Tag: Spiritual Practice

I’m Starting to Hear Voices and It is Affecting My Sanity

I grew up believing that when people start hearing voices, it’s the sign that they are beginning to go crazy. How much the more so when the person is hearing “religious” voices. Such occurrences often I thought were followed up with medication, hospitalization, or – in a few special cases – a move to Jerusalem where the voice-hearer declares himself the messiah.

I started hearing voices. That should be making me feel nervous, but surprisingly it hasn’t. In fact, as I’m hearing voices, it’s making me feel increasingly sane.

Am I Going Crazy?
It began in a pseudo-religious setting, Yogaworks Tarzana, where I engage in the spiritual practice of yoga. After a long weekend of inspiring teen-led worship services, intense pastoral counseling, awesome adult learning and our heartwarming Mitzvah Day social action project, I arose early to start my week with an energetic 6:30 am class.

Yoga mat spread out – 2 blankets, 2 blocks and a strap by my side – cell phone silenced, I assumed the cross-legged Sukasana pose to begin. I set a practice-guiding intention (that’s English for kavannah) to guide my day’s yoga practice: that I be mindful, becoming aware of the thoughts that arise in my mind, yet simultaneously moving them aside non-judgmentally so I can focus on my yoga practice. Simple enough to declare; challenging to live.

The Voices
That’s when it began. As the yoga increased in purposefulness, I began to lose focus on the poses. At first, thoughts about work – the growing to do list, people I need to call, intriguing new ideas – invaded my mental space. Although I wanted to contemplate each one, I let them go, lest they turn me aside from being present in the yoga flow. “That was good,” I thought to myself.

Then our yogi intensified the practice, leading us into Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). Stretching along the top side of the body, from the back heel through the raised arm, my body began to complain. My thighs burned in concert with my breathing; my brain kept telling me I couldn’t hold this pose or others for more than a breath to two. I began berating myself for my failure, my inability to do what days ago was so simple and natural. An old story, perhaps, but quite effective in sabotaging my spiritual work.

Along Came New Voices, More Intense
That’s when the voices became quietly insistent. “Listen,” they said. “Listen to yourself, and see the judgments that pervade your mind. Let go. Let go of judgmentalism and just embrace what is. Accept what you can do for today without assigning blame or finding fault.”

“I’m hearing voices,” I thought. And I let it go.

I smiled. I slowed my breathing. I reengaged with the flow. I let go.

I recognize those voices, I realized. And I let that realization flit away. I let them go.

Naming the Voices
Only later, on reflection, could I put names to the voices. The cautionary voices, reminding me that I could choose to let go of judgment, were those of Rabbis Jonathan Slater and Sheila Weinberg, my teachers and spiritual directors from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I attended a two year rabbinic program with IJS – silent retreats, yoga, meditation, study of chassidic texts – and years of distance learning and Spiritual Direction since.

My teachers engrained within me the need to let go of the stories we spin about good and bad, and success, and more often, failure.

Accept what is without judgment. 
Notice it. 
Name it. 
Move on beyond it.

My teachers had gotten into my head. And yet again, when my practice – and my life – threatened to spin away from me, their voices – implanted within – helped stabilize me until in savasana – the lying on back restorative pose – I was subsumed by silence outside and silence within.

Yes, Today I Heard Voices, and They Kept Me Remarkably Sane.

May you too find voices within that calm you within and without. Thank you Institute for Jewish Spirituality and YogaWorks for the lessons and the mindfulness.

Four Favorite Jewish Spiritual Practices

Person: “Rabbi, what can I do to make my days feel more meaningful?”

Rabbi: “Try some mitzvot and Jewish spiritual practices.”

What’s a spiritual practice?
A spiritual practice refers to regular, purposeful actions we do in order to transform our lives from everyday regularity and habit into sacred, meaningful moments. Whether chosen from the 613 mitzvot (Jewish obligations) of Torah or from other customs passed down, spiritual practices can uplift and inspire.

Jewish mitzvot direct us to live lives infused with meaning and value. Our blessings reveal the underlying message of our mitzvot (religious commandments), when we say asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotavwho makes us HOLY through Jewish obligations. We do Jewish actions in the hope that they will lead us to holy, spiritual living.

Four Favorite Jewish Spiritual Practices:

1.  Counting 3 Blessings
In a notebook or on a smartphone, keep a running list each night of three experiences or moments daily for which you are thankful. If you miss a day or two, don’t sweat it. Start again on the current day.

2.  Bedtime Shema and Hashkiveinu
Spend three minutes (that is all it takes) reaffirming the oneness of existence and the hope for a safe sleep by reciting or singing these prayers. Read about the bedtime Shema, then say the prayers in Hebrew and listen to them in song.

