By Alan Lew
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Written in a warm, accessible, and intimate style, Be Still and Get Going will touch those who are searching for an authentic spiritual practice that speaks to them in their own cultural language.
Lew is one of the most sought-after rabbis on the lecture circuit. He has had national media exposure for his dynamic fusion of Eastern insight and Bible study, having been the subject of stories on ABC News, the McNeil Lehrer News Hour, and various NPR programs. In the past five years there have been national conferences on Jewish meditation in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami where Lew has been a featured speaker.
Lew’s first book, One God Clapping, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and winner of the PEN Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence.
Publishers Weekly hailed him as “a perceptive thinker” for his “refreshing and sometimes startling perspective” in his last book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.
Also by Alan Lew
8 Monologs (poems), 1980
One God Clapping:
The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi
(with Sherril Jaffe), 1999
This Is Real and You
Are Completely Unprepared:
The Days of Awe as a Journey
of Transformation, 2003
The Treasure in the Oven
SOMETIMES WE CAN LEARN MORE FROM THE MISREADING of a story than we can from the story itself. So it is with the oft-told Yiddish tale about Azyk, the son of Reb Yekl of Cracow. Azyk dreamed one night that he saw a great treasure hidden under the Praga side of the Warsaw bridge. So he woke up early the next morning and went to Warsaw. When he got to the bridge, he wanted to go to the spot where he had dreamed the treasure was hidden, but there was a watchman standing guard there. Azyk paced back and forth on the bridge all day long and into the night, but the watchman never budged. In fact he finally became aware of Azyk and his pacing, so he approached him and asked him what he was doing there. Azyk told him the truth. He had come to the Warsaw bridge because he had dreamed the night before that a treasure was hidden there. That's funny, the watchman said, I dreamed of a great treasure last night too, only this one was hidden in the oven of a house belonging to a man named Azyk, the son of Reb Yekl of Cracow. Astonished, Azyk turned right around and went home, and sure enough, when he opened his oven door, he found a great treasure there and became a very rich man.
It's true, of course, as this story suggests, that we often look far afield for the things we value most, when they are usually found close to home, but this story makes a number of other important points as well. Azyk has the courage to follow his dream, and the wisdom not to give up on it even when it seems to have carried him in the wrong direction. And he is open enough to learn from the dream of another, even when it comes from a different people and a different religious tradition, in this case the non-Jewish watchman.
But in recent years this story has been told—and more important, mistold—to make a very particular point. In all the versions of this story I have heard over the last twenty years, the treasure was hidden not in Azyk's oven, but rather beneath his house, and these versions of the story usually end with Azyk's digging up the buried treasure. There is a reason for this recasting of the story; it is usually told as an object lesson for the many Jews who have turned to other religions—to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and others—for spiritual gratification. The story is invoked to say to them, Look, you have a great treasure buried beneath your own house. You've followed your dream of spiritual riches far and wide—all the way to the Warsaw bridge—but the treasure has been hidden beneath your own house all this time. Why travel elsewhere? Why travel far and wide, when all you have to do is dig up the treasure that has been beneath your own house all the while?
Why the change in the ending of the story? I am convinced that it is because in this analogy the treasure buried beneath the house represents Kabala, the esoteric, mystical branch of Judaism, and the secret or buried teachings, the ones that have to be dug up. The people who tell this version of the story are saying, in effect, You don't need Buddhism, you don't need Yoga, you don't need meditation; you have Kabala, a treasure buried right in your own backyard!
But in the original version of the story, the treasure is not buried beneath the house. It is not a secret. It is hidden in the oven, in the kitchen, in the most frequently used room in the house. It is hidden in plain sight. It doesn't need to be dug up at all. All one has to do is go to the most obvious, least exotic place in the house and simply open the door. In my opinion this story reflects our spiritual reality much more precisely than the altered version.
There is an open secret embedded in the sacred literature of Judaism. This literature—the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, Midrash, Kabala, and the Teachings of the Hasidic Masters—is generally read as the wellspring of Jewish communal values and religious observance. But there is a much deeper and more universal message sitting right in plain view, on the surface of these texts—a message largely unseen for the three thousand years of their existence. If one knows what to look for, the classical sources of Judaism offer a trenchant guide to spiritual practice. The striking thing is that we find this guidebook not only in the esoteric teachings of Judaism, where we might expect to find them, but also right in front of our faces in some of Judaism's most familiar material—in the well-known stories and teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. In other words, we find these teachings not buried beneath the house, but right in the middle of it, right in the kitchen, in the most obvious place of all, where anyone could find them.
