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Being, the Habit (a 2-for-1 post) January 12, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Bhakti, Books, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Faith, Healing Stories, Hope, Japa-Ajapa, Life, Mysticism, One Hoop, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion, Suffering, Wisdom, Yoga.
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[This is the post for Sunday, January 10th and Monday, January 11th. You can request an audio recording of either practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.]

I. Being, the Habit – Recognizing “That”


“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not the same blood or birth, but of the same mind and possessing a share of the divine. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We are born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”


– quoted from Meditations (Book 2) by Marcus Aurelius

Bring your awareness to who you are and what you’re all about. Or, as I put it on Sunday, bring your awareness to what you are. This is an inquiry into who and what you are in the habit of being. Remember that a habit is cultivated through repeated behavior that hard-wires the brain and also creates samskaras (“mental impressions”). One could argue that Western scientists and the ancient yogis were talking about the same thing; but, either way you look at it there comes a time when we have repeated certain behavior so much that we no longer realize (if we ever even knew) that said behavior was a choice. Furthermore, at some point our behavior locks us into a pattern – a pattern that is almost free of choice – and the only way to change the pattern is to break the habit of doing… which is the habit of being (a certain way).

One of my favorite mantras, as a yoga practitioner and as a teacher, is “So Hum, Ham Sa” – Sanskrit for “I am That, That I am.” I have heard that the ancient yogis said it was the sound of the breath coming into and out of the body. It is also, in English, a phrase that comes up again and again in sacred and popular text. For instance, in the story of Exodus, when Moses asks how he should identify the voice that speaks to him in the form of the burning bush, he is told, “ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh,” which is often translated into English as “I Am that I Am.” In this context, the mantra becomes a whisper from the Divine; a reminder, if you will. I often explain that the “That” in the mantra is with a “capital T,” indicating “all that and a bag of chips.” The only problem with the mantra, from a modern day perspective, is that we all too often focus on the “That” as being something positive, life affirming, and wholesome. In fact, the “That” is everything – even things we don’t like and/or see as negative, destructive, and evil.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “That’s not who we are” or “That’s not what we’re about” – and it recently that refrain has been repeated so many times it’s like an old record that has been warped from so much usage. I could point out, in great detail, that the phrases above are almost always used in the context of bad or misguided behavior that has existed since the beginning of time – or, in the most recent case, since the beginning of the United States, but that the speaker either didn’t recognize was happening before; finds abhorrent; and/or wants to create some distance between themselves and the people engaged in said behavior. Both variations of the phrase are also used as a kind of shaming, in the same way that a parent teaches a child that certain behavior is unacceptable. In the current context, however, we are not parents teaching our children. And, rather than go into a history lesson here – or run the risk of sounding overly judgmental – let me just pose a couple of philosophical questions (with really practical implications): How does the habit (of denying what is) serve us and how do we change a habit of bad behavior if we don’t acknowledge our connection to it?

As a side note, thinking about our lives and the way we engage our lives (i.e., our way of being) as a habit, brought my awareness to several Christian authors who adamantly reject the idea that “you are what you do.” Obviously, since I’ve only recently become aware of this rejection, I have not read all the books and theological expositions. A quick survey, however, seems to indicate that these writers and speakers, coming from a religious perspective, are focusing on the religious concept of being and the practical applications of spiritually being. In other words, they are looking at each person as being inextricably connected to the Divine and offering guidance on living a spiritual life in a world that focuses on so much profane doing. Here we see the same power that is in the mantra (“So Hum, Ham Sa”) – that you already are something amazing and you don’t have to do anything to be that. Just as is the case with the mantra, the power is in the realization and the lesson seems to point to people rethinking the way they show up in the world by placing their spiritual/religious beliefs as a priority in all that they do.


II. Being, the Habit – Of Cultivating Spirit


“Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.”


– quoted from “Part V: The Meaning of this Hour – 40. Religion in Modern Society” in Between God and Man by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


It is one thing to practice our beliefs and hold tight (but not too tightly) to the tenets of our faith, whatever that means to you, when life is good and everything is easy. But life, as we have recently been reminded, can be hard, twisted, upside down, and backwards; in a word, challenging. So, sometimes the best way to notice how we show up in the world, in general, is to specifically notice how we show up in stressful / challenging situations. For instance, what is your habit when things are so challenging and all consuming, people – including yourself – might expect you to compromise?

