Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chanukkah- reconnecting

"Ah, Harry, we have to stumble through so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our home-sickness." - Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse

Tonight is the 8th and final night of Chanukkah, the holiday of light. I'd like to share some thoughts I had while hiking in the beautiful and oxygen-deprived trails of the Annapurna circuit as I approached the first night of Chanukkah, which I celebrated with some Israelis I'd met along the way.

Chanukkah comes as we approach the darkest time of year, as R' Shai pointed out, unlike other holidays like Pesach or Sukkot, it starts not with the full moon in the middle of the month, but on the 25th of kislev, as there's almost no light from the moon and the night feels darkest. The dark of night and the dark of season parallel the dark period of history for the Jewish people whence Chanukkah emerged. This time found the Jews subjected to the sovereignty of the Greeks, who were intent on wiping out all Jewishness from the Jews, banning Torah learning, attempting to cut us off from Hayyei Torah and Torat Chayyim, the life of nourishment which is true Torah. We call this gallut, exile, not just being outside Israel, but being uprooted. In essence, to cut us off and make us forget our very essence, stripping the candle of its wick, leaving our holy Beit haMikdash in ruins, and us in the darkness of alienation from self and despair for the future. The story ends happily, of course, with the miraculously successful revolt of the Maccabbees and the restoration and rededication (ie Hanukkah) of the Beit haMikdash, the Temple.

In the Hasidic tradition, there is an emphasis or hermeneutics on the inner dimension, thus outer events and occurrences correspond to parallel inner processes and the emotional/spiritual/psychological dimension. Thus the Mikdash, or Temple, is not just a building that once was, textually and traditionally created to facilitate the indwelling of the Divine, but each person too is considered as a mikdash, or mishkan, a place wherein the Divine dwells. And just as there was a time of darkness and foreign occupation which destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, so do we all struggle with darkness in our lives which estranges and alienates us from our own nourishing essence, from the Divine spark that is always and ever in every person. For us there is often darkness in the form of unpleasant parts of life and unattractive, scary parts of ourselves- the things and situations and realities that we prefer not to deal with, that are uncomfortable. When we really look into it we see that so many people are spending so much of our lives and time and energy running away from facing life face to face- we do this with entertainment, with relationships, friends, trips, projects, TV, internet, text messages, housework, and the like. Chanukkah, first with the lighting of just one candle, invites us to bring all those fearful dimensions into the light, into the light of awareness of the heart, into the light of courage that comes when we act from the deep knowing and rootedness in the spark of Divine light in each of us. As we begin to accept all parts of ourselves and all parts of life, so our lives begin to feel more light in our lives, to see more light in others. Each night we add one more candle and the light and warmth grow, we learn to live more and more as full embodiments and expressions of our deep inner selves. This is the real redemption from galut, from spiritual exile and alienation. Chanukkah, in Hebrew, comes from the root word- like the word for educate- which means to use, or inaugurate, or begin to activate the potential of. Historically Chanukkah marks the return to our home, to rootedness. When we light our Hanukkiahs (aka menorah), we put them on the windowsill to show and share with the world. Likewise, only when we connect to our inner spark,the light inside each of us- and it's always there in spite of whatever darkness might keep us from feeling it- only when we cultivate it and let it shine out unto the world will we feel ourselves truly at home. May it be a Chanukkah of reconnection, of meriting to feel the warmth and love within and sharing it without.
love and light,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

meditation: round 1, Danny

(for those more interested in photos than reflections, please skip to them: )

Before I left America, I ran into a friend from high school and told her that I'd be coming to India for the year to explore meditation and yoga. "So you gonna go to an ashram or something?" Yea, something like that. "That's neat." Hmmm. neat.

For all those who think I've taken off on an extended vacation, to languish in exotic, remote destinations in India, I invite you to do a 10-day vipassana retreat like the one I finished last Tuesday. Indeed, I think it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. 10 hours a day of sitting meditation for 1, 1.5, or 2 hours at a time, usually with 5 minute breaks in between, trying not to change posture in spite of whatever arises. The goal is neither torture nor masochism- on the contrary, it is liberation and peace, deliverance from abiding unconscious mental habit patterns which bind us to a kind of suffering, misery, or lack of peace which are ongoing. Allow me to explain.

