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Posts Tagged ‘slow down’

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

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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

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I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I don’t know how most of you do it. I’ve been in the city a week now, and I’m just about cooked.

One thing I’ve noticed out here is how much green has become part of the landscape. It’s everywhere. Seems that the big beast of profit has figured out green sells. This is probably no news to you, but being in an urban environment full-time for the first time in a long time, I can see how remarkably this trend has grown in almost no time.

It’s one thing to label the world green, however, and another thing altogether for it actually to be so. I’m beginning to see more clearly the symbiotic relationship between concrete and ego—ego being that sense of separateness we carry around within us, that I am who I think I am, and that what I do has little to no bearing on you. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the psychological underpinning for war, poverty and destruction of all kinds.

Part of becoming awake, present, returning to god, source, the divine, one, whatever you want to call it, is spacious awareness. It’s a state where everything becomes available, where the light and color, sounds and energy of this world move through us fluidly, effortlessly. The urban world, it seems to me, is an outward projection of the state of mind where this is simply not so, our so-called “normal” state of mind. The concrete jungle is a reflection of our inner compartmentalization; it’s the planet, made rational.

Have you ever been in raw, un-manicured nature? If you have, then you know the way that something within us unlocks, lets go. Nothing is in a rush. Most of it isn’t going anywhere at all. Yet it’s astoundingly here, alive, happening. This is true green. Nature, unchecked.

I remember years ago reading about a campaign to have one square inch of silence protected in each state. It’s a deceptively simple idea, until you realize how much space needs to surround that square inch to make it possible—miles of un-peopled land in every direction.

We used to live in the natural world. Our settlements were pockets in the otherwise vast cloth of unrestrained nature. This reality has been fundamentally reversed. We banded together, in part, to protect ourselves from the forces of nature. Now, nature needs protection from us. One of the milestones on our journey towards balance will surely be the recognition of how essential the natural world is to our own wellbeing, in too many ways to be counted.

If we really want to go green, let’s actually be green, and reintegrate nature back into our lives. I’m not suggesting we all live in our own square inch of silence, but I am suggesting that we move beyond our current stage, where the natural world survives in our midst as lonesome outposts, representatives of a fallen army standing in soldierly, spindly rows on our streets. Rather, let us integrate dense colonies of green into our lives, scenes from another world we move through in order to navigate our own, until we realize that they are one and the same.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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What astonishes me, in the midst of our generalized global economic meltdown, is how shortsighted we still seem to be. Even as the spiraling fates of American industry flash us time-lapsed glimpses of our own future, we still don’t seem to get it.

Among this week’s calls to restructure the American auto industry, I haven’t seen anyone climbing atop the spire of the Chrysler building to shout, “Enough!” Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that we’re connecting the dots.

This planet is in shock, and we are the cause. Our behavior is compromising the integrity of the organism on which we live and upon which we depend, literally, for absolutely everything; we’re jeopardizing its ability to grow food, create oxygen and produce water. We need these things to survive. This behavior is, at best, nuts.

When it comes to cars, we act as if the only problematic thing about them is the gas that goes into their tanks, and the subsequent carbon they release from their rear ends. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Every time we buy a new car, we’ve got to extract all that metal from the earth, not to mention the plastics and chemicals involved. We can’t keep doing this forever.

Our desires are limitless, literally without end, and often run contrary to our self-interest in their effect. Organizing our societies around the pursuit of these inexhaustible desires, which is how things currently work, what capitalism is, is to design for certain catastrophe. It’s the antithesis of every true spiritual teaching passed down to us through the ages.

Rather than a car industry, what we need is a far industry (couldn’t resist); that is, a transportation industry that looks deep into the future. Currently, industry thrives on incrementalism. Changing things bit by bit allows the corporate world to sell us more, but it doesn’t make sense when we look at the size of the planet and the number of people we’ve got. Every material good we have comes from the earth, and it needs a rest. So what I propose is that we bypass hybrids altogether—at best a transitional technology, think peak oil—and go straight to electric. But rather than go out to build and buy fancy new electric cars, we simply convert all the cars already on the road as they come of age.

