On My Mind with Rabbi Abigail Treu
Tending the Fire
We were once on vacation, renting a house by a lake, with a small fire pit in the backyard. My kids, city dwellers, delighted in the treat of roasting potatoes and marshmallows in the fire on those summer nights. We were careful; while the area we were in was not in a drought or at particular high risk for forest fires, the news from the West Coast of fires started by an errant spark had taught us to be extra watchful. Each night we would carefully douse the fire with water and clean up thoroughly before heading back inside.
One night, sitting cozily back inside, I looked out the window and saw smoke drifting up from the fire pit. How could that be? We had been inside for a while, maybe a half-hour or more, and we had doused the whole thing with water; how could anything still be smoking? I ran out to look and (you can tell I was never a Girl Scout), to my amazement, small flames were licking the lower logs, the embers underneath that had seemed sooty and cold now glowing red-hot.
Right, I thought, as I poured water on the logs, turning them to uncover embers underneath. That's how forest fires start. Something glowing red-hot underneath, something you lit a long time ago, something burning from underneath and inside. Something you thought you had taken care of, it turns out, lights up with time and a bit of fresh air.
Forest fires... and our own inner work as well. The work on ourselves that will ultimately billow out from a place that glows within us. Even—perhaps especially—when we think we have taken care of it.
That's us. That us right now, that's us always. Unaware of what's happening around us and inside of us; unaware of glowing embers beneath the surface, ready to smolder into flames; not noticing smoke until we look up at the right time to see it out the window; not seeing flames until we come closer; needing to turn over the dormant logs to discover glowing hot embers underneath that need our care and attention.
Jacob wakes up from a dream one night (as told in Genesis 28), a dream in which he encounters something deeply holy, and says, God was in this place, and I—I didn't know it. That's us: not realizing that something holy is happening in this very moment, every moment… until we're shaken awake from our dream state.
What we are going through as a collective community and country right now is unprecedented. Between COVID-19 changing the way we interact with one another for the foreseeable future; its effects on the economy, which touches each of us in different ways; the work now calling our attention with urgency to repairing race relations and healing the wounds of our nation—it is huge, it is transformative, it will change everything. And...it changes nothing. Because all of this was here all along with us, in some way. Institutionalized and internalized racism, yes. And more than that, beyond and even bigger than that, all this is stirred up by pandemic and protests inside of us: fear, grief, anxiety, regret, anger, dreaming, longing, love.
As I think about the moment we are in, the work we need to be doing to help fix the world, this is the place I invite us to begin. Inside of ourselves. Tending to the embers, paying attention to that which has been here all along. From this place—this Makom—we will ignite new sparks in the world, sparks of kindness, compassion, healing, and love.
In Jewish tradition, every action is an opportunity for mindfulness and gratitude. One spiritual practice is to aim to recite 100 blessings a day, a way of creating a through-line of mindfulness and gratitude as the day unfolds. Among the moments for blessing in this tradition is upon washing hands. Some recite this blessing every morning as part of their morning washing-up routine, others when they wash hands before or after meals.
As we place renewed focus on this simple act, the following kavanah—intention—can become a moment of mindfulness and gratitude. Before washing hands or sanitizing, take a moment to pause and recognize what you’re doing: You're about to clean your hands. Whisper to yourself:
Thank you for water and soap and sanitizer.
Thank you for hands.
Thank you for everyone who made it possible for me to be clean right now—the people who made soap and sanitizer and sinks and towels and plumbing and this space and facilities and for the human project of medicine and health and hygiene.
Thank you for my health and the ability to care for others in this moment.
As you clean your hands, look at them. Feel your hands, see your skin, your nails. Take this moment to pause and breathe. Feel what cleansing feels like right now. Smile. If there is a mirror, look into your own eyes and smile to yourself.
Recite the traditional blessing for washing hands, or one of your own creation.
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheynu melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadaim.
Blessed are you, Source of Life, who makes us holy through these actions including this washing of the hands.
Click here for a printable PDF of this kavanah (intention) for washing hands.
Our bodies are a legacy. The scar from third grade, the laugh lines, the extra weight from last night’s dessert. Reaching back further: I have my father’s nose, my grandmother’s eyes. Or: I don’t know whose eyes I have, there is no record - but that too is a legacy.
An exercise to connect with our embodied legacies
Choose a cup, bowl or dish that has a legacy of its own. Maybe it’s an heirloom, maybe something you chose lovingly. Fill it with water, and bring it with you as you sit or stand before a mirror.
Next you will scan your body. You can do this fully naked, or clothed. What parts of your body carry legacies? Truly every cell; we are all recycled stardust and molecules, which could tell a thousand stories if they could speak. And we are each unique, cells regenerating every 7 years, a whole new body. And: that scar isn’t going away, and I have my father’s nose, and my grandmother’s eyes.
The exercise is to sit or stand before a mirror, and go through each part of your body, and listen for its legacy story. Begin at your feet and work your way up. Remember your mother’s gait? Is that how you walk, too? Or the knees; remember how your grandfather could feel the weather change in his knees, and now that’s you? On and on up the body, ending with the face. This is the part where the mirror is most important: the chance to look at yourself not to scrutinize your cleanliness or beauty, but to reconnect with the legacy which you carry in your body every day.
