Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Want to be happy?

I now realize that it is somewhat ironic how long this blog post has been in the "I really need to write that one, when I have a moment" list...

A while back, I came across an article by Soren Gordhamer, in which he discusses some recent research to come out of Harvard. It seems that some old advice about how to be happy in bad situations is wrong. Many people believe that, if we find ourselves where we don't wish to be, the best thing is to put our minds somewhere else. It makes perfect sense: if we're stuck in traffic, and we hate being stuck in traffic, then we can just imagine that we're sitting on a beach in Hawaii, instead. We transport ourselves there, at least mentally, and then all is well. What could be more logical?

Except, it doesn't work. What works, in terms of making us happy, is not pretending to be somewhere better, but rather paying attention to exactly where we are. A person's happiness has much less to do with what is actually happening, it turns out, and more to do with how much we are "in the moment."

According to the article, "Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing."

He points out that what the researchers have really done is just confirm, through some experiments, what teachers of Mindfulness have been saying for centuries. The beginning of all spirituality, and of all true contentment, lies simply in the act of being fully present in the current moment. Mindfulness Meditation, at its core, is simply about paying attention. Gordhamer references my favorite teaching from Buddhist monk and Mindfulness master Thich Nhat Hanh, who teaches that there are two ways to wash dishes - you can either focus on getting the dishes clean (the result), or on the simple act of washing the dishes (the act itself). The latter is the path to happiness.

Gordhamer also goes on to talk about how hard it is to be fully mindful in our modern, technology-filled world:

But where is our attention most of the day? It is generally lost in thought. According to the researchers, "On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time." But we do not need researchers to tell us that our mind wanders just about all the time; we can watch and see for ourselves. As Eckhart Tolle has said, "Compulsive thinking has become a collective disease."

And now we have all kinds of gadgets that, essentially, help us stay in our minds, disconnected from our body and actual experience in a given moment. Walk down the street of any major city and most people are essentially "somewhere else," either because they are on their phone or are daydreaming about some future moment or reliving a past one. This moment, the one we are living now, is so often missed.

I love my iPhone, and I love my iPad, but I've often referred to them as "anti-Mindfulness devices." They are perfect tools for not paying attention to the world around us, for not being in the moment. And, as useful and fun as they are, they have to, sometimes, be put away.

We have become a society caught in Doing, and disconnected from what we may call Presence or Being. As Ram Dass used to say, "We become Human Doings instead of Human Beings."

By the way, I learned about Hanh and Mindfulness because a congregant introduced me to them* after a sermon I gave a few years ago. In it, I talked about Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and his take on Shabbat - that it should be a day of living in the moment. Most of our lives, he said, center around planning for the future - whether that future be in 3 minutes or 30 years. But, when we get to that moment, we won't be enjoying it, because we'll be using it to plan for another future moment. And so on. And so, since we never get to enjoy a single moment, every moment that we spend planning is, in effect, wasted. We spend a moment on another moment, which never exists for itself. So, we go through life, never living a single moment, in full.

* DH - if you're reading this, a sincere "thank you!"

Greenberg suggests that we need to stop, weekly, and focus only on the here and now*. That's why we can't do any work on Shabbat - work is preparing for later. Shabbat is about now. Hanh suggest taking moments out of life and simply paying attention. The details are different; the underlying idea remarkably the same.

* of course this can't be taken to extremes - spirituality and self-care can never be allowed to become isolationist and narcissistic.

Life is busy, and it will remain so. Do yourself a favor: take 5 minutes or, even better, take this Shabbat, and just be. Stop being a Human Doing, and be a Human Being. It might just be the secret to happiness.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Flotillas and Hypocricy

I want to say more about this, but I don't have the time right now, and I want to get something on this blog about it. If you haven't heard, another Flotilla is on its way to Israel, ostensibly to bring aid to Gaza. Click here for a strong, if somewhat strident, opinion about it.

The upshot? We don't have to assert that Israel is perfect, or that it's acted perfectly in Gaza. But, we have to look at the utter, shocking hypocrisy of singling out Israel as the main source of human-rights violations in the Middle East. It's so absurd that it wouldn't be believable, if it weren't true.

