1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life shares Cohen’s two-and-a-half year journey from sorrow to inspriation through simple daily acts of kindness. She presents each mitzvah as a short vignette and the myriad forms they take – from helping the elderly to donating to good causes to baking and collecting food for others – highlight the many ways in which one person can touch the lives of others. As she pursues her quest, Cohen finds that her life is improved by these small acts – that every time she goes out of her way to do something good for someone else, she enhances her own well-being.
We use the term, a pain in the neck, to say that something is causing us trouble or is the source of our unhappiness. Sometimes a pain in the neck or a pain in the back in my case or even a terrible cold can teach us something important. I am not sure if this is true for chronic pain but it does seem to be true for me with acute pain or illness. I had a terrific reminder this week when I was suddenly faced with a terrible back ache. I hadn’t been working in the yard or even schlepping Passover boxes or doing anything else particularly strenuous when it happened. In fact, I am not sure what brought it on, all I know is it took me down, literally, because one of the few places that felt comfortable was lying down on my back. Luckily, I was able to listen to my body and take the time to rest my back and not push through the pain. This gave me time to both allow my body to have pain, acknowledge the pain and appreciate how lucky I am when I don’t have any kind of pain in my body. I loved listening to what my body was teaching me.
I found that my body was needing rest and stillness. I was even able to have some meditation time in a prone position while icing my sore back. The combination of resting with the ice and meditating was not unpleasant, in fact, I might even say I enjoyed the time and space to be awake and mindful in that horizontal position.
Allowing myself time was probably the biggest challenge. We are all busy people. We have things to do and meetings to keep and not being able maintain our schedule can be very difficult. But if we are listening to our bodies when they scream at us, “Help me, I am hurting and I need some attention,” then sometimes we have to cancel an appointment, or stay home for a day or two or miss something important. But isn’t your body worth that? It’s the ultimate self-care to listen to your body when it asks for some extra attention.
My biggest “aha” was while attending my weekly yoga class. I debated if I should go, not sure it was actually good for me to do any yoga and emailed my teacher to explain what was going on. His reply was “COME! Even if you need to just rest in shavasana (corpse pose) you will be receiving the energy of the class.” He’d done the same thing after he’d broken his spine a few years back. I am so glad I went. It was an incredible class. I was fully present in my body feeling every move intensely both when it felt helpful and when I felt a twinge or something painful. I listened deeply to what my body was telling me the entire class. I have been practicing yoga for years and attending a class knowing that I would not be able to do all the poses, knowing that I might have to stay on my back or in child’s pose when the class was doing other movements was liberating. It allowed me to be focused completely on my own body and what my body needed in that moment. I felt my breath and my stillness profoundly during the class. It was a deep and powerful experience.
Today, after 48 hours I am happy to say that my back pain has subsided. I am grateful for the new perspective I have on how lucky I am when my body functions without my noticing it, without pains. I am also aware now that a pain can also be an opportunity to listen to what our body is asking us to do – take care of it, slow down, breathe, maybe even stop and be still. When we do take care of our bodies physically, mentally and spiritually they return to us with stronger health and intuition. I am thanking my body today for all of that amazing wisdom that comes even through discomfort and pain.
This Friday night, we begin our eight-day holiday of Passover. I have written more about this Jewish holiday previously on my blog in this post and this one where I shared a simple recipe for chicken and matzah ball soup. During the Seder we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Most Jews can probably remember celebrating a Seder at some point in their life no matter how observant or religious they are. When I think back about different stages of my life, I can remember celebrating Seders in Israel, with college boyfriends and their families and more recently (the past decade) with my own family and a variety of friends who have joined us in our home over the years.
I often tell non-Jewish friends and colleagues that Passover is as intense as the Christmas season. Swap gift shopping for food shopping, baking dozens of Christmas cookies for hours spent cooking traditional Passover foods like haroset, brisket and gefilte fish as well as the additional days of cleaning our homes and clearing out all of the chametz (bread) that is forbidden in our houses during the holiday.
Finally, the Passover holiday also requires that observant Jews use a separate set of dishes that hasn’t been in contact with chametz. So in addition to the cleaning and cooking there is also the schlepping and reorganizing of your kitchen. I must admit that there is a big part of me that dreads Passover. I know how much work it is to prepare for the holiday and the weeks before I begin actually preparing I spend too much energy fretting and worrying about everything that needs to get done. Yet every year the same thing happens. I find the cleaning to be an opportunity to touch cabinets and drawers that deserve a spring cleaning and a good wipe down and pulling out the Passover items puts me in a time warp. I have several Haggadot (the Jewish book we use that tells the order of the Seder) from when my kids attended a Jewish preschool. The Haggadot include velcro matzahs, hand drawn artwork and photos of my children at age 2, 3 and 4, unbiasedly adorable!
