Creating the World With Our Words

There are, and have been, so many theories about what what differentiates human beings from all the other animals. Some of the theories I’ve encountered recently include:

  • The ability to copy each other’s actions and ideas, and then pass on those actions or ideas. These actions and ideas are referred to as memes.
  • The use of complex language.
  • The use of tools.
  • The ability to reason.

Now, I know that many of these attributes are contested, both as to whether they actually are unique to human beings, and  as to whether they are definitional of human beings. I make no claims for any of them. They just started me thinking.

As human beings, we tend to need to systematize our understanding of the universe. We seem to have a need to create intellectual structure. We are of the kingdom “animal”, whereas the pine tree, while still living, is of the kingdom “plant”. I majored in Classics, which was in the same division as English literature, though in a different division from the History department, even though we required several history classes in order to graduate.My self is composed of many parts: the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Animals are often categorized into groupings of wild animals, farm animals and pets.

All of which leads me to ask: Why do  we do this? What do we achieve by the creation of this order? What happens if we try to experience the universe unfiltered by the categories which we impose upon it? Would we simply be overwelmed, unable to cope with treating each unique object as a thing in and of itself? Probably. I suspect the closest we come is when we engage in mindfulness meditation. Nonetheless, what do we miss by organizing our world so completely? This process is, after all, the root of stereotyping, by which we assume we know far more about an individual based on things we believe to be true of most members of a group to which they belong.

I don’t have a particular solution to this quandry. More of a suggestion: take a little time today, and imagine the world around you if you didn’t already have a system for it. How would you see it?

Mindfulness and Time

When we think of mindfulness, we usually associate it with meditation. We think of it as a specific type of sitting quietly and paying attention to something specific (often our breathing). Yet this type of mindfulness meditation is intended as a first step. We want to bring this sort of attention to everything we do, whether we are “meditating” or going about our everyday life. One of the most powerful applications of this mindfulness is the impact it has on how one spends time.

If I am paying attention to everything I do, I am less likely to do things that I would consider a waste of time. If I am “mindfully” playing a computer game I use for procrastination, I am unlikely to feel good about doing so for more than a few minutes. If I am “mindfully” watching TV, and discover that the show isn’t holding my attention, I’m likely to decide to do something else, something that will make me feel better about myself.

I have the feeling I need to introduce more mindfulness into my life right now. I need to pay attention, not just to my breathing, but to how I spend my time. I need to pay attention to where I am, and why I’m there.

Routine, to a large degree, obviates the need for mindfulness. A routine (such as going to CubeSpace every day) works to keep one on track. Lack of structure requires far more attention to what one is doing, what one needs to be doing, and how to get there. And when I say “one”, in this case, I really mean “I”.

Mindfulness meditation is one step I can take towards focusing myself. Another is heading out of the house to get work done (I’m in a coffee shop as I write this). A third step is setting up rituals around work (such as writing a blog post as I begin work each day at a coffee shop).

Mindfulness is about spirituality, but it’s also about getting work done better and more efficiently.

Some Workshops I'd Love to Teach

I’ve put together a list of some workshops I’m available to teach, whether at your company, your conference, or some other group. I’d love feedback, as well as suggestions as to people who might want to talk to me about this.
Building a Community out of a Company
In this day and age, people, whether customers or employees, are looking for something to connect to, something to believe in. Make your company a community and both employees and customers will walk through fire for you. The question is, how do you do it? David Kominsky, will talk about his experience with CubeSpace, and introduce some tools and concepts which can help transform a company into a community.
The Use of Ritual to Build a Corporate Community
Religions have used ritual for thousands of years to create tight-knit communities. The military uses ritual to bind together individuals coming from radically different backgrounds into a unified culture in which dedication to the group is a prime value. How can we in the corporate world use ritual effectively, but without being heavy-handed? Rabbi David Kominsky will use examples of rituals already in place in corporations, as well as pointing out how the use of ritual can be expanded to make organizations stronger.
Nurture the Individual, Strengthen the Company
Ever since the industrial revolution, companies have regarded employees as interchangeable commodities. Unsurprisingly, this does not result in employees who give their best to the company. Now, we are beginning to value the diversity of our workforces. How can we invite people to bring more of themselves into their work life, and at the same time, be more effective employees? Looking at what happens when you employers really dedicate themselves to employee welfare, David Kominsky will explore the benefits, using examples from CubeSpace, as well as explain some pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Making Your Brand a Spiritual Identifier
We know that people are likely to act for many reasons which are below the rational brain. Spiritual connection is one of the classic examples of this (religions are based on this truth). This is not necessarily a bad thing. As human beings, we require spiritual identification with larger groups. Today, companies are taking on many of the roles that religions used to fulfill: they can define who we are, who we associate with and how we live our lives. Let’s explore how to use this power deliberately to build better companies: companies that are both successful and do good for those who identify with the companies, whether as employees or customers.

