Loving-kindness contemplation

All this thinking about karma makes me wonder about what I left for the students who came after me; I’d like to make it better. I’ve come to campus today to try a “loving-kindness contemplation,” an exercise to improve both personal and shared karmas.

I was introduced to the contemplation a few nights earlier during a “joy class” at a center directly across the street from campus. This particular organization teaches a version of Buddhism tailored for a secular audience. While its founders claim that the practices are rooted in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, they have been tweaked and elaborated upon to appeal to Westerners, particularly those who might want to focus on the benefit to society at large. Individuals are taught a variety of contemplative tools not just to promote their own joy and peace, but to help create a culture of kindness, generosity, and courage.

They call those who engage in this work “spiritual warriors.” I can see why they say it requires bravery: to do it properly one must face painful realities. I had thought reviewing my past behaviors and actions would be the hardest task but I see now that those never existed in isolation. My private dramas were unfolding alongside these communal events, their causes and effects crisscrossing and overlapping in mysterious ways. Did those events influence me? Did my thoughts and actions contribute to them? A Buddhist would answer “yes” to both—though no one can know precisely how or to what extent.

Having come to the end of my recollections of my college years, my heart feels a bit battered and sore. This, I am told, is a good place to start. In my joy class, I learned that spiritual warriors are those willing to wade through the muck turned up by their own tender hearts. It is important to keep going even when the journey gets tough, to learn to dwell in the discomfort. This is fertile ground for compassion.

A loving-kindness contemplation transforms the pain into something positive. You might channel it as contentment or good will or the absence of suffering, but the idea is to share the feelings that radiate from an open heart in some systematic fashion; experts generally suggest starting with a recipient for whom it is easier to summon kind feelings and move out from there.

In the version we practiced in class, guided by the instructor, we were told to start with ourselves by thinking these words: “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” For about a minute I concentrated on that sentiment, but I couldn’t feel any tenderness for myself. My heart softened when we were told to repeat the statement, but replace ourselves with someone we love. Then we were instructed to direct happiness to those for whom our emotions are “neutral” and, finally, to those we find “challenging.” I was able to scrape up a sense of compassion for both categories—certainly more so than I had for myself.

Sitting on Sproul Plaza, I put my own spin on the exercise. My recollections have left a delicate ache in my chest, and I know I must use that sensation. As uncomfortable as it might seem, I must kindle it—cup my palms around that spark and see if I can’t help it ignite. Because I’ve been thinking of the earthquake and the fires, I turn that raw softness to the victims of those tragedies. I expand my feelings to encompass everyone affected by those events, all who were attending school here at the time or lived in the region. Then I think of the participants in my joy class, some of whom seemed so sad, and I send them this warmth that oozes from my broken heart. I offer it to all the students, every drop of the river that continues to flow through this institution. The flame of my tenderness is stoked; now I picture a map of the United States and I see it spread out from where I sit. I send it across the land and over the ocean; it travels North, South, East and West. I keep going until the light that emanates from my heart wraps around the entire globe.

At the end, I have one person yet to be officially included: me.

Then I realize there’s no reason to treat myself separately. By extending my compassion to everyone, I’ve included myself. I’m part of the network of humanity. When I see it like that, I feel a surge of sympathy for the girl I was and the woman I am. I’m just another person doing the best she can.

Karma

I can track my college career by tragedies. A few weeks after the start of my freshman, a violent earthquake collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and part of the freeway in Oakland. It flattened houses and set businesses ablaze. I was walking to class when it hit; I tripped and blamed the uneven sidewalk.

My sophomore year began with a fire in a fraternity house that killed three students. Just a couple weeks later, and within a few short blocks, a terrifying situation took place in a popular bar. A psychotic gunman held hostage 33 people, most students. After seven hours of terror, police managed to bust in and the deranged man was shot dead—as was a student who took a bullet to the chest.

How does that kind of fear and destruction affect us? Some are touched directly. The victims whose time was cut short, their family and friends—those lives are obviously altered to some degree or another. What about everyone else? The quake killed 63 people, injured almost 4,000, and left many homeless (some estimates of those needing shelter were as high as 12,000). But in ways difficult to fathom, none of us was left unscathed. Aftershocks of that and the other tragedies rippled out.

