Posted by Marcus J Freed
What do the following things have in common: Jelly doughnuts, female assassins, massage oil, and good old-fashioned hard work? Switch on the kettle, make a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea and join me by the fireside for the Kosher Sutra Holiday Special. It all boils down to three topics: Food, Sex and Money. Is there anything else?
There is a universal law that all musicians know. The more you practice your instrument, the better your chance of becoming a musician. A similar law applies to sports, which is why Tiger Woods spent countless hours practicing his swing and Beckham put in his time honing the goals. Of course, this applies to everything in life. Which begs the simple question - why do so many of us get frustrated when we get poor results but we haven’t put in the work?
My yoga teacher Edward taught me how to do handstands, inverted eagles and backbend kickovers, but he always maintains that the hardest yoga move is this: putting on your shorts and standing at the front of your mat in the morning.
It is easy to sit and write New Years’ Resolutions but a lot harder to start doing them. For some reason we find it much easier to write. Actions speak louder than words, but it’s much easier to talk rather than do.
There are many epithets which point in the same direction.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
‘It’s not talking about it (midrash) but doing it (ma’aser)’ (Ethics of the Fathers).
You reap what you sow
[Add your own here].
Our Kosher Sutra begins with the dream-interpreting prophet Joseph who meets the King of Egypt. Pharaoh has a dream of seven sickly sheaves and seven healthy sheaves standing next to one another. Joseph also had a dream of sheaves, that he was working in the field binding it. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out the difference between the two dreams, in that Joseph dreams of working but Pharaoh dreams that wealth just happens. The latter is a model of spiritual and material growth – we put in the hours and we get results.
“This highlights the fact that all matters of holiness require effort, ensuring that what we receive from God in return should not be unearned ‘bread of shame’ (Jerusalem Talmud 1:3). When a person dedicates himself to serious work, he has the promise of success that ‘you laboured (and therefore) you discovered’ (Megillah 6b). In fact, a person is capable of achieving success far beyond the proportion of effort invested – following the pattern of ‘always ascending when dealing with matters of holiness’” (Likutei Sichot Vol 3. p819ff, in Gutnick Chumash.)
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions the importance of regular yoga/meditation practice, although if we are truly honest with ourselves, surely we know all of this already?
This weekend is Holiday Season in the west and that means Christmas Cake, Chanukah Doughnuts and a whole lot of lip-smacking high-cholesterol snacking. My father refers to the typical Chanukah foods as ‘heart-attack alley’. He’s got a point.
The festival of lights recounts how the Greek-Syrian empire invaded ancient Israel and set up foreign idols in the temple. A group of fighters known as the Maccabbees (‘hammers’) staged a guerrilla-warfare campaign, stormed Jerusalem and reclaimed the capital. The menorah, a ceremonial candelabra, was almost out of oil but a miracle occurred and one day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days. Hence the eight nights of Chanukah.
Oh, and there’s one more thing.
The rabbis teach how it is customary to eat oily foods during Chanukah. That means oily doughnuts, oil-fried potato patties known as latkes and any other artery-busting grub we can get our hands on.
Is tradition always right? Would the Maccabbees have said to themselves ‘hey ho! It’s time to go on a sortie and invade Jerusalem. Let’s have a plateful of doughnuts!’?
I’ve yet to hear a spiritual leader who stands up and says that Chanukah should be celebrated by a week of eating salads with high-quality freshly-pressed olive oil, coupled with organic fish that is rich in Omega-3 oils. Or that husbands should massage their wives with flaxseed or sesame oils.
Back to our ‘regular practice’ principle of spiritual growth. We spend our days eating stodgy oily foods, consuming high-fructose corn syrup and other processed sugars, and then get surprised when our bodies finally start developing problems.
We reap what we sow.
The universal principle of regular practice also applies to relationships. This is something we know instinctively, in that we need to put time into building a relationship rather than just taking it for granted.
There was a famous medieval law known as Droit du Seigneur where a feudal overlord would take the virginity of new brides by sleeping with them on the night of their wedding. Few are aware that this also took place during the Greek rule of Ancient Israel. The Kitsur Shulchan Aruch tells of how the daughter of the High Priest Yohanan put a swift end to this custom when it was her turn to get married.
She cooked a dairy meal for the Governor which made him sleepy and during his slumber she cut off his head and then took it to Jerusalem as proof. Hence the widespread custom for women not to work whilst the candles are burning (Kitsur Shulchan Oruch, 3:1 & 3). Whoever said that Jewish princesses couldn’t cook was clearly mistaken.
