On this, the start of the Jewish High Holy Day season, I am prompted to contemplate beginnings.
The Jewish New Year is called Rosh Hashannah, meaning the Head of the Year. This holiday, like our January 1st, and like the new year’s days of other cultures, is about marking time. A beginning has something to do with recognizing the fragile fleetingness of life.
A beginning is not just about clock time. It is just as much a mindset, an orientation. We are always in a process of beginning.
I will be observing Rosh Hashannah this week not in an enclosed building with other members of the tribe –which might be nice—but instead in the temple of nature, meditating with the ocean at a special spot on the coast.
My greatest blessings in life have been the spiritual practices I have received from several human teachers and traditions, and also from the Unseen. I hold these practices like amulets as I reflect on how many have to do with beginnings.
I have great gratitude for the fact that my earliest recollections are of spiritual experiences, from a very early age when I could barely speak. Then, my parents gave me a container for my spirituality, by teaching me their religion and then sending me to Hebrew school to learn what they could not teach.
One of my first spiritual teachers, when I was eight, was a Hungarian rabbi who had survived a Nazi concentration camp and later relocated to L.A. where he taught Hebrew school at our temple. I wish I could remember his name. I remember his face and voice and the time he rolled up his sleeve to show us the tattooed numbers on his wrist.
What he taught that year was how to read the first passages of the book of Genesis in Hebrew. Somewhere in my house, I still have our small study booklet. The part that has remained with me all these years has been the opening line, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In Hebrew, I recited this phrase as a mantra for the rest of my childhood, not even knowing what a mantra was until I was a teen studying meditation. To this day, I often recite this phrase while I walk.
Fundamentalists take Genesis literally. For me, religious scriptures are metaphor, to be read esoterically, pointing to something beyond words. Creation is a constant state of beginning, punctuated by Sabbath pauses to reflect, on inner and outer levels. “In the beginning” is no fixed day or week. It is always.
This time of year twenty years ago, I was re-turning to the practice of Sufism after a long hiatus. I had left the Sufi path in the early 1980s when I dedicated myself to full-time political work, erroneously thinking that politics and spirituality were mutually exclusive concentrations. That parched period felt like a wandering in the desert. (Isn’t that what Jews sometimes do?)
When I re-turned, I received a practice that had been improvised by Samuel Lewis, the American Jewish Sufi master who had introduced Sufism to the bay area counterculture in the 1960s. Without giving the Arabic phrase here, it has to do with remembering God as infinite Mercy and Compassion at each beginning. Going on a trip, starting a new project, meeting someone new, making a decision, mailing an important letter – at any beginning for the past 20 years, I have said this phrase to remember that we begin in the name of God, who is Mercy and Compassion. This practice has become my closest friend and protection.
So, too, after many years of mindfulness practice in the Buddhist tradition, has been the inclination to recognize thoughts and feelings as they arise, stay for a while, and then pass away. To focus just on beginnings would be to cherish only what is shiny and untouched. In reality, there is a stream of causation: opening to beginnings, one must let go of what is leaving.
This is precisely the teaching of the Jewish High Holy days. We begin with the New Year, and we then have a 10-day period of reflecting on our past and repenting before we can truly begin anew. From whom do we seek forgiveness, and who must we forgive? With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we let go of our misdeeds and grudges as a prerequisite to starting over. Something ends so that something can begin. This is Creation continuously re-creating itself.
In the Zen tradition, there is a focus on timelessness, captured in the phrase, “no coming, no going.” Another way of putting it is to have “beginner’s mind.” One is always beginning, always a student, a novice, albeit a well-traveled one. There is no ultimate goal to achieve, as that might cause complacency or conceit.
On a practical level, a sense of beginning welcomes attention and curiosity, presence and effort.
Starting a new job, moving into a new house, we notice all the details. We later get used to the painting on the wall, and don’t even see it as we pass by.
Falling in love in a new relationship, one’s attention is awakened, along with one’s wholesome desire to know and take great care with this precious being as well as with oneself. One wants to know everything about this new creature. What does he like for breakfast? What were his parents like? What does he read and believe and feel? What does he dream about at night? How can I best support him in his quest?
How refreshing it would be to feel oneself, alone and with another, always beginning anew, to cultivate beginning-ness even as chronological time ticks on.
While I have been writing this, a deer and her baby have come to the window. I wave and they come closer. We give each other a good stare, and then they move on. We’ve shared a moment of time. And this, along with love, is all we really have to share with one another.