The basic idea behind this technique- the essential psychological insight of the Buddha, preserved in Burma for generations without the distortions or extra baggage that Buddhism developed in India, is that we have a very deep and unconscious (which I'll use here interchangeably with subconcious) habit of aversion to unpleasant sensation and craving for pleasant sensation. These un/pleasant sensations include the feelings that arise from hearing certain words or ideas- eg you are such a kind person/you're uniquely ugly, or the ones that arise from thinking about things, eg when I find a partner I'll be happy/if x would just stop happening/bothering me/keeping me hungry, then I'd be happy. all I want is x. So this is our deep orientation, the hidden agenda which we're ultimately pursuing. If this doesn't resonate with you, try this exercise. Stop reading (At the end of the paragraph). Close your eyes (not yet). and observe your breath, meaning focus on the sensations of your breath coming in and out of your nose. Do this for 3 minutes and focus only on your respiration. Do not control it, just observe it in whatever rhythm it comes.


Welcome back. I expect that the results were thus. You focused for a few breaths and then started thinking, and off you went thinking. maybe you came back. then it happened again. your thoughts were either about the future or the past. They were either desiring something to be or wishing something to have been, or reacting to an unpleasant experience, or perhaps even imagining one occurring in the future. So it goes. We get embedded in the stories and experiences of the past and lost in desires and dreams for the future. Meanwhile, the present is the only thing that actually exists and offers an infinite depth of peace and joy and spaciousness, if only we can inhabit it. As long as we are stuck, or enslaved, to this deep unconscious mental habit, however, we will not be free in the most important way. So the task is mastery of the mind.

There is a strong adversary in this endeavor however, which we can call the ego. The ego is the projection of this unconscious orientation, the sense of self that does its bidding, averting the unpleasant, pursuing the pleasant, in the Sisyphean pursuit of happiness, doomed from the very start. How long after getting something we want or relief from something unpleasant until a new want or aversion arises to spoil our peace? All is transient. but hope is not lost. before getting to the solution, let's continue with the illusion that is the ego. The trickiest part of this whole enterprise is that the adversary doesn't present itself as such, but rather masks itself slyly as you. What chutzpah the ego has to use my own voice! Let me explain a bit further in order to clarify.