When I was a newlywed and we relocated to Portland, Oregon, we had just a handful of dishes that first year. Probably four plates, four sets of utensils and a few glasses. In the late 1990’s after my husband and I had bought our first house, my folks sent me my grandmother’s glass Passover dishes. My beloved Grandma Rose greatly influenced my Jewish identity and I have many fond childhood memories of my grandmother, most revolving around eating and cooking. She was a kosher caterer and her food was always delicious. Her Passover dishes were nothing special just a simple set of glass dishes but each year when I unpack the dishes, I often feel her nishamah (soul) close to me as if these dishes that she used and touched transcend time and the traditions I continue are the same ones she celebrated.
Several years ago, I tucked some letters that my grandmother had sent to me in the final years of her life into the Passover pantry. After I graduated high school and left Vermont to attend college in California, we wrote to each other regularly. When I find them in the Passover closet each spring (which I somehow forget are there from year to year) I read her words in her scratchy handwriting and feel her love and adoration for me, her first grandchild. They also remind me of my connection to my past and my link in the family and always make me smile.
I hope others find that the work of the holiday is lightened by the ability to continue a family tradition and feel connected to loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate with us in person but whose spirit remains with us always.
Wishing you a wonderful and meaningful Passover.
When I hear this phase it immediately brings me back to my adolescence when I listened endlessly to my Free To Be You and Me record and read through the corresponding book. I loved everything about that recording but probably didn’t give too much thought to what the words actually meant. Now tattered and respectfully sitting on my book shelf, my Free To Be You and Me book serves as a reminder of the comfort and joy this book provided during that tumultuous time of my life.
More recently though I have thought of this phrase as a mantra and reminder that no matter how much our current society seems to shun it or even how much discomfort people seem to have witnessing someone crying, it definitely IS all right to cry. Even in public, even for seemingly no apparent reason to those around you. I have had my share of public crying jags these past several years. After losing both parents and my first pet, I feel like I have had the rawness of grief show up in many unexpected places – a play, school activities, on a Shabbat retreat, on the yoga mat or in a coffee meeting with a colleague. In addition, my kids notice that a commercial, movie or show can easily bring me to tears.
Last July, just a week or so after my mom had died, while doing the corpse pose at the end of a yoga class, tears and emotions began flooding my mind. I started crying uncontrollably while we quietly observed our breath. After the class, I left without speaking to the teacher or other yogis for fear of embarrassment. I thought about it all week though because my teacher had witnessed my tears and his words had offered solace. He had acknowledged that something very deep was coming up for one of his students even though he had no idea what it was. I felt seen and attended to even though I was also emotional and embarrassed. The following week, we sat together and I shared what that experience had felt like and how much it had meant to me that even without his knowing what I was experiencing he had acknowledged it. Sometimes we can be there for another person even when we don’t know personally what is making them so upset.
I want to become a poster child for the benefits of crying because I am beginning to no longer feel embarrassed or make excuses for crying in front of others. I experience that lump in my throat, runny nose and tears streaming down my cheeks without feeling any kind of shame. This is a human reality and we should embrace it and not feel as if we have to apologize for our behavior. In fact, last week I had an entire day where I was wading knee-deep in difficult emotions. They kept surfacing and I kept acknowledging and witnessing them with acceptance and kindness. All day, I needed to cry. I cried with my meditation teacher, a colleague and another friend, without shame or embarrassment. If you witness someone crying, know that you are witnessing a powerful and beneficial experience and one that is incredibly helpful in moving emotions through their body. Consider it a blessing that someone is comfortable enough to show their true emotions to you.
Look up the health benefits of crying and you will learn that there several. First, it releases stress hormones that are excreted in the body through our tears. Crying also stimulates the production of the hormone endorphins or our feel good hormones. Additionally, they help us process and release our emotions. People usually do feel better after they have cried.
What I have noticed, through the past few years, is that when I am authentic and true to myself as a human being it helps me relate to others. There is a deep connection between two people who are speaking honestly about difficult experiences, but there is also a bond that is created when we relate to someone on that level. I have offered my hand and shoulder to someone during a difficult period of tears and many kind people have done the same for me. These emotional times have made me feel connected to these friends or colleagues in a way that a mere conversation really doesn’t. I also believe it is what helps us recognize and learn from each other through difficulties we all face in life.
So be kind with yourself and others when they are vulnerable and experiencing something that makes them cry. Allow them to just be with their tears and remember that you are in the power of authentic human emotion that are important and beautiful to share. And if it helps you can always start humming It’s All Right To Cry.
