In a fascinating book entitled How God Changes Your Brain, Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg tells us that if we add spiritual practices to the daily activities of our lives, we will enhance the neural functioning of the brain AND “improve our physical, emotional, and cognitive health, adding years of greater happiness to our lives.”
At the University of Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind, Newberg teaches that setting our intentions, getting clear about our goals, being able to clearly articulate for ourselves what we want as our outcome – is the first step which enables our frontal lobes to more efficiently direct our motor cortex to carry out our desire.
That’s so cool that they know that!
Setting Intention, having Kavanah, is one element required to make the most of our special time, here, now.
So, What do you want from this Day of Remembrance? Yom Hazikaron. Hayom Harat Olam. … The Day the World was Conceived… what is waiting inside of you to be born? What brings you back to a sense of the sacred, where new beginnings are possible? Where the once-unimagined is now manifest?
For some it’s a week in NY City, a Broadway play, a museum, listening to jazz, the lights of Las Vegas, a Jewish queer San Francisco.
What helps me to reconnect my heart and soul with the Divine is to place myself in nature.
Recently, I was fortunate to be able to travel with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, to the Inside Passage in South East Alaska, and there for seven quiet days sea kayak and meditate, daven and pray, celebrate Shabbat, and practice paying attention – to EVERYTHING.
With wonderful teachers and a minyan of other seekers…. I was challenged to re-discover a Jewish spiritual life separate from my role as rabbi.
Instead of focusing on how to lead prayer for other people, I was asked to pay attention to my own personal prayer. Each morning awakening to a bell at 6am; Qi Gong exercises on the deck in silence; silent sitting practice 30 minutes, tefillah/davenning/blessing/, silent breakfast, silent time to walk, write, sit, clean. 10 am spiritual practice check-in and conversation; kayaking 11 to 4; mostly in silence. Paddling 30 minutes; and then taking long, silent, delicious drifts. Lunch stop on an island to explore, learn about the habitat and head back to the water for more awesome, stunning encounters with the GREATNESS of CREATION.
Here, I remember that I am small. Very, very small. Brief and transitory, like a ripple in a vast ocean, like a bald eagle en route. Here, I am relieved of my own self-importance; the persistent allusion that I am at the center of the universe. Here, I assume my proper proportion in the Cosmos. I remember: I am small in the face of God’s power, God’s eternity. I am comforted, relieved, panicked, terrified…really ALIVE!
Being half-immersed in the surface of the bay; gliding along, in silence, and then easing up from our paddling practice to enjoy some long, quiet drifts… amidst the wildness, the grandeur, the refuge — I remember the feeling of the oar in my hands and all of the questions in my heart agreeing to retreat as I concentrate on the subtleties of my stroke, my technique, my stamina, my joy.
Every now and then I start to worry…. What if my hands become blistered? What if my hunger doesn’t subside? What if it starts to pour and I can’t reach my raincoat? What if that helicopter is coming to find me because of a catastrophe back home?
My teacher invites me to notice when I’m in “Planning Mind,” thinking about the future. “Let go.” “Be Here Now and trust in the Unfolding Mystery.”
It took two days for me to quiet down the conversations in my head, but when I did, I discovered an ability to pay attention that I had lost. Eating in silence helped me to notice the way foods look on a plate, the distinct smell of a particular fruit, the mixtures of tastes that come in a meal, and most important, the incredible blessing of abundance in my life. In the quiet of the silence, as I listened to the still, small voice, I could feel the divinity that flows through me and connects me to other beings.
I could hear angels calling. (What? My last name is Angel! My parents Rabbi and Mrs. Camillus Angel. My sister, Naomi Angel…] my ancestors, and those who one day will consider us theirs.
And I began to respond, “Hineini.”
I am here. I am here now.
I am awake, fully awake – and this is awesome.
Yesh Nora HaMakom Ha Zeh!
A poem that I discovered on the trip and which expresses much of what I discovered in that time, entitled Lost by the North West poet, David Wagoner.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
I realize now that the trip for me was kind of like the journey we are all on, now; these ten days, when our tradition asks us to go to a deeper connection within ourselves; to deepen our connection to the universe, freshen our perspective and recalibrate our Kavanah.
IN that sacred place, B’MAKOM, in that sacred time, I came to a kind of stillness, in which I could begin to hear the still small voice and I awakened to what is important to me in a different way.
How can we, who are here now, get in touch with more of our senses? Our sense of acceptance for all that is REAL? Our sense of Compassion for our human limitations; our sense of size and proportion in relationship to creation and Creator; our sense of hope for realizing that which is not yet actual but is becoming!