Normally, we experience our sensate self as a gross body, that is, strong, solid sensations that feel permanent, like pressure, pain, the touch of clothing, of another person. When we develop strong concentration (as was the task of the first 3 days of the retreat), however, we tune in to something of which normally we are aware, that there are constant sensations, vibrations and the like all over the body, even inside the body, and it is to these that the unconscious is constantly reacting, trying to 'get comfortable.' Picture someone (eg yourself) lying on the couch. How often do you shift position without even thinking about it (as I just did sitting in this chair)? This is the subconscious awareness to which we are constantly reacting. Then, of course, we build entire identities and ideas about why we did something in order to preserve some sense of internal order and identity. The technique of vipassana, which means to see things as they really are (Rather than through the lens in which the ego illusion casts them, is to observe all the sensations in one's body with a sense of equanimity, building a balance in the mind which is indifferent to whether what's happening to you is pleasant or unpleasant, ultimately based on the experientially-derived insight that everything is impermanent, transient, fleeting, so nothing solid can be used as the foundation for one's identity/happiness. Note that this does not render one apathetic or indifferent to life. On the contrary, one becomes peaceful in all his ways, and able to pursue goals out of genuine generosity, kindness, love, and compassion, rather than out of some subconscious ulterior motive to feel good/better. Here's how it plays out.
The scene: Danny sits down for a two-hour meditation session.
First hour goes ok, hear the clock chiming one hour.
Into the second hour, the pain in the knee is really strong
The ego/illusion (in my voice): "Geez, this reaalllly hurts. Why not just readjust? one little movement? is this really what's important in life? to sit still? come on. to be happy? what do I need all this for? maybe this whole india/meditation thing wasn't such a good idea. maybe I don't really need it. why not just go back to Israel, go to yeshiva, learn stuff, teach? why sit here? i'm not even doing any exercise. i think i might be permanently damaging my ankle. after all, i know people experience pain, it's part of the process, but I have a chronic ankle injury, remember? and I came into the week with a sore knee. I think I might be giving myself tendinitis. am I gonna wanna walk around like a cripple for the rest of my life, just so I can say I sat still for 2 hours? maybe i should be doing this on a chair. after all, like one yoga teacher explained, indians grow up sitting on the floor, but we westerners don't, so that sounds like a good reason to me, good sense, no ego there. hmmmm. ok. i wonder how i'm gonna write about this experience on my blog after this retreat is over. i should probably sit still so that i can say that i sat still for 2 hours. and then i'll explain this whole technique and how it leads to peace. i wonder if i will have gotten an email from x. maybe i should spend a couple years doing meditation so i can be enlightened. that would be good. i hear 10,000 hours is the amount of time to become expert in something. let's think. 100 this week. 1%. 10hours a day for a year, two years. hmm. maybe 15 hours a day, that could do it. 15 hours a day for two years full time. but what would it be like to go away for two years? maybe one at a time? maybe three though, i mean, might as well really solidify while i'm at it. but with which teacher? why isn't there a jewish retreat center to do this at...."
and so it goes. on and on and on.
with some practice, some improvement comes and i can catch myself quicker and come back to the focus. or i can identify the voice as the ego masquerading as my desire. then sometimes I do a 'noting' practice, and say
"ah, the illusion says it would be better to move."
"the illusion is thinking about x again"
this practice of recognizing the voice as such, as a voice and not my ultimate reality, is tremendously helpful, during meditation and generally in life. realizing that we are not our thoughts. then sometimes it's possible to see, to experience beyond the horizon of the ego, the place of real peace, of real light. then sometimes it's possible, even while there is an intense feeling in my leg (usually identified with as pain), to experience a real sense of peace at the same time. this is the spark of realization which we must grow into the real flame of life. then we can stop spending all our energies trying to get comfortable by reordering the external world to be 'just so' and experience the underlying wonder and peace which is always there, which is who we really are. then we can stop identifying ourselves and experiencing life as what happens to us. we can be liberated from conditional happiness and love (along with the corollary of assured disappointment), and enter into unconditioned happiness, unconditional love. our relationships can stop being about being with someone who makes us feel a certain way, and trying to get them to behave in such a way or treat us in a way so we can feel pleased, and start being able to really be with a person, with people, to really give to them and really listen to them. Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now, is a very clear, nonsectarian exposition of this reality/possibility. Chapter 2 discusses the problem of identifying with 'the pain body' emotional and physical, and Chapter 8 offers an alternative way of doing relationships.

Let me note, amidst my reflections, that it is far, far easier to think, talk, write, and conclude about all this than it is to internalize on a deep level. Doing so means getting rid of old habit patterns. which means enduring a lot of pain as old knots are slowly undone and let go. the image that I kept thinking of during my meditation to share with all of you is that of a carbonated drink, where the carbonation stands for agitation. If you open the bottle and let it sit, the carbonation gradually rises and goes away. all you have to do is not interfere. just allow whatever thoughts and sensations to arise and pass on. this is their nature. if however, you interact, interfere, get caught up in, react, and the like, it's like shaking a carbonated bottle, you just increase the agitation and stir it all up, all over again.
So, in ten days, ten grueling days of ups and downs and lots of intensity, I did make some progress. It's a start, a good start. I feel well equipped with a technique that can take me a long way, perhaps all the way if ardently adhered to. the knowledge and practice of always cultivating equanimity, of being wary of cravings and aversions, or learning to sit through pain, learning to examine it and getting better acquainted with the illusion of ego, the illusion which for most of us, most of the time is our entire sense of self. with practice comes insight and knowledge, greater familiarity with the ruses which the ego uses to maintain itself, to perpetuate the deep, unconscious mental habit which is responsible for our lack of real peace and happiness.

