October 27, 2010
Seeing the invisible
What is it about the word “spiritual” that throws so many people off? Why is it that when I invite people to a Torah salon, I get a great reaction, but when I invite the same people to a “spiritual” salon that includes meditation, I get a rolling of the eyes? Is it just that the notion of spirituality is too nebulous to be taken seriously?
I’ve had a chance to reflect on these questions over the past week as I’ve hosted Rabbi Yoel Glick, a spiritual teacher with an unusual background. Glick, who lives in France and Jerusalem, trained in the classic Modern Orthodox world of Yeshiva University but also spent years studying with the Chasidic mystic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and dabbling in the Eastern arts of yoga and meditation.
His blend of Torah intellect and spiritual intensity was on full display the other night as he led a session in my home on “Building the Temple of the Heart: The Three Pillars of the Spiritual Life.”
It didn’t take long for the 20 or so attendees to realize this would not be an ordinary class. As soon as we sat down, Glick asked us for something I don’t recall ever experiencing in my house, especially when the kids are home: five minutes of total silence.
The idea was to put us in the mood to receive and experience the message itself.
For the next hour or so, Glick took us on a little expedition where the three pillars of the spiritual life became progressively deeper and more personal. He started in the classic tradition, quoting Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which teaches that “the world stands on three things: Torah, avodah (worship) and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).” The combined practice of these three principles, the rabbi told us, brought “balance, harmony and firmness” to the world of our sages.
He connected the three pillars to the three paths in yoga: jnana (wisdom), bhakti (devotion) and karma (action). Torah is the equivalent of jnana, the path of the mind; avodah is the equivalent of bhakti, the path of the heart; and gemilut hasadim is the equivalent of karma, the path of the hands and feet, or action.
Glick went on to explain that each of us has one path that seems to come more naturally, that “resonates more fully with our soul.”
At this point, he could easily have finished an excellent class. He would have tied classic Torah with Eastern philosophy and encouraged people to follow the spiritual path that speaks directly to them.
But it’s what followed that took the session to a more intensely spiritual level. Glick took the three pillars and connected them to the ideas of “expansion of consciousness,” the “remembrance of God” and “self-transformation.”
He quoted from Bible stories, Chassidut and many other sources to further develop the three pillars. He spoke about the importance of “expanding the boundaries of both our inner and outer reality,” of “bringing the awareness of God into every moment of our life” and of “transforming ourselves from animal creatures into Divine instruments — from what we are to what God wants us to be.”
As he spoke, almost in a meditative trance, I couldn’t help but think back to earlier that day, when Glick and I were having lunch with my marketing colleague Gary Wexler, and we were discussing how on earth one would market something as nebulous and intangible as “spirituality.” There were no simple answers, we concluded, because while the idea of marketing is to make noise and be visible, the magic of spirituality is that it is quiet and invisible.
Selling spirituality with the usual tricks of branding and benefits would just cheapen it, Glick told us. And he was right. Maybe this is why spirituality is still on the fringes of mainstream Judaism.
Ironically, I realized a few days later that the secret to marketing spirituality was walking right beside me on Pico Boulevard. It was Glick himself. The way he concentrated on every moment; the care he took to prepare his drash at the Happy Minyan; his ability to explode in joy when the feeling overtook him; how slowly and little he ate at our Shabbat table while he told stories and encouraged everyone to sing; how he paid so much attention to the kids; the sweetness of his words.
I know that, for many people, spirituality and meditation will always be a tough sell. The experience seems too mushy. It doesn’t feel as concrete as history, as artsy as poetry or as intellectually challenging as Talmud.
While there may be some truth in that, there’s also something simple and powerful at work for the serious practitioner of the spiritual arts: It’s what it does to you as a person.
I saw it with Rabbi Glick.
The rabbi explained that real spiritual work ends up permeating all of one’s thoughts and actions — not just helping us handle crises but also influencing how we go about our daily lives. Inevitably, it permeates how we practice our professions and influences the quality of all our relationships.
The work might be silent, Rabbi Glick seemed to be saying, but the effects are loud and clear.