When you are ready, place your hands around the dish or cup. Who washed you when you were small? Whose hands used to hold the cup? Remember them, and thank them. When you are ready, pour the water over your hands. The legacies are ours and so is our ability to wash away that which we choose not to keep, and to hold in our hands that which is precious and holy and helpful to us.
A kabbalistic story attributed to the 13th-century Jewish mystic Isaac of Akko:
A lover of wisdom came to one who secluded himself in meditation and asked to be accepted as one of them. The master of meditation replied, “My son, may you be blessed from heaven, for your intention is good. But let me know: Have you attained equanimity or not?”
He responded, “Master, clarify your words.”
He explained, “My son, if one person honors you and another humiliates you, are the two equal in your eyes or not?”
He answered, “By the life of your soul, my master! I do feel pleasure and satisfaction from the one who honors me and pain from the one who humiliates me—but I am not vengeful nor do I bear a grudge.”
The master said, “My son, go away in peace. For as long as you have not attained equanimity and still feel humiliation from something done to you, you are not ready for your thought to be linked on high. You are not ready to come and seclude yourself in meditation. But go and humble your heart further, genuinely, until you attain equanimity. Then you can experience aloneness.”
How do we find equanimity? How do we manage to step out of the stories and the emotional entanglement of life…especially when we’re not alone? How do we balance the need to “experience aloneness” (the Hebrew translation is hitbodedut, a certain type of Jewish meditation/prayer) with that other prime value of living in community with others?
I find myself asking these questions this week against the continued backdrop of the cultural moment we are living through. I find myself bristling at the “cancel culture,” and hoping it passes quickly. We seem eager to find other people’s worst faults, trained to scout for misdeeds and hurts inflicted by others and then to banish the wrongdoers. Combined with mass incarceration rates, it feels like we are living through a cultural moment more interested in shaming and blaming than in compassion or forgiveness or growth. Or, as this story puts it, in equanimity.
What would it be like if we each devoted ourselves to working not only to change others, to change the world, through acts of social justice and activism but if we also did the self-work to begin the change within? To be able to walk through life in a state of open-heartedness that allows us to bear no grudge or not feel vengeful? What if that work started with meditation and mindfulness practices, and from there rippled out so that we change the culture from the wellsprings deep inside of us? As Thich Nhat Hanh taught, “Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” It may just be that it helps us to engage in the world and shape it for the better. Through striving for our own equanimity we bring that much more compassion, love, and peace to the world.
(story translation by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, p. 118)
Thanksgiving. The wonderfully religious-turned-secular American holiday which can be celebrated by all, albeit with a huge debt of gratitude first and foremost to the Native American tribes who for sure were less than grateful as American history unfolded around and through them. But that is another essay. This essay focuses on the “thanks” part, and the “giving,” the giving of thanks that is Thanksgiving. What a wonderful turn of phrase. A verb and noun all in one.
Years ago I turned the question of thanks-giving into a cornerstone of my daily practice. The idea began as a poetry-slam-meets-texting-addiction hybrid: A group of friends would email each other every day with a list of “gratitudes.” The goal? To focus more on being grateful, and to hold one another accountable to that commitment.
It became a profound experience. Some days, the gratitude flowed naturally; on others, we had to stretch hard to find it. As time went on, the sharing turned into a support group; receiving someone else’s gratitude list became as meaningful as composing my own. We found ourselves constantly renegotiating the rules: Do we respond to one another’s lists or just read and let that be enough? In the end, the urge to respond was our undoing: The emails became too numerous to keep up with and we disbanded about two years into the experiment, though we still get together occasionally in person and share from that deep place of gratitude and the trust that was built with sharing it.
What are you grateful for? Several meditation traditions hold this question as a meditation focus question, and, of course, the positive psychology movement holds as a cornerstone that gratitude is a core part of our psycho-emotional well-being. For more on that, read Deepak Chopra’s article here, in which he delves into the many studies linking gratitude to not only our emotional but our physical well-being. But beyond the goal of proving this is good for you: I want to share a gratitude list, originally posted in the Elephant Journal, and later shared in Karen Armstrong’s inspiring project Charter for Compassion. Perhaps this list will inspire you to tap into the wellspring of gratitude that is accessible through a similar journaling practice, meditation, or in some other way.
May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to us to refocus on all that we have to be grateful for, and may that in turn open our hearts to compassion, life, and peace for us and those with whom we are blessed to walk this earth.
"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together," wrote Shakespeare in All's Well That Ends Well. I rediscovered that quote in writing the eulogy for my dear uncle, who died just two weeks ago at the age of 91. He ended well, as such things go, and yet we mourn, we miss him, and we see, too, in his passing the intimations of our own.
Mindfulness, meditation, living with increased awareness—it all takes courage. It's easier to walk through the mingled yarn of life, choosing the strands we most like, or the ones that wrap themselves around us most comfortably. But to step back and see the colors and weave, the good and ill together; to make sense of it all—that takes effort, strength, and courage. Especially when we meet an ending—be it the death of someone dear, or, as Frank Ostaseki put it: the end of a day, the end of a meal, the end of something precious and rare, the end of this sentence.
And as with life itself, we begin this effort with just a breath. I am glad to share now this piece by Frank Ostaseki, A Meditation on How We Meet Endings. I hope you'll share with me what you think. Or better yet, I hope to see you at Makom, where we can sit and try this together.