January 13, 2012
Kosher Sutra: Flow (Shmot)
Kosher Sutra: Flow (Shmot)
Humans put extraordinary energy into resisting change. We have the ability to stay in jobs we don’t like, remain living in apartments with annoying neighbours, to remain in unhealthy relationships and carry out several other activities that drain our energy.
The Children of Israel faced a sudden change in Egypt and we are told that ‘a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). There is one view that it is the same Pharaoh who suddenly changed his character and rejected Joseph, whereas another view explains that the king died and was replaced by a new one. Either way, it was the beginning of slavery for the Jews and the transformation was harsh.
How can we best respond to sudden change? One strategy is to stay present. Things get a lot worse when add our own narrative; ‘this shouldn’t be happening…it isn’t right…I don’t deserve this…’. The purpose of all yoga and meditation is to strip us of the story we tell and to bring us into the present. Yoga is the single focus of ekagratta, the end of the mind’s fluctuations (Yoga Sutras), achieving a deeper state of unity within.
The great sage Hillel taught a powerful lesson when he uttered the words: “If I am not for myself, who am I?” (Pirkei Avot). When times are rough, we are responsible for our own wellbeing, and when difficult changes descend upon our life we have to attend to our needs. This can mean quieting our mind, centering ourselves and smoothing our breathing. This is the essence of vinyasa – the sun salutes – in yoga. We literally practice moving with the flow and try to keep our movements and breath as smooth as possible.
Change is inevitable in good times, let alone when the world is in financial turmoil. The secret to resisting change is simple – just allow it to happen. Life can be a lot less stressful and we will fare a lot better if we just go with the flow.
In his biography Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela recounts a rite of passage that was essential for members of his tribe in Africa. When a male turned 16 he was expected to take on the guise of a warrior and go through a public circumcision ceremony, without anaesthetic and without expressing pain or resistance. Jewish males have to go through a similar form of public torment in order to become a man. Upon turning 13 years old we gather all of our family and friends, musicians are hired, and we he must then dance in public with his mother. Only then is he truly considered a man. Is it any surprise that Freud was Jewish?
This week’s Kosher Sedra is based around the reading of Vayechi, my barmitzvah portion. And dedicated to my wonderful parents.
The scene is Egypt. The elderly patriarch Jacob gives his deathbed speech and addresses each of his children. The most powerful goes to Judah, who recently showed a depth of maturity and responsibility when he stood up for Benjamin. He is told:
“Judah, your brothers shall acknowledge your; your hand will be at your enemies’ nape: your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. A lion cub is Judah…The rod shall not depart from Judah nor a lawgiver from between his legs….” (Gen 49:8-)
The essence of this blessing is stability. Unlike his elder brother, the firstborn Reuben, Judah is solid. Reuben is described as ‘hasty like water’ (49:4), which is a fluid element. There are positive qualities to water but this is not one of them.
Internal balance is essential for all spiritual practice and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that : ‘Living…free of all anxieties, one should earnestly practice Yoga as taught by one’s guru. Yoga perishes by overeating, overexertion, talking too much… Yoga succeeds by ..enthusiasm, openness, courage’ (1: 14-16). I’ve recently been practicing meditation to reach a state of inner evenness, which is the midway point between extremes.
What does it mean to be an adult? This is a question I ask every year on the anniversary of my barmitzvah. Perhaps it is about stability. Being able to see the seasons come and go without being flustered. Perhaps maturity is the ability to appreciate pleasure and endure pain without over-identifying with either.
Who knows what 2012 is going to bring? Is the economy in a recession or a depression? Will there be any changes in the big city banks now that the ‘Occupy’ camps have been dismantled and the protesters sent home? In some ways, what goes on outside is not our concern. We can find stability through the ‘enthusiasm, openness, [and] courage’ mentioned by the yogis. We can emulate the leonine qualities of Judah, and stay grounded. If nothing else, we might be comforted by this thought: however bad things get, at least we don’t have to endure a public circumcision.
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