Click on the link - Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lybia, Syria and others are daily doing things which far, far outweigh any wrongs that Israel has done. And yet, the "humanitarians" care only about condemning Israel.

When you hear someone shouting about how the evil Israelis must be stopped, remember this. Extreme bias is one form of a lie.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Retired at 46

Recently (I think in the quarterly journal), the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis - the professional association for Reform Rabbis) has been publishing some musings about retirement. It prompted a message in today's e-list from a Rabbi who has retired, but for very non-traditional reasons.

I can't say exactly why, but I found it profoundly moving, so I'm going to repost it here (with her permission), without any additional comment, except for taking another chance to remind everyone that all of those fortune cookies, bumper stickers and cheesy posters which tell us to be thankful for what we have in life? They're all true.


I read the latest CCAR meditations on retirement and was deeply moved. I had to read it over several sittings because I can't read for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. I am 46 years old and I too am retired. 
When I tell people that they assume I'm an heiress, not disabled. Most of you know I fell at work and am permanently brain damaged. Since at first I would not agree to accept that I would never work again, I did promise my rehab team that we did not have to revisit the subject for 5-10 more years! I can't even work at Starbucks because I have no sense of time. Three minutes. Three hours. Same thing. Not good for making coffee.
I am retired, but I didn't have time to plan. I retired the second my head hit the concrete. No long term care insurance. No retirement contract. No successor. I am told the congregation I served for ten years has hired a wonderful new rabbi. I hope I will get to meet him. I love rabbis.
I'm raising children, not visiting grandchildren. And those of you in your 80's think you know what short term memory problems are? When my kids come home every day my son asks me the same question. "How was your day mommy?" Every day the answer is the same, "I don't know." We laugh and then try to reconstruct what I did with greater or less success. We always know there was a nap. We aren't always sure I ate lunch.
The folks at NAORR [ed: National Organization of Retired Rabbis] have welcomed me warmly. They rock! I can't be the only rabbi who loved being one, but whose career was cut short and not replaced with some other high-functioning, fascinating endeavor. So if you are reading this, or if your computer is reading it to you because you can't read and you are 35 or 50, know that you are not alone.


Alice Goldfinger

AntiSemitism at the ATM

I had a strange experience a couple of days ago, and I honestly can't figure out how I'm supposed to feel about it.

I was at the ATM, minding my own business. At the time, I was wearing my kippah (yalmuke)*. A person got in line behind me - I don't think I noticed it at the time. When I was done, I walked away, and gave the next guy a friendly "all yours." I noticed that he was a bit of a hard looking guy - muscled up, spiked piercings. Driving a mammoth pick-up. Nothing unusual these days.

Then, without saying a word, he started goose-stepping towards the ATM.

I couldn't really believe I was seeing it. Part of me wondered if he was just being goofy - maybe he wasn't really throwing out Nazi imagery at me. But, even though I can't be sure, it doesn't seem likely that it was random, or meaningless, does it? No, it's probably safe to say that, for whatever reason, he was directing it at me.

And, like I said, I'm really not sure what to think about it. I so rarely encounter overt Anti-Semitism any more. When I was a kid, it was not uncommon for someone to throw pennies at me, or to use "Jewish" as a generic negative term ("That's so Jewish" was often used just like "That's so lame"). It never really got nasty - I was never assaulted, our house was never vandalized (unless you count some shaving cream on Halloween). But, it was around, and needless to say, I hated it. But, it's been a long time since I've seen that kind of thing. I obviously tend to run in circles where Jews are well accepted, and I think that this kind of prejudice (not just against Jews) just isn't as accepted as it once was. Happily, this goose-stepping jerk was an anomaly in my life.

In the end, I really don't make too much of it. It was just one jerk. It didn't hurt me the way it used to (one of the advantages of growing older, and getting more comfortable with myself). I wasn't scared (I didn't really expect to get assaulted in broad daylight, in a busy bank parking lot). More than anything, I think I was sad, and a bit confused. It's not like I don't know about Anti-Semitism. But, deep down, I don't get it.

