Tag Archives: mindfulness

Of Flying Machines and the Currents of the Mind

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things.  Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.

What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush.  He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.

And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things.  That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on.  It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole.  Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.

Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human.  That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often.  This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity.  In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.

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Filed under books, history, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Blessings of Early Rising

The quiet calm of early rising.  First stirrings.  A creak on the steps, always that same spot.  The dog rustles in his bed, sniffing the air to know what the day will bring, stretching his legs, wondering about food and weather, sensing his master’s mood.  A moment to stop and think, to consciously embrace a new day, its challenges and the gentle grace it brings.  Breath and life, an old song rattles in the back of my mind.  When did I first hear that, those artful notes, that plaintive melody?

He is older now, our pooch.  Almost venerable in his doggish ways.  He patiently sits by the window and waits, looking out, scanning the yards, his domain.  He knows every inch of it, every corner and crack, every twig fallen from a tree.  We slip out of the door from the warmth of home to another world.  A red light slowly, softly, gently, yet inexorably rises in the east.  Street lights begin to sputter and go out, like giant candles whose wicks have run down into melted wax, agents of their own destruction.

Up ahead a raccoon crosses our path, pausing for a moment to stale balefully at us with his bandit eyes.  Everything is heightened.  Each bird’s song can be heard.  The wind, only in the upper branches of the trees, murmurs of summers past and springs to come.  Stars and planets shine brightly.  There is Venus, there Jupiter, there red-tinted Mars.  A sickle moon presides over the heavens, almost austere in its dignity, its endless rounds of waxing and waning.  There is a quiet in these moments that is restful and  pregnant at the same time, soon to be released, but also precious.

Lights flicker in homes along the way, others rising to a new day.  Soon the phones will be ringing, the highway in the distance humming, the emails dinging, all of the noise of modern life in its constant cacophony.  But not quite yet.  Dawn still stubbornly clings, refusing for yet another moment (or two) to relinquish this early morning sacred time to the sun.  With gratitude we’ll wait patiently, and walk on.

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Filed under celebration, dogs, liminal moments, mindfulness, nature, ritual, seasons, transitions, Uncategorized

The Infinitesimal Grand Canyon

The phrase ‘Grand Canyon moment’ is often used to refer to the experience of seeing a breath taking natural vista and sensing, in that vision, God’s presence.  The experience is in large part (pun intended) about scope – the humbling vastness of  great mountains and endless oceans, things of unimaginable size that somehow exist in our world.  In their vastness we feel small, yet connected, filled with awe but at the very same time knowing that we are intricately intertwined with God’s universe.

But God is also in the details.  The human body with its thousands of working parts and the human brain and its 100 trillion synapses.  The geometric shape of a snowflake.  The precise chemistry required to make life possible.  These things are small, many of them invisible.  But in their own way they are no less breath taking than the Alps, or the Atlantic in a storm, or the great chasm at the heart of the Grand Canyon.

When Elijah the prophet seeks God during a moment of crisis in I Kings 19 he experiences a series of powerful events.  First a a thunderous wind comes, so strong it splits mountains and shatters rock.  Then an earthquake shakes the very ground Elijah is standing on.  Finally, a consuming fire.  In each case the Bible tells us that God was not there.  But  then Elijah sensed God’s presence in a soft, almost indistinguishable sound – the ‘still, small, voice.’

We often say that some people are ‘big picture,’ while others are detail oriented.  Evidently, God is both.IMG_3215 2

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish thought, mindfulness, photograph, Torah, Uncategorized

Acorns Dropping

I sat for a time on the curb, a fine fall morning, blue skies, cool breeze hinting of winter, warm sunshine suggesting a summer not far behind. The dog knows my moods, and he quickly settled by my side. “After all, why not,” he seemed to say with his expressive eyes. “I’ve no where to go! No appointments to keep, no place to rush off to, no worries to furrow my brow.” There was a comfortable patch of grass to stretch his long frame. He carefully placed his muzzle on his paws, contemplating the smells of the neighborhood, the hidden code of daily activity only he knows. The sun shone on his thick fur.

Just across the street from where we sat there was an old oak tree. Poised on a hill, its branches reached out over the sidewalk, even the the street. Acorns dropped, one after another, and I counted along. Ten! Maybe more, in a brief span. Was it a minute? Two? Some settled softly in the grass, but others banged the sidewalk or street with a sharp clap. The lucky ones began to roll, beginning a journey that would take them to who knows where. Squirrels were busy, stuffing their cheeks, paws passing over and over the round seeds like some magician polishing a crystal ball. In its stillness the oak seemed bemused, watching the scene unfold around it. Soon its bare arms would be subject to the chill winter winds, unprotected on that rise.

A car sprinted by, breaking my reverie. My dog stirred, opened an eye, raised a single eyebrow. I softly shook my head. The driver took no notice of us, or the stately oak with its dropping acorns and turning leaves. People to see! Places to go! Business to be done! No time for the fall sun or the sound of acorns. I knew I would follow him soon. But the dog? He would stay behind.

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Into the Looking Glass Darkly

The words have a familiar ring to them, but they actually are a garbling of two distinct phrases. ‘Through the Looking Glass (and What Alice Found There)’ was the title of Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. And then in 1 Corinthians, 13:12, we read ‘for now we see through a glass, darkly..’ (yes rabbis know a bit of the Christian scriptures).

When the two disparate sources come together, we get a memorable, maybe even a haunting, image. What does it mean to go through the looking glass? That in and of itself is a hard thing to puzzle out. But to do it darkly? There is something ominous about the idea, a sense of disappearing, perhaps even of losing oneself.

It was that sense of the image that came to my mind this week when I saw a picture of the famous Bolshoi ballerinas backstage during a performance. The dancers were lined along a corridor, fading into darkness and distance. But each dancer’s face was illuminated by the mobile phone they were holding, peering into intently.

I imagine these days were are all familiar with this phenomenon to one extent or another. A friend or family member constantly looking at their phone during a meal. At any meeting these days half of the attendees’ hands are under the table, attempting to surreptitiously monitor email, texts, stocks, scores, whatever it might be, on their ‘smart’ phones. A child who spends hours, and then more hours, staring into the screen of their laptop, only called out of their trance like state by a parent’s insistence that they come down to dinner. I could give you some of the astonishing statistics, but suffice it to say that we spend more and more of our time staring into digital screens, and the amount of time we spend doing this is increasing. Where (and when) it will end no one knows.

It is tempting, I understand. All of that information at our finger tips. The sense of instant availability, the need to respond to every ding, beep, ring, buzzer. But do you notice it is a bit harder to concentrate, to focus on an idea, to read a book, to study a text? Have you been sitting at your computer only to realize that somehow an hour has gone by when your intent was to just check something on Facebook for 10 minutes? The screen is always there, tugging at us, diverting our attention, taking our time, and giving us – what in return?

The Bolshoi dancers looked almost as if they were disappearing into their screens, drawn into some endless tunnel of data, 0s and 1s whipping past them at unfathomable speed, unable to withdraw their gaze. Alice tumbled through her looking glass into a new and bizarre world. We are fallowing her in our own way. What we will find and where we will land is anyone’s guess at this point. But more and more I am convinced it will not be a Wonderland.

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