Monday, October 29, 2012

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Is it true that fat people are jolly? No, I’m not buying that stereotype. How about the reverse? Are jolly people necessarily fat? There may be some truth to that. Have you ever heard anyone apply the adjective “jolly” to a skinny person? Can you even picture a jolly skinny person? I’m gonna have to go with the idea that jolly is a term specifically reserved for the corpulent. Consider, for a moment, the loss to humankind if  “Old Saint Nicolas,” for one, achieved a normal body mass index. It would be devastating to children around the world, to the elves and reindeer, not to mention Mrs. Claus.

This issue of jolliness reminds me of the old joke—Q: How many Feminists does it take to change a light bulb? A: That's not funny!!! There seems, increasingly, to be an aspect to the new improved (physically that is) Yesh that is simply not funny, or more succinctly, not fun. This was something I had feared from the beginning—that is, what part of my very essence is attached to the reckless abandon and joy of immersing myself in the gustatory delights of the universe? How would a campaign of discipline and relative deprivation affect what had been an emotional as well as a physical feast at life’s table?

Feedback from people close to me suggests that someone not only has kidnapped the body of the old Yeshaya Douglas Ballon (by any name), but the spirit as well. This is a serious issue. I look at my last two blogs and I see a vexing trend. Is this disagreeable emergence in my affect a result of six months of relative food deprivation or is this a coincidence? Are there other factors at work (e.g., changes at my job, contemplation of retirement, an overfull to-do list, irregular patterns of exercise, writing, meditation, etc.) that are the primary causes? Or is this just a “perfect storm?” Can I even sort out cause and effect or am I in a vicious cycle spiraling out of control?

There are many challenges associated with achieving my goal of normal weight. In attaining any goal, there are always trade offs, some of which sneak up on us. I must note quickly that this transformation I am undergoing is by no means over. It has only just begun. The physical loss of fifty or sixty pounds was front loaded by virtue of a highly restrictive four-month diet. The maintenance part of the weight loss program is designed to be a long-term venture. Included in that, unquestionably, is a huge emotional component. For me that’s not only a question of returning to a life of eating real food in a healthy, life-sustaining way, but also finding a comfortable presence and a palatable demeanor in our food-centered social world. Another way to put it is—can a normal body and normal behavior coexist for me?

I was delighted this summer to connect my physical quest to a spiritual quest by selecting “lightness” as my focus. To that I must add an emotional aspect—to be lighthearted, to light up a room rather than cast a shadow, to rekindle what a friend suggested was a spark that I have seemingly lost. This seems much more challenging than losing the fat. No one said losing weight would be easy. On the other hand, I couldn't have anticipated the exact nature of these intangible unintended consequences either. As in any transformation, awareness is the first hurdle, and as I gain insight I can set new goals. As long as I maintain my new trim figure I may never be labeled “jolly” again. That I can live with. There’s an alternative that I strive for. Just as I’ve trimmed a few pounds from my middle, maybe I could judiciously trim a just few letters from the middle of “jolly” and at least be left with “joy!”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rings of a Tree

“Why is it important to know when one can say the Shema? Why isn’t it good enough to just say it?—and why not at any time you want?” Debbie asked the perfect questions when I told her with excitement about the first words of the Talmud that our study circle had gnawed on earlier in the day. I had left that session with such an extraordinary sense of connection and enrichment. The question I was asking myself was whether there was any way to convey to others the immense power of studying Talmud—how enriching, enlivening, how relevant it is to every moment, and to developing the kind of consciousness so many people I know strive for. These are huge questions that I can only imagine rabbis have been tackling for millennia. Now it’s my turn.
To set some context, let’s start with a beautiful lesson that I received courtesy of Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan via a recording of a recent virtual Talmud study session (Gotta love that technology when it serves to communicate something of real value!) Like John Madden using a football telestrator, Peretz traced on the screen for us the literal and figurative concentric circles that start with a snippet of Mishnah. Growing outward from that is a section of Gemara. Medieval commentaries ring around the Gemara. Words of later commentators ring around the Medieval commentaries, and finally, sitting around the table studying all of this are members of the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle —like rings of a tree.
As long as these rings are growing the tree is alive. The moment that there are no more rings—that usually means the tree is dead.
Torah forever grows, and depends on ever-expanding circles of study. I may not be Rabbi Gamliel, but, by opening these pages I am continuing his work with Jews all over the world of all times. This doesn’t directly respond to Debbie’s question, but in one sense it is the answer. It may or may not be important to know when to say Shema, but it is important to carry on the conversation about it that was started so long ago. (Nonetheless, as I hope to demonstrate, it actually is important to know when to say the Shema.) So this is important work—this act of study— almost regardless of what we actually discover or conclude about the content per se.

Our morning of study was like a piece of poetry, very densely packed with experience beyond its apparent size. (I almost used a “zip file” analogy, but that can be rationally unpacked, so fails to convey the true immensity of the experience.) Under the deft tutelage of Rabbi Lavey Derby we made connections that defy description—to text, to philosophy, to spirit, to ancestors, to people in the room, and to people not in the room. It's the flip side of the famous When Harry Met Sally scene—I really wish others were having what we were having! So here is just a glimpse….

The introduction to Perek I (Chapter I) states that the rabbis were looking at a different question than Debbie was, but one that is at the heart of hers—“What are the practical implications of the text of Shema? Particularly, how is one to understand the terms, ‘When you lie down, and when you arise….’” Let’s look at that.

To talk meaningfully about this requires awareness that there is a unique version of the Shema that one recites as “you lie down.” Who knew? I used to say Shema with the kids as we tucked them into bed just as my dad did with me, but it was just Shema. I didn’t know about the paragraphs that the liturgy provides before and after the Bedtime Shema. Learning this fact alone is immense, not as information in and of itself, but because these paragraphs are so beautiful and powerful in their practical benefit to one’s life. 

