"A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything." ~ Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv
"As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that such a person remains remote from true service." ~ Rabbi Yisroel Salanter
"Why is my life - and the whole darn world for that matter - still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" ~ Every baby boomer who just looked up at the clock and figured out that time is running short.
We late boomers coming of age in the 1970s first opened our eyes philosophically speaking onto a mind-boggling public display of soul-stretching, quite the likes of which has not been seen in our western American culture before or after those years. The soul-stretching was both personal and communal. With the war and race riots in our faces, it may have been inevitable. Who knows? John Lennon challenged each of us to "All shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun." Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young begged us to come together: "We can save the world, rearrange the world."
While the desire to find political enlightenment took young people to the streets, the desire to find personal enlightenment took us outside our own normative paths - the culture and religions we were brought up with, for example. Those who had little discipline or interest in philosophy and theology opted for a fast-tracked, scientifically-induced enlightenment, experimenting with psychotropic drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and magic mushrooms.
Back then, in my immature perspective on the matter, I tried it both ways and found that enlightenment seemed to come in two flavors. One I experienced as intense, super-hero style "knowing." I remember accepting a tab of acid during my freshman year of college, and then heading off to a concert. Standing in the space between the first row of seats and the stage, I had an excellent view of the musicians. I spent the concert being amazed by my ability to see deeply into the soul of each musician. Thanks to the acid, I knew each of their personalities instantly and intensely. The key to my insight, I still recall clearly, was each musician's cheekbone structure. Bone structure, it seemed, offered a detailed blue print to the individual soul. Acid's power of enlightenment, by the way, had its limits. Under the influence, I entirely missed the fact that the fellow standing next to me had absent-mindedly tucked the lit end of a cigarette into my upper arm.
The other flavor: figuratively, an out-of-body experience, the feeling of connectedness with the entire universe, the sense of everything being One with Itself, the exact opposite of the aloneness of individuality. It was a spiritual equivalent of becoming aware that you are a drop of water in a vast ocean - together with all other drops merged into the inseparability of the waves, despite your drop-ness. I kinda, sorta, experienced this, too, in a small town between San Jose and the ocean, under the tutelage of a woman who taught me vocal toning, a form of meditation. There were weeks on end when I "just loved everybody," wondering whether there was any means to pass this healing feeling along to the rest of the world.
A rabbi once told me that sometimes his congregants dove headlong into certain ritual practices in search of transcendence from the mundane. He said that, although he was always glad to see people adopt Jewish ritual into their lives, it sometimes appeared to him that these congregants were more interested in escaping reality than in finding a spiritual practice to deepen their lives.
This last statement, finally, brings me back 'round to the two quotes I began with, quotes from rabbis who in their time were teachers of the Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar. These quotes, which seem at first blush to be in opposition, taken together suggest that we might want to reconsider our youthful ideas about what "enlightenment" looks like. And the third quote - my own, of course - suggests that simultaneously, we might also want to reconsider the ideas we've held since childhood of what "the good life" looks like. I don't know about you, but my story was a common cultural one - an early marriage to a boy I would recognize as "the one," followed by children, and a meaningful life of service to family and community. The communal piece of this story suggested that, as a community, the world was making slow progress toward peace. That our generation would be stewards of a better world. Such pretty little visions both, and yet they have been incredibly difficult to pull off. Children are still dying of hunger. Men are still bombing buildings. Companies are still stripping our earth of its resources and leaving pollution and destruction in their wake. Personally, I've been waylaid, had a gun held to my temple, beat up, robbed, raped and left crying by the side of the road - in some cases figuratively and in other cases literally. I'll let you wonder which is which. I've also, by the way, been blessed many times over through family, children, friends, work and service opportunities.
The stories articulated by parents and institution, stories by which we would faithfully steer from childhood through to old age - all unintentionally set us up to feel incompetent when it didn't happen that way and we can't get it done. I know many people who's stories are more complicated than mine. I know a few whose stories were more realistic for our times. But I don't know of anyone whose stories have been easy to pull off. In fact, I don't know too many people whose lives haven't been fraught from time to time with unexpected trauma, strength-sapping loneliness, mind-numbing boredom - leaving us with that one big question: "Is this all there is?" And, as my rabbi pointed out, these stories set us up to feel cheated somehow, with a desire to escape.
Rabbis Salanter and Ziv, however, tell us a different story. Our true paths require struggle and growing pains. And when they mention service, we know that what is true for us personally is also true for our communities - communal growth will require struggle. The key to our enlightenment as individuals and as members of our communities is not to find a way to jump over the struggle, but to work our way right through the struggle, becoming all that struggle can teach us. And somehow, there is peace of mind to be forged and brought to the work, both personally and no doubt as a community, and we must find it. And while psychedelia, religious ritual and meditation may be tools we can bring to the party, anything less than a grounded approach to this struggle will distract us from our journey of growth.
To see the struggle as an intentional part of both personal and community life is, for me, comforting and strangely freeing. It releases me from asking myself, "Why is my life still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" It releases me from wondering why my generation did not manage to "save the world." Both of these are particularly painful questions to have to ask the older one gets and the less time one - or one's generation - has to "get it right."
Instead, the rabbis open the way for me to ask, "What is the most constructive thing I can do in this place where I currently find myself?" And for my community, to know that this struggle is not mine alone, but all the generations - and they will continue to strive after I no longer can. We are all drops in the same sea, despite our drop-ness.
I'm about to begin the study of Mussar with a friend. I look forward to a journey that promises to help me distinguish the path I am destined to from the detour I've stumbled down in search of something illusory. If you're interested in following my journey, I'm sure I'll be writing about it here.