I was sitting at a Jewish meditation retreat some years ago at a time in my life that was particularly difficult. It was a period of time that was weighted with deep sadness, heaviness and feeling utterly stuck. Months had gone by like this and I went on retreat hoping something would shift. Over the course of the retreat, as you do with meditation practice, I sat with this darkness. I sat and observed. I sat and wept. I sat and felt numb and grey.And I kept sitting. Nothing was changing. If anything, it just felt immovable.
I met with Sylvia Boorstein, one of the teachers, and a JewBu of beautiful wisdom, and she suggested that I ask to receive an answer at the end of the retreat, and until then, just stay with the practice. So I asked for an answer, I prayed for an answer, and I sat. Each day felt endless, each meditation sit felt excruciating, like I could barely stand being in my own skin, and I kept sitting.
On the last morning of the retreat, I was sitting at breakfast, feeling as heavy and dark as ever, afraid of leaving in even worse shape than I’d come in. As we did every morning, the retreat participants each sat at individual tables in silence facing the big bank of windows that ran across the length of the room, each of us eating slowly, mindfully noticing the sensations of eating and the thoughts and feelings that arose.
I was holding my hard boiled egg, feeling the warm firmness of its shell in the palm of my hand, feeling its weight and size, and watching the sunlight dance and shimmer in my glass of orange juice.
And suddenly, I heard a voice. It was not my voice. It was not coming from anything conscious on my part. And yet it was unmistakable. I heard, with utter clarity – “crack the egg on your head”. It took me so much by surprise that I let out a snorted laugh. I looked around to make sure no one was actually standing behind me and whispering in my ear. Everyone was focused on their own plate of food. I looked again at the egg in my hand, and quickly smacked it against my forehead. Another snorted laugh and like a heavy curtain, torn away, the sadness lifted, the decision I’d been struggling with was suddenly clear and I felt flooded by light and ease.
Some would call that voice God. In the biblical Book of Kings, Elijah called it ‘the still small voice‘. Some call it Consciousness or Highest Self. When we practice listening deeply to the calls of our inner lives, the differences between these names falls away into the truths of the experience, into learning the difference between the voice of our own fears, wanting to keep us protected and comfortable, and the voice, the call, of deep truth.
What have you experienced of that inner voice that calls you forward in your life, that voice that you know is trustworthy because usually it is calling you toward something that scares you, something significant? What enables you to hear that inner call? If you can get away to a retreat, immersed in silence, away from the demands of work and carpool and committee meetings and social obligations, that probably helps. But our question tonight is – how can we hear the call of the still small voice of our souls as we enter a New Year, a renewed world, and discern what is being asked of us? Not out of habit, not out of inertia, but what newness, what surprising truths is this moment in life calling each of us toward? And how can we set up our lives in the coming year so that we hear the depth of that call, right in the thick of our busyness, and align our lives with it day by day, so that we know we are living true to our values, so we know we are not living someone else’s life, but are honestly and vivaciously living the lives that are uniquely ours to manifest?
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, also known as the Piacezner Rebbe, was a great Hasidic teacher who was killed in the Holocaust. He taught that learning to observe our inner lives is essential to knowing ourselves, to knowing the Divine, to living a Jewish life, and to knowing how to act in the world. For him, that inner voice is not a rare mystical utterance speaking from the top of secluded mountain or from within an enchanted hard boiled egg. Actually, he teaches, our souls are constantly speaking to us and the language they speak is the language of emotion. He wrote, “Human beings have a multitude of feelings; they move within us like thin and trickling streams. When we open them and draw them to capacity, they flow like a mighty river whose waters never cease, but if we fail to widen them, they pass as if they were never created.” For the Piacezner Rebbe, every feeling that arises is a tentative probing and spasm of the soul, trying to find expression in the world. Every emotion is a calling, right from our core, to be observed, traced to its root and responded to.
So on any given day, there is a flow of what we would call ‘positive emotions’ – delight, excitement, love, generosity, yearning – that often pass unnoticed or unattended to. Do you ever feel the stirring of a desire to get up and dance or sing or run and help a stranger but you ignore the feeling out of embarrassment? How often do you hold back from showing someone how much you like them for fear that you will look foolish or be rejected? How often do you dismiss excitement about a new interest or opportunity, thinking “Oh, I could never do that. That’s not practical or that isn’t really me.” The point is not whether you actually start dancing on the subway platform or drop everything to live among a jungle tribe in Borneo, but to learn to pay careful attention to these subtle tugs of our souls’ exuberance, and to find the response, perhaps embarrassing, uncharacteristic or challenging, but a true response to the deep hunger of our souls, yearning to expand beyond their current limitations.
