Tribute to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Reb Zalman; photo by Daniel Sieradski via JTA

Reb Zalman; photo by Daniel Sieradski via JTA

 

Last night I wondered about what to write for this week’s blog. Soon my inner guidance said quite discernibly: “Be receptive.” Within an hour, another inner voice emerged that had previously been only a very faint background whisper: “Write a tribute to Reb Zalman.”

For those of you who don’t know (about) this truly remarkable man, I heartily encourage you to learn about him, starting with a Google search. I simply want to briefly laud him without referring specifically to his countless, widespread contributions and works that far transcend his Judaic influence.

During the spring of 1985, knowing very little about Reb Zalman, I attended a weekend dialogue he had with an articulate Congregationalist minister. Having experienced many spiritual teachers, I was highly impressed by the unusual blend of qualities I witnessed throughout the discussion. I found Reb to be brilliant, eloquent and charismatic, as many acclaimed masters are, yet unduly principled, warm, delightful and humble. At one point, greeting Zalman from two feet away, I was awestruck by what appeared to be a tall, slender candle alit in each of his eyes.

Since that most inspirational initial meeting, I have arranged to attend many formal and informal presentations by the Reb and have been in diverse audiences, large and small, in which Zalman prayed, spoke, sang, chanted, and joked, all reflecting his profound soulfulness. I’ve read many of his books over the years and became well acquainted with several of his protégés, one of whom facilitated a spiritual retreat for me.

Although I was never “called” to officially be a student of Reb Zalman, I have always regarded him as an important spiritual teacher for me, as he has been for thousands of others to varying degrees. My wife shares the same sentiments, probably even stronger.

Photo credit: Elephant Journal

Photo credit: Elephant Journal

 

My sense is that Reb Zalman penetrated virtually everyone who met him in at least a couple of these ways:

  • being melted by his genuine warmth, sweetness and unconditional love that were palpable in his countenance alone
  • experiencing the gentle heart of a deer combined with the courage of a fierce warrior
  • witnessing his uncanny gift for bringing heaven to earth in a starkly simple, practical manner, replete with humor and musical mastery
  • reading or hearing his poignant, albeit sometimes rambling, stories and verses
  • marveling at his proclivity for eclectic adventure and his numerous grand innovations
  • observing his unwavering devotion and quietly torrid love of the Divine, while steering clear of dogma

I last saw this extraordinary man interviewed on Skype (he was too tired that day to travel from Boulder to Denver) four months before his death; he was very lucid and still beaming. Although his body has recently died, I anticipate that Reb Zalman’s laser presence and rich teachings will continue to infuse our world for generations to come.

Bless you, humble master!

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Many Breaths of Fresh Air

Jefferson Lake

My wife, Ruth, and I recently returned from a glorious weekend in the mountains that rejuvenated us during the less than 48 hours of our time away. My daughter and her boyfriend hosted us so graciously in the boyfriend’s parents’ mountain cabin located in a remote area about 15 miles south of the tiny town of Jefferson (for those of you familiar with this area). Although we have lived in Colorado for over 40 years (amazingly enough!), we remain in awe of the majestic beauty and grandeur of the mountains. I want to offer several highlights of our weekend in the hopes of refreshing and inspiring you.

  • Taking in the vast expanses of land, surrounded by many shades of lush, verdant green and snowcapped mountains, with a narrow river winding through
  • Meditating on the cabin deck, captivated by leaves on numerous aspen trees, shimmering in the wind
  • Rigorous 4-mile hike around emerald-green Jefferson Lake, exercised by frequent trail ascents and descents
  • Receiving a pontoon boat ride on Jefferson Lake
  • Staring back at two lake woodchucks, one on its hind legs, as they checked us out from a distance of 15 feet
  • Driving by a family of grazing deer
  • Looking wide-eyed through binoculars at a slender black bird with a yellow stripe, red head, and black and red speckles under its wings

Wherever you reside, I really do hope that avail yourself of the limitless mysteries and treasures of nature, which serve as the most reliable bible!

