Adam Berman Does His Own AdamahAugust 26, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Adam here. Remember me? I used to work at Isabella Freedman. You may remember me from such fine songs as Larry the Polar Bear and I Wanna Hug. It’s been almost five months now since I packed my bags and headed out to California and I figured it’s due time that I checked back in. I wanted to give you an update on my life and also share a bit with you about an amazing experience I just had in the mountains of southwest Colorado. Leaving Freedman Those of you who were at last year’s alumni retreat might remember my State of Adamah talk, when I shared that after six years (this being my seventh and coincidentally my shmita year), it had become clear to me that I needed to move on from Freedman. So, on the morning of April 21, with tears in my eyes as I watched Shamu disappear in my rear view mirror, I headed to California.
Why did I leave? A big part of the reason had to do with what I felt was happening to me – to my heart, body and soul – as Executive Director of Freedman. As many of you know, during my last three years at Freedman, on most days, I experienced fairly significant back pain. The pain got so bad that I stopped doing many of the activities I used to love – basketball, tennis, even yoga and biking (towards the end). Neither western nor eastern doctors offered much help. Intuitively, I always had a very strong sense that the pain ultimately was due to deep muscular contractions, which themselves were emotionally created. By emotion I mean both tension and stress as it arose at any given moment AND more deeply seated emotional baggage that I was likely carrying with me. Another aspect of Adam Berman that I noticed arising during my last few years at Freedman was my increasing inability to be present for people (never mind my own internal life). Because there was always so much on my plate, I tried to manage every single moment, which I did from sunrise to moonrise. This left little time for spontaneity or time to linger in individual relationships or moments of connection. I found myself avoiding the dining hall so as to avoid contact with people that would delay me through my day. I would walk through campus with my head down so that I wouldn’t be delayed by contact with people along the way. I hated this part of me, which I don’t really think I managed to change until the very end, when I was holding on to Freedman much less tightly (and had a lot less on my plate). Finally, my job at Freedman completely wore me out. When I first got to Freedman I remember needing less than 7 hours of sleep each night and feeling invigorated when got home from the office at the end of each day at 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. I couldn’t wait to get back there the next morning and my whole being pulsed with the energy and passion of the endeavor. By the time I left Freedman, I was in the opposite place. My life-force felt drained even before I woke up in the morning. It also felt like the right time in the life of the organization for me to leave. We had accomplished most of the goals that the board and I had created for the organization back in 2002/2003: Financially and programmatically Freedman was doing very well. Adamah was thriving and had both very strong staff leadership and an amazing advisory board. The Elat Chayyim merger was essentially complete and successful, albeit still challenging. We purchased the Beebe Hill property. We made $2 million in capital improvements to the site including building two new staff houses. Freedman is bringing to the world an approach to Judaism that reflects my greatest hopes and desires for the Jewish community. While there is always more to do, I felt a sense of completion that told me it was the right time to leave. 2009 for Adam Berman So, as I pulled away from Shamu that morning in April, I both felt a deep sense of accomplishment as well as incredible sadness. I knew I would deeply miss Adamah and everything this community/program brought into my life. And I knew I would miss Shamu.
