Sunday, August 29, 2010

Elul Reflections 7: On Inwardness

Today's blog entry is cross-posted from Dani Shapiro's blog, 'Moments of Being'.  Dani Shapiro is an accomplished author whose most recent book's include Black & White (Knopf, 2007), Family History (Knopf, 2003) and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion.  Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. 
Her new memoir, Devotion, was published in February, 2010, and is now a national bestseller.  It is a spiritual memoir that has touched me deeply in its honesty and openness to reveal a journey of spiritual seeking that shares with us the spiritual wisdom found in practices such as yoga, meditation, and Torah study but ultimately is about a faith that arises from the many moments of being that are part of the tapestry of our lives, when we bring awareness to these moments.  It is a book about questions more than answers and, in this way too, it speaks to me.  On Rosh Hashanah morning I will be sharing excerpts from Devotion, as we journey together to find ourselves in the words of an ancient liturgy that needs some translation into the moments of being in our everyday lives if we seek to make our tradition alive and vibrant, responding to our questions and our lives as twenty-first century Jews.
As I read Dani's blog posting of August 18th, I found her inner reflections and awareness of habits and behaviors that do not serve her if allowed to become out of balance to resonate deeply with some of the spiritual practice that I have been sharing in these Elul Reflections.  Again, like her memoir, Devotion, I am inspired by the honesty and truth revealed by these reflections.  May they inspire us in our inner reflections during this month of soul-searching.

I've long understood that I need to spend a certain number of hours a day alone.  If I'm not by myself, in a quiet room, reading, writing, thinking, doing yoga, staring into space, taking baths, for the better part of each day, I start to feel all jumbled up.  Uncomfortable.  Awkward and irritated, as if something is chafing me from the inside.  I am almost always running a monologue in my head--something I've learned, in my meditation practice, is often nothing more than detritus and noise.  But in order to move past the running dialogue, I require a great deal of solitude.  I've learned, over the years, to be able to move in and out of isolation, into family life, social life, community life, and then back out of it, back to the cave where I do my work.

But.  (You knew there was a but coming, didn't you?)  I had the recent realization that inwardness doesn't always serve me well.  It's necessary, crucial for a writer to be inward-looking (and by this I don't mean navel-gazing, but rather, the capacity for intense, interior contemplation).  But it's equally important for a writer to look outside herself.  Lately I have noticed myself trapped in my interior life when, in fact, what was going on all around me was interesting, possibly even useful and important.  When I am thinking, rather than using all five senses--seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching--I am not really using my whole instrument.  We are observers, aren't we?  We carefully watch and listen to what is swirling all around us, and that in combination with our interior lives is what ends up making something rich happen on the page.  If a writer is entirely trapped inside herself, the result can be stultifying.  If a writer is entirely outward-looking, the result can be superficial and thin.  The goal, I think, is to balance oneself in the fulcrum between thinking about life and actually living it.
Dani Shapiro

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