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Shocking Results

shock

Amid the hustle bustle of daily life, many people claim that they yearn for a brief interlude of solitude. However, a “shocking” University of Virginia research study recently published in the Science journal found that a number of people, especially men, struggle to devote even a short time alone with their thoughts.

Participants in the study were isolated for 6 to 15 minutes during which they were told to simply allow their minds to wander. They weren’t permitted to sleep or to use a cellphone. In some instances, the experimenters suggested that the subjects could rehearse what they wanted to think about when alone. Some even received the recommendation to contemplate pleasant thoughts, such as planning an upcoming vacation. On an average, the 55 participants rated their idle time as a “5″ on a 0-9 scale. A control group, given the option to sit and think or to engage in an activity such as reading or using the Internet, enjoyed their isolation time much more than did the experimental group subjects.

Wondering how people would respond to a radical option to distract themselves from their thoughts, the researchers ultimately offered them the opportunity to press a button to receive a strong electric shock on their ankles. Quite surprisingly, of the 42 subjects who initially indicated they’d be willing to pay $5 to avoid the shock, 67% of the men, as compared to 25% of the women, administered fairly frequent electric shocks–typically about seven–during their allotted alone time. One man shocked himself 190 times!

woman-meditating

Clearly, most of the men were unduly challenged by a relatively brief stint of sitting with their thoughts. Women in our society are more accustomed to self-contact, although they, like their male counterparts, are exposed to burgeoning environmental stimulation. Sophisticated technological devices and the social media blitz increasingly command people’s attention in recent decades.

My experience as a psychologist, meditation instructor, and as a participant in spiritual communities confirms that overall, women are markedly more comfortable with introspection, meditation and emotional focus than are men. However, results of The University of Virginia study suggested that even a notable number of women sought  aversive electrical shocks in an effort to bypass their thought patterns.

Is it any wonder that disorders such as ADD and ADHD have become so prevalent in our culture?

Reference:

Wilson, Timothy et al. Science 4, July 2014. Vol. 345, no. 6192, pp. 75-77.

 

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A Triumphant Milestone!

 

Each low on energy from several days of a nagging cold, yesterday my wife, Ruth, and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of a boy adopted two years ago (at age 11) by his aunt and uncle. Although we have known the family for about eight years and attended the Bar Mitzvahs of the two biological sons, we had never before met “Mark”. Like most of the guests who attended the affair, we were blown away! In fact, I have never been more moved by a Bar or Bat Mitzvah–and I’ve partaken in well over a hundred of them.

 

What I witnessed was a handsome, bright-eyed young boy brimming with confidence and beaming with joyful presence. He fluently and passionately chanted in Hebrew, with barely a hesitation or mistake, the entire afternoon and evening services, and the culminating Havdalah service. If that wasn’t enough, Mark sang two traditional, festive Jewish songs from stage during the celebration that followed. He graciously and very personally greeted his many guests, myself included.What has this kid accomplished? Check out this list for starters:

  • middle school honor student with a burning curiosity and an insatiable thirst for knowledge
  • trumpet player and theatrical performer
  • has played on community and/or school baseball, basketball and football teams
  • skis and enjoys outdoor adventure activities, e.g. river rafting and camping
  • (for me, most important: a discernibly sterling character)
Now for the really amazing parts. Before moving from Kansas to Colorado, Mark had only been to a synagogue on two occasions. He ate ham sandwiches. Now he regularly attends religious services, practices speaking Hebrew at home, keeps kosher and has joined a synagogue youth group. In conjunction with his Bar Mitzvah, Mark and his family have offered regular support to a Bhutanese refugee family who have settled in Denver to escape genocide in their country.

 

I’ve saved the most touching details for last. The parents of this extraordinary youth were chronic drug abusers. Mark’s mother divorced his father shortly after he contracted a brain tumor and proceeded to abandon her only child. Despite his terminal condition, Mark’s devoted dad was determined to teach his son as much as he could by the time Mark was six years old. The dad was graced with five years of life beyond that and spent many forms of quality time with his son.I also offer high praise to Mark’s aunt, uncle and young men cousins whose love and strong dedication to Mark’s overall well-being are extremely apparent.

