Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Holiness of Sadness

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, Hillary pointed out an article she had read about yoga and sadness. Essentially, it was pointing out the mistake that many people make in thinking that yoga, or any spiritual practice, is about making us feel happier.

It isn't.

It's not that yoga, or meditation, or prayer, or any spiritual exercise isn't able to make us feel better. Quite often, there's nothing that is more effective at doing exactly that. But, that's not exactly the point of these practices. At their core, they aren't about feeling happier, or feeling better. They're about feeling reality. They're about feeling what we really feel, with complete, open honesty.
Here is the thing. Yoga is not about bliss, but about honesty. Spirituality is not certainty, but the longing of the heart. Enlightenment is not ‘letting go’ of bad feelings, but understanding them, what they’re doing to us, and how they are expressed in the body. Non-harming and forgiveness are not about feeling generous or big enough (bigger than and condescending), but knowing the difficulty of right actions and assuming responsibility for the difficult. Forgiveness often comes directly out of acknowledging how bloody bitter we are. Love is not joy, all the time. Sometimes, love hurts. Love is raw.
It's true that, long-term, these spiritual practices can be an essential part of leading a happy, balanced life. But, it's an enormous mistake to confuse that long-term goal with the short-term reality. If we are currently experiencing some distress, great or small, in our lives, then something which simply glosses over it and makes us feel better isn't really helping — that's not progress, it's denial. Real progress (on a personal, emotional, spiritual level) happens when we face whatever is bothering us, and then figure out how we can move through it, and past it.

If someone told you that they exercised to be healthier, and to feel better, you would think that makes perfect sense. But, if that same person told you that they quit exercising because they felt strained, and sometimes were in pain, during the exercise? You'd think they weren't serious about trying to get healthier. Sometimes, you have to fight through the pain in order to feel better, later.

This is one of the insights which has stayed with me, as much as any other, from my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman. Officially, he was our professor of liturgy in Rabbinical School, but he taught us all so much more. One of the things which he tried to make us understand was exactly what this article is saying: religion isn't about being happy all the time. Religion isn't about convincing ourselves that the world is peachy keen, and all we have to do is sit back with a blissful smile and bask in the warm radiance of divine love.

Religion is (or, should be) about facing reality. It's about going through life with honesty, but with a language which helps us name and understand that reality, and a community which supports us as we go through it. Imagine speaking with someone who is just endured some terrible tragedy, and telling them that, really, everything is all right. There's nothing to be sad about. That's not spiritual, it's offensive. There is, quite probably, something about that which the person should be incredibly sad — tragedies are real, and they are (not to put too fine a point on it) tragic.

Our hope is that by facing that reality, and doing it in a meaningful way, within a loving, supportive community, that person will be able to move on with life. And, in the best case, find happiness, once again. But sadness is part of everyone's life, and pretending otherwise isn't helpful, and isn't holy.

Some of you (members of my congregation) might recognize this teaching — it's essentially what I said before the Haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah.  Hannah is unable to have children, and her husband, Elkanah, response to her by saying, essentially, "Why are you so sad? Isn't having me in your life good enough?" His response is wrong on so many levels, but one of them is that rather than trying to be there to support her in her pain, he was trying to get her to simply feel better, to behave, and feel, as if there was no pain. "Cheer up — your life is pretty good, and there's no reason to be so down." His mistake was in thinking that his job was to cheer her up. Even if his attempt hadn't been as ham-handed as it was, it was still misguided. His job should have been to simply be there with her, and try to help her through the pain.

It's not always pleasant, and it's not always fun. But it's real. And, therefore, it's holy.
The end isn’t this negativity, this disappointment. But negativity is part of the path, and it has to be gone through if you want to understand it, to understand yourself, at all. If you don’t, you’ll be shutting down half of your experience of life, and probably the best strengths you’ll ever find. If you don’t, you’ll continue to skip, overcompensate, repeat and lull. You’ll segue irritation into nicety, stuff it, and it will erupt later as rage toward an intimate or yourself.
The sages teach that God's seal is truth. Seal--as in that imprint made in the wax which closes a letter, in order to verify its sender. Truth is the sign that the letter we just received, so to speak, is really from God, not from some impostor. That which is not true can never be from God. It can never be holy.

As we approach Yom Kippur, may we do so with complete, open, even brutal honesty. May we face our lives with all of the happiness and sorrow they bring us. And may we leave the day stronger, for having faced our truths, together.

G'mar Chatima Tova.

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