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Posts Tagged ‘buddhism’

From the folks at Wordsmith, the creators of the “A Word A Day” emails that make my mornings:

Moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions. The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., novelist (1922-2007)

This quotation is from Bluebeard, the Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988), a novel by Vonnegut, well before the internet explosion.  I haven’t read it, but it’s on my list now.  I put this up as my facebook status, as I often do with interesting quotations, and I received a lot of attention and “likes.”  A lot of us must feel this way, maybe as a generation.  Useless, underachieving, struggling, uncreative.  I’ve felt this way.  After the “me” generation, mothers telling us we’re all brilliant, the world is our oyster.  I think the key in getting by in this world, perhaps in achieving any sort of true, lasting happiness, is in letting it all go.  Perhaps we’re all brilliant in some way.  But it’s a fact that not all will be famous, wealthy, beloved by millions, respected by experts, world champions, successful inventors, world leaders, mountain-movers, saviors of humanity, and the like.  As it always has been.  Why should this be a source of suffering?  This doesn’t mean we need to settle into mediocrity.  Not at all.  We can all be participants, do important things, whether they are small or large, whether they are noticed or not.  I’ve not been feeling too well, in many ways, not that it needs to be mentioned.  In this time, I’ve watched a ridiculous amount of West Wing re-runs.  Brilliant writing, intelligent, insightful.  Watching it, I feel both proud and ashamed.  It’s a show about people making a difference.  Yes, people in positions of great power and sway, but moving, grooving, and improving nonetheless.  And here I am, in the act of watching it, doing nothing.  A great democracy, and I watch, complacently.

Need to remember: small things, small steps, patience, and not to drag myself, my self-worth into the mud.  Also known as letting go.

This has nothing to do with anything, I suppose, but this poem makes me deliriously happy.  Joy.  Small pockets of joy.  We are all the heroes of our own lives, the happy geniuses of our households.

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,–
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,–

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

William Carlos Williams, (1883-1963)

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Meditation Hall

 

I’m heading off to a Vipassana retreat, and I won’t be able to make phone calls, check email, write, read, or otherwise speak for a week.  And I am so thrilled!  The problem is in the leaving.  I’m trying to finish off a big work project (procrastinating until the final second), and clean the house, and be kind to my pets (as I’m leaving them alone for almost two days until my sister flies home).  Money.  Do you remember the days of not having to worry about it?  And why did that thought come out?  Probably because September is a slow moneymaking month (holidays), I’m owed some money, and I’m taking a whole week off that I could be working, thus making September less painful.  And as I’m an independent, the amount I make every month varies.  Oh goodness.  I just hope I can unwind quickly enough.  At moments like these I’m embarrassed for myself, as I don’t feel like a self-sufficient productive member of society.  Who are you and what good are your degrees and diplomas and accomplishments if you worry like mad about bills?  And yet, I’m going to Vipassana.  Buddhist teachings have changed my life, but it is so much harder to release and let go than one could possibly imagine.  How do you live every day, consciously, with insight, with grace, kindness, and compassion…and work like a maniac, plan for the future, wash the dishes, date, write, go to school, work, meditate, work, meditate, cook, work, etc, etc, etc?  This is why retreats exist.  To get away.  Refresh.  Relax.  Focus.  Gear up to go back.

 

Sangha

 

OK.  So back to work.  To procrastinating.  To cooking up yet more of the greens in my fridge (yes, I have succeeded in eating nothing but greens and tahini and a few nuts for 4 days now).  To packing.  To not being in the moment so that tomorrow I will receive an even bigger shock when I get to meditate 24/7.  Yippee!

A wonderful Sukkot holiday to all!

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Firefly's Kaylee enjoying an extremely rare delicacy

Until last year, I fasted on every Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, the most serious holy day of the year. I even read the Torah portion from Leviticus 19 for many, many years in synagogue.  Then last year, I found myself in Avignon, France, surrounded by the French, their art, culture, and of course, wine and cuisine.  I didn’t want to be a seeming “ascetic” while my friends and hosts luxuriated in their amazing market findings.  It could have been perceived as rude (I know that wouldn’t really be the case), or at best weird (more likely).  And I wanted to eat.  And I didn’t feel any deep down moral objection.  Even though I planned on fasting, and I brought a Machzor (a prayer book) with me, it didn’t feel wrong to eat.  No guilt.