Fall semester of my junior year, another fire tore through the Oakland and Berkeley hills. I watched its progression from the window of my second-story apartment south of campus on Telegraph Avenue. The tenets of my building were asked to prepare for evacuation. We waited for further word, our radios dialed to pick up what our eyes couldn’t. I saw the fire come around the bend from Oakland toward the houses on the hills above like some hungry dragon laying waste to everything in its path. It was sneaking up on a house I had always admired, a Victorian painted crisp white against the dark hillside. I told myself the fire would stop before it got there; that house was special, it deserved to survive. Then the trees around the house ignited as easily as birthday candles and a few seconds later the roof was smoking. Too soon, it was nothing but the outline of a house, everything but its frame consumed by an inferno within, leaving a skeleton against a bright white light. The only other time I can remember feeling as helpless, horrified, and heartbroken as that moment was watching live footage of the twin towers collapse on September 11, 2001.

I still recall the pieces of burned things that rained down for days after the fire was contained. Even after the sky began to clear, slowly turning from dark grey to hazy orange, bits of blackened stuff floated through the air. I snatched one of these items as it fluttered past me on campus. It was part of a page from a book, charred illegible and so delicate it crumbled in my hand.

Had we somehow brought these events upon ourselves? Related to Buddha’s theory of causation, is the concept of “karma.” It’s the application of Buddha’s theory on a personal level: an individual’s actions and thoughts affect the events that occur in that person’s life. According to this idea, the students and the people of this community, area, and region were responsible in some way for the misfortunes that were befalling us. Had the 25 people killed in the fire done something awful to deserve their fates? What about the thousands whose homes were destroyed? Taken too literally, the concept of karma can seem to blame those who suffer tragedy. Cancer patients grow their own tumors. Jews caused the Holocaust. Thankfully, I’m told that’s far too simplistic a take on karma. There’s personal karma, but there’s also collective karma, which are social and historical forces too broad and complex for sorting through and allotting culpability. Personal and collective karmas crash and mix in unpredictable and mysterious ways.

How to pray to Buddha

“This is how you pray to Buddha,” says Dora, who hails from the Philippines. She is an acquaintance who has offered to take me to a service at her temple. We are in her car, driving to Oakland. As I strapped into the passenger seat, she showed me the laminated picture dangling from her rearview mirror. “Medicine Buddha,” she said.

“You bow. You tell Buddha your name.” Dora seems excited that I’ve agreed to accompany her. She is in her mid-40s, a single mom to a teenage boy. She works as a care-taker to an elderly gentleman, an atheist who gives her Sunday mornings off, but playfully teases her for wanting to use them to attend religious services. “You tell Buddha where you live, the year you were born, if you have kids, remind him. So many people on earth. You jog Buddha’s memory.”

I smile. I like this idea. This is the first I’m hearing of engaging in dialogue with Buddha like a Christian might God.

She glances at me, very serious. “After you introduce, then you talk. But don’t ask Buddha for material things. Don’t say, ‘Buddha, I want money.’ You ask for ‘success,’ you ask for ‘piss.’”

I turn to her. “Piss?”

She nods emphatically. “Yes, you ask Buddha for piss. You say, ‘Please, make me pissful.”

“Oh, peace.”

“Yes, piss.” She gives a look like, boy, does she have her work cut out.

Dora’s temple is part of a Buddhist order that prides itself on practicing a version of the faith that integrates many types of Buddhism. It accommodates monastics, both male and female, and caters to laypeople all over the world with universities and schools. Its temples may hold services on Sundays and engage in many similar practices to the Buddhist church I attended, but here the Pure Land concept gets an official tweak. Instead of worshipping with the hope of being reborn in paradise, the goal is to create a Pure Land here on earth by working to improve oneself and society. This Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “Humanistic” and some scholars say it marks a turning point—a sort of “reformation” in which the faith addresses the needs of a modern world. Using the goodness of the human Buddha as a role model, the leaders in this sect promote social responsibility and religious dialogue.

