Life’s Purpose

We all would like to think we have a purpose. Put more truthfully, we all would like to have a clear purpose that we do not have to question or worry over. I think that the reason I am thinking this thought is because I’m reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a spiritual autobiography, written long ago in a different time, but compelling in its confessional seriousness. Thomas Merton’s vocation was to leave the world and become a monk in a monastery. “Leaving the world” is his terminology. To have a religious vocation as a monk is to leave the world. This idea is foreign to me, a Jew, who does not think the world is a place to leave in order to be religious, but a place in which to celebrate life, truly a different perspective.* At the same time, though, I envy him his certainty, which brings me to what I want to say about my experience today.

I began with a walk towards public transit in order to go to a daylong retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I took the scenic route to BART (rapid transit) through City College. Midway through the campus, a man in a car pulled up to ask me a question;

gym at city college“Do you know where the gym is? I’m trying to get to the gym.” I told him where the gym was and kept walking, including walking through the building where the gym was. I could hear the crowd gathered for a basketball game and was reassured that I had given him good directions. I made it to Redwood City, though I almost missed my stop because I was so immersed in Merton’s book. I sat in the meditation hall for 40 minutes and began to swell up as I always seem to do when I sit to meditate. My fingers get painfully swollen and I think that I’m doing an activity that is not healthy for me. I went to lunch and began to go back for the rest of the day’s activities – sitting meditation alternating with walking meditation – and it occurred to me that I would rather read and spend time with my husband than sit and swell in a meditation hall. I called Al, my husband, and made plans, walked to the train, got off at the BART station closest to my house, and, again, walked through City College. I was listening to a beautiful rendition of Salve Regina, sung by Benedictine monks, thinking that it would be great to use the beautiful melody and write alternative words, since the meaning of the Latin words doesn’t resonate for me in the way they are intended. We humanistic Jews do this with Jewish prayers as well. Why not this song? As I listened someone was trying to get my attention. She was driving a truck and was asking me where the gym was. I told her; this time I was quite sure about where it was.

So, what am I meant to do? Apparently, today I was meant to tell people where the gym is in City College. Tomorrow, who knows?

*Note: Paradoxically, if you read about Merton’s experiences working in the fields at Abbey of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, it is hard to believe he has left the world: “How sweet it is, out in the fields, at the end of the long summer afternoons! The sun is no longer raging at you, and the woods are beginning to throw long blue shadows over the stubble fields where the golden shocks are standing. The sky is cool, and you can see the pale half-moon smiling over the monastery in the distance. Perhaps a clean smell of pine comes down to you, out of the woods, on the breeze, and mingles with the richness of the fields and of the harvest. And when the undermaster claps his hands for the end of work, and you drop your arms and take off your hat to wipe the sweat out of your eyes, in the stillness you realize how the whole valley is alive with the singing of crickets, a constant universal treble going up to God out of the fields, rising like the incense of an evening prayer to the pure sky: laus perennis!”

Merton, Thomas (1998-10-04). The Seven Storey Mountain: Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition (p. 432). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

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Being and Doing

gingko sidewalk2I am addicted to doing. I allow myself to just “be” once a week – on Saturday, on Shabbat, and this links me to a chain of Jewish practice that goes far back in history. I like this “time outside of time” as Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat. However, I’m beginning to think that this one day is not enough. I seem to be addicted to constant activity. I think I may have learned this behavior from my family. We are not worthy unless we are being productive.

I retired almost 9 months ago. Nine months is an apt moment to be born anew. I’d like to be born anew as a person who is productive when that makes sense in my life and as a relaxed and in-the-moment person when that makes sense. My obsessive desire to always be productive is a problem for me. I am in a constant state of tension, thinking that if I am not engaged in an activity that has some use for the world, that I’m wasting my time. But doesn’t it benefit the world to “be peace” as Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist) says? If a moving butterfly’s wings have reverberations across the planet, certainly a person at peace does so as well, yes?

To know something is not enough. “Being” requires as much discipline as “doing,” when you are a compulsive doer. I write this blog to publically state my intention. I hope others will help me in this endeavor.

