Mindfulness and Time

When we think of mindfulness, we usually associate it with meditation. We think of it as a specific type of sitting quietly and paying attention to something specific (often our breathing). Yet this type of mindfulness meditation is intended as a first step. We want to bring this sort of attention to everything we do, whether we are “meditating” or going about our everyday life. One of the most powerful applications of this mindfulness is the impact it has on how one spends time.

If I am paying attention to everything I do, I am less likely to do things that I would consider a waste of time. If I am “mindfully” playing a computer game I use for procrastination, I am unlikely to feel good about doing so for more than a few minutes. If I am “mindfully” watching TV, and discover that the show isn’t holding my attention, I’m likely to decide to do something else, something that will make me feel better about myself.

I have the feeling I need to introduce more mindfulness into my life right now. I need to pay attention, not just to my breathing, but to how I spend my time. I need to pay attention to where I am, and why I’m there.

Routine, to a large degree, obviates the need for mindfulness. A routine (such as going to CubeSpace every day) works to keep one on track. Lack of structure requires far more attention to what one is doing, what one needs to be doing, and how to get there. And when I say “one”, in this case, I really mean “I”.

Mindfulness meditation is one step I can take towards focusing myself. Another is heading out of the house to get work done (I’m in a coffee shop as I write this). A third step is setting up rituals around work (such as writing a blog post as I begin work each day at a coffee shop).

Mindfulness is about spirituality, but it’s also about getting work done better and more efficiently.

Some Workshops I’d Love to Teach

I’ve put together a list of some workshops I’m available to teach, whether at your company, your conference, or some other group. I’d love feedback, as well as suggestions as to people who might want to talk to me about this.
Building a Community out of a Company
In this day and age, people, whether customers or employees, are looking for something to connect to, something to believe in. Make your company a community and both employees and customers will walk through fire for you. The question is, how do you do it? David Kominsky, will talk about his experience with CubeSpace, and introduce some tools and concepts which can help transform a company into a community.
The Use of Ritual to Build a Corporate Community
Religions have used ritual for thousands of years to create tight-knit communities. The military uses ritual to bind together individuals coming from radically different backgrounds into a unified culture in which dedication to the group is a prime value. How can we in the corporate world use ritual effectively, but without being heavy-handed? Rabbi David Kominsky will use examples of rituals already in place in corporations, as well as pointing out how the use of ritual can be expanded to make organizations stronger.
Nurture the Individual, Strengthen the Company
Ever since the industrial revolution, companies have regarded employees as interchangeable commodities. Unsurprisingly, this does not result in employees who give their best to the company. Now, we are beginning to value the diversity of our workforces. How can we invite people to bring more of themselves into their work life, and at the same time, be more effective employees? Looking at what happens when you employers really dedicate themselves to employee welfare, David Kominsky will explore the benefits, using examples from CubeSpace, as well as explain some pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Making Your Brand a Spiritual Identifier
We know that people are likely to act for many reasons which are below the rational brain. Spiritual connection is one of the classic examples of this (religions are based on this truth). This is not necessarily a bad thing. As human beings, we require spiritual identification with larger groups. Today, companies are taking on many of the roles that religions used to fulfill: they can define who we are, who we associate with and how we live our lives. Let’s explore how to use this power deliberately to build better companies: companies that are both successful and do good for those who identify with the companies, whether as employees or customers.

Death and Adolescence Don’t Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

God’s Mouthpiece

I spoke yesterday on a panel about creating GLBT-friendly religious communities. It’s a subject I care about and speak about with some regularity (a few times a year). In general, the audiences for such talks tend to be very supportive, and this was no exception. That’s not the point I want to make today, howerver.

During the Q&A part of the panel, someone asked a question, which sparked a response in me. And suddenly, I found myself answering the question eloquently, and speaking passionately about the use of language as an act of inclusion or exclusion in everyday situations. That we ought not to be making Pride Month the time of the year when we focus on issues of inclusion, but rather, by the simple use of inclusive language, making clear that we are welcoming throughout the year.

