My awareness, deliberate intention and loving attitude towards any particular moment of my life are what give that moment the power to grow into a spiritual practice. In that moment, I gather up my attention, focus the fullness of my energy, and surrender to the Presence that emerges from this particular here and now.
I am breathing all the time, but only when I bring awareness to the breath does it become a practice. There are times I must deal with difficult or challenging relationships. It is only when I bring a particular intention to my part in the drama, and begin learning from the encounter, do those relationships become a practice. Each morning, I make myself a cup of tea. When my attitude towards the making of tea is one of care-full reverence, then tea becomes a practice. As soon as I go on automatic — lost in thought patterns, living from habit or becoming unconscious of my body or feelings.
I have suspended my spiritual practice. Judaism is a spiritual path that seeks to transform each step of the way into a holy moment of blessing. To know each moment of my life as a spiritual practice is energizing and humbling — energizing, because practice gives relevance and meaning to even the smallest actions, and humbling, because through the focus of practice, I am made aware of how much of my life I am missing by being distracted or scattered.
The first time I was seriously faced with the issue of practice was when I was eight years old and began taking piano lessons. I sat down at the piano each day and inside my head I could hear exactly what the piece should sound like. I placed my fingers on the keys and wanted to play perfectly the first time. I was so frustrated at the sound that I heard, as compared to my expectations. I would cry at every single lesson. My piano teacher, Mrs. Held, who lived up the block, didn’t know what to do with me. There was something fundamental about practice that eluded me. Over many years I came to realize that practice existed for itself, not for some imagined perfection. I could learn to accept myself exactly where I was. I could delight in the process itself as the music took shape under my hands, in my ears and in my heart. I could give myself to the “Spirit of the Work.”
It was only after many years of spiritual practice that the “Spirit of the Work” introduced himself formally to me. I was teaching a weeklong workshop at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Retreat Center in the Catskills. Each morning I’d begin class by singing a niggun, a wordless melody, while people were entering. This was my way of preparing the space, getting grounded and opening up to guidance. On the second morning, nearly everyone was late. I closed my eyes and sang as people straggled in. Inwardly, I was working with my annoyance at the situation, when I was startled to feel a strong and expansive presence enter the space. He introduced himself saying “I am the Spirit of the Work… and I’m not staying!” I recognized his presence immediately. In my own practice, I had learned that when I acknowledged the awesome power of the Work itself, approaching it with respect and reverence, then it seemed the Work revealed itself to me and I felt both guided and empowered.
Even though I was annoyed at my students for being late, I knew that I must argue for them with all my heart and somehow convince the Spirit of the Work to stay. (Through this episode I was given a small glimpse of what Moses might have experienced as he defended the rebellious children of Israel before God.)
The Spirit of the Work is an aspect of God that calls us to our potential. There is something that is required of me, but it feels different than carrying the burden of obligation. When I am engaged in The Work, I am more fully my Self. The Work reminds me that I am completely ordinary and powerfully noble at the same time. The Work requires that I accept myself exactly as I am, while opening to the full force of my longing and desire that will move me beyond self-imposed limitations.
As a spiritual seeker I have learned that when I am given an important insight it is like receiving a seed. That seed must be planted in the soil of my life and then watered and fertilized by my attention and practice. In the study of Torah we can receive some amazing seeds, but if those seeds aren’t planted and cultivated, they will remain disembodied ideas. Even if those ideas are fascinating and beautiful, we will not be transformed by Torah until we commit to the practice that will grow the seed… which ultimately means to grow our own souls.
When we intuit the blessing that is hidden in Torah and then discern the spiritual challenge that Torah is giving us, we must ask then, “What is the practice that will help me to rise to this spiritual challenge and receive the blessing of Torah?”
Spiritual practice requires intention, awareness and repetition.
The word for intention in Hebrew is kavanah. It refers to the direction of the heart. Energy is pouring through us all the time, so when we consciously direct our hearts towards a purpose or value, then the energy becomes focused and clear. We can concentrate the power of our bodily passions, emotional moods, thoughtful insights, and visionary imaginings towards a single-pointed purpose. That purpose will guide us as our practice deepens and evolves over time.
Awareness is that aspect of consciousness that witnesses and investigates the immediate and ongoing effects of practice. In our spiritual practice we are always moving through different states of consciousness. The rule of practice is this: The awareness of a state magnifies its benefit. Awareness transforms our practice from a series of spiritual experiences to the possibility of embodying, integrating and living the spiritual truths of Torah in ways that heal and unify our soul and our world. Through awareness we wake up to the blessings that are everywhere hidden. Through awareness we learn to acknowledge our resistance. Then we’ll know just where to apply our most loving attention.
Another important and sometimes misunderstood aspect of practice is repetition. Each time a practice is repeated there is an opportunity to take it deeper, to explore its subtleties, to receive new insights. One of my teachers, who realized my tendency for impatience, warned me that I needed to do a practice for three months before I discerned its effects, and before I could evaluate whether it “worked.” Sometimes I’ll teach a particular meditation and a student will respond in frustration, crying, “I can’t do this!” or they might do it once and say, “Oh I know this …” and stop right there. In both cases they have missed the meaning of the phrase, “It takes practice!”
What appears to be the most simple practice can be deepened and refined over a lifetime. Imagine the old Tai Chi Master who is doing the very same movements that he learned as a child. Yet as his practice matures, those simple movements unlock treasure upon treasure of wisdom and power and gradually reveal the secrets of embodied love.
Our practice gathers up the power and flash of temporary states of consciousness – spiritual experiences that pierce through our “normal” trance – and engages that power to move us to a new stage of development.
Torah becomes a transformational force in our lives and the world when we move from just reading, thinking and talking about it to actually doing it. The “doing” of Torah is not a literal following of its commandments but rather an actualizing of its Light. We do Torah by cultivating a dynamic and challenging practice that explores the “edge” of our learning.
Knowing and working your edge is an important aspect of practice. My edge can be found in the dissonance between what I know to be true and how I actually live.
In the language of Judaism our practice is guided by the mitzvot, which literally means “commandments.” But what if there is no Divine Commander “out there,” separate from the inner core of my Being? What if God’s will is unfolding through the details of my life? What if these eyes, these hands, this heart, these ears are the vehicle for Divine vision, touch, love, receptivity?
My obedience to the mitzvot, to my Creator becomes obedience to the evolution of consciousness, to the manifestation of Love. My practice depends on the willingness to wholeheartedly play my small but integral part in this cosmic drama.
Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.