At Makor Or, the meditation center I established in San Francisco at the turn of the millennium with my dear friend Norman Fischer, we have emphasized the considerable spiritual power of traditional, normative Jewish practice—prayer, Torah study, and a deep immersion in the Sabbath—and the equally impressive capacity of mindfulness meditation to open us to this power. The practice we have developed at Makor Or is not based on dubious re-creations of Kabalistic meditation practices that may or may not have ever existed, but rather on the rock-solid certainty of two intact traditions—mindfulness meditation and normative Judaism.
Most contemporary experiments in Jewish meditation or spirituality have relied heavily on Kabala. At Makor Or we have tended to shy away from Kabala for a number of reasons. First of all, almost all the Kabalistic texts that we have in our possession speak primarily about the fruits of Kabala. They describe the mystical states to which Kabala transports us in vivid detail, but for the most part the journey itself is missing. The nuts and bolts of Kabalistic practice are never found in these texts. These practices were rarely reduced to writing; rather they were handed down person to person by an unbroken chain of teachers. One of the overlooked consequences of the Holocaust is that this chain was largely broken. Most of the major teachers of Kabala still lived in Europe at the time of the Holocaust, and in far too many cases the techniques and practices they bore in their person perished when they did.
Contemporary teachers of Kabala have often engaged in speculative attempts to reinvent Kabalistic practices, or to give Kabalistic subtitles to meditative practices they learned elsewhere, particularly from Tibetan and Vipassana Buddhism. It has become increasingly clear over the past several decades that what is really essential in spiritual work is the daily, disciplined practice of spirituality—not the highs we might experience at a weekend retreat or a workshop or a hike at Yosemite, but the essential work of connecting ourselves to the transcendent every day of our lives.
What we have found at Makor Or is that we don't need to get fancy or exotic about spiritual practice. The particular moment of Jewish spiritual practice—prayer, study, and the observance of Shabbat—is sufficiently charged on its own. When we are opened to this moment by mindfulness meditation, we begin to see its full richness. And wherever we look in the normative tradition of Jewish sacred literature, we begin to see references to mindfulness practice. In fact we begin to see that right there in plain sight is a guide to an entire spiritual practice, a path that carries us inexorably toward ourselves and our mission in life.
I was a serious practitioner of Zen meditation for ten years. Then I became a Conservative rabbi and a seriously observant Jew for another fifteen years after that. Norman Fischer is a Zen master and the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and has been a devoted Jew all his life. As a boy he attended minyan every day and studied Talmud with his rabbi, with whom he has sustained an important spiritual connection. For the past ten years, first at workshops and retreats and then finally in our own meditation center, we have been practicing mindfulness meditation side by side with ordinary Jewish spiritual activities. The members of our formal practice period meditate together early in the morning and then go next door to my synagogue to attend daily minyan. They meditate on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and then go next door to attend Shabbat services. They meditate in the evenings before our weekly Torah study sessions. Over the years, in the course of these activities, we have used dozens of classical Jewish texts to support the integration of meditation into Jewish contexts. Laying these texts end to end, we began to see that taken as a whole they delineated a clear spiritual path of their own—a kind of soul within the body of Jewish ritual, a spiritual companion practice standing side by side with normative Judaism and supporting it, helping it to reach its full natural depth.
Be Still and Get Going presents these texts and the spiritual richness—the practice—that lies right on their surface. In doing so I hope to illuminate an indispensable resource both for Jews seeking to embrace their tradition in a deeper and more authentic way, and for anyone on the spiritual path seeking ancient wisdom for support.
THE PRACTICE POINTS
Since in my work as a teacher I have consistently stressed the primacy of daily spiritual practice, I have derived specific practice points from each chapter of this book and placed them at the end of the chapter. In the early chapters, the practice points offer detailed instructions on meditation itself. Later there are briefer and more specific exercises designed to help us focus on the particular practice issues raised by the chapter in question. This book is not intended as an exercise in theoretical theology. It is very much about practice—specifically as embedded in normative Jewish texts. I hope the practice points will serve as a guide for readers who wish to try this practice out for themselves.