Converting a combustion car to electric is a rather simple procedure that can be done within a day or two. If we were to dedicate the remains of the auto industry to this pursuit, including all the labor already familiar with how our cars are built, we could probably make the turn around even quicker, and certainly cheaper. Electric motors, once in place, run for years without need of repair; some say they can pass the million-mile mark without need of replacement. They do need their batteries swapped every so often, but as we move in this direction battery technology should catch up pretty quickly, especially if we make it a priority. Any way you cut it, it’s a lot cheaper than buying a whole new car. For most people, the 150 – 200 miles that an electric car can run on a single charge is more than enough. We can fill in the gaps for the remaining 5 percent of us with plug-in hybrids or some other technology.

Rather than give the auto industry a facelift, we should be giving it a heart transplant. Same body, different motor. In order to get our money, Chrysler, along with any other manufacturers who may follow suit, should be required to reorganize at least some of their plants to get up to speed with a massive fleet conversion. There are roughly 150 million cars on the road in the US. Think of how much we would diminish our impact on the earth if we simply re-use them.

Taking this route would be far more responsible. We fetishize the new, but how much hipper would it be to know that our great-grandchildren will look back and think of us as a generation that finally woke up to our duty? Let’s choose the future with our eyes open, not our wallets. We have the opportunity to leap forward; the more we lag behind, the longer we have to smell our own gas.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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Hi folks;

As many of you know, the time leading up to Passover (Pesach) can be just about the busiest time of year. There are many preparations to make. In light of this, the posting this week is brief. It’s a poem I wrote a few days ago. What it lacks in rhythm and meter, it makes up for in brevity:

what is Pesach?

birth
beginning
possibility

an opportunity
to leap across boundaries
and come home

pesach is the threshold
of this bridge
taking 49 steps
to cross

inward and out

the far side
deep within
the fiftieth

gateway
to another world
either direction

though it looks like we left there
long ago
we stand in the middle
still

our only responsibility
to shift the balance
in this moment

if we take one step
towards love
now
here

the entire world will tip
to one side
and blossom

I wish you all true freedom; exodus from whatever holds you back as an individual, and an easy passage through the desert of change for us all, along with quick entry into a world of our most highly realized potential.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

please note: because of the holiday, next week’s posting may not appear until Friday. I’ll try to make it Tuesday if I can…

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We live in a pretty frenetic world. Most of our waking lives are spent going from one thing to the next. Rarely do we take the time for true, unalloyed stillness.

This lifestyle is a reflection of our inner state, our mental busyness. As much as we might like to think that others are responsible for organizing the world in such a way that we’ve got to run, to some degree we all play a role in perpetuating this way of life. To fully assume our responsibility as a species—to live in harmony with one another, all species and the planet—we must cultivate greater stillness in our lives: inner and outer.

These two dimensions of stillness are mutually reinforcing: Inner stillness—cultivated by meditation, prayer, dance, yoga, simple quiet sitting, walking in nature, etc., helps us to become outwardly still. As I write this, I realize the irony that all of the “activities” I just listed are outwardly rather still. Nevertheless, cultivating greater inner stillness expands our capacity to be outwardly so beyond those moments when we specifically practice it. The same goes for integrating outward stillness into our lives in a broader sense, and the influence this has on inner stillness. Turning the phone off, reading instead of watching tv, lingering over dinner, leaving the car at home, taking a bath…These outward choices, which don’t necessarily constitute any kind of meditative practice, nevertheless increase our connection to inner stillness. Like water, wearing away stone, they have an effect.

I just spent a few days in civilization, and it brought me face to face with the challenge before me. How do I translate my ideas into meaningful words when those ideas depend almost entirely on a foundation of stillness, of silence? The kabbalists identify four levels of understanding or wisdom. The deepest of these is called “sod” (pronounced sode), meaning secret. It’s not secret, however, because no one will tell you. It’s secret because no one can. This is the area of understanding that can better be characterized as experiential, rather than intellectual.

I’m new to the blogosphere. In fact, I originally had no intention for Global Sabbath to be a blog. But until I learn to say what I feel to say in a way you can hear, this is the shape my work is taking. I’m told that to truly survive in the blog world, I need to post at least weekly. This is difficult news for someone who spends days at a time in silence, and who would almost always rather stand in front of a redwood than sit in front of a computer. But I’d like to be a responsible citizen of this new realm, so here I am.

So what can I say? I’d like to make an experiential request: Find an hour this week; just an hour. Do your best to get yourself into a place in nature that has little to no sign of human shaping. Go alone, or if you must go with others agree to spend the time in silence. Walk, sit, write, reflect…just be there. If you want, let me/us know how it goes.

Until next week.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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