There is so much going on beyond words. I have written about this before and long felt the power of the world beyond our confined structures and linguistic boxes; but I am a renewed, even more fervent believer in silence now that I have shut my mouth for three whole days and connected with a new kind of peace.
When I told my mom and my friends I had signed up for a meditation retreat with three days of total social silence, I was met with understandable disbelief; I am not known for my quietness or reservation. I made my weekly pre-Shabbat calls before I left on Thursday, and I painfully removed my Talmud from its home in my backpack (the retreat discourages bringing any reading materials or even a journal).
איך אתה רואה ביצירה אם היא שיר או פרוזה? אם השורות נגמרות בסוף הדף – זו פרוזה. בעיניי, שירה היא שורות שבורות, שבורה של המרובעות. של הצורה.
וכל שכן כששרים שיר: הקול הוא לא הגיוני. הוא מעבר לשכל. הקול הוא המקור לדיבור, לעולם התוכן המסודר. המילים הן החיים, והקול – שהוא האישה – הוא מקור החיים. לכן חווה נקראת ’אם כל חי’.
אז מה זה חיים של אמונה? לחיות לא רק את החיים, את העובדות, אלא גם את מקור החיים. לשמוע דיבור ולהקשיב לקול ולניגון שהוא השורש, לפני שהדברים נעשו מובנים או הגיוניים.
הרב מנחם פרומן, ז’’ל, חסידים צוחקים מזה–
How do you see in a creation if it is poetry or prose? If the lines end at the end of the page – this is prose. In my eyes, poetry is broken lines, breaking of confines. Of shape.
And all the more so when singing a song: the voice is not logical. It is beyond cognition. The voice is the source of speech, of the world of orderly content; words are life, and the voice – which is the feminine – is the source of life. Therefore, Eve is called “mother of all life.”
So what is a life of faithfulness? To live not only life itself, the fact, but also the source of life. To hear speech and to listen to the voice and the melody that is the root, before things are made coherent or logical.
-R’ Menahem Froman, z”l, Hasidim Laugh From This
I live in a world of words; as much as I appreciate in theory the idea of meditative stillness, my daily life functions in the realm of speech. My internal radio is constantly buzzing, often caught in that staticky murmur of overlapping channels competing for airtime and blurring each other’s messages into a mush of unidentifiable phonemes.
When I return from the retreat and the hubbub of Real Life sends me into a migraine-panic attack haze, I flip open R’ Froman’s posthumous book of teachings and encounter #83, I know I am getting the Torah I need. I know I am connected to a Voice that is the Source of something more vital than boxed-in words. It will never fit; it will flow beyond beyond beyond, seeping past the seams. Eve is the source of Life.
I have long thought of myself as someone who would meditate; while my friends were impressed with my upcoming silent venture, they were mostly unsurprised by my interest in a meditation intensive. I have downloaded and deleted and re-downloaded nearly every free meditation app on my iPhone; I have thought to myself about how I should meditate some day, how I know it’s what I need to energize my prayer and my creativity, to refresh my inner systems. But, as anyone could have guessed, thinking about doing The Work is not equivalent to Doing the Work itself. Only true stillness will get you There.
It turns out, though, that being completely silent and focusing on the ins-and-outs of one’s breath as it interacts with the back of the throat, or the tip of the nose, or the lower belly, does not instantly turn you into a patient, accepting, equanimous being; it is remarkable how much passive-aggression can still seep out in the form of a dirty glare at the pair of older women whispering (Don’t you get what “silent retreat” means?!), or at the man with the body odor, or at the young women who lead a Shabbat zemer (song) at a silent meal; the silence makes more palpable my own inner itchings for control, for order. I think of how my mom bought me a book about “Bossy Kiki” who ruins the party by trying to control everyone around her; Mama always reminded me that “you can’t write the script.” I connect to the little girl I was, who cried in frustration and hid under the table when the Shabbat dinner company started a different version of bentching than she wanted; I notice the tiny irritants getting under my skin and try to observe without judgment, attempt to turn inwards and tune in to the senses I must be avoiding, focusing instead on the way other people’s silences feel so loud. And in that silence, it’s hard to ignore how f*%*%$g judgmental I can be, and how ugly that is. And then I bring myself back to my breath, notice myself judging my judgments, and guide my mind back slowly slowly to a place of compassion. Return me and I will return.
Open open open
We wake up at six a.m and chant verses of praise and gratitude. We breathe through guided teachings about the distinct brands of thanksgiving, hallel and hoda’ah, the rabbis in the Talmud attribute to Chanukah’s celebrations. We summon a sense of abundance, of reverent thanks, to the sense of overflowing and unwarranted blessings all over.
We focus on the pure light that always glows within, untouched and untarnished. We repeat the prayer, Elokai Neshama: “My Lord, the Soul you have given me is pure.” The sound of our voices vibrates within and fills the room. We sit cross-legged on cushions that raise our seats just slightly above our knees. My mind wanders to to-do lists and should’s and jumps to conclusions but shifts back into this newly embossed groove – bring it back bring it back bring it back…
The instructor reminds us that when we exit a “sit” (meditation session), we may feel calmer, but we also might not; in fact, we were sure to encounter frustration, tension, hindrances along the way, and they would keep visiting for certain. The point is, he explained, we were doing The Work, we were devoted to The Practice. And The Practice is not a linear project with results easily or tangibly grasped. The fruits of the Practice are the Practice itself, the mental muscles molding in the Monkey Mind. We return and return and return again.
Between Sits, we have Walking Meditation, where we are instructed to walk as slowly as possible, focusing on the tiny nuances of every footstep. On Shabbat morning, we are invited to focus on our walks on noticing beauty in our surroundings, through our senses, and say “Halleluyah” when something calls to us, captures our attention. After some time, summoned by a volunteer “clapper” (in place of the usual meditation bell, in honor of traditional Shabbat observance), we reunite on our cushions, breathing together again and calling out freely our praises:
Halleluyah for the wind in the trees
Halleluyah for small yellow flowers
Halleluyah for cats
Halleluyah for every blade of grass
Halleluyah for sunshine…
It really is that simple.
We are invited later to find a spot outdoors, along the scenic grounds of the kibbutz, and talk to G-d, freely, in our own words. I consider how powerful the forces of the universe are in their seeming simplicity; how determined each teardrop-shaped leaf is to be exactly the leaf G-d commanded it, blessed and destined it to be, and no more. I cannot imagine any of those leave spending its days peering over at its counterparts, snarkily picking at its perceived flaws and simultaneously obsessing over and resenting the others’ performances of leafiness. I am fairly certain each of those leaves, every whisker on a cat, every pebble on the dirt path, is solely concentrated on being the leafiest, whiskery-est, pebbly-est self it can be, as G-d willed and bestowed upon it.
And here I am, glancing around at everyone and everything outside myself when This Is My Life. Words will never suffice. I am full of gratitude and overwhelmed with wonder. So I just notice the air passing through my lungs, kissing the back of my throat and producing oceanic sighs. And I notice. And come back to it again.