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A Simple, Radical, “Bad to the Bone” Man January 11, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Bhakti, Books, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Faith, Healing Stories, Hope, Japa-Ajapa, Karma Yoga, Life, Music, Mysticism, One Hoop, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion, Suffering, Wisdom, Yoga.
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“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

 

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

In American English, “bad” has two meanings, one of which is “even better than good.” The saying “bad to the bone” fits with that positive description and is often associated with someone who is “cool,” rebellious, and radical in a way that bucks the system… in a way, even, that can bring much needed change. There are some people who play with the idea of being “bad to the bones,” but the truth is that that kind of goodness has nothing to do with the clothes one wears so much as it has to do with what’s underneath, what’s at the core and the roots of a person. In other words, what matters is who they are all the way down to their bones.

One of my favorite inspirational reminders is based on the idea that, in Judaism, there are 248 mitzvot aseh (“positive commandments”), which are commands to perform certain activities, and 365 mitzvot lo taaseh (“negative commandments”), which are commands to abstain from certain activities; meaning, we should avoid avoid the negative things every day of the year and do the good things with “every bone in our body.”* To me, someone who manages to do that in a very public way is “bad to the bone.”

The following is an abridged version of a post from January of 2021. Click here for the original post.

“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

Please join me today (Tuesday, January 11th) at 12:00 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or by emailing myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “10202021 To the Bone”]

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, playlists, 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). If you don’t mind me knowing your donation amount you can also donate to me directly. Donations to Common Ground are tax deductible; class purchases and donations directly to me are not necessarily deductible.)

 

### Amen, Selāh ###

It’s the Little Things, again (the “missing” Tuesday post) September 16, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Japa-Ajapa, Life, Philosophy, Religion, Rosh Hashanah, Science, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga, Yom Kippur.
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“Many blessings,” to everyone and especially those observing the Yom Kippur or celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi!

This is the “missing” post for Tuesday, September 14th. 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.

Check out the “Class Schedules” calendar for upcoming classes.]

“The key to getting the most out of any experience is preparation before the event. You cannot expect to leap from the shower to the shul and instantly feel holy. It just doesn’t work that way.”

– quoted from “Preparing for Rosh Hashana: The secret to an inspiring new year” by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

Just as you can’t jump up off the coach and run a marathon, without some training, Rabbi Yaakov Salomon once pointed out that the desire for a deep spiritual connection requires some preparation. The means he mentioned included introspection, meditation, and prayer – all methods also mentioned in other traditions, including in Indian philosophies like yoga. A lot of people, however, aren’t familiar with all 8-limbs of the Yoga Philosophy; they just know about the two limbs that form the postural practice: āsana and prāņāyāma. But, just practicing those two little things can take you deeper into the overall practice and help cultivate big connections.

In many ways, hatha yoga (the physical practice of yoga, regardless of the style or tradition) is all about little things and about bringing awareness to the little things. The way we sit or stand determines how we breathe; the way we breathe in different positions determines how we feel. When we bring our awareness to how we feel we can go deeper into the pose as well as into ourselves. It all starts with little things. Little things, like how we place our hands or engage our core, can make the difference between going deeper into a pose and deeper into ourselves versus getting injured. Although, sometimes we learn a lot about ourselves from getting injured; but that’s another story for another day.

Tuesday’s story was all about how using the practice to notice little things, can give us insight into why we think the way we think and do (and say) the things we do (and say) – on and off the mat. For instance, next time you’re on the mat, give yourself the opportunity to notice these “little things” – one at a time and then all together:

  1. Make sure your legs are in a position that’s comfortable for low back and arms in a position that’s comfortable for neck and shoulders.
  2. Breathe deeply in and breathe deeply out.
  3. Notice the “L” of your hands, especially when you have weight in your hands and arms. (In grade school you might have learned that one “L” on your forehead means loser, but if you put two “L”s together you have a shot at a goal; if you tip the ends out, you have a “W” – which means winner.)
  4. For a vinyāsa practice, match the movement to the breath. For all practices, notice the natural internal movement that happens as you breathe.
  5. Press your shoulders down and squeeze the tips of your shoulder blades together. Notice how the engagement in the back body affects the front of the body.
  6. Engage the inside (starting at your feet and engage your core by squeezing into your midline).
  7. Focus on something that’s not moving so that your mind-body stays present. Remember, where your eyes go, your mind goes; where your mind goes, your body goes – especially in a balancing pose.
  8. SMILE!
  9. Notice what happens when you put it all together.
  10. Change your perspective and look at things in a slightly different way. (If you are working on a peak and/or advanced pose, practice a pose that looks and feels similar and, therefore, may require similar engagement.)
  11. Don’t panic! Be present and trust your practice in this moment.

