A spiritual discipline begins in sadness. This thought came to me and then left, without leaving any hints, so here is my best go
I had been thinking about spiritual discipline because I was feeling I needed one. Not a religio-cleansing effort but something that would enlarge the ambit of the spirit, which can get narrowed in the confines of this city.
And then this thought came. I think the connection is that sadness prompts an effort to relieve life of a certain scheduledness, of being on point and on time. Also, sadness asks the body to take a breather. It asks the body to stop pommeling itself with shoulds and judgments, and rest quiet and unbruised for a while.
And because of the way our world is pitched to us these days, the sadness comes from an over-involvement in screens and the cloud and the digital rabbit-holes and chum boxes that can trap us in endless mazes but do nothing to feed any deeper longing that comes from living within the faux three-dimensionality of the two-dimensionality of pixels and code, which may appear to be magic but it lacks magic’s draw of awe and delight.
Virginia Heffernan writes about this in her book Magic and Loss. In an interview on the podcast Track Changes, she spoke about her own five-year quest to de-link herself from her phone screen and re-link herself to the tactility of life: think about using a sextant to know your place rather than GPS and an app. She speaks about the Buddhist/Anglo term “mindfulness” as being a “memory of the present.” This present is not a present curated by Apple’s minimalist aesthetic designed to protect users from oily-skinned human beings but one concerned about undigitizable food and not losing the sense of immanent thereness that comes with great poetry.
In these states of limits and gentleness, the discipline can begin.
And what was my discipline? To reconnect with friends I had not seen in many years because I had been lazy and careless about these relationships. I had fallen into being willing to let them slide away as part of my own sliding away from my own prior lives. Doing this helped me feel wider, linked, affixed. The discipline is called a “discipline” from its root meaning of “knowledge,” which simply means paying attention to the things that deserve attention: friends, pets, justice, lovers, good food and drink.
I work in an institution, Yeshiva University, where spiritual discipline is a much more serious and on-going enterprise: one’s life and the discipline are the same thing, the word made flesh. Rules hem in life. These rules are not rules of thumb but neither are they lines of “if-then” statements. They fall in-between, both loose and tight, both forgiving and demanding. One’s day is given over to studying the rules, and both studying the rules and following the rules comprise the Jewish discipline.
Being an outsider, I can only see with anthropological eyes, but I sense a nostalgia at the heart of Modern Orthodoxy, constrained but fierce. The noun “Orthodoxy” reluctantly takes on the adjective “Modern” because Orthodoxers living in modern times have convinced themselves that they must live within these modern times, which require diplomatic engagements with non-Orthodox authorities: the Torah is still central, but it must also share the center if the believers are to find success within their historical moment.
No one at YU argues that the institution should abandon its alliance with the secular world and retreat to the yeshiva, at least out loud, though there are many rabbis there who would do this in a heartbeat if they could: return to a life where studying the beauty of the Torah is life itself. This ache for the shelter of the Torah comes from nostalgia, both in the sense of wanting a past that is/was better than the present and the pain that comes from desiring a home that no longer exists.
As the anthropologist, I can understand this tension through rationality and logic, but because I have no felt experience of the believing going on within Orthodox people, the tension feels heavy and sober and unjoyful to me. It feels like a discipline more in line with our usual sense of discipline, as a means of correction and shriving. This yeshiva feeling does not attract me at all, but I can understand how the weight of its tradition might feel like an anchor and a harbor to those who believe that there can be no life worth living without a worthwhile anchor and harbor.
I live in a lighter world - no guidelines, just suggestions; no creed, just lots of MacGyvering. At times I need the spiritual reboot, but at least I can turn on my lights on Shabbos while doing it. And the sadness? We live in a fallen world; sadness is a proper response - a feature, not a bug.