It’s easy really, and the summary is simple. If we go to a meditation class and then complain that our minds are racing, we aren’t giving it a chance. We wouldn’t sit down by a piano for the first time and expect to just be able to play one of Mozart’s piano sonatas.
We don’t need New Year’s Resolutions. We just need to make a simple list of our priorities, and then we need to be honest about it. Where do you want to be this time next year, and what do you need to get there? Whether it is learning a headstand, an eight-hour meditation, playing a violin concerto, losing weight, saving more money, or becoming more organised, most things are within our reach if we can remove the blocks to achieving them. We can dream of sheaves of corn being gathered within our storehouse, but the dreams are more effective if we picture ourselves planting and harvesting them in the first place.
Marcus J Freed is the creator of Bibliyoga (www.bibliyoga.com), President of the Jewish Yoga Network (www.jewishyoganetwork.org) and CEO of Freedthinking (www.freedthinking.com). He lives in Los Angeles.
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December 16, 2011 | 3:29 pm
Posted by Marcus J Freed
Some performers have a bad habit. Receiving a compliment, they reply “oh, I wasn’t that good”, or even worse, “I was awful tonight”. Rather than showing humility, they are display arrogance and reject your verbal gift.
My LA acting teacher Janet Alhanti said something very strong about this. Her client list has included plenty of accomplished people including Robert Downey Jr, Salma Hayek, Tobey Maguire, Meatloaf and Keanu*, while the teachers she studied with included Phillip Burton (Richard’s father), Sandy Meisner and Lee Strassberg. Janet said “when someone compliments you on talent, just say ‘thank you’ and smile, because it’s not about you. The talent is given by God, it flows through you, and you’re only the guardian of it. This is why it’s also your job to nurture and take care of talent so that it isn’t wasted’. Maybe I’ve paraphrased a little, but I love the idea!
Most of us are familiar with Joseph’s dreams. Firstly he dreams that he’s working in the field with his brothers binding sheaves, his sheaf stands up and all of his brothers’ sheaves bow down to his. He then dreams of the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. There is one major question though. Why did Joseph deliberately upset his brothers by sharing the dreams? Why didn’t he stay quiet?
Some commentators said that he mistakenly thought that sharing the dreams would appease the brothers, because it was only the sheaves and stars who were bowing down, rather than the brothers themselves. He thought explaining the dreams would make them feel better because it was only the sheaves and stars bowing down, not the brothers themselves. How wrong he was.
There’s an fascinating opinion brought by a commentator who explains that when you are given a prophecy, you are obligated to share it with others (Rosh). Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were this way with talent? When children discover their abilities, whether it is to sing, dance, paint, debate or create, that they have to find a way to use their God-given skills?
At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita we are introduced to the notion of Dharma, or purpose. In some ways we only have one challenge in life, which is to discover our purpose and follow it. In a previous Kosher Sutra we discussed how some people run from following their purpose, such as the prophet Jonah, and we can now consider how to serve this purpose with humility. Dharma isn’t about goals, ambitions, or ego-fuelled ideas. It is about seeing reality for what it is. We are all born with a talent and there is a way to use it for good in the world. We just have to figure it out and do it.
A beautiful sutra is currently being displayed around Los Angeles. The posters for the HBO television series How to Make It in America have the tagline ‘Dream Big or Go Home’. As the grateful recipient of an artists’ working visa from Homeland Security, I find this a poignant daily reminder!
One of the last century’s biggest dreamers was Nelson Mandela, and he supposedly ended his May 1994 inauguration address with the words “as we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”. The quotation came from spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Here is the full version from her book A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
There is a difference between humility and arrogance, and if we have been given a gift then we can use it for serving the world with a humble and upright spirit. How does it feel if we give someone a gift and they put it on the shelf to gather dust? I wonder how God feels about people who ignore their natural talents.
Joseph’s natural talent was to interpret dreams, something which is still practiced today by psychotherapists. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1913), it was Sigmund Freud’s genius that taught us about how we can use dreams to understand the workings of our subconscious. Freud also uncovered the idea of a ‘paraprax’ where we unconsciously reveal a piece of information through language, which is commonly known as a ‘Freudian slip’. Altthough the difference with Joseph is that more than delving into his own subconscious, he reveals prophecies through dreams. A more rational approach might describe Joseph as Jungian, because Carl Jung (1875-1961) taught that dreams can help us tap into the ‘collective unconscious’ through the use of archetypal symbols. A Jungian reading would suggest that Joseph tapped into the greater reality, and could interpret the future because he knew how to read the archetype symbols.