At the same time, the further I drove from Freedman, the more I sensed a weight lifting. It was uncanny how each new day brought a new level of lightness to my being. It also became increasing clear what my priorities would be for the coming months. These priorities first came to me during a week long solo trip on a beach in Baja California in February (more on this later) and crystallized in the weeks following my departure from Freedman. The priorities were threefold. 1) To cultivate relaxation. By relaxation I mean the ability to find places of tension in my body and to consciously relax and open them. I had this deep sense that if I could learn how to do this, I would be able to identify back pain and other body pain before it became severe and consciously reverse the process of contraction. 2) To cultivate presence. By this I mean simply the ability and practice of being more present for both my own internal life and for people in my life. 3) To cultivate my life force/energy. I mean this quite literally. Most spiritual traditions have a word for the life force that flows through us. The Chinese/Taoists call is Qi (pronounced chee), Yogi’s call it prana. Sufism – Baraka, Mayan Indian – Chul. There are dozens more. Perhaps “ruach” is the closest thing to it in our tradition. In any case, mine felt depleted and I knew that this year needed to be about restoring/enhancing it. So, off I went to Berkeley – a place that has always felt like home since my father dropped me off on the steps of the university campus when I was 18. I rented a house in North Berkeley (which has three couches in it by the way, so please consider it a crashing pad for any Northern California visit!). I spend lots of time with friends. Deena and I are back together (Adamah Summer 2007, yep, the Deena I was with then) and doing really well. I buy my produce at the farmer’s market. I swim. I cook a lot. I go on long bike rides in Tilden Park. Two months in, I felt more relaxed; I felt more present; my energy was beginning to return. I also became a certified massage therapist; I loved learning about and being with the body in a new way. In addition, I have taken up a practice called Qi Gong quite seriously. Qi Gong is an ancient Chinese practice of energy cultivation. I also decided to do a 28 day solo camping trip in Colorado through an organization called The Way of Nature (www.sacredpassage.com) run by an extraordinary man named John Milton. John, age 72, is a master (my word, not his. He’s incredibly humble) in multiple spiritual traditions and pathways including Taoism, Dzogchen Zen, Mahayayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong and several shamanic paths. John teaches his students what he believes to be the most effective practices for spiritual growth from each of these traditions. He also believes that spiritual practice done in wild nature is essential for efficient mastery and spiritual growth. The Qi that is present in wild nature acts like grease on the wheels of spiritual practice. John himself did his first 3 night solo in the White Mountains at the age of 7. By his teens, he was doing month-long solos. I first met John in February, when I did his introductory program – a 10-day retreat in Baja California that included a 6-day solo camping trip on the beach. The experience was phenomenal. I resonated deeply with his teachings and found his recommendations for spiritual practice – primarily mediations and qi gong exercises – to be incredibly helpful. I also had a profound experience with an adult grey whale. John’s spiritual philosophy, which he believes is present in ALL the spiritual traditions he has studied, includes six core principles. The first three are: 1) Cultivate Relaxation – with contraction in the body, spiritual growth is almost impossible. 2) Cultivate Presence –thoughts and emotions that take you away from the present moment will keep you trapped in your ego and prevent you from knowing your deepest truths. And 3) (Yep, you guessed it) Cultivate Universal Energy – by increasing the natural flow of energy in our bodies we can improve our health, live longer, attain greater insight into our spiritual, emotional and mental selves, and increase joy by uniting with the energy that runs through the entire universe. You can learn about John, his philosophy (including all six principles) in his most recent book called Sky Above, Earth Below. Incidentally, success at principles #1 and #2 are essential for success at #3. That is, relaxation and presence are necessary for the cultivation of energy. Conscious energy flow is impossible if the body is contracted (in “violation” of #1) or the mind is distracted (in “violation” of #2). Furthermore, #1 and #2 are also interdependent. Relaxation without presence leads to sleep. Presence without relaxation leads to tension. So, I decided to do the 28-day solo focusing intensely on each of these principles. My solo passage began on July 23. I hiked into a spot along the Crestone Creek in North Crestone, CO, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In the days leading up to my solo, I spent time with John and two of his senior students, practicing certain meditation and energy techniques and working out the logistics of my time alone. John would come visit me once a week to discuss the evolution of my practice and would revise his recommendations based on my experience. He would also drop off the next week’s supply of food. Today is August 24. I came out three days ago. This was my experience:
Principle One: Cultivating Relaxation Each day, I would do two 40 minute self-guided relaxation meditations. This is essentially a process whereby you scan your body and consciously release tension starting with the skin, and then move deeper into the muscles, organs, shakras and energy meridians. As you practice these meditations, you become more skilled at identifying places in the body that are holding contraction and releasing them in increasingly more specific areas of the body. The practice was profound for me. In the beginning I had trouble both finding the tension and releasing it, but by the middle of week two I could do both anywhere in my body – and in very specific places like the piriformis muscle (which is a deep butt muscle) or the soaz – (a muscle that attaches from your pelvis to your you lower spine) Both are implicated in back pain. I noticed that as I released the contractions, energy (felt as warmth and/or tingling) would start to flow through my body in increasing more obvious ways. By week three, halfway through the practice, my whole body – from head to toe – would pulsate with energy, total bliss. I felt like I was bringing life to a body that had been cut off from itself for a really long time. And, significantly, from about day 8 through the end of the solo I had zero back pain. I haven’t had zero back pain for years, since at least before the Elat Chayyim merger – summer of 2006. The one exception to the no-back pain experience was one evening when John came to visit (at the end of week two). He came later than I expected and when he left at around 7:30 pm I still hadn’t prepared dinner. It looked like a storm was coming in and I kicked into Berman speed. I quickly made dinner, re-secured my tent, pumped more water, cleaned the dishes and jumped into bed. My back was throbbing, the classic low-back throb. Shit. So, I relaxed, bringing my awareness to my back and butt muscles and letting the energy flow into deeper and deeper places in my body. Opening the meridians. Releasing the chakras. Ten minutes later my whole body was pulsating. The next morning the back pain was completely gone. A Lesson: Speed creates contraction in me. Damn, I thrive on speed. That’s how I get so much stuff done in the word. Wow, now what I am going to do?
