I’ve talked before about living in Chicago. I love it, usually. But sometimes…it’s rough. Like a few weeks ago, when we had a particularly cold spell. Not just regular cold. I’m talking a polar vortex. Temps were below zero for several days. It was tough.
By the second day, our furnace was having trouble keeping up with the cold. While the temperature was set to 68 (that’s Farenheit; for our global audience, that’s 20 degrees Celsius), the house wasn’t getting warmer than about 66 Fahrenheit (19 Celsius). From a comfort perspective, its not such a big deal.
From an energy consumption standpoint, its a bigger deal — bad for the environment, bad for the heating bill. And then it dawned on me to check the air filter in the furnace. While I had changed it just a month earlier, upon inspection, I found it was really gray and dusty.
Clearly, our poor furnace had been working overtime. So I swapped it out for a pristine new filter. And guess what? The temperature went to 68. In fact, it got warm enough in the house that the thermostat clicked off and the system rested for a while — something it hadn’t done in two days.
This isn’t a home improvement show, so why am I talking about my furnace and its air filter? In this case, I think the metaphor kind of explains itself: We all have to check our air flow — both the actual air that’s flowing into our lungs and out our mouths, and the more conceptual “air” of life.
When things aren’t flowing, we wind up working extra hard — our breathing is harder, our emotions can feel harder, life is harder. I can sum it up in three words: flow is good.
Something else happened during the polar vortex that also proved instructive. I got in the car after a dusting of snow had fallen. Again, totally normal in Chicago. It was a light, powdery snow — the kind that comes right off when you close the car door.
So I did what I always do and rolled down the passenger window to clear off the snow. But this time, the window wouldn’t come back up. Honestly, in my entire midwestern life, I can’t remember this ever happening before.
I pushed the window button harder, and of course, nothing. I got out and tried to yank the window up. Bupkus. So then, of course, I googled it.
According to the internet, it’s possible that a piece of snow or ice had gotten in there and was blocking the window from coming back up. But I was freezing. I needed to roll up that window. I needed the blockage to be gone. How?
I took a breath and thought. It occurred to me that the ice just needed to melt. In order for that to happen, I needed the car to be warm. And in order for that to happen, I needed to find a heated indoor garage. The car would warm up, the snow would melt, and the window would close.
I drove around for a little bit and found a garage in the basement of an office building. I left it there, went to get a latte, and an hour later that’s exactly what happened. Melted snow, working window, crisis averted.
This isn’t an auto repair show either (and again, as probably surprises no one, I would be the wrong host for that show), so why am I talking about this issue with my car?
Again, I think the metaphor is almost laughably clear: Maybe this resonates with you, but when I get stuck, my first impulse can often be a forceful one. Just push that friggin window button harder! And if that doesn’t work, get out there and yank the window into place.
But life often has other plans, and those hard-edged solutions don’t necessarily work. Plus, in my experience, they often emerge from some hard-edged emotions that are driven by anxiety more than wisdom.
Much of the time, we need to think differently, more out of the box, and look for solutions that are less about using our force and more about understanding our environment — solutions that might take a little longer but are ultimately easier.
If I were to sum up this story in three words, it would be: Trust the process. My Philly and/or basketball friends might know what I’m talking about.
In one way or another, we’ve been talking about flow for weeks now on this podcast. It’s what I mean by saying the Exodus from Egypt isn’t just an historical event, but something that’s available to us all the time.
When we get tight, when our breathing gets constricted, when our hearts grow hard–things stop flowing. The goal of so much of Judaism and so many of the practices we teach on this podcast are about opening all of that up — cleaning out our filter so that the air, our emotions, our thoughts, and lives, can flow with less resistance, more efficiency, greater ease, greater peace. That’s the first lesson.
The second lesson is not to be like Pharaoh — don’t try to force things to happen, but instead, ease up on our grip, trust the process, and allow things to unfold.
In this case, that lesson is beautifully illustrated in a quote-unquote “smaller” story in the Torah portion of Yitro, when the title character — Moses’s father-in-law, Yitro, or Jethro — notices that Moses is working crazy hard to lead the Israelites.
He’s up all day and night listening to their problems, judging their cases, helping them resolve disputes. When Jethro asks him why, Moses says it’s because the people need him — and, implicitly, only he can do it.
But Jethro tells him, in so many words, “Dude, this is not sustainable. Make a better system.” For good reason, he’s worried his son-in-law is going to suffer a blockage from all the stress — and that won’t be good for anyone.
So Jethro suggests Moses lighten up his grip. He tells him to find people that he can trust and empower them — share the burden. He doesn’t need to keep pressing the button harder and harder, he doesn’t need to try to yank up the window.
He doesn’t have to take it all on himself. He needs to listen to his own body and create a process he can trust. If he does that, he’s got a much better chance of avoiding a frozen, broken window.
Here’s a practice that can help you feel these lessons in your body. It involves use of your hands, so please make sure you’re in a place where you don’t need to be holding onto or concentrating on anything else. It’s a very simple lesson, but a powerful one.
With your dominant hand, make a fist, as tight as you can. Really ball it up. Notice how it feels. You might feel strong, powerful. You probably feel tension in your hand, your wrist, your forearm.
Notice if there’s tension even further. What happens with your biceps and triceps, your shoulder? Does that tension show up anyplace else in your body? What happens to your breathing when you hold that fist?
Now, relax your fist. Open up your palm. Let your wrist fall a bit — not limp, but not tight and stress-filled. Notice how that feels. How does it affect your forearm, your shoulder, the rest of your body. Maybe try wiggling your fingers if you can.
How does that feel? How’s your breathing? You might notice the circulation coming back to your hand. You probably sense the freedom in this gesture, because your fingers can move now. How does that openness in your hand affect how you feel emotionally?
You might feel a little more vulnerable — after all, you can’t hit someone as well this way — but also, maybe, a little more secure, because you’re calmer, wiser, and have more options available to you.
The Torah describes God as having liberated the Israelites with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” I like to think that’s exactly what this practice is about: helping us realize that our mighty hand actually can be our outstretched arm.
So this week, when you’re dealing with an uncooperative furnace filter or an icy window, or when you’re in the middle of a situation with a friend, a roommate, a loved one, or any sticky problem — maybe try doing this practice to remind you of the power of letting go a little, letting it flow a little, trusting yourself and trusting the process.
Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.