These days we are in unknown territory. How will we educate our children while working from home? How will we take care of their need to socialize in order to learn? What about our fledgling adult-“ish” children, who after barely taking flight, now find their wings clipped? With universities shut down, they have had to return to the nest and take refuge. What will the consequences of this aborted maturation be? What about our aging parents? We have relied on skilled nursing facilities, but now wonder if we are putting our elders in the path of danger, knowing the virus has run rampant through senior care centers.
We can’t worship like we used to. We can’t party like we used to. We can’t celebrate the milestones, nor mourn the dead as we used to.
It’s enough to send you one over the edge.
Yet Jewish tradition asks of us to maintain a state of equanimity — menuchat ha’nefesh — calmness of the soul.
It would seem you might have to either be comatose, or a bodhisattva to achieve this state of equilibrium in the current environment. Or maybe turn to numbing yourself with drugs, food, Netflix, sex.
How can we feel the feelings that our global crisis has given birth to, stay present with them, and not be completely engulfed in sadness, rage, grief, helplessness, hopelessness?
We have just come through a period of intense intentional mourning which culminated in Tisha B’Av — the 9th of Av. We read from Eicha, the book of Lamentations, with the most painful of images painting a picture of our utter estrangement from and excruciating rejection by the Divine.
Av haRachamim, the Father of Compassion, is instead described in this book as:
דֹּ֣ב אֹרֵ֥ב הוּא֙ לִ֔י אריה [אֲרִ֖י] בְּמִסְתָּרִֽים
“…a lurking bear, a lion in hiding.”
Breathe in, (hineni \— here am I), breathe out, (I am betzelem elohim — made in the Divine Image), breathe in, (I am loved with ahavah rabah, an unending love), breathe out (Sh’ma Yisrael YHVH eloheinu YHVH echad — Here, oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.)
In the middle of our struggles, we are often “narrating” our struggles. Meaning, they are happening and we are talking to ourselves about them happening.
We are saying, “This sucks. Why me? This isn’t fair! When will it end? How will I cope? It’s too much, I can’t take it.”
We are in resistance to, fighting against, what is. That which we cannot change. The facts of our reality.
These running commentaries product chemical reactions in the body; adrenalin causing a continuous fight-or-flight state; stress, weakening the immune system; disturbed sleep which then lessens our coping ability during the day.
Breathe in (The Lord is my shepherd), Breathe out (I shall not want); Breathe in (S/He leads me beside still waters), Breathe out (S/He restores my Soul).
In a class this week, Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu shared with us the tachbulot — guidance or tools — we can use to control damaging, unskillful thoughts. As per R’ Tzadok Ha’Kohen, there are three:
Case study #1: The thought is about to happen and you see it coming, you raise your mental shield, and deflect it. You remind yourself, “NO, ain’t got time for that thought.” And POOF! The thought disappears!
Case study #2: (And apologies to Reb David for lifting his words, but they are so accurate!) If the thought has taken up residence in your mind and is living “rent free,” you must take a more aggressive approach, and hightail it to the Beit Midrash. In other words, you must get off the couch, put down your phone, and change your environment to one of supportive, immersive learning and sacredness — a yoga class, Torah study, a walk in the woods, a long bike ride — whatever it is that will interrupt the unskillful thought patterns that have taken overtaken your Soul.
Case study #3: Nothing is working! You feel like Lamentations 2:11, “Your eyes are spent with tears!” Then you must call out with the faith that is the cornerstone of our tradition:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד
“Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.”
This might sound overly simplistic, and even downright offensive to those who are in the midst of unbearable loss. How will this fix the death of a loved one, a terminal illness, or the pain of having witnessed or been the victim of unspeakable acts of evil?
The answer is, “It won’t.” It will only eliminate and override the extra level of suffering WE ENACT ON OURSELVES by ruminating on our pain.
The ability to implement these tools — to even be able to think to use them when the moment arises, requires faithful and dedicated practice. And it must begin — if possible — in the moments of calm, of respite, of peace.
Would you expect to ride a the pipeline in Oahu if you’ve never mounted a surf board? Would you expect to sing the Hallelujah Chorus if you never studied music? Could you successfully navigate the Indy 500 if you’ve never turned the key in the ignition? Of course not.
In the same vein, we cannot expect to keep our equanimity in times of great trial if we do not take the time EVERY DAY to cultivate our menuchat ha-nefesh — calmness of the soul.
Breathe in שאיפה the strength to release שיחרור. Breathe out, נשיפה now experience release — שחרור. Breathe in Presence — נוכחות. Breathe out and relax into the Presence. Breathe in connection — התקשרות, Breathe out and relax into the connectedness of all that IS.
Click above to join Yiscah Smith in the initial breathing meditation and watch her amazing Sparks of Rav Kook class.
Special thanks to the spiritual guides who are out there on the front lines helping us “keep our cool.”