There are times that I forget that I have something to say. There are times when I wonder how it is that I can come up with a weekly sermon when I’ve done that in the past. Then there are times like yesterday, when something just comes out, and it is the right message at the right moment. For me, those are times when I am serving the Holy most directly. When I let the words flow through me, and the words are good, and true, and right.

Yesterday was a good day.

On Gratitude

In the last 24 hours, I’ve twice had someone express gratitude to me in a meaningful way. Both times were really influential in my mood, so I thought I would share them.

As I was walking out of the grocery store yesterday with a couple of items in my reusable shopping bag, I noticed a woman struggling to lift a bag of dog food out of her shopping cart and into her car. I asked if she’d like a hand, and she responded that, no, she had it in hand and it was all gravity from here (as she let it fall into her hatchback). I thought nothing more of the encounter and proceeded to walk home. A block later, she pulled up beside me and said, “thank you. I just wanted to let you know that you made my day.” Such a little thing I did (actually, offered to do, since she did all the work), and it made her day. And in turn, she made mine by helping me to see the difference I had made in her day.

Today, as I sat at the frontdesk at CubeSpace, someone with whom I worked on barcamp came in for a meeting and handed me a gift bag as a thank you for all the work I’d done on barcamp. First, I want to be clear, it’s wonderful to be thanked for that work, and a gift, any token, really does convey that powerfully. Secondly, I opened the bag…and it contained yarn. Not just any yarn, but Yarnia yarn. It’s a beautiful mix she made of greens and maroons, bamboo, hemp and rayon fibers. It’s a wonderful meaningful expression of gratitude  because she got me something that is near and dear to my heart. It’s not just a token…it’s a token for me, which adds to the sense of gratitude.

So now, I am sitting here being grateful that I live in such a lovely place, with such wonderful people, who expres their gratitude.

Sparks of Love, Sparks of Holiness

I performed a wedding yesterday. Nothing especially odd about that–I perform 7 – 12 weddings a year. What made this one notable (for me…they are all notable for the couples involved) was the intensity of the interaction between the couple underneath the huppah (Jewish wedding canopy).

The bride and the groom were completely focused on each other throughout the ceremony. This may seem commonplace, but in my experience, it’s far more common for the the couple’s attention to be fairly diffuse during a wedding ceremony. A little bit on me, a little bit on the guests, a little bit on each other. In fact, I routinely have to remind the bride and groom to look at each other rather than to look at me, while they are repeating their vows to each other. Not this time. The groom and bride were intensely focused on one another. It was as though sparks of love were flying between them throughout the ceremony. It was as though their love was powerful enough that it was a presence in and of itself. And in my line of work, we often call that presence “God.”

I’ve experienced this under the huppah before. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. Yet this time it took me completely by surprise. In all the other cases, I’ve known the couple had this connection going into the ceremony, and expected that focus. This time, it came at me from out of the blue. Most often, couples who experience this love focus on one another under the huppah have a deeply spiritual component to their relationship…and that tends to come out in our conversations. It doesn’t mean they love each other more than other couples I marry, but it tends to mean that they conceptualize the relationship in spiritual terms, often regarding the relationship as possesing salvific power. During our conversations, yesterday’s couple never talked about their relationship in that way, and I’m not sure that they consciously regard their relationship that way. Yet under the huppah yesterday, the intensity of their connection was electric.

I love doing weddings. To paraphrase, even when it’s bad, it’s good. Weddings are feel good events. Sometimes I feel like it didn’t go quite as well as I might have liked (rarely), but I almost always feel like I’ve been a part of a powerful experience for the couple and their family and friends.  It’s a part of why I became a rabbi: to help create meaningful ceremonies for people at critical moments in their lives. I strive to make every wedding a mean ingful and spiritual experience for the couple. Rarely, however, is it a spiritual experience for me (which is as it should be). Yesterday was a deeply spiritual experience for me, as I bore witness to their love.  Sometimes, when we expect it least, the Divine shows up and reminds us what really matters.