I marvel that so grounded a vision of Buddhism can be flexible enough to oblige Dora’s way of thinking—which, from my perspective, is somewhat “magical.” Apparently, this is not uncommon among the faithful whose previous belief systems merged with Buddhism. Dora speaks casually of spirit beings visiting her in the dream realm. She explains that burning incense opens a channel, either to an upper-level world or to a lower-level world, depending on the intention with which it is lit and if proper prayers are offered. She warns me to be cautious: people who use incense just because they like the smell may end up on a slippery chute to some place they never intended.

We come to a part of town where the street signs are Chinese characters. As we park, Dora points to a small square structure with a pagoda-style roof. The sanctuary’s doors open directly to the street; they are open and the activity spills on the sidewalk at a busy intersection. We pass through smoke rising from a large metal bowl holding incense sticks and then we are standing inside. The room is packed with people squatting on low benches arranged with a single aisle down the middle.

The altar at the front of the room is occupied by a tall Buddha statue, just as I’ve seen in other locations. Here, the main figure has a buddy on either side, smaller versions or other incarnations.

Around these are fresh additions: impressive pyramids of mangoes and apples. Everywhere, my gaze falls upon a new, stunning object, some item like a flower or a tree cast in metal or carved in stone. Bright, fantastical images adorn the walls. I’ve entered a life-size jewel box, a tiny patch of Pure Land.

The big ME

After the talk, it’s time for a bit of walking meditation. This is a different style of walking meditation than the more militaristic type I experienced at the Zen center. Today, our instructor explains, we should make our way slowly around the garden, each according to our own whim, pausing every few steps. She tells us to look around, and try to gaze upon everything as if we have never seen it before. “Each time,” she tells us, “create a never-heard story for how that vision came to be.” I’m not entirely certain what she means by this, but I get the gist: we should practice moving through the world like she appears to.

My classmates and I set off in all directions like dazed sleepwalkers. I begin my trek toward the coy pond, stopping along the way to take in the golden curves of the stupa and a flag with squiggly script. “What is this amazing new sight?” I ask myself. It’s not so hard, I find these items fascinating. I try objects that are more familiar: an open rose and, then, a stone from the path. “Wow, look at that,” I tell myself.

I try to feel all the wonder of seeing something like the Grand Canyon for the first time. A flower, a chunk of rock—these things truly are remarkable if you look at them like that. It’s good to remember. But what would happen if I tried this with mundane things from my everyday existence like a piece of junk mail or an empty skillet? For a moment, the spell is broken. I think how nuts this group would look to an outsider who saw us meandering the yard like overly-medicated patients of a funny farm. Then even that gets lenses through which nothing has a set explanation, and I slip back into my hallucinatory dream.

When the class reconvenes, it’s time for seated meditation. I get comfortable in a plastic deck chair. I lower my eyelids to half-mast and focus on the sensations playing all around: the breeze against my skin, the gurgle of water, the rustle of leaves. I don’t know if it’s sitting outside or if the teacher’s example has nudged me forward, but today I see more clearly the essential dichotomy of being human. Each of us has a “little me,” what we conceive of as a distinct self, hungry for us to believe that’s all we are. The contours of its identity strengthen when we are caught up in ideas; memories of the past, worries about the future: the highway of thoughts is its domain. When we step away from the thinking and plant our feet in the present moment, we become a part of something immeasurable: the “big me.”

Suddenly what I feel is more expansive than the view to the ocean out front. I see that I can choose to let the “little me” have the power, or I can challenge its authority. I breathe in a beautiful state of bliss. All around is space and I am a part of it. I am nowhere and everywhere. “Here it is!” a voice shouts. I feel like a runner who has been struggling for miles and then, miraculously, hits her stride. I could go and go and go. Has it always been this easy? I want to hold this feeling forever. What if I can’t hold it forever? A thunderbolt of panic rips through me. My chest constricts and my heart beats wildly. I had been falling with no end in sight and now the ground has risen up to smack me. It’s awful to have the bliss slapped out of me and, yet, a part of me is relieved.

