One Thing at a Time
by Rabbi Diane Elliot
Just before this past Shabbat, my hard drive crashed—not a bad crash, but just a little message that said “there is not enough memory on your hard drive to do this function…” Time to vacate!
This retreat is a true vacation. We empty ourselves, clean up our hard drives, by eliminating many of the external stimuli of our lives—talking, driving, reading,writing, computering, cell phoning…. In the process of paying attention more and more deeply, we “purify our hearts to serve the One in truth.”
The idea for this talk came to me a few weeks ago while I was attempting to simultaneously prepare several dishes for Thanksgiving dinner. I had put the sweet potatoes and dried cranberries on to simmer with a little water in the pan and had steamed the Brussels sprouts and now was slicing shitake mushrooms to sauté with the brussels sprouts, thinking about what I would have to do next and whether to put on some inspirational music to enliven my cooking experience—I had just gotten Reb Zalman’s new book of niggunim with an accompanying CD—when I suddenly noticed the beautiful whorled patterns on the surface of the mushroom cap under my knife. For a moment, everything came into focus and I was purely present with the mushroom.
Then my mind jumped, as minds will do, to the idea for this talk, to how I would describe the “mushroom moment.” I chopped the final mushroom and put them on to sauté, then remembered I hadn’t picked up my daily newspaper. So I ran downstairs to get it, and suddenly (don’t ask me how) was caught up in sorting through the sections to recycle the ads. “Oh!” I smelled the pecans I was toasting starting to burn, which reminded me of the mushrooms—and the sweet potatoes, whose water had all boiled away!
This is the dance of distracted mind, what Buddhists call “monkey mind.” I call it universal ADD. Constantly on information overload, our minds flying from one thought or image to another, from one activity to another, we all have attention deficit disorder. Often multi-tasking or thinking about the next thing we have to do, we lose the simple gift of presence, which is what brings us in touch with Presence.
I believe we are now being asked to evolve as human animals, to develop a more flowing, multi-dimensional consciousness. Yet paradoxically the true mastery of such expanded consciousness seems to begin with training ourselves to simply pay attention to one thing at a time.
One-pointed concentration is the beginning of many classical forms of spiritual training. Cultivating awareness of breath or body sensations, gazing at a candle flame, chanting a phrase over and over are practices that quiet the mind and allow us to come into deepened presence with ourselves and with the world.
In Jewish tradition, angels are thought to have a single task, which they do continuously, like the ones caring for each single blade of grass, exhorting it to “grow, grow.” Messengers of the Most High, they teach us how to serve with simplicity and focus, which become praise of the One.
We can learn about this kind of heart-mind presence by spending time with other species. Many years ago I became fascinated by the power and clarity with which wild animals express their spirits or nefashot, and by what happens in us when we come into relationship with their qualities of presence. Every summer, when I lived in Minnesota, I used to visit the Department of Natural Resources exhibit at the State Fair. There birds and animals who had been found wounded in the wild were displayed in cages set up so that streams of human visitors could pass by on both sides to view them. I would spend many minutes communing with a hawk or an owl, marveling at its amazing presence, so clear, collected, and focused, in contrast with the distracted, fuzzy, unconscious energy of people passing by on the other side of the cage. These raptors must focus all their sense to sight mice and shrews and rabbits in the tall grasses above which they hunt. Their survival depends upon their energies being sharply focused and collected for the downward dive to snatch their meal.
We humans are much more complex creatures, sometimes aware of the multiple layers of reality at once, more often floating in a fog of unconsciousness. Buying our food in supermarkets and living indoors, shielded by clothing from our environments, we lose our animal grace and presence. The subliminal mumblings of our brains flutter here and there, often below the level of conscious, and our bodies, minds, and spirits rarely integrate into a resonant, vibrant, and mindful awareness. How, then, are we to uncover/recover the inner wholeness that teaches the truth of Oneness and opens in our hearts a bud of joy that blossoms into Loving Presence?
