Non-Striving

Judy (not her real name) meets with me for spiritual direction. She sat looking a bit defeated. As she spoke her arms and shoulders did an impression of Alfred E. Neuman’s signature shrug. 

She was presenting a problem as old as history itself. (Later in this article I will tell you the Biblical version of it.)

Judy finds herself called towards doing something she does not really want to do, but she says it is as though she has no choice. Her words:

“I don’t want to. I can drag my heels. I can delay it. But I can’t stop it. I cannot do it now, but I can’t not do it. All I can do is not do it now.”

We have all experienced this.

When the universe seems to be pushing us towards something, there is very little we can do to stop it. 

At best, all we seemingly can do is not do the thing. 

 

Wu-Wei

There’s a spiritual notion of wu-wei, a Taoist word that means non-striving or non-struggling. (Previous articles about wu-wei 1 2.)

The idea is that the universe pushes us all towards certain things.

When you don’t strive against it, when you don’t push against it, it is like being a branch of a tree that moves with the wind.

However, when you push back, when you go against this thing you are “supposed” to do, you build up bad karma.

And we have all had this experience. When we push against something we know we’re supposed to do, when we go against the way the universe pushes us, we make it more difficult for ourselves.

Oprah Winfrey put it this way.

“The only time I made mistakes is when I didn’t listen. What I know is, God is love and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you. First in whispers. It’s subtle, those whispers. And if you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder. It’s like getting thumped upside the head, like my grandmother used to do. You don’t pay attention to that. It’s like getting a brick upside your head. Don’t pay attention to that, the whole brick wall falls down. That’s the pattern I’ve seen in my life, and it’s played out over and over and over again on this show.”

 

Me

I know this with my ministry. I didn’t want to be this guy who pushes the religious envelope, the eccentric rabbi with a calling to nourish spiritual hunger. I didn’t. This wasn’t my plan.

I wanted to be a senior rabbi at a large metropolitan synagogue doing normal rabbi things, albeit, doing it all a little unorthodoxly.

I didn’t ask for this unorthodox.

But I’m called to do this thing to help free people – to free people from themselves so they can be themselves. To help nourish people who are spiritually hungry. To help promote spiritual fitness.

And I know this is what I’m supposed to do, and the more I try to push against what I’m supposed to do – the more I put my light under a bushel – the more struggle I have in my life. And when I do what I’m supposed to do, almost inevitably, it winds up easier than my not doing it was.

 

Jonah

The biblical story of Jonah begins with Jonah, a nobody, the son of Amittai. For every other Biblical prophet, the person’s whole lineage was included. Jonah is a nobody. Just a regular Joe-nahThat’s a terrible joke, but I insist on making it. He’s just a regular guy.

Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh – the great Assyrian city – and proclaim to the people that they’re doing things wrong.

Jonah gets in a boat – a Karaite commentary has it that he paid for all the remaining spaces on the vessel because he was in such a rush – and goes the other way.

The boat hits a storm and when Jonah sees that fleeing from God – take that for what it meant in the Biblical days, I’m not asking you to accept the theology – might cause the loss of other people’s lives, Jonah jumps into the water to take his own life.

But as you know, it doesn’t work that way – he is swallowed, whole, at that very moment by a great fish and brought down to the bottom of the ocean.

Think about the metaphor!

To be in a fish at the bottom of the sea. Total blackness.

It is at that moment – when he has built up that much negative karma for himself – that he surrenders to God. Accordingly, the fish spits him out exactly at Nineveh, which is where he was supposed to be in the first place.

Not only that, but when Jonah says to Nineveh, “Stop your wicked ways,” they do!

To the Karaite community and to me, this attests that Jonah is the greatest of all the prophets because when he tells people to repent, they do!

 

Questions

In your life right now, what are you supposed to be doing that you’re not doing?

And knowing that, are you willing to do it?

For me, it’s taking my introduction to Religion-Outside-The-Box message to  New York City – the place of my birth. (I’ve not preached a public message in NYC since 2003 and do feel like Gotham could use a spiritual values infusion.) And, to take my message of spiritual empowerment elsewhere where it is needed.

Seriously, I’ve been dragging my heels about this. But I am hereby picking up my previously-dragging heels and putting this out into the world in a very real way.

And, I challenge you to do the same: give yourself the gift of leaning in – of doing wu-wei – of surrendering your will.