As I was walking out of the sanctuary at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah services I was greeted with a happy New Year hug from David, a friend and fellow congregant. Like me, David finds great joy in both a Buddhist and Jewish practice, (there are lots of us, and we’re typically referred to as JuBus) and today we revisited the idea of establishing a group meditation practice at our temple.
As we discussed what we envisioned, I told him that we’d be better off talking logistics at a later date, because while I felt uplifted by the moving day at synagogue, I was in the midst of developing a really bad headache and wanted to get home to take care of it. David is very wise and kind, and he suggested that when I get home, I sit with my headache and listen to what it might be saying.
“Ask your headache what color it is, what it’s asking of you, and try join with your pain,” he advised. “That often helps,” he added. David has a way about him, like an old wise soul in a young man’s body, and so I figured I’d give it a try.
I got in my car, purposely left the radio off, and as I made my way into the traffic, I began talking to my headache.
“What color are you?” I asked. Wow, my headache really wanted to talk, because he, or she, not sure of pronouns here, jumped right in.
“Earthy forest green,” my headache responded. I looked over to the passenger seat expecting to see a talking head, and then set my eyes back on the road.
“Earthy green, huh?” That sounds environmentally correct, I thought. It made me feel a little less guilty about being at the grocery store the day before and watching my groceries being loaded into lots of paper bags while the women behind me took out canvas bag after canvas bag in preparation for her order. Earthy green, I could live with that. Already I thought I detected a little relief on the frontal part of my head.
“With dark mud weaved throughout and gnarled brown roots cutting across the earthy green,” my headache jumped in.
Oh. I. Didn’t. See. That. Coming.
I wanted to tell my headache, “You had me at earthy green, but you had to keep going, didn’t ya?” When I visualized what my headache was describing, all I could think of was the severed head in a horror flick, moldy green and muddy and awful enough to make me stop eating that handful of popcorn I had readied in my hand. (I mean, as long as I was imagining myself in a movie theatre, I might as well imagine the popcorn too.)
“Maybe I needed a new line of questioning,” I thought as I waited for the red light to turn green. Earthy green. Muddy green with roots.
I traveled through the intersection as my head continued to pound. Trying to remember the line of questioning David had suggested, I continued on.
“So headache,” I asked in my most empathic voice, “What is your pain trying to tell me? What is it you want?” I asked.
“Excedrin,” it answered.
Apparently, my headache has a very Western mind. And in this case, I had to agree. When I got home, I went straight to the medicine cabinet and popped two Excedrin’s in my mouth. A little while later, experiencing great headache relief, I thought about pain and how we come to understand that experience, how we understand the inevitable pain and suffering that is part of life.
In Buddhism, it’s called the Monkey Mind, as our mind jumps from thought to thought, like a monkey, weaving together stories from the past, or imagining stories into the future. Too often, we fail to simply be in the moment and have the experience that we are having right then, with no critiques, or re-writes, or judgments. For example, I can have my headache, and just experience what it feels like having the headache. All things arise and pass away; this is just what it feels like when I’m in the midst of a headache. OR it can become a story creating its own headache. Here is one version of this process:
I have a headache.
I just read about someone who had a bad headache and it turned out to be a brain tumor.
What if I have a brain tumor? Oh God, what if I’m dying?
Okay, get a grip; I’m probably not dying, but what if it keeps getting worse?
How am I going to finish my project for work today if my head is pounding?
My boss is going to be furious if I don’t get it done.
She’s not a very kind boss. Just look at Janet who got fired out of nowhere last month.
Oh God. What if I get fired? What if my headache gets so bad that I can’t even go to work tomorrow, let alone finish the project? And even if I felt better, how can I get the project done when I have all of these errands hanging over me very headachy head?
You see where I’m going with this? We tend to add so much suffering onto our pain that we suffer so much more needlessly. It’s the add-ons that get us.
The Buddha said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” We suffer from the stories we tell ourselves, the fears, fantasies, and fictions that we absorb like facts of our lives when they are, in actuality, fables that live under the earthy green muddy root-filled land we all, at times, inhabit.
I think my friend David was right. Getting to know the experience in the moment, whether it be an experience of joy or pain, is giving that moment its due, without the add ons and the urge to change simply what is. All that arises passes away, and will arise once again. Why not go with the flow, or, as Jon Cabot Zinn says, “ You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” One wave at a time, moment by moment, breath by breath.
When giving book talks about Syd Arthur, I speak of how following a spiritual path often brings you back to the place where you always were, but now, for the first time, you know and understand that place.
A few years ago in a Torah study class, I learned that Mount Horeb, the ground where Moses saw the burning bush and heard God speak, is the same mountain we understand to be Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments as he was leading his people through the desert.
Sometimes we travel far only to end up where we began. But this isn’t a static point of return or a moving backwards toward the familiar. Rather, this is a return to a deeper meaning of experience—an awareness we have gained from journeying forth that allows us to look with clearer eyes and a deeper heart to what is possible when we meet the moment wide awake, and when we show up to who we are in our lives. We are richer for the steps we’ve taken on our journey.