The zendo

For most of my life, I’ve conceived of my past as something as solid and real as a ladder, and the events that comprise it as true as rungs underfoot. Frequently, I paused to consider the lowest treads, the particulars that had made it a difficult climb—the broken home, the financial insecurity, the frequent moving, the spotty schooling. In college, I clung tightly to the rails. I had to work harder than everyone else, I told myself. I had to hold down a job and study twice as diligently. I couldn’t let my white-knuckle focus lapse for even an instant, or I might lose footing. I was nudged forward by the sorrowful plot points. In a sense, the story was living me, not the other way around.

I was not fond of the ladder on which I stood. I thought if I changed my environment then everything that had led up to that moment might be transformed, that I might shed my story like a snake does its skin. I remember junior year I decided what I needed, the one thing that would brighten my existence, was an apartment with an outdoor space where I could sit. So senior year I moved into a place with a patio. But it was just a concrete slab with a few sad plants; I was no happier. My stupid story had followed me there.

To pursue Buddhism where I went to college is a funny task because it is here where my investment in “the story” solidified, where I fine-tuned and polished it to sparkly gleam. And it is just this sort of attachment to story that Buddhism attempts to rid us of by encouraging us to always come back to the present moment, to learn to release the steady stream of thoughts on which the story is built.

Still, being in Berkeley, a part of me can’t help but feel teleported into the past, to sense my ghostly doppelganger dangling precariously from her ladder. I see something and suddenly I’m looking through the lens of the 20-year-old me. This is exactly what happens when I enter a Zen center with a lush exterior courtyard. “This is just what I had in mind,” I think, referring to the outdoor space I thought could miraculously soothe me senior year. As this thought putters by, I am aware of how silly it is. Even if time collapsed and the old me somehow had access to this sumptuous garden, it wouldn’t have mattered. My interior terrain would have remained unchanged.

This particular Zen center is on a residential street within walking distance to the places I lived junior and senior years—the one without, and the one with, a patio. It is made up of two houses next door to one another and their separate backyards have been combined to create an oasis of serenity and to accommodate other structures. One is a zendo, a traditional Buddhist meditation hall that looks like a Japanese gingerbread house and adds to the charm of the courtyard. Long wood steps lead to the zendo’s porch and offer a perch for removing shoes.

When I arrive, the sun is only starting to rise. I’m 15 minutes early for the seated meditation that begins at 6 am. I enter the yard quietly, cognizant of the fact that several people live in these houses—a couple of monks who run the place, one of whom is married and raised his children here. As I sit on the zendo’s steps, the garden slowly illuminates, and I hear the reassuring rustle of people starting their days.

Sangha

Tonight I’m participating in a group, or “sangha,” that meets regularly to meditate. Like Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of people coming together to practice. Whether this speaks to the transformative alchemy of multiples or the importance of learning to put up with the guy with sniffles, or both, is hard to say.

Many sanghas are formed by the regular meditation periods held at the various Buddhist centers, but others are less formal groups of ordinary people who assemble on their own. I’m surprised to learn how prevalent these gatherings are—at the coffee shops and Buddhist establishments I visit around campus I pick up half a dozen little flyers advertising the different sanghas in the area. Some groups cater to a specific demographic, or life-experience, such as age range or gender or interest.

Others, like the one I select, are more general. Anyone who wants to meditate is invited to this one. It is held once a week, hosted in the office space of a nonprofit organization during off-hours. When I show up, about 20 people are already sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a big circle. The majority here are males who appear to be in the first few years after college. They have that particular dishevelment of young men newly introduced to the regular work week. A smattering of young women breaks up the monotony of bedhead.

I join them on the floor. For several minutes, as we wait for a few stragglers to arrive, I feel exceedingly awkward wedged shoulder-to-shoulder between two strange boys. I fear that at any moment someone will pull out an empty bottle, place it in center, give it a whirl and I will be forced to endure the most uncomfortable game of Spin the Bottle known to humankind. Thankfully, this does not happen. The facilitator, a young man whose crisp shirt lends him an air of authority, announces that it is time to begin. He claps together two wood rods and everyone settles into stillness.

