Whenever I get to this time of year, I inevitably feel that I have squandered my summer vacation in some way: once again, I did not sufficiently achieve some relaxed but meaningful state of mind or state of being (are such "states" analogous?) that I claimed to have wanted to achieve as school ended and summer began.
That said, fall is about to begin, and even a new year from several perspectives, and that means that there's another opportunity to "get it right." So this blog entry begins with a question to which I hope you'll respond:
How do you personally navigate these transitions that have so much familiarity
and regularity -- but that also carry with them the possibility of discovering a
new and better way of being and doing? How do you use them to make change?
The problem is I am far better at seizing opportunities to do and produce than to relax and enjoy. My summer vacation history offers proof of this.
For years, I have carried with me an ideal of summer as a more balanced time during which spurts of intense work -- participation in summer institutes as either a participant or faculty member, working on professional development and teaching plans for the fall, trying to learn something new on my own -- were supposed to be balanced by lazier, less productive times during which I felt creative and mentally free. The problem is that I invariably created imbalance by choosing to work harder and more often than I probably needed to.
Perhaps the flaw is that my construction of this easy alternation was just too artificial: the will may want to choose to live fully in both the dutiful and unfettered worlds at the moments of one's choosing, but the mind just can't jump so easily through those scheduled and non-scheduled hoops. Or maybe the mind -- my mind -- has been on to me for some time and detected years ago some inauthenticity or some self-deception in my own construction of what I wanted and why.
I was thinking about this yesterday as I went for my usual walk along Black's Creek and the salt marshes adjacent to Wollaston Beach. I had gone there hoping that what I saw would be beautiful in the way it had been when I drove by the same place last Friday afternoon -- when it was windswept under a sky of metallic, autumnal blue. But that wasn't what I found. Instead, the day was completely, unabashedly, uncompromisingly summery. The slightest of refreshing breezes accompanied me as I walked along the completely placid creek at its lowest tidal point. It couldn't have been lovelier; I even had to stop to take a picture. So I had to wonder: why had I gone there wanting it to look and feel a particular way? I knew it was a beautiful day when I walked out of my door: why hadn't I simply looked forward to whatever kind of Black's Creek beauty I would find when I got there?
Clearly, there is some problem of misalignment going on for me: my unconscious self has known it for a while, even as my conscious self has been trying to manage me into some kind of working contentment that is both productive and restorative. Whatever partial breakthroughs I have had have come through a combination of writing this blog and talking to many of you about it -- some of you via e-mail, Facebook, and comments on this blog itself, others of you in phone and face-to-face conversations. I am very grateful to you.
In late July, as a result of these discussions and interactions, which seemed to suggest links between education and spirituality time and time again, I determined that I would follow the course of reflection and journal-writing laid out in a book called 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holy Days by Simon Jacobson. This book was recommended to me a couple of years ago by a Catholic ex-boyfriend who wanted to learn more about Judaism because his daughter was about to marry a Jewish man.
This book strives to help Jews of all sorts of connections and lost connections to Judaism get themselves into position to take full advantage of the opportunities for meaning and reconnection -- or deeper, renewed connection -- that the High Holy Days offer. The way it does this is by offering opportunities for reflection in conjunction with Jewish wisdom and texts chosen and arranged to teach and to stimulate soul-searching. In fact, it moves all over the place in terms of referring to biblical, rabbinic, historical, and mystical Jewish sources (which are, of course, all connected -- though my knowledge is too limited to make a lot of sense of many of these connections).
Some of the included texts have made more intellectual sense to me than others, some texts have resonated more personally with me than others, and some exercises have felt much more uncomfortable than others -- but I've pushed myself to keep going. Slowly I've been understanding more. I don't believe this book is single-handedly going to solve my misalignment problem -- I live in a world that's secular as well as Jewish, and the authors know that I am like many of its readers in that respect -- but I am convinced that the new understandings I'm developing little by little will help. I am also convinced that my problem is multi-faceted, and one of the facets is spiritual -- so that for me, some of the solutions will be Jewish. At the moment, I'm looking at its multiplicity of facets as opportunities. We'll see if I continue to feel that way.
One of the ideas that comforts me most is the very important Jewish notion of teshuvah. As the book explains,
The Hebrew word for 'repentance' -- teshuvah -- actually implies the opposite.
When you repent, the implication is that you're leaving the wrong path, regretting
that you ever took that turn in your life. But teshuvah literally means 'return,'
which implies that you are not leaving something, you are coming back to something.
This is not to suggest that there is anything inappropriate in repentance. Before
you can embrace the right path, you must leave the wrong path, you must regret
having taken it, you must go away from it.
But return is much more profound. It's not just going away from bad behavior,
it is going back to your true self, your Divine soul. It's . . . returning to the essence
that was always pure -- it is returning to G-d (48).
