I loved being a student at a liberal arts college. I loved that at some point in every semester my varied classes would be discussing similar ideas or approaches – no matter how disparate the topics might be. I always thought it meant that the world was connected in some manner that could only be detected at certain moments (and that I needed to leave the library and get some sleep.)
Now that I’ve spent some time out here in the real world, where I have more on my mind than a ten page paper on the history of the Gothic cathedral, I still have moments where the different points in my life seem to converge. I had one of these recently. During Passover, I had some time to finally get to a few books that had been piling up on the nightstand. My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor (Plume 2009) is the story of this 37-year-old neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke and recovered to the point where she could tell her own story. I had heard Taylor interviewed on NPR about 18 months ago and was fascinated by how she made having a stroke sound like a positive experience, but only remembered to buy the book a few weeks ago. I also wanted to read Devotion, by Dani Shapiro (HarperCollins 2010), so that I would be prepared to speak with Dani, who will be our Women’s Awareness Day speaker this Friday, April 30. Finally, I have been working my way very slowly through Making Prayer Real, by Rabbi Mike Comins (Jewish Lights Publishing 2010), which addresses why Jewish prayer is difficult and suggestions for what to do about it from leading Jewish spiritual voices.
So, one book because it sounded fascinating, one book that sounded great and because I needed to be prepared and one because, well, I’ve been having some issues with the siddur lately, and I figured that I needed to work on that. It’s hard to spend as much time as I do caring for and about the Jewish world and not find spiritual comfort within the prayer book.
I started with My Stroke of Insight. The initial chapters are an absolutely gripping description of the author’s experience of having a stroke. Her capacity to observe and describe what was happening to her is extraordinary. Taylor refers over and over to “losing” her left mind during and after the stroke; she details how in its aftermath she seeks to periodically silence the “chatter” of the left brain and access the deep inner peace of the right brain. I found her comments in this area of great personal meaning: “This stroke of insight has given me the priceless gift of knowing the deep inner peace is just a thought/feeling away. To experience peace does not mean that your life is always blissful. It means that you are capable of tapping into a blissful state of mind amidst the normal chaos of a hectic life.” How I have wanted to be able to do such a thing! Taylor believes that the circuitry for achieving a peaceful state is tied to our right brain and is always available. “The feeling of peace is something that happens in the present moment. It’s not something that we bring with us from the past or project into the future. Step one to experiencing inner peace is the willingness to be present in the right here, right now.” Pretty spiritual stuff for a neuroanatomist.
For some reason, I closed the back cover of My Stroke of Insight and went right into Devotion. If you attend Women’s Awareness Day on Friday, I think you will encounter in person the same experience I had in print. Dani’s warmth comes right off the page – reading this book was like meeting an old friend I didn’t realize I had. Devotion is the chronicle of Dani’s search for meaning in life and a personal faith that would make sense to her. After growing up in a traditional Orthodox home, Dani set out on her own path of discovery, leading to interests in yoga and Buddhism as well as the study of Judaism.
An atheist friend asks Dani why she would take on this search and if she believed in God. “ ‘I believe that there is something connecting us,’ I said. ‘Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.’ ” Well, this sent me flying back to My Stroke of Insight, because I was sure I had just read the same or similar words a few hours before. Sure enough, there they were: “The first thing I do to experience my inner peace is to remember that I am part of a greater structure – an eternal flow of energy from which I cannot be separated.” It was as if Dani was examining the same questions as Jill Bolte Taylor from a slightly different point of view. I finished Devotion in one sitting – this is possible when you have no children at home and it is a quiet, chol ha-moed day with no meetings, conference calls or other responsibilities.
When I turned to Making Prayer Real a few hours later, I was kind of trying to see if I could find a similar connection to the two other books. It is not a book about theology; it is a book about spiritual practice, both individual and communal. Not surprisingly, I found what I was looking for, in a discussion of the efficacy of prayer. Rabbi Comins asks a question we all ask, “Do my prayers change anything in the world around me?” I found his answer resonated with me and with the words of the two women whose books I had just finished: “I can only assume so. For everything we do sends energy of some kind into the world. The more good energy I send, the more there will be…when I pray for a friend to overcome illness, I don’t believe that I am influencing the decision of a divine mind that this one shall live and this one shall die. But I am sure that the divine energy is always there, and we can tap into it.”
This has been a very personal post, about questions that I wrestle with almost daily. If these questions are of interest to you, I recommend that you come to Women’s Awareness Day to hear Dani Shapiro and even if you can’t make it, to pick up one or all of these terrific books.