Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Quick Thought on Lag B'Omer: Fire, Light, Water, Caves and Transforming Rainbows

Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day between the second night of Passover and Shavuot, this year beginning at sundown Wednesday, May 5, is a holiday.  During this period, we count each day with a special blessing to prepare for the revelation of Torah on Shavuot (beginning May 23 at sundown). Because the Omer is considered a semi-mourning period, among traditional communities, most public celebrations are not held during the counting time, except on Lag B'Omer.

Lag B'Omer is deeply connected to the great mystic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who, according to tradition, revealed the Zohar - a core text of Jewish mysticism - from the cave where he and his son hid from the 1st century Romans who wished to execute them.  Here, can you hear echoes of other sacred stories, such as the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) first revelation of the Holy Quran in the cave of Hira, Elijah's transformation in the cave of Carmel described in Melachim (1 Kings 19), and at least in some versions, Patanjali's composition of parts of the Yoga Sutras in a cave in Tamil Nadu.   All three of these caves are major pilgrimage sites to this day.

It would be nice to explore the symbol of caves more deeply.  Most symbologists agree that, at the least, the image of the cave is connected to the image of the womb.  So let's go with that.

The womb-cave held these holy souls in such safety and nuturance that they were open to the kind of wisdom and revelation that these texts represent.  

In any event, back to Lag B'Omer.  There are several lovely customs associated with the holiday: picnics, beach bonfires at night, releasing the pent up celebratory energy from before Passover.  Here's one thing says about the custom of playing with bows and arrows on this holiday:

Children customarily go out into the fields and play with imitation bows and arrows. This commemorates the midrashic tradition that no rainbow was seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime. Rainbows first appeared after Noah’s flood, when G‑d promised to never again devastate the world. When the world is deserving of punishment, G‑d sends a rainbow instead. Rabbi Shimon’s merit protected the world, rendering the rainbow superfluous.
I'm not in love with this way of looking at rainbows, that they are symbols G-d uses them to convey displeasure, as if they are a warning.  I cannot believe something so beautiful, which  occurs on the liminal edge of light and water, could be a negative.  Further still, as an LGBTQ ally, I think rainbows are awesome.

So, here's another thought: Perhaps, through Rabbi Shimon's merit, rainbows were transformed. Maybe instead of being a sign of unrighteousness (think Noah story), in Sefer Chasidim we are taught that a particularly wonderful rainbow will appear when we have repaired the world, called "the time of the coming of the Messiah." According to Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis and his fabulous book The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, rainbows are a Divine Female trope, along with queen, apple, orchard and moon.  [Read his great great essay on the Divine Feminine for Mother's Day!]

So let's ride the wave of symbolic transformation this Lag B'Omer.  Through the merit of Rabbi Shimon, when, according to tradition, the Holy One sends a rainbow only if the world is "deserving of punishment", let's see the rainbow as an invitation into the Divine Feminine, an ephemeral call to our highest selves, the selves of kindness and justice, who can embrace the diversity and messiness of the world with the compassion of a mother, holding all being in a womb-like embrace of potential and creativity, opening ever toward the light.


Monday, September 29, 2014

What is Essential

I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it. - Shug in the film The Color Purple

Friends, what is essential? What is true and deep and worthy? 

Lately I have been noticing purple and thinking of this quotation from The Color Purple.  I'm not sure about the "pisses God off" aspect, but I get what Shug means. 

Today I made a mistake on an appointment.  I thought the meeting was an hour later than it was, and I missed an important call.  Immediately, the self recriminations began. 

Then I began to reflect on what was really going on, why had I made this mistake? After all it was correctly written in my planner, I was looking forward to it, and I had seen it several times ...   

What it came down to is this: I am so busy being so busy that I did not make time for careful consideration.  In other words: slow down and LOOK, and look not just with the eyes. Slow down enough to create a day that emanates from the heart.  

In the end, we were able to reschedule the appointment, but this was yet another expensive lesson in the danger of rushing, of overcrowding time, of busyness, of haste. 

Today at yoga I plan to take this lesson to mat.  How will my practice change if bring this hard-won lesson to the asanas?  What if today I slow down in each posture to see what is really there, the essential in the movement and stillness? 

I have a feeling I will be closer to doing true yoga if I slow things down and notice, rather than aiming for achievement in the asanas.  Maybe if I chill out a little, it will allow an inner seeing/knowing to emerge, and I might get a glimpse of what is essential. 

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Monday, August 25, 2014

Entering Elul - Meeting the Beloved in Consciousness

Friends in two short days, the cycle of the Hebrew calendar will bring us back, once again, to the month of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the beginning of the new year, Rosh HaShana. I suppose if you do yoga that day, it's called Rosh HaShanasana.   :-)

Bear with me.  This will eventually be about yoga practice.