Ruth and I really enjoyed the dinner and festivities, which we felt were elegant, yet tastefully done. Mark’s aunt constructed a tear-jerking slide show of her nephew’s life from birth to present.

The men’s anthology that I compiled and edited in 2011, Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives: Defining Moments, contains stories of men (and a couple of late teenage boys) who transformed their lives following adversity or major challenges. I would have been most honored to have included Mark’s life story in the book!

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Men’s Compromised Health

So often in my private practice I encounter a male client who has not had a physical examination for over two years, sometimes for as long as ten years. This form of self-neglect is of particular concern regarding guys who have a known medical condition and with those, for example, who are injured, obese, have high blood pressure and/or experience high levels of stress on a regular basis.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that U.S. women are 100% more likely than men to schedule annual preventative exams.

ManAtDoctor

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, men have higher death rates from major disorders such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. On the whole, guys also are more likely than women to be substance abusers and workaholics, and have a much higher incidence of suicide.

Given these kinds of serious concerns, Senator Bob Dole and Congressman Bill Richardson sponsored legislation 20 years ago to establish National Men’s Health Week around Father’s Day each year. President Bill Clinton signed the bill in 1994. To mark the 20th anniversary of this week dedicated to advancing male health awareness, numerous events were held around the country. Encouraged by the Men’s Health Network, health-oriented activities were promoted by various health care professionals, community groups, private industry and religious organizations. These efforts were designed to encourage men to develop a healthier lifestyle and to understand the importance of early detection of physical issues that could ultimately reduce the rate of mortality from disease. Wives, girlfriends, children and employers may also encourage (without nagging) guys to schedule a check-up.

In recent decades, several viable alternatives to allopathic medical care have become more credible and popular, such as acupuncture, naturopathic medicine and chiropractic.

Perhaps with greater attention to upgrading our health, we men may also reduce the longevity gap, as on average, women live several years longer than men. Furthermore, by consistently adapting favorable health practices, guys may enjoy a life of enhanced overall well-being:  increased physical, emotional mental and spirituality vitality, as well as better sexual performance with more satisfaction.

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The Richness of Father’s Day

Playing with my granddaughter on a recent hike.

Playing with my granddaughter on a recent hike.

 

As the father of three truly spectacular children and grandfather of two magnificent granddaughters, I relish the annual marker of “Father’s Day.”

This special day represents a lot for me, as I’m hoping it does for all of the loving, dedicated fathers who are celebrated by their offspring and partners on this occasion. It’s difficult for me to prioritize what I find most meaningful and awe-inspiring about this day. However, I can readily say that the least thrilling for me, yet what I still really appreciate, is the material gifts that I receive. Since I love wearing bedroom slippers, I look forward to receiving a new pair from my oldest daughter each year. My wife is consistently generous with gifts to me—sometimes to a fault.

My three kids and granddaughter being silly at Thanksgiving.

My three kids and granddaughter being silly this past Thanksgiving.

 

Now, for the ineffably beautiful “stuff.” I am profoundly humbled by the high honor and privilege of being a father and grandfather to these five incredible beings. My heart prostrates before G-d. Of course, I am delighted that each of my adult children love and celebrate me.

Clearly, I realize that what fills me even more is the overwhelming love and joy I feel for each of them! Each, in her (one “his”) distinct way, is such a shining manifestation of G-d’s grandeur. I could shed a river of joyful tears, but for now my eyes are dry and my heart swells with exuberance.

Ruth and I with our granddaughter on a trip to Winter Park last summer.

Ruth and I with our granddaughter on a trip to Winter Park last summer.