Tuesday’s practice also featured this personal story from Rabbi Yaakov Salomon. It’s a story about little things and is a great reminder that while we may not always notice the little things until they become the big things, the little things matter. In fact, every little thing we feel, think, say, and do is the possibility of a big thing we’re in the habit of feeling, thinking, saying, or doing.

The following was originally posted on September 14, 2020. The playlist links have been added.

“According to Yoga philosophy, the causes of our thought patterns have a much deeper source than we normally realize. Our inner world is propelled by our habits, which in turn govern and determine the nature of our emotions, thoughts, speech, and actions. Our habits form our personality. They have a powerful influence on our unconscious behavior, as well as on our conscious decisions.”

– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 1.12 from The Secret of the Yoga Sutra: Samadhi Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Habits: The things we do repeatedly, routinely, sometimes without thought or consideration. There are habits we label as “good” and others we label as “bad” – and then there are the ones that just are. There are habits we cultivate and others we may attempt to break. Even as people talk about all the different external factors to cultivating or breaking a habit – like how many days it takes (20, 30, or 40) and what life hacks enable them (like leaving your running shoes by the door, pre-packing your gym bag, or setting your phone to shut down media after a certain time) – habits, like all muscle memory, are ultimately mental exercises.

Even though we may not think very much about certain habits, they are happening because of what’s going on inside of our brains. We do something for the first time and a neural pathway is formed. We repeat the behavior enough times and the pathway is hardwired. Suddenly we feel compelled to do something or we think “it’s just what I/we do.” Even sometimes when the behavior is detrimental, harmful, to ourselves and others; we may not give it a second thought. Such deeply ingrained or embedded habits (regardless of if we consider them “good” or “bad”) are considered samskaras in the yoga philosophy. While such habits can feel instinctual, they are in fact conditioned.

“It is not accidental that all phenomena of human life are dominated by the search for daily bread – the oldest link connecting all living things, man included, with the surrounding nature.”

 – quoted from the Dec. 12, 1904 Nobel Lecture “Physiology of Digestion” by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

For most of his life, Dr. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov celebrated his birthday today, September 14th. It was his habit. Born in Ryazan in 1849, he would be 68 when the Russian Empire switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar (at which point his date of birth would be recognized as September 26th). Imagine if you had lived 68 years, doing things with a certain reference point in mind and then, suddenly, that reference point changed. Now, I can’t say for sure that it phased the Nobel laureate one way or the other – I don’t even know how (or if) he celebrated his birthday. What I do know, is that Dr. Pavlov knew a thing or two about habits.

The oldest of 11 and known as a curious child, Ivan Pavlov was an active child who started school late, because of an accident. He went to theological seminary for a bit, but his curiosity ultimately led him to the university at St. Petersburg and the field of medical research. He won several awards throughout his career, including the 1904 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine “in recognition of his work on the physiology of digestion, through which knowledge on vital aspects of the subject has been transformed and enlarged.” The Nobel Committee’s description of why Dr. Pavlov won was in part a nod to the fact that he had been nominated four years in a row (starting in 1901). His ultimate win, however, was the direct result of experiments exploring the gastric function of dogs (and children).

Dr. Pavlov first noted that dogs started salivating before their food was actually delivered. He initially called the physiological anticipation, “psychic secretion,” but eventually his reflex system work would be viewed within the paradigm of classical conditioning, respondent conditioning, or Pavlovian conditioning. He was one of the first scientists to associate behavioral responses to environmental stimuli, and his research has been extended into various aspects of psychology, behavior modification therapy, and learning theory. Literally right up until his death, he hosted “Wednesday meetings,” where he discussed everything from physiology and psychology to his views on the treatment of animals by research scientists. While other scientists routinely cited him and his work, Dr. Pavlov has also been immortalized by fiction writers like Aldus Huxley, Anthony Burgess, and Thomas Pynchon. In fact, his work was so instrumental in our understanding of the mind-body connection, that people who have never studied medical physiology are aware of “the Pavlovian response.

