At my wedding many years ago, my dear friend Rabbi Mychal Copeland shared a Rabbi Nachman teaching on ḥedva (joy) and eḥad(one). Playing with the linguistic connection between the two words, she spoke of the joy that comes from looking underneath the surface — of the flowers, clothes and music at a wedding for example— to the non-material connection with each other and with the Source that animates everything. Going beneath and beyond the material, hitpashtut hagashmiut, has always been central to my spirituality. Spirit Rock Meditation Center is one of my happy places. On meditation retreat I have experienced the bliss of the softening of ego boundaries that may result from the hard work of rigorous practice. As the ancient rabbis in the Talmud (Masekhet Ta’anit) suggest, we may experience a similar sense of joy on Yom Kippur, a day of renewal and fresh insights hopefully brought about by dedicated preparation and courageous self-examination.
But in the past few years, I’ve found that being with “what is” as we do in mindfulness practice has been insufficient in sustaining my sense of joy and equanimity. During these pandemic years, when I might otherwise have been immobilized by fear, the Jewish Studio Process and the invitation to cultivate imagination and play through artmaking has sustained me as much as meditation. In the Jewish Studio Process, there are no rules or guidelines about what materials or techniques to use in making art. The invitation is to put aside our judgments, plans, and interpretations and simply begin by adding marks to the page and following pleasure. Joy is not only the result of practice, but serves as the cloud or fire to guide our way in unfamiliar terrain. In the bewildering wilderness of this practice, I inevitably receive something new.
Through this process of artmaking, I have learned to find new energy and insights by engaging with materiality- with beauty, color, and variety- rather than only in looking underneath it. Art therapist and pioneer in the creative process movement, Pat Allen, who developed the Open Studio Process, writes of this practice: “Play is restorative in that it allows us to drop our edges and boundaries and attain the primordial sense of oneness. What art alone can do is allow us to become one with an infinite range of possibilities. We can imagine and therefore create what never was.” Outside, surrounded by the sukkah’s permeable walls and the multiplicity of nature, we are open to hearing the Torah anew, and to welcoming what the new year might bring. The Sefat Emet writes of the Water- Drawing Festival that was central to Sukkot in ancient times: “For it is from there, from joy, that we draw the holy spirit. Joy is the vessel with which we draw the living waters, the holy spirit… The light of the entire year depends upon these seven days [of Sukkot]. And the vessel through which we receive that light is joy.” Through creativity and artmaking, I’ve learned that joy, play, imagination, and ease can open us to receive illumination and insight, not only during the days of Sukkot that are called “the Time of our Joy,” but throughout the year.