1. Taking Leave
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
I often ask this question at the beginning of a workshop just to get a sense of where everyone is coming from. The answers are usually quite various. Meditation is becoming still. Meditation is becoming more focused and concentrated. Meditation is becoming more aware of yourself. Meditation is becoming relaxed. Meditation is becoming more aware of God, becoming centered, becoming deeper, becoming awake. Clearly meditation is many things to people, but it is also always one thing. Meditation is always becoming. Meditation is always transformation. Meditation always moves us from one place to another; from unconsciousness to awareness, from tension to relaxation, from being scattered to being centered, from a shallow relationship with our environment and ourselves to a deeper one, from sleep to wakefulness, from a sense of God's absence to the sense that God was in this place all along and I didn't know it!
There's another question I usually ask at the beginning of a workshop, for similar reasons: Standing on one foot (as succinctly as you possibly can), tell me what the Torah—the five books of Moses—is all about. The answers to this question are equally various. Sunday school Jews will tell me that the Torah is the history of our people. Committed Christians and Jews will tell me that the Torah is a guide to living, a compendium of divine moral law. Jews and Christians who have spent a lot of time listening to their pastors and rabbis explicate the Bible at religious services will tell me that the Torah is about human rights and environmentalism. They will tell me it is about psychology and family relationships. They will tell me that the Torah is about whatever it was that was discussed on the op-ed page of the New York Times the week before.
I don't really disagree with any of these characterizations. The Torah is infinitely deep—a prism with a million faces—and does have something useful to tell us on all these subjects. But if I were to stand on one foot and tell you what the Torah was about, I would say something quite different. I would say that the Torah is the record of the human encounter with God—the transcendent, the absolute. To me this is the one capsule description that fits every page of the Torah. Every page of the Torah either describes this encounter or prepares us for it or discusses its implications. And like meditation, this encounter is always about transformation. Each encounter with God transforms us, always in a different way but always in the same way as well—by engaging us in the act of becoming who and what we are in the deepest possible sense, by carrying us through the present moment of our experience and into the measureless.
There are three texts in the Torah that describe this encounter most explicitly and at greatest length. They are the beginning of Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-19), when Jacob dreams of a ladder planted in the earth and reaching heavenward; the account of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man in the middle of the night on the bank of the Yabok River (Genesis 32:25-33); and Moses's famous vision of the burning bush and his ensuing conversation with God about it (Exodus 3:1-16). Not surprisingly, these three encounter texts are also transformation texts. In fact each describes an important stage in the very kind of transformation that meditation effects in us. Not only that, but when read chronologically these three texts describe these stages of transformation in sequence—in precisely the order we are likely to experience them in meditation.
But before we get to all this, it must be pointed out that these three texts have another important element in common: the way they begin. Each of these texts begins with a significant leave-taking, and the Torah is at some pains to make sure we don't miss this point. The story of Jacob's ladder begins with the words Vayetze Ya'akov mi-beir shavah, vayeileich haranah—"And Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran." According to tradition, the Torah is the perfectly economical speech of God and never wastes a word. Yet there appear to be several superfluous words in this account of Jacob's departure from Beersheba. Last week I traveled from San Francisco to New York, and when friends asked me where I was going, I didn't say, "I am leaving San Francisco and going to New York." I simply said, "I am going to New York." I left it to them to infer from this that I was also leaving San Francisco, as it would be impossible for me to go to New York without doing so. I would have only mentioned that I was leaving San Francisco if there were something significant in the leaving itself. This passage begins "And Jacob left Beersheba" because the Torah wants to draw our attention to the leave-taking itself.
And so it is with the second text we will examine, the wrestling match between Jacob and that mysterious ish—that unidentified man who might be an angel, a demon, a prefiguring of Esau, Jacob's shadow self, or just a man (sometimes, after all, a man is just a man). This passage begins with Jacob dispatching his family to the other side of the Yabok River. Then we have the words Vayivater Ya'akov levado—"And Jacob was left alone." These words are also superfluous (if everyone else is on the other side of the river, then of course he is alone), except insofar as they point to his aloneness—to the fact that he has left everyone he knows, everyone from whom he derives a sense of safety and security.
It should also be noted that in both of these texts, Jacob is running for his life. In the first story he is running from his brother, Esau, who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright, and in the second, from his uncle Lavan, who has threatened to kill him twenty years later.
This motif continues in the Moses story. Here we have a kind of double leave-taking. First he leaves Egypt, running for his life from Pharaoh, who has threatened to kill him because of an Egyptian he has slain. So he flees to Midian, marries, and becomes a shepherd there, and then immediately leaves again, taking his flocks off to achar ha-midbar—literally, "the back of the desert," the farthest reaches of the wilderness—as far away from everyone else as he can get. Obviously the Torah is trying to emphasize his leaving once again. He doesn't just leave Egypt, he leaves Midian too, as decisively as he possibly can.
