Friday, December 16, 2016

BALANCING CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICES: Benjamin Shalva's "Spiritual Cross-Training"


Benjamin Shalva, Rabbi and writer
When I first heard that my old college buddy Ben Schudson Shalva had written a self-help book entitled Spiritual Cross-Training, I thought: Wow, that is awesome marketing!  In a genre that seems to be prone to repeating itself to different spins on the same formula, his book had an immediate edge.  Indeed, the term "cross-training" seems to have become commonplace in only recent years, and after a quick Google search, there wasn't much out there, save Shalva's book, applying the term to spiritual concepts.  Why didn't I think of that?  Ha!  I caught myself. Our propensity to be driven by surface judgments and distracting instincts is actually  a central  theme of  Shalva's writings.      
    It's hard to be a mystic outside of cloistered walls, in a frenzied culture where most of us with any sensitivity find ourselves constantly overwhelmed and over-stimulated.  Shalva understands this all too well, and he writes with an openness and intimate vulnerability rarely seen in self-help authors. I mean, it usually takes a law suit to get  spiritual gurus to confess the things Shalva so freely shares with the reader in Spiritual Cross-Training.   Upon finishing it, I feel motivated to not only be more honest with myself and others, but I have vowed to resume some old practices of mine that I abandoned years ago and almost forgot completely, until now.
    A quick overview of spiritual and personal development books, from ancient times to the present day, will reveal all sorts of different words used to illustrate the various aspects of our Being.   Whether in Judaism, Christianity, or 1960s humanistic psychology, writers have used words like "psyche," "emotions/affect," "spirit," "soul," "mind," "body/viscera," and any number of phrases referring to the ingredients of our personality.   Shalva calls these our spiritual muscle groups, and he stresses the benefit that can come from mixing things up in our contemplative practices to increase the strength of our souls.  Based on his own journey - and perhaps for the sake of clarity - Shalva breaks down our spiritual muscles (and the book) into three parts: Silence, Stretch, And Song. 
    
1. SILENCE. The book immediately points out that while God created the universe with words (Let there be light), words today are often our worst compulsion, preventing the deeper layers of Presence from emerging.  He draws on his time in silent meditation retreats to share the kinds of healing processes, both ugly and joyous, that silence can bring.  A Rabbi by training, Shalva uses the paradigm of the Jewish mystics for the varying dimensions of Self, noting that Kabbalists believe that we live in four worlds simultaneously: 

1. Olam Ha-Asiyah -the physical world
2. Olam Ha-Yetzirah - the emotional world
3. Olam Ha-Beriah - the mental world
4. Olam Ha-Atzilut - the world of soul

2.  STRETCH.  The anchor of this section is often yoga, though as with the book in general, the suggestions offered can apply to  people of any religious or non-religious background.  In addition to giving lots of rich details about yoga, as well as vignettes from a trip to Tibet, this section reminds us of the obvious.  We live in a world of uncomfortable positions, and just taking some time to stretch throughout the day can certainly shift one's mood for the better.  Simple, mindful stretching and breathing has certainly benefited me over the years.  It is something that is easy to forget, though.  But I have found, as I think most people will,  that just two five-minute stretch sessions at different times during the day, if done regularly, can make much more of a difference than one might automatically assume.   I need to be reminded of that, though.   And Shalva's examples here have (hopefully) helped reinforce the value of this practice to me,  especially since I am so often hunched over a keyboard staring at a computer screen. 

3.  SONG.   A recurrent theme for patients on the therapist's couch  is shame.  Sometimes, traditional spiritual practices do not do enough to remedy this self-destructive block.  Even worse, shame at its deepest, most fundamental level has often been a weapon of the religious, the very wounding that.....well, ends up driving their congregants into therapy years later.  As Christian counselor, Tres Adames, sharedwith me on my podcast once, some ministers in  Evangelical congregations have been exceptionally irresponsible with this subject.

That's why it's good that Shalva's personal anecdotes often revolve around the performing arts, music, and the holy foolishness of kids (young and old)  singing crazily and making circus dances of loud nonsense.  But not just song, this spiritual muscle is the  devotional/emotional component of our being, and there are many ways to go about it.  Release is the point, the kind that can set us free from the shackles of shame.  For me, it has generally been free-form writing and occasional acting. But many other examples are offered in  Spiritual Cross-Training.

   Admittedly, I relish this book with a certain absurdist glee.  This is a rare phenomenon, so I might as well enjoy it:  an old friend emerging from the past and confessing his sins in print. Sure, he shares his shortcomings as a means to inspire, connect, and communicate larger spiritual principles.  But, nevertheless, as I stayed up late one night reading this book in one sitting, I found my thoughts alternating between, "I'm glad you can finally admit that now, Ben" to "oh, man, did you have to share that?"   Yes, some of the stories he tells reverberate from the caves of Memory with  the same critical thoughts I had of him at the time, while other stories go far beyond any judgment I would have had.   

Alas, he outdoes us himself in the honesty department.  At one point in the book, he tells a story of a Zen retreat with such vulnerability  that I had to put the book down and take a few deep breaths.  It takes courage to share such things as he does here, and Spiritual Cross-Training is an act of courage.   More importantly, through reading his lessons and stories, I received a new sense of immediately applicable direction for my own path.  I hope it can do the same for others. Reading this book is its own journey, one that can lead any reader towards developing their own, personalized, spiritual cross-training program.     

Check it out for yourself below.