For the Piacezner Rebbe, the emotions we would call negative – anger, jealousy, inappropriate desire, etc. are just as much calls and cries of the neshama. It’s not the naked feeling that speaks the truth, but what the feeling is pointing to. So if, for example, I feel jealous of someone else’s life and what they have, feeling jealousy and pettiness is the way the soul flags to us that it is trying to grow. So I have to inquire – Is this jealousy a call to stop focusing on what I lack and to actively practice gratitude for the things in my life I am taking for granted? Is this jealousy a call of feeling unappreciated or unloved, that is urging me to build deeper, more nourishing relationships and to share myself more generously? What am I afraid to admit isn’t being addressed in my own life that makes other people’s joy painful? Rather than dismissing the feeling as something ugly that I really shouldn’t feel, when I observe the feeling and trace it to the yearning at its root, I can bring the deeper call to the light of day and consciously respond to it.
The Piacezner Rebbe points out that the challenge is that these sensations are often subtle and often make us feel uneasy. And what many of us do when we feel that vague inner irritation is we pour ourselves a drink, or eat, or do some other mundane task, “simply amplifying the rattling and rumbling of the body so the cry of the soul is inaudible”. Does that sound familiar to anyone? What do you reach for – a tub of ice cream? Sex? Five back-to-back episodes of House of Cards? Obsessively working out? When we’re not accustomed to turning an attentive ear to the calls of our inner lives, it can be easy to confuse the hungers of the soul for the hungers of the body. And sometimes, we just don’t know what to do with the feelings that are uncomfortable. We might not be skilled at actually welcoming emptiness or pain or a surprising delight, that can be just as unsettling. We might be unskilled at sitting with them, patiently and openly, until we know what is being asked of us. But we know how to make our bodies feel better and for a little while, our souls are silenced.
The Piacezner Rebbe teaches, “This is what the priests of Molech did when they burnt a child on the sacrificial flames. When they beat the drums, the father could not hear the boy shrieking from the heart of the fire. The bodily sensations thunder so loudly that the quaking of the soul passes as naught, as a sort of spiritual miscarriage.”
What an unsettling and powerful image! For him, every time we reach for a beer or a bag of cookies to quell some inner agitation, to distract us from unsettling feelings, it is like drowning out the cries of our own child, fighting for its life.
Now you might want to say, “Really, Kalonymos, aren’t you being a little dramatic?” But the Piacezner Rebbe is urging us to take our inner lives that seriously.
On the one hand, this means recognizing that every time I let a feeling arise and pass without observing it and attending to it, some aspect of my inner being is lost, something precious and essential to my living a big and bold life, shrinks instead. If we are lucky, our souls keeps poking at us until we get the message – we keep choosing the wrong partners or we keep having the same power struggle with co-workers even when we change jobs, or the distractions that used to work, just stop working. And we either wake up to the call of that deeper truth, or it stews within us in some distorted form, or it dies away.
On the other hand, taking your inner life this seriously means recognizing that there is constantly new life within you that is waiting to be birthed. It doesn’t matter how old you are, and it doesn’t matter how scared you are. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve gotten it wrong or how many times you’ve given up. Nothing about you is stuck or unchangeable. Can you imagine treating your emotions as messengers of the Divine, knowing that the generative aliveness of the cosmos is infinitely bigger than you, and it is pulsing through your own being, calling some new aspect within you to be born? The Piacezner Rebbe says, “We adjure our community in the strongest possible terms: learn how to observe. Whatever transpires within you and around you, learn how to see what it is. Visual watching is not the essence. More exactly, we midwife and give birth to the whole.” Can you imagine those moments when you feel bitter, or envious, angry, heartbroken and instead of repressing the feeling or exploding with it or drowning it in chocolate sauce, you practice meeting it with the firm and ready hands of a midwife, guiding each feeling to awareness and expansive new life? Imagine taking that seriously that you have no idea how awake, clear and courageous you can become!
This isn’t for the sake of our egos but for the sake of bringing our lives to align with Judaism’s deepest values and highest aims. We won’t be able to truly ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ if we are reactive and asleep at the wheel. We can’t act wisely and caringly in conflict, le’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, if we have no wisdom about what is fighting within us. We certainly can’t be effective agents of tikkun olam – healing and holiness in the world if we are not attentive to what needs to be healed within ourselves.
But it takes practice. And so here we are. We usher in a New Year and we gather together, supporting each other to do this work, and we practice. The Piacezner Rebbe teaches that the mitzvot, the commandments, are concrete opportunities to listen, examine and be self-aware. He asks, “How is the sense of Yom Kippur different from Rosh Hashanah? What is unique about the emotional quality of Passover, and the rest of the holy times? … teach yourself to watch.” We’re not here to go through the motions. We are here to wake up. So every time we fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the candles and saying a blessing, every time we observe the mitzvah of hearing the shofar or giving tzedakah, or pausing on Shabbat, it is an opportunity to practice, listening to what is stirred within and responding with awareness, courage and truth. This Rosh Hashana, may we gather new resolve and inspiration to open our ears, new wisdom to widen our hearts and may all that is born this year be a blessing.
Ken yehi ratzon – May it be so!
Copyright © 2013 – 5774 by Rabbi Miriam Margles