 

As Father’s Day approaches each year, I find myself reflecting a lot on my progress as a devoted and “good” father, as well as examining ways that I would like to become a “better” one. My kids have always offered me plenty of positive affirmations and feedback about how they’d like me to improve. I validate most of their perceptions, both pro and con, while adding my own aspirations to the list. As a therapist, I often tell clients who are parents that their kids generally serve as clear mirrors for them. Sometimes quite painfully, I have used my kids’ comments to catalyze my own character enhancements. My greatest teacher has been my youngest child, with whom I often clashed during her youth and teen years. As difficult as our relationship was for both of us, I have always recognized her beauty (inside and out) and her deep soulfulness. We have chosen to forgive each other for a lot. She has emerged into a sterling young adult and I’m so grateful (and relieved) that we have become close in recent years.

Wishing all of you dear fathers a glorious day of absorbing tributes, and more importantly, a time to use the opportunity to rigorously assess your fatherhood.

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The Bittersweet Empty Nest

EmptyNest

Most of you are familiar with the term empty nest: how couples feel and what they’re left with after their last child moves out of their house. The effects can be very dramatic, e.g. when their child(ren) move far away. They may be fortunate enough to become gradually prepared, e.g. by children returning home for extended periods, as during college vacations, and leaving home over a course of years.

My wife, Ruth, and I feel very blessed that all three of our adult children still live within a 60-mile radius of us—two much closer. Because we spread out our children over a 13-year span, the last one didn’t leave home until we were married for 40 years; she moved to Los Angeles for three years, but returned to our Denver area. We envision that two of our children will move out of state within the next few years. For us, finally having an empty nest has been a big celebration, especially since we have had the pleasure and luxury of being both emotionally and geographically close to our kids, who frequently get together with us.

Many people feel the way that we do: finally relieved of the responsibilities of daily parenting and delighted to have more personal time and sustained time together. However, at least as many couples feel adversely affected in a number of ways once they are alone. For example, they may grieve, suddenly feel old, feel lonely and a sense of emptiness in experiencing that they have little of substance to say to one another. Child-centered couples often come to realize that their children served to buffer them from establishing deep intimacy with each other.

Some factors that significantly ease the empty nest angst and pain are:

  • Couples forming a close bond with each other and communicating a lot throughout their relationship
  • Learning to constructively resolve conflicts
  • Developing a number of personal and shared interests/hobbies and activities
  • Arranging frequent dates together and deciding who will plan them
  • Getting together at least fairly often with other family members and/or friends
  • Maintaining frequent contact with the children, even if only by Skype, phone or email

For those of you about to embark on or in the throes of empty nesting, wishing you an exciting and joyous later-life adventure!

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Awakening an Inner Life

As most of us plunge daily into a world replete with work, activities, electronics and media, we tend to become more disconnected from our internal existence. We each have a gold mine inside of us that for many remains untapped, while many others have just explored the surface.

I feel that I have been blessed with an introspective nature, having quick and easy access to my thoughts and feelings throughout my life. For nearly four decades, I have engaged in many forms of meditative practice. I’ve also taught various kinds of meditation at the college level, several times annually at my temple, and incorporate themSometimes just a well-used overnight can be so rejuvenating! into the counseling and retreat work that I do as a psychologist.

Just as observing nature opens us to a profound sense of solitude, beauty and understanding, a foray into our inner lives continually reveals virgin landscape. What can be developed is concentration, receptivity, curiosity, creativity, imagery, deeper awareness of thoughts and feelings, greater presence and more. Some of the “more” includes a chamber of secrets that can only be acquired through diligent and persistent, yet patient pursuit. How’s all that for serious value?

There are a lot of “how to’s” with meditative practice. I just want to mention some basic, simple instructions for a practice that ultimately pays the handsome dividends I noted above. The essence of any meditation is detached observation or witnessing. Even if you practice other forms of meditation, e.g. involving a mantra or contemplation, I suggest taking at least five minutes daily (five minutes is plenty for beginners) to attune to what is happening inside of you moment to moment. Just observe the fluctuating thoughts, images, bodily sensations, breath patterns or emotions that occupy your attention. This practice is best done in a comfortable sitting position, with your back straight/erect, when alert and before a meal. Shortly after awakening is optimal for most people, including myself. Closing your eyes allows you to eliminate input from the external sense that you most likely rely on. You can sit quietly, or play various kinds of instrumental (non-lyric) music, e.g. classical, environmental, or new age. While my own preference is sitting quietly, each type of music will provide a different kind of experience.

Resist the very common temptation to evaluate or judge your meditative experience, such as, “my mind was really noisy today.” However, you may find it useful to become aware of a specific pattern, e.g. “I focused a lot on hunger pains in my belly” or “I was preoccupied with money worries.”

By allotting five or more minutes once or twice a day for this witnessing process, over time it will work its magic on you and you will accrue its benefits—some quite notable and others, very subtle.

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Remembering and Reflecting

Courtesy of Examiner.com

Courtesy of Examiner.com

On this holiday of remembering fallen soldiers, I pay tribute to all those who gave the ultimate personal sacrifice–their lives. While honoring the numerous acts of heroism through history, I also greatly lament every war.

Every one of our lives is so precious. We never know when our lives will end. I’d like to use this occasion to suggest that you pause awhile to reflect on the many kinds of impact, both sizable and seemingly small, that you have had on the world. You might even want to eulogize yourself!

Here are a few items to ponder that you might not consider on your own.
• When and how have you been heroic? Look for some ordinary, not necessarily sensational or headline ways.
• Remember some times that you were very surprised when told that you once did something that made a big difference for some people, or that what you did really touched them.
• How are you on track with your main life purpose?
• What are you avoiding or postponing doing that you know you really need to do? (tomorrow or too many tomorrows from now may be too late)
• What spontaneously comes to mind and/or heart about a life memory that lights you up?…another one…and another.

Short and hopefully sweet today. Wishing you a very meaningful Memorial Day and the start of making many, many more memorable memories (mmmmmm!).

P.S. If you have yet to read our men’s anthology, I invite you to visit the About tab on this site for a brief description of this book that features triumphant, transformational stories from 40 ordinary guys’ lives.

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Pride vs. Humility

Feeling pleased by just completing my latest book, which I co-authored with my wife Ruth, I got the idea for the topic of this blog.

Based on their religious or spiritual training, many people subscribe to the precept that pride is a character flaw. For years I have challenged the commonly accepted belief that attitudes, feelings and expression of pride are undesirable.

As a psychotherapist with over four decades of professional experience, I assert that self-esteem is the foundation of healthy psychospiritual development and character-building. Without a strong sense of self-worth, including pride about one’s accomplishments, a person feels unhappy and unfulfilled in life. Moreover, one needs to first have a solid sense of himself in order to gradually renounce aspects of ego.

Each of us needs to learn to discern the differences between a positive versus egotistical sense of ourselves. Narcissism involves grandiosity, excessive vanity and blatantly tooting one’s horn.

I witness and am turned off by many instances of false modesty or what I refer to as prideful humility. Too often I hear someone who is being acknowledged deflecting credit or allocating the bulk of it to others. An example is a quarterback who has had a great game or season attributing his success to the blocking of the offensive linemen or to his receivers’ prowess. Certainly, I feel it is appropriate and fitting to acknowledge team or group contribution, but at least accept some personal credit, without deflecting it. Of course, none of our accomplishments or virtues are purely self-generated; we’re all strongly influenced by our parents, close relatives, friends, teachers and others.

On that note, I advocate attaining sincere and deep humility. For me, the essence of humility is realizing that literally all of life’s gifts are the result of Divine Grace. In other words, all praise is quintessentially or ultimately due to God. Each of us best flourishes by aligning her will to the Divine Will, to the best of her understanding and ability.

Note:  Our new book is Secrets of a Soulful Marriage: Creating and Sustaining Loving, Sacred Relationships,  Jim Sharon, Ed.D. and Ruth Sharon, M.S.  Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014.

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