Thursday, January 25, 2018

To Grow In Kindness

Yesterday, I was having lunch with two of my oldest and dearest friends. I've known them both since our early High School years, so we go way back. While paying the bill and figuring out the tip, one of them joked that his simple mental math skills, never his strong suit, have actually started to get worse.

"Well, you have to realize something," I ventured. "We're 46. That means that, in every conceivable facet of our lives, we've peaked. This is it. We'll never get better. Physically, mentally, whatever--we're as close to perfection as we can ever dream of getting. Hopefully it's a gentle slope, but it's all downhill from here."

At that point, they wondered why, exactly, they decided to spend time with me. But, they didn't actually argue...

But, I did thrown in an exception. I said, "Except, I guess, we can grow in kindness*." Maybe a bit pretentious for the moment, but I was trying to find a bright side.

* "To grow in kindness" is not my phrase, but I can't remember from where or from whom I'm stealing it.

I didn't tell them this background, but on the drive to see them, I had been listening to a podcast from "Crooked Conversations." This one was a conversation between host Ana Marie Cox and ABC News’ Dan Harris about meditation. Apparently, Harris has become a pretty well-known evangelist for meditating, and he's been effective in part because he's not what most people think of as a typical meditator--very few mentions of "psychic energy" or "souls," and more curse words than most of these types of books deliver. Worth checking out if you're interested in meditation, but get turned off by the ethereal, new-agey tone of a lot of those books.

Anyway, one of the points that Harris makes is that, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, most of us assume that our personalities are more or less set in stone. Certainly, once we become adults, we are who we are. If not completely, then awfully close to it. Oh, sure, we can learn things, in terms of knowledge, skills, and the like. But, our basic, core personalities, our personal qualities, are really not malleable any more (if they ever were). We're as generous as we're ever going to be. We're as kind, as forgiving, as patient as we're ever going to be. And, maybe more to the point, we didn't get to choose these qualities, any more than we chose our height or our hairlines. I might wish I were kinder, but that's just wishing. I can pretend to be kinder, I guess. But, at my core, kindness is something I have (or don't have) in some predetermined measure. There just isn't much to do about it.


The entire point of a spiritual life, the entire point of spiritual practice, and the entire point of a meditation practice (which, he's eager to point out, doesn't have to be a spiritual meditation practice) is that we actually are able to change. And, we're able to change deep, important, fundamental parts of ourselves. It's not easy, by any means. It takes dedication, determination and not a small amount of constancy. But, bit by bit, slowly but surely, it is possible, without any doubt whatsoever, to change who we are. If we want to, and if we are willing to do the work, we can become kinder. We can become more generous, more forgiving, more loving. More patient. More open-minded.

I've been seriously engaged (albeit sporadically) with mindfulness practice for a number years now. It's getting close to a decade, actually. And, there are times when it feels like it hasn't really had an effect on me--that it isn't "working." But, there are also times when I think I can see a change. That, although I am far from perfect, my work has made me more patient. More understanding. More generous. I think I'm a better person than I was 5 years ago. I think I'm more worthy of admiration (my own, anyway) than I was. There's no false modesty when I say that I've got a long way to go. I am not, in any way, claiming to be adequately kind, or exceptionally generous, or in any sense a paragon of virtue. I've got a lifetime of work ahead of me, and I'm sure that, when it's all said and done, I'll leave this earth a deeply, deeply flawed person. But, I sincerely hope, and somewhat expect, that I'll be less so than I am now. And, I like that direction.

The podcast is a good listen--two smart people talking, openly and honestly, about some very personal stuff (including drug addiction and recovery). Give it a go--I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Freedom is Caring

During my sabbatical, I've been spending some time with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Torah commentary. For those who don't know, Soloveitchik was one of the giants of the 20th century, and he more or less created what we now know as Modern Orthodoxy. He never actually wrote a Torah commentary, but one of his students gathered various teachings of his which related to various parts of the Torah, and assembled them into a single work. It's a pretty fantastic bit of Torah.

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we get the Passover story, including the commandment of the Paschal sacrifice. It is, according to at least some sages, the only sacrifice which is closely tied to the idea of chavurah, community. One sage even asserts that this one particular sacrifice can only be offered by a group, never an individual. This one offering, so closely tied to freedom, can never be an individual act.

But, a chavurah, a community, is more than a group. It must be bound by something. And, that something is chesed. What's chesed? It's usually translated as "kindness," but it also has a sense of communal obligation about it. Loving responsibility. That, Soloveitchik teaches, is what freedom is really about. The ability to display chesed.
The ceremony of the Passover meal, centered around the paschal lamb, aims at the emergence of the new chesed community--for chesed is the characteristic mark of the free man...the birth of the chesed community--of a nation within which people unite, give things away, care for each other, share what they possess--is symbolized by the paschal sacrifice...[God] simply wanted the people--slaves who had just come out of the house of bondage--to emerge from their isolation and insane self-centeredness into the chesed community, where the little that man has is too much for himself.
To emerge from our insane self-centeredness. What a phrase. And, what a great definition of freedom. The ability to emerge from our insane self-centeredness.