The first step will be to read the newspaper tomorrow morning and do the crossword puzzle as I sip coffee and eat breakfast. I’ll periodically report about my progress.

Entering the stream . . . it is not in heaven . . .

Buddhism and Judaism are living traditions. I was reminded of this last month, when I had the the privilege of interviewing Stephen Batchelor about his new book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age for The Middle Way Society. bookBatchelor tries to rescue the original teachings of Gotama, Buddha. Because Batchelor has been immersed in the world of Buddhism since he was a young man, and because he has been inspired by Buddhist practice as he understands it, he feels rooted in that tradition. To quote the Buddha helps embed and locate him within the unfolding of this tradition. At the same time, he doesn’t look at tradition as a fixed thing to be followed blindly. He sees tradition as a place to root oneself in order to be able to flourish more fully. Batchelor talks about seeing a graffiti on the Berlin wall when it fell that said: “Culture without history is like a tree without roots.” He said that to be self-conscious of your embeddedness in your tradition is nourishing, is emotionally and spiritually grounding and affirming, and gives you confidence and courage.

I was surprised by my own strong feelings as I listened to Stephen Batchelor’s expression of gratitude to Buddhism in spite of the attacks that he has endured from those who are strongly tied to more dogmatic forms of the tradition. I kept thinking about Judaism, about how we at the Society for Humanistic Judaism are trying to continue within the tradition of Judaism even though we reject forms of the religion that are not compatible with our humanistic beliefs. It takes courage to stand up and honestly proclaim your own point of view based upon your own knowledge and experience.

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Buddhism and Judaism are living traditions that have evolved within various historical and cultural conditions. Although there are forms of these traditions that resist change and that proclaim absolute truths about the world, there are practices that keep these traditions alive and relevant to us, especially to those of us with particularly imaginative, curious, and skeptical approaches to the world. I hope you’ll listen to this podcast and hear what Stephen Batchelor eloquently says about what he believes may be the original dharma and practice taught by Gotama, a non-metaphysical dharma from which we can benefit today.

The above podcast is sponsored by The Middle Way Society. I highly recommend that you go to The Middle Way Society website to learn more about the middle-way approach to living an ethical life free of dogma.

What does faith mean to you?

What does faith mean to you? Is faith only possible if one has an absolute belief in a particular religion? If you are a Jew, do you state, as Maimonides did,

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.”

Or do you declare every day, or at least weekly . . . maybe yearly? . . . this?

“Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. . . .”

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If you are Christian, do you believe the following?

“We believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity and is the only begotten eternal Son of God Who became flesh to reveal God to man, to fulfill prophecy, and to become the Savior of the lost world. In becoming man Jesus did not cease in any way to be God so that He is fully God and fully man inseparably united in one person forever.”

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Or, perhaps, this is quite familiar to you:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Perhaps you are Muslim and declare:

“There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

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Symbolizing the faith of Islam, the crescent moon is seen at sunset on top of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

If any of the above texts rings absolutely true for you, and you would prefer to have any of these statements further strengthened with my blog post, you will be disappointed. Please feel free to stop reading this and to go about your day.

To my fellow doubters and skeptics, I have one question: What does faith mean to you? Is it a word that you would feel more comfortable living without? Were you, perhaps, “burned” by it as a child, sending you running toward a more rational, enlightenment point of view? Perhaps you are comfortable with the word “faith” in a form that makes sense to you.

Several members of The Middle Way Society recently had a round-table discussion about what faith meant to us. I recommend that you listen to the podcast of this discussion.