3.  Morning Modeh Ani
Upon waking, recite a morning meditation giving thanks for your life and soul. Read the prayer in Hebrew and listen to it in song.

Modeh Ani (for a male) OR Modah Ani (for a female)
L’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, sheh-heh-cheh-zartee neesh-ma-tee, b’chemla rabbah emunah-teh-cha.

Poetic Translation: Thankful am I in your Presence,
Spirit who lives and endures,
for You have returned to me my soul with compassion.
Abundant is your faith!

4.  Midday Mincha: “Mincha” refers to the afternoon prayers. Set an alarm for sometime between 2-4 pm. When the alarm sounds, turn away from your computer, your phone, and your responsibilities. For 3-5 minutes, just sit quietly doing nothing but just “being.” Perhaps get out of your chair and sit on a couch or another place in the office. Perhaps close your eyes.

What are your favorite spiritual practices that can make your day more meaningful?

Jewish Spiritual Seeker: A Facebook Experiment in Spirituality

A few years back, we started a Jewish Spiritual Seeker website.  About a dozen of us participated regularly, posting and commenting on each other’s posts.  Once a month I would post a question about spirituality and invite congregant-volunteer-bloggers to respond.  Each blogger was also asked to comment on 2-3 posts by others.  We had a great conversation about spirituality.   The blog won an inaugural North American Union for Reform Judaism Techie award since it engaged congregation members in Jewish conversation using a blog as the medium.  (I would share the URL but the site has recently been hacked and until we figure out the fix, I don’t want to give the “medical pills” website any more business.)

Since Facebook is the medium of preference for so many, we thought, why not experiment to see if people would participate in serious spiritual conversations in this online community. Thus the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook community was born.

An Idea: What kind of conversation could we create if we brought together a dozen adults to explore, over the course of a year, their thoughts and experiences on the Jewish spiritual journey? 

The Technology: What if we could harness technology – a Facebook Community – to provide the opportunity for these adults to reflect upon their Jewish spiritual journey? (Meaning: no meetings, just think your thoughts and go online.)

Monthly Questions: What if every month a question was posed – about spirituality or holiness, about how you pray, about questions you have about God, about when you feel most spiritual – which you could consider and then reflect upon by writing on the Facebook community page?

We are preparing to kick off the discussion within two weeks.  We have already a dozen who are interested.  

Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person?  Are you willing to engage others in conversation about what that means to you and them?  Then check out the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook community page, and if you are willing to take a chance, LIKE the page.

Questions? Contact me through the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook page.

And may the conversations to come be inspiring and uplifting.

Holy Yoga with the Rabbi: Reflections from Yoga Instructor/Congregant Julie Buckley

In my early courtship with yoga, I understood the word “yoga” to mean “union”. I was breathing and moving my mind, body, and spirit into union. How delightful to discover the far reaches of possibility within myself. There were poses which enabled me to feel strong, to feel flexible, to balance.

Becoming a yoga instructor offered me knowledge of yoga principles and philosophy which ask for an alignment of intention and action. Funny… I hear that at temple, too. As my yoga practice deepened and the notion of embodiment called to me with some insistence, my time on the mat shifted from me to me as the embodiment of what?? As I inhale (HaShem’s exhale), I wonder about the quality of my exhale. This curiosity about what I am made of was long ago sparked by my Jewish upbringing.

Judaism, as expressed at my synagogue, Congregation Or Ami, is interested in questions of how we move through this world– what ground we’re on, what we stand for. My rabbi, Paul Kipnes, is a passionate advocate of social action. Teaching yoga at Or Ami has generated a beautiful tapestry with yoga and Judaism engaged in a dialogue of teachings and practice, so that we learn to live and breathe our teachings. How do we begin to repair our world if we have not lived and breathed our wholeness, our brokenness, and our journey back to wholeness– over and over again? And how do we, as we age and endure strain, continue to cultivate strength, flexibility, and balance? How do we have a presence which will allow us to be part of tikkun olam… helping to heal our world.

The fact that my rabbi is on his mat, down dogging with his congregation, speaks volumes. Being welcoming and connecting with humanity are not just slogans in my synagogue. The energy that is exchanged during our practice is uplifting, calming, fortifying. It is perfect that our rabbi participates…

Our yoga community at Congregation Or Ami meets monthly in front of the ark, under the eternal flame, sharing the nourishment of yoga. We are finding that our Jewishness comes to life by “breathing it” and our yoga is that much more holy in our sanctuary. Just as our full lives expand God, inviting Judaism into yoga and vice versa creates a greater sense of integrity, of fullness. No longer are we or the aspects of our lives necessarily secular or religious, sacred or profane; rather, we are whole… Jewish yogis who embody the light of HaShem.

