Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Category Archives: Meditation

A prayer leader’s dilemma: Everyone’s dropped in, so why go on?

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We are two chants into a musical Friday evening Shabbat service. We have not even gotten a fifth of the way into the prayer plan. Yet, thanks to Shoshana Jedwab’s mystical drumming and whatever space I am able to hold, when that second chant comes to an end, the entire yurt is completely silent, sitting. Now what? Why go on?

Back in college, one of the professors had a cartoon on the outside of his office door which showed two Buddhists sitting in full lotus: There was a plump, senior teacher, and there was his young disciple. The disciple had a perplexed look on his face. Something was clearly gnawing at him. The speech bubble was with the teacher: “Nothing happens next.  This is it!”


Cartoon by Gahan Wilson

Last week, I had the honor to lead a musical meditation service at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It was part of a weekend called “Let My People Sing,” and I was brought in to teach about chant and offer services and kirtan. When the second chant — song, really — came to an end (Lechu N’rannena into Shiru LaShem), we started to meditate as a group. As I find happening increasingly, it was easy, effortless: Everyone just dropped in. And… stayed there. I didn’t say anything beforehand, suggesting a direction, not even “now let’s sit.” It just happened organically. The entire yurt was still; not a person moved.

When I took a moment, a couple of minutes later, scanning the room to see how everyone was holding out, a thought occurred to me. We’re done. This is it. The “prayer service” is over: we could and should remain silent like this for the remaining hour and twenty minutes. There was no reason to go on. No Lecha Dodi. No Barchu and Shema. No standing meditation. No mourner’s kaddish. No. Nothing.

I truly believed that if I had allowed the meditation to go on indefinitely, this group was already primed to sit as long as it possibly could. I mean, if even one person had shown any restlessness – just one! – that would have been my cue to draw the others back. But no one did.

I have been blessed to experience this increasingly as I lead prayer services around the country – and all the more so, of course, at kirtans. And it’s raising a real dilemma for me: Is it right to interrupt such a moment, so pregnant, only in order to continue what we’re supposed to do next, the “should,” because that is the structure, the matbea, the “set list?” In Jewish practice, can we learn to give space to prayer, let it emerge naturally, and – if that’s the way it goes – let it resolve into “this is it,”  into silent contemplation?

Unfortunately, it is not an option just to let the service go longer, to make room for spontaneous direct connection to God. As one Conservative movement cantor friend of opened up  to her congregants in the context of my giving a talk at her synagogue: “I always feel like the time keeper here, instead of a true prayer leader. We have an hour and half, or whatever, and we have so much that traditions dictates we cover. As much as I want to take time and make it meaningful, when the services start, for me, it’s off to the races!”

As many of you know, at kirtan sessions, we nearly always hand out a sheet with at least ten chants on it. Inevitably, when a new singer practices with me beforehand, looking with concern at the sheet, s/he will ask: “Are we going to do all of these chants?” My tried and true response: “If it’s a bad kirtan, we will.”

“I find it hard to interrupt a group sitting so silently like you all are….  We now turn to Lecha Dodi…”

The 70% Rule

The significance of the fact that I begin my blogging career with this post is not lost on me.

For, The 70% Rule is the most important lesson I have learned in my many years of studying Tai Ch’i and related martial and healing arts. It is the principle upon which I base all of my meditation; it closely guides how I lead Hebrew Kirtans; and it generally serves as an aspirational outlook for anything I seek to “accomplish.” So, it’s fitting that I make my first Blog entry ever on the 70% Rule. In coming Blogs, I expect that I will return often to this fundamental principle – applying it to breathing exercises (for singing and chi gung meditation), on how to teach what you have assimilated, to leading prayer services, on psycho-spiritual development through life, to skiing… you name it!

So, what is Tai Ch’i’s 70% Rule?

Simply put, it states: Never do more than 70% of what you can do. [Ikka d’amrei (there are those who say): 80%] In other words, the 70% rule implies that you should always keep at least 30% of your ability and power close to you. Always hold something back; never, ever show it all. This is one of the main tenets of Taoist practice: Even at maximal Yang expression, the tai ch’i artist always maintains some Yin containment.

That’s it. Simple, no?

Yet, just such a principle is very difficult for many of us to live by today. We are high achievers. We want to do well, to excel at everything we put our minds and hands to. How can we allow someone to say to us, hold something back? Don’t give your all?! Weren’t many of us told growing up – throughout our education – something along the lines of: “You must give 110% to everything you do. 110%!”

Fortunately, that 110% imperative now makes me chuckle every time I hear it thanks to an early Simpsons episode. In it, Mr. Burns has pulled together a company softball team featuring Darryl Strawberry as the nuclear power plant’s ringer. At one point, Burns decides to bring in a hypnotist to spur the group on to greater accomplishments and assured victory. The hypnotist intones mantras along the lines of, “we are all one team,” and the players repeat them back. This goes on for several statements (a kind of hypno-Kirtan, I suppose), none of which can I remember. All goes well until the hypnotist drones to the team: “We must give a 120% effort, we must give 120%!” Instead of just repeating what he says, as they have done up to this point, the team replies, in similar droney fashion – and, in unison: “That is logically impossible. No one can give 120%. It is impossible to give 120%….”

All jokes aside, the idea of doing less – of intentionally doing less – is something which many of us find difficult. It is decidedly Type-B. I mean, according to this Rule, we’re not even supposed to give 100% (which is logically possible).

But the truth is, I have learned, and often the hard way, that doing less is in truth doing more (another Taoist principle); that by not expressing all ability, all “talent,” all power – you are really more powerful, “talented” and effective in your actions. I will definitely draw this out in more detail in future blogs. So, I hope it will become more clear.

There is nothing more humorous (and embarrassing) than watching someone try to become “highly accomplished” in Tai Ch’i. I suppose it is possible – if your tai ch’i goals are to win tournaments or to shove people around, but it is not true tai ch’i. Nor is it true meditation. Nor can it be true Kirtan. In a sense, if you set out to do Kirtan “well,” you are doomed to “failure.”

Finally, this topic inspires me to think of Jerry Garcia, surely one of the biggest influences on my music and on my life in general. (As one friend of mine put it, “my first rebbe.”) I once heard someone express something so beautiful: Jerry Garcia displayed the highest level of achievement that a “type-B personality” could attain. His playing was really very yin; yet think how powerfully he moved people in live appearances. As in a good kirtan, even at the most ecstatic moments, one felt safe with Jerry: You knew that he was holding the space in a way that nothing could spiral out of control. Part of this may have attributable to the fact that Jerry, took himself out of the way (as did the Grateful Dead as a band); it was never about him, rather always about the music. (By the way, Garcia was a huge reader of Martin Buber and saw his playing as a conscious I-Thou engagement with his audience.)

Being a decidedly Type-B lead guitarist, Bart Simpon underachiever: This might be another way to look at the 70% rule.

To many of us, this might seem outrageous. Especially to those parents with children whom they want to see succeed, or to busy adults with to-do lists whose unattainable completion makes them lose sleep at night.

So, let’s just relax. Like all rules, this Rule, too, is meant to be broken. For now, let’s just sit with the idea of it. Let’s not try to apply it right away. Let’s turn it over and over for awhile. Continue to do things the way we have. And…by all means, let’s not try to give 120% at doing less!

As I said, I shall return to this idea often. There will be time.