“I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” was the title of Sinead O’Connor’s breakout record a few years back. ‘I don’t want what I don’t have’ – such a clear, true, and hard spiritual message to follow.
As the pandemic wanes, I find myself a member of two Zen/mindfulness centers, two local synagogues, a weekly Torah study with a rabbi in a different city, and, as if that wasn’t enough, a fourth synagogue whose service I truly enjoy. I keep looking for more outlets to expand and improve my spiritual life, to burnish my inner lamp. I keep looking.
Zoom has made it infinitely easier to participate in spiritual learning and practice, and, conversely, to take on more. Thanks to Zoom, my spiritual engagement list above swelled up this summer with the addition of courses from a yeshiva in Jerusalem and Mussar classes taught from a kibbutz in Galilee. A class that starts at 6 am because of a 10-hour difference between Los Angeles and Israel? Not a problem. All I need is a clean shirt and a coffee ready.
With Zoom widening my spiritual horizons, I’ve been learning tremendously, absorbing many exciting, liberating, mind-provoking experiences, but I also feel that this cornucopia of new experiences comes at a spiritual cost – loss of the ability to appreciate what I have. I question my spiritual consumption. Sometimes, more is just that – more.
“The eye is never sated with seeing” (Kohelet 4:1)
Solomon ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century Spanish poet-philosopher, put it wisely: “Who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has.” There is a similar observation in Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot” (4:1).
The Buddhist philosophy lays bare the reason for this hunger for more – the bulging sense of ‘I’, the ego. Like a hungry ghost, the Big ‘I’ is never complete with what is present, and always looks for something else elsewhere. The Big ‘I’ needs this, and it needs that too, and probably a few more things that it will read or hear about. The Big ‘I’ will engage in a spiritual activity in order to exploit it for its own good – praise, self-promotion, gratification. Just fill in the blanks in the question, “Will becoming more _______ make me look more _______ in the eyes of others?”
The antidote seems to be a good measure of simplicity. Ibn Gabirol, in the same verse quoted above, suggested: “Seek what you need and give up what you need not. For in giving up what you don’t need, you’ll learn what you really do need.”
Simplicity itself, however, could be a trap. Would subscribing to Real Simple help me declutter my busy spiritual schedule? Are there classes, workshops, Facebook groups, YouTube blogs on simplicity? #simplicity? @simplicity?
Moving from spiritual consumption to spiritual conservation and recycling
In my quest to simplify my spiritual life, I found guidance in two sources, both of which, consistent with the message of this article, were already in my possession.
Five years ago, I underwent lay ordination in the Soto Zen tradition, vowing to uphold its precepts, including #2: Do Not Steal. Zen views stealing as taking something you do not need. Recasting it positively, it means to be content with what you already have. As Bodhidharma, the 5th century Buddhist master, wrote: “In the dharma [life knowledge] in which nothing can be obtained, not giving rise to a thought of obtaining is called the precept of refraining from stealing.”
My other source comes from the teachings of the 20th century Rabbi Aharon Kotler, a prominent voice in contemporary Mussar – Jewish school of ethical living. R. Kotler formulated three levels of material simplicity, which I’d like to apply to spiritual needs. At the lowest level, one stops running after “bigger and better,” though still feels the need for more things. At a higher level, one is sameach b’chelko (בחלקומשה) — feels content with his/her possessions. At its highest level of simplicity, one feels that he/she has everything — yesh li hakol (יש לי הכל). There is nothing more [materially] this person could want, let alone pursue. The desire to gain more disappears.
Practical Ideas for conserving and recycling spiritual resources
These days, when I am about to hit the “Interested” or “Going” button on Facebook, I ask myself, what exactly am I ‘interested’ in? What am ‘going’ to and ‘going’ away from? Am I trying to gain spiritually something I already have? Am I using my spiritual resources wisely, or am I indulging in a spiritual ego trip?
I’ve decided to take the inventory of the resources I already have, and see how I can use them more skillfully. I’d like to share several practical ideas below.
Utilize fully the spiritual organizations (meditation centers, houses of worship, and so on) you belong to. Do they offer some activities you haven’t tried? Can you participate in the same activity you always have, but in a different way, like lending a hand setting up a meditation retreat, or helping out during a religious service?
Read – and re-read with fresh eyes – the spiritual books that can guide you. On my bookshelf, the stack of the ‘will-definitely-read-one-day’ books has been growing exponentially. It’s time to dig in.
Reach out to the spiritual friends and teachers you already have rather than look for new ones. Schedule a meeting with them to go over your pressing spiritual issues.
Review the notes from the courses and workshops you’ve taken. You’d be surprised how much personal wisdom they contain, and how they may resonate with you all these months and years later.
Most importantly, when considering engaging in a new activity, ask yourself – how is it going to serve your core spiritual needs? Can you identify these needs?
That said, if the activity doesn’t fit your needs, learn to say no. That might be the most beneficial thing you can do for yourself spiritually, for it will redirect your attention to what you already have and encourage you to utilize it fully.
Lane Igoudin, MA, Ph.D., blogs about Jewish mindfulness practices for the Applied Jewish Spirituality institute in Jerusalem. He is a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, California, and of Zen Center of Los Angeles. See more at laneigoudin.com.