Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nishmat Shabbat: A Meditation On Rest and Peace

On a cold December evening I entered the United Methodist Church in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood with a mixture of uncertainty, curiosity and anticipation of what I was about to experience within. This evening had been some time in coming. My journey on this chilly winter night had begun about seven months prior on warm summer Sunday afternoon during a brunch I was hosting at my home.

Knowing of her deep interest in spiritual development, I shared with my friend Suzie Cantor the initial steps I had taken to begin this project. Without missing a beat, Suzie immediately recommended I connect with a rabbi who was conducting monthly meditation Shabbat services that she enthusiastically described as “amazing!”

Having participated in Shabbat prayers in the homes of several Jewish friends over the years, I was familiar with the practice of Shabbat as a call to the beginning of the weekly observance of Sabbath.  “Meditation Shabbat” suggested an entirely new concept and definitely intrigued me to find out more.

As is typical with most of the spiritual practices documented in this project, I began my correspondence with Rabbi Olivier BenHaim of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Bellevue over email. After learning of my project, Rabbi invited me to attend the Nishmat Shabbat taking place the next month. While open to the idea of my documenting the meditation Shabbat, rather than bring my camera and recording gear, he recommended that I first experience the meditation and then we could jointly make a recommendation on how to best approach documenting this unique event. I am grateful to Rabbi for he gave me a gift of time and reflection that I all too often neglect to provide myself.

Once inside the sanctuary, I took a seat among the other worshippers. Seated in the round, I noticed that many (but not all) of the participants were clothed in white garments. Unbeknownst to me at the time, white clothing, along with prayer shawls (talit) or any shawls, are worn to “support of the deepening of one’s meditation.”

As Rabbi entered the center of the group, lights were dimmed and the traditional prayer candles were lit to signal the beginning of Shabbat. While only two candles were lit, they seemed to provide a luminescence well beyond their capacity filling the space with warm light.

Rabbi began the service with a quiet reflection on the words “Shabbat” and “Shalom” the greeting used during and after traditional Shabbat services. Explaining the literal definition for each term; Shabbat meaning “to rest”, Shalom defined as “peace.” He suggested that we begin a chant reflecting on the deeper meaning associated with each term and, through meditation, chanting, singing and silence that we take time to both be at rest and be at peace.

Rabbi’s incantations were accompanied by the mesmerizing singing and playing of Gina Salà, a gifted multi-instrumentalist who led the chants and singing with harmonium and guitar. The chants, along with Gina’s alternately soaring and soothing singing voice, filled the space with a rich swirl of tones that both soothed and aroused the spirit. Rabbi encouraged participants to freely use the entire space to celebrate and personalize their meditation experience. While some danced in place swaying with the rhythm of the hand drums, others sat cross legged on pillows or mats they placed on the floor, while still others elected to lie prone on the carpeted surface remaining motionless with eyes closed among the swirling din of chants, music and words.

The chants were interspersed with periods of silent meditation, which, when contrasted with extremely animated movements including clapping, singing, dancing and swaying, were deeply moving in both their intensity and duration. After about 90 minutes, the meditation came to a climax with the call and response singing of a tune led by Salà that repeated the phrase “Because the One I love, lives inside of you.” A joyous expression of oneness with both divinity and with each other, the participants drank in these words fueled by Salà’s beatific smile that literally lit up the dark room.

As the choruses came to a close, Rabbi initiated a moment of silence before ending the meditation and inviting everyone to join in the breaking of bread and sharing wine at the Shabbat table that was set up adjacent to the worship space.

As the lights rose, I got a better sense of the people now occupying the space and was pleased to see a wide range of ages participating in the service from teens through seniors and all ages in between.  I was also struck with how welcome I was made to feel both at the Shabbat table as well as in the conversations that took place after. 

While I do not profess to comprehend the meaning or tradition behind every chant, lyric (some in Hebrew) and melody we sang that evening, given the hugs, smiles and good cheer that were in evidence among all who participated, it was undeniable that all had achieved the evening’s primary goals of rest and peace. Shabbat Shalom.