With the caveat that practice is what matters, what really matters, let me turn to some Jewish framing for this, ideally as a way of driving home the importance of this kind of work and showing how it's really at the root of an authentic and genuine religious life.
I have always been struck by a discrepancy between what people profess to 'believe' and the way they actually live out their lives, treat people, deport themselves, and manifest their priorities. I think I first noticed this growing up around some people who professed a very convicted faith in Jesus and went to church on Sundays, 'religiously', but then I didn't really see how that was playing out from Monday to Saturday. (please note this is not a comment about Christianity or applicable to the many deeply inspired, inspiring, and faithful Christians I know, and the same could be said about people of any 'faith'). So began my hesitations about belief, and what that really means, why 'salvation' could depend on how neurons interact in your head, or how/whether one could 'decide' to believe, and what that would actually accomplish, or if that could actually address or resolve doubts in a meaningful way. in short, what's the connection between belief and transformation, which feels like a more compelling goal to me. In a talk on Vedanta that I went to this morning, I noted something that I am getting used to here- a characterization of a spiritual approach as 'scientific'. What is meant by this is that it can and should be verified by personal experience, rather than just subscribed to as a 'belief system'. To me it feels like the difference between reading a guidebook, even memorizing it, and actually going somewhere. (I gave away my India guidebook because it was too heavy to carry around, and I wasn't reading it. India, however, is quite fascinating.) Going on, let's put it this way.

In Bereishit, the book of Genesis, we have the eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. after this, the verse reads "v'tifkechena einei shnei'hem" and the eyes of both of them were opened. Rambam, aka Maimonides, interprets this as the beginning of ego-consciousness, where people begin to see and relate to everything in the world as either desirable or repugnant, ie it either makes me feel good or displeases me. This act is also related to Haman and understood as the kind of consciousness or orientation which leads to alienation, condescension, evil, dissatisfaction, ego, and all the trappings of such. This is the great contraction of human consciousness into a very gross state. My understanding is that Bereishit, and the Garden of Eden, are not one-time historic occurrences, but rather constantly recurring states of consciousness and creation which are likewise constantly refractured, so conditioned are we to this consciousness and unable to simply abide in presence, to fully inhabit each moment rather than our thoughts running us away into the past or future. Redemption then, is the ability to return to this unadulterated state of being, the one in the spirit of 'erumim v'lo hitobesheshu' (naked/vulnerable and unashamed) of Eden, of opening to the vastness and infinity within, that is Us, that is our Divine nature, that is the kodesh ha'kodeshim (the holy of holies/inner sanctum), the mishkan. HaMakom (The Place), we call it, haMakom yerachem, compassion will come from haMakom, a place in us, beyond our usual sense of self, but always there, and we can learn to access it, to touch it, even to be it. The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century spiritual revolutionary and founder of Hasidism, tells of a dream he had where he met the Moshiach (Messiah). When will you come? he asked. When all have what you have, when your wellspring spreads forth, came the reply. What did he have? Da'at. Knowledge, or mindfulness. the unfading experiential consciousness of nondualism, of interconnectedness, of the unity of all energy and its flowing from the Ultimate, Ein Sof, the ineffable Infinitude. For a better and slightly lengthier elucidation of this, please see a recent article by my cousin and teacher, R' James, here. I highly recommend reading that. highly. likewise jay michaelson's book, Everything is God. So this is one framework. We live in a world of deep alienation, from others but most importantly from our essential selves, and we expend tremendous energy, time, and money trying to distract ourselves from the deep (and usually subconscious) unease that comes from that. To really address that means inner work, not reordering what's outside. (though outer alignment should be the next and natural step).

One of the reasons that I embarked on this journey and am interested in meditation, breathwork, yoga, hitbodedut, song, and serious spiritual work in general is because of the ability to reorient our unconscious attitudes and orientation to life. The alter from slobodka, Rabbi Nosson Tvi Finkel, who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, dispelled the idea that there could be such a thing as belief in God and unethical action. He attested that knowing God meant understanding God as the source of goodness, and in line with the commandment to know God, knowing Him would mean living out a reflection of that Goodness, not just signing onto the 'belief'. Which is to say, belief, used in a meaningful way, is like an X-ray to see the inner workings of what your body's doing. Likewise, what you really believe, whether we're conscious of it or not, is that which underlies our behavior (both how we behave and how we experience).

This post seems to be dragging on, and if I'm weary from writing, I'll be lucky if you're still with me. so i'll wrap up and save more for another time. more to come includes a wonderful spontaneous chevruta with a German Jewish girl exploring sefer yona, the book of Jonah, and its commentaries on heeding/neglecting the Divine call, and the effect of ego in social activism.
Also, some reflections on the ups and downs, twists and turns of life/the spiritual path, in the pilgrimage model (beautifully elaborated in Chapter 9 of the Spirituality of Imperfection, thanks Dan for the rec), being white in India, the Golden Temple, and training (ie traveling via train).
and finally a shoutout of appreciation and wonder to my dearest mother, who carved the below pumpkins for each of her children with each of our designs. (mine is the map of India, yoga belongs to Jack, tango to Max, pumpkin is Benj, woman/model(?) is Judes')
missing you all, loving you, appreciating your support, and very glad and appreciative to be here and on this unfolding journey of life.

Note the blessing I learned yesterday "May you live like a pumpkin" (meaning, like pumpkins who naturally separate from their root when they're ripe, may you die when you have lived fully)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

letting God in

This is an addendum to the previous post, fleshing out some feelings I've had on the role of the Divine in my journey. I'll just copy from my journal:

I realized as I was doing a bit of hitbodedut (free flowing talking to God) that it's when I forget or lose touch with the fact that I'm not the one making the decisions/choosing the direction here that I start feeling a lot of pressure, doubt, uncertainty, depression, worry, alienation. [interestingly, in Hasidut Moshe and Pharoah are the two paradigms, one representing constant mindfulness/remembering of the Divine, the other total forgetting/ego-consciousness, and accordingly, I-Thou vs I-It ways of relating to people]. I need to stay open, grounded in YHVH, with my eyes open, as it were, so I/eye can see what decision has been made and receive it. Then it's 'my' job to take it. Whether it's God (it is) or the subconscious (it is) that really knows what's the next step, I've got to include Such in the process. It seems to me that, as the subconscious is the threshold of consciousness, that is the place where we receive the Divine (direction). IF we are to stand a chance then, we must at least open the door. This is how we make space to facilitate/invite the entry of the Divine into the world, into our world, into ourselves. (making ourselves a cli, or vessel, in Kabbalastic language). We could say, also in Kabbalastic terminology, something about meschichat ohr Ein Sof l'olam, pulling the light of the Infinite into the world. We can also imagine cultivating/raising our consciousness to include an awareness of what's going on in the subconscious, a clearer or more direct channel of reception/experiencing of direction, as if we had expanded the walls of our house to include the threshold. Now it's as if that which was arriving from outside is a part of us, arrives from within, like we've got running water straight into the house all the time, can hardly tell where the stream from the wellspring ends and the stream from the faucet begins. So that's what we're (I'm) aiming for.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


holy family and friends, Namaste! welcome to vicarious India, and my new blog, HaLeKeT. Why this name? two reasons, at least. Firstly, this is the acronym/rashei teivot of 'Hodu L'shem Ki Tov,' the verse, with the inspired application of my friend Amitai, affirming my destination of choice. (meaning either A/traditionally, "Thank God for Being Good" or B, "India for God, because it's Good"). Secondly, haLeket, in Hebrew, a word drawn from agriculture, means 'gleaning,' and in Halakhic (Jewish legal) requirements, represents the portion of the harvest to be left for those who come after, not having their own fields to harvest. SO, far be it from me to suggest that you don't have your own rich fields to harvest, but close be it to me to want to share some of the gleanings of my own experiences far afield.

since this is me writing, as should not surprise you, I will not just be reporting what I am 'doing'. Far more interesting, and I think representative of me (and perhaps all real people- sorry pinnochio), are my reflections on my experiences and insights thence gleaned. or suffice it to say, inasmuch as the purpose of this blog is to share 'what i'm doing,' that will include also the inner realm of reflections, thoughts, emotions, and hopefully experiences of luminosity. ok? ready...

It's taken me long enough to open this blog, which I intended to do before my departure, but have delayed amidst not knowing what exactly to write or how to introduce and frame what I am doing, as indeed this whole journey is somewhat nebulous to me. Nebulous in a good way though, in the same way that its Latin root means 'cloud,' suggesting (at least to me), the idea of "v'ydaber Hashem m'toch annan" (God spoke from within a cloud). There is a very clear calling, a summons in a certain direction, toward which I'm hearkening. This journey, a spiritual expedition, if you will, is the result of an earnest endeavor to go towards that, to find out where it's taking me, and to realize the path and potential along the way which are my lot.

So now I'm in India. Just a few weeks ago, I'll admit, India didn't mean to me much more than the 5 letters that spell its name, a vague sense of Indian history, Penn Masala (Indian a cappella group from Penn, which constituted my cell phone ring for the past year and a half and good music for reading this!), Dhamaka (Indian dance group at Penn), former British rule, Gandhi, and thanks to a couple classes and reading from Professor Lamas, an appreciation for Ambedkar and the plight of the Dalits ("Untouchables"). Most importantly, however, and I think the reason for my being pulled towards this land, are the dual poles of service and spirituality, the two themes which perhaps best represent the orienting focii of my personal journey over the past couple years, and their corresponding realities in India, meaning, the immense poverty and need for economic development, and the ancient and deep spiritual traditions that originated here, insofar as I'm interested, Buddhist meditation tradition and the practice and science of Yoga.

To give a small bit of context of how/why/whence this next phase of my journey is entering my life: as many of you are already familiar, the past couple years have contained immense growth for me. A profound semester spent at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa in Israel, a return to finishing junior year at Penn in a semester fraught with personal/psychological struggles, an introduction to and beginning practice of mindfulness meditation and gradual cultivation of greater emotional stability and skillfulness, presence, depth, and gentleness, a transformative experience with the Coopers (meditation teachers) at a weeklong retreat at Eilat Chayyim in Connecticut, and, borne of hundreds and hundreds of interactions with peers, a dawning realization of both the striking scope of brokenness, isolation, struggle, anxiety, and feeling of being lost or ungrounded experienced by my peers, and of a sense of calling that my life's work is to engage people on that level, the inner level. Likewise a growing appreciation that inner reality is at least as real as (and often productive of) external reality, and that my gift is to help people navigate that territory. Having spent the last few years, then, building an understanding of the external world- of economics, social justice, and the like- I feel that my task now is to explore, experience, and build for myself a map of the inner world, for my own growth and wellbeing, and so that I may be able to serve others there as a guide, so that we all may be able to grown in our experience of the wonder and joy of the world, root ourselves in Divinely nourishing channels, and cultivate the resilience and compassion with which to reckon with life and build meaningful relationships. I have gained tremendously from the world and wisdom and life of Torah, particularly from hasidut, as media for this path, but/and now am eager to pursue some of the more embodied and psychological practices, which, to borrow language from the world of business, seem to me to be the comparative advantage (ie are more developed or alive) in the East. That said, I have shifted my designs from wanting to come to India to act on principles of social and economic justice and equality, to seeing here an opportunity to experience and learn from some of the ancient practices of inner cultivation, (which, we should note, especially for those hard-core social activists among us, have direct consequences for our relationship to others, general orientation in life, and our ability to act effectively in pursuit of worthy social causes.)

so that's the background. and now, what has been the past 10 days or so? Firstly, I had the most wonderful time in Israel before I came here, and am so thankful for the wonderful friends I have there. It was hard to leave, though I hope to be back as soon as the time is right. I am trying to let go of future plans and totally open to the present and to the unfolding of my journey and life without forcing it in any predetermined direction. This is very hard. uncertain. scary. but probably will yield the greatest fruits in the long run. On that note, I have been surprised by how much HASHEM/GOD is playing a bigger role in this journey than I expected. That might be surprising for someone who set out on a decidedly spiritual expedition, but so be it. My intention was to come and learn meditation and yoga. The challenge, however, of arriving in quite a foreign land, and coming to terms with being by myself, without a set itinerary, trying to feel out a direction has been very much about learning to relax, open, and receive, and to learn to trust and let go and rely on Hashem for guidance. These things are hard and have to happen over and over again. I believe they will stand me in good stead. It's also interesting for me to speak/think like this, where for many years such a simple-seeming (or really just simple?), direct relationship with and turning to Hashem would have been very hard for me theologically. Now, interestingly, I'm not feeling the need to think about it theologically so much. (For those who are interested, I do have a 30 page letter/treatise on my theology/understanding of God). So finding that when I relax and open, decisions and direction seem to come to me, things seem to work out. There aren't a lot of aids or reference points for me on this journey, but as hard as that is, I think that's a good thing, having to figure it all out for myself, not relying on the illusion of form/social standard to affirm my decisions/feelings/experiences, but rather having to feel things from the ground up. One of the goals of Buddhism is for people to learn from their own experience what leads to happiness and goodness, and what leads to suffering and negativity. In Dewey's terms/philosophy of education, what leads to growth. In Jewish terms I've been thinking about this as learning 'hukkei hayyim' as we ask in the morning 'tlamdeinu hukkei hayyim'. What way of living, of thinking, of speaking, what kind of consciousness, whay way of being brings goodness and/or Godliness into our lives and world? Gaining and refining that sensibility might be the goal of life/spiritual practice, and certainly progress along that path, not just in knowing but in implementing and living that out, is a central goal for me this year. This year, of course, I'm beginning to feel, cannot be just a break from 'real life', but rather must be the first among the rest of years of my life of earnest devotion and commitment to living life in as real and good a way as possible. Really opening to that is daunting, but any time you look from far away at the top of the mountain it's daunting. But so are many of our projections about the future. So I'm working on living in the present, in that beautiful, still, luminous, vital place that exists between and beyond our thoughts about the past and future, if ever we can settle our mind enough to fully inhabit that space. When we do, that's the most beautiful thing.

An interlude of some stuff I've been doing before back to more reflections.
I arrived in Delhi early in the morning last Monday and flew straight to Dharamsala. I hopped a cab and got let off in Mcleod Ganj, an upper adjacent town where the Dalai Lama lives and where I spent most of last week. I went to the Dalai Lamas lectures, which were interesting, as much as the mediocre translator conveyed through my FM radio, but probably more interesting was the scene of hundreds of people sitting and listening, and especially getting to watch this light-filled person with such a real smile enter and leave the complex. One time I got to shake his hand. It was real soft. Soft as if he had no callouses, meaning he's so emotionally refined he doesn't have the coarseness that most of us develop as defense mechanisms and adaptations in the course of lives and interactions, the emotional scabs, if you will, to protect our soft interior.

The town is located in the foothills of the Himalayas, which by the standard of any other mountain range, are quite enourmous and stunning mountains too big to fit into my small camera, covered with magnificent evergreen trees. The town consists of small roads on big hills lined with shops, restaurants, and seemingly every 10m or so, places teaching yoga, meditation, massage, reiki, ayurveda, etc. Sounds nice but a bit of a challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff. From afar you see a combination of laundry lines with draped clothing and Tibetan prayer flags all over the place. There are tons of Buddhist monks walking around in their red and saffron getups, and Buddhist chanting playing from people selling CDs on the side of the road.
The prices here are amazing. Delicious food costs $2-3 a meal. A decent place to stay is about $3-4 a night. North Face backpacks, jackets, and other winter wear $15-30 or so. so this bodes well for the budget. Hourlong ayurvedic massage was $12. :)

Anyway, with great Grace I was happened upon by this family from Israel doing shlichut through something called 'Lev Yehudi,' (Jewish Heart) a kind of dati-leumi/modern-Orthodox alternative to Chabad, a haven for Israeli travelers passing through. I spent shabbat and a lot of the past few days with them and some of the other Israelis who were around and it was most lovely, especially the 4 little girls. They are such wonderful and warm people and welcomed me in a big way. Being there helped me adjust a little bit, and after a week I've started settling into being here.

In general the level of English among most Indians I've encountered doesn't allow for particularly deep engagement, but that changed when I ran into 4 Indian guys my age who were also traveling in the area. They were particularly warm and friendly and I ended up spending a few hours with them, hanging out in their room (across the hall from mine), eating lunch (on them), and hiking to a waterfall. It was nice to be so welcomed and to learn a bit about their lives. They're all architects, which garners a half million ruppee dowry, and they seem to be down with arranged marriages (conditional on their approval). They seemed interested that someone at my age is so interested in religion/God, not out having a 'good time', but what can I say, I am looking for what's really good. At the top of our hike one of them sat down next to me and said, "So I have a question." Sure, what's that? "What is the meaning of life?" Now das a good question ;) We had a nice talk and it was interesting to hear their take on Hinduism.
One adjustment to being here is that of meeting people. There are tons of foreigners traveling here from all over the world- Israel, Germany, Sweden, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, to name a few, but not that many Americans. There are (or at least were until the end of the season/beginning of the semester a few weeks ago) so many Israelis here that I think an Indian not otherwise informed could justifiably deduce that Israel and America had reverse populations.

Shifting back to reflections before I wrap up...this past week's parsha (Torah portion) being that of Noah, I had a realization about 'tze min a tevah,' ("Go out from the ark"). The teva is a refuge from the flood, a safe place for when the sh@* hits the fan. But at some point there comes a time to leave our comfort zone and head out into the big, wide, unkown, uncertain, and scary world. Sometimes that also means parts of ourselves of which we are perhaps wont to steer clear, perhaps boarding ourselves up in our heads and in stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about other people, about why things should be or shouldn't be such and such and thus. The irony is that sometimes it is in the very holing up and hiding, the supposed taking of refuge, that our distress or sense of unease accumulates. Parshat Noach, in one stream of Jewish meidtation, as I learned on Shabbat, is associated with menucha/rest. Like the 'rest' of Shabbat - menuchat ahava vnedava, menuchat emet v'emunah, menuchat shalom vshalva vhashket v' meitcha he menuchatam...(a rest of love and plenty, a rest of truth and faith, rest of peace and serenity and quiet and surity...because from you is their 'rest'", this rest doesn't come just from cessation of physical labor (that's rest only on a gross level). True rest and relief for the weary, in my own humble experience, comes from stillness, when we can summon the courage and presence of mind to be present in honest encounter with ourselves and the world, to establish a great stillness, a depth and opennness/spaciousness within, and to go out and meet the world from there. The Baal Shem Tov (the (18th century) maverick point guard on the starting 5 of Jewish spirituality) talks about tefila (prayer) and learning Torah as a teva, or ark/refuge. THis might seem like the opposite of what I was saying in terms of going out to meet life head on, but I think actually the goal is an integration, whereby through tefillah and Torah and our spiritual life we cultivate in ourselves a capacious heart of stillness, equanimity, and love that gives the confidence and security of a haven without needing to run away. The outer shell/form becomes superflous or unnecessary as we internalize the essence. So with the courage to venture outward, we move to this week's parsha of Lech Lecha. I won't delve too much into it, but suffice it to say that Hashem's command to Avraham "Lech lecha m'artzecha, m'moladetcha, m'beit avicha l'aretz asher Areka" (in the Hasidic translation, "Go to yourself, leaving your land, your place of birth, your father's house to a land that I will show you") represents the archetypal spiritual journey and is very much the framework within which I think about my own journey. We have to have the courage to leave what is comfortable and familiar and easy and routine to go somewhere, not sure where at the beginning of the journey, only that it will be shown to us, and that only in doing so we really come to ourselves.
So now I have begun. Feeling slightly more settled after a week of being here, I have begun a fascinating weeklong course of Hatha/Tantric Yoga and am hoping to start a 10 day vipassana meditation retreat on Friday.
I miss you all dearly and hope you are well, every one of you wherever you are on your own journeys. Thanks for taking the time to share in mine.
Very much love.