.” This voice looks back at history, at other times and countries, noticing patterns and predicting the future. It is rooted in the fear born of the real trauma of past generations. It is also rooted in the knowing that these things do indeed happen to other people in other places; why shouldn’t they happen to us, too? Childlike wonder seems impossibly naive and perhaps even foolish.
And yet. These days are exactly the context in which to bring the wisdom of hitlamdut, that embodied, fully engaged curiosity. What happens, for example, when I start paying attention to the sensation in the body? First I notice that I am irritated and uncomfortable. My breath is short. I feel pulsing in my face. That is actually interesting! What is that exactly? Then I become aware, oh, I am afraid. Now I can explore, what is fear like? I can bring a softness to the fear so that I can move towards responding to it, not being controlled by it.
To be clear, the goal of this practice is not to create a log for myself of what the experience of fear is like in my body. The goal is to develop my ability for hitlamdut like a muscle. Because the reality is that that fearful voice that says we know what is going to happen next is not a truthful voice. We don’t in fact know. That is worth remembering and practicing, because as Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
There is a great deal we cannot control in our world, and yet, we can still act. We can develop our capacity to see things with openness and curiosity, for hitlamdut. We can bring compassion to our own experience and connect with others’ experiences as well. We can discern what communal and political arenas we can step into and what steps we can take. Because this moment has never existed before and there is so much to do.
I am coming up on the conclusion of seven years as the director of IJS – a full cycle, like the fullness of creation or the cycle of the fields. I am so proud of the work of IJS and how we have grown, offering spiritual seekers opportunities to deepen their practice, and reaching out to connect with new people who may not have even thought of themselves as spiritual seekers. I have learned so much about so many things. But one of the most meaningful “perks” of the job has been getting to know my predecessor, Rabbi Rachel Cowan.
Rachel is rightly known as a visionary pioneer in the Jewish world. Her own life experience revealed places where the Jewish community needed to grow and Rachel is the kind of activist who recognizes that if something is true for her, it must be true for others. She consistently connects her own needs to those of the larger community and helps make things better not just for her, but for everyone. You might even say for the sake of the Shechinah.
One of the things I have really learned from Rachel over the past seven years is what real wisdom means. I come from a family where intellectual learning is a critical criteria for someone to be considered an exemplary teacher. I observe how people are drawn to sit at Rachel’s feet and have come to understand that it is not exactly about her knowledge, although, make no mistake about it: she is extremely knowledgeable. But people want to learn from Rachel because of her wisdom. It is because of the way that she is authentic, open and real. There are no masks. You can witness how Rachel engages in on-going practice, in hitlamdut (engaged curiosity), in working on cultivating her own compassion and gratitude. You can feel her wisdom washing over you in all its gentle encouragement and it feels like a gift.
One of the students of the Maggid of Mezritch famously commented that he went to the rebbe to learn how to tie and untie his shoes. Rachel’s wisdom, born of years of commitment to spiritual practice, is a shining contemporary example of this insight. May our own commitment to our practice help us follow on the path she has set out before us.
Several years ago, the New Yorker featured a cover that showed a woman sitting in the lotus position, ostensibly meditating. You can tell she is so wound up that she is about to jump out of her skin. If you look carefully in the direction of her baleful glare, there is a little fly, innocently tooling around.
One of the reasons I find this image so funny is that I have been there myself so many times. I sit down to meditate or to pray with great zeal and focus – and then, something interrupts my plan. The drive I feel to engage in practice ends up eclipsing the practice itself; my focus shifts to how my plan was derailed and that I couldn’t meditate or pray as I (or my ego) wanted.
There is a seeming paradox between zeal and contemplation. Zeal is about acting now with a great sense of passion and confidence. Zeal is impatient, directed, quick. Contemplation, on the other hand, usually evokes “sitting with the issue” for a while. It is slow, receptive, internally oriented. How, then, can zerizut (zeal, alacrity) be a contemplative practice?
One answer might be one of my favorite teachings from Sholom Noach Berezovsky, also known by the title of his book, Netivot Shalom. “First comes effort,” he taught in multiple places. “Then comes a gift.”
When it comes to spiritual practice, it is important to draw upon our zeal. Zeal enhances our motivation, helps us overcome our inertia, commit to the effort. Spiritual practice is similar to going to the gym. It’s not enough to know about the benefits; you have to actually go to the gym before any transformation can take place. Zeal helps us make the effort and return to it again and again.
And then comes a gift. It’s not “the” gift; it’s “a” gift. We don’t actually know what will happen when we engage in practice. Sometimes we get distracted and annoyed. Sometimes it seems like nothing happens at all. And occasionally something very sweet and still and connecting opens within us. But whatever happens, whatever the experience is, is a gift.
So first the effort, and then a gift. When we stay focused on the effort, we can get so stressed by a small “failure” that we can forget why we are engaging in practice. But if we can lighten our grasp on the expectation created by our zeal and look up and see what is true in this moment, we can find our experience – whatever it is – to be rich and filled with grace. Or as the Irish poet, Galway Kinnell wrote:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.