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A Precious Human Life

An Agnostic Finds a Spiritual Ritual.

Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam
Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam

As a child I was deeply religious, drawn to the rituals and customs of Judaism, especially to the stories. Like many of my post WW II generation, born into suburbs where social lives were often centered in houses of worship, I became disillusioned when I saw the “Babbitt” hypocrisies. The choir soprano jealously kept other women out so that she was the star. The Sisterhood chair was controlling everyone and everything. My own father who served on the temple board took us out for lobster dinners before Friday night services and never made it through a sermon without falling asleep. Despite going to Sunday School, being confirmed at sixteen, and attending religious high school where we studied with the brilliant Rabbi Harold I. Saperstein, I saw the patriarchal god as a fiction intended to organize and control societies before there were functioning governments. I became a non-believer.

I lost interest in everything but the rituals and the old melodies. I even attended services when I lived in Mill Valley, California, conducted by Rabbi Nathan and Cantor Joseph Segal, brothers descended from generations of rabbis, gifted musicians, and dear friends who found all of the joy in Judaism, not just the suffering. After I had a child, raising her in a mostly Christian community, I understood that I had to define for her what it meant to be a Jew rather than have her absorb that identity from others who weren’t. I hosted elaborate dinners for Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, and Passover Seders for a crowd of mostly non-Jewish, non-believers. One Catholic child asked: Is this the holiday when we dip the apples or open the door for Elijah?

Eight years ago I was going through a crisis in my career, about to resign from the job I loved, because of funding problems. I was in San Francisco staying with my dear friend Mary, herself a lapsed Catholic but a spiritual woman and counselor, days before the upcoming board meeting when I would make this announcement. I was nervous. I was stressed. I was up every hour during the night, going to the bathroom, as if my entire body was trying to expel my anxiety. Hanging across from the toilet was a prayer from the Dalai Lama. Every hour on the hour as I sat across from that prayer, I read it until its meaning finally pierced through my inhibitions.

The next morning Mary and I drove up into Northern Marin County to a Buddhist shop where I purchased a textile copy of that prayer. 

Every morning reading it is an essential part of my morning ritual. In caregiving a husband in decline, in caring about the state of democracy and equality in our nation, in fearing that our planet is angry at our failure to care, this prayer awakens in me a desire to keep focused. 

I have never memorized this prayer. I recite it out loud. I share it with you.

A Precious Human Life by the XIVth Dalai Lama

Every day,

Think as you wake up

Today I am fortunate

To have woken up.

I am alive,

I have a precious human life.

I am not going to waste it

I am going to use all my energies to develop myself,

To expand my heart out to others,

To achieve enlightenment for

The benefit for all beings.

I am going to have

Kind thoughts towards others.

I am not going to get angry,

Or think badly about others.

I am going to benefit others

As much as I can.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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