Rabbi Rami is answering your questions, with special editions of his online column Roadside Musings.
During this time of stress and anxiety, Rabbi Rami has been working overtime to answer our readers’ questions and concerns.
Q. I have spent my life living within my means. I never carried a credit card balance; I never bought a new car; and I was scrupulous in preparing for my retirement. Now just about everything I saved is gone. Retirement is a pipe dream, and I may not even have a job to go back to once this is over, as I suspect employers will use the pandemic as an opportunity to prune their older workers (I’m 65). I am frightened and furious. There is nothing you can say that will comfort me. Don’t even try. I’m too angry to listen anyway. I just needed a trusted ear so I can vent.
Rabbi Rami answers: Thank you for considering me a “trusted ear,” and thank you for freeing me from having to give you any advice. I lived the same way as you and find myself in a similar situation. For what It’s worth, let me share with you three things I’m doing to avoid spiraling into a panic.
First, I’m keeping a gratitude journal (read “Practicing Self-Appreciation Through Gratitude Journaling” for more on gratitude journaling) and writing about one thing I am grateful for that happens to me each day during the pandemic.
Second, I walk several miles a day and wave to and greet everyone I see while still keeping my distance.
Third, I’m playing a game I call Walden Pond based on Henry David Thoreau’s call to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” I’m going through all my stuff and identifying the bare minimum I need, not only to survive, but to emotionally and spiritually thrive. For example, I don’t need the two suits hanging in my closet, but I do need my guitar and cajón drum. My goal is to reduce the amount of essential stuff so that it fits in the trunk of my car. At the moment, it looks like I need a bigger car.
What are you doing to maintain your spiritual sanity during this coronavirus insanity?
While I meditate and chant daily, one new thing I’m doing that has helped me in the midst of this madness is using my handwashing time to send blessings of lovingkindness (metta in Sanskrit) to loved ones and those suffering from the pandemic. When I first wash my hands in the morning I say, “May I be free from fear. May I be free from compulsion. May I be blessed with love. May I be blessed with peace.” Saying this mindfully takes about 24 seconds, just a bit more than the recommended handwashing time.
As I wash my hands throughout the day, I offer the same blessing to others: family, friends, frontline medical workers, first responders, etc. When I do my final handwashing before I go to bed I say, “May all beings be free from fear. May all beings be free from compulsion. May all beings be blessed with love. May all beings be blessed with peace.” This practice opens my heart to the suffering of others and keeps me from spiraling into a narcissistic and self-isolating despair.
I have trusted God all my life. I believe that nothing happens without Him willing it to happen. What I can’t figure out is why God would will this pandemic. Can you answer this?
Not only can’t I answer this question, I can’t even ask it. Your question assumes a self-conscious willful and supernatural God that I simply don’t believe in. God as I experience God is Reality: what the Hebrew Bible calls YHVH: the Happening happening as all happening. Pandemics are simply part of reality. God wills COVID-19 the way the Earth wills a quake and the ocean wills a tsunami. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and pandemics happen because the circumstances for their happening are such that they must happen. For me, the question isn’t “Why does God allow this pandemic,” but “What can I do to help alleviate the suffering now that it is here?” That’s a question you will have to answer for yourself.
Now that I’m out of work and forced to stay home I have plenty of time to read. What books would you recommend to those of us who want to read spiritual books?
Read books that help you shift from the narrow mind of self and selfishness (mochin d’katnut in Hebrew) to the spacious mind of Self and selflessness (mochin d’gadlut in Hebrew). I hesitate to tell you what to read as that will rob you of the fun of discovering the right books for yourself, but I will share my top six: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Talks With Ramana Maharshi by Munagala Venkataramiah, I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, The Work of This Moment by Toni Packer, The First and Last Freedom by Jiddu Krishnamurti, and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.
I don’t mind being confined to my apartment. I have enough food, paper goods, and broadband to make it through intact. What I do mind is being physically cut off from my granddaughter. I Facetime with her every afternoon, and I’ve used the time to read books with her. But the spontaneity of in-person contact, something we had almost daily, is missing. I guess the fun is gone. I know you have a 4-year-old grandson. How do you handle this?
One thing that has worked for my grandson and me is this: Each day I draw a picture, take a photograph of the drawing with my smartphone and text it to him via his dad. Sometimes the picture is of the two of us doing something impossible: riding a dragon, diving into an ice cream cone the size of a mountain. Other times I draw a picture with me hiding in the drawing. I ask him to draw the next drawing: Where does the dragon go, for example; or to find me in the drawing and then draw one in which he is hiding so I can look for him. I am a terrible artist and my drawings are very primitive and silly—which only adds to his delight. I’m not saying this will work for you, but something like it might.
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