Principle Two: Cultivating Presence Every day I spent at total of two to four hours doing meditation practices. They included common forms like following your breath, focusing on specific objects in nature (rock, tree, stream), and open-eyed Dzogchen style practice. I also did several other more esoteric practices like sitting naked in front of a full-length mirror for an hour (yes, I had a full length mirror with me specifically for this practice), while meditating on the eyes. A bit of background on meditation and me. I was first introduced to meditation the year after I graduated from college. I spent about eight weeks at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin, meditating six hours a day. Like most people, I found the process incredibly challenging. My mind and emotions had no interest in taking a back seat to any type of greater awareness. I remember having a meeting with the head of the monastery, Norman Fisher, (now a regular Elat Chayyim teacher, coincidentally) during my last week there and telling him that I didn’t think my stay there did anything for me. I asked him how long it would be until I actually noticed something different – either on the cushion or after I got up. He couldn’t seem to give me a satisfying answer. So, I left. And then, I started noticing differences in the way I was in the world. I felt calmer. I felt less reactive. I was catching negative emotional responses before they were full-blown. I sometimes noticed my thoughts and emotions as simply thoughts and emotions as opposed to identifying them as “me”. This felt important. Over the next fifteen years I would meditate off and on, never really developing a regular practice. I also did a number of week long and twelve day silent retreats. At each retreat I had an experience similar to the one that I had at Green Gulch. The actual time on the cushion was challenging – a constant battle with my mind. At the same time, at some point towards the end of the retreat or even after it was over, I’d begin to notice a calmness, a sensitivity, and a clarity in my being that wasn’t there before. Sometimes I would even leave with new insight about something important in my life. So, meditation for me felt like medicine. I knew it worked but it wasn’t fun taking. With this history, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the meditation aspects of the solo. I was also open to the possibility of new breakthroughs. The first two and a half weeks were no different than my past meditation experiences. My mind was totally in control and no matter what style I used, the task at hand – namely being in the moment, in present awareness – seemed hopeless. I’d sit for at most 15 minutes, and then stop, because it felt like a waste of time. Then, on Tuesday night, August 11, as I was cleaning up after dinner I felt this surge of energy in my body – like the kind I felt during one of my better relaxation exercises. It felt a tingling in my chest, head and arms. I decided to meditate. 45 minutes later I noticed that I was still sitting. My attention was both on the energy I continued to feel in my body AND on some sort of awareness/presence/calmness that felt beyond my mind. I felt totally engaged by this awareness and new focus. Thoughts did arise during this time but they were way less frequent than before and they didn’t have the traction they had previously. The just seemed to float in and out fairly quickly, like waves on a very deep ocean of awareness. This felt like a breakthrough. I was happy and inspired! The next two days were miserable. It was as if my mind saw what was happening and said “not so fast”. I struggled unsuccessfully to find that place of awareness I had discovered on Tuesday. My thoughts and my emotions – especially some new and interesting emotional demons – had a noose around my consciousness. I’d sit for 10 minutes then stop. Then try again. Nothing. Disaster. When John came out for his weekly visit that Thursday afternoon I was a wreck. John told me that it is a common experience for the ego to “rebel” once you reach a certain meditative state. He seemed to think that this was happening to me. He also told me that my Tuesday night experience was a great sign. Keep meditating. That night, after dinner, I sat down to for my ten minutes of mind battle and the awareness came back. I sat for 30 minutes totally riveted by this open, calm, crystal clear presence. The feeling returned to my body as well – as a fluttering in my ears and chest, with occasional pulses that radiated down my body. Cool. Something was happening. And this time it didn’t go away. For the next ten days most of my meditations were like this. The thoughts and emotions were still there but they would come less often. As had happened on the previous Tuesday, they just seemed to float on a much larger more engaging sea of something else. I also noticed that my non-meditation time seemed different as well. When I would pump water, or prepare a meal, do yoga or my Qi Gong exercises, I felt much more present and aware of what was happening in the moment – both inside my body and outside. It was as if by slowing down the constant chattering of my mind, I could now notice things that were unavailable to me before. The days started to fly by. I wanted to spend more and more time in meditation, which seemed to have the impact of strengthening my awareness capacity. I increased my formal meditation time from 2-ish to 4-ish hours, walked more slowly, noticed more, ate more slowly. It was all just so engaging. I would awake each morning and before I knew it, the sun was setting. Not enough time in the day to notice the exquisiteness of every moment.
Principle Three: Cultivating Energy Each day I would spend 2-3 hours doing Qi Gong exercises. In the morning I’d do practices that build Qi. In the afternoon I’d focus on practices that circulated the Qi around the body and also released/opened places in the body where Qi was stuck. All of these practices were a continuation of the work I had started in Berkeley in the weeks before I left, with some new ones added by John in the days before the solo. The morning Qi building practices were the most engaging and most difficult. One practice, called the Tree, involves holding the arms out in front of you in various positions for about 35 minutes. On the first day of the solo I could hold each position for only about 30 seconds because my arms and back got tired and sore. By the final week I was holding each position for about 4 minutes. Supposedly, the more you do this practice, the more you use your Qi to do the work of lifting and holding and the less you use your muscles. I’m not sure what was going on for me but something was definitely shifting. The afternoon practice of circulating the Qi felt incredibly helpful. I often could feel the Qi moving in my body (though it was subtle) and definitely noticed places where I was releasing contraction in my muscles. My sense is that these exercises were largely responsible for the waves of energy I felt in my body both during relaxation exercises and during sitting meditation. Since emerging from the solo, I have noticed that I am walking differently, which I also believe is due to the Qi Gong work. I am moving in ways that reflect the key principles of Qi Gong movement, all of which are meant to help one move with the least amount of tension, using muscles that are absolutely necessary for the movement required. My arms seem to hang dramatically looser from my shoulder sockets due to the disappearance of tension in my shoulders. My chest and upper back have no noticeable tension and feel like they are sinking down towards my pelvis (another good sign). And, I still have no back pain when I walk, sit, do yoga or anything else that used to aggravate it.
Other Thoughts and Takeaways
Nature: My experience of the natural world was profound, and unlike any other time I have spent in nature – including the month-long NOLS course in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington, or my week long solo in the Sierras – both of which I did just after college. By the end of the second week I could literally feel the energy in the beings around me. I would sit by the creek and meditate on the water and feel its energy enter me as it flowed downstream. I did a 10-minute reciprocal breathing exercise with my favorite ponderosa pine each day. It involved visualizing an exchange of energy between the tree and me. After each session I needed 20 minutes in the hammock just to feel grounded again, as the energy from the exchange pulsed through my body, especially in my head. I developed relationships with the local fauna too. Each morning as I did my Qi Gong by the creek, the dragonflies would line up in front of me like soldiers. When a mosquito came close, the dragonflies would fly up and grab it in mid-air. I didn’t get a single mosquito bite in my last two weeks. The black and grey squirrels in the area also felt like comrades. Often they’d hang out on a low lying branch, staring at me for 10 or 15 minutes while they dismantled pine cones in search of nuts.
Emotion: I experienced lots of intense emotions while I was out there, many of which I hadn’t realized were present within me. Envy, lust, jealousy, self-pity/doubt were all present at various points. I cried every couple of days during the first two weeks, sometimes about deeply painful events in my life, events from the past, present and future. Other times I cried about random sad things – like Kurt Cobain dying. It was amazing how I could be deeply enmeshed in the unpleasant emotion I was feeling and at the same time feel incredible gratitude for the ability to feel it. In my life I generally don’t feel negative emotions often. So, these arisings felt like real blessings. By week four, in my blissed out meditative state, the intensity of these negative emotions waned considerably. I wonder if this means that I’ve actually moved beyond them, or that they are just buried more deeply and will come out again at some point when I feel as raw and alive as I did this past month.
Weight: I lost 20 pounds while I was out there. The interesting thing about this is that I had plenty of food and never felt hungry. I just ate less. I ate about 1/3 of the amount of food I brought with me. My sense is that part of the experience of slowing down, of being in an environment with no stress, of increasing my sensitivity to both the outside and inside world, was that I only ate when I was actually hungry (as opposed the various emotional and situational drivers that cause me to eat). I only ate what my body really needed. I also sense that immersion in wild nature and the Qi Gong practices were literally giving me energy – energy that would normally come from food. I feel amazing. My body feels fantastic at every level. My Health: It is clear to me that all of these practices – relaxation, meditation and Qi Gong – are beneficial to my health. There is no question they are helpful to my back, but I believe that they will make a difference to my over-all health as well. I recently had an appointment with a very well-known healer in the Bay Area. He told me that we get the first 30 years of our life on this earth for free but that after that we’ve got to work to maintain our health. That has certainly been my experience. (So, you 20-somethings out there, start developing good habits now so you don’t have to deal with pain in your thirties and beyond).
One final thought about my health and this experience. When I arrived to my campsite on the first day, I found the backbone of deer – eight vertebra and three ribs – lying on a flat rock next to what would become my ponderosa pine reciprocal-breathing partner. It felt like a good omen, like the land was prepared to help me deal with my back pain.
Stone Seats: I can’t describe this experience without mentioning the stone seats. The land I was on is part of the Crestone Sacred Land Trust, 210 acres that have been preserved for their spiritual significance – the only land in the country to be preserved for this reason. Throughout the property there are hundreds of stone meditation seats. According to John, these seats were created by non-humans in order to bring powerful earth and sky energies into the beings who sit on them. I know this sounds ridiculous but I sat in many of them during my time out there and I am telling you there is something there. I definitely felt something in most of the seats I sat in. Some seats delivered warmth that filled my whole body. Other seats simply energized me. One seat in particular sent waves of energy up my spine and into my head. It was incredibly cool. That’s all I’ll say about the rocks. Come to Crestone and check them out for yourself.
My Work Future: Ever since last fall I’ve had little enthusiasm for work – whether it was my job at Freedman or the question of what I would do next. When I decided in February that I would take a full year before starting another full-time job, the decision was as much a reflection of my lack of work related motivation as it was about my desire to do the things as I am describing in this email. Well, about three weeks into the solo, my enthusiasm came back. I probably spent 20 hours in total planning what I would do if I were to take any of about a ½ dozen jobs that are currently available in the Jewish and Eco worlds. (I clearly was NOT being present in these moments. Oh well.) I got completely fired up and wrote pages of thoughts, strategies, projects and goals for these positions. While I am still committed to taking off a full year, it felt great to feel the professional fire again, and am looking forward to the next phase of my professional life.
On most mornings of my solo, I spent time doing a version of Avodat Lev. It always included my favorites – Modeh Ani, Adamah v’Shamayim, and of course Hareini Mekabel Alai. It occurs to me now that what this solo experience did for me – besides giving me all the specific gifts that I’ve described above – relates to a part of Hareini Mekabel. It’s a part that I almost never focused on when I sang or taught the prayer. It’s the part about the connection. The word mitzvah, commandment, also implies connection. In this prayer we declare that we will take it upon ourselves to receive the connection of the Creator to love our neighbor as ourselves. But how do we do that? How do we receive a connection from the Creator? And, why do we even need to receive this connection in order to love our neighbors as ourselves? In other words, why not just say “I take it upon myself to love my neighbor as myself”? Why not just will it to be so? I think I experienced the answer to these questions while I was out there. As I opened and de-contracted, as I rested in the awareness of each moment, and as I connected to the energy within and around me, I felt my heart opening. I felt the energy of the tree and the stream as the same as the energy of Adam Berman. In the connection, I felt the opening. In the opening, I felt the love. I love you, and wish you the constant courage to trust the place in you that is beyond the ego – to guide you and to love you. Adam