Earth Etude for Elul 25 – Practicing Teshuvah
by Maxine Lyons~
I lost a lot of azalea bushes this past winter. The space looks stark and bare, and I am deciding what to place there to fill that void that a harsh Boston winter destroyed in my garden. The weight of the snowfall broke branches. I was at first very upset looking at the spot where azaleas once flourished in the springtime, and angry that the snow’s destructive force did this when I was not home for two months (to brush them off and relieve the pressure of the snow’s weight). I used a combination of practices from Mussar (using the soul-trait equanimity) and Buddhist mindfulness to focus on a solution and not just to over react to a natural occurrence. I am replanting there to restore that space with color and perhaps a new bush.
Hands for working in the earth and in being open to blessings.
Likewise with teshuvah, I am growing to accept that when I do not turn in the right direction towards the good and compassionate response that both Mussar and mindfulness offer, I create a destructive space that will require attention and effort to fill in the negative areas.
Teshuvah is not a one-time action to elicit change during the high holidays; rather, it involves an awareness throughout the year for a conscious approach to living a more satisfying life with good intentions and purpose. Just as we can perform some actions to prevent harsh outcomes in our gardens and in the natural world around us, so we must also add preventive efforts to develop healthful habits and everyday awareness to achieve the “higher self.”
Which way are you turning this year?? This bird of paradise shows us one way, towards the sun.
I am learning to respond to frustration and adversity with a little more care and balance consistent with the guidelines and dictates of spiritual practices. The process begins within me and then expands out to others as I focus on traits that require much discipline in order to integrate them within me. Moving from the cognitive understanding of what we experience and what we can know is vastly different from regularly and mindfully using our time to reflect and internalize the learning.
I have seen Mussar students who take course after course and still show signs of great reactivity and insensitivity, whereas there are neophytes who can more easily take in the nourishment that these practices provide, digest them and change to more healthful living. You can take endless spiritual courses but if you don’t use it then it limits your growing and ability to change.
Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that “Judaism has always held that it lies within man’s power to renew himself. In this task, man must rely upon himself; no one can help him…he is his own redeemer.” Conversely, quoting Deuteronomy, “we are called upon to open our hearts and return to God even as we acknowledge that for every turning, we need God’s help…we encounter both the transforming grace of God and an urgent call to repentance.”
I choose to subscribe more to the former rabbinical opinion rather than the biblical dictate. I believe that through extensive human effort, inspirational spiritual centering, conscious discipline and setting a daily intention, people can and do change and transform themselves in small and often large ways.
Maxine Lyons is becoming more and more of an avid gardener, both in the summer months outdoors and in her home (a year round sanctuary for many succulents and cacti to flourish). She is exploring the wonderful resonances between Mussar and Buddhist mindfulness practices while she enjoys some of her time in spiritual accompaniment with local individuals seeking homes.