Today is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 5, 2013, Tishrei 1, 5774. Here are some thoughts I had in preparation for starting the New Year, around the question of what gives us internal strength, and gives us a connection to our true inner selves. These questions arose after spending a month writing an in-depth story about the con man in Old Town. A print version of this story, "Creating a Sanctuary Within," with the photo in black and white, appears on page 3 of The New Mexico Jewish Link for September, 2013, v. 43, n. 8, and, in the Gallup Independent, the first part as "Creating a sanctuary within" on August 17, 2013 p. 24, and Part II as "Listening to our true selves," on Sept. 7, 2013, p. 20, for their Spiritual Perspectives column, where she has been a contributing columnist since 2008.
It is natural to want the approval and support of others. We want to please our parents, teachers, bosses, clergy, those that represent power and authority in our lives. Problems can arise, however, when we do not have a good relationship with ourselves.
If we are overly insecure, if we doubt our own judgment and always put our faith in getting the answers to our questions from others, we may over time give our power away to another person and favor their judgment over our own. Doing so opens the door to being taken advantage of and being overly influenced by another.
At one end of the spectrum, studies have shown that friends eat more when together with friends who may be overweight. It is harder to quit smoking if your partner smokes. At the other extreme, we may fall prey to manipulation and fraud at the hands of an unscrupulous authority figure, who may take advantage of us at any level for their own gain.
One remedy is to strengthen our relationship with ourselves, to learn to believe in ourselves, to like ourselves, and to love ourselves. With this inner strength we can face life’s challenges.
We can also begin to develop a relationship with a higher power in our lives, a relationship that that we can turn to, and to realize that we are not alone. During the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the New Year in the Jewish calendar, which comes on September 5th this year, as I read a useful book, “The Jewish Holidays,” by Michael Strassfeld. A rabbi, he directs us to take stock of ourselves.
We are asked to see where we have fallen short, so that we may be prepared to make amends, and at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on September 10 this year, to ask for forgiveness from God. A surprising element of the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions in the Jewish tradition is that we also annul in advance our vows to do better next year (so as not to have sinned when, fallible creatures that we are, we invariably will have fallen short—again!).
Where have I failed myself this year? What is it that I want to change? I have a short temper, which always gets me in trouble. Others seem to be able to get away with such things but not me. When I verbalize my anger, I feel intensely guilty and punish myself. When I don’t express it, I become intensely frustrated and depressed, again turning the anger against myself. Since I cannot control the behaviors of others around me, if I do not approve of their actions, and if what they do has a direct effect on me, I am in a constant state of misery. There seems to be no escape. In this way, the narrow straits in which I find myself lead me to seek escape in addictive behaviors, most easily in food and television.
And now, as I approach this New Year, I realize that I have gained weight. Occasional renewed resolves over the past year to exercise and diet seemed to have lost their momentum. What am I going to do about it? I think I finally am beginning to see that the answer lies in a better relationship with myself, and also with God, the Creator, a Higher Power.
I was brought up in a household that, like many Jewish households in the 20th century, had lost faith in God. I never knew what it meant to pray. This year, I will begin to turn more in that direction, to see if the answers I have sought in the world, and not found, can be found within and in a better relationship with the Great Creator.
As Strassfeld explains in his book, “Destruction and rebuilding are recurring underlying themes of the festival cycle, for we are meant to create a mishkan or sanctuary in our lives. As God states, ‘Let them make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.’ [. . . ] when we have readied our own selves to be dwelling places for God, to begin to create spaces where God can dwell in our midst.”
In every culture, in every religion, there is the inner tradition and the outer tradition, the way that the individual connects to the spiritual within themselves, and the outer forms of tradition by which we are connected to the social community at large and which may be directed or mediated by a teacher or leader who has studied or been further initiated into the traditions that have been carried forward over generations.
Throughout my life, I have sought answers in various cultures and practices. During periods when I do not feel comfortable in a group and the traditional forms of prayer do not speak to me, I turn to meditation. While meditation sounds like a mysterious practice that requires special training, it can be as simple as really paying attention to my breathing, taking a long deep breath in, holding it for a few seconds, and then exhaling, and repeating this. Combining this with picturing a relaxing scene gives me a refreshing break at any time or place. A meditation for calming the mind, recommended to me by Rabbi Gershon Winkler of Walkingstick Foundation: Aboriginal Judaic Spirituality, is to picture following a river upstream to its source.
Another simple meditation, suggested to me by lifelong meditation practitioner Paula Schwartz, is to go for a walk in nature, clearing the mind of chatter, to pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world. Schwartz explained to The Link that, “All meditation, in every spiritual tradition, begins with awareness of nature and its beauty, gratitude for life, and focus. In a world that touts the value of multi-tasking, meditation is an antidote, encouraging a deepened awareness.”
Schwartz, who is about to turn 80, also talks about what meditation has meant for her personally in a recently published book by Pat Shapiro, “The Privilege of Aging,” Gaon Books, Santa Fe, where she says, “It allows me to tune in to something that’s larger than myself and that gives me a sense of humility. It helps me realize that everything that happens is not of my doing. . . If we think we’re directing life, we’re mistaken. . .”
While some may think of meditation as a withdrawal from the world, Schwartz has seen it as a practice of developing a sense of gratitude. In the book she continues, “Look around you. See the children. See the mountains. See the ocean. Be aware of the apples on the tree. Notice the sound of the wind in the aspen leaves. Awareness of the gifts of the world is the first step toward gratitude.
“Traditional Judaism is actually a practice of awareness; there is a blessing for seeing the first fruit on the tree, for seeing a rainbow, and for meeting a scholar or leader. There is a blessing for everything, and when there is not a blessing, there is the Shehecheyanu, which praises the Eternal One for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment of awareness. Once the awareness emerges, gratitude follows.”
For those who would like to try meditating, Schwartz, together with Paula Donahue and Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld, has been leading a monthly meditation during the fall and winter as a parallel Saturday morning Shabbat service, starting at 10:30, at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque.
The first one this year is September 21 and, Schwartz says, “specifically deals with the creation of an Inner Shabbat. Such an inner Shabbat is the practice of mindful Jewish meditation. All are welcome, advanced as well as novice meditators, practicing as well as non-practicing Jews. Other scheduled dates are October 19, December 14, February 15, March 21, and May 17.”
Then there are those times when, late at night facing down a deadline for a column and desperate for a new insight or synthesis of ideas, I have been rescued by turning to “The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul,” a book of guided meditations with an audio CD by internationally recognized Albuquerque-based author Natalie Reid. Reid, who also spent years studying in Israel, said that the book grew out of a ten-year struggle with her own writing blocks. It was recently featured in New Mexico Magazine, is gaining traction with writing groups throughout the U.S., and is available online through her website www.thespiritualalchemist.com, and can also be found locally at independent bookstores Page One and Crystal Dove.
We caught up with Reid, who in August was lecturing to social scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and who spends most of the year in Europe and Russia teaching academics how to think and write in English with her latest book, “Getting Published in International Journals: Writing Strategies for European Social Scientists,” and asked her what it means to build a connection to the inner self:
Reid says, “We need to realize that listening and self-love are intricately connected. The more we begin to love ourselves, the more we can listen—and listen well, without interference—to the voice of our own soul. Loving ourselves, of course, involves recognizing and accepting all the inner pairs of opposites, the so-called 'bad' with the good.”
### Diane Schmidt is an award-winning and internationally published writer and photographer. She is a member of the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande, and also, member of the American Jewish Press Association, the Society of Environmental Journalists, JAWS, and WriterGals, and past board member American Society of Media Photographers, Chicago.
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