“When the dog is repeatedly teased with the sight of objects inducing salivary secretion from a distance, the reaction of the salivary glands grows weaker and weaker and finally drops to zero. The shorter the intervals between repeated stimulations the quicker the reaction reaches zero, and vice versa. These rules apply fully only when the conditions of the experiment are kept unchanged…. These relations also explain the real meaning of the above-mentioned identity of experimental conditions; every detail of the surrounding objects appears to be a new stimulus. If a certain stimulus has lost its influence, it can recover the latter only after a long resting that has to last several hours.

The lost action, however, can also be restored with certainty at any time by special measures.”

– quoted from the Dec. 12, 1904 Nobel Lecture “Physiology of Digestion” by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

While Ivan Pavlov and the Pavlovian response are often associated with the ringing of a bell, his written records indicate a plethora of external stimuli, including visual stimuli. Ultimately, he explains that what is most important is that the conditions are controlled and that the test subjects had control of their faculties. In fact, he used the global platform of his Nobel lecture to state, categorically, “Our success was mainly due to the fact that we stimulated the nerves of animals that easily stood on their own feet and were not subjected to any painful stimulus either during or immediately before stimulation of their nerves.” On another occasion, Dr. Pavlov encouraged scientists to be curious and not “a mere recorder of facts.” His lessons and research run parallel to the elements of practice which Patanjali described thousands of years before as being a method of controlling the activities of the mind, including those deeply embedded habits known as samskaras.

“abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tat nirodhaḥ” (YS 1.12)

abhyāsa                  Practice over a long period/without interruption

vairāgyābhyāṁ  Non-attachment, without attraction or aversion

tat                             Those (referring to the “fluctuations of the mind” as described in previous sutras)

nirodhaḥ                Ceases, controls, quiets, stills, regulates, masters

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

### “NEVER GIVE UP / ALWAYS LET GO” (Swami J) ###

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 ###

A Thought from “Anne no Nikki” June 25, 2020

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[The embedded video/link at the end of this post can be used as a soundtrack for reading this post.]

“Dear Kitty,

 

It’s lovely weather outside and I’ve perked up since yesterday. Nearly every morning I go to the attic where Peter works to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs. From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind.

 

He stood with his head against a thick beam, and I sat down. We breathed the fresh air, looked outside, and both felt that the spell should not be broken by words…. I looked out, of the open window too, over a large area of Amsterdam, over all the roofs and on to the horizon, which was such a pale blue that it was hard to see the dividing line. ‘As long as this exists,’ I thought, ‘and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.’”

 

— Anne Frank, written in her diary (“Kitty”) on Wednesday, February 23, 1944

Diary of a Young Girl was first published today in 1947. It was the saved writing of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the age of 14. The book was published 13 days after what would have been her 18th birthday. At the beginning of this month I referenced her birthday (and death), and several other events, in a post about avidyā (“ignorance”) as it relates to how the way we see the world can create suffering. Ignorance, like stuffy air in our lungs, affects the way we move through the world. To really, fully experience our lives, we have to get the stuffy air out of our lungs. To really, fully experience our lives, we have to get the ignorance out.

Both types of elimination require being very deliberate and intentional on a daily basis – just as Anne Frank recommended. We all know, however, that it can be challenging (even during the pandemic) to set aside time just to breathe. We all know it’s challenging even when we know the importance of it, and even when we “do it for others.” So, consider how much harder it is to very deliberately and intentionally – and on a daily basis – eliminate ignorance. Consider that is especially hard when the layers and layers of avidyā are deeply imbedded in our subconscious and unconscious mind.

As recently as yesterday, I mentioned samskāras, those layers and layers of past experiences that inform her present (and possibly future) thoughts, words, and deeds. These karmic impressions are established in a way similar to how we form neural pathways: we experience something for the first time and impressions are created; every future experience hardwires these impressions become hardwired. They determine how we experience everything that comes after they are established. Some would say these samskāras are always problematic, because they always include at least a smidgen of avidyā – which means that everything we think, say, do, and understand is informed by bits of ignorance. At least, that’s the best case scenario. Worst case scenario: everything we think, say, do, and understand is informed by a lot of ignorance.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God…. As long as [the simple beauty of Nature] exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”

 

— Anne Frank, written in her diary (“Kitty”) on Wednesday, February 23, 1944

In this moment, we may not know how ignorant we are. We can only, really, assess our level of suffering and the level of suffering around us. I’m going to go out on a limb and say, collectively, our level of suffering and the suffering around us points to levels of avidyā that’s out of the exosphere. There’s no clear (upper) boundary to the Earth’s exosphere and there’s no clear boundaries between our layers of samskāras or between our ayers of avidyā. Which means that, for some, the challenging job of working through our layers is extra challenging.