All this is because the Torah is trying to communicate to us that leave-taking itself is extremely significant. It is the prerequisite to any encounter with God. Most such encounters in the Torah, and in biblical literature, and in all the sacred literatures of the world, are preceded by a leave-taking. Very often there is no clear destination mentioned. The very first words God speaks to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, are "Lech lecha"—"Just leave." Leave your father's house, your birthplace, your culture, everything that has ever made you feel comfortable and secure, and go "el eretz asher arecha"—"to a land which I will show you later"—to a destination that I will not even trouble myself to identify for you now, because the point is simply to leave without any secure sense of destination, the point is to take a leap of faith.
Leave-taking—home-leaving—always precedes the Divine Encounter, because when we leave home, when we leave everything that is familiar to us, we leave convention, and most significantly, we leave habit, for God is never encountered in either convention or habit. God is encountered in reality, precisely the ground of being—the present-moment reality that convention and habit obscure. When we leave home, when we leave our habitual relationship to the world, we see things freshly, we become flush with our lives, we see reality and not the habitual idea of reality we have settled into at home. We see the thing itself and not the idea of the thing.
There was a famous experiment conducted at Princeton University during the 1960s, when Western psychologists were first beginning to "discover" meditation and the other Eastern spiritual arts. Three separate groups were hooked up to devices that measured galvanic skin response. The first was a group of ordinary Americans sitting in a room, doing nothing special. The second was a group of Siddha Yoga adepts in the midst of a meditative trance. The third was a group of Zen masters doing zazen—Zen mindfulness meditation. A bell was rung for each of these groups at regular intervals—every fifteen or thirty seconds—and their responses were measured. The first group, the ordinary citizens sitting around in a room, registered a very strong response to the first ringing of the bell, a somewhat weaker response to the second ringing, and then an increasingly diminishing response to each subsequent ringing. Finally they registered no response at all. The bell continued to ring at regular intervals, but as far as the people in this room were concerned, it might as well not have been ringing at all. They had become habituated to the sound, and it was as if it weren't there. This in fact is how we live much of our lives. We become so habituated to our experience that we stop processing it at all. It is as if it weren't there, or as if we weren't there experiencing it.
Just for the record, the Siddha Yogis, in trance meditation, never registered any response at all, not even to the first ringing of the bell. They were entirely elsewhere the whole time. The Zen masters, on the other hand, registered the maximum possible response—complete shock—with every ringing of the bell. They never became habituated to their experience. Their mindfulness seemed to put them in a permanent state of leave-taking, unwaveringly flush with their experience.
My wife is a novelist. Her first novel, This Flower Only Blooms Every Hundred Years, was a record of every vacation she had ever taken in her life. She decided on this narrative strategy because she realized that when you are on vacation, you are subject to neither the conventions and habits of the place you are visiting, nor the conventions and habits of the place you have left. That's why we love vacations so. Free of convention and habit, we are flush with our experience. Things seem vivid and fresh. Life stops rushing by beneath our radar screen and we actually begin to feel it.
Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, used to recommend a rather strange practice, which I actually perform from time to time to the consternation of everyone I know. Whenever anyone asks us a question—even the simplest question imaginable, like "What's your favorite color?" or "What kind of music do you like?"—we should train ourselves to respond immediately with the phrase "I don't know." Otherwise we find ourselves trotting out habitual answers, not the way we feel or think at the moment, but the way we felt or thought long ago.
Perhaps someone asks us how we feel about capital punishment. Usually we do not really answer that question at all. In all likelihood we have no idea how we feel about capital punishment at the moment, because whenever someone asks us we trot out the brilliant answer we formulated fifteen years ago—our habitual answer, one that worked very well back then and continues to dazzle whenever we pull it out. But as brilliant as it may be, it is obscuring how we feel about the matter now, the answer to that question which is waiting to arise in this moment. We need to effect a leave-taking. If we want to discover how we feel and what we think about capital punishment now, we have to let go of that brilliant answer. We have to say "I don't know" and spend a moment or two in the void, having let go of our old habitual, secure response, and having no idea what will arise in its place. This is the only way we can get at the truth of the moment, the only way we can continue to grow and evolve.