Bouillabaisse: a signature dish in Provence

So this year, back in Israel, I’ve decided I want to eat again.  Not being abroad, though, this is a much bigger decision.  One that has to be justified.  Proved.  You’ve got to have a prepared, “I’m an atheist,” or, “I believe in the spirit of it all, but I’m not religious and don’t feel it necessary to deprive myself,” etc, etc, etc.  Many people, secular people, do fast…but they also don’t go to synagogue and they sit around in their AC and watch TV and movies all day.  Not too difficult.  Which is what fasting is more or less intended to be.  Not that fasting is torture.  I’ve been told many interpretations over the years on why we fast.  The most common is that we deprive the body of all luxury so it can focus on the task at hand, namely, repenting before god, apologizing for any and all sins committed, knowingly or unknowingly.

Opening heaven's gates

Another interesting explanation is that on this day we should act as though we are dead — not dead, dead, but that we are weakening ourselves, humbling ourselves before god, wearing white robes and no leather, humble clothes, like Jewish funeral shrouds — and in the States at my temple, at least, we ran a food drive.  People were encouraged to donate at least the equivalent of what they would have eaten in that day they fasted.  All of this so that we can ensure we’ll be written up in the book of life for another year — asking god to keep death away for another year.

I’m fine with food drives.  I champion food drives.  I’m fine with introspection, of analyzing my own behavior.  Improving myself.  And certainly, most certainly, apologizing to PEOPLE in my life for having offended or mistreated them.  But I don’t have a relationship with god.  I just don’t.  I also believe that good behavior comes from within, and if people do good deeds to look favorably in the eyes of god, they’re missing the intention of it all.  Guilt.  Shame.  Incentive.  I believe in goodness for its own sake because it is simply the right thing to do.

Women at the Western Wall

I am proud of being Jewish, but I don’t believe that I have to pray in a specified way because that’s the way it is.  I believe I am a good Jew, in my behavior, in the way I live my life.  I believe in holiness.  I think I have been a good emissary of my people (I have been the first Jew many people have ever met, and goodness knows I have saved our reputation on more than one occasion).  I just don’t attribute that to god.  Fasting can be an important method of introspection, whether religiously or more meditatively.  I think that I am skipping the fast this year because I have decided I do not need to fast when I am told.  That I MUST fast as a symbol of being Jewish.  That’s an Americanism.  Going to shul because that is the way to maintain community.

Not so in Israel where secular holidays are religious holidays, where eating matzah on Passover is a national tradition, like Americans eating turkey on Thanksgiving.  Many olim, immigrants to Israel, often observe that it’s easier to be a Jew here…and hence…they become more lazy than they ever were back home.  Everything’s in Hebrew, the biblical language.  Biblical references are thrown about like Shakespearian references would be in Western literature.  Everyone understands the holidays.  They structure our year.  Kids have a bible study class every year from the age of 6 until graduation, whether secular or religious.  But because of that, you don’t have to try so hard.  I’ve certainly succumbed to that.

Defeat: Arch of Titus with Menorah carried to Rome

On the other hand, living in Israel has freed me in many ways.  Before, I felt a duty to express my Judaism when living abroad.  I’m still a Jew, and I never hide this fact when traveling abroad.  It is an important part of what made me, me.  But my real deep-down beliefs have surfaced much more easily here.  Relaxing the Jewish fervor, not being in a minority group anymore, I am finally comfortable with expressing my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of Judaism.  I don’t have to put on a face, trying to “accept” interpretations to make my following of certain rituals logical to me.  I had been interested in different meditation techniques for years, but I believe that I avoided any sort of exploration because I thought it would be seen as disloyal.  So many Jews marry outside the faith, we’re disappearing, we’re forgetting — what responsibilities on our shoulders!  Keepers of the faith.  Keepers of our special nation.

