Holding onto Opposites

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February 1, 2013
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Sarah Chandler

The lake is frozen. The sky is bright blue mixed with a balance of white and gray over the mountain. The moon still shines as we wander into a yurt. The temperature indoors is barely 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so we press the heater’s “up arrow” and wait. A light blanket of snow covers the green hills, and beige phragmites dance in the wind.

It is 6:27 am, just about time to start avodat lev, our daily spiritual practice. We gather in a circle of colorful yoga mats and meditation cushions. One person grabs a drum; another clutches a mug of hot tea. We close our eyes and breathe into our opening song: “Grateful I am/Modeh ani.” Consciously, we put the word “grateful” before the word “I” as the first words from our lips. For those of us living and working together on the Adamah Farm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., this communal act leads us into our day.

In this season, welcoming the snow and all its beauty overwhelms us; we observe the soft stillness and we react to the cold. An involuntary tension finds its way to a shoulder or the lower back. Feelings of longing take us out of the calm; we desire warmth, comfort, relaxation.

We sing: “Elohai neshama, sh’natata bi.” “My God, the soul you gave to me, she is pure.”  It is a proclamation of accepting something deeply real but easily forgotten. As we inhale, warmth penetrates our being. The air in the yurt inches past 42 degrees. The sun peeks over the mountain. Gloves drop to the floor. As we exhale, our tense places soften and we relax into our bodies.

Diving into these ancient Hebrew words of the Jewish morning liturgy elicits differing emotions in those who form the circle. Some, with a meaningful historical connection to Hebrew prayer, find comfort in the words yet adjust slowly to the melodies. Others carry Hebrew skills alongside an aversion to structured prayer. Still others are content tapping a drum or singing the melody along with the leader. As diverse as we are, we all find a way into this unifying practice, growing over our edge and remaining open. The daily repetition brings together myriad dimensions; whether someone came here with a daily practice based on the full siddur, kundalini yoga, silent mediation, or nothing at all, this chanting circle is new to each of us.

Hallelujah! The temperature has finally reached 55 degrees, and a lively tune brings us to our feet in dance. Sitting back down, we ponder the psalmist’s words: “Spreading snow like fleece, scattering frost like ashes.” How is snow like fleece? How is frost like ashes? How do we hold these opposites? How might we seek oneness in this world of dualities? Can we really keep this old/new practice of chanting ancient Hebrew? Am I really sitting calmly as my mind is exploding with thoughts?

The more I command my brain to remain still, to “be here now,” the more it fills with thoughts, memories, and plans. Why does everyone except me know what they are doing? What did I dream last night? Will I have the strength and patience to work hard today? And yet, as I return to what is within me, and to my breath, I relax into the stillness of the moment.

Surrounded by the sound of singing, the newly warmed air, and the sense of my inner heat, I release my preconceptions of what prayer looks like. I join in song with this crew of young farmers — each of us simultaneously present in the chanting and a few steps closer to the openness we seek.

The leader instructs us to visualize the ecosystem around us — the one that follows changing seasons; when the ground freezes and is covered with snow, the ground insulates the earth below. Each breath we take is a reminder of this cycle, and a reminder of impermanence. Whether we are bundling our bodies in layers, being physically active, or enjoying a heated space, the winter invites us to be attuned to the world around us.

We chant the Sh’ma in stillness, remembering to listen, to uncover the oneness that underlies all life. To discredit what is around us — our ecosystem, our climate, today’s weather — only takes us farther away from presence and oneness.

Coming together in community allows us space to breathe, to align ourselves, and to wake up to everything that is. So often in our daily lives and in questioning
spiritual practice, we are quick to reject “what is.” Even the psalmist, who may never have actually experienced a snowy
morning, had the wisdom to tell us that snow can be like fleece; rather than a day’s coldness pushing us into misery and discomfort, that same cold wind can be a sign to connect with our inner warmth. Having the courage to sit with this paradox ultimately brings equanimity — a peaceful balance to all that surrounds us.

T’hiyeh chavayah achat, v’rucah achat…” “The life force will be one…” We conclude with these words, a feminine translation of the Aleinu prayer, simultaneously echoing, observing, and foretelling the oneness of the universe.

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Sarah Chandler is an educator who focuses on the intersection of sustainability, mindfulness, and Jewish pluralism. She serves as director of earth-based spiritual practice for Hazon’s Adamah Farm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Visit Adamah.org for information on the three month Jewish farming & intentional community fellowship, or the online store at isabellafreedman.org to sample tracks or order a CD of the group’s chants.

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