Maybe you haven’t started the work (but you’re thinking about it). Maybe you’ve started (but you’re getting a little frustrated). Maybe you just need the reminder today. Either way, there’s a really simple way to remind yourself to turn inward. You may have heard some version of this reminder. You may have even heard a simpler version, but I offer this one from Maha Ghosananda, because it feels pretty comprehensive (to me). It comes to mind today, because Maha Ghosananda experienced similar tragedies as those experienced by Anne Frank.

“We miss so much here, so very much and for so very long now: I miss it too, just as you do. I’m not talking of outward things, for we are looked after in that way; no, I mean the inward things. Like you, I long for freedom and fresh air….

Riches can all be lost, but that happiness in your own heart can only be veiled, and it will still bring you happiness again, as long as you live. As long as you can look fearlessly up into the heavens….”

 

— Anne Frank’s “A Thought” written in her diary (“Kitty”) on Wednesday, February 23, 1944

Maha Ghosananda was a Theraveda Buddhist monk in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot and he shared the teachings of the Buddha with people in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. During the Pol Pot regime, 1.5 to million people died in and around “the Killing Fields.” When the Pol Pot regime fell, Maha Ghosananda was one of the 3,000 Cambodian Buddhist monks who survived. Those 3,000 represented approximately 5% of the monks who had lived in Cambodia before the regime. After the Pol Pot regime, Maha Ghosananda worked to restore his country and his faith within the country. His many efforts included service as a representative to the United Nations and annual peace walks. The peace walks (dhammayietra) were simultaneously protests and pilgrimages that included terrain which still included land minds.

I mention all of this to point out that Maha Ghosananda ministered to people who were suffering in ways many of us can barely imagine and during incredibly challenging times – so he had to keep it simple.

“Venerable Maha Ghosananda, who was considered to be the “Gandhi of Cambodia” taught the power of the intention of kindness all his life, even though his life and his culture were fraught with suffering, trauma, violence and war of the Khmer Rouge and the “Killing Fields.” He taught it this way:

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into the habit;
Habit hardens into the character;
Character gives birth to the destiny
So, watch your thoughts with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of respect for all beings…”

 

Excerpt from Larry Yang’s Huffington Post article, “Buddhist Intention: Being Kind in Unkind Times” 11/07/2011

 

 

Anne no Nikki (anime) soundtrack composed by Michael Nyman

 

### HONOR YOUR HEART >> THOUGHTS >> WORD >> DEEDS ###

What’s Behind Your Curtain? June 24, 2020

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Yoga Sutra 2.20: draşțā dŗśimātrah śuddho’pi pratyayānupaśyah

– “The Seer is the pure power of seeing, yet its understanding is through the mind/intellect.”

“my heart
Is true as steel:”

 

– Helena in Act II, Scene i of A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare

 

“The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one often comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”

 

– Abolitionist, suffragist, and minister Henry Ward Beecher (b. 06/24/1813)

 

Life is a matter of perception. We experience certain things and that experience colors the way we experience future things. The way we experience something, based on previous experiences plays a part in what we engage ourselves, others, and our experiences. In other words, life is how you see it. In the yoga philosophy, these layers of experience or layers of perception are referred to as samskāras (which is often translated as “impressions”). Specifically, samskāras are karmic impressions formed by everything we say, do, think, and experience through our senses. These layers of impression can be very subtle, and may be imbedded deep within our subconscious and unconscious memories or they can be very much in the front of our conscious mind. Either way, they can strongly influence the way we think, speak, and act. Part of the practice, both in Yoga and in Buddhism, is to burn away the veil. Or, you could think of it as washing them away.