No more.  For me, I am beginning to understand that it more important to be a good person than a good Jew.  These things are not contradictory, but at this point, I am finding that the Jewish definition is limiting.

Tomorrow, I am co-hosting a sci-fi marathon.  All 14 episodes of Firefly followed by the sequel film, Serenity.  Like the world of Star Trek, in many ways this brilliantly imagined series examines the human condition and celebrates compassion in the midst of a difficult, violent, and unjust world.  I’ll be making pizza from scratch.  I’m content with my decisions.

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Last night I returned from a weekend retreat.  This was a meditation retreat like no other.  Half silent Vipassana meditation, half activities and discussions about activism in the world and approaching it from a Dharma perspective.  In other words, Engaged Dharma. This post’s a bit long – if it’s too long, skip to the last 2-3 paragraphs or so. Would love your thoughts.

Dharma (Sanskrit: धर्म) or Dhamma (Pāli: धम्म) in general terms refers to the teachings of the Buddha.  If I can encapsulate the entire message and purpose of Buddhism, it is this: there is suffering, it can be understood, and there is a way to end suffering.   This was the first and most important teaching of the Buddha (the four noble truths).

Taking Buddhism up and away from the meditation cushion isn’t necessarily easy.  Serious introspection is a personal process.  That said, we live in the real world.  Even monks have to get up, clean house, and eat food.  For people who are socially engaged, trying to better the world, whether it be battling poverty, cleaning the environment, empowering abused women, etc, and who come from the Buddhist world, this can be both an inspiring experience and also a more difficult one.

Activists can be very angry.  Anger gets people to take up arms and take action.  Buddhists come from a peaceful place.  I feel that it comes quite naturally that people who are learning about or who follow the teachings of the Buddha, which all center around ending suffering, would be people who want to extend this to the world.

When I returned from the first Vipassana retreat about 4 months ago, I vowed to myself that I would become engaged in the world again.  Volunteer, give back, participate in activities that matter.  It took some time, but this was my first step.  But I have to admit, it was quite daunting.  I feel that I’ve gained some firmer footing with my dhamma practice.  I wanted to go to this retreat in order to retreat.  It’s been stressful, and this weekend was in many ways a birthday gift from myself (financed by grandma’s annual birthday cash, “buy something nice for yourself, so thank you grandma).   But I felt that everyone there was already very engaged, if not somewhat engaged in activities and organizations who are doing important things.  The shame I’ve felt for a long time, not actively helping, bubbled to the surface.  As I think I’ve said on the blog, I never expected I’d become one of the majority, a member of the complacent couch potato society of the world.  I was so incredibly active in my youth: AIDS outreach, peer counseling, working with at-risk youth, running after-school drama clubs for under-served communities.  But perhaps this is the perfect example of traditional activism and volunteerism: burnout.

Helping the world is noble.  But it is painful.  It hurts.  The more you help, the more you realize how much more help is needed.  You may get to a place where the whole shebang feels hopeless.  Your anger, drive, hard work leaves you empty.  What good is what you’re doing?  Nothing seems to be changing.  Trees keep being chopped down.  People keep getting sick.  Children are still starving.

Sangha at Zen Peacemakers Conference

A Dharma community may be the answer in dealing with this problem.  Coming from a “happier” place, a peaceful place, a real supportive community where pain and suffering has a method to be dealt with, is a great refuge.  In fact, it may be the most important element within the Buddhist path.  There are three refuges:

Buddha (the enlightened one, the teacher, our spiritual potential), the Dhamma (the teaching, the path), and the Sangha (the community).  Buddha himself said that of the three, the Sangha is the most important.  In fact, “By taking refuge in the Sangha, we become the refuge. This is the path of the Buddhas.”

My Path: part of my trouble is making decisions.  There are so many options, in every aspect of life, I often freeze up.  Towards the end of the retreat, as interesting and inspiring as it was, I still wasn’t sure what my actions would be.  Would I join a group that deals with a sort of micro-banking for women?  Would I help poor families get on the economic ladder?  What was my passion?  Because here’s the thing: if you spread yourself too this, nothing much will be accomplished.  The story of my life.  You have to choose one thing, and give it your all.  My “eureka” moment came during a guided “stream of consciousness” exercise, talking about what we cared about, what our skill set was, what projects I could take on.  And it spilled out.

