Sunday, September 21, 2014

The hand that blocks the sun

I can't express how grateful I am to the Jewish calendar that the High Holidays this year are not in the first week of school.  Instead, I've had a full three weeks to get back into the flow of teaching and have been able to keep holiday prep on the back burner.  Not anymore!  This week we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, then embark on the Ten Days of Awe, and proceed from there directly to Yom Kippur.  If you have a high level of spiritual discipline, you've probably spent the entire month of Elul engaged in self-reflection in preparation for these days.  If you're more like me, you've squeezed it in here and there and only now are realizing, "Oh...that's happening."  In the words of my new favorite High Holiday literary companion, "This is real and you are completely unprepared."

But, all is not lost.  Yesterday I was fortunate to attend a Shabbat afternoon shiur given by a local Jewish scholar and expert on Rav Kook.  I have mentioned my attraction to the teachings of Rav Kook several times on this blog, particularly in regards to teshuvah, a common theme at this time of year.  The speaker brought a number of inspiring sources; I will share one with you here.  (Rav Kook's language is a bit dense and philosophical, but hang in there.)

"Sin blackens the illumination of the higher wisdom that is manifest when the soul is in edifying harmony with all existence and its divine source...Every sinful act disrupts this ideal unity and places the orbit of life outside it.  The illumination that flows like a clear spring will not resume its influence on the will that has been profaned unless the person will turn back and be remorseful.  Then will the light of teshuvah, to the degree of its clarity in perception and depth of acceptance, restore the original harmony.  O return to me the joy of your deliverance, and a generous spirit sustain me (Ps. 51:14)" (Orot Ha-Teshuvah 9:6)

I love this passage as is, but what really resonated with me was the way the speaker boiled it down:  "Sin is the hand that blocks the sun."

It is our natural state to be in the sun--Rav Kook's "illumination of the higher Wisdom."  When we act in ways that are destructive or unhealthy, we block out the sun and put ourselves in darkness.  I'm not comfortable using the word, "sin," to define eating disorders, but the behaviors that go along with eating disorders are certainly destructive and unhealthy.  If one's natural state is to live in the light of a life free from an eating disorder, then engaging in behaviors definitely shuts out that light.

But, here's the thing:  sometimes, the sun feels threatening.  It hurts the eyes, and too much exposure can burn the skin.  When there is no shade, the sun can overwhelm us...and sometimes it feels like "real life" in recovery can, too.  The world of an eating disorder is narrow, focused, and controlled, with little room for outside stimuli.  A full, healthy life, on the other hand, has more noise, more speed, and more (perceived) dangers.  It's not surprising, then, that when venturing into that healthy life, one might be tempted to put up her hand to block the sun.  The trick is to invest in healthy sun protection, like sunglasses and a beach umbrella, rather than seal oneself into a dark, windowless room.  The recovery versions of shades and an umbrella might be forms of "quiet time," such as taking a nature walk or reading a book, or methods of preventing "stimulus overload," such as committing oneself to a limited number of social events--especially those involving food--per month, instead of feeling pressure to attend everything.  In recovery, you learn that it's possible to get temporary relief from the sun without having to block it out entirely...and you can get right back to enjoying its rays as soon as you're ready.

As we prepare to enter the Yamim Noraim, I wish for all of us to live in the light of the sun, as we are meant to do...and when we need a break, to choose a healthy one.  Don't block the sun entirely; just grab a pair of shades and get back into the world.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Breaking Down the Walls

It seems I have, once again, been shirking my posting duties.  It's a transitional time of year, which is SO not my thing, and I've spent the past few weeks both reacclimatizing to my life in the States, and preparing my classroom for a new crop of eight-year-olds who are scheduled to arrive tomorrow (yikes!).  Blog entries require a certain degree of contemplative thought, and the truth is that lately I just haven't had it in me.  But I have been reading a fabulous book called, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Alan Lew (come on--how awesome is that title?).  Meant to be read in the weeks between Tisha B'Av and Sukkot, the book takes the reader on a journey through teshuvah and the process of self-evaluation that this time of year requires.  

When writing about Tisha B'Av, Lew frequently uses the image of the walls of your house crumbling down around you, leaving you exposed and disoriented.  This alludes to the literal destruction of the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem, but also to the metaphorical walls we all have around our own lives--the routines and material items that protect us and allow us to ignore the true issues that lie beneath the surface.  The month of Elul is our opportunity to remember who we are, where we are, and where we are going.  Lew describes this as a journey of "self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution.  It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across this world:  the journey from Tisha B'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again" (8-9).

I tend to be ambivalent about Elul; I love it conceptually but feel overwhelmed by it practically.  The idea of reflective self-assessment and teshuvah is beautiful, but actually doing it usually leads me to feel self-critical, frustrated, and sad.  Why?  Because no matter what improvements I've made over the year, inevitably there are still those few ways in which I have not changed or grown.  These stumbling blocks tend to be the same from year to year, and although every year I resolve to "do better," I don't follow through because doing so is just too hard.  Elul brings me face to face, once again, with the truth that if I want these things to change, then I have to change.  This is a problem because, as I've mentioned, I hate change.  So, you can see why this is a perpetual struggle.

Lew suggests that a critical first step in getting out of points of "stuckness" is acknowledging that we play an active role in keeping ourselves there.  He explains that, "spiritually, the only question worth asking about any conflict, any recurring catastrophe, is this:  What is my responsibility for it?  How am I complicit in it?  How can I prevent it from happening again?" (45)  In other words, I don't end up in the same struggle year after year because the world is against me.  I end up there because I allow myself to stay stuck.  So, I need to ask myself, "In what unproductive ways am I engaging in this conflict?  How could I do things differently in order to get out of it?"  Asking and answering these questions honestly requires that we allow our walls to come down, so that we can see what is truly underneath.

This isn't easy, but personally I think it's worth trying.  When I'm old, I don't want to look back on my life and see pockets of aborted growth and missed opportunities in places where I chose inertia over action.  While this approach to Elul and the High Holy Days will require a lot of effort, I think my life deserves that investment of time and energy.  We all deserve to give that gift of growth to ourselves.

Here are some key questions from Alan Lew to get us started:

"Where are we?  
What transition point are we standing at?  
What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance?  Where is our suffering?  
What is making us feel bad? 
What is making us feel at all?
How long will we keep the walls up?
How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?"