Coming Home to the Body on the Path of Teshuvah
Just over ten years ago, I experienced an intense mental setback that resulted in me withdrawing from the university I attended in order to care for myself. I remember that September because it struck me that it was the first head of the school year at that point in my life where the future was a completely clean slate for me. There were no classes assigned to me. No new semester. No job prospects or work schedule to follow. It was for both better and worse, the freest time in my life at that point.
And there within me still, a war was taking place. The logical side of me was free-falling into complete oblivion. My crisis had overridden every expectation, hierarchy, and process that side of my mind depended on for ordered perception of the world. Was I succeeding at life (breaking myself so free)? Or had I completely fallen apart beyond repair? The desire-driven side of me countered with its own newfound strength. The emptiness existed for me to fill with something new. Now was the opportunity to set things right, to reset, and to start over on my own terms.
In some ways I think I am still getting the two sides of my head to work together. Neither extreme has proved capable of governing my life for too long. Life is best in balance.
There was so much that I learned about myself though during those early post-crisis years. It was, in the greatest sense, a transformative reorientation of what I am accomplishing with this lifetime.
What’s Teshuvah Got to Do With It?
Unrealized by me at the time, Judaism offers us a lot of great traditions around this same process and, coincidentally, during the same time of year. From the month of Elul (Virgo) through Tishrei (Libra), we’re invited to right our wrongs, re-balance the cosmic scales, and set our life back in the good orderly direction it ought to be following. This process is called teshuvah, which means “return.”
For some people, it might be helpful to think of that process as a return from sin to somewhere more familiar. In Judaism, sin is where we miss the mark. So, another helpful way to think of it might be that we’re centering ourselves behind the bow again, returning to aim again at our target.
Where do we aim? Some students of A Course in Miracles like to find the answer by breaking down the word atonement into its constituent parts: at-one-ment. We’re aiming towards oneness–within ourselves, in relation to one another, in relation to creation, and in relation to G-d.
For Kabbalists, teshuvah is literally the return of the letter Hey. In the sin of our separation from G-d, the very name of G-d has fractured, and our practice of teshuvah returns us to a state of perfect awe where everything is again aligned. That last Hey in G-d’s name represents the sefirah of Malkuth, essentially our perception of G-d’s presence in the physical universe, but also the very physical acts of repentance.
Teshuvah asks of us to stop missing the mark, to feel the emotional longing that occurs when we err, to verbally acknowledge our work, and to enact a plan to make changes, knowing that the real test will be the next opportunity we have to make the same mistake again. In the process of teshuvah we learn the sanctity G-d has embedded in these acts.
The Talmud actually tells us that atonement was one of the first things G-d created (even before creation itself). It’s that central to the mechanics of our universe. Like the seasonal cycles that return us to this process every year, our lifetime is set on this cycle of learning, processing, and growing. That’s the irony to Rabbi Eliezer’s instruction in the Talmud to “Repent one day before your death.”
The nature of this experience we call life is to explore and grow. We are always repenting and evolving. Life is teshuvah. Not even the tzaddikim can do one without the other.
Coming Home to the Body
This season, I am reflecting on G-d’s creation of mankind. The Bible teaches us that life is sacred. The human body is even created in the image of G-d. Our physical self-care and self-actualization is a holy obligation, and a central part of that work is learning to decline the things we ought not accept into ourselves. Likewise, we are intended to be fruitful, and the body is designed with a million ways to realize that intention even when parenting is not part of our individual futures.
For me, a gulf has emerged between this sacredness of creation and the society in which we are living. To some degree, this is something I picked up on intuitively during the years around that mental setback I mentioned before, yet I lacked the clarity and direction to disentangle it all at the time.
Today, many aspects of the gulf are quite clear.
- We are living through an actual plague whose outcome is connected to the ways we nourish and move our bodies. We respond with stay-at-home orders and free doughnuts.
- Rather than avoiding drug-dealers, we have become so desensitized to the fatalities and compounding malpractice of modern medicine that to even question what ethics guide them is to set yourself apart from the crowd, and in some areas, society itself.
- We have created a society where dangerous chemical toxins are in nearly everything and where the hormonal alteration of the natural body is laughed off, ignored, or even celebrated.
- We have created a society where “truth” is a function of politics, singular relative to power, and closed to debate except for the courageous willing to face down what amounts to social exile.
This is not the way we are meant to live. It’s not the way we ought to respect our bodies. It’s not the way we ought to respect our minds and the different perspectives we each bring to life together. We are meant to be as one, and also to be the many who are as one. We are meant to engage critically with life, society, and each other, yet to also act as one body together. The tefillin which Jewish men wrap around their arms and foreheads each morning mirror the paradox of this simultaneous oneness and plurality.
I see an opportunity for teshuvah here, an opportunity to return behind the bow and to aim again towards something better. When I first started Free to Live Healthy, I intended it primarily as a journal to chart my own way along this path, reclaiming my health and life from a society that does not live up to Biblical values. For me, alignment within the body is alignment with Torah is alignment with G-d….
Today I can see how this blog itself is part of the teshuvah in my journey. I have got to come home again. Come home to the body, to scripture, to oneness, and to G-d. I know there are so many of us out there–my work has already brought so many of us together. My hope in writing here is to make the way a little clearer for those as lost as I have been before, and to show one path that might take others a bit further along the way we are each returning home to this body G-d has created.
Years ago I learned a beautifully simple meditation from the Plum Village teachers, and it seems fitting to close with it here:
“Breathing in, I am aware of the body.
Breathing out, I am arriving at home.”