It is striking to me how many absolutely cannot wait for the calendar year to come to its end. It seems that almost everyone I know wants so badly to bid good riddance to 2009.
For so many, for too many, this past year forced us to navigate and balance the kinds of tests and trials few of us have experienced before in our lives -- despite identified station or generation. Many in our country and world were confronted with the unfathomable. It feels like we have been standing on a cliff, so frightened that the earth will shake once again, and down we will fall into the abyss. We have seen darkness in so many facets of our world: economically, politically and socially.
Even on Christmas Day, when the politicians finally left Washington D.C., quieting their battle cry, to join the country in sacred celebration; we were reminded of the fragility of life, as a lost and crazed soul tried to take the lives of others in the name of religion. Indeed, we have held our collective breath, waiting to breathe in the air of renewal and hope.
It seems ironic to me, however, that we somehow think the change of calendar will also transform our fortunes. Sometimes, we think that as we rip off the page that says December and turn to the one that reads January, all will be right with the world again. Yet, inside most of us know that the cosmic nature of the world does not simply change because the clock strikes 12 a.m. on the 31st of December.
However, I am an optimist and do believe that there is always a chance for a better day; indeed, for better year. I do believe that we can try to use this change in calendar to focus our intention on attaining joy and fulfillment and wholeness. For sure, we have felt pain of loss. We may even fear what the New Year may bring. But it would be a shame to throw away our sense of optimism, hope, and most importantly, our reason for being here on earth; indeed, our reason for living in the first place. One of the byproducts of this past year's economic environment is that many have been forced to explore the riches we possess which have nothing to do with financial worth. Many have been pushed by forces beyond our control to remember what counts most.
The question: How do we not get bogged down by it all and find a way to be aware of what is most precious? Staying aware of the blessings which surround us is a complex spiritual task. It does not come easy, but if pursued steadfastly, I do believe we have a shot at a better quality of existence.
During the past few years, I have studied a collection of mostly untapped spiritual literature. "Hanhagot," or spiritual practices, were a list of instructions created for followers of specific rabbis in the days of old. They were written to serve as inspiration and intended to provide spiritual guidance and centering; and I believe they can indeed be used as an aid to bring joy, awareness, fulfillment, and maybe even a bit of God's presence into daily living.
These teachings were written as practical, personal, wise and straight-forward instructions to help individuals navigate through their complicated lives. This literature was specifically above and beyond religious law. These Hanhagot were practices written with the intention of bringing together both mind and heart.
In humility, I offer the following as examples of my own spiritual practice, which I hope, with your own engagement, will help usher in and sustain days of fulfillment.
Arise each and every day and express gratitude that you are actually alive. Wiggle your toes, stretch your legs, stretch your arms, and go to the bathroom. If all of that works, thank the Holy One of Blessing that it is all possible.
Record what comes to your mind first thing when you wake up. Write it down and know that in the state between sleep and wake is a piece of your vulnerable self that may be worth pursuing to have a better understanding of self in relationship to God.
Kiss your loved one(s) whoever they may be, because you don't know if you will be able to kiss them again. If you can't or don't want to, make sure to ask yourself why. God lives in that relationship and this attention and nurture should be contributed to that sacred relationship.
Smile at as many people as possible. Everyone needs to be acknowledged, and it might just help them take the turn or change of direction they need at a crucial crossroads of their journey. It will help you understand that what is going on in your life is just not as important as you may think.
Hush...please hush. Quiet in a noisy world will make space for you when you don't even know you need it. There is wisdom in each of us, and to run away from being interactive or in relationship with that wisdom is to draw away from the world. Shhh. Don't even think about why, just be quiet and pay attention. Acknowledge the wisdom from within, and don't put it on the carousel of obsession. Note it, learn from it, and maybe God will help you utilize it when you don't even know you need it.
Practice one form of private charity or act of generosity each day. Public acts of goodness will help the process of fixing the world, but the private kind, will help fix your world.
When things are great, when life is good, when you feel whole, celebrate your joy from the deepest places. But don't stay there for days at a time, because then your joy will only be about you. Go back as soon as possible and practice what got you there.
Don't live in utter joy or utter sadness. Usually the extremes have a narcissistic edge to them. It's never that good. You are usually not that good. It is never that bad and you are usually not that bad.
Engage with every legitimate joy that comes your way. Eat that ice cream cone, see a movie, walk in the Reservation, exercise, study something, go to the ocean, go to a baseball game, read a great book, ride a wave, dance, see the glistening mountain tops, walk on a glacier, fly on a plane, hike, see a bee make honey, play with your dog, engage in friendship and say aloud L'Chaim "to Life." Indeed, connection to the Holy One can come strongly through pleasure. Indeed, you honor God when you engage in pleasure, not obsessively or addictively, but in healthy and appropriate doses.
Seek out friends and relationships which are authentic, meaningful and intimate. Be vulnerable with them. Be truthful with them. Be mirrors with them and for them. Be critiqued and give that same back with love and the ability to hear. Learn and explore with them. Fantasize with them. Laugh with them. Reconcile with them. Find their soul and have the courage to let them find yours. Give to them generously and find it within you to receive openly in return.
Make reconciliation. Take stock of yourself and your relationships often. Be honest about it. Don't reconcile until you are ready, but don't convince yourself there never can be a "ready." Have the resolve to make real and truthful and vulnerable reconciliation. The small transgressions, without even knowing it, put pinholes into the balloon of our souls. If you keep up the accounting of the soul, you can patch up the holes and even better, breathe in the energy, the air of being.
Be humble without putting yourself down. Indeed, Divine pride is necessary. But don't fool yourself into thinking that you are better than anyone else. We all get lost, but we all can find our way. Sometimes, in fact, it is the most unlikely of messengers who redirect our way.
Strive for hope and optimism. Know that every day you, in partnership with the Divine, can renew yourself and the world around you. As the seasons change and night turns into day, and this New Year of 2010 arrives, you will see that each day can be more whole than the last. If it is day again, you must believe that it can be better.
The ball in Times Square has dropped and the dawn of the New Year has come. I hope that the offering above can serve as some guidance to enable you to stay aware and ready for better days to come. If we can stop to breathe, notice and acknowledge just some of what exists around us, we may indeed help change our world and have a much better New Year. We all deserve it.
Happy and Healthy 2010!!
Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz is senior rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J. He is also the author of "The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation, and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow. "