Beyond Meaning

I’m a meaning-guy. I like meaning(s). This doesn’t make me special. It’s just something I’ve come to know about myself.

As I reflect back on the last couple of months (years?) I see in my writing, and therefore my life, that meaning has become something of a means and an end. Meaning-making is how we get to meaning-living and isn’t the whole point to live a life of meaning?

 

Tel Aviv, 2016

Today I listened to an episode of Jack Kornfield’s podcast, Heart Wisdom, that reminded me of a deeply held belief: that there’s something beyond meaning. Typically I listen to Jack Kornfield so I can glean from Jack’s wisdom. Today I found myself learning not only from Jack, but from another teacher: Frank Ostaseski. Over the course of about 75 minutes these two teachers engaged in a rich discussion that was, ostensibly, about death. Here’s what I heard and in hearing was reminded. And here’s a link to the podcast before I forget.

Frank Ostaseski, who I was unfamiliar with, is the founder of Zen Hospice and the author of The Five Invitations. Though well acquainted with hospice and therefore, death, he spoke openly about his own experience with acute illness and how this challenged his hospice work. During that part of the conversation he explained that, as he approached his own death he would of course want skilled doctors and nurses overseeing his care and managing his pain. But, and here’s what really struck me, he said he’d also want to have around him people that are comfortable in a “territory of meaning.” When I heard that phrase, “territory of meaning” I instantly wrote it down (difficult because I was driving). I wrote it down because I love meaning and the phrase resonated with me. But he didn’t stop there. He explained that he would also want someone to be present with him in the vast realm beyond meaning, in the mystery. And when I heard him say that, I was reminded of my deep and abiding respect for and inclination toward mystery. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a look at mystery.

What I heard in Frank Ostaseski’s words was a kind of landscape of human experience. One level is that of knowledge and action– the level of doctors, nurses, and case workers. It’s a kind of technical level. Another level, which he calls the territory of meaning, is less about knowledge and more about wisdom. It’s less about action and more about presence. And finally, beyond meaning, is the realm of mystery. It seems to me that this realm is even beyond wisdom. An old Jewish teaching (of which I am now reminded) says that the adornment of wisdom is humility. What could be more true when encountering the greatest mysteries than an awesome sense of humility?

One of the joys of driving my daughter to and from the school at which I work every day is that I don’t have much time for podcasts. But when I do have a few minutes, I am always rewarded when I listen to Heart Wisdom. And to Frank Ostaseski I would simply say, thank you.

 

 

Life Lessons, 5/8/17

Occasionally my preferred vehicle for reflection is something I call, “Life Lessons.” It’s nearly impossible to draw a straight line from any of these life lessons to something that I actually experienced today. That’s because straight lines represent the shortest distance between two points.

 

Pizza Chart, CPK, Ashford Dunwoody

So, in no particular order:

  1. Sometimes word choice really does matter.
  2. The more listening, the richer the experience.
  3. Surprise is a prerequisite for delight.
  4. You’re more likely to be surprised if you live in a world of expectations. That’s because expectations often have surprising outcomes.
  5. Spirit is ageless.
  6. Sometimes the charcoal lights. Sometimes it doesn’t.
  7. Confirmation bias is real.
  8. You can learn a lot about a person (including yourself) by paying attention to what details they notice.
  9. Packing for the same trip gets easier each subsequent time. Even though it’s never the same trip and it doesn’t actually get easier.
  10. Sometimes you leave a gift for your future self. And sometimes your future self finds and receives the gift.

Letting Go

My daughter recently turned 6.

She was excited to turn 6.

She loved being 5.
She’s already thinking about being 7.

It’s clear that she views her turning 6 as a major milestone and life accomplishment.

It’s also clear that she had no problem letting go of 5.

Watching her go to sleep a 5 year old

and wake up a 6 year old

was, for me, an education in letting go.

Letting go can be simple.

After all, it’s natural to let go.

The entire universe, even time itself, constantly demand of us that we let go.

All of us are, quite literally, letting go in and of every moment of our earthly existence.

And most of the time we do it unconsciously, and without any thought or intention, without any evident pain or suffering.