In the morning blessings of our traditional prayer liturgy we pray, “barukh atah Yah Eloheynu Melekh ha-Olam asher asah loi kol tzarki, Blessed are You, Yah our G-d, Organizing Principle of Time-and-Space, Who provides for my every need.” All we need is here, right in this present moment, provided for us, if we can but collect our selves and pay attention.
Doing one thing at a time allows us to penetrate the present moment. As Jews, we often talk about getting inside a text, but how do we get “inside” the text of our lives, unfolding only in our bodies, in this very moment? The greatest torah we are given is the torah of our lives, the gift of each moment, each breath. Slowing down, paying attention to our bodies, our breath, is a way to get inside that text. We’ve given ourselves the opportunity to do just that on this retreat.
Each breath we draw is a reenactment of the very first ensoulment, of Divinity breathing life into the first human. This is what it means in the yotzer (Creator) prayer of the morning liturgy, when we say” u’vutvo m’khadesh b’khol yom ma’aseh b’reishit, and through your goodness, You renew each day, in each moment, through each breath you allow us to draw, the act of creating…”
In every moment, with every breath, I have what I need. Then fear is not, and only Presence, which is love, is.
Psalm 19, which we read on Shabbat, contains the haunting verse: “yom l’yom yabi-ah omer, day following day expresses Divine Presence, va’lailah l’lailah yikhaveh da’at, and night following upon night brings intimate knowledge, ayn omer v’ayn d’varim, even though there is no speech and no words, b’li nishma kolam, yet their voices are heard.”
How do we cultivate connection, devekut, with this Presence? We practice entering the moment over and over, calling our minds back to breath, to body awareness. In the Talmud, Maskhet Brakhot, it is taught: “The pious ones of old used to sit for an hour before praying.” What were they doing? Some commentators say, “They were praying to be able to pray.” They were doing the work of aligning themselves with Presence through concentrated awareness, so that they could say the words in integrity, with kavannah or direction of the heart.
We are here to look deeper into the nature of things, into our own natures, to attend on subtler and subtler levels to the roots and rhythms of our experience. This is the practice of mindfulness—not in detachment, not with shielded hearts, but with hearts wide open, broken open by the beauty and pain of living in these bodies, in this olam (world/universe). This was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s prayer practice: to enter each word, each letter of each prayer, as it is said, “When a true master of prayer recites the words every word is a name of God.” (Maggid Devaraw l’Yakov 17a) And for a true master of life, every breath is an expression of Presence—every exhalation, an expiration, a death, and every inhalation, an inspiration, a recreation of humanity, new, fresh, whole.
Mostly I forget to do this. Caught in the rounds of my days, thinking about the talk I have to write, I burn the mushrooms. Thinking about the next person I have to call, I miss the conversation I’m having.
Yet it’s as simple as stopping, taking a pause, “Shavat va’yinafash,”stopping to breathe, as the Divine did on the seventh day of Creation.
Smell the faint odor of salt and seaweed wafting in your kitchen window. Notice the swirling lines on the surface of the mushroom cap you are about to slice, looking like the California desert, threaded by a road or two, seen from the window of an airplane. Feel the heft of the paring knife in your hand before you slice into the spongy flesh, notice the anticipation of the taste of the cooked mushrooms, and how you are already imagining the seasonings that will most bring out that taste. Get inside the text of that moment, and every smell, taste, sight, breath, becomes God.
Many times today I will cross over a threshold.
I hope I will catch a few of those times.
I need to remember that my life is, in fact,
a continuous series of thresholds:
from one moment to the next,
from one thought to the next,
from one action to the next.
Help me appreciate how awesome this is.
How many are the chances to be really alive….
to be aware of the enormous dimension
we live within.
On the threshold the entire past
and the endless future
rush to meet one another.
they take hold of each other and laugh.
they are so happy to discover themselves
in the awareness of a human creature.
On the threshold the present breaks all boundaries.
it is a convergence,
a fellowship with all time and space.
We find You there.
And we are found by You there.
Help me cross into the present moment—into wonder, into You grace:
that “now-lace,” where we all are,
unfolding as Your life moment by moment.
Let me live on the threshold as threshold.
—Gunilla Norris, from Being Home, Discovering the Spiritual in the Everyday