“Go and pray upon a mountain
Go and pray beside the ocean
And you’ll wash your spirit clean”

 

– from the song “Wash Your Spirit Clean” by Walela

There are lots of great stories about how previous experiences color future and current experiences, and one of those stories comes from Christianity and Islām. It is the story of Zechariah or Zachary. Zechariah was a Jewish priest married to a woman named Elizabeth (who happened to be a relative of the Virgin Mary). According to the gospels (specifically Luke 1:6), the couple were good people who followed the commandments and orders of God. We can take from this, and the fact that Zechariah was a rabbi, that they had spent their lives steeped in their beliefs and, not only keeping those beliefs in their heart, but also acting according to the beliefs in their heart. They were also old and considered their beyond child bearing years. So, it’s not surprising that Zechariah doubted the words of the angel Gabriel, who informed the couple that they would have a son named John and that he would “be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…. and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. (Luke 1:14 – 15).

“We never know the love of a parent till we become parents ourselves.”

 

– Abolitionist, suffragist, and minister Henry Ward Beecher (b. 06/24/1813)

Based on his previous experiences, the angel’s message didn’t make sense to the rabbi. It especially didn’t make sense, because Judaism, like many other cultures and religions has very specific naming traditions. Given these traditions, what self-respecting rabbi (with a great name) would name a descendent of Aaron and Moses “John?” Zechariah wanted proof, he wanted a sign, and so Gabriel said the rabbi would be mute until the day the prophecy was fulfilled – basically, until Zechariah believed.

Before the baby was born, there were some other events that were some other unbelievable events. One of those events came in the form of a visit from Elizabeth’s relative Mary. It turned out that Mary, a virgin, had also received a visit from Gabriel and was also pregnant. Her son would be born 6 months after Elizabeth’s son – and both sons were destined for greatness. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son was born, their friends and family assumed the baby would be named after the father. The still mute, Zechariah, however, wrote down the words that ultimately ended his muteness: “his name is John.” His written words were actually a sign that Zechariah’s experiences had changed his beliefs. Or, more precisely, his disbeliefs had changed and the veils were lifted.

“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’ Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.”

 

New Testament: The Gospel According to Luke (1:59 – 1:64 NIV)

In the modern world, this son of Zechariah and Elizabeth is known as John the Forerunner (in Eastern Christianity), John the Immerser (in some Baptist traditions), John the Baptizer, the prophet John (in Islām), or simply John the Baptist. Born 6 months before Jesus, he would go on to baptize Jesus and be associated with a spiritual cleansing ritual within Christian traditions. To be baptized is to have one’s sins washed away and is a way to be transformed, or to mark one’s transformation.

There are four feast days associated with Saint John the Baptist, one of which is today, June 24th. Also, as an aside, Saint John of Capistrano (b. 1386) and Saint John of the Cross (b. 1542) would have celebrated birthdays today. The fact that today is not a feast day for the other two Johns is actually more interesting than the number of feast days for John the Baptist. Most feast days are traditionally celebrated on the death date of a saint. The idea behind “dies natalis” being that upon death one is born into eternal life (and free of original sin). Today, however, is one of two feast days in Western Christianity associated with an individual’s birth – the idea being that Jesus and John the Baptist were cleansed in the womb. (NOTE: The Virgin Mary is concerned immaculate in that she was “conceived without sin.”)

As Christianity made its way through the pagan and indigenous cultures, this became a “good” day to co-opt… because it already had meaning. Today is also Midsummer. Considered the ancient (pagan) middle of Summer, it is also the astronomical beginning of Summer and was widely celebrated long before Christianity existed. Many of the pagan celebrations involved bonfires; fire being another element used in purification.

Celebrations of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist are recorded back as far as 1333, when the poet and scholar Petrarch noted women in Cologne were “rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine ‘so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.’” For people in Quebec and for French Canadians throughout the North American continent, today has a particularly patriotic and cultural heritage significance – making it similar to Saint Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo.

“No emotion, any more than a wave, can long retain its own individual form.”

 

– Abolitionist, suffragist, and minister Henry Ward Beecher (b. 06/24/1813)

 

Please join me today (Wednesday, June 24th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (If you have a free Spotify account, you may hear extra music that is not part of the original playlist.)

 

“It is not so much what you believe in that matters, as the way in which you believe it and proceed to translate that belief into action.”

 

– from “Chapter I: The Awakening” in The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

 

 

### BE GRATEFUL ###