My dad is dying, and I moved him to a very fine care facility. The cost is crushing, and I took a second job to cover it. Now I find myself wishing he would die, and the guilt I’m experiencing is as crushing as the cost. How do I stop these thoughts and the feelings they trigger?
Rabbi Rami: You don’t. You are not in control of, or responsible for the thoughts and feelings that pop into your mind. When you find yourself wishing your dad would die, accept that this is an honest response to a very tough situation, and that your actions rather than these thoughts show your true character. You are a good son in a difficult situation. Know this, and love will triumph over guilt.
I attended a weekend retreat where the teacher promised us a mystical experience. I felt nothing, and he said I didn’t try hard enough. Was this a con? What is a mystical experience? Are such experiences true? How hard is it to have one?
A mystical experience is one that sees through the illusion of “self” and “other” to reveal the non-dual reality that embraces and transcends all duality. This is the “I AM of God” (which is very different from the delusion “I am God”), and anyone who promises you such an experience is a charlatan. As for “truth,” my rule of thumb is this: if your spiritual experiences make you more kind and less judgmental, they are true; if they make you more cruel and less forgiving, they are false. While no one can promise you a mystical experience, there are many fine teachers who offer practices that prepare you to receive the gift of such an experience if it comes.
I’m in my early forties, grew up without religion, and suddenly find myself church shopping. What should I look for? What does religion offer?
Religion offers four things: meaning, purpose, comfort, and community. Meaning and purpose arise from the story a religion tells about the nature of life and how best to live it. Comfort happens when a religion’s teachings and practices help you “walk through” rather than rent a condo in the Valley of Death’s Shadow. Community comes from the willingness of folks to stand with you in times of hardship and trial. If you can find all four in one church, you are blessed.
I love going on spiritual retreats, but when I come back home, my church seems shallow and the people petty. Should I stop going to church?
One night this week take yourself to a gourmet restaurant and eat an exquisite meal prepared by a world–renowned chef. The next night cook for yourself at home. Chances are what you eat at home falls far short of what you ate at the restaurant. Does that mean you should stop eating at home? Your church can support you in ways a retreat center cannot. And a retreat center can support you in ways a church cannot. If you insist that each does the work of the other, you will be disappointed in both. They work best together.
My meditations convince me that I’m a spiritual being having a physical experience. Does the physical plane have any significance at all?
Thinking in terms of spiritual beings having a physical experience or physical beings having a spiritual experience perpetuates the illusion of dualism. Physical goes with spiritual the way front goes with back and up goes with down. If your meditation leads you to denigrate the physical, take up an earth–honoring practice like gardening, and a body–honoring practice like yoga. When you know the physical and the spiritual as aspects of a greater whole, you will know the significance of each.
I’m trying to get into personal prayer, but I can’t find time to sit down and pray. Can you offer me a “starter prayer”?
Let me share Asher Yatzar (You Who Fashions), one of my most treasured Jewish prayers. You recite this prayer whenever you move your bowels, so you don’t have to find time to sit—just take advantage of the time nature is already providing. Here is my English rendition of the Hebrew original: Blessed are You, Source and Substance of all reality, Who fashions me with wisdom, and blesses me with a body of wondrous balance and complexity that opens and closes in tune with need and necessity. If openings should close or closings open, I could not endure. I honor Your gift by honoring my body and cultivating its promise. Blessed are You, Healer of all flesh, Who blesses me with form and function.
Use moments throughout your day—waking, washing your hands and face, brushing your teeth, moving your bowels, eating—that readily lend themselves to short expressions of gratitude and wonder. In time you will find ever more opportunities to live in prayer.
I believe in one God who speaks through many religions. What I don’t understand is how some religions lead people to do such wicked things.
In this I follow the insight of Jesus: “Those with the ears to hear will hear” (Mark 4:9). Jesus isn’t merely saying that only some of us will hear the deeper truths he is sharing; he is saying that each of us hears with the ears we have: each of us hears what we are capable of hearing. Sadly, many of us are only capable of hearing that which promotes arrogance, fear, cruelty, and violence, and in this way follow a God who echoes the worst rather than the best of what humanity can achieve.
Author and teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro has been called “one of the best bridges of Eastern and Western wisdom.” His newest book is Embracing the Divine Feminine.