Rosh Hashanah 5773: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Lessons for Life from the Heart of Hashpa’ah – Rabbi Greg Wolfe

If you have ever tried it, you will know that it’s a lot harder
than you would think. After all, we breathe all the time. (And
some of us have been breathing for a lot longer than others!) It
seems so easy, but it requires an incredible amount of focus and
patience, and even years of practice. “Come back, again and again,
to your breath,” the pleasing voice on the CD invites all who tune
in. The spiritual practice of mindfulness meditation is all about
being in the moment; a constant returning to a gentle focus on
what is happening right now, right here, by paying attention to the
flow of the breath, in and out. There is no attempt to control or
influence what is happening. We only need notice and embrace
what is.
What is most surprising, however, is that no matter how
hard we turn our attention to the breath, our brain, ever curious
and on the move–as if it had a mind of its own–is always
wandering away from the task at hand, always thinking about
something else–lists of things to do, worries, a funny story,
what’s for lunch. Yet we are instructed, by the voice, to
continually and gently bring our attention back to the breath.
Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be for a blessing, once
taught me: it is precisely at that moment of recognition, when we
notice that our mind has wandered and we return to the breath,
that we are truly most awake, most present. Gevalt! Only when
we realize we are lost can we be found. But what a relief! We are
not required to achieve some laser-like focus to be successful in
meditating (or in life), but simply to notice when it is time to
return and then to do so. Drifting away and coming back,
disconnecting and reconnecting, going away and returning. I guess
that’s why it is called a spiritual practice! we are never quite
done; there is no ‘there’ there to get to, only a chance to occupy
each moment more fully, to inhabit our lives more completely.
Then it dawned on me, one of those times when my mind
wandered from the breath, and I wondered: Isn’t this journey to
and fro actually the essence of the High Holy Days? Going away
and coming home: the universal dance in which we each participate
on so many levels throughout our lives. Each of us has grown up and
left home (or will at some point, we hope!) to create a new home
for ourselves. In many families, that home then becomes the one
that others eventually leave as they go on their unique path, and
so on. Until, at the end, we all return home, to our Source. In
between, there are countless comings and goings, small and large.
Ahh!, but the trick is in paying attention, taking note of when we
are drifting off course, and coming back to our essence with
compassion and kindness for ourselves. It is exactly in that
moment of reawakening that we are most truly alive. Alive to our
potential, alive to our possibilities! And thus we must treat each
of those moments of turning with the utmost sensitivity. By
gently guiding ourselves home, just as we lovingly return our
attention to our breath, we understand that the deep teaching of
this practice is not to become expert breathers (although, it
helps!). Rather, through paying closer attention to our lives, we
are cultivating a caring and compassionate heart, and a tenderness
towards ourselves and others that blossoms into an intensified
appreciation of our interdependence with all that lives and
breathes. Our out-breath is God’s in-breath; when we breathe in,
God breathes out.
As we turn towards this new year, we stop to take a breath,
to notice, to probe a little: Are we home or away? Are we living
with a deep sense of connection to our lives or are we on cruise
control, only going through the motions. This is the most simple
and yet soul-stirring gift that we can give to ourselves during
these Days of Awe: An invitation to come back home, to simply be
present to our lives and our loves; to return to the Breath–in
Hebrew, the Nesheema, the Source of our Life–the Neshama/
Soul, God’s innermost name: Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay, which can only be
pronounced: (out breath).
That’s it! Very simple. Yet it’s just about the hardest thing
we will ever do. Just to be here, to be fully present in the
moment, to pay attention to Breath, (out breath).
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and
teacher observed, once, while leading a retreat over Rosh
HaShanah, while many Jews were present: “It is my
understanding that the purpose of all Jewish practice is to live
every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence…and that is
Mindfulness. (quoted in Shefa Gold, Torah Journeys, p. 208)
You might be surprised to learn that this is the essence of
Judaism! We might think that this great tradition of ours is
really all about eating… or fasting, studying ancient texts or
praying holy words, making the world a better place or
strengthening the State of Israel. But, in fact, each of these
sacred acts is one of the myriad ways our people have developed
to help us live with awareness, stay connected and experience our
place of interconnection in the Divine Flow of the Universe.
The longer I am a rabbi, the more Thich Nhat Hanh’s
statement rings true for me. This certainly has been the
direction of my spiritual path within Judaism, especially as I
studied these past three years (finishing last January) to become
a mashpi’a, a Jewish Spiritual Director, through the Aleph
program of Jewish Renewal. Throughout our training we were
introduced, in powerful ways, to the possibility that we can
experience, in any moment, indeed, in every moment, the holy Life
Force that animates all that is. In light and darkness, in good
times and challenging ones, we seek to discern how God is moving
through us and where God is calling us. When our hearts are
receptive to the gifts of spirit, we become more open to
connections with one another, to love, and to our soul’s purpose in
life. Each moment of joy, grief, wonder or loss is an opportunity
to invite God in. To stop, to pay attention, to listen. The Divine
Flow of God’s abundance or shefa, in Hebrew, is ever present in
the universe. Shefa is, in fact, the root of the word mashpi’a,
reflecting the role of the mashpi’a as one who guides people to
connect in a deeper way to the Divine Flow that is resonating in
their lives. The task of the mashpi’a is to allow each person we
work with to ponder their unique answer to the question: How can
I live a heart-centered life, awake to the mysterious Source of
All Being at all times, and deepen my sense of connection to all
that lives?
One day, while on a break from our intensive spiritual
training, I wandered into one of the many Tibetan stores that
dotted the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. A friend was
interested in purchasing a Tibetan singing bowl. You may be
familiar with them. These metal bowls come in various sizes and
hum in a variety of pitches when your rub them with a special
mallet. After experimenting with a number of them, I noticed a
gigantic one sitting on the floor. When I asked the woman in
charge how that one worked, she invited me to remove my shoes
and stand inside the bowl! What she did then was quite
extraordinary. She took the mallet and began banging the sides
of the bowl. My body was engulfed in vibrations, resonating in my
every bone from head to toe. What an amazing sensation that
was. In that moment, I felt so alive. I could feel the pulse of life
coursing through all of me. Later, it occurred to me that this
experience of standing in the bowl captured the essence of the
spiritual work in which I am engaged–in which we are all engaged,
in some way. When we are plugged into the sacred and holy, when
we are tuned into the divine reverberations all around us, we, too,
can experience the universe vibrating within us and through us as
if we were standing in the middle of a gigantic, brass bowl. We
just have to remember to step back, fully, into the bowl of our
life…and notice. Then, in that moment, we are somehow aware, not
just of our own breath, but that the Breath of Life is breathing
Rosh HaShanah lovingly extends to us, once again, her yearly
invitation to recalculate our spiritual GPS by immersing ourselves,
completely and regularly, in that still center of open-hearted
awareness. Tonight/Today is the time for returning to our
Source, the Breath of our existence, to who we truly are, as we
embrace the full potential of each moment. For you see, all that
God really wants is for us to be truly present to each other, to
ourselves, and to the holy mystery of life. When we are able to do
that, everything else will flow as naturally and easily as each
inhale and each exhale. Start breathing.