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Mussar and Mindfulness

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

           Rosh HaShanah- what a gift! What a luxury! What a joy! Looking around this room, we are each so grateful for the blessing of our physical well-being that enables us to be here, and for the blessing of community- sharing the start of this holy season with friends and loved ones. Tonight we begin a 10-day journey exploring the state of our souls and our relationships. Throughout the year, we are overwhelmed by the busy-ness of our lives and our many commitments, made exponentially greater by the miraculous technology that eases our lives as it simultaneously consumes them. During these Yamim Noraim, these awesome Days of Awe, our focus turns inward. We remind ourselves of the spark of the divine, our holy essence, the soul which gives ultimate meaning to our days. We remove the dust that has accumulated during the year and polish our soul so that it radiates light once again. Jewish tradition teaches that we each have a yetzer ha-tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha-ra, an evil inclination. We need to be vigilant each and every day in reinforcing our yetzer ha-tov and resisting the yetzer ha-ra. Our souls are kind of like a garden- if we are not watering them and removing the weeds, the garden will not flourish.

         There is a story of a deeply pious individual who, upon awakening in the morning, heard an inner voice- his yetzer ha-ra, tempting him, “You are such a tsaddik, isn’t it okay if you just rest in bed- it’s so early.” Responding to his evil inclination, he said, “Well, it can’t be that early if you’re already up!” Tonight we remind ourselves that the choice between sin and holiness is in our hands. We take stock of who we are and renew our commitment to who we want to be. We truly have amazing power to grow spiritually and thereby bring blessing to the world. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that another person’s material needs are our spiritual needs. Learning to focus on the needs of others is fundamental to our own spiritual growth.

         Oren Jay Sofer, in his book Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication offers 3 basic steps to effectively communicating with and truly hearing the needs of others. They are: 1. Lead with presence. 2. Come from curiosity and care. 3. Focus on what matters. Let’s explore what he means and how we can use this wisdom to deepen our connections with each other in the year that is just beginning. I mentioned the many distractions of contemporary life. It is not so easy to focus on just one thing. I, for one, would never consider JUST eating without reading or looking at my computer or the phone.

         The idea of “leading with presence” is not so easy as it sounds. What does it mean to be fully present to another? What does good conversation look and feel like? We intuitively know- there is eye contact and head nodding, deep breathing and moments to pause before responding. Wouldn’t you just love to be heard and understood by someone who was fully present in the interaction? Wouldn’t the gift of being fully present be an amazing gift to give to others? Noticing our breath, slowing down, exploring nature together- all of these are ways to become more aware and be more in the moment. It may be helpful to remind yourself of this acronym for the word WAIT- “Why Am I Talking?” Listening to others is a balm to their soul and can actually alleviate pain and suffering. Remind yourself- it’s okay to pause, take a breath, and formulate your thoughts before responding, especially in difficult conversations.

         The second critical element is- coming from curiosity and care- Blame, shame, and judgment are natural, visceral responses. It has wisely been said that no one cares what you know until they know that you care. No wonder the rabbis teach us to give others the benefit of the doubt, to judge favorably. If we truly take the time to understand the perspective of others, it will go a long way towards alleviating conflict and misunderstanding. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Our tendency is to avoid challenging conversations because we want to avoid conflict. We fear that we will alienate others and cause more harm than good. Yet, the message of these High Holy Days is that we need to find gentle ways of renewing our connections with each other, even if that means addressing difficulties or challenges. If we can’t find a way to be honest with each other, we must reconcile ourselves to only the most superficial relationships. It is an act of love and trust to navigate relationship challenges. Resentment will leak out one way or another, and poison our connections. “Intimacy,” writes Sofer, “is born in conflict. Difference can bring us together and help us to know one another.” Bringing with us the intention to understand is a huge part of conflict resolution. He reminds us that, “Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To understand means “to stand beneath.” To comprehend. . . we need to be open to new ways of seeing.” Coming from curiosity and care means letting go of our own needs and understanding the needs of others, it means to “stand under,” to truly listen with open-ness and humility.

         In his book, Sofer tells the story of a former Marine who was studying Aikido. Despite the fact that Aikido is supposed to be peaceful, this individual was most anxious to test his skills in a combative environment. He thought he had an opportunity on a Tokyo subway, when a drunk day laborer entered a subway car, hurling insults and curses. The Marine was about to leap into action, when a little old man called to the laborer from the other side of the car. “Hey! Come here and talk to me.” “Why should I talk to you?” the man replied? “What have you been drinking?” the elderly man persisted. “Sake, and it’s none of your goddamn business.” The wise elder persisted, engaging the laborer in conversation. He shared how much he and his wife loved sitting in their garden at sunset and sharing a little bottle of sake. “I’m sure you have a lovely wife too,” he said. The laborer’s eyes teared up- “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, no job, no money, nowhere to go. I’m so ashamed.” The story ends with the laborer’s head in the old man’s lap, allowing his matted hair to be stroked and his soul to be comforted. Such is the transformative power of coming from caring and curiosity. Lead with presence. Come from curiosity and care.

         The third step is focusing on what matters. Focusing on what matters is the primary task of the High Holidays. Our needs, the needs of others, everything we say and do is an attempt to meet needs. Focusing on needs is focusing on what matters. When we see others as, just like us, images of the Holy One struggling to survive and to meet their own needs, we nurture empathy and build bridges. Sometimes it’s not easy to articulate our own needs, nor is it obvious what needs are motivating others. It’s good to practice seeing the world through the lens of needs. Asking ourselves the question – what matters most to me? What matters most to someone else?- will help us connect to fundamental values. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that, “When you count others’ happiness as your own, your chances of being happy increase six billion to one.” Recognizing the universality of needs and coming to peace with unmet needs is vital to our spiritual growth. We have a much better chance of getting our needs met when we are clear about what they are and when we can ask in ways that are non-threatening and demonstrate that we understand and have empathy for the needs of others.

         Sofer quotes Marshall Rosenberg’s advice, “Ask others to meet your needs like flowers for your table, not air for your lungs.” One of my teachers, Nancy Weiss, uses the expression to “pet your heart.” I love that image of comforting ourselves and feeling empathy for our own needs and feelings. So, the lesson is that we can actually becoming better people- kinder, more patient and caring, generous and compassionate, just by working on it. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s why we have these Aseret Y’may Teshuvah, these 10 Awesome Days. Just by opening our hearts, by being fully present, coming from a place of care, and focusing on what truly matters. The High Holidays are a blessing, a gift, a luxury- let’s use this time wisely to dust off our souls and renew our commitment to our highest and holiest selves.

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