We are called to exert our selves, to stretch and expand. We are challenged to reach out with hands and hearts to do good. And to accept that not everything is in our HANDS to control. We live in the WILD.
Being in my kayak, sometimes on my own, sometimes with a twin, half immersed in water, surrounded by evidence of a Force greater than me, allowed me to see things differently.
In the next ten days WE are going to be half immersed in prayer, in silence, in teshuvah work; sometimes alone, sometimes with others…. searching our hearts, looking for clues so that we might emerge with clear and renewed intention, kavanah.
As we paddle thoughtfully into the new year, what can we do to help ourselves get still; get quiet; and check in with the climate of our heart?
At times, our lives, our responsibilities, our sense of priorities – Overwhelm us.
It’s the human condition.
Raise your hand if you’re not living with challenges?
That’s part of life.
We will always have times that challenge us.
If our desire is to live with balance, silence is a structure that helps us cultivate awareness of what is happening in the moment. Shabbat is a practice that can help us create an oasis in the midst of the constant barrage of input in our lives.
I have found that Torah and mitzvoth, prayer and embodied meditation help me live with a Being-Here-Now quality of attention. Spiritual practices give me “eyes to see and ears to hear.” They hone my sensitivity to the potential of a miracle arising out of any ordinary day.
Often, we are just too caught up in the demands of the hour to perceive the miracle of which we are a part. Only later does understanding dawn and we realize that, in the words of our ancestor Jacob, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).
There are myriad ways to experience this sense of wholeness.
If you’re looking for ways to develop balance within yourself … we’ll be offering several opportunities to practice in the coming year, including: a daytime class in Embodied Judaism led by the adorable Zvi Bellin; a monthly, Spiritual Practices check-in group, that I’ll be hosting; We have scheduled sitting meditation, chanting and learning with our beautiful cantor and other gifted spiritual friends and teachers.
We’ve got plans Shabbat morning hikes with Torah on the Trails, outdoor immersions in nature… and I’ve even reserved 10 kayaks for a Sha’ar Zahav Alaska Expedition, 2012.
Because I want company on the journey.
Out there on my kayak, I remember how good it feels to be guided, spiritually led through new terrain, new landscape and new ways of seeing. I remember how lucky I am that I am part of a community striving together towards a shared vision, helping each other when we feel lost. And what’s more, I have this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be your spiritual leader. How cool is that!
As a way for us to pay deeper attention, now
To the sensations in our body, I’d like to lead you in a Guided Meditation. (And for those of you ready to leap from your seats…. Take an extra deep breath and remind yourself…this too shall pass.)
Hands – Guided Meditation, adapted
Sit erect, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, hands resting comfortably in your lap, palms up; take a moment to get in touch with your own breath.
I invite you now to become aware of the air at your fingertips, between your fingertips, on the palm of your hands. Experience the fullness, strength and maturity of your hands. Think of your hands, think of the most unforgettable hands you have known – the hands of people who have loved you well. Remember the oldest hands that have rested in your hands. Think of the hands of a newborn child – perhaps your nephew or niece or your own child or grandchild. Once upon a time, your hands were the same size.
Think of all that your hands have done since then. Think of all the learning your hands have done and how many activities they have mastered, the things they have made.
There is a mystery in the hands of a person we love. Through touch we say things we cannot say in any other way. Our hands are sacred. They write love letters and Torah. We use a tiny silver hand to read Torah.
Now rub your hands together and feel all of this sacredness/energy. Slowly raise your left hand and place it softly on your forehead, where the tefillin are meant to rest. Feel beneath your warm hand the electricity of your many thoughts, memories, dreams, the capacity of your amazing brain to think and feel and move your body through the world.
Now raise your right hand and gently place it over your heart. Press more firmly until your hand picks up the beat of your heart, that most mysterious of all human sounds, the rhythm of life itself. Now feel the aliveness of who you are in the space between your hands, shining, beating, alive. Now lower them to your lap very carefully, still feeling all of your aliveness.
Now, without opening your eyes, extend your hands on either side and find another hand. Do not simply hold it, but let your hand speak to it and let it listen to the other. Express your gratitude for this hand stretched out to you, and for the way that all of us are now linked together, hand to hand to hand.
Now bring your hands back again to your lap, continuing to feel the many ways in which we are connected.
Whose hand was that? It could be any hand; it could be the hand of love, of the Creator. Indeed, it was, for the Creator has no other hands than ours with which to do the work of creation.
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the wisdom of our hands, be what makes a difference in the world as we enter together this new year.