The soft focus of my gaze falls mid-circle; I can make out my fellow meditators along the periphery. It’s a new challenge to see those bodies, but not let them distract me from the task. I watch my thoughts approach and recede, resisting the urge to let them sweep me away. I start to enjoy the rhythm of my thinking, how the ideas rise and fall, rise and fall, like the surface of water.

I’m so relaxed. I’m floating on the sea. I think of the popular Buddhist analogy of the ocean: each of us is like a wave. We think of ourselves as distinct and separate entities but we come from, and return to, a common source. At this exact second, I understand this sentiment not just as an objective concept; I feel the absolute truth of it at the core of my being.

But it’s too big a thought and suddenly it scares me. A tingle of panic moves from my belly to my chest. It begins to block the air to my lungs. I think I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying. I’m on the verge of grabbing the guy on my left and begging for help. He will understand. He will tell me to lie down and put my feet up. Everyone will stop meditating and come to my aid. One will fetch a cup of water; another will say it’s going be fine. The thought of the aid from my fellow meditators is enough to slow my pulse. I hang on another few seconds and the anxiety eases. I take a deep breath and the lightheadedness lifts. I’m going to be okay. Tears of gratitude come to my eyes; they don’t even know how much they helped me.

Ferry captain

From my reading, I begin to understand that Siddhārtha Gautama, the real-life man who would become known as Buddha or “the one who woke up,” was something of a D.I.Y. neuroscientist. He realized that if he remained silent, and paid close attention, he could observe how his mind worked. During his meditation, the present moment was free of activity, his body motionless and, yet, he could watch as thoughts arose like stories, their plots unspooling as if real, triggering genuine emotions. He discovered that to sit in a state of awareness of the thinking process was to grasp important truths about the experience of being human. This was how one started on the path to enlightenment.

This simple fact was the core of what he taught during his lifetime. Some of his students single-mindedly sought the answers this practice provided, retreating from ordinary society to dedicate themselves to this endeavor. Others decided to investigate this source of wisdom but to remain among the general public with the purpose of helping regular people like me understand what Siddhārtha Gautama was talking about. The goal of this second type of devotee is, according to an oft-used metaphor, to help transport as many humans as possible over the river of life on the raft that is the Buddha’s teachings.

The monk who answers the doorbell I ring is one such ferry captain. Roughly 24 hours after my first official meditation experience, I arrive at what appears to be a regular house in a residential area near campus. Upon closer inspection, a little sign distinguishes it as a Buddhist priory. A middle-aged man with a shaved head and long brown robe opens the door. It takes me a moment to register that he is white, not Asian; with his shaved head and smile lines, he more closely resembles a bald, laughing Buddha than an average Joe. As he greets me, I assume he knows what I am here for, as it is just a minute or two before meditation instruction is set to begin and, well, here I am. But he stares at me expectantly, nothing taken for granted. His blank-slate expression throws me off and I think I have gotten either the wrong time or place.

“I’m here for the meditation instruction?” I say.

“Yes.” He smiles. “Follow me.”

We walk through what was once a large living room, but is now a sanctuary with a shrine and meditation cushions arranged along the walls. He takes me through a kitchen and beyond into a small room with a single book case. “Wait here,” he tells me, “we’ll start soon.”

I take a seat on one of a few folding chairs in what I imagine was once a child’s bedroom and the monk leaves, robes swishing. Like the monastery I visited the day before, this one offers morning and evening meditation periods. Once a week, an orientation is provided just before an evening meditation so that beginners can stay and practice what they’ve learned.

Buddhism

I am sitting in the sanctuary of a Buddhist monastery “meditating.” I put that in quotes because what I’m really doing is resting in a chair, thinking. I’ve decided to stop in Berkeley, California on my way back to Washington state from Los Angeles. The route home had me passing right by on the freeway and then I was offered the use of a guest room, free reign to come and go as I please for as long as want. I tried to come up with a good reason to decline but could think of none. I plan to stay for a few weeks to explore Buddhism, which feels appropriate not just because the Bay Area is a hot spot for this particular faith, but also because of how I behaved when I was going to school here. As long as I’m going back and staring down old demons, I suppose it’s time to face the crappy karma I left in this particular place.