Then there are times when we cling so firmly to something that the possibility of letting go seems absurd, even terrifying.

There seem to be things, and lots of them, that evoke our clinging mechanism.

Because of the loss. Because of the way that those things anchor us. Because of our identification with those people, things, experiences, and ideas.

There something beautiful about our clinging. There’s something romantic about holding on, about refusing to let go.

A lot could be said at this point about the balance in life, of holding on and letting go. A lot has been said.

For example, holding on tightly and letting go lightly.

Somehow “adulting” often ends up complicating our natural ability to navigate the letting go. Adulting gives us plenty of opportunities to deploy our clinging mechanisms.

I’d offer that my turning 38 is, like my daughter turning 6, a lesson in letting go, but for different reasons. Reasons like the clinging mechanism.

While more challenging, the possibility of meaningfully letting go as an adult brings with it the possibility of radical growth and transformation of consciousness.

Letting go doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It doesn’t meaning living an apathetic or untethered existence. Instead I think it means encountering self, other, experience, and world as they actually are rather than as we want them to be.

And going from there.

 

Remind

The deepest truths of human experience and reality can’t be taught.

They can’t be acquired. Uploaded. Downloaded. Inputed. Scanned. Computed. Etc.

They’re already there, in the inmost place where things sometimes find themselves forgotten, disregarded, shunned, or otherwise put out of mind.

You and I already know them.

Whether we’ve been too preoccupied to meditate on them

Or worked our hardest to bury them.

They reside in those inmost places.

Rather than trying to inform, educate, instill, or otherwise cram these truths into one another

We can instead remind one another that we were born knowing these deepest truths.

We can remind one another

Compassionately, by example, through story, in friendship, from love

Gently, patiently, and in a way that allows for the possibility that reminding another being

We simultaneously remind ourselves.

 

Something Ken Wilber Said

Recently I checked out an episode of the podcast, “The Indie Spiritualist,” that had an interview between host, Chris Grosso and renowned philosopher, Ken Wilber. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of Ken Wilber without actually knowing much about his thoughts and ideas. The Indie Spiritualist has inspired me to learn more.

During the interview, Wilber said something that struck me. The way he said it made me think he’s said it on more than one occasion. He said, “Nobody’s smart enough to be wrong all the time.” It’s a clever turn of phrase, for sure, but it makes an interesting and worthwhile point. None of us is right or wrong, all of the time. There’s something inherently un-human about certainty and absolutes, while there’s something deeply humane about doubt, nuance, conflictedness, and the type of hard earned humility that comes from being wrong.

Over the last 18 months, many journalists, social critics, and concerned individuals have bemoaned the devolution of discourse in the public square. We talk at, rather than to one another. That is, if we talk at all. More often than not we’re screaming. Terrified by “the other” and his seemingly all-encompassing world view that leaves no room for doubt let alone transformation. That’s how many of us find ourselves. And despairing of the possibility of reestablishing civil discourse. We’re quick to dismiss entire segments of the population as being wrong, all the time. But when we do that, we’re giving them and ourselves too much credit. While we may reject their politics, their values, and their interpretations of reality, it’s simply unwise and unrealistic to assume that “they’re wrong all of the time.” Wilber is correct, nobody is smart enough for that.

Wilber suggests that we find ways to honor multiple worldviews and take from them that which helps us collectively move forward. While there are undoubtedly many worldviews that offer little in terms of advancing our collective humanity, there can only be a precious few that are completely lacking of some insight, nuance, or perspective that deserves at least our consideration if not our respect and affirmation.

Film Review: On the Map

What does it mean to be a part of something greater than yourself?

What does it mean to live a life of meaning?

What does it mean to be a Jew? An Israeli?

These and other profound questions are raised by “On the Map,” (2016) an excellent documentary written and directed by Dani Menkin. “On the Map” tells the incredible story of the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team. While the film centers on the team’s captain, Tal Brody, it is decidedly not about any one person. It is about the entire team, all of Israeli society, world Jewry and even the community of nations then and now.