Where God is placed -- inside of me, outside of me, a combination -- is something I'm very much trying understand. But the idea that I should be trying to head toward something true, authentic, and therefore good is something I can wrap my head around, even if I'm not sure how to get there and even if I'm not used to thinking of it as divine. It also feels natural to me that the true thing is already there needing for me to uncover it, get at it, get "myself" out of the way of it. Finally, it both scares and gratifies me to think of this possibility: I keep remembering how Glinda, the Good Witch of the East, explains to Dorothy that she always had the power to go home, but she wouldn't have believed it any earlier in her journey. It's not the first time I've wondered if The Wizard of Oz ought to be considered a sacred text of some sort.
So back to this whole Wizard-of-Oz-related question of not being able to understand earlier. What is it that gets in the way -- at least for me? The best way I can explain it is as conflict that involves three words that begin with the letter "p": peace, productivity, and pride. Peace and productivity -- both of which I cherish -- seem often to be in conflict in my life, and because pride in my own conscientiousness routinely tips that balance toward productivity, I fail to take adequate advantage of summer's unique opportunities for spontaneity, relaxation, and pleasure -- all of which contribute importantly to a sense of peace.
The bottom line is that I feel good about myself when I feel a sense of purpose, and when I'm being productive in conjunction with that purpose. If that purpose has something to do with "being a good person and helping others," I cannot only justify my endless productivity, but feel very good about myself -- maybe too good about myself. An addiction to productivity is bound to lead me to exhaustion -- and also to guilt when I fear that I am devoting "too much time" to more personal and pleasurable pursuits. I need to get better at freely being lazy and purposeless when that would be most restorative. I need to value my well-being at least as much as I value that of others.
The exercises in the 60 Days book have also taught me that while I tend to be good at being supportive of others, I often resist the support of others -- and I'm not sure what that's all about. At work, especially given my senior status, my role is to provide support -- so it may be that some of these expectations and work habits bleed over into other areas of my life. But do I on some more profound level feel that I should be more self-sufficient than others -- which leads me to conceal that I also need support? Or do I feel that everyone should be more self-sufficient -- the kind of Yankee ideal that one can't help but encounter in New England? Or does some part of me doubt the wisdom and sincerity of some people who are trying to support me? These questions do not make me feel good. They all suggest that there's some kind of unexamined pride and doubt that may be contributing to my misalignment problem. Drawing the line between feeling good about the "good work" that I do and feeling too good about it is going to take some real soul-searching -- I see that now.
There's no question in my mind that pride-- anybody's pride -- is potentially a very powerful obstacle in the path of teshuvah -- and that teshuvah is an especially good spiritual and psycho-social goal for a year of anticipated major change. So far the 60 Days book is doing right by me -- it even cycles back to particular reflection topics in different ways after we've been given other opportunities for learning and reflection: the authors know we need multiple chances to tackle some of these challenges, and the book reminds us continually that all of our most sincere efforts are greeted with compassion, love, and respect.* I already think that I may need to do the whole set of exercises again after the 60 days are over. My overwhelming sense is that the book is directing us at one thing -- God, I'm sure -- but it's giving us so many ways to get there -- like a whole bunch of trails that all lead to the summit of the same mountain.
Yesterday when I got just beyond Black's Creek into the part of Merrymount Park that is all salt marshes, I noticed that almost all of the marsh grass was matted and pointed, going in all different directions -- as if had been combed by the wind and then slicked into place to create and maintain a kind of punk, spiky look. The photo at the left shows a few examples, but the grass of the entire salt marsh was styled in this way. It was quite spectacular to see this strange, beautiful -- but also completely natural --science fiction landscape extending in all directions.
Like that green grass, I am still very much going in all different directions -- both natural and weird, I think -- but I feel for the first time that I am seeing the obstacles much more clearly, and a number of them are me -- which means I have a certain power to tackle them. Now that I realize that my overly developed sense of duty and responsibility to others, and my excessive pride in it, may be contributing to the problem, I'd love to believe that simply naming the problem would mean I could command it away, banish it before turning the August calendar page and encountering September's clean, bright possibilities. Hence the silly title of this posting.
My 60 Days book reminds me regularly that changing patterns and removing obstacles is never easy work and that I must tackle my work with real compassion for myself. I feel I could use some more help and wisdom, or just flashes of insight, from others -- from you.
So back to the request to you that I bolded in pink in the early part of this posting. How do you personally go about changing the patterns and removing the obstacles that get in your way of being who you need to be and doing what you need to do? I would love to hear your experiences and any advice you have. I would also love to hear your comments about what I wrote above. Thanks so much.
And L'Shanah Tovah, whether you're Jewish or not!
* I suspect a lot of good spiritual teachers practice the basics of Teaching for Understanding.