The four participants in this discussion were Barry Daniel, active member and podcast interviewer for The Middle Way Society; Robert M. Ellis, philosopher and founder of The Middle Way Society; Willie Grieve, a Zen Buddhist who lives in Scotland; and me, a humanist rabbi. What we all had in common was a comfort in living with uncertainty. For me the faith of patience described by Maimonides takes the form of working toward a more messianic age – meaning toward a time when people are less violent and more loving; i.e., my point of view was political, but, at the same time rests on a belief that people are capable of change and that personal transformation has a positive effect on the world even if one is not politically active. Willie Grieve has an apophatic approach to faith, and, through a Buddhist practice, sits in the midst of uncertainty and mystery. Robert Ellis talked about two kinds of faith. First, one can have faith that the chair one is about to sit upon will not collapse under you. And second, and the one that we are mainly talking about here, is a faith in our values based upon our experiences. We need to think about what are the best things to have faith in. He pointed out that faith is often a shortcut to absolute beliefs, similar to those that begin this blog post. Willie Grieve shared an Alan Watts quote that distinguishes belief from faith:

“We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

The particular religious point of view of which Alan Watts speaks is likely Buddhism, at least in its less institutional and more agnostic forms.

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One of the most interesting questions that Barry Daniels posed to all of us was,

“Do you think it’s unhelpful that the world’s religions are described as faiths or is that okay?”

What do you think? Please listen to the podcast and join the discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Chanukah!

It’s Chanukah and, as usual, I feel a strong conflict. My Jewish self wants to celebrate Jewish holidays and Chanukah is one of them. When I was a child I remember playing with dreidels (a form of children’s gambling) and eating delicious latkes (potato pancakes). The competition with Christmas had not begun back then, and we truly considered the holiday to not be that important. I enjoyed lighting the candles and eating the latkes, but there wasn’t much there there.

Dreidels

When I attended Hebrew School I learned about the evil Seleucid Empire and how they tried to force the Jews to worship their gods and how they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The brave Maccabees fought the Seleucids and won . . .Yahoo! Now we can be Jews without anyone imposing their views on us. There isn’t much of a spiritual component to this story, just one band of fighters winning over a temporarily weak empire involved in other wars, not very inspiring to me at all. Then, as an adult I learned about the original story of Chanukah that made me want to celebrate it even less! The conflict was really a civil war between Hellenizing Jews and traditionalists. These traditionalists, who won the battle, were more like the Taliban than liberators.*

Now what? The sages had difficulty with the Maccabees too. They were not keen on making Chanukah a holiday, but the people were celebrating so they created a story about the miracle of the oil. The holiday then symbolized hope, light in darkness, and took on a more universal and less militaristic quality. Also, we put our Chanukiot (what most people callmenorah menorahs) in the window to show that we are Jews and we are not afraid to let others know that we are Jews. I like that, too. As we know, it has not always been easy to be a Jew in places where Jews are a minority. Chanukah, like all Jewish holidays, clearly evolved and took on new meanings. For example, activists for social justice created a myth that the Maccabees were freedom fighters.

What does Chanukah mean to us today? Universally, bringing light into the dark winter gives us hope. For me, this could be enough. I’m happy to let go of the story of the Maccabees. At the same time, however, Chanukah is about taking pride in our Jewish roots and not being afraid to express our culture in the midst of a majority who celebrate other holidays of light. This year, I dedicate my celebration of Chanukah to Muslims who are experiencing discrimination and fear fueled by a few radical extremists who profess to have the same faith. Together we need to light the darkness of hate and fear.

Shalom / Salaam

*My reference to the Taliban is not necessarily accurate; i.e., there are differences of opinion about how much force was exerted on the Idumaeans and Ituraeans by the Hasmoneans to conform to Judean ways (be circumcised, for example), not to mention that the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans are not synonymous.