Rabbis love to create word play, and the letters of the name of Elul are often read as a series of five acrostics of holy verses that point us to the spiritual significance and inner work of the month.

1) "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (Song of Songs).  Here we read about love, belonging, reciprocity, seeing the self in each other.  The world would be completely transformed if we were able to look into each other's faces and see that same Self residing within.  Elul challenges us to see Mother Theresa's teaching that, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Love and meeting the beloved in all its forms, seeing Self in each other. 

2) Cities of Refuge (Exodus).  In the bible, cities of refuge are places where people accused of crimes are protected from "frontier justice" and get a fair trial.  Like our Buddhist cousins we might ask, "In what do I take refuge?" Many of you know I live by seven vows, which I revisit and revise annually at this time of year.  These vows are my "refuge" - they include careful speech, having no enemies, eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands, etc.  Mine are based on the traditional language of Judaism, flavored with the idea of "taking refuge" from Buddhism.  What are yours?  Carefully considering the sacred "vows" that guide your actions. 

3) Tzedakah - charitable giving (Scroll of Esther).  As in Islam, this value of sharing resources is different than the notion of "charity" which comes from the Latin caritas, the type of that arises spontaneously in the heart or "caring".  In Judaism, tzedakah (in Islam, zakat) comes from the notion of justice - that is, there is great wealth disparity in our society, and we have a moral obligation to move resources to the people and places that are in need.  Judaism and Islam also have ideals about giving from the heart - called g'milut chasidim, benevolent giving which we are expected to do as often as possible ("without limit").  Tzedakah has to do with society inequality. Supporting social justice. 

4) T'shuvah (Deuteronomy) - taking stock of the places where we have veered from a path of goodness and making every attempt to return.  This might mean the kind of "searching, fearless moral inventory" that is taught in recovery.  In this past year, have a wronged anyone, and do I owe and apology?  How might I make amends? Whom do I need to forgive?  Also it can be read as "what questions is my life asking me, and what re the answers I am giving through my behavior?"  Returning to center, forgiveness, reading life. 

5) Hope ("redemption", Exodus) - we live in a time when it is easy to lose hope: violence, racism, social inequality, war - all these things can make us doubt that the future can be any better.  This month is a time to connect with hope for the future - for ourselves, our community, the world.  Feed the part of your heart and brain that can know hope: read about groups doing great things and support them.  Learn about heroes bravely working for peace.  Don't engage in social media arguments that go nowhere. Spoonfeed hope to your heart and soul. 

So whether Elul is your tradition or not, as we move from summer to fall and its many forms of resumption, this is a great time to work with these themes: love, your guiding principles, social justice, returning to center and hope.

In the end, yoga is a spiritual system more than it is a form of exercise.  Check out the awesome film Breath of the Gods for more on this.  (It is available on Netflix.)

Every time we have the bald faced courage to step on a mat, we are calling up the deepest truths of our lives.  YOGA IS AN ACT OF SPIRITUAL COURAGE where we meet all our inner allies and demons.

Begin your practice always, always, with love - for yourself, for the grace and good fortune to practice, for your teacher and her/his lineage.  Take a moment to dedicate your practice to something of beauty: an ideal, a principle that guides you through your practice. Recognize that as you cultivate a little more inner peace and self-acceptance, true yoga demands that we take those qualities into our life away from the mat.  And finally, have hope!  Yoga requires deepest patience.  One of my teachers reminds us that, after years of doing salabasana [locust pose], you may only be able to come up an inch higher! Hope means persistence and listen for hidden goodness, as Emily Dickenson wrote,
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

Whether Elul is a holy month for you or not, never stop singing and let your yoga practice support you in finding your voice.

Finally let me add that each morning of this new month (except Saturday, our Sabbath) - to the great (not) delight of our neighbors - I sound the ram's on the front porch.  It is a wake up call, a shrill sound meant to awaken the sleeping soul and to rouse us to the compassion that is beyond "sides" and beyond "us and them": the place of perfect love and equanimity that in many ways is the aim of yoga.  Using pranayama breath to sound this most ancient of instruments, we awaken to that place in us that already in perfect harmony.  The sound of the shofar is a rousing Namaste.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Yoga Amidst Stress and Chaos - A Dispath from O'Hare Airport