Everyone can learn something new no matter where they begin. Last summer, after discovering two wonderful apps on my smart phone, Insight Timer and Headspace, I began trying to regularly meditate. Now meditating regularly actually just met listening to a guided meditation usually 5-10 minutes while sitting on the floor in the living room. Later in the summer, I bought myself a meditation cushion which greatly enhanced the experience. I highly recommend you get one if you are interested in meditation as it has brought much more comfort during the practice. I also got myself a soft blanket that I have designated as my meditation shawl.
Once school started, I realized I had a short possible meditation window, between the time my daughter left to catch the city bus to school and the time my son’s alarm rang to start his morning routine. I found that if I had my mat and cushion all set up in the living room and I planted myself down the minute she’d left I would have exactly 15 minutes to do a guided meditation. It wasn’t perfect but it was a start and it did seem to work.
During the fall, I was happy that I was “finding” or perhaps making time to meditate regularly. Thanksgiving weekend, I attended my first all day retreat led by Robert Beatty the founder of The Portland Meditation Center (PIMC). These retreats are offered regularly at the meditation center but I’d never been to one and decided it was time to check it out.
Imagine being in a room with fifty strangers. People you’d never met before and sitting, not talking, with them for an entire day and at the end you do feel like you have had a shared experience, a deepening and a bonding that happened in almost complete silence. It was utterly eye-opening to me since the whole experience was so different from what I am used to in Jewish services. To be honest, I hadn’t known that it was going to be a silent retreat. I knew I would be meditating but hadn’t really thought about what that meant. It was a wonderful surprise.
I had three poignant “aha” moments that day.
I had been to the PIMC twice before for qigong meditations. One of those times, my mom had come along. I wasn’t really expecting the flood of emotions I had while I was sitting, remembering being there with her. She had enjoyed it very much and being in that space felt like a positive experience that we had shared. I have no memories of her in either of the synagogues we’ve belonged to while we’ve been in Portland or at the Unitarian Church where she chose to attend. She had never felt comfortable at my synagogue and I had never joined her either for her Sunday worship. The thought made me sad, and as is the case when you are confronted with emotions during meditation, a little weepy.
One of the most amazing parts of the day was lunch. Here is why. We partook of our entire lunch time – one hour – in complete silence. Fifty people waited in line together in silence not looking at phones but just “being” quietly. This time allowed us a chance to look out the window and notice that the sun had come out AND that rain drops were also falling off of the downspout. I noticed the pictures hanging on the wall and some of the pussy willows displayed on the buffet. It was so different from the rushing to a table to get “kiddush” luncheon with people sort of grabbing at things for themselves as is often the case at synagogue. I waited in line quietly for almost twenty-five minutes, but it was mindful time not filled time. A very different experience. Then when we chose what we wanted to eat from the potluck buffet, I realized I had a taken a HUGE plate of food. It all looked so healthy and good and I wanted to try all of it. What I noticed from the meal was the textures of the food, the crunch of the pickle, the tang of the beets. On one of the salads, a spinach salad, there was an apple mixture on it that reminded me of charoses, the apple mixture we eat at Passover, suddenly I looked up and had this thought of who else in the room was Jewish and might have actually noticed this connection as well. I ate much more slowly and methodically than I ever do. Not talking while I was eating helped me remember to feel grateful for all this abundance of food that I was eating and enjoying.
When we got back to the meditation hall after lunch and I shut my eyes, I immediately felt compelled to recited the Birkat Hamazon, the Jewish blessing after eating, in my head. It felt appropriate to recite this blessing for the food. I actually felt the sustenance and satisfaction in my body.
After the retreat, I knew I wanted more of this in my life. I’d been listening to amazing talks on Dharma Seed when I’d walk the dog and felt like I wanted to deepen my connection to meditation. A week ago, I began the process. I signed up for a year-long course that Robert Beatty was offering to Deepen Your Meditation. In our first class, Robert invited us to sit each day last week for 30 minutes. I started feeling overwhelmed. I thought, “I’ve never sat that long. How will I be able to do it?” Instead of telling myself I couldn’t do it, I just tried and surprise, surprise without all that much trouble I’ve actually been able to do it each day all week. Not only that but this week, I sat without listening to any guided talks from the various apps and CD’s I have. The Insight Timer offers a timer and interval bells that can help you in your practice. I actual found that the interval bells have a lovely way of (b)ringing me back to the present. Sorry for the terrible pun, but that is what the sound does for me. Bring me back to my breath or my body. Helping me be present and remind me to gently guide the chattering mind.
So what about you? Are you a long time or recent meditator? Do you have a practice that has evolved? I am so excited about what this year holds and I am eager to learn some more about deepening this incredible and simple but not always easy practice of meditation. In the new March 2015 edition of Shambahala Sun, you can read Thich Naht Hanh’s helpful hints on how to sit even if you don’t have a teacher or a community. I look forward to sharing all I learn this year and hope to learn from you as well.