As a college student, I was not what you would call “lots of fun.” I was the person who hissed at people for talking in the dorm hallway past 10 p.m., who scowled at merry pranksters for laughing too loudly. I was very anxious about my grades and about proper behavior. I was an “old soul”—but not the beautiful, wise kind you hear about; I was more the grumpy, frowny kind. I suppose it was evidence of that old river of shame—the potent mix of fear and anger that had gone dormant in me for a time—bubbling to the surface again. I wanted everyone to suffer with me.

Wherever I was, I always thought somewhere else would be better. When I lived in the dorms, I imagined how much happier I’d be living in a student-run co-op; when I moved to a co-op, I thought I’d really start enjoying life once I had my own apartment; when I had my own apartment, I thought a different, more happiness-inducing apartment was the answer. This discontent clung to me year to year, month to month, second to second. I would reflect on moments that were infinitely better than the one I was currently occupying, perhaps a moment I had lived in the past that hadn’t seemed so great at the time, but now, in retrospect, took on the romantic patina of life lived right. Or, always, I longed for that fantastic future moment that I just knew, once I came to it, would offer up bliss as sure and solid as the ground beneath my feet. Of course, once I got there, happiness eluded my grasp like a phantom.

The monastery in which I am sitting is just a few blocks from my alma mater. The building is actually an old church, the white steeple a reminder of its former incarnation. The pews have been removed from the sanctuary and the tall windows that line either side of the room have been filled with various stained glass depictions of Buddha, some standing and some sitting. The altar remains, but now it has a gold Buddha statue several feet tall sitting on an intricately carved wood table. On either side is an orchid plant, the likes of which I have never seen; each boasts at least a hundred miniature yellow faces grinning out.

Power of Kabbalah

At the appointed evening and time, I arrived to a conference room at the Kabbalah Centre. With eight other curious souls and here is what I learned from three attractive young women: sign up for the Power of Kabbalah (POK) class and all the secrets to Kabbalistic teachings would be revealed and my paradigm shifted. Each 10-week course will take me further on my spiritual quest. POK 1 teaches that I create my own reality. POK 2 shows me how to remove my blockages. Finally, in POK 3, I learn to become a purer channel for the Light of the Creator. If I sign up for the complete series—POK1, POK2, and POK3—I get a $770 value for $520. Payment methods include Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Cash, or Check (Payable to the Kabbalah Centre).

So, from what I gathered, I could have everything I wanted in the world—in particular “lasting fulfillment”—if I knew how to properly receive these gifts. Except what I wanted was to know exactly what Kabbalah was, which no one would tell me. I also wanted to take a look in the Centre’s main sanctuary, which I was told was off limits, and to sit in on a class in session—from which I had been swiftly booted.

Yet, at the Kabbalat Shabbat service in an ordinary reform synagogue just a few blocks from the ice skating rink I frequented as a teenager, on an evening when I did not expect anything and yet was open to what might come, I happened upon a group of people who were inviting, maybe even pulling, light into the world. No slick marketing materials, no fancy jargon, no pretty girls with evasive answers. Just a surprising number of old ladies and a bunch of other normal folks sitting in a big circle using their voices and imaginations to fill up with joy and gratitude and a sense of abundance so as not to be the sort of people who move through the world feeling needy or lacking—you know the sort, people who are willing to manipulate and lie and steal and hurt because they are hungry, always hungry. As I sat and sang, I understood a primary purpose of Kabbalah, if not all the specifics. It is this: to toil in the privacy of your own heart to know and feel that you are and possess more than enough so that you can show up to any situation with something to give. It might take an inordinate amount of work to acknowledge and meet your own voracious need, but it must be done so you’re not, intentionally or unintentionally, looking to sources outside of yourself to meet that need. Instead, you are able to offer empathy, support, forgiveness, or joy. Your light shines because your vessel is full and you have more than enough to share.