Passover, the time of the great liberation (the exodus from Egypt), and Shavuot, the time of the great revelation (the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai), are connected by a period of fifty days—a week of weeks plus one day more—which we count in ritual fashion, in order to bind the first holiday to the second. Why do we do this? According to the Sefat Emet, the great Hasidic commentator, we connect the time of our liberation to the time of our revelation because the revelation we experience on Shavuot is precisely proportional to the liberation—the leave-taking—we experience on Passover. We have to let go of yesterday's Torah—the Torah we know by habit and rote—in order to make room for the Torah peculiar to this moment, the particular truth we can only know when we have left habit and convention behind and are flush with our experience. This, according to the Sefat Emet, is why we empty our house of chametz—of leavened grains and by extension all grain products—in the days preceding Passover. This emptying—this letting go of the flour that has become stale—is a tangible representation of the spiritual liberation we hope to achieve. We must leave, we must let go of that which is stale, in order to make room for that which is fresh and new and arising out of this moment.
But the characters in these biblical texts do not just leave, they run. Specifically they run for their lives. Jacob runs away because Esau wants to kill him, and twenty years later he runs away because Lavan wants to kill him; and Moses runs away from Pharaoh, who wants to kill him. Why are these people running for their lives? I once asked this question at a workshop I was conducting with my good friend Sylvia Boorstein. She had a wonderful answer. According to Sylvia, they are running for their lives because without this kind of direct and mindful experience of our lives, it is as if we are dead. The bell continues to ring, but it is as if we are not there, as if we are not experiencing our lives, as if our lives are going on without us. So we see these biblical figures taking leave of a kind of living death. Entombed in habit and convention, they are dead to their lives. Taking leave, they are literally running for their lives—toward their lives—rushing toward an embrace of their actual present-tense experience.
I think there is something else going on here too. I think we see all these figures taking their leave at gunpoint, as it were, because no sane person ever voluntarily leaves the places and things that make him feel comfortable and secure. We leave the comfortable, the secure, the habitual, only when forced to do so, and the proximate cause of our leaving is very often a matter of life and death. What is it that usually disrupts our habitual patterns and brings us face-to-face with our lives? Some crisis, some trauma, often of the life-threatening sort. We lose a loved one, or we are faced with a life-threatening illness ourselves. We lose a job, or our spouse leaves us. These are the kinds of events that usually lead us to a radical break with the pat assumptions of our lives. We don't make this kind of break for fun.
Spiritual activity such as meditation replicates leave-taking for us. Simply to begin to meditate is to leave the way we ordinarily live, and every conscious expulsion of breath is a leave-taking of sorts as well. But this activity in and of itself is unlikely to bring us to the real point of departure. Only life itself and the incredibly powerful disruptive forces it inevitably carries with it seem capable of doing that. The point of spiritual practice, I think, is simply to prepare us for the great moments of leave-taking life will bring us, and to help us make constructive use of them. The traumas and crises of life don't automatically bring us to the point of a spiritual breakthrough. They are just as likely to crush and embitter us. Spiritual practice helps us to identify the moments of crisis as opportunities for leave-taking, for being flush with our lives again, for seeing the world afresh, for encountering God.
A few final words about the leave-taking theme: As I mentioned earlier, this is not a phenomenon peculiar to either the Bible or to Judaism. Leave-taking is a universal prerequisite to the encounter with God. It is part of the archetypal human religious experience. In all the religions of the world, we see a single figure taking leave, going off by himself, quite often into the wilderness, and experiencing the transcendent there. He then returns to the tribe, and his experience becomes the basis of a new religion.
So it was that the Buddha, driven by the discovery of suffering all around him in the world, left his parents' home, wandered the world alone, and finally found enlightenment alone beneath the Bo tree. And so it was that Jesus, after his baptism, went into the wilderness alone for forty days and forty nights and returned with a New Testament. And so it was that Muhammad fled Mecca and went to Medina, at the farthest reaches of the Arabian desert—achar ha-midbar—to express the prophecy that would eventually become Islam. The Torah certainly knows this archetype. Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are prime exemplars of it. Each goes off by himself, encounters God, and brings both the news and the perceived consequences of the encounter back to his people.
But the seminal revelation of Judaism, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, departs from this archetypal model significantly and in so doing advances the universal archetype. Here both the leave-taking—the exodus from Egypt—and the revelation at Sinai are irredeemably communal. The entire people of Israel leaves Egypt, and the entire people of Israel receives the Torah at Sinai, and the religion that flows out of these events will perforce be irredeemably communal as well. From that moment at Sinai forward, leaving the community becomes a taboo. Al tifros min ha-tzibor—"Never separate yourself from the community under any circumstances"—the rabbis of the Talmud warn us severely. Now the idea of leave-taking needs to be reinterpreted. Now it becomes an
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