Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I live off to the side of the world, so my involvement in current affairs is intermittent at best. I don’t get caught up much in the minutia of day-to-day developments. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for us, things don’t change much.

I’ve been dipping in and out of these health care debates. Having spent most of my life in countries where health care is universal, I may have a different perspective on this than many Americans. But as a human being, I imagine we can somehow relate.

I grew up in Canada. When I was 24, I spent my first extended stay in the States, working at a magazine in New York City. After a particularly intense yoga class one day, I woke up in the middle of the night in intense pain. My calf muscle had popped out of place somehow, and felt as if it was being torn from my body. After the initial inchoate shock of pain, my first thought was, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t have health care.’ This was the first time, ever, this thought had entered my mind.

My next thought, fleeting because of the pain, was, ‘what a criminal thought to have to have.’ For 24 years I had lived with the invariant, bedrock sense that should anything happen, all I had to do was go to the doctor and everything else would be taken care of. That’s it. It wasn’t even really a thought; because there was no question that it could be otherwise, it had become part of the fabric of reality, a lifelong sense of security, simply the way things were.

My trauma that night was fairly minor—the muscle eventually just popped back into place—but there are millions of people in this country with more serious health concerns who spend their days—walk around, eat, work and sleep—with the opposite invariant sense from the one I grew up with. Rather than a sense of safety, of everything being taken care of, I imagine part of the fabric of their lives must be a sense of anxiety; should anything happen, there’s no one waiting to help.

My sense that this is criminal hasn’t shifted. It’s not the thought itself, of course, but the ongoing choice of a society so blessed, as this one is, to organize things in such a way that the thought is even possible.

Like any two- (or more) sided conflict, as long as they are governed by competing interests our debates about health care can seesaw along without cease. The only interest, the only ground for debate should be how can we eradicate that criminal thought—“I don’t have health care”—from American consciousness. Private, public…rather than narrowly delineating the discussion around existing territories, we should expand the dialogue to address the real question—how, in the 21st century, can the most powerful, most productive, wealthiest country in history organize itself to ensure that all of its citizens, regardless of economic standing, can have access to first-rate medical care? This is the only real remaining question when it comes to health care. As long as we all agree on that, start with that bedrock position and goal, then the rest, however haltingly, should follow.

This, it seems to me, is a decidedly human question—not limited to pro or con, liberal or conservative. It is a question, hopefully, we might all wish to answer.

I don’t have health care. I choose to live in this country because it has much to offer. Like any relationship, we take the good and the bad. This is one of the uglier features of my current sojourn. But contrary to conventional platitudes, people do change, sometimes. Usually, it takes some kind of trauma. Perhaps we can look around and see that we’ve got such an opportunity right now. With the economy foundering and millions of our neighbors, who’d up ‘til now been financially secure, in difficult straights, we can see that things aren’t always guaranteed, for any of us. And clearly we can see that our corporate leaders don’t always have our best interests at heart. Just as they can’t be trusted to run our economy safely or use our bailout money wisely, they can’t be relied upon to determine the status of our health.

If we take these cues and use this opportunity, we may be able to shift the debate from us and them, to we. We need to redefine the challenge in human terms; let’s not worry so much about “health care”, and realign our focus to caring about health.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

lightning the load

It’s the first of Elul, the thirty-day period of self-reflection leading to Rosh Hashanah. Chodesh Hachesbon–the “Month of Accounting.”

There’s an image, I believe it comes from Maimonides, of life. It captures the uncertainty–how all of it, every moment, is an ongoing mystery. In the image, we’re wandering through the desert on a pitch black, stormy night. Every now and then there’s a sudden flash of lightning, and in the moment before we’re plunged back into blindness we see the mountaintop, our destination, revealed in the distance. Then we stumble through the dark once more, aligning our course with, we hope, greater accuracy.

I grew up being assured, ‘you can do anything,’ only to be told, once I’d made my choices, ‘you can’t do that.’ These cultivated voices have led to warring factions within me. On the one hand, a sense of great, almost boundless aspiration; on the other, sometimes paralytic doubt.

Once in awhile I’m given the gift of knowing, a sense that I’m on the right path–however difficult, long and sometimes lonely it might be. These moments are a deep blessing. Not as dramatic as the flashes of lightning but, in a way, more dear.

