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'vetach...ki 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.