Monday, January 13, 2014

Practice, and All Is Coming

By Greg Marzullo

When I was a child, my grandmother bought two movies for me: "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments." 

I was absolutely obsessed with "The Ten Commandments," and in fact, I still do a mean Nefretiri impression when pushed. ("They know you as a man of God...but I know you as a man.") Aside from the pageantry, I loved the parting of the Red Sea, when all of God's incalculable power was revealed in Technicolor glam.

Imagine my surprise, then, as a child, when the recently escaped slaves disobeyed God so brazenly, so soon (cue Cecil B. DeMille's ridiculous golden calf sequence replete with the sins of sensual grape-eating and licentious piggy-back rides). After all of God's hard work - the plagues against Egypt, the parting of the sea, the destruction of their enemies - the Israelites seemed downright ungrateful.

This week's Torah portion, which includes the parting of the sea and the appearance of manna in the wilderness, highlights the nascent community's grumblings, but Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, writing for, points out that miracles never change the heart of a person. Only practice does that. He writes:

"The shift from biblical to rabbinic Judaism reflects the growing, divine insight that the way to mold a sacred people lies not in external miracles, but in inner transformation. That transformation is accomplished through small, prosaic progress."

This reminded me of a line from the Indian sage Patanjali's "Yoga Sutras," one of the oft-sited classical era philosophical texts of yoga. In the text, he's talking about meditation and the integration of yogic principles into everyday life.

"Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness."

The big, Disney-esque moments of a spiritual life are breathtaking - miracles, epiphanies, communion with God - but perhaps these are only meant to inspire us to go further, work harder, journey deeper into the moment-to-moment practice of devotion. 

I meditate twice a day, every day, no matter what. If I'm out, and I have to sit in the Whole Foods cafeteria to get my time in, that's what I do. I've meditated on trains, planes and in automobiles. Cars have beeped their horns impatiently while I've meditated in Dupont Circle. Owners have called off their dogs from running over to me excitedly when I've been in Logan Circle. Tourists have taken pictures of me sitting on a bench on the Mall. 

Why the commitment? Because as Rabbi Artson points out, molding ourselves in the image of God takes time, commitment and deep practice. Even if you're a little unsure about the reality of a divine being, look to science. Neural pathways run deeply in the brain, and it takes the longterm practice of another habit in order to eventually render an older behavioral pattern irrelevant. 

In the Torah, Ha-Shem's miracles don't dissuade the Israelites from responding out of habitual fears. Only the passage of time and, more importantly, the practice of time, will craft a disparate people filled with negative mental/emotional/spiritual patterns into people at one with their God. 

It's important to remember that these stories are not just about some ancient peoples, our ancestors to whom we look as paragons of the good ol' days when God performed cinematic acts of wonder. These stories are guides into our own consciousness and of how to experience the miracle of Adonai within us. 

To paraphrase the great yoga teacher Patabhi Jois, "Practice, and all is coming." 

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