My Place in the Universe
I entered the labyrinth on Tuesday, September 13, at 8:45 AM. I experienced a lightness of body and spirit as I walked through its curves and turns. But once I arrived at its center, I felt a breathtaking sense of firmness and security. Like in Jacob’s dream, a ladder connected earth and heaven, this time in Rye, New York.
Every year as a preparation for the High Holidays, I walk a labyrinth. Fortunately, this year, my colleague and friend Michael Goldman, Community Rabbi and Director of the Healing Center at the Jewish Community Services in Westchester, NY, organized a walk at the Wainwright House. At the end of our labyrinth walk, Michael blew the shofar (ram’s horn), an alarm for the soul, calling us to engage in the process of inner search of the High Holyday’s season.
Seated mediation? Not for me. My spirit moves!
My body is not built for the lotus position. I leave the seated crossing of the legs for the contortionists at the Cirque de Soleil. Twenty minutes of silent meditation, I must confess, feels to me like an eternity. For those who prefer motion to stillness, I invite you to Google “walking meditation.” You will be astonished by the thousands of traditions from East to West experiencing quietness in moving. Many cathedrals, for instance, have labyrinths inviting the worshipers to a meditative walk. This spirituality in motion is palpable in Judaism. In the bible, Israelites journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year. The Talmud tells us that people engaged in festive music and dancing as the caravans traveled. The entire geography of Israel became a labyrinth with the Temple, as the rabbis taught, the center of the universe. If, like me, you experience a state of rest as you move, don’t despair. You are as spiritual as the most seasoned seated mediator. Your spirituality is on solid ground. It’s not spiritual ADHD!
Being in the Flow
But how is it possible to meditate as we move? Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recently researched this state of moving quietness. He calls this phenomenon “flow.” You may have experienced flow while playing an instrument or sport. You are so immersed and invested in the activity you lose track of time. You move effortlessly. You feel “in the zone.” You are intensely focused. You are thoroughly engaged, enjoying every second moving toward fulfillment.
Of Labyrinths and Depression
I have wondered why Adam and Eve, the first sinners, did not receive death or imprisonment for their transgression. Instead, they suffered what seemed a lesser punishment, exiled from Paradise. But think about a moment you have been excluded and shamed by others. It is one of the most horrendous sensations. In ancient Athens, citizens feared a punishment as much or more than death, ostracism. Citizens could vote to banish an individual from a city for a decade. The expelled roamed foreign lands in disgrace and dishonor.
Many with a mental illness feel at the margins of society, unwanted and unfitting. They spend endless hours in solitude and loneliness. Within that pain, depression, more than other conditions, immerses us at the outskirts of place and time. While depressed, we lie immobile. Negative thoughts trap us in endless circular darkness. Our body weighs a ton, anchoring us in a tiny hole in the universe.
In 2013, following an arrest and hospitalization (for details, visit bipolarrabbi.com), I lay down depressed for weeks on a couch. Going to the bathroom entailed a tremendous effort. My home felt like a labyrinth—each door and room threatening and unreachable. I soon established a place of pilgrimage; my kitchen table. No matter what, I would eat at that table. And believe me, food is a potent mobilizer. The first time I tried to go to the kitchen, I stumbled with furniture, felt lost, and experienced excruciating exhaustion. But I had a destination, a place where I could feel myself fully. With each day, my trip to the kitchen table became easier. Once again, the contour of my house regained familiarity. That’s why I recommend that if you suffer from depression or disorienting mental illness, establish humble destinations, and move one step at a time. And I know; it is so difficult. But if you catch a break in your despair, as little as it may be, establish and walk to a place you feel yourself. That’s very healing. That simple walk can entail a profound spiritual experience. At that table in my kitchen, holding a fork and knife, I ate with dignity.
No Life is a Straight Line
Life never moves in a straight line. The world is a labyrinth. Some of us have gotten a more convoluted one. But all spiritual labyrinths have a center. The trick is to pretend that the journey is a game. To know that the meditation is on the walk as much as the destination. To accept the wrong turns and face a different direction.