What I really want to know? What was going on in that man's head that made him not only hate Jews, not only hate me (if you can really hate someone you don't even know), but also feel the need to express it in that way? What did it do for him?

Maybe I'm overanalyzing an ultimately meaningless moment, but what was so wrong with that man's life, or with that man, that he gained some kind of satisfaction by pretending to be a Nazi in front of a Jew he didn't even know?

Maybe this is just a more mature kind of sour-grapes, but as I'm writing this, I'm starting to realize a big part of how I feel about this ridiculous act of Anti-Semitism. I don't know why he felt the need to do it. But, it honestly made me glad that I'm me, instead of him.


A quick epilogue -- I'm writing this in the waiting room at a car place. While I was working, a guy came in from the shop and politely, and a bit shyly, asked me why I wear a kippah - what it symbolizes? I explain that it was just a sign of respect towards God that I wear when I pray or study*. He said he's always wondered, and thanked me for taking the time to explain it.

*I'm supposed to wear it when I eat, too, but I don't always. Another blog, I guess...

Always good to remember, and be thankful, that our goose-stepping friend is in the minority.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rational Religion - not just for Jews!

One of my favorite topics about which to think/write/speak/blog is the intersection of rationality and religion. If you're reading this, you probably already know that about me!

I've often felt that Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, is the perfect religion for this synthesis*. It was born out of the belief that a religion must be rational in order to be true. It's always rejected the supernatural, and felt that the deepest meaning can be found in religion when we acknowledge that our ancient, sacred texts are speaking in metaphors, not expressing scientific facts.

* I'll also acknowledge that the fact that I was born a Reform Jew probably has a lot to do with this view. I'll admit a bit of bias here!

But, I've never felt that Reform Judaism and rationality were precisely the same thing. I know of some Reform Jews who believe things which I think are most definitely not rational (although, they'd disagree, I imagine). And, I certainly know people of other denominations and religions who are very rational, as well. Being rational is not a Jewish thing, or a Reform Jewish thing.

I think that at least some people, after speaking to me (or reading my stuff, etc), might not realize that. I've often had responses to these ideas that amount to "Well, I don't believe that - I'm a Christian." As if Christianity demands a literalist belief, but Judaism allows for more non-literalism.
I'm not educated enough to know if one religion is actually better than the other, in this regard. Like I said, I feel as if Reform Judaism is stronger here, but that's quite possibly just my bias. But, even if one religion, or one sect, might be more rational than another, that doesn't make it the exclusive domain of that one. It really does cut across all lines. I was reminded of that by an article I read by Michael Ruse, a professor Philosophy at Florida State. that anyone might still believe that the Bible, specifically the Adam and Eve story, is literally true:

The cover article of this month's Christianity Today is on the subject of Adam and Eve. Could humans be descended from one single pair or not? Really, Christians should be over this one by now. They should have been over it by Christmas of 1859, a month after Charles Darwin published his "Origin of Species." As he said there, "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

To those of us in the rationalist camp, believing that the Adam and Eve story is historical fact, a full century and a half after Darwin (and, after a slew of other types of discovery which effectively disprove the historicity of the first parts of the Bible), would be exactly like believing the world is flat, or that the sun orbits around the earth. 

But, importantly, Ruse goes on to make it clear that disbelieving in the facts in the Genesis story (and more) is not the same as being non-religious:

The great British theologian John Henry Newman saw clearly that the essential truths of the Christian faith remain unchanged, but that, given new knowledge in each age, they need constant reinterpretation and updating.

I really like that phrasing. I want my religion to be based on essential truths, not on arbitrary facts. Even if those facts happen to be true, they still shouldn't be a fraction as important as those truths! And, I'd hate to stake my entire religious belief system (and, in my case, my career!) on one particular set of facts. Because, then my religion is only as sound as my facts - and that's rarely very sound!

Let me try to put that a tiny bit differently. Forget about what fact we're talking about. If there is one fact, any fact, whose dis-proof would shatter your religion, then your religion, pretty much by definition, isn't very strong. 

And, it really doesn't matter which religion that is. In that, we're very much all the same.