Reading Tomer D’vorah

As I previously mentioned, I am reading spriritual texts during each day of the omer. In particular, I’ve been reading a lot of Tomer D’vorah by Moses Cordovero. He is a mystic and a teacher of Mussar (albeit a few hundred years before the “Mussar Movement” came into being). As a result, I’m going in a direction I almost never travel in this blog: the theological. I should also give a “shout out” to Bram, who tweeted and asked me to share some of what I’m studying in the blog. So Bram, this one’s for you.

His basic thesis (at least as far as I’ve gotten), is that we live appropriately when we live in imitation of the Divine. That is, as God is forgiving, we should be forgiving; As God does not hold onto anger, neither should we (he is working off of a definition of God found in Micah 7:18 – 20).

I love the idea of imatatio Dei as an ethical basis on a number of levels. It serves us well in terms of thinking of ourselves as “God’s actors in this world” (which is the direction my theology tends to flow). It also connects nicely with a mystical mindview that sees any division between ourselves and the Divine as illusory. Finally, it takes Kant’s categorical imperative to a not necessary logical extreme*.

To the degree that we think of ourselves as God’s hands in this world, the idea that we act in imitation of God is almost tautological. For if God’s actions in this world are manifested only through our own actions, than our actions necessarily are related to Divine action (though not necessarily imitative). Rather, our actions may be almost definitional of Divine action, at least when we are at our very best.

When we adopt the mystical worldview, seeing ourselves and everything else which exists as part of a whole which we refer to as God, the case does not get any simpler. Rather, the question of us acting in imitation of God because even more complex. If we are a part of Divinity and act in imitation of Divinity, it is as though we are saying that our little finger may act in imitation of our entire body: I’m not sure it has any real meaning. We act, and by so doing, represent Divine action in the world (actually, the more I think about this, the less sure I am that it has any practical difference from the first case above).

Finally, looking at this from a Kantian lens (which is probably a terrible idea, because I never fully understood the Categorical Imperative, a fact which my college girlfriend who went on to get a PhD in Ethics bemoaned regularly) we find that ethical action is being defined as those actions which are generalizable not just to humans, but even to the Divine. While this is not (I’m pretty sure) where Kant went with this idea, it is a curious direction to go nonetheless. It raises the question of whether the same rules apply above and below (to use the mystical terms for the distinctions between the human realm and the divine realm), and suggests that the same rules do, in fact, apply. I’m not sure what that teaches us, except I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like it’s a useful direction to go, unless we are positing a God who is a product of humanity, rather than in some sense superior to humanity or having existence outside of humanity.

As I run through these ideas, I realize I’m clarifying my thinking a little, but not getting anywhere particularly new or useful. I guess it seems more like theological masturbation than anything else. Nonetheless, I believe that the value of what I teach lies more in what people hear than in what I say, and perhaps someone will read in my words something of use to them.

*Kant’s categorical imperitive, as I understand it, says that for an action to be ethical it needs to be universalizable. That is, if an action is ethical it must be ethical not just for me to undertake that action but for everyone to undertake that action.

The Passover Story: Release from Constraint

The Jewish holiday of Passover begins tomorrow night (Wednesday, April 8th) at sunset. It celebrates the Israelites’ going free from Egyptian bondage, and is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year. Yet there is another layer of meaning in the exodus from Egypt, that is apparent when one looks at the Hebrew. “Egypt”, in Hebrew, is mitzrayim, which comes from the root meaning “narrow” (presumably because Egypt was a long narrow country settled around the  Nile river). Yet from this same root, comes another word tzarot, or the more familiar Yiddish, tzurres, meaning “troubles.” The idea is that when one is that troubles constrain one in narrow places. When one comes out of troubled times, one is released from the tightness.

There is a long tradition in Judaism of looking at the going forth from Egypt (mitzrayim) as symbolic of coming out of troubles. It is a metaphor that has been often used around depression and other emotional troubles. It has also been used to symbolize economically hard times. For all of these, Passover serves as a reminder that there is the hope of release from bondage, whatever form that bondage takes for us.