I don’t know much about the person who (first) asked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel if he found time to pray when he participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, but I know the person – a journalist – was motivated by at least two pieces of knowledge: (1) they knew Rabbi Heschel was a man of faith and (2) they probably knew that Judaism prescribes daily prayers throughout the day. There is another possible piece of motivating knowledge, projection – it’s possible, probable even, that the person asking the question couldn’t imagine how prayer was possible during such a tumultuous time and in a situation where the faithful rabbi was surrounded by Christians. But, here’s the thing about Rabbi Heschel, he was use to praying with his whole body and he was use to being surrounded by Christians.

“I prayed with my feet.”


– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1965, when asked if he found time to pray when marching from Selma to Montgomery

Born today in 1907, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a professor of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), an activist, and is (to this day) considered one of the most significant and influential theologians of the 20th century. The youngest of six, his father died when he was nine, but his family was firmly established in the community, as he was the descendant of distinguished Chasidic rabbis on both sides of his family. He grew up in a household and in a religious tradition where prayer and a declaration of faith were prescribed multiple times a day – “when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise” – and where there was an obligation to leave the world better than it was found. He earned his rabbinical doctorate in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party and could chronicle a parallel in that rise and a decline in the esteem he had previously received based on the merit of his scholarship. He felt, at times, abandoned by his Christian teachers, mentors, and peers. But, there was something in him – maybe everything in him – that could not step away from the spiritual path he was on, a path first paved by the prophets and rabbis whose lives he chronicled.

In addition to writing several biographies about his mystical elders, Rabbi Heschel was a student and a professor of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalism), in which the Tree of Life can be seen as a way to understand the world, a way to live in the world, and a spiritual road map for those desiring a deeper connection. He was in the habit of viewing, exploring, and gaining understanding of the world and his engagement in the world through the lens of this tradition that recognizes seven of the pars of the body as ways to express seven of the ten energies/attributes of the Divine (as found on the Tree of Life): Chesed (“loving-kindness”), right arm; Gevurah (“strength”), left arm; Tiferet (“beauty,” “balance,” or “compassion”), the heart; Netzach (“endurance”), right hip and leg; Hod (“humility”), left hip and leg; Yesod (“Foundation” or “Bonding”), solar plexus; Malchut (“mastery” or “nobility”), hands, feet, and mouth. Being in the habit of seeing the body as intending to express elements of the Divine, meant that everything Rabbi Heschel did could be seen as a religious / spiritual experience. Everything was symbolic – and, therefore, the simplest things held great power.

Of course, there was nothing simple about showing up at a Civil Rights demonstration at the height (and site) of defining violence. Yet, for Rabbi Heschel there was no question that he would show up. He knew that his presence, like the presence of so many others who were not Black (and, in his case, not Christian), would be a unifying presence. He knew that showing up sent a message to the world indicating that the issue of civil rights was not only “an American problem,” as President Lyndon B. Johnson would later say, but an international problem.

Additionally, as a man of faith and as a religious leader, Rabbi Heschel simply felt that showing up was a kind of spiritual obligation. In fact, he sent a telegram (dated June 16, 1963) to President John F. Kennedy stating that to continue humiliating (and subjugating) African Americans meant that they (religious leaders) “forfeit the right to worship God.” Let it sink in for a moment that a Jewish mystic demanded leadership in the form of “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” from a Catholic president on behalf of a group of people led by Black Baptist minister. There’s a lot there that could be divisive – unless, regardless of your religion or denomination, you are bound by the Spirit.

“For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism’s political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.


He said it reminded him of the message of the prophets, whose primary concern was social injustice, and of his Hasidic forebears, for whom compassion for the suffering of other people defined a religious person.”


– quoted from an article about the 40th Anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery marches, by Dr. Susannah Heschel


In addition to marching arm-in-arm with Black Christians like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Representative John Lewis in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also participated in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (more commonly known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II) in 1962. Prior to Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church was “in the habit” of teaching the history of Jesus in a way that demonized Jewish people – and missed the part where a lot of different groups of people were part of the story. Rabbi Heschel worked closely with Cardinal Augustin Bea, the Jesuit head of the Secretariat for the Christian Unity, to write the Nostra aetate, which dynamical changed the way the Church teaches and views Jewish people; fostered mutual knowledge and respect among congregants of the two faiths; and ensured that the Church officially (and categorically) condemned anti-Semitism. Here too, the good rabbi’s work outside of the synagogue was a reflection of his work inside of the synagogue, and vice versa. Here too, honored the traditions (and the ethics) of his spiritual fathers.

Here too, Rabbi Heschel’s spiritual habits showed everyone who was in the habit of being.

“We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel. It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender….


Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.”


– quoted from Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


Sunday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

There is no playlist for the (Monday) Common Ground practice.


### Amen, Selāh ###


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