When I started writing my novel, Syd Arthur, I wanted to explore what the life of the historical Buddha, born Prince Siddhartha, might look like 2,500 years later through the eyes of Syd Arthur, a middle-aged Jewish suburban woman. While Prince Siddhartha left the extravagance he enjoyed behind the palace walls to seek enlightenment, my character, Syd Arthur, ventures beyond the comfort of life behind the proverbial white-picket fence to explore the wider world in search of Nirvana.
People have repeatedly asked me if I’m Syd. What I’ve often answered is that while Syd and I are different in lots of ways, we share a great commonality in our spiritual search. Both of us were born Jewish and grew up in secular Jewish homes where we didn’t light Shabbat candles and only showed up at synagogue for the high holy days. At the same time, we both grew up in families that strongly identified with a cultural Judaism and took pride in both Jewish accomplishments and in Israel. We ate brisket and noodle kugel, enjoyed bagels on Sunday and we cheered for the contestants with Jewish names on Jeopardy. But neither Syd nor myself were introduced to a Judaism that spoke of spirituality or transformation.
Even as a young girl, I struggled to find a way into Judaism that spoke to me. I wrestled with finding an inspirational Judaism and I widened my spiritual search to include studying Buddhism and reading the New Testament. This seeking was not encouraged within my family or the temple I attended for weekly religious school. Even when I committed to my Jewish youth group through my high school years, my rabbis and my family frowned upon my interest in other spiritual traditions.
Syd began her spiritual search much later than I—in her forties—but her husband, parents, and even her friends were not thrilled with her desire to explore the teachings of the East either.
I loved watching Syd discover meditation, yoga and Buddhism. I watched with silent cheers as Syd, who loves to talk and chat with her friends over a game of Mah Jongg or margaritas, committed herself to a Buddhist retreat where she took a vow of silence for 7 days.
But I also watched Syd struggle with her Judaism. Like me, she experienced the services at her synagogue as distant and boring, and she felt more like an observer than a participant. For both of us, Judaism was not a religion that addressed spirituality or offered a way to connect with the sacred. But was she ready to just “pull the plug” on the religion of her birth and walk away altogether?
I had found my answer to this question and had made my choice in this matter. Or so I thought. While I continued to study Torah for over a decade with a wonderful non-pulpit rabbi who teaches Torah as a Spiritual Path to groups around the country and around the world, I decided after our youngest child left for college, there would be no need to remain part of a synagogue. I would continue studying Torah outside of synagogue walls, but no more synagogues for me. By this time, I had been practicing Buddhism for years and had traveled to the Himalayas on numerous occasions. I had housed Tibetan monks in my home, attended numerous Buddhist mediation retreats and had a rabbi that I studied Torah with who encouraged and respected my Buddhist heart.
But wherever you go, there you are.
Over the months while I was writing Syd Arthur in Starbucks, I would sometimes talk to another writer who, it turns out, happened to be a new rabbi in town named Rabbi Baruch HaLevi, (commonly referred to as Rabbi B). We’d talk about writing, about my being a JuBu (Jewish Buddhist) who was more connected to the Bu than the Ju part. We talked about Buddhism, Judaism, meditation, yoga and the blessing of spiritual journeys. He talked of a Judaism filled with Ruakh, with spirit, where people are honored and seen for where their search has taken them, and welcomed for the fullness of who they are, and what they’ve learned along their path. He invited me to experience Shabbat in his shul, Congregation Shirat Hayam (CSH), and though I enjoyed our conversations I knew my synagogue days were over. I took him up on his invitation more so as not to appear rude than any hope of finding an inspirational Jewish practice. But was I wrong.
Wherever you go, there you are.
I think of the irony. Sitting in Starbucks day after day writing my novel where the character is moving away from the Judaism she grew up with to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. And during those months, meeting a rabbi who is interested in both Syd’s journey and my own, interested in what I love about Buddhism and willing to share with me how rich a Jewish spiritual practice can be. In writing my character, I came to know myself on a deeper level. I could connect much more fully to the Ju part of the JuBu now because my spiritual search and my relationship with a Buddhist path allowed me to return to my home richer for the journey. I was able to connect more fully to my Jewish roots as a result of my Buddhist path, and my Jewish practice has enriched my Buddhist practice. I am reminded of one of my favorite books by Sylvia Boorstein, That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. I am fortunate to now have two rabbis (one who teachers Torah without a pulpit/synagogue and one who leads a congregation) who honor both aspects of my path.
I have climbed mountains. Mount Sinai as a teen and up to 15,000 feet at Everest as an adult. But more than climbing higher, each step brought me deeper—deeper to my self and my own path. Ultimately, traveling far brought me closer to my inner home.
I thought I was writing fiction, but in a way, fiction ended up writing me. And, in turn, a while after joining CSH, Rabbi B and I went one step further and co-wrote a book of non-fiction called: Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Jewish Community, which will be published by Jewish Lights Publishing this month. (You can learn more about our book at www.revolutionofjewishspirit.com)
Wherever you go, there you are…or, in the words of David Bader, author of Zen Judaism: Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.