The practice includes ideas that I have heard talked about, but had not realized were so elegantly woven together in a succinct bedtime ritual. It starts with forgiveness—for those who may have wronged us. Then it addresses seeking personal forgiveness for our own sins. It petitions for peaceful sleep and the miracle of awakening in the morning. Only after these acts of granting and seeking forgiveness, after prayers that demonstrate appreciation for the gifts of rest and of continued life itself—only then do we utter the Shema acknowledging the unity of all that is. 

These words are followed by the familiar paragraphs from Deuteronomy commanding our love of God and our obligation to keep God before us through various acts including teaching our children and reciting Shema when “you lie down, and arise.” This is followed by psalms and the lovely Hashkiveynu prayer seeking God’s protective canopy of peace through the night. The archangels—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael—are invoked for added protection. It concludes with a passage familiar to most synagogue service attendees—the Adon Olam—which until recently I only associated with the grateful awareness that a long Shabbat service was ending and a tasty Kiddush was about to commence. Sadly, that does this prayer such terrible injustice. It was a revelation to learn recently (on the first morning of Shefa Gold’s Kol Zimra workshop) the magnificence of chanting just two lines from Adon Olam and bringing full consciousness to them: “Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit when I go to sleep—and I shall awaken! ...God is with me, I shall not fear!”

Learning the significance of the Bedtime Shema helped make more sense out of the conversation of the rabbis. When they ponder whether you can just say it at the beginning of the evening, as rabbi Eliezer states, or until midnight as the Sages suggest, or until dawn as Rabbi Gamliel responds—this makes a difference. If nothing else, it demonstrates that there have been, and will always be, different points of view—all with some validity—that must be considered. Rabbi Eliezer is wise to create a sense of urgency and timeliness by insisting that we perform the ritual right away. The Sages are right in allowing some flexibility. Rabbi Gamliel is right in tying the time, as he goes on to explain, to the hours available for the priests of old to perform a particular holy sacrifice in the Temple. This helps make the point that in a post-Temple world our acts of prayer replace the ancient sacrificial rituals, and that we are still connected to their power and sanctity.

The practical application of this in my life is being able to open my eyes in the pre-dawn darkness and start my day with God awareness that I seek to carry with me throughout the day. How good it is to appreciate awakening itself as a miracle, to start my day in gratitude, to realize that I can still say the Bedtime Shema and grant and seek forgiveness. I am only scratching the surface of what a morning of seemingly irrelevant Talmud study can do. Consciousness like this, applied throughout the day, can only help one to choose words and deeds more wisely to help sustain oneself and one’s relationships with others. Why is it important to know when one can say the Shema?—in more ways than one can ever know!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wheels of the Bus

When the wheels start coming off the Yesh bus I usually don’t have to look far for the probable causes. I have known for some time that four things sustain my sanity, my balance. Four things keep me from running off the road. They are diet, exercise, meditation, and writing. Every time I see life spinning out of control I just have to take a look at this short checklist and I know at least one of them has probably gone AWOL.

So let’s take a look.

Diet? I am pretty much on track with the whole weight management crusade, but not without a few significant spin outs in recent days—the pre- and post- Yom Kippur overindulgences; the lost weekend at my cousin’s wedding in South Carolina (loves me some Southin’ cookin’); and then (where the heck did this come from all of a sudden?) a new passion to bake fresh challah and other breads—something I hadn’t done in decades! I have managed to get back on plan, but not after doing some serious damage!

Exercise? Hanging in there with some walks and bike rides and visits to the gym, but not nearly as consistent as during the summer.

Meditation? Again, not doing nothing, but not doing the something with the same regularity I had been—definitely slipping there.

Writing? I squirmed a little the other day when a friend asked, “Have you not posted a blog since September 9?” That is what made me stop and inspect the tires. The treads are all wearing mighty thin. Ergo, I write.

Part of what has been hampering some of these activities is a sudden spike in activity in my work life. I hate when work interferes with life. It actually amuses me that the folks at work even refer to this issue as “work/life balance,” suggesting that work and life are somehow distinct from one another. Perhaps it is this spike in work that has led me to a greater awareness of just how distinct these two realms may have become.

Last week, at the suggestion of my boss, I created two lists. The first one is of my responsibilities in the role I assumed this year. It looked great on paper—a decent mix of activities, many of which I am either good at or enjoy doing or both, and perhaps in a few cases neither. I compared this to the second list of the things that I truly am good at and enjoy doing. To be specific, designing and facilitating training are the activities that have sustained me in this job for the better part of twelve years! Somehow, as the year progressed, all of the potential instructional design and facilitation tasks evaporated. The one project I was most eagerly engaged in just imploded the week before last when senior management decided that more senior management needed to sit in judgment as to whether this was a worthy use of my time. That is their prerogative. Nonetheless, was the crowning touch on a work year that has clearly lost most of its fun.

My former mentor, John Kahl, of blessed memory, would call this realization Divine Discontent. I indeed appreciate the power that comes from seeing more clearly what is not working for me. It is what led me to speak with my current boss about providing me with more opportunities to do more of what I most want to do and has provided the greatest benefit to the firm over the years. If, on the other hand we discover that the firm no longer has an interest in such services, that is useful information too.

Is it the doldrums at work that have led the bus astray or vice versa? Not sure I can say, but it seems the biggest challenge is not my assignments, but resurrecting a positive attitude. The steps to attaining that remain clear. Today I’ve stayed on plan food-wise, this morning I fit in my daily constitutional (which included my “Walk ‘n’ Talk” meditation), and tonight I copped a long overdue writing fix. These all may just be rubber patches on the inner tube of my soul, but at least I’m back rolling down the road.