FOOD

I am interested, in fact passionate about food.  My problem having gone to culinary school, working at a winery, writing this vaguely food-esque blog, is that it’s about the food in front of us.  But as you’ve seen, in my posts about the “Anatomy of a muffin,” “How important is it, really, to buy local?,” “Edible Urban Greenery,” and “The Idea Human Diet,” I really go into the origins of the food we eat, the social implications, the historic precedent, the current conditions of the food around us, etc, etc, etc.  There are many more posts, in fact, dealing with organic food, world hunger, and socially-conscious restaurants.  How did I not realize that this is something very important to me??  Even my next novel is all about food and ecology.  The drastic future of food.

So, stay tuned.  There will be a project, big or small as it may be, that I will be spearheading.  Maybe it’s been done before.  Maybe I’ll find that out and start participating (no need to reinvent the wheel).  I want to find out where all of our food comes from, I want to know all about the new science of food, I want to know about who works to make our food, I want to advocate for better food standards, and I want to become involved in organic agriculture.  AND most importantly, I want to share this knowledge with the world. I want to teach.  This will involve a website and a lot more.  I’ve already met people who live on kibbutzes who’ve invited me down to see their massive chicken coops and dairies.  I have vegan friends who are already far more involved in some of these movements.  But I know I don’t want to alienate.  I will not be advocating vegetarianism.  I simply think it’s important to know.  And once we know, we can decide to either make better choices about what we put into our bodies, or help effect change in the bigger picture, or both.  This is my passion:

Agriculture – Ecology – Hunger – Human Rights

If you’d like to join me, learn more, provide insight, advice, intro to organizations, farms in Israel, etc, please contact me.

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An "art-short-story" I adore, created by Brian Andreas. I keep this above my bed.

‘Twas yesterday.  My birthday.  31 on the 31st.  My golden birthday, gone in a flash.  Shared another birthday with Harry Potter (and his creator JK Rowling), and now an anniversary with Chelsea Clinton, apparently.  Went swimming in the sea, had a lovely Italian breakfast with my mother at Rustico Basel, a leisurely soy ice coffee with my sister at Loveat, and had a little wine and cheese night up on the roof garden with dear friends and family (some of the best Camembert on record!).  Besides the detour of picking up party supplies, cleaning house, and baking my own cake, it was very relaxing.

Harry turned 30 yesterday

I am absolutely thrilled that I had a wonderful birthday – and that it was like almost any other good day. What I mean by that is for the first time in my life, I didn’t put my birthday up on a pedestal.  I didn’t stress out.  I didn’t have high hopes or low hopes.  I didn’t have hopes.  And it was marvelous.  Not too different than other marvelous days, but just a little more special.  I am looking forward to future birthdays just like this.  Fun, but without grandiose expectations.

Birthdays are always a good chance to take stock.  In recent years I feel like I haven’t accomplished much.  When you’re young, in school, working your first jobs, achieving demonstrable things is what’s expected.  School plays, good grades, choir concerts, varsity letters, diplomas, certificates of honor, promotions, etc, etc.  Now, it’s not so noticeable; life seems to grind on. A lot.  And it’s not so clear what you or the world would consider an accomplishment.  So, without further ado, an attempt at listing this years’ (potential) accomplishments, in no particular order:

