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.
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.
I am not an Oregon Ducks Fan. To tell you the truth, I am not really even a football fan, but I live in Oregon and today there was a buzz throughout the city. The Oregon Ducks are at the Championship Game tonight in Texas. I attended meetings and appointments today where many friends of mine were wearing Ducks gear. Everyone was excited and people were saying Go Ducks all day long. The last time we were in the championship was in January 2011 and the Ducks lost.
Even though I don’t have much of a stake in the game, having not attended this school or really being a football fan, there seemed to be a certain joy that was present today everywhere I went and I wanted to share in it. Call me a joiner but I thought, why can’t I be excited and share the joy that my friends are feeling today? It reminded me of something Sylvia Boorstein, author and mindfulness teacher, spoke about last year during a lecture. She said that if we let ourselves experience the joy of others this allows us greater opportunities to experience joy than if we only noticed our own singular joy. I love that. We all know that when people get older there is much more “kvelling” over children and grandchild. Of course, there would be more joy in our lives if any joy experienced by another was a joy we could experience too. Certainly, when someone I know gets a new job, or gets married, has a baby, or experiences some other joyful event I like to share in their excitement. But expanding that to experiences like our state team being in a championship game or even hearing a story on the radio or reading something in print about a stranger, why can’t we also experience joy in that moment for that stranger as well.
There certainly is plenty of bad news to go around these days and I am choosing to consistently add the good news to my life as well. Even though I don’t have a vested interest in tonight’s game, I can be excited for something that is happening for my friends or my community that is positive and joyful. You also have the opportunity to choose to enjoy others joyful moods as well! Go Ducks!
Yesterday, our dear Rebbetzin Elizabeth “Lisl” Geller passed away. I feel blessed to have had her friendship for nearly 20 years of my life.
Everyone should have an older friend. I am not talking about someone a few years older than you, I am really talking about someone decades older than you. Someone who has lived their life significantly longer than you and might have a prospective that can help you see your situation in a new way. Someone who can teach you that this too shall pass, both the good things and the bad things and they’ll help you when necessary clarify what’s really important in life.
In my late 20’s, when my husband and I relocated to Portland, Oregon we befriended our Rabbi and his wife, Lisl Geller. They visited us in the hospital when both of our children were born and we shared dozens of meals and events with them over the years as our children grew from toddlers to teens. After the Rabbi passed away several years ago, the Rebbetzin remained in their family home. She was much less mobile these past few years but continued to remain independent and had quite an active life with a large extended family that visited her frequently.
I continued to visit with the Rebbetzin as often as I could. I was surprised when people would remark how nice it was that I continued to do this because the truth was she had become a dear friend to me. I loved our visits and was sad when a few weeks would pass and we hadn’t had a chance to share a cup of tea. Even our frequent two minute phone conversations allowed enough time to check in and wish each other well. Lisl never seemed to need very long to make sure things were okay. Even though there was a 50 year gap in our ages, I was continuously surprised how we could discuss subjects pertinent to my life and how her advice helped guide my actions. For example, a few years ago while discussing teenage relationships my 90-year-old friend brought up sex. She may have been over ninety, but having reared three children of her own, seen the growth of several grandchildren and dozens of great-grandchildren she had plenty of experience to share with me. Despite the age difference and the fact that she was from a previous generation many of her suggestions were still very relevant and helpful.
She also provided counsel and guidance. There was another time I had used my husband’s car while he was out-of-town at a conference and gotten an expensive parking ticket. I was so irritated and mad at myself and knew my husband would probably be just as irritated. I shared my distress and unhappiness with Lisl and she said, “Linda dear, you don’t have to tell your husband absolutely everything. You are already upset about it. Just pay the ticket and forget about it.” I think it was more than two years until I actually came clean to my husband about the incident.
Befriending an older friend who offers wisdom and guidance offers incredible two-way benefits. I was as much the beneficiary of any visiting I did with my dear friend as she was with me. I feel deeply saddened by the loss of this incredible friend who offered counsel, love, guidance and always made me feel special. I know I was not the only one who felt this way either. Lisl your memory will always be for a blessing and you will be deeply, deeply missed. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.