REST, A VERB
Viparita Karani: Legs Up the Wall. A restful Asana. Original Art by Riva Brown. The following is the text of a “Sermon” in the form of a guided meditation
The 4th commandment directs us to rest. That’s it, no instructions. And we don’t have a clue what to do to rest. Can you stop thinking about your job, your classes, your hobbies, your body, your family members, your obligations, your sports, your habits? Can you stop thinking about your failures, your victories, your illnesses, your weaknesses, your strengths?
What would it be like to sit in a chair and rest? To let go of the tension you hold in your bodies? When we stop thinking about the subjects that make up the ordinary background noise of our thoughts and we begin to rest, perhaps we open up some space to notice the Holy. We sometimes refer to God as “The still small voice”. How are we supposed to hear that when there is all that noise in our heads, and tension in our bodies?
The V’Shumru we read every Shabbat ends, “Shabbat Va’Yenafash”. The word Nawfash means rest, relax. Nefesh means soul, spirit of life, person. Shabbat Va’Yenafash, can be translated “Shabbat was Inspirited”. An awkward phrase, but let’s take it to mean that Shabbat is located inside of each of us, within our spirit, or soul. If this is true, then it could be an interesting exercise to try to contact that internal Shabbat. And, I actually do mean “Exercise”. We say that Shabbat is Rest. But our Rest- Muscles are seldom exercised. Perhaps they are even atrophied. It seems counter-intuitive to even say “Rest-Muscles”,
Together, let us see if we can detach a little bit from our work-a-day lives and flex our Shabbat muscles. Yes, this is a group participation Sermon. It is a group Meditation. Maybe you’ve been interested in trying a meditation practice, but it just didn’t seem Jewish. I’ve tried to include a lot of what I’ll call Jewish Hooks in this exercise. There are traditions of this sort within Judaism, but we don’t encounter them often.
And, no, you don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. You can just listen. And, you can change your mind. If you’ve decided one way and want to, you can decide the other way at any time. You may hear me say something that you don’t like, or disagree with, or that you believe is untrue. Come up and talk to me later. There are copies of this sermon available, so don’t hold the thought now. Let it go.
There are hand motions associated with this. They are easy, and we’re going to learn them now. Always hold your hands comfortably. Straining or stressing defeats our purpose. Feel free to modify these positions so you are comfortable.
Lower: Place your hands on either side of your belly, thumbs up, and the pinkie edge of your hands pointing to or resting on your thighs.
Middle: Place your hands so that your thumbs just touch the bottom of your ribs, fingers point in.
Upper: Place your hands up so that the fingertips point towards each other along the center line of your ribs and your thumbs point upwards.
Now, let’s make ourselves comfortable. Remember bed-time stories? They help us disconnect from our every day world. They are a transition to sleep-time. They allow our rest muscles to stretch. This is going to be very relaxing. It would even be ok if you fell asleep, but if you start to snore, perhaps your neighbor will softly touch your arm to bring you back to awareness. This exercise can easily lower your blood pressure, so if you have toxically low blood pressure you may wish to not participate. Remember, if you do not want to participate that’s fine. Just listen then as your would with any other sermon. Notice your posture. If you’ve ever tried to sip a drink through a kinked up straw you know that it’s harder to do than if the straw is straight. So, we’ll spend the next few moments adjusting our posture so that the spine is not collapsed and you are sitting comfortably. Place you feet flat on the floor. Lift up through the top of your head. Feel your head centered on your neck. Shrug your shoulders up, back and down. Let your arms hang from your shoulders. Let your hands lay on your thighs. Wiggle your hips from side to side to find evenness. Tilt the top of your sacrum back to flatten your low back.
Having done all of that, now, just relax everything and be comfortable.
Inspire, to breathe in or to create a new awareness or new life.
Continue this breath while you continue to listen. On the completion of your next exhalation, move your hands up to the second position so that your thumbs just touch the bottom of your ribs, your pointy fingers point to your navel. Breathe in. This is the middle breath. Notice how long it takes for your inhalation. Your exhalation.
lf this breathing exercise feels stressful at any time, or If you feel yourself becoming light headed or short of breath, just return to your regular breath and then join back in when you feel better. We tend to breath in restricted ways. But just for now, we are going to allow the Nefesh, the spirit, the breath, to flow unimpeded through our bodies. This is the first rest muscle that we need to strengthen. Continue this breathing. We can survive without food for many days, water for several days, but without breath, only a few minutes. Think of the place on your head where a Yarmulka sits. Turn your inner eye to that location. If you have trouble with that notion, then just imagine that location. There is a suggestion that there is a link from this point on your body directly to the Ein Sof. There aren’t a lot of muscles there, but we begin there. Imagine receptivity. Imagine the peace of Shabbat entering your body, beginning at the Yarmulka, the crown or Keter. Or think of warm sunshine flowing down from the sky and hitting the top of your head. Let’s begin to notice where we hold tension. When you say, Shema, listen. Notice how listening causes your awareness to radiate outward into the world. Try to relax that hearing. Draw your hearing deeper inside your head. Imagine a straight line connecting both ears. Now imagine that you hear, from the mid-point of that line. If you are a sighted person, your eyes are the brain’s first receivers. They provide much information to the brain and the brain uses much of its power on processing that information. Scrunch up your eyes. Then release that tension. Feel, or imagine, your eyes receding into your skull. Feel your eyelids relax. Feel your eyebrows relax and widen to either side. When we don’t like something, we scrunch up our noses to show distaste. The way we hold our bodies affects how we hold our emotions, and vice-versa. Allow the skin on the bridge of your nose to elongate.
Do a quick scan of everything you’ve just relaxed and see if anything has tightened back up out of habit. Body based habits are very hard to break, so don’t be surprised if tension has returned to some of these areas. When we speak or sing a prayer we use our voice box. Notice this area now and release any tension there. Our heart space can hold a surprising amount of stress. This can be where we worry about our partners, our parents, our children. When things go wrong with our loved ones we can feel it in our hearts. We Jews often wear a Magen David, the 6-pointed star as a piece of Jewelry near our hearts. Even if it doesn’t feel to you like any of that Loved-One stuff is true, our hearts still work incredibly hard, every minute of our lives. We know that if the heart stops, life stops. Still, imagine your heart resting. Now turn your attention to the location of the lower breath. Now that we are relaxed and our minds have quieted somewhat, we are in a more receptive state. We are ready for prayer. Now, a reading from the Gates of Prayer. “Kodeshet HaShem” (…read in Hebrew) “A time can come to us when our hearts are filled with awe: Suddenly, the noise of life will be stilled, as our eyes open to a world just beyond the border of our minds. All at once there is a glory in our souls! HaEI HaKadosh. The Holy God! O majestic Presence! O world ablaze with splendor!
Keeping your eyes gently closed, very slowly now, we’re going to return to the world around us. Notice once again that you are sitting in a chair. That there is a room around you. Feel the soles of your feet on the floor. Flex and stretch your fingers. Wiggle around in any way that feels good or needful.
When you are ready, slowly open your eyes. Notice how you are feeling right now. Is it different from when I began to speak? I hope you are feeling relaxed. I hope you were able to engage your rest muscles and enspirit Shabbat, Shabbat V’Yenafas. Remain in this awareness of contact with Awe. Feel that energy in your body. Allow it to rejuvenate your cells. Allow it to be inspirited. Shabbat V’Yenafash.