Death and Adolescence Don't Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

Reading Introductions–or Not

When I was younger, I never read the Introductions to books. I’d skip right to the beginning of the text itself, whether it was a story or non-fiction. Somewhere along the way, however, I decided that the Introduction was part of the book, and needed to be read before reading the book in order to understand the book as the author intended. I suspect this transition was somewhere around when I started college, and I needed all the help I could get in understanding many of the books I was reading.

It only just occurred to me, some 20 years later, that maybe I don’t need to read the introductions to books. Maybe I can just start in on the book itself. After all, if I find myself needing greater clarity, there’s always the option to go back and read the introduction (read the book out of order? That’s heresy). Often, I find, introductions are the least interesting part of the book. Often, they are an expanded in table of contents (“in chapters 1 & 2 we will discuss the evolution of the idea of left-handed knitting; chapter 3 will explore the early innovators of left-handed knitting, with particular attention to the social pressures they felt to knit right handed; chapter 4 chronicles the acceptance of left handed knitting, while chapter 5 gives examples of patterns especially developed for left handed knitters; finally, chapter 6 lays out a plan for world domination by left handed knitters”). At other times, the introductions explains why the author felt the need to write the book (“as  I was learning to knit, I sought out resources on left handed knitting–as I have been a leftie all the days of my life–and was shocked and dismayed to find that all the books seem to regard left handed knitting as an inferior cousin to right handed knitting. In this book, I set out to show that all true knitters are left handed, and all who knit with their right hands are to be executed–or at least locked away.”). Frankly, at this point, by the time I’ve picked up a book to read it, I probably don’t care why the author felt the need to write it, and it’s rare that knowing the structure of the book will improve my appreciation of it.

Therefore, I am giving myself permission to skip introductions. From now on, I can go right to the text itself. I might even skip the dedication page .

Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse

It’s been a bit of a while since I’ve blogged. When I’ve taken a bit of a break, it always feels like I need to have something relevant to say when I begin again. Which means I wait longer to write. Which means whatever I say has to have even more meaning. Well, I’m breaking that cycle. I’m blogging, whether I have anything profound to say or not.

For me, writing is a muscle. The more I use it, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to use. The more I do it, the more enjoyable it is. I hear people talk about exercise in a similar way, though that’s never been my experience of it (though I do hold out hope that one of these days I’ll discover that I love exercise, and I’ve just been doing it wrong all these years). Writing, for me, is not simply about self-expression, rather, it is about figuring out what it is I need to express. This is not as solipsistic as it may sound. . .I write a blog with a keen awareness that there is an audience for which I am writing, and I do hope to entertain that audience. But at the end of things, writing, for me,  is about the process, and about the discovery.

Writing is a giant Rorscharch test. I start with an idea of where I’m going, but as I write I figure out where I’m going. I figure out what is on my mind. The good news (for you all, and I suppose for me, too) is that there is usually something on my mind. Eventually, I tend to have a point. Usually, that point has some relationship to where I started. Rarely is it what I expected.

My sermons work in roughly the same manner. I almost never write out my sermons fully, but work from outline. Sometimes the outlines are fairly detailed, including points and sub-points I want to make, texts I want to quote, specific wording I want to use. More often, my outlines look a bit different, a bit more like this:

“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14)

  • Says God
  • Says Popeye
  • Popeye =? God

And from there I’m off and running. When I give the sermon, I’ll probably wind up discussing mysticism, the Divine within each of us (as represented by Popeye), and asking what spinach represents (prayer? confidence?). The exact nature of the sermon will be based partly on what seems to be most interesting to those listening, partly on what I discover I have to say at that moment. This could be a 5 minute sermon or a twenty minute sermon (depending on the time I have to work with. . .I usually know in advance how long I will speak). For me, this moment of discovering what I have to say, and sometimes even the struggle to make sure I have something worthwhile to say, is a large part of the joy of giving a sermon. Ideally, by the end, I’ve come back around to where I started.

In this blog post, I started with a title, “Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse.” I assumed I would be writing about trying to mount a horse with a literary bent. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all. It turns out, I had something to say about why I write.