Read – Write – Listen – Create – See

And now that I’ve complained about my smart phone addiction, I’d like to sing it’s praises. I see a flower, a beautiful flower among thousands of others, hanging from a branch in the Presidio, wet with dew. I want to share how beautiful this flower is with my husband, or maybe with other friends. I pull out my phone and photograph the flower. I use one of my editing apps and zero in on the droplets of dew. Others, who I know, who may be at work, or are otherwise indoors and will never see this very flower, can now see it, if I share the picture with them.
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I take a long bus ride to my favorite café and in-between looking out of the bus window I read Stephen Batchelor’s latest book, after buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age. The lower case letters of the title are not an accident. I read this book on my smart phone. I believe that this book is especially important right now. I’ve always enjoyed Batchelor’s books about Buddhism, beginning with Buddhism Without Beliefs, a Buddhist counterpart to Sherwin Wine’s Judaism Beyond God.
One does not have to accept dogma to be a Jew or to have a Buddhist practice, but because people tend to want certainty, we have a tendency to be attracted to institutionalized forms of religion that present absolutes. I recommend both of these books, and, if you’re interested in learning about the middle way that I think these approaches suggest, do pull out that smart phone or computer and see The Middle Way Society website: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/ Also, if you’re interested in a secular Jewish practice, check out The Society for Secular Humanistic Judaism: http://www.shj.org/

After reading Batchelor’s book on the bus, I went into a café and continued to read on my computer. My attention was strongly grabbed, though, when I heard a lovely, moving piece of music. What was I hearing? I pulled out my smartphone, opened the app called Shazam, and, bingo, found the music and was able to identify it. The group was not a group I ever would have heard of and I was happy to buy the 6- minute piece of music on my, you guessed it, smartphone.

I’m remembering discussions during the 1960’s about technology. We discussed everything back then – maybe it was because I was of an age when one questioned everything, or, it’s probably partly true that the 1960’s youth culture encouraged us to question everything. In any case, we talked about technology. Should we try to go back to living a life without technology? Many folks went back to the land and tried to live what they thought would be a quiet, simple, life. Others of us thought that technology was neither good nor bad, but depended upon how we used it. When I think of my smartphone, I see an object that has positive uses for me. When I use this piece of technology, I’m able to read, listen to music, read about philosophies that make sense to me, communicate with friends on Facebook, write emails, take photographs, make collages, and even identify a piece of music that I’ve never heard. What a powerful little object this is. On the other hand, as I wrote about in my last post, one can easily become addicted to smartphones. I know I walk a fine line here.

As long as I continue to see the world around me, can be inspired by great writing, hear beautiful music, take photographs, create collages, communicate with those who are not nearby, listen to podcasts, and, most important, do nothing and put this little object away, all is well.

Smartphone Addiction – Can We Break This?

About 20 years ago our daughter came home from school and introduced us to her friend and told us that this friend also sits with her family and eats dinner together. At the time, this was an unusual occurrence for many young people, and this was before smartphones! Now, even those families who may gather together for dinner aren’t fully present for each other because they’re checking their smart phones, worrying about missing out on some new text or Facebook post, Twitter post, or email. FullSizeRender (1)To just be with each other is becoming more and more rare. If someone is sitting across from you and is expressing an emotion that should be paid attention to, you may not notice because your eyes are looking down at a smart phone.

Sherry Turkle is an ethnographer and the director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self. She has been speaking out about how addiction to our smartphones reinforces our fear of being in silence and our fear of being bored. There is a constant craving for stimulation provided by media on your smartphone. We forget how to just sit in silence or to speak eye-to-eye with the person across from us.

I will confess that I am not immune from this smartphone trend. I am trying to put the phone away when I’m with people, but I feel the pull of it. I don’t want to miss out. What if someone is writing to me? I know it can wait but I want to respond right away. This is a bad habit! Recently I bought a new phone. I clicked on a link that activated my new one but there was a software glitch. The panic I felt was all out of proportion to the situation. I became obsessed. I had no smartphone. I stopped everything else I was doing and spent hours on the phone with the phone company and then the manufacturer of the phone. I experienced this phone as an extension of my body. It was as though a part of my body was not working and had to be fixed immediately. I knew I was out of control but I kept on pushing through until I had my phone working. I know from my own experience that smartphone attachment and addiction is real and powerful.IMG_3589

What is my solution? I am trying to disconnect once a week on Shabbat. From sundown Friday night until Saturday evening I’m trying to stay disconnected. One way to do this is to put an “away” message on your email and perhaps post “Shabbat Shalom” on Twitter and Facebook. That’s a start. What do you do to temper your smartphone addiction?