A schedule of Shabbat Meditation services is available on the Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue website.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sri Chinmoy: Spiritual Leader Honored in Seattle

On a bright, late autumn afternoon, a diverse group of admirers and disciples of the late Sri Chinmoy gathered beneath the Aurora Bridge on the banks of Seattle’s Ship Canal to honor the life and legacy of this spiritual leader. Having learned of my project through a mutual friend, I was invited by Agraha Levine, Member of the Seattle Sri Chinmoy Centre and Seattle World Harmony Run Committee to join them and document the ceremony.

Before taking this assignment I was not familiar with the work and teachings of Sri Chinomy nor did I have any insight or connection to the local community of followers.  I quickly came to appreciate that while perhaps I was unaware of his teachings, Sri Chinmoy’s life work as an advocate for world peace, had in fact attracted the attention, loyalty and admiration of millions of followers around the world. His most recent published work “The Jewels of Happiness” includes dedications from such prestigious world figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall and recognizes his 37 years of leadership of the Peace Meditation at the United Nations by invitation of Secretary-General U Thant.

In addition to his peace work, Sri Chinmoy also placed significant importance on the role physical strength and overall fitness play in personal peace and meditation. In an effort to promote international friendship and understanding, in 1987 he founded the World Harmony Run, whose participants carry the torch of harmony passing it hand to hand. To date the torch has traveled through more than 100 nations attracting 1000’s of participants worldwide.

Raj Manhas
To celebrate his many accomplishments, representatives from more than 13 countries were present at the dedication of a bronze sculpture erected in Sri Chinmoy’s likeness. Local leaders spoke eloquently of Chinmoy’s message of peace and the impact he has had on their lives. Speakers included Raj Manhas, Superintendent of North Thurston Public Schools and former Seattle Superintendent of Schools; Suzie Burke, President of the Fremont Dock Company (who also donated the land under which the statue now stands); Daulot Fountain, Leader of the World Harmony Run and owner of Fountain Light & Electric; Richard Harrington, Co-Owner of Sound Mind & Body Gym and Nayak Polissar, Co-owner of Silence-Heart-Nest Restaurant.

Moni Neradilek (rear right) and members of Peace Choir
The dedication also included memorable singing performances. Moni Neradilek, conducted the Peace Choir soothing the audience with a series of hypnotic and meditative chants and vocal flights. Renowned vocalist and director, Pat Wright, led the Total Experience Gospel Choir in a rousing rendition of Jackie DeShannon's "Put A Little Love In Your Heart."

As the ceremonies came to a close, many of the participants lingered to share in the moment and quietly reflect on the memories and emotions that unite them in celebrating Chinmoy's legacy.  Each person approached the statue, some to have a photo taken with a likeness of their mentor, others to pay silent tribute to a spiritual leader and, in many cases, a dear friend.  Regardless of their actual relationship to Chinmoy, each gesture of respect was characterized by a serenity and profound sense of calm that was apparent in every person present.

In the weeks that followed I had the great pleasure of sharing lunch with Agraha Levine at Silence-Heart-Nest, a vegetarian restaurant also in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood founded and staffed by followers of Sri Chinmoy. Agraha was gracious in explaining to me not only the spiritual practices espoused by followers of Chinmoy’s teachings, but emphasized how members of the community apply the insights of peace and harmony into businesses they operate. In their own way these businesses and their founders,
Silence-Heart-Nest, Sound Mind & Body, Transformation-Surprise Laundromat, give evidence of their spiritual values to the customers, suppliers and communities they serve.

In his book “The Jewels of Happiness”  Chinmoy’s writes thoughtful meditations on topics such as  Peace, Love, Joy, Hope, Patience, Wisdom and more. In his essay on Peace, he sums up rather simply, but eloquently his hope for mankind: “It is only through inner peace that we can have true outer freedom.” 

Through their meditation practice and practical application of their spiritual beliefs, this community of spiritual beings seems on course to achieve just that.

May such peace and freedom be granted to all who seek it.