A Quick Meditation at Noon

My new friend, Alden Solovy, who is currently wandering around Israel seeking holiness and direction, wrote another meaningful meditation.  In an existence in which each moment of each day is suffused with holiness, his prayer reminds us that we need only to open ourselves to sense this holiness.

Read this prayer now, then print it out.  Carry it around with you and try to read it once each day for a week.  Notice how this affects your day.  I would love to hear about it!

A Quick Meditation at Noon
© 2011 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.

There’s still time to live this day with intention,
To set aside petty thoughts and small tasks,
To see myself with dignity and grace. 

There’s still time to live this day with my hands and my heart,
To walk with strength
To act with courage,
To offer kindness,
To build and to sustain,
To embrace and to bless. 

G-d of forgiveness,
Thank You for the gift of hope
That You’ve planted in every moment,
The gift of renewal that You’ve given to every hour,
So that we may find the way
To redeem our days with holiness.


Wisdom from Bat Mitzvah Student Lauren: Making God Feel Real

More than anything, I love the individual time I spend with our pre-B’nai Mitzvah students, getting to know them, studying together their Torah portion, and exploring their ideas about God, Torah and Judaism. Without fail, they each surprise me (often teaching me), as they open my eyes to an enlightening perspective on the parasha (Torah portion) or a new way of relating to the Holy One. This week, Lauren Perlmutter articulated an almost universal truth about how some of us relate to God. While her Bat Mitzvah service is still weeks away, her wisdom needed to be shared now.

I asked Lauren what she believes about God. She wrote:

If someone were to ask me what I believed about God, I would say I honestly am not sure. When I am at my Jewish summer camp, Camp Newman, in closing circle, praying before we eat a meal, or doing Havdallah with all my friends, I do believe someone or something is there. It makes God feel real. At home, however, in daily life, I do not always think about God and the religious aspects of Judaism. If I were to take a step back from daily life, maybe I would feel the feeling that I have had with God in the past.

Simple wisdom!

When we are immersed in a clear spiritual experience – Jewish summer camp, the High Holy Day services, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service, a funeral, a hike in a National Park – God’s presence is almost tangible. Yet as we leave that moment, the experience often recedes as our distance increases.

Here’s where young Lauren’s simple wisdom is most erudite: Were we to take a step back – from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives – putting ourselves purposely, mindfully in a place/ritual/experience/moment that holds spiritual potential, we might feel the feeling that we once had with holiness or the Holy One… with God.

Spirituality – holiness – like wireless internet – is all around us.  If we run around so much, if we fail to turn on our AirPorts (wireless internet receivers), we will miss the awesome, amazement that surrounds us.

This Shabbat, take a step back:

  • Hike through the mountains
  • Walk on the seashore
  • Come to Shabbat family services (Bay Laurel Elementary School at 7:30 pm)
  • Light candles, make kiddush, bless challah
  • Ask your loved ones when they have ever felt close to God
  • Read through the prayerbook
  • Do yoga
  • Meditate
  • Talk to God

You might be amazed at the feeling you begin to feel again!

She Almost Killed the Rabbi This Morning

Early this morning, I lay with arms and legs splayed out across the floor and thought to myself, “I think I’m gonna die. Right here; right now.”

Holy yoga, rabbi. What were you doing?

Just that, Holy Yoga with the Rabbi, Congregation Or Ami’s monthly morning yoga, led by master instructor and congregant Julie Buckley. My teachers in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality encouraged us to deepen our yoga practice by bringing yoga into the synagogue.  So we did. 

Recently I have let my yoga practice slip – “be forgiving,” I tell myself – but the return to yoga this week was refreshing and wonderfully exhausting. Yet under Julie’s guidance, I realigned my body, and stretched my back, legs and hips. It was challenging for me (though the group was filled with yoga novices to yoga mavens) but rewarding. 

Why is a synagogue hosting a yoga group and why is the rabbi allocating time to participate?

With the exception of that momentary death wish (“kill me now so I can be finished”), the hour and a half is centering and mindful. During yoga, I feel at one with my breath, the nefesh chaya, breathed into me by the Holy One. I feel whole, filled with shalom, shleimut. Is this not what is meant when we sing the Shema? Adonai Echad, we sing, God is one… God is the oneness, the Unity that connects us all.

For those of you who do yoga, is it spiritual for you? How is the experience Jewish?