I recently had a chance to watch “On the Map” with 4th-8th grade students and teachers on the big screen in the Rosenberg Performing Arts Theatre at The Davis Academy. We screened the film as part of our Yom Ha’Atzmaut Celebration. Initially I had concerns about showing the film to our 4th and 5th graders. I was concerned for a couple of reasons– 1) the complex political and historical context of the film; 2) the fact that the film is a documentary; and 3) 2-3 bad words. In the end, these concerns didn’t outweigh the strengths of the film and I decided to show it. I introduced the film by explaining a bit of the historical context. A basic knowledge of the Yom Kippur War, Munich Olympics, as well as political events of 1977 in Israel empowers viewers to more fully engage with the content of the film.

While this is a spoiler-free review, I will say that there were several really poignant, even tear-jerking moments in the film. Those moments had to do with dreams deferred, personal sacrifices, the special camaraderie of being a part of a team, individual transformational journeys, and the special nature of Israeli society. Watching the film it is easy to slip into nostalgia for a different era in Israeli society. Not necessarily an easier time, but a simpler time. A time when an entire nation could come together behind a single sporting event. A time when an Israeli basketball team could travel across Europe and represent their country like any other team.

There are many quotable moments in the film and plenty of different directions for post-film discussion. I’ll offer one quote from the film that stuck with me. As part of his interview during the film, Israeli politician, Yair Lapid, reflects on the famous statement, “Israel is on the map,” spoken by Tal Brody. In doing so Lapid says, “There are sentences that take you from one stage to another.”

As a rabbi, educator, parent, and human being, one of the recurring themes of my personal and professional life is the idea of finding your voice. Lapid’s quote shows the power of language and of the human voice to both uncover and articulate profound meaning. In that same interview Lapid reflects on the fact that Brody, a native English speaker, uttered the phrase, “On the map” in Hebrew. He points out how incredible it is that someone not raised in Israel or speaking Hebrew was able to express the voice of an entire nation during that moment. For those of us that are committed to the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and for those of us that are striving to teach Hebrew in this context, Tal Brody’s famous words should reinforce the power and potential of our work.

If you have questions about screening “On the Map” I would be happy to be a resource for you.

Everyday holiness

There’s long been a distinction in Judaism between “Kodesh” (“Holy”) and “Chol” (“Profane/Mundane”). In fact, the Havdalah Service at the end of Shabbat includes a blessing that thanks God for distinguishing between these two different states- Kodesh and Chol. The distinction comes from the fact that the rabbis of ancient times thought that part of the Holiness of the Divine Being was the separateness of that Being from all other beings. Holy meant, unique, perfect, uncorrupted, and by extension– separate. “Chol” (profane/mundane) wasn’t a bad thing– it just meant un-Divine. Things that are made of blood and guts, like people, are basically “chol” except for that part of us that is a reflection of the Divine Being. In this distinction there could be some aspects of “Kodesh” in the “Chol”– some holiness in the mundane or profane, but the opposite couldn’t be true. There’s no “Chol” in “Kodesh”– nothing profane about God.

While God is a fascinating topic, worthy of lots of thought, reflection, and meditation, so too is “Chol”– the mundane and profane aspects of creation and of life. After all, we spend a lot of time dwelling in the “Chol” (interestingly, Chol also means “sand”). The “Chol” is interesting because of the complexity, because of the messiness, because of the many different ways that “Chol” appear in the world. “Chol” is also fascinating because of the way that “Kodesh” ends up appearing amidst the “Chol.”

How does the Divine Spark manifest in your being? In your life? In the decisions you make? In the capacities that you have? In the world around you? What do you make of the beauty in the profane and mundane that is all around?

There’s a part of me that wants to give up the “Kodesh/Chol” distinction. That part of me is pretty insistent that, “it’s all holy.” And while I acquiesce to that voice often, there’s part of me that continues to love the messy combination of Kodesh and Chol that characterizes so much of my own life experience and informs the way that I make sense of the world around me.

The Creek at Hardtimes Trail, NC

In praise of the qualitative

April’s #BlogaMonth topic,”How do you internally measure success (beyond that of test scores)?” took me back to my days as an Ed.D. student working on my doctoral research. During those weeks, months (and years), my natural tendency toward qualitative rather than quantitative research heavily influenced the direction and nature of my research into adolescent spirituality.