This year, many of us are very aware of the economic contraints we find ourselves in. Others are dealing with sadness from family situations. All in all, there are a lot of us who are feeling beset by our problems at the moment. We struggle with worries about what the future will bring, and sadness over opportunities lost.

Passover is the opportunity for us to assert that redemption from our problems is possible. Coming in the spring, it is a holiday of rebirth, reminding us that even though we may feel trapped at the instant, new life is beginning, new opportunities constantly presenting themselves. Whether we find the message of a Divine force who liberates us from our troubles comforting or whether we see that as a fairytale we cannot believe in, the holiday itself celebrates the ability for humans to overcome obstacles. Whether we view God or Moses as the liberator, we can celebrate liberation.

For me, this year in particular, Passover serves as a reminder that troubles are surmountable. For me it is a reminder that we are able to overcome obstacles and barriers. That there are forces in the universe which help us accomplish things we believe we cannot do. I call those forces God. Others refer to those forces as “luck”, or “friends”, or “the universe.” The words we use do not so much matter as does the fact that we acknowledge that sometimes life is too challenging for us to fix by ourselves, yet solutions may appear when we most need them.

May this Passover  season be one of rebirth of hope and of freedom. May we all go from bondage to liberation, and help others to make the same journey. The Israelites did not leave Egypt as individuals, but as a mixed multitude 600,000 strong. Together, let us all go forth.

Arrogance and Humility

I came to a realization this weekend. My humility? I lost it somewhere in the last year or so. Which is deeply upsetting, because I worked long and hard to become even somewhat humble. One might go so far as to say I was proud of having attained humility (and, as much as that seems an oxymoron, I don’t think it is).

Humility is one of the virtues that almost all religious traditions extol. That’s because it is, to some degree, a prerequisite for understanding our place in a universe which contains a God.

One part of a relationship to Divinity is understanding that next to Divinity, we have no significance, no value, no worth. Yet, despite that, we need to understand that the Divine does value us, and in most religious traditions, even loves us. We who are unworthy based on our own actions, based on any actions of which we are capable, and made worthy because we are loved (by being human and Divine).

Spiritual teaching tends to prize humility for another reason. Spiritual learning is often about self-transformation. If we are too arrogant (lacking in humility) we are unlikely to be willing to look at ourselves honestly and see  the need for change.

Finally, humility is important because it impacts the way we regard and treat others. When I come from a place of humility, I cannot judge another, because I know that I cannot do better. I am more generous in my opinions, choosing to understand the slights I may sense from others as unintentional. And I am much more careful in how I speak of others, being very careful not to criticize others behind their backs, or to tolerate in myself faults I condemn in others.

This is not to say that when I am humble I am perfect. I’m not. I’m nicer, more understanding, and a “better person,” but not perfect. I am less arrogant, which is important. I am slower to anger (or to become frustrated, because I’m assuming everyone is doing the best that they can).

There is a school of thought/behavior within Judaism called “Mussar.” Often it is translated as Ethics, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more about how one should behave, correcting one’s behavior to bring it closer and closer to the ideal. Closer to what we believe God desires of us and for us. It is in some ways very  similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, and can be a powerful tool for good (it can also be a powerful tool to beat down the spirit of someone who only hears the “you’re not good enough” message without the “you can do better because you contain the Divine within you”). And so, it is time for me to go back to looking in upon myself at the end of the day and evaluating my behavior. I need to ask myself whether I have failed to act as I should, whether I have hurt others.

Humility is, in the end, understanding that I am one of six billion or so humans, not to mention countless other animals upon this planet. And that I must act as such.  Not as someone special, but as someone who is seeking the way, just like everybody else.

As with much in life, the first step is recognizing the need. But we are all judged based on our actions, not our resolutions, and so it is time for me to re-examine myself, and seek to be the person I can be, and the person I wish to be.

A Very Thought Provoking Short

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but a animated short I just saw was so thought provoking I wanted to share it with you all.

I don’t think this describes all religion, obviously, but I do think it points out some of the basic fallacies of fundamentalist religion. I found it meaningful and poignant. I hope it means something to you all.