  • Forging a new career as a freelance virtual assistant , writing/blogging consultant, and editor.
  • A trip to Provence with good friends for good food, good wine, good culture, good Scrabble, and good conversation.
  • Lots of organic veg, lots of cooking and eating, and lots of blogging about it.
  • Wine work – huge expos, weekend wine tastings, a couple trips to wineries, and my first actual (I guess, professional, ee gad!) presentation.
  • Yoga! Lots and lots of Yoga. Every Thursday. Come rain or shine.
  • Sommelier course – or the closest you can get to it in Israel. So much fun, for so many reasons.
  • Got into grad school (MA in Creative Writing). Starting in 2 weeks. We’ll see how that goes…
  • Buddhist meditation – life-changing practice. It’s saved me, for so many reasons.
  • Vipassana retreat – silence and meditation 24/7 for 7
  • Leadership, again – helped form a Sangha (meditation community), 10th college reunion committee recruitment chair (12 new members in less than 2 weeks!), and potentially volunteering to organize an alumni event for the U of C Israel Alumni Club.
  • Reality TV show – my sister and I (and our lovely apartment) starred in a house hunting show.
  • Almost a month in the States – spent quality time with old friends and family by way of an east coast whistle-stop tour, a mid-west road trip blasting Hemingway on the speakers, and an Iowa wedding. The best of times.
  • Read some good books, made a couple good friends, drank some good wine, and at brief moments, felt good and knew it.

Not a bad year if you look at it empirically.  I know that I diminish my accomplishments and experiences because the negative and what I perceive as missing, overshadow the good. Namely, the never-ending battle to achieve work-life balance, and the never-ending battle to get out of dodge (aka single-dom).  Luckily, I’m much less paranoid about both.

My hope is that I (and all of us) will continue to become grounded, perceive the here-and-now as much as possible, be in a position to recognize moments of happiness when they come, explore our world, explore the paradox, create beauty, and take some risks.  Some good big risks.  Onward and upward!

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My apartment is ready for its closeup

It’s been forever. I know.

Since I’ve written I have:

  • Created a wonderful wine tasting for a food bloggers’ dinner
  • Meditated until my butt and thighs and back no longer hurt from the experience
  • Discovered my sister’s grilled cheese sandwich press (sizzling behind me at the moment)
  • Returned to vegetarian tendencies given up ten years ago after being inspired by my Buddhist learning and reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Read it, please.
  • Worked worked worked worked for my various clients
  • Been on a few first dates, which says something
  • Witnessed a near suicide bus-bomb in central Tel Aviv
  • Developed a beautiful friendship
  • Been filmed for 4 days for an international television show called House Hunters International (I don’t believe I can speak more about it for contractual reasons – but believe me – it was an incredibly interesting and awesome experience – made even more so by the most chill fab camera/sound/directing crew that ever was)
  • Broken up with my therapist
  • Drunk some really incredible wine (I adore the winery I work for, I really truly do)
  • Watched the entirety of FlashForward in about 5 days and was horrified to learn it was canceled (what is it with crappy TV execs who can the most exciting, thought-provoking shows, e.g. Firefly)
  • Had my poor Fischer cat in the hospital for nearly a week with a blocked up bladder – had to have surgery which turned him into a her – and it cost me a bloody fortune.
  • AND – now I’m flying to the United States for 3+ weeks! AND if you can believe it, I bought the ticket 3 days ago.  One of the most last-minute crazy-ass trips I’ve ever, ever organized (or not organized, as so happens).  Even when I went to India, I got the ticket 2 weeks before I went.  Ah, life

So…getting back into blogging sucks.  When you finally get on a roll, you’re on a roll.  That’s what I’m attempting to do.  I’m going to post some pics, have some laughs, and send me some love in the form of comments, my dears.

My Pretty Apartment

Our Rooftop Garden

I discovered the panorama setting...

And the collage setting...

And the frame setting...of my camera phone...I see fun in my future

Sunset in Jaffa in the Adjami neighborhood

Fischer after the sex change operation

Tons of herbs my sister's friends brought from kibbutz. This is a fraction of what I froze.

Quick vegan attempt at a lasagna type thing - that's a whole "Mangol" Leaf on top (chard?)

Pretty salmon as a mezze at Manta Ray

Antique coffee cup at Basta near the shuk

Amazing Israeli group playing classical Indian music at the close of a 2-day meditation retreat

Very satisfying and affordable grilled cheese at Segafredo on Frishman - ask for tomatoes inside

Best cheeses in Tel Aviv - Hinawi Carlebach

Wearing his heart on his sleeve? Time running out?

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I haven’t blogged in an eternity.  It has been difficult to share with people what I experienced a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure I want to – or if this story will interest anyone.  I feel I’ve become some sort of missionary – but please know that that is the last of my intentions. Without further ado – here’s the blog post.