As you may know, during my sabbatical, I've also been focussing a bit on Social Justice, and on trying to find ways, and partners, to work towards a world which cares more for the oppressed and the marginalized. And, although I don't know that Soloveitchik would have liked this application (he was speaking about the Jewish community here, not the world community), I still found his words resonant with the world of Justice. And, quite dissonant with much of the hatred and anger, and with the treatment of "the other," that I see in the news.

What is freedom? Freedom is defined, and symbolized, by our ability, and our willingness, to emerge from our insane self-centeredness, and to instead live within a nation built on caring for each other.

Cain Yehi Ratzon--May that be God's will.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Mindfulness vs. Justice?

For a while now, two of the most important aspects of my Judaism (and of my rabbinate) have been Mindfulness and Social Justice. And, for just about as long, I’ve been struggling with a tension between the two. They certainly aren’t in direct conflict; in many ways they are complementary. But, in at least one major way, they are most most definitely in tension.

My mindfulness training is always coming back to lovingkindness, in one form or another. It pushes me to be calm and levelheaded, and to be open to others as much as possible. Mindfulness and meditation are supposed to lead us to peace and calm. Screaming in anger is most definitely not a mindful way to be.

But, screaming in anger is precisely what my Social Justice work often pushes me to want to do. When I read about injustice—racial*, economic, gender; it doesn’t really matter what kind—I get angry. No surprise there; anyone who can read about these kinds of injustices and not get angry should be concerned. And, when I read or hear from others who don’t seem to care about these things, from those who dismiss others’ cries of injustice, from those who deny that injustice is real—well, that doesn’t exactly create a groundswell of mindful serenity within me.

By the way, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power. I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a difficult book (not the writing, which is beautiful, but the content), but so, so important in its subject matter. 

I sometimes feel pretty torn about all of this. On the one hand, I want to continue to explore what mindfulness can bring to me, and how it can change me. I admire the equanimity that truly mindful, spiritual people can bring to their lives. I admire the effect that peaceful equanimity can have on those around them. I want to be calm, and thoughtful, and respectful, and to be someone who engenders those qualities in others.

On the other hand, I want to scream, and rant, and rail. I want to stand on the corner and yell at people who, knowingly or not, abuse their privilege and, unwittingly or not, remain complicit in the oppression of others. Part of me wants to be monklike, and part of me wants to be a righteous prophet. And, while I hope (and kind of assume) that time will help me find some kind of a balance between those two poles, I currently have no real idea how to imagine, let alone achieve, that balance.

Maybe one piece of the puzzle is in an article I set aside a long time ago, but never got around to reading, “Hard on Systems; Soft on People” by Tim Wise. The basic idea? Wise suggests that we be unforgiving in our resiststance to unfair and unjust systems. That we fight, tooth and nail, against the larger forces of oppression. But, that we also remember that not every person who is connected to those systems is evil, or deserving of being screamed at.

Why? Well, in part it’s strategic. Screaming at people is often just an ineffective way to engage in advocacy, for so many reasons. But, more importantly (to me, and my current balancing act, at least) is that it acknowledges that people are complicated, and flawed, and somewhat conditioned by our circumstances. Sometimes good people think or say or do bad things. We don’t have to be kind or forgiving to those things that they think, say, or do. But, we can still be kind to the person who thought, said or did them.

Just to be clear--Wise says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this isn't advice for every situation. Some people are so awful (or, if you prefer, behave so awfully) that a bit of vitriol is appropriate to send their way. But, at least some people deserve a bit more compassion. And, it might be easier to show it to them if we remember that we are often the ones who fall short and need that forgiveness.

Look, here's my reality. I'm racist. And sexist. And homophobic. Hell, I'm probably somewhat Antisemitic. I'm obviously not a mouth-breathing, White-Power-rally-attending fascist. But, I struggle with just about every -ism you could name. I have, in the past (probably more recently than I'd be willing to remember or admit) said terrible, hurtful things. I know I've spent most of my life not being aware of, or taking responsibility for, my privilege. And, I'm not done with any of that. I probably won't ever be.

Maybe if I remember that I've got my own demons to keep fighting, I'll be a bit more able to be kind to others who are doing the same. And, hopefully none of that will keep me from fighting to make sure that our darker inclinations are never allowed to go unchallenged. Maybe I'll find a way to keep fighting, while growing more mindfully loving. Maybe, God willing, one day they'll even feel like the same thing.