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Hurts and Hindrances

09/07/2021 07:19:52 AM


Boker Tov and Shana Tova. Today is the birth day of the world! A day of celebration and sweetness. And a day of solemnity and repentance. A day of holding multiple truths.

          So, you all probably know by now I listen to too many podcasts. With my queue constantly 300 episodes deep, I rarely re-listen to episodes that will sometimes get reposted when the hosts are on vacation. Yet, when Krista Tippet put her Sharon Salzberg interview from last October back up at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, I felt called to listen to it again, and to listen to it actually during Elul, where otherwise I’m consistently about three months behind in my podcasts due to sheer volume. Sharon Salzberg is a leading voice in American Buddhism and mindfulness practice, who also happens to have been born to a Jewish family. Her own attachment to Judaism is unclear, but when I hear her speak the influence of Judaism is undeniable. The thing that resonated most with me this Elul relistening to this episode was Salzberg’s mantra, “Some things just hurt.” She talks about this attitude that she encounters, particularly from Western learners of Buddhism, that suffering is all about mindset. That with enough practice, we can mindfulness our way out of feeling any kind of bad feeling. But some things really do just hurt. Rather, Salzberg teaches, the point of meditation is to learn to live through the suffering, to not get stuck in thinking those bad feelings are forever, and hold sadness and joy in equanimity throughout life.

          One way to practice that, Salzberg says, is to give a name to the “visiting hindrances” that Buddha talked about. Things like anger, agitation, numbness, self-doubt, greed, jealousy, fear – these things are not who we are but these are all visitors in our heads. We can neither give in to them nor ignore them, for in ignoring them they will still find a way to burrow in. But, if we give them a name, and say hello, let them in for a cuppa and then send them on their way, it is much easier to remember who we really are. Salzberg’s inner visiting hindrance is named Lucy, like the character from Charlie Brown. For these couple of weeks since I relistened to the podcast episode, I’ve been thinking of name my inner visiting hindrance Abraham. Dude is always trying sacrifice some piece of myself for a higher purpose that he doesn’t even understand.

In this morning’s terse and uncertain Torah portion, we read that God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only one, whom he loves, and Abraham unquestioningly brings Isaac to Mount Moriah. There is midrash about Abraham asking which son, and there is midrash that claims Abraham knew God would interfere at the last moment, but I don’t know of any midrash that suggests Abraham actually had any real discussion or argument with God about this command, as had earlier for Sodom and Gomorrah. In any case, the text itself does not display any response from Abraham. We do not know how he understands this command, what he thinks is going to happen, how he feels about it, how he decides to act on it. It’s all a mystery.  

I advocate a lot for personal sacrifice and for allowing ourselves to get uncomfortable for the greater good, and the truth is, my default visiting hindrance is guilt. I know, I know, that sounds cliché, but it’s true. An example: recently it was reasonably sunny out, and I thought about going down to my building’s pool. But I can see the pool from my own window, and I could see that there were a lot of people down there so I decided not to go. I thought maybe I would clean instead. I did some tidying, and then decided that was enough and I didn’t feel like cleaning the rest of the apartment. I thought about trying to get some work done, but it was Shabbat and I felt like I davka should not write sermons on Shabbat. I spent most of the day laying on my yoga mat staring down at the pool, feeling guilty for letting pass one of the last days the pool would be open, feeling guilty for not cleaning my apartment, feeling guilty for not working, and generally feeling like I wasn’t doing anything. Which, by the way, is sort of the point of Shabbat! Spending the day relaxing in my home is a perfectly acceptable way to spend Shabbat! But my brain says, “No, everything must be contributing toward a greater good,” even when it’s not really sure what that greater good is. As a rule, I do think we as a society should be more focused on greater good outcomes more often, thinking about how our lives serve a higher purpose that honors the Divine spark in everyone. And, I know that the level to which I feel compelled to make every moment about productivity – whether personal or professional or communal – is a product of the visiting hindrances that pop up and whisper sweet nothings of anxiety into my ear, and aren’t actually serving of that Divine purpose.

For 5782, I plan to address those visitors by saying, “Oh Hello, Abraham. Have you come to sacrifice my calm on the altar of production toward the supposed Divine purpose of some ambiguous greater good? How nice for you. Here, have a ram.” And see if that helps. After the Akedah, we never see Isaac speak to Abraham again. In fact, he speaks very little in general, and shows signs of PTSD. Can my tranquility come back from the near-death experience of my inner-Abraham popping up or will it too still be traumatized by the mere appearance of the wood and the knife? My hope is that even if the Abraham voice still rattles my soul, I can find equanimity to sit with him uncomfortably until the inner angel also appears and stays his hand.

Who are your visiting hindrances? What do they say, and how can you address them directly yet coolly? Do you have a Lucy always telling you that you are just wrong all the time, or an Abraham ready to cut and burn whatever it takes to serve a higher purpose? Maybe a Sarah, who only hears half-truths and then shuts down, as happens in a popular midrash on this parasha, where haSatan simply tells Sarah that Abraham has brought Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him, and then she dies without knowing that Isaac has in fact survived. Whoever yours are, now is the time to make amends with them too.

Teshuvah is mostly about repentance and forgiveness between humans, because only our real words and actions can repair or make up for harm caused from one person to another. Prayer, fasting, the Day of Atonement, cannot heal interpersonal strife alone. And I’ve spoken before about repentance and forgiveness of ourselves and our pasts. But I think this is a little different. Teshuvah must also be about the repentance and forgiveness with the visitors that don’t feel wholly you. It must also include the recentering necessary for prayer, fasting, and the Day of Atonement to do it’s mental and spiritual work for what is truly you. It takes mindfulness and equanimity and the ability to say, some things just hurt, in order to then return to your spiritual home, renewed, refreshed, and healed.

May 5782 be a year of equanimity and peace, a year of spirituality without zealotry, and a year of working toward clear goals with grounded purposes, with minimal visiting hindrances.


Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782