____

Does sitting silently with 100+ strangers in the middle of nowhere for 7 days sound like a vacation to you?  I don’t know if I was nuts out of my mind when I signed up, but it did indeed sound like the perfect getaway for this stressed out Telavivian.

From March 31 to April 6 I attended a Vipassana Retreat – a living meditation immersion, where from 5:30 am to 9:30 pm all time was devoted to sitting, standing, and walking meditation in the Theravada Buddhist tradition – conducted completely in noble silence.

I can say with certainty that attending this retreat (hosted by the incredible Tovana organization and led by Dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss) was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

For those who don’t know anything about Buddhism, I don’t want to go into detail here and risk boring or alienating you.  What I would like to do is share with you even a small bit of what the experience was like.

Buddhism in 10 words:

There is suffering, and there is an end to suffering.

The Buddhist teachings, known as the Dharma (Dhamma in Pali), spoke so clearly to me.  To even touch upon them in such brevity would be fruitless here.   They tell of a “middle path,” not one of religion and not one of secular life – away from both the comforts of blind faith and competitive addictive materialism.  The smallest summary – Buddhism is the most peace-loving and logical philosophy and practice I have ever encountered.  And I stress philosophy and practice.  Buddhism did not begin as a religion – it became one – probably contrary to what the historical Buddha would have wanted.  This is not to say that all the religious Buddhists today are in the wrong.  But I do want to communicate here is that you can be a good Jew, Christian, Muslim, or anything else, and still practice meditation, live by Buddhist ways.  Never did we speak of God.

The meditations, difficult as it is to sit on your ass for 8+ hours every day, frustrating as it is to hear yourself silently repeating over and over, “why the fuck am I here,” eventually become incredibly beautiful experiences.  I don’t think I have ever experienced such complete calm as I did then.  After a few days, your senses become heightened.  Smells, sounds, tastes – both within your body and without – become acutely fine-tuned.  Silence, a scary concept for busy city dwellers, becomes a beautiful, no, a precious commodity.

Calmness – however – is not the goal of meditation. Vipassana means insight.  If we can quiet all our voices, focus our minds, practice mindfulness, we then are in a position to really examine ourselves.  Before I started meditating, I thought that it would be easy or boring or simply a tactic at reducing stress.  Now I know it’s a difficult lifelong process.  It is a process of learning how to end suffering. Because we all suffer in varying degrees – from the drudgery of work, to the annoyances of family, to the very fiber of our social structure of making it, making it big, buying it all, impressing the neighbors, becoming famous, seeking out the finest pleasures, and reviling all that is ugly and painful.

Coming back to Tel Aviv was not as difficult as I had expected.  I believe this is because I learned to process fear differently.  I wasn’t dreading the drudgery.  I wasn’t scared of life after the calm.  But I also didn’t know how to share what I experienced.  I still don’t.  I live with my sister, a beautiful human being, who I believe is governed by a lot of anger and self doubt.  It would be highly unlikely that she would even want to begin to understand.  Some friends gave me wide eyed, “oh my god she’s gone off the deep end and joined a cult,” expressions while politely nodding.  Luckily, I found several groups to study and meditate with.  I have meditated twice every day (or more, on days I have meetings and classes) for a month.  For related reasons, but not ones altogether decided upon, I have not been eating any meat.  I have been sleeping more, and I have found that the life I had found to be exceptionally dull, painful, and hopeless at times (time spent with yoga, wine, food, friends, good books being the exception), was all of a sudden not only tolerable, but beautiful.  I wash dishes.  I clean the cat box.  I work at the computer.  And I am fine.  I do not suffer. As much. It is a process, after all.  And boy oh boy, does it take time and learning.

I am stopping now.  If you’d like to know more, please email me.  If you’re in Tel Aviv and want to come with me to Dharma talks and/or learn how to meditate, email me.  In all, dear readers of mine, please know that I am actually happier than I was.  There are those few moments in our busy lives when we can stop and put a finger down and say, “here, now, I am happy.”  I’m having more of those now than I’ve had in a long time.

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