God On My Mind
David Foster Wallace began his address to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005 with a parable about fish. He told the students:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the [heck] is water?”
The idea, Wallace told the students, is that sometimes the most obvious realities can be the most difficult to identify. For these young fish, water is their context, literally, or perhaps metaphorically, the air they breathe. So while they had certainly experienced water, they didn’t recognize it as “water.” It was so present in their lives that it may as well have been completely absent. As such, one wonders if they even knew “water” at all.
Sometimes I wonder if we are like those young fish, but instead of struggling to see water, we struggle to see God.
This challenge begins with trying to articulate what discovering God in our daily living actually means, as the limitations of language make describing the extraordinary seem impossible. One of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s seminal essays, “Seeds,” is especially helpful in that regard. He writes that we see God through:
the divinity revealed in the world, in the world in all its beauty and splendor: in every spirit and soul; in every animal and insect; in every plant and flower; in every nation and state; in the sea and its waves; in the canopy of the clouds and in the magnificent luminaries; in the talents of discourse; in the ideas of writers; in the imagination of every poet and in the logic of every thinker; in the feeling of every sensation and in the storm of courage of every hero.
Essentially, he says, one can see God through anything. The Kabbalah teaches that the world and life is an expression of God, which means that from the mundanity of walking to the spirituality of tefillah (prayer), everything has its own doorway to encounter the Divine. But that’s precisely the challenge we face as young fish: Life and our world can be so easily taken for granted that we find ourselves asking, “Who the heck is God?”
When I watch the sun tuck its head beneath the violet horizon at sunset, or lift my voice to sing during a Friday night’s Kabbalat Shabbat, I feel something ineffable. But life has only so many sunset moments. The routine of heading to work, studying for exams and attending to our many obligations can make our lives feel anything but spiritual. Our focus on the mundane often shifts our minds into autopilot, and everything can easily coalesce into one big ocean we call “life.”
I used to think that because things always felt this way, they were meant to be that way. Now, however, I think differently.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” When I think about Wallace’s idea of those fish, Rabbi Heschel’s words read more powerfully.
If we want to see God in life, then we need to open our eyes. The shift for those young fish began when their flow was changed; the overwhelmingly obvious was pointed out. In that vein, we can take practical steps to change our own flow and instill our lives with greater God-consciousness. I can think of three suggestions.
First, we can live more intentionally. In Harvard Health Publishing, Matthew Solan wrote about the benefits of mindfulness. His three suggested exercises, meditation, open awareness and body awareness, allow us to align body and mind to achieve greater presence in our day. Berachot (blessings) accomplish something similar. When we focus on ourselves and our actions, we can feel more wholesome and aware of God.
Second, we can go to where we feel great. For myself, I feel more spiritual in areas with beautiful nature, so I try my best to join my friends on Friday mornings at Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. Purposefully placing myself where I know I can feel closer to God allows me to do just that without waiting for the all too rare pockets of opportunity.
Third, we can build more personal relationships with God. Sometimes, God can feel more like an abstract “What” than a personal “Who.” To avoid this, I almost always refer to God as “Hashem,” since names, as Joyce Russel says in the Washington Post, are powerful tools for connection. (While “Hashem” literally means “the name,” it is still more intimate than the conceptual word “God.”) Additionally, I try to regularly practice Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s meditation of hitbodedut, which acts as a free-flowing “conversation” with God.
There are many ways to “invite” God into our lives, and doing so doesn’t need to be beyond our control. We are constantly immersed in the ocean of God, and we shouldn’t have to wait for some older fellow to swim by and remind us of His presence. All we need to do to keep God on our minds is begin picking up our heads.