Like some other major travel hubs, O'Hare Airport in Chicago now has a yoga room. Located in a rotunda a floor above the movement between terminals, and next to the indoor garden, the little room is an amazing oasis amidst the stress of the airport.
I had been stuck at O'Hare for almost 36 hours when I finally decided to visit the yoga room.  It is small but quiet and observes yoga space etiquette like removal of shoes, silencing electronica and wiping down the mats that are available for use.
I was skeptical, 'though it must be said that after being trapped for that long in my least favorite environment - a large, loud space filled with a great many angry, sad, frustrated people - I was feeling skeptical about a great deal more than the yoga room at that point.
In any event, meditative music was playing from a screen with soothing images, and there was a large mirror on one side of the room, along with a basket of mats to use.
I decided to "vinyasa-fy" the hot yoga sequence and just flow through what I normally do in class.  My skepticism quickly faded.
The power of yoga, with intention and breath, is truly transformative.
For a few moments I wasn't stuck at O'Hare. I wasn't getting ripped off from the day I had planned with my sweetie. I wasn't homesick - okay, that's a lie, I was still homesick, but for a few moments, I was my yoga self, not the aggravated, sleep starved, ill-fed lunatic who has been stuck at O'Hare.
I focused a lot on postures that open the heart, especially back bends and breathing, and on just enjoying doing one of my favorite things: prayer through movement, breathing, being present.
I gave myself permission to just do yoga for a half hour or so, and it completely shifted how I felt, and how I now feel about the remaining several hour wait until I get to try again to get home.
Earlier in the day I had one of those nice confluences of sacred reading: reading totally unrelated texts from different traditions which ended up making the same point.  The confluence was around the concept of expanding the mind and perspective to allow for the fact that our small perception of things is not the whole story, the big picture, or the ultimate reality of a situation.
My time on the mat at O'Hare brought me to the very same place: yes this is inconvenient, yes, I am sad to once again lose a day with my honey, yes I am home sick, but it is possible to relax the grip on all that a little and realize, sitting here in front of some sprouting cilantro, that life does indeed go on.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Day 4 UN Interfaith Harmony Day Celebrating Kids ... and the Child Within

On this 4th Day of UN Interfaith Harmony Week, let us remember to include children in the dream of a harmonious world!

Many people do not know the story of Janucz Korczak known as the "king of children" for his championing Children's rights 100 years ago.  Read his declaration of children's Rights here.

And while we are on the subject, what can you do to make your yoga more fun this week? Did you know that peace can only take hold in hearts that also make room for joy?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Day 3 Interfaith Harmony Week & Yoga: A Cheerful Countenance

Rabbi Shammai said, "Greet everyone with a cheerful countenance."

On this 3rd Day of United Nations Interfaith Harmony week, let's focus on greeting everyone -including that beautiful yogi facing you in the mirror - with a cheerful countenance.  I cannot remember which Sufi poet said, "If you don't like what you see in the mirror, you are looking in the wrong mirror."

What if we were to take this a couple of steps further: what if we began every encounter with another person with a gentle smile?
What if we cultivated a cheerful emotional countenance - that is, an inner attitude of friendliness - to our moment by moment experience?

When you get to the yoga studio, greet the front desk folks with some extra warmth.  Say a quiet hello to folks in the changing room.  Greet and thank your teacher and her/his teachers.  Face yourself and bow with warmth and appreciation for that brave, sweet yogi facing you with readiness and warmth this day.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Interfaith Harmony Week & Yoga Days 1 and 2

Friends this is United Nations Interfaith Harmony Week so I have decided to post a very short blog each day, so those of us not participating in formal events can still be part of the interconnected web of learning and good will the week is intended to create.

Day One: The Platinum Rule (Saturday)
Yesterday was Shabbat so I didn't blog, but the thought for the day was to explore the implications of the Platinum Rule. We know the Golden Rule, "do unto others" of course. The Platinum Rile asks us to go a step farther:
Treat others the way they wish to be treated.
This is an invitation to go beyond even the great goodness of  "do unto others what you would have them do into you".  To treat others the way they wish to be treated implies other steps: engagement, friendly curiosity, listening and learning.

Engagement means we take the time to meet one another on deeper levels, past surface impressions.  Friendly curiosity means we acknowledge what we do not yet know, listening means we genuinely want to hear the answers and learning means that we will try new behaviors, sometimes make mistakes and try again based on feedback.

In a way doesn't that sound like yoga practice? We meet each posture, explore it with friendly curiosity, see what our practice has to teach us and them we try again. And in my case bang into the mirror during Standing Bow. Repeatedly.

What would it mean for us to take this from the mat into world?

Remember: questioning in pursuit of truth and understanding is a sacred act of humility -we have something to learn from and about everyone.

Day Two (Sunday): Three Breaths

The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace maker Thich Nhat Hahn teaches that we should begin every interaction with three breaths. I once heard him say that the first breath reminds me that I am mortal, the second that you are mortal and the third reminds us that this makes the moment of interaction and coming together even more precious.

For today, pause often to breath.  When interacting, explain that you are undertaking the practice to slow down  and appreciate the other person, place a gentle smile on your face, breath and then begin whatever it is you are doing. 

How different would our interactions be if we more consistently took the time to pause, relax and truly see the person or people in front of us? And when in yoga, that person is none other than our own true Self.