Last week was big for me. I did something I hadn’t really done before–wrote about myself and sent it to someone. It’s a slight change in course, but something that feels right. It’s funny, how sometimes even a small adjustment, a tweak in perspective, can draw everything that’s come before, along with all the unknown to follow, into clearer focus.

What becomes apparent is: It’s all a desert and it’s all blind, but no matter where we place our next foot–in error or in judgment–each step is utterly perfect. The reason the view is so good every time the lightening strikes, the reason we see so far, is we’re standing on the mountain already. In the darkness, in doubt, we lose sight of this; we stumble, fall and cast about only to find that the only place to go, the one destination, is returning to ourselves; we carry the summit within us.

If we’re there already, what’s the point of a process like Elul? If we’re standing at the peak, why reflect on the journey and even attempt to adjust our course? If there’s nowhere to go, why bother trying?

I suppose one way to put it is, the degree to which we must travel is the degree to which we remain in error; it’s more about stripping away than it is about actually going anywhere. Becoming ourselves, our truest selves, is a delicate journey, one that requires not rushing headlong to some imagined finish line, but slowing down enough to get a deeper sense of the landscape. It’s about knowing ourselves as we are–as in knowing our beingness–rather than knowing ourselves as we do, in our busyness.

It’s only in stopping altogether, in fully grasping the immediate topography of our selves, that we are freed to move most steadily–to place every foot with utter confidence, in total surrender, with absolute trust.

Elul is an opportunity to begin the process of slowing down; after a mad summer of activity, to ready ourselves to greet the autumn with an inner preparedness. It’s an invitation to ask yourself, how have I strayed from my truest self? An occasion to spend time each day reconnecting to your inner landscape and make adjustments to your course so by the time Rosh Hashanah arrives (or, if that doesn’t work for you, whatever date you choose), you’re truly ready to arrive, open all your doors, put down your bags–the inherited and imagined versions of yourself–and stop completely. It’s an invitation to give yourself over in surrender to the ongoing mystery of life and to trust that if you loosen your grip, let go of any sense that you can control the world, the universe will simply and elegantly provide you with everything you need.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

more to come

Last week I was introduced at a gathering as “Jonathan, who’s living down in Big Sur, studying for the rabbinate with the Benedictines.” It led to some confused murmuring—what’d he say? they teach rabbis?

The more I’m out in the world these days, the more people’s reactions to where I live and what I do indicate just how off the beaten track I’ve stepped. I didn’t realize it at first; to me, it’s just my life. It actually seemed a pretty natural choice to come here.

If people are curious to hear about it, I guess that’s god’s will. So, I’ve been taking a stab at writing about it all week. It’s unusual for me to write about myself, but it seems called for in this instance.

The immediate upshot of my occupation is I’m sitting here on a bench looking out over the ocean stretching to infinity below me. The sun is about an hour from sinking to the horizon, by which time I’ve got to get back to my computer, type up whatever I’ve written here and post it on the web.

I made a commitment to posting once a week, not to posting something good. If I lose you this week, there’s not much I can do about it at this point. Perhaps there’s something I can say to wrap this up and give you a sense of promise, of good things to come.

If there is, let me know.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

It’s a long, long journey. And there’s nowhere to go. This is the great paradox of the spiritual life. We spend our days pursuing god, brahma, enlightenment, while everything we’re looking for, all that we seek is right here on the tip of our nose, hidden in plain sight. As long as we look outside this moment, this place, for fulfillment, peace, we look in exactly the wrong place.

This is the deeper meaning of Rebbe Nachman’s tale of the man who goes off to seek his treasure, traveling the world, returning home only to find it hidden in his own kitchen. This is not simply a tale of staying within one’s own religious tradition, as many have thought, it’s an expression of deep truth about the nature of life, consciousness, and our relationship to the divine, the animating force of all that is.

It’s also one of the messages of Eden, the reason why the story, the journey, begins at the end. Everything we’re looking for is here already.

This is a difficult lesson to internalize for someone such as me, who has spent his adult life trying to figure out how to change things. But if we look at things objectively, we have to admit that it’s true: We want a world of peace? Surely we’ve got everything we need to achieve that; there’s nothing more—no object, no technology—we require to simply stop hurting each other. If anything, we’ve got to get rid of stuff. Want everyone to have nutritious food? There’s plenty to go around. Once again, it’s our own blindness that gets in the way. A healthy planet with life supporting systems that sustain us in perpetuity? Got that too. For how much longer, who knows…but it’s clear that if we can get our act together as a species we can have that without lifting a finger.

