As the holiday season comes around again, I have been thinking about centering.
As a part-time potter, I spent this past summer with my hands covered with beautiful white porcelain clay. It is smooth, pure and notoriously finicky. Any wheel-thrown object begins with the challenge of centering the clay on the wheel. This may sound and look simple, but it is not. If the wheel is going too fast, the clay will fly off the wheel. If the wheel is too slow, the clay can torque and kink and no amount of pressure will get it centered again.
The muscle memory of where my hands should be and how much pressure to apply is critical. But even more important is my mental state. If I am anxious or distracted or angry, the clay will refuse to be centered. As one potter said: “Try to bully the clay with strength, not stillness, and it turns into a guided missile rather than a bowl.” Sometimes there are days when I am so distracted or stressed that I have to step away from the clay altogether. Other days I close my eyes and just feel the clay into center.
So in order to center I have to bring myself into center. In this moment in history, centering is a very hard project. The phone pings, emails come in, ads for this and that. Too much to do, too much to read, too much to care about, too much to be angry about, too much distraction. All the “too much” makes it hard to find the center. If I can’t find the center then it is too hard to do the creative work of making the bowl – or too hard pray in any meaningful way – not to mention creating a thoughtful, intentional life. I can just go round and round and then spin out of control.
But when I do get the clay to center, I take a breath and decide upon a form. A moment of choice. Rabbi Abraham Twerski said that teshuva is about learning to take a breath before acting. In that moment of breath we choose our next act. A bowl, pitcher or plate? Be kinder? Listen before reacting? Forgive? As Mary Oliver asked in her poem The Summer Day: “What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”
Once centered we can begin to be creative, in imitation of God. We can really be alive. As MC Richards says in her book Centering, “”The centering experience is an experience in the soul, whether we get it primarily through hands or eyes or imagination, and this is its compelling strategy. When we are on center, we experience reality in depth rather than in partition.”(p. 53)
My favorite metaphor of the Yamim Noraim, you won’t be surprised to hear, reads:
כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר
בִּרְצוֹתוֹ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר
כֵּן אֲנַחְנוּ בְיָדְךָ חֶסֶד נוֹצֵר
לַבְּרִית הַבֵּטוְאַל תֵּפֶן לַיֵּצֶר
Like clay in the potter’s hands
expanded or contracted at will
So are we in Your hand, Creator of kindness.
Look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser/evil inclination.
The paytan asserts that God has the power to form and shape us and our future. God is the Yotzer or Creator, fashioning us from clay. Just as we attempt to center ourselves and ignore our own inner critical voices we ask God to do the same in judging us. We hope that God filters out the noise, listening and looking at us truly. As God says in Bamidbar 14:20:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ סָלַ֖חְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶֽךָ׃ And the LORD said, “I pardon, as you have asked.”
The Yamim Noraim are a time to look for the center. Amidst the noise in our lives, we are asked to put everything aside and look inward and take stock of ourselves. What have we done with our one wild and precious life? How can we make it right? How, like God, can we do that with chessed – loving -kindness – both towards ourselves and other? May you be blessed with finding your center year, more often than not. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.