When Joseph uttered his prophecy, his brothers said “we will see what will become of his dreams” (Gen 37:20). I once heard the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks describe this as a ‘prophetic slip’. In other words, they were eventually going to see what would become of Joseph’s dreams, but they didn’t realise it when they said it! I love the Chief’s brilliant phrasing of this.
Our waking mind is often full of ego and distraction which is why the unconscious mind has to find creative ways to communicate with us. One way to get in touch with our purpose is through meditation and yogic stillness, and perhaps another way is through sleep.
This Wednesday marks the beginning of Chanukah, a festival of lights. There is a custom of lighting the candles either on the front porch or on a window that can be seen from the street outside. We can use this idea as a reminder to focus on how we can share our own light with the world.
Tonight, may you be blessed with a very peaceful sleep and a very clear dream. And may your dreams come true for the good. Dream big…..or go back to sleep for a little longer.
Which dream will do the trick? Any dream will do….
December 9, 2011 | 12:42 am
Posted by Marcus J Freed
There’s a really incredible piece of machinery that has been developed. It has a built-in feedback system that tells you when it needs fixing, the software is continually upgraded and the hardware has a lifetime guarantee. The item is called a ‘body’.
We are creatures of innate balance, whether we realise it or not. If we need food, we eat. When we’re depressed we try to cheer up. Should our skin get torn, it tries to repair itself. Even ‘bad’ things like cancer cells are merely the body’s misguided attempt at rebalancing itself.
Our Kosher Sutra features the patriarch Jacob who provides an interesting model of spirituality. He doesn’t sit on a hill and meditate, nor does he withdraw from the world to ‘be spiritual’. His spirituality is hands on, dirty and downright messy. Spirituality isn’t being separated worldly influences, but choosing how we respond to them. His father-in-law lies to him, his brother dislikes him, and this week we meet him in a place of sheer fear that meeting his sibling after 20 years could lead to a physical attack on his household.
The notion of ‘Karma’ is that there is cause and effect. Every action has a reaction, and if we push something out of balance then we essentially need to fix it. In the book The Energy of Money – A Spiritual Guide to Financial and Personal Fulfillment, the author Maria Nemeth recommends healing one’s ‘money karma’ by doing a careful accounting of outstanding energetic debts. That means any promises we’ve made to buy someone a gift, any pledges to charity that we haven’t fulfilled or even any volunteer time we’ve promised and not delivered. She teaches that as soon as we say we’ll do something we create a contract that has to be completed. If we don’t complete it then we create an energy block that needs to be healed, much like stuffing some leaves into a pipe that will stop the rainwater from flowing.
Jacob has a seemingly awful time of it. He was tricked into giving up 14 years of his life to marry the woman he loved and he’s now fearful that his brother will kill him. He doesn’t ask ‘why is this happening to me?’ because he knows full well. 20 years earlier he tricked his brother Esau out of the birthright and now it’s time for payback. Jacob is so scared that Esau will kill him that he sends wildly extravagant gifts and splits his household into two, with one wife in each camp, so that if one half of his life is totally decimated then at least he will have something left to rebuild with.
Spirituality is about meditation and prayer but it is also about practicality and doing everything we can to build an incredible life on earth.
There is one specific part of the body that helps us keep our balance and enables us to move forwards in the world, but it can also hold us back: the hips. In Caroline Myss’s outstanding book Anatomy of the Spirit, she explains how the hips and pelvis can be storage points for fear about blame, guilt, power, control, creativity and money issues. Although her thinking is immensely developed around this area, one basic idea is that when we suffer hip problems, it can be because there is a part of us that doesn’t want to move forwards. She explains that we can heal our body when we can truly listen to what our body is telling us, and that most physical pains can be related to emotional issues. This whole area of study known as ‘energetic anatomy’.
Immediately before meeting Esau, Jacob has the wrestling bout with an unknown figure, who is revealed to be an angel. Jacob leaves with an injury deep within his hip socket, which is eventually healed once he has made peace with his brother. From an energetic perspective, this makes complete sense. Jacob has to get everything back into balance within his body and within his world. His physical pain is deep, affecting his muscles, tendons and bones, and to this day the sinew of the leg muscle is considered a non-kosher piece of meat ‘because [the angel] struck the ball of Jacob’s thighbone on the displaced sinew’ (Gen 32:33).
When Jacob meets Esau, everything goes better than imagined and ‘Esau ran towards him, embraced him, fell upon his neck, kissed him, and they wept’ (Gen 33:4). Perhaps the meeting went so well because Jacob had already done the internal work, accounting for all of his actions, and completing a full physical and emotional healing. In last year’s Kosher Sutra we discussed how Jacob is totally healed from his hip pain (Rashi).
