Hedonism and Spirituality

Hedonism and Spirituality

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Rabbi Rami answers your most pressing questions on spirituality.

I’m not a hedonist, but I love good food, fine wine, and nice clothes. My friends say my love of the material keeps me from realizing the spiritual. Is this true?

RABBI RAMI: No. Listen to this parable from the Zohar, the bible of Jewish mysticism:

There was once a cave-dwelling ascetic who ate nothing but raw wheat. Curious about life outside his cave, he visited a city and tasted thick black bread, cake, and honey-dipped pastry. “What are these made of?” he asked. “Wheat flour” he was told. “Then I am master of all of these,” he scoffed, “for I eat the essence of them all—wheat!”

Commenting on the parable, the Zohar says, “This ascetic was a fool: focusing solely on the essence, he never learned to enjoy the delights that flow from it” (Zohar 2:176 a-b).

The goal of spiritual practice is to know the essence and enjoy its delights. If your friends don’t see this, I suspect they may be out of touch with both.

I came home today to find a church flyer attached to my doorknob. It read: “Is Eternity Worth One Hour?” The question intrigues me. How might I think about this?

You might begin by inquiring into the nature of eternity. If eternity is time without end, an hour isn’t worth much at all. If eternity is the ending of time, the very notion of an hour is irrelevant. In either case, the answer to the question, "Is eternity worth one hour?" is probably no.

I am not a praying person, but I’m curious: Is there any value to it?

There are four basic categories of prayer: Petitionary prayer asks God to change the nature of the universe to benefit you; intercessory prayer asks God to change the nature of the universe to benefit someone else; adoration frees you from obsession with self; and contemplation reveals the unity of all things in, with, and as God.

Petitionary and intercessory prayer can be cathartic, but I don’t believe God is open to subverting the laws of nature just because we ask nicely. Adoration and contemplation can, however, lead to the emptying of self and the realization of Self, something I both value and practice. If you are curious, I would encourage you to engage in these two forms of prayer.

I recently graduated as a spiritual director and I’m eager to bring what I know to spiritual seekers. How do I know when I’m ready to do this?

The task of a spiritual director (I prefer the term “spiritual companion”) isn’t to bring anything to anybody, but to provide people with a safe environment where they can look deeply into the nature of life without the distorting lens of any -ism or ideology. When you can set aside what you know and take refuge in not knowing, when you can accompany a person on their journey without dragging them into your journey—then you are ready to be a spiritual companion.

I love the poetry of Rumi and Kabir and I’m thinking of converting to Islam. How do I know if I should do this?

Study the Holy Qur’an, the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad), and shariah (Islamic law). If you feel called to the Five Pillars of Islam—affirming the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”), praying five times daily, fasting during Ramadan, giving 2.5 percent of your wealth to charity annually, and making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca—then you should seek out an imam to assist your conversion to Islam. If not, just be grateful for the wisdom of Rumi and Kabir.

We are Christian but send our daughter to an awesome Jewish preschool. She came home the other day and announced that she will no longer eat pork because God forbids it. Short of changing schools, what should we do?

Stop eating pork. Your daughter will be happy. Pigs will be happy. And, who knows, maybe God will be happy, too. Later, when your daughter decides she wants to eat bacon and adjusts her theology accordingly, you might adjust your diet as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and I can’t understand why Jesus must die so God can forgive our sins. Couldn’t God just forgive us without Jesus dying?

Think of it this way: Christians believe Jesus is God, and so it is God who dies on the cross. Why does God have to die? Because God is the cause of suffering (see Isaiah 45:7) and dying on the cross is God’s way of making amends. Honoring Good Friday and Easter is a way of accepting God’s apology and moving into a more loving relationship with God that helps God alleviate suffering even if God can’t stop perpetuating it.

I’m planning to get a tattoo on my inner forearm. It will be my first and I’ve spent months searching for just the right wise saying. What would you suggest?

I would ask the tattoo artist to draw a simple brick wall on your arm and then ink the words “Post no bills” on it.

My daughter has abandoned our religion. She says whatever Truth it may contain is buried beneath so much cultural baggage and bias as to be all but inaccessible. I believe you can’t get to Truth without what she calls the baggage. Am I right?

Imagine a diamond mixed in with a bowl of marbles. Your daughter wants the diamond. You want her to appreciate the marbles. It isn’t a matter of who is right, but of what each of you values most. My suggestion is this: Grasp the diamond first and then admire the marbles, though I doubt they will be of interest to you once the diamond is acquired.

I have no patience with meditation, but I need some practice to keep me focused on what matters in life. What might you suggest?

I recommend daily recitation of what the Buddhists call the Five Remembrances:

I will grow old and cannot avoid growing old.

I will become ill and cannot avoid becoming ill.

I will die and cannot avoid dying.

I will lose all that is dear to me, and I cannot avoid losing all that is dear to me.

I am responsible for my actions and cannot avoid being responsible for my actions.

Recite these Five Remembrances each morning to help stay focused on what matters throughout the day.

I gave up religion for my 65th birthday, and I couldn’t be happier. Do you think I’m making a mistake?

If you couldn’t be happier how could this be a mistake? That said, happiness is not a steady phenomenon. Whether or not you return to religion, know that happiness is too fluid a phenomenon to use as a measuring rod for anything. Look to being kind, just, and wise instead.

Post no bills

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