What’s the point of this? Just a reflection of my own journey these days. Reminding and reminding and reminding myself that everything I yearn for is right here. It’s helpful to remember, and a blessing to let go of striving, of anxiety, of control, of the idea that somewhere somewhen somehow else things will be more complete. It’s all right here. And when I let go into that, the universe simply, elegantly, incredibly provides.

It’s a beautiful system, this organism on and in which we live. This tendency towards perpetual abundance is not limited to physical systems; it’s built into the fabric of the cosmos themselves. The secret is simply to stop, watch and allow.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

you are the moon

self-consciousness, you could say, is the purpose of the universe. we, our lives, are the second phase of that experiment. the first was consciousness itself, awareness. our current stage is consciousness of the physical self, the self contained in form. the next is the experiment’s fruition, the payoff; it is true self-consciousness, consciousness of the true self. the true self is not confined by form, but expressed through it. this “greater self” is the self shared by, connecting and interpenetrating all form—the identity of the universe. you can call it god, emptiness or being, christ, allah or great creator. it has no true name. it is lived, not spoken; known, but not understood. it is only when we are not separate from it—in mind, body and spirit—that we taste it. and in becoming one with it, we have no fingers left to point, save inwards.

peaceful sabbath,

jonathan

What is Judaism?
The path of gratitude.
Yehudi (from the same root as todah),
one who gives thanks, who acknowledges.
And what does it mean to be grateful?
To acknowledge what is,
rather than what is not.
To approach the world from a place of gratitude
is to approach the world from a place of fulfillment.
Rather than seeking someone
or something to complete me,
to be grateful means to see how
I am complete already,
and to live accordingly.
Living in fulfillment
all is fulfilled.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

cut the cord

How do you convey to someone, who’s never responded to the inkling, that there’s more going on to the world than meets the eye? This is especially challenging, since what that “more” is can’t be seen with the eye or captured by the tongue. Still, it’s nonetheless real; in fact it’s the underlying frame and perpetuating force of reality. It’s also perceivable, just not the way we normally use our given faculties.

Consider a thread (for some reason I picture it to be red). Picture it running from the time of your birth, stretching through the center of your head, reaching forward to the time of your death. Along this thread, like dust on a carpenter’s snap-line, are all of the accumulated memories, resentments, celebrations, triumphs, regrets and pains of your past. As well, there’s the collection of all your fears and hopes for the future,

This thread, with its build up of socially and personally imposed, self-directed adjectives—I’m selfish, kind, needy, stressed out, the best, the worst, too good, not good enough—is not you.

Imagine if the thread were cut, and you had no opinions about yourself at all, no collected idea of who you are or what you can or cannot be. Imagine how it would feel, what it would be like just being who you are, in any given moment, without that pervading cord locking you into a particular set of responses, judgments and perceptions. In that state, it is as if we are born again and again and again in every moment, constantly renewed, given a fresh chance, a perpetually replenished clean slate.

That might seem scary, even insane. Who would I be? What would I want? How would I get anything accomplished? Wouldn’t I just sit around and vegetate? In that state however, the thread is still available, it’s just that our relationship to it is no longer the same. It no longer runs straight through the head from birth to death; it exists as more of a suggestion than a command, an idea than a solid entity. What I’m driving at here is not a perpetual state of forgetfulness, it’s not that the memories don’t exist or the hopes don’t stir, but they are not confused with the self; there’s a relationship, but no confining identification with. Our experience of what is is not proscribed by our past and future.

We are living in Plato’s cave. What is “outside” it, what that “more” is, is impossible to describe from within its confines. I can say that war, poverty and destruction of the natural world are incompatible with that state, with the state of liberty from the cave. When we don’t identify with the false self, we come to see how truly interconnected we are with everything else; how, like a colony of aspens, we may appear to be separate trees, though underneath it all we are simply expressions of one giant organism. When we move beyond the limits of identification with our “small” selves, we see that we are “more” than we appear to be. Unbound from the tangled thread of our past and future, we come to see that the world is new at every moment, full of possibility—for ourselves, for our communities, for our species.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan