Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Leap of Faith

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 28

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 1: Why Meditate?

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fire_rainbowIt is a major premise of this book that writing poetry can be a form of meditation and can confer many of the same benefits, and that these benefits are essential to a life that is lived poetically.
Meditation is – can be – so many things. There are meditations to relax you or to energize you; meditations for visualization and manifestation; meditations to empty your mind or to focus it. The more entrepreneurial among us have made meditation a commodity designed to cure the ills of a selected audience, which is a nice way of saying that some “meditation resources” are sham.

Meditation, at its most basic, is surrendering control, transcending the ceaseless whirring of our minds and resting in the assurance that all is, in some mysterious way, exactly as it ought to be. Most of us garden-variety meditators can’t rest the mind completely, but we can, at least for a few minutes, give it a respite.

Everybody has problems. The mind is usually engaged in solving those problems, and the problem-solving process often entails stress, anxiety, regret, maybe some guilt — maybe even depression and hopelessness, if we lack the resources we believe will solve the problems: health, energy, money, ideas, courage, influence, whatever.

Stress, anxiety, regret, guilt, and depression weigh on us. They sap our energy and cloud our thinking, becoming fuel for more stress, anxiety, regret, and so forth. They are colloquially and aptly called “baggage.”

Nebraska Sunset; Geese flying north over Lake McConaughy

Meditation sets the baggage aside

In 1976, my daughter, Marian, and I were rushing through Washington’s Union Station, hurrying to catch the Broadway Limited, which was departing early. We were loaded down with suitcases and Christmas presents for our visit to our family in Omaha.

broadway_limitedMarian was eight years old and was carrying everything she could manage, but I had the heavy stuff, both arms straining until I had to stop and give my muscles a break. After thirty seconds or so, I could pick the bags and packages up again and forge ahead, and then my arms would insist on being rested again. My arms were very vocal about it, and they refused to accommodate me until I let them have their little reprieve.

Our psyches don’t complain as clearly as our muscles. Headaches, backaches, stomach aches we can ignore or medicate. But if we keep going on overload, mentally or emotionally, something’s gotta give.

Meditation, like restful sleep, is a way of setting the baggage aside and giving our psyches a break. During the time we’re meditating, there’s no past to regret; there’s no future to worry about; there’s only now, and right now, everything is all right.

There’s no such thing as meditating badly

The only “bad meditation” is one that carries unrealistic expectations, so don’t go out and buy a “meditation kit,” CD, or book that promises wealth, romance, or power. Meditation is good for you—for body, mind, and spirit; for relationships and work and problem-solving and achieving your goals. But your life won’t change overnight, and anyway, expectations are about the future, and meditation is about this moment.

If you’re new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first to interrupt your churning thoughts, but there are some excellent and simple techniques to deal with them. For now, I’ll just give you three axioms to hold on to:

  1. The intention to meditate is a giant step in the right direction.
  2. Thirty seconds of meditation is better than no meditation at all.
  3. Don’t fret if your mind wanders during meditation. What’s important is returning to the meditation, compassionately and gently and without beating yourself up. It is, as Jack Kornfield says, like training a puppy. You don’t yell or scold; you just keep at it, firm but patient.

Just do it

When I worked at the University of Arizona, our department invited one of the trainers from the wellness center to give a presentation on “becoming fit.” The presentation was excellent and inspiring. It was especially motivational for me because the presenter emphasized “starting where you are.” If you want to walk or run on a treadmill, she said, and you can only manage two minutes, do the two minutes.

I had recently had a baby, and I wanted to start riding my bicycle to work—a five-mile journey that sloped gently uphill most of the way. So for a few days I rode my bike around our neighborhood, which was very flat. One morning I decided that I’d start for work on my bicycle, ride as far as I could manage, then lock the bike to a lamppost or something and take the bus the rest of the way. To my surprise, the five-mile trip was relatively easy and I locked my bike to the bike rack outside the Administration Building. My legs were spaghetti, but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, coupled with the knowledge that the trip home would be all downhill.

So just start. Begin with thirty seconds. Try to add a little time each day. Be patient. Don’t scold yourself if you miss a day, or a week. One of the purposes of meditation is to learn compassion for yourself and, by extension, for others.

The benefits of meditation

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, mystic, author — 1915-1968

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, mystic, author — 1915-1968

The potential benefits are almost too numerous to mention, and to some extent they depend on what form of meditation you adopt. But – again, we’re talking about very basic meditation here – a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, including heart rate and blood pressure. It can be a vacation from emotional turmoil, and you can learn to extend that “vacation” into a way of life, making the attitudes you cultivate during meditation into a habitual way of being.

Meditation cultivates compassion, the ability to love, and acceptance: of yourself, of other people, of your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to change your circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. But through meditation you can learn to be at peace wherever you are, even when you’d rather be somewhere else.

It might seem paradoxical, but through meditation you can become both (a) your best self, genuine, unique, distinctive, and (b) in harmony with your environment, however you define it: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your home, your neighborhood, trees, buildings, stars, the universe. You can, at the same time, know your limitations and continually test them.

There are “nonreligious” forms of meditation, but I believe that meditation is intrinsically spiritual. It requires a leap of faith to part with your ego, and that is exactly what meditation requires. Whether you’re practicing Christian meditation, Jewish meditation (Kabbalah, perhaps), Sufi meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation, or the Meditation of Not Being in a Plummeting Aircraft, the movement is always out of Matter into Spirit. For me, in any case, meditation is communion with the Divine.

Assignment 28.1

Begin a meditation ritual and journal. Start with Jack Kornfield’s “Meditation for Beginners.” Try to meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day. Send your first week’s journal entries via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

* * *

You Are Always More Than You Think You Are

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 12

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 3: What Is the Self?

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What Is the Self?

What Is the Self?

The human self is incapable of being defined. Am I a body, am I a certain set of capacities, a certain set of memories? …You are not definable…. You share with the [divine] attribute of keter [crown] this lack of being definable and determinable. Therefore you are always free to transform your life, to be different than you have been up until now. —Rabbi Nathan Glick, The Song of the Ten Sefirot  *

The late-nineteenth-century philosopher William James writes that your self is synonymous with your thoughts and beliefs about you and, at the same time, with comparisons of yourself with others gained through social interaction.**

This definition is useful but, in my view, flawed by doubling back on itself where it should move forward. The “comparisons of yourself with others gained through social interaction” are continually influencing “your thoughts and beliefs about you,” and vice versa. So James’s definition becomes, “You are who you think you are.”

But we have already seen the weakness of this definition in Carrie’s experience and in mine.

The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah

The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah

If you’ve been told all your life that you are stupid, it’s quite likely that you’ll behave unintelligently. You’ll have no confidence in your academic ability. You’ll probably accept uncritically what you’re told by people in authority—teachers, for example—and you won’t ask the questions that occur to you, believing them to be stupid questions. People who observe your intellectual clumsiness will also think you’re stupid, reinforcing your low opinion of yourself. From your perspective, these people will seem much smarter than you. 

So one day you take an intelligence test and your IQ turns out to be 149, much higher than any of your fellow students’ IQ. The administrators and teachers at your school are sure there’s been a mistake. They give you other kinds of intelligence tests. On each of them your score indicates that you are a near-genius.

Several outcomes are possible here:

  1. The teachers and administrators are finally convinced of what you yourself have come to believe after the first few tests: You are indeed very bright. You will begin to exhibit your mental strength, in response both to your new understanding of yourself and to your elders’ and the other students’ new respect for your intelligence.
  2. The teachers and administrators will remain unconvinced, and everyone will continue to treat you as if you are stupid, but you will believe. In your certainty that you are truly smart, you will behave intelligently, your grades will improve, and you will win over the school personnel, unless they are exceedingly stubborn or unless someone is paying them a lot of money to make you appear stupid to yourself and others, probably because you have a secret trust fund worth billions in your name and your guardians want you to be declared incompetent by the courts. Or something.

    Dr. Oliver Sacks, by Erika Hall

    Dr. Oliver Sacks, by Erika Hall

  3. The teachers and administrators will remain unconvinced, but you will believe—initially. You have not thoroughly tested your newly recognized intelligence and, because everybody continues to treat you as they always have—as if you had the mental agility of dryer lint—they will eventually wear you down, things will return to “normal,” and your ephemeral moment of brilliance will fade and be forgotten, much as in the wonderful 1990 Robert DeNiroRobin Williams film Awakenings (directed by Penny Marshall), based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks (Williams) and his experiments with the drug L-dopa. Sacks used L-dopa successfully to “awaken” a group of catatonic patients, some of whom had been virtually unconscious for decades. If you have seen the movie (and if you haven’t, skip to the next paragraph), you will recall the heartbreaking outcome: L-dopa was tragically unable to fulfill its early promise, and the awakened patients had to watch themselves and each other slide back into oblivion.

But for you, the student victimized by everyone’s persistent certainty that you are stupid, the story is not over. As we have seen, the self will protest, and you will either reassert yourself or become physically or mentally ill, or both.

You are always more than you think you are

Basic Training

Basic Training

Almost all who serve in the U.S. military start out in boot camp and usually find their physical capacity to be greater than they thought possible. Indeed, when circumstances force you to stretch beyond your comfort level, there is almost always a euphoric moment when your self-image grows along with your ability to meet the new demands.

We have all heard it said that people generally operate at about five percent of their potential, or some variation on that idea. I once attended a meeting at which a seminar-leader opened by having everybody take a partner and examine the partner’s appearance. Then he told us to turn around, change five clearly visible things about our appearance, and turn back to our partner. Each of us was supposed to discern the five things that our partner had changed. People did things like move their watches from one arm to the other, roll up their sleeves, loosen their ties, and ruffle their hair.

Then he had us do it again. And again. And a fourth time. The exercise got pretty silly, but people devised, on the spot, ingenious ways to change their appearance. They rolled their socks down, turned their skirts around, used lipstick to make “freckles,” wiped off their eye makeup, placed their socks on their heads, spilled coffee on themselves, blackened their teeth with mascara, and put Kleenex in their ears, straws in their noses, and forks in their shirt pockets.

It was a great way to begin a seminar. Everyone’s creative juices were flowing, they were in high good humor, and they were a mess, so nobody cared what he or she looked like. Most important, they recognized capacities within themselves that they hadn’t been aware of.

At this point we might tentatively say that you are who you think you are, plus the projected parts of yourself not reclaimed, plus your unthought-of potential, which is infinite….


* Rabbi Glick is a scholar and teacher of Kabbalah in Israel. The Song of the Ten Sefirot is an audiobook available free from LearnOutLoud.com.

** Aronson, E., Wilson, T. & Akert, R., Social Psychology (6th edition) 2005

Photo, “Basic Training,” courtesy of http://www.list.co.uk/article/4084-basic-training/

Next: Growth and self-knowledge

Finding Your Place in Creation

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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 3
Chapter 1: Finding Your Place in Creation

I created this course and book…

(a)  for individual readers who want to write and live poetically, and

(b) as a text for adult and advanced-student workshops in poetry-writing, self-discovery, and self-expression.


By reading and discussing the text and doing the assignments, you will learn to write poetry that is both artistic and disciplined; learn about yourself through poetry-writing; and write poetry to participate in your own creation (or “co-creation” or “evolution”).


It is my hope that this book will help you live a fuller, happier life. You’ll experience the joy of creating something worthwhile and giving beauty to the world—no work of art is really completed until it’s shared.


Beyond that, writing poetry can be a form of meditation. It anchors you to the here and now, freeing you from worry and regret. It helps you process your experiences and circumstances. It reveals inner feelings and desires.


It can even help you find your calling. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations (Boox X), “Everything exists for a purpose—a horse, a vine, even the sun. What then is your purpose?”*


From a Darwinian or a spiritual standpoint—take your pick—you are here because the Universe needs you, the way a meadow needs clover and grass and bees and earthworms. You are an essential part of the vast ecosystem. Your talents and deepest desires should guide you to your place in Creation.


Mistletoe, literally “dung on a twig” in the Old Saxon language, is spread through bird excrement, and it attaches itself to tree limbs where conditions are favorable. To the Druids, oak mistletoe was sacred because it was rare—mistletoe was much more common on apple trees.