Sustaining the (Spiritual) High

I’m home from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Hevraya (alumni) retreat. Four days with rabbis and cantors (and a few educators) to explore, deepen, develop, uncover our spirituality and our relationship with the Holy One.

Meditation, yoga, silence (10pm until 1pm the next day), chassidic text study, intense prayer.

I have blogged plenty about my recent and past experiences at the IJS Retreats.

How will I sustain my center? In part, I turn to the IJS’ Yoga CD, its elearning text study, and its meditation podcasts.

Intrigued? Try a podcast (on your ipod or online).

Join Rabbi Sheila Weinberg for a meditation on, and exploration of, what it means to experience life as b’tzelem Elohim – created in the divine image. We return to the beginning, to where it all starts, Chapter 1 of Genesis; recognizing that there can be no liberation from bondage without the affirmation of the inherent dignity of the human being. This understanding is articulated in this verse – And God created Adam b’tzalmo – in God’s image, male and female, the one being was created in the divine image. This might be the most important text in Torah. This might be the root core out of which all else emerges. What does it mean? What does it mean to you?)

Let me know what you think!

Holy Yoga! The Rabbi Gets to Wear Sweats to Temple

I will be showing up in my sweats at Temple again on Wednesday, February 3rd for another installment of our Holy Yoga series, a (sometimes) monthly drop in yoga experience in the back of the sanctuary. I’ll be there with my mat and sweats. I’m hoping others will too. Why?

In early December, almost two dozen showed up for Rav Yoga, a Jewish spiritual yoga experience with my friend, Rabbi Heather Altman. Rabbi Altman inspired our yoga practice:

Drawing on the Hebrew connection between “rav” (rabbi-teacher) and “rov” (plenty), Rav Yoga means Abundant Yoga, as well as Yoga Rabbi. In Rav Yoga, Heather united yoga and Judaism in a manner that was authentic to both beautiful traditions. Rav Yoga practice empowered, renewed, and connected our body, mind, and soul.

I first encountered Yoga as a Spiritual Practice at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) retreats. The embodiment of mindfulness was transformative. For a few years, I practiced yoga regularly as a spiritual practice. For me, yoga was just as the IJS described it:

We work with our physical bodies by intentionally assuming poses that stretch, lengthen, and strengthen the body. We learn to pay attention more fully to sensations in our bodies as they move into various shapes and forms, and to the breath that flows in and out. Over time our bodies and our awareness become stronger, more flexible, more balanced, and more relaxed. As we release tensions and blocks in the body, even at the cellular level, there is often release of tensions and constrictions held in the mind and the emotions as well. As this process unfolds, we can experience more spaciousness and renewed capacities for movement and growth in our lives. As we return to the yoga mat to practice regularly, we learn to ground ourselves in awareness of the moment and in our attunement to details of our inner lives as they show up in the stretching, holding and releasing of the poses. And as the surface constrictions give way to a more expansive sense of possibility underneath, spiritual awakenings and movement can happen as well.

Since I fell out of my practice (though my wife pushes, prods, entices me back every so often), I figured that if I made it part of my Temple responsibilities, I would practice. Last month’s yoga session was great. I look forward to February’s session, led by yoga instructor/congregant Julie Buckley.

If you are in the area, come:

  • Holy Yoga with Rabbi Kipnes, Wednesday, Feb 3, 9-11 am
  • Julie asks that we each bring a large towel and a small, face towel in addition to a mat (or two large towels if you do not have a mat). If you have a strap, bring that too.
  • RSVP to my assistant Susie Stark ([email protected]).

Breathing the Name of God

In this week’s parasha, we encounter Moses at the burning bush, speaking to God. In response to the instruction to go down to Egypt to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppression, he asks a simple question: When people ask who You are, what shall I tell them? The answer: Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh. I am who I am. I was who I was. I am who I will be… God uses God’s name: Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Usually pronounced euphemistically as “Adonai,” God’s name is something more.

At services tonight at Congregation Or Ami, we will talk about what God’s name is and what the name teaches us about our lives. Here’s a foretaste…

My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the Reform Movement’s Rabbi-Mystic-Scholar, explains this name in Breathing the Name of God [From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: Eyes Remade for Wonder]. Read and consider:

The letters of the Name of God in Hebrew are YOD, HAY, VAV, and HAY. They are frequently mispronounced as “Yahveh.” But in truth they are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury.

This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.