During my visit to the Kabbalah Centre, I bought a book called God Wears Lipstick: Kabbalah for Women by the wife in the husband-wife duo that founded the center. I hoped it would shed light on the Light. In it, she explains that before the universe as we know it formed, all that existed was the light and the original vessel. Everything we perceive as matter was united in this single vessel until the Big Bang blew it apart. Now we think of ourselves and all we see as being separate, unique entities when our true nature is really one of cohesiveness. The book explains that, in a sense, life is a process to “regain our former wholeness.”

Poetry in motion

After a few hours of Sabbath lolling back at my dad’s house, I’m once again standing in Barbara’s living room. The dining table is exactly as it was when I left, dirty forks dangle from plates that bear the remnants of lunch and glasses sit puddled with water and wine.

We set out on our walk, just as Barbara and her husband have done thousands of times. Our destination this evening is not the synagogue, but a small building owned by the congregation several blocks up from the beach.

At the building, Barbara and I separate from her husband and enter through our own door. The women’s side of the room is cordoned off by a thin curtain, through which I can see the silhouettes of the men, the outline of fedoras as they take turns leading the prayers. When it’s time for the rabbi’s talk, the curtain gets pushed open just enough to give the women a view of him at the podium. He is a young rabbi with a scraggly beard and an excited gleam in his eyes. He says he finds the subject of animal sacrifice fascinating because, while the practice is suspended for now, at some point in the future when the original temple is restored, a decision will need to be made about if and how it will be resumed.

Rabbis and Jewish scholars all over the world debate the topic and theories abound as to what might happen because, to the contemporary sensibility, the idea of killing animals for God seems archaic. Today, people expect their religious leaders and their butchers to be separate people. But, the young rabbi explains, this could change. One theory purports that the general public will come to see animal sacrifice as no worse ethically than killing animals for food and will embrace it as an acceptable practice. Another theory proposes that new rules from God will materialize upon the completion of the temple—and that perhaps some new thing, like sacrificing plants, will be an option. Finally, the rabbi arrives at the last theory that he promises will “blow our minds.” He explains that some scholars suggest animals may evolve in such a way that in the future they will understand the meaning and significance of being sacrificed and will volunteer for the privilege. A wave of chuckles sweeps the room, and I think we must be sharing the same cartoon thought-bubble of cloven hooves in the air with the caption: “Me, pick me!”

What happens last is short and poetic, like a 3D haiku that bids farewell to Sabbath. It’s just Barbara, her husband, me and three other men. While Barbara’s husband straightens up the room, the three men gather around a plate. The oldest of the three holds a large woven candle. He lights it. He pours wine into a cup and sips it. He opens a small box and inhales deeply. As he does this, one of the younger men unscrews the lid on a typical spice jar—the plastic kind you can buy at any grocery store—and smells the contents. He passes it to me and I put it to my nose, taking in the sweet aroma of cloves. I give it to Barbara who does the same. I’m mesmerized as the men study their hands in the light of the candle and utter a Hebrew prayer. Then the oldest one douses the flame with the wine from his cup. All three touch the drops of wine that have landed in the plate and then press their fingertips against their closed eyes. Each step is like a single line of a poem whose meaning is allusive but by the end conveys perfectly the joy and sorrow of life; this final act leaves my heart heavy but full.

In front of the building, the six of us say our farewells. The sun has set and the sidewalk is bustling with Saturday night revelers. Music and laughter spill from a crowded Mexican restaurant. The eyes of passersby linger on our small group and I recognize in their expressions the quiet curiosity I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve happened upon a pocket of people engaged in something I assume is both sacred and private. I recall the awe with which I would consider my old orthodox neighbors as I watched them playing and how it was tinged with resentment at my exclusion. I want to reach out and touch people as they pass and whisper, “I’m one of you.”

If a stranger cared to listen, I might tell him: “This religion thing is not the impenetrable mystery you think, but so basic and beautiful you can grasp its meaning if you desire.”