Unlike mistletoe, human beings make choices that determine where they land and what they do.** If your wants, skills, and interests were not given much attention when you were a child, you might have grown up thinking they didn’t matter much. Perhaps you’ve made major decisions—whom to marry, where to go to college, what to study, what kind of work to do—more out of obligation or coercion, or to please others, than out of deep desire or a sense of calling.


Eventually you may lose touch with your wants. Parents, especially, find their lives governed by their children’s needs. Some choose parenthood with their eyes wide open—parenthood, for the moment, is their calling, and they joyfully make the necessary “sacrifices.” Or they find ways to integrate their own passion for, say, ballroom dancing or growing fruit trees, with child-rearing.***


It’s not uncommon to find parents, especially mothers, suffering from empty-nest syndrome when the kids are gone and the daily routine is no longer relevant. The house, so recently a hub of youthful activity, is too quiet. The freedom, once longed for, is too scary. Mom feels superfluous.


The universe still needs her, and it is prodding her latent talents and desires. Writing poetry is a way to bring her sleeping passions and creative energy to the surface, as a spring bubbling out of a rocky hillside releases water from deep underground into the sunlight.


This book has three parts.

Part I

Concepts of art, poetry, and the self. Here I try to corral an unruly herd of meanings into a more or less delimited vocabulary. You can’t just throw words such as art, poetry, spirit, ideal, perfection, growth, and self-knowledge at people without saying what you mean. We are talking about the nature of reality here, not the price of grapefruit.


My assertion that reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are “more real” and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs and the mail I keep getting from L. Ron Hubbard, even though I have told the postal service a thousand times that I am not “Margaret Campbell,” even though I have returned the items C.O.D. to L. Ron himself — is hardly original.


I draw from the works of Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Carl Jung, and Marcus Aurelius, and from quantum physics, the Old and New Testaments, and many other sources. I am indebted to whoever it was — I can’t find the reference — who wrote an article about Kabbalah describing how the universe splintered at the moment of creation, hurling innumerable shards into space, and how every act of kindness, or mitzvah, puts one of the shards back into its proper place, helping to repair the broken cosmos. And I am grateful to the Book-of-the-Month Club for sending me a book that I forgot to not order, The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher who has worked with western neurologists and physicists to investigate the science of meditation.

Part II

The poetry-writing section of the book, where readers and students will learn the forms and conventions and techniques of poetry and will practice using them. If you have ever taken a poetry-writing course, you will find little that is new or surprising in Part II except, perhaps, my tendency to go off-topic if a gust of wind through my open window carries the scent of something that might be the first drops of rain on a dusty road miles away, or it might be the washing machine overflowing again in the basement, and since it is much more likely to be the washing machine and I will eventually have to deal with it, I keep writing, as if rain on dusty roads were a metaphysical anomaly equivalent to rank upon rank of angels singing paeans in the sky.


You might find, also, that Part II focuses more on simile and metaphor, among the many devices that poets use, than your earlier poetry course might have done.

Part III

Poetry-writing as a way of knowing, expressing, and creating oneself. Because you will have read Part I, you will understand what that means, and you will realize that what you are reading here is not empty rhetoric meant to seem profound and important but is a preface to joy.

We will be working with a definition of poetry that, especially in Part III,  includes beauty as a criterion. We will learn to gather the loose, impotent, entropic bits of energy we possess and apply them to the intentional creation of beauty. We will be exemplars of our art. We will be inspired by the certainty that beauty and grace exist not only in the product of artistic endeavor but also in the endeavor itself.

* The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a lovely little fable about the way the Universe directs us toward our destiny.

** Obviously, some people, individually and in groups, have more freedom to choose than others. On the other hand, many people who live in free societies are unaware of the innumerable choices they do have. The real or imagined opinions of others—“What will people think!”—are a common, and often unjustified, constraint.

*** With tragic exceptions, most parents do the best they can most of the time, even when parenthood sneaks up on them unawares. I made a lot of mistakes but I rolled with the punches and loved being a parent because I got to be a kid a lot, because I like ballet recitals and soccer games and eau de sweaty-little-boy and little girls playing dress-up, and snuggling in a big chair with a storybook…. But I had my moments of resentment, martyrdom, fury, and attempts to escape. Fortunately, there was always someone around to either call me on it or pick up the slack.


Go to Lesson 3.1 Assignment
Go to Lesson 4