Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Incredible Lightness of Being

This one may be hard to explain, and like most of my writing I will try to explain it to you so I may better understand it myself (the true sign of an extrovert). Then again, what we’re dealing with here is not for the rational mind. What I am about to describe exists in a non-rational state I almost want to call grace, although that’s not a word I recall ever using before. What’s this about? I just returned from a week of deep spiritual practice in Albuquerque New Mexico.

First of all, as I soon understood, this is the Land of Enchantment. I had some apprehension about heading to the desert in the middle of the summer. Not that it wasn’t hot, and not that the San Francisco Peninsula isn’t a desert as well. It’s just different. I may actually appreciate the overused expression “dry heat” for the first time. There were moments when it truly felt like a sauna—in the best sense of the word—in a therapeutically satisfying and nurturing sense. Maybe it’s the meditation talking. Albuquerque is beautiful.
We took occasional walks to an oxbow in the Rio Grande.

The workshop I attended was the first of a four-part series entitled Kol Zimra, led by Rabbi Shefa Gold, each a week long, separated by six months. I had read all the descriptions of the workshop and had heard about it from others, but nothing prepared me for the actual experience (I suppose like most things). My Hebrew’s not so great, but I believe Kol Zimra translates to Voice of Song. This is a Jewish chanting workshop. I now appreciate what draws people to Eastern chanting. (I just grieve that so many people left Judaism to find it.) I confess I had more a sense that this would be about singing because I had never experienced chanting in this way before. Chanting, as differentiated from singing, brings with it a very different focus and intention that I am familiar with through meditation. The lessons of this first week, as described on Shefa’s website, are, “Forming the container for Sacred Work, Clarifying our Intention. The Basics of Chant - Exploring the Uses of a Sacred Phrase and the Variables that Effect Consciousness. Cultivating Middot, qualities of Presence.” I suppose I had read that before, but still had no idea what I was getting into.

Let me fast forward a bit—not skipping, just moving the recording to at least 5x on the DVR. We arrived strangers. We departed siblings. If I had not been there the rest of the class would have been able to say, “We departed sisters,” because, as it so happened, I was the only man in a class of thirteen women. Not a situation I am unfamiliar with to some degree going back to art classes in high school, being the only guy in a design firm back in the ‘80s, and just being a “sensitive” dude in general. None of this will shock my children. And none of this bothered me or, seemingly, my classmates. Okay, I’ll admit it—I rather enjoy being the only guy. (If need be, some refuge could be taken in the company of Shefa’s partner in delivering the workshop and in life, her husband Rachmiel O'Regan.)

We laughed. We cried. We shared. We chanted. We danced. We drummed. We prayed. We sat in silence. We created art. Your typical week at summer camp.

Back when I studied Transcendental Mediation in the ‘70s I remember Maharishi Mahesh Yogi explaining that we do not meditate for the experience of the meditation. We meditate for what the meditation will bring to the rest of our life. That is a mantra I use for all education, all mind expanding practices. So too for Kol Zimra. As truly pleasant as this week was, it is only valuable for what it may bring to my life going forward—otherwise it is just a “vacation.” The specific channel for affecting our lives after the workshop is the selection of a midah (midot, plural cited above as qualities of Presence). Each person selected a midah before departing the workshop with the intention of paying close attention to developing that particular quality of presence between now and when we gather again in January. As you may well imagine, the selection of such a focal point of self-development becomes a transformational act in itself. Moreover, all fourteen participants plus our two leaders and their two assistants shared our midot with one another with the express purpose that we will all provide prayerful support for one another every day, visualizing each other as successfully achieving this quality of Presence.

There are many areas in which I might want to develop myself. Nonetheless, my midah came relatively quickly, aided in no small part by a walk and talk I had with a classmate who had been assigned as my “spirit buddy.” We will be checking in with each other regularly during the next six months—“chanting in” to coin a phrase. I selected lightness as the quality I am pursuing. I selected it for specific reasons, but also because the word has such broad applications—lightness of being, lightness of bodynot carrying a heavy burden, ridding myself of unnecessary baggage, simplifying parts of my life,  (starting with the clutter in my office—in one day devoted only to bringing order to the storage closet in my office I have already filled three large garden bags with stuff for Goodwill and another bag and a half for recycling).
My "spirit buddy" Judy and I pose before Kabbalat Shabbat.

Months ago I spoke with the rabbi about ways to connect the huge physical transformation I am undergoing with the spiritual transformation I anticipated by engaging in Kol Zimra—two 18-month pursuits that overlap for the most part. I had not anticipated that a single word would unite them as aptly as does lightness. Lightness in body and lightness in spirit—what these practices have in common is that neither will be accomplished in a day, yet commitment to them came in a single timeless flash of clarity. Neither has an end point either. Regardless of how quickly I shed pounds, or clutter, or other unhealthy, unproductive attitudes and behaviors, the work is never done. Maintenance is key. As I stated in my previous blog, “Relapse is the rule,” and as Shefa warned us, the pursuit of a midah invariably gives rise to its shadow opposite. But this does not deter me. These are big challenges that energize me. As it says in Pirkei Avot:
The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it altogether.

And as Tom Bodett would say: "I'll leave the light on for you!"


  1. I'm so excited to read your experiences and even more to talk to you about them tomorrow. You look fabulous too! -Wendie (another spirit buddy)

  2. Beautiful description of your first week. Welcome to the extended Kol Zimra community! Susan Windle (KZ2). http://susanwindle.com

  3. Thanks Yesh. Reading of your first week reminds me of my journey through Kol Zimra 2. SIx years later I remain so grateful that it touches me almost every day of my life.

    Bruce Phillips DrBPhillips18@gmail.com