By Sharon Rosen Leib
The time of repentance is upon us. Time to enumerate all our misdeeds, ranging from failing to act when taking action was the right thing to do (e.g., being kind to strangers, giving generously to worthy causes, feeding the hungry), to overreacting to minor offenses (e.g., badmouthing your parents for being too intrusive, yelling at your kid for spilling milk, chewing out your spouse for forgetting to take out the trash). Contemplating all this bad behavior evokes sorrow and regret.
Yet the High Holy Days include tashlich. The time when we congregate on the beach, pray for forgiveness, grab a fistful of breadcrumbs