New Year’s Eve has always been an overwhelming occasion for me. The emphasis, it seems, is on the exact moment of transition. We sit glued to the television, watching the ball drop in Times Square, counting 10, 9, 8… Those last few seconds are both eternal and all too short. Will the ball make it all the way down to the bottom this year? Will we pass across the threshold? Or will this be the year we get stuck? Will the world disappear at the stroke of midnight?
So much rests on that tiny moment, that instant when one year ends and another begins. Many spiritual traditions have practices like this, “rehearsal for death” practices, so to speak. In fact, I think that New Year’s Eve, as we practice it in the US, is very similar to Yom Kippur, to Ne’ilah specifically. There is the moment, the closing of the gates… we build up to it, we anticipate it, we fear it — and then ready or not, it passes. Sometimes I despise this type of practice. So much pressure! I hate the feeling of having only one chance, and then blowing it. In a way, this type of ritual is entirely counter to the practice of meditation. Meditation is all about flow, about moving through an infinity of moments and watching as things come and go. It’s not about placing expectations on one specific moment that has been designated as “the” important moment.
On the other hand, I think “rehearsal for death” practices are the very essence of meditation. Yes, it is easy to go into a frenzy of anticipation, and then regret, when focusing on one inevitable, irrevocable moment. However, this type of practice teaches us that none of that anxiety helps. No matter how hard we “try” to get the moment right, we can never hold onto it forever — it passes, no matter what we do. I always return to the title of Alan Lew’s (z”l) book about the Days of Awe: This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. That is the nature of the present moment — it is impossible to be prepared for it, because it is always passing. To “prepare” is to look toward the future, or in other words, to fail to be present. Once this is understood, it becomes possible to enter into a kind of surrender. “Bring it on,” we say. “I’m here waiting, just as I am.”
That is the teaching of New Year’s Eve, I think, and of other “rehearsal for death” practices. They remind us, sometimes infuriatingly, that we can never be ready for the present moment. As the adage goes, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” If we don’t stop trying to get ready for the moment, and start living in the moment, we will miss all the moments we have. New Year’s Eve is about watching the seconds tick by, and remembering how precious every one of those seconds is — no matter how imperfect, how messy, how broken.
Also, I think New Year’s Eve is a reminder of the paradoxical nature of cycles. Meditation reminds us that nothing lasts. Every ending is a beginning, and every beginning, an ending. But for there to be cycles, there must be moments of transition, of impossible passage from a state to its opposite and vice versa. For me this year, the transition felt illogical. It was December, I was finishing up my year, I was feeling the weight of completion. (One year since college graduation. One year since moving to New York.) And yet, one infinitely brief moment passed, and suddenly I was in January, looking ahead at a fresh year, light and empty with promise. How could I be expected to go from end to beginning, from heavy to light in the space of an instant? Maybe the transition would have been easier had I attended or created a New Year’s ritual. However, I think that there is a lesson in that naked moment between opposites. Like the moment when an exhale turns into an inhale, there is a moment where opposites both exist simultaneously — or where nothing exists at all. Nothing but the present moment, shining, absolute.
Ri J. Turner is the Operations Manager of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality. Ze is a frequent contributer to Jewish Mosaic’s Torah Queeries, as well as a student in the Kohenet Jewish Priestess program taught by Jill Hammer, Holly Taya Shere, and Shoshana Jedwab.
The views expressed by guestbloggers do not necessarily reflect the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn’s positions, interests, strategies or opinions. But that’s what keeps it interesting.
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