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My Search for Mr/Ms Spiritual Right

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I’ve been a seeker all my life. For years I’ve been searching. Granted, half of the time it was for my car keys, but the idea of finding my spiritual center has captivated me since I was young. But growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t feel I was entitled to such a search and, honestly, sometimes I was just praying for a good hair day.

Before people were talking about Jewish Buddhists or JuBus, I was trying to live it – with one foot in the synagogue and the other crossed over into a seated lotus position. Whether by karma or Beshert, my Jewish roots grounded me in the soil of my ancestors while my branches stretched to the mystical Shangri-La.

When I was in junior high school, I read the book Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse and became fascinated with the idea of setting forth on my own spiritual quest. During spring vacations, when our family would drive from Chicago to Florida, I began the practice of looking out the window at various landscapes trying to find the perfect place for me to live like a hermit and reach enlightenment. The minimum requirements included a grassy area by a stream and a tree. My requirements for a hotel in Florida, however, included a vending machine and a swimming pool. As I got older, my spiritual search led me away from trips to Boca to treks in the Himalayas where my soul soared in the heart of Buddhist teachings while the rest of my body kvetched from the affects of altitude. From Nepal to Bhutan, I saw myself as an adventurer and seeker, always looking out for that perfect moment of Nirvana, just around the corner, or keeping a watchful eye for the perfect Buddhist monk or nun with a shaved head who would, through word or action, invite me into the world of enlightenment.

Back in the states, I continued my spiritual search through the practice of Zen, Tibetan and Vispassana Buddhism. Over the years I had written off Judaism as a spiritual path that could guide and sustain my journey. I experienced synagogue life as lacking in both spirit and authentic expression; I found it both dull and uninspiring. The problem was that along my spiritual search, I kept tripping over those Jewish roots. One Tibetan Lama I studied with was Lama Surya Das. Before he became a Tibetan Lama, his name was Jeffery Miller and he grew up in Brooklyn. In one of his books, he writes that his mother calls him “The Deli Lama.” One of the founding teachers of Insight Meditation, which I practice, is Larry Rosenberg who comes from a family of rabbis and sometimes uses Yiddish words when making his Buddhist point.  Later I learned that 30% of all Western Buddhists are Jewish, and that many of the prominent Buddhist teachers in the West are Jews by birth.

Once, my husband, kids and I hosted a group of 8 Tibetan monks at our home for a weekend. And what did I do? Along with black tea and lentils, I cooked them noodle kugel and baked them sour cream coffee cake. I offered them bagels with shmears of cream cheese. My Jewish roots were cutting through my karma and spilling over the kitchen table.

A friend and fellow seeker told me about a rabbi with whom she was studying. She explained that he had left synagogue work and for decades has been teaching Torah as a spiritual path to groups all over the country. I resisted going, because I had decided years ago that Mr/Ms Right spiritual guru was my shaven head monk or nun who had yet to appear. Finally I agreed to go and was confronted with a rabbi sprouting a full head of graying hair who looked nothing like my imagined guide.  Yet, to my amazement, he was teaching both Torah and Zen parables in the most inspiring way. I have been studying with this rabbi for over 12 years now, and have come to discover that the image I had for my teacher – what he would look like and where I would find him, had nothing to do with where my path ultimately led. A few years ago, I met another rabbi who was new to town. He had long hair, a thriving synagogue and a yoga practice. I joined his shul, where meditation, chanting and drumming are part of our prayer practice. At some point, he shaved his head. I realized that one of my spiritual teachers now resembled the shaven head image for which I had once yearned.  It no longer mattered. Letting go of what I once imagined brought in the sweetness of reality I experience each day of my journey.

Ellen Frankel, LCSW is a clinical therapist who worked in the field of eating disorders for over 15 years. She is the author of several books including her most recent novel, Syd Arthur, about a middle-aged Jewish suburban woman and her search for enlightenment. You can visit Ellen at: http://www.authorellenfrankel.com.
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2 Comments »

  • Susan Price, Ph.D. says:

    I am a psychologist and a life long spiritual seeker. I currently consider myself an active Baha’i, Buddhist, Reform Jewish seeker who enjoys meeting people with open hearts, open minds, and a delightful sense of spiritual humor and compassion. Ellen is definitely a seeker who is honest and caring and has a great sense of humor. I can’t wait to read her book.

  • Baruch HaLevi says:

    Ellen is amazing. She is honest and real. I love her writings and her book. What a great read.

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