by Natan Margalit (Newton, MA)
“Narcissistic navel gazing” was an accusation thrown around a lot when meditation and other forms of spiritual practice started making inroads into Jewish communities a couple of decades ago. Now, a lot of us meditate, and far from taking Jews away from the traditional Jewish emphasis on community, tzedakkah, and social justice, Jewish meditation has greatly enriched our lives.
And yet, anyone who meditates knows that it often is a struggle to connect our spiritual practice with the rest of our lives. I try to meditate in the morning. Actually, I do my own combination of davenning (Jewish prayer) and meditation. It usually isn’t a transcendent experience, but it can get me to slow down, feel my body, breathe, accept myself for a few moments before I start rushing around trying to solve my problems — or the world’s. On a good day, I get a feeling of something that, on reflection, I might call presence, or even Presence. But all that quickly gets swept away once I come downstairs and face the music: The kids need to get to school on time but Nadav won’t put on his clothes and Eiden wants to play baby dinosaur. I’d love to play with them but instead I’m aggravated because I need to rush them off to school and myself off to work. Maybe it’s just the dynamic rhythm of life: a time to meditate, a time to dress the kids, a time to make a living — to everything there is a season.
But I think that’s not the whole story.
We live in a society and economy that kills Presence more than it needs to. Let me go on with more tales of my mornings: some mornings after I come downstairs I can escape the chaos in the house for a moment by doing one of my favorite chores: taking out the compost. Putting the compost on the pile and covering it up with dry grass clippings, I take note of how it’s doing. It’s like cooking — is there too much liquid, or is it too dry? How does it smell? Like rich, plant-nourishing compost or still yucky? I’m checking its progress from last week’s rotting food scraps to fertilizer for our garden, and in a couple months, more veggies for our table. It’s a mundane but also magical cycle that always amazes me. And it reminds me of what most people say when they are asked where they feel spiritually connected: “in nature.” And it’s true. There is something about the patterns of nature that inexplicably affects our consciousness. Perhaps it’s that everything is connected and nothing is wasted. Nature is a set of cycles and patterns that bring us back to Presence and the Oneness beneath all existence. So composting can feel like a continuation of my meditation.
But, most people don’t compost. The default in our society is tossing it. Out of sight and out of mind. And it does something to our spirit as well as the world when we cut off our minds from the natural cycles. Go to YouTube (or the sidebar of the Organic Torah blog) and check out the short video The Story of Stuff. It powerfully illustrates how our economy is all about a linear fantasy that we can take all the resources we want from somewhere, use them up and dump the waste into an infinite somewhere else. This is the Industrial Age worldview that gets us to rush around in work schedules more suited to machines than to people. Family and community take a back seat to production and GDP.
When I compost valuable organic matter (last night’s dinner scraps) instead of tossing “waste” I’m also keeping a bit of Presence in my life. It not only helps reduce the size of the landfill, but it also expands the breath of my soul. OK, but beyond composting, how can we connect more to Presence in our work and daily lives? Where can we start shifting the structure of our lives to include more natural patterns?
I get at least part of the answer when I do my combination davenning/meditation in the morning. When I think of patterns in daily community life, I think of a little quote from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 127a) that comes right near the beginning of the daily morning blessings. “These are the things of which a person eats their fruit (the yield, or reward) in this world, and the principle (Hebrew: keren, horn) remains for him/her into eternity: honoring father and mother, acts of loving kindness, arriving early to the study house in the morning and evening, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, supporting (a poor) bride, attending to the dead, concentration in prayer, making peace between people. And the study of torah is equal to them all.”
The daily rhythm of saying these words (and the Hebrew does have a beautiful, poetic rhythm to it) reinforces actions that we as individuals can do to strengthen the natural rhythms and patterns of community. The seemingly mundane actions mentioned in the Talmud — honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping out at a wedding, or welcoming guests — recognize the patterns of communal life. These actions, and actions like composting, strengthen those patterns at their most vulnerable and fragile points: the relationship between generations, the cycles of birth and death, and the easily frayed fabric of community. Underlying and emerging from all these actions is the torah. It is “equal to them all” because it enables us to reflect on them together as one interlocking whole. The Sages said about the torah: “turn it and turn it, for all is in it,” because the torah is but another level of the weave of life in which nothing is wasted.
We can do a better job of connecting our meditation and spiritual practice to our daily lives, but we have to realize that the cards are stacked against us. The dominant culture and economy are still operating on a mechanical model that keeps us running away from Presence, away from the patterns that lead us to the One. In order to spread that sense of Presence beyond the sitting cushion and throughout our lives we need a more organic model of daily life. For that, the (organic) torah is a good place to start.