That these letters are unpronounceable is no accident. Just as it is no accident that they are also the root letters of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Scholars have suggested that a reasonable translation of the four-letter Name of God might be The One Who Brings Into Being All That Is. So God’s Name is the Name of Existence itself. And, since God is holy, then so is all creation. At the burning bush, Moses asks for God’s Name, but God only replies with Ehyeh-hasher-ehyeh, which is often incorrectly rendered by the static English, “I am who I am.” But in truth the Hebrew may denote the future tense: “I will be who I will be.” Here is a Name (and a God) who is neither completed nor finished. This God is literally not yet.

How Does a Rabbi Replenish His Soul?

For years I have been studying Torah weekly with one or two Chevruta (study) partners through the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (IJS). I have studied with a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Cleveland (Steve Segar), a Conservative Rabbi from Portland (Dan Isaak), a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Malibu (Judith HaLevy), and for years, a Reform Rabbi from Los Angeles (Karen Fox). Recently, I have renewed my study with the Clevelander Rebbe.

We have never really sat in the same room to study. We study by phone, with texts before us, and headsets over our heads. (It has been suggested that we begin using Skype so we can face to face study. Something to consider.)

Often we spend 20 minutes of the study hour talking with each other about our lives, our families, the joys and challenges of being a pulpit rabbi, our spiritual struggles and successes. Acquaintances begun at a week-long retreat have blossomed into friendships that have sustained us through life’s challenges and struggles.

Each week, we receive by email a text. Our IJS teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, sends weekly an email that gets us learning. It begins with a primary text (currently Degel Machaneh Efraim) – in Hebrew and English, Rabbi Slater’s explanation of the Degel text, some reflection questions and a guide for spiritual practice drawn from this text. The Chasidic texts are sometimes thick, laden with references to Zohar, Talmud, Midrash and other commentators. Thankfully, Rabbi Slater has done the heavy lifting by discovering and reprinting the texts cited. He also guides us through the sometimes incomprehensible discussion, pointing us always toward some deep insights about spirituality or life. The text study becomes the highlight of my week.

My learning this week?

In this week’s parasha, Shemot, we learn that vayehi ki yar’u hameyaldot et ha-elohim vaya’as lehem batim – And because the midwives feared God, God established houses (batim) for them (Ex.1:21). What does it mean that God established “houses” for the midwives? Connecting “houses” with vessels, Degel Machaneh Efraim leads us on a journey to realize that wisdom, when bounded and held in a vessel of fear/awe ensures that our wisdom is used for justice and good.

As Rabbi Slater explains:

“Fear gives boundaries to wisdom.” The basic understanding here is in the dynamic tension of the right and left sides of the sephirotic tree. Chokhmah (wisdom) is on the right side. Its tendency and desire is to expand, like love (Hesed). Yet, for wisdom to be useful, for it to apply in the world, it must have some definition, a framework in which it can be understood. That is the role of the left side, where Gevurah (which includes the quality of fear, yirah) constrains, sets boundaries and provides a vessel for Wisdom. This is the same process of constriction (tzimtzum) by which God’s vital force and light come to be contained and present in all creation. Fear – as limitation and gevurah – creates a home for God’s outpouring of life and wisdom.

As Rabbi Slater guides us:

R. Moshe Chaim offers us a practice insight here. What is wisdom? Ultimately it is the capacity to perceive and respond to the truth of any given moment, any given circumstance. We all know that there are times that we are clearer, more connected to our experience and so better able to choose how to respond, and times when we are not. On those occasions that we are not so free to choose how to respond – when we are surprised, angry, depressed, jealous, smitten by love, confused, etc. – it is not that we are not “wise”, but our wisdom is not connected to the totality of our experience. It runs wherever our passions run; it is misapplied. For our natural and acquired wisdom to be effective, for it to bring us happiness and benefit to one and all, it needs a container, a frame in which to function.

“Fear of heaven” is just such a framework. This is not fear in the sense of terror before pain or loss (although both may be present), or fear of punishment. Rather, it is the fear that arises when we recognize the unbounded and uncontrollable outcomes of our actions. We may strive to live impeccably, but we are likely to fail. That induces fear: awareness, caution, compassion for ourselves and for others. When we stop to consider the fact that every deed implicates us, it may become impossible to act. Yet, we must act. There is no holding back, no backing out. The goal is to act as much as possible, with our greatest wisdom and as well as we can to do justice, live with compassion and humility. And when we realize we have made a mistake, the challenge is to strive to rectify the mistake, to compensate – as best we can – for past mistakes, and minimize the mistakes we make into the future.

Learning with my chevruta (study partners) ensures that I replenish my Torah, the source of my wisdom and compassion. It points me to deeper levels of understanding and thus becomes a central part of my weekly spiritual practice.