I don’t want to get too granular here in terms of my research project, research orientation, and methodology. But from my current vantage point I continue to be glad for the fact that I approached my research through the lens of qualitative research.

My primary goal in pursuing an Ed.D. was to arrive at a place where I could authentically consider myself to be a “scholar-practitioner.” To me that means having the ability to view one’s career and community of practice not only as a dedicated professional, but also as an engaged and curious researcher. Within any school community there are a dizzying amount of potential areas for scholarly inquiry. Many teachers and administrators don’t have the time or the training to approach their work through the critical eye of a researcher. Those that do have a unique opportunity to advance their understanding of their school and ultimately to help the school better understand itself. While it’s possible to be a truly outstanding practitioner without any training in formal research, research background offers a really exciting and unique skill set to any practitioner that is open to seeking out these skills.

Within the research world there are roughly two camps– qualitative and quantitative. Each has their time and place, their strengths and weaknesses. Each has their built in tensions and biases and much depends on the researcher, the area of inquiry, and the scope of the research project. But while quantitative can certainly yield rich data, qualitative research, in my opinion, offers the scholar-practitioner the most interesting and nuanced pathway into a deeper appreciation of the human elements of their community of practice because it creates the most room for the human voice both in the formulation of the project and in the data collection and analysis.

Hiking on Hardtimes

While enjoying our stroll through the woods outside of Asheville I had a chance to reflect on the activity of hiking. Specifically, I had a chance to reflect on the different ways that people choose to journey through the woods (and to some extent through life). The fact that we were walking on a trail called “Hardtimes” might’ve had something to do with my reflective mood.

First, we weren’t alone in the woods. In fact, it was pretty busy out there for a Monday morning. We saw a few couples walking through the woods, a man walking his dog, a few runners, and a few mountain bikers. Some of us come to the woods for solitude, some for companionship, some to stroll, and some to get fit. It’s all good.

 

And then there were my kids. They’re great sports and pretty enthusiastic about hiking all things considered. But my wife and I kept finding ourselves ever so slightly frustrated with the pace of our journey. Anyone who has walked with kids knows that it can be slow going. Our son loves picking up sticks and rocks and enjoys nothing more than throwing sticks and rocks in creeks and streams. Our daughter enjoys looking at leafs and other objects along the way and can often be found investigating something or other. She also enjoys jogging and occasionally sitting down on a log for a quiet moment. And she also enjoys climbing rocks and trees. Together, under the influence of Mulan and Star Wars, they enjoy battling with and against one another, often proclaiming, “For China.” Which is pretty entertaining. As it is for so many, the woods are full of wonder and magic for our children. Until they no longer wish to be hiking.

 

As for me and my wife. We were in transit from Pittsburgh to Atlanta and eager to stretch our legs, get some fresh air, and do some serious walking. Our kids don’t yet allow us to do the kind of vigorous walking that we long to do. It’s frustrating at times, but it’s also a wonderful age and stage of life and we both know that we’ll miss those frequent interruptions, hours spent throwing sticks in the water, and elaborate battles waged “for China.”

Walking through the woods a part of me wondered how I might get back to that “child’s mind” that my kids so authentically embody. Another part of me looked forward to the day when we’ll be able to arrive at breathless vistas as our family becomes more capable and adventurous. And all of me was grateful for the fresh air, the beautiful trees, the singing birds, and the morning spent reconnecting with self, family, and nature.

 

 

But I am Not

I have a name, but I am not my name

I have a body, but I am not my body

I have a job, but I am not my job

I have a family, but I am not my family

I have thoughts, I have feelings, I have hopes, I have fears, I have a past, I have memories, I have a soul. Power, weakness, faith, doubt, anger, wonder, love, hate.

But I am not these things.

Were I to consider any of these things to be me, I would be mistaking the part for the whole.

Even when I take all these things together

And everything else I think I am

I still have not arrived at the whole,

At me.

So long as I try to discover myself in reference to what I am, what I have, and how I exist in the world

I will likely never arrive at anything approaching the ultimate reality of my existence.

On in understanding that I am you and you and you and this and this and that and all the rest and nothing will eventually get closer to my I-ness.