The yogis discussed five layers or sheaths to our body, which are mainly energetic. The ‘top’ two layers are the physical and the energetic sheaths, known as the annamaya kosha and the pranamaya kosha. When we go into a yoga posture we start with the physical level and work from there.
Jacob got deeply into the anatomy of his hip, healing his femur, hip socket, periformus, sartorius, gluteus medius and gluteus maximus, psoas and who knows what else. The Kabbalists associate Jacob with the sefirah-quality of Tiferet, which stands for compassion and inner balance.
Many of us have unresolved issues and unresolved pains, but healing is within our hands. We can maintain and ‘upgrade’ our software by listening closely to our hardware. Rebalancing begins today.
Marcus J Freed is the creator of Bibliyoga and yogi-in-residence for JConnectLA & Jewlicious Festivals. He’s also the President of the Jewish Yoga Network and Director of Yoga Mosaic USA.
December 5, 2011 | 3:41 pm
Posted by Marcus J Freed
Last week a Kentucky man made big news. He went shopping, packed his three children and groceries into the car and then drove away before realising he’d left something in the shopping cart: his six-month old baby.
It is easily done. Not abandoning babies, but forgetting to be mindful. We are easily distracted by a myriad of, well, distractions. Our thoughts are in the past, in the future, on a phonecall and anywhere but the present. The breakthrough of Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction techniques were that they taught people how to reduce stress through being mindful. Simple? Only if we actually do it.
Our Kosher Sutra recounts a flash of mindfulness. The patriarch Jacob sleeps, has a dream about a ladder connecting earth and heaven upon which there are angels ascending and descending, and he notices God standing over him. As the Californian natives would put it; ‘awesome’. We then read how Jacob awakes, realises that Divinity is present, becomes frightened and says ‘How awesome this place is! This is none other than the home of God and the gate of the heavens’ (Gen 28:17). Awesome indeed.
When are able to keep our minds in the present moment we can tune in to a completely different reality. There is no past, no future, no stress, no worry, no pain, and no problem, but only the moment. We’ve all heard this a million times, so why can’t we realise it? Have you ever done the equivalent of forgetting the baby – whether it’s walking around the house looking for sunglasses that were on your head (ok, I confess), or forgetting something important.
Of course, psychoanalysts and writers would have something else to say about the topic. In Confessions of an Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey wrote “There is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind” (2:67) and it was Sigmund Freud who introduced the idea of memory suppression, or ‘motivated suppression’, where we forget things because we want to. This could be an abuse victim suppressing a traumatic memory or a husband forgetting to buy something for his wife because he feels that he can’t afford it. Who knows? Maybe he didn’t want the fourth baby in the first place. Either way, suppressed memory or not, there was a lack of conscious thought matching the unconscious action.
Perhaps there are some answers in the 15th-Century Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady. When the breath is steady, the mind is steady and the yogi becomes steady. Therefore one should restrain the breath’ (2:2). The breath ‘restraining’ can involve various pranayama (yogic breathing) practices, whether it is inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils or holding the breath for short periods of time. Either way the aim is to steady our thoughts and increase our level of consciousness.
Back to the Kosher Sutra with Jacob, who merely laid down for a sleep and had a sudden flash of consciousness through his dream. Rashi (11th Century) explains that the comment ‘How awesome is this place’ was like a level of understanding. Jacob suddenly saw through the physical veil of his surroundings and was able to connect with the deeper spirituality around him. The word for awesome was given an Aramaic translation (through Onkelos) that was a similar word to ‘understanding’. No doubt Dr Freud would have something to say to his great-great-great ancestor Jacob about reaching a deeper level of understanding through the dream state.
I sometimes moan about the over-use of the word in California but also wonder if there’s a positive aspect to it, with people genuinely finding awe in every day events. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but if we could really breathe in every moment and understand the magnitude of what’s around us, maybe we’d all be seeing-the-awe every few minutes. Right now, try counting your blessings. How many fingers and toes do you have? How much food is in your fridge? How many relatives do you have who love you? How many friends do you have (both real and Facebook)? Awesome.
This week’s homework suggestion is to try some mindful breathing (e.g. watch your breathing when you are sitting, walking and running). Don’t get put off if you find it difficult, try not to suppress your opportunities to give it a good shot, and if it is a real struggle then just do whatever you can, and don’t throw out the baby with the babywater.