I have always been a goal-oriented person. Perhaps you’re like this too. When I have to get somewhere, I walk at a brisk pace. When I take a road trip, I usually take the fastest route. When I wanted to earn a merit badge, or even a degree, my attention was on fulfilling the requirements in order to achieve the thing at the end.
You may remember that, earlier in life, I was an orchestra conductor. Unfortunately, I found that this goal-orientation was true in my conducting, too. I would focus more on the idea of having performed the piece than on actually being in the performance as I was doing it. “Great, we’re done with Beethoven’s Fifth!” That was kind of the vibe.
But then, well… something changed — at least a little. At age 21 I was leading a performance of the Brahms First Serenade. The third movement of that piece is an adagio — a slow movement. The composer doesn’t tell us exactly how fast to take it, but adagio means slower than a walking pace — so, slow. Most recordings of this movement come in at 11 to 13 minutes.
For some reason, that fall, I decided I was going to really slow this sucker down. I was in the midst of my first really serious relationship–young love. I had gone through my first major spiritual identity crisis. I was… growing up, I guess. And somehow I got inspired to let the music linger and slow it way, way down.
In case it wasn’t clear to you, the two clips are the exact same music, but performed at different paces. Over the course of the whole piece, that difference in tempo means that the first recording clocks in at just over 11 minutes, while the second takes over 17 — a full six minutes longer, for the very same piece of music.
It’s like the difference between taking a road trip traveling 80 miles per hour on the interstate and doing 50 on country roads. One recording feels like it’s about getting through; the other feels like it’s about lingering in.
Mindfulness practice is about being aware and present in this moment. Lingering — staying present in the moment and not rushing right through it — comes from the same place. And lingering is our theme for this episode, which is devoted to the final holiday in our summer-fall cycle. That holiday is called Shemini Atzeret, and it’s one a lot of people have never heard of.
(I remember, as a kid in public school, telling my teachers that I would be out yet again for a Jewish holiday. I’d tell them it was Shemini Atzeret and they were like, ‘You’re joking, right?’ No joke, it’s for real.)
And the essence of Shemini Atzeret is actually… nothing. Well, not nothing — lingering. After the shofar of Rosh Hashanah and the fasting of Yom Kippur and the sukkah and the lulav of Sukkot, we come to this one last day and–there’s no specific thing we’re supposed to do.
No shofar to blow, no sukkah to sit in, no lulav to shake. Just one more day — to be. The rabbis of the Talmud imagined that Shemini Atzeret was God’s way of saying to us, “We’ve had such an amazing visit the last three weeks–just… stay one more day with me.” Extend the moment. Linger a bit.
Now, of course, it’s not as though the holiday ends and that’s it — we have no more relationship with the Holy One. This entire show is about how we can tap into that presence all the time — not just on holidays. But holidays create special moments when we might go deeper or further, special times when our connections are particularly alive and available. They offer us practices we can use at other times during the year.
So the practice that stems from Shemini Atzeret is a practice of lingering. You can try this in any number of ways. In eating, see if you can slow things down a bit. Maybe make an intention to set down your utensils between bites. Notice your food — its smell, its color, its textures, its tastes. Focus on it. Linger with it for a minute.
Or in movement: If you’re like me and a fast walker or a little too aggressive driving–see if you can take it down a notch. Try slowing your pace just a tad — and arriving a minute later. Try accelerating more slowly — take a few more seconds to get from 0 to 60. Notice how that feels. Notice what lingering, what moving a little slower, feels like.
Or take a relationship — perhaps with a roommate or a close friend or an intimate partner. Are there aspects of your relationship where you feel like you’re going through the motions, just getting from point A to point B? What if you gave yourself the gift of just an extra minute to say or write or do something loving? Could you linger just a little longer, and not rush off to wherever it is you think you need to go?
I don’t have to tell you that the world we live in moves at an incredible clip. Shemini Atzeret — all of these holidays, all of our Jewish mindfulness practices — are here to help us slow down a bit, linger, and experience our aliveness again. When we pause to notice and express gratitude — for our food, for our bodies, for a beautiful sunset or the care and companionship of a loved one — taking that extra little bit of time is, well for me anyway, what life is all about.
Here at the end of our holiday season, heading into a new year, I want to linger in it just a little bit more — and take that lingering practice with me into the days and weeks to come.
Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll write and let me know how your lingering — or any of the practices we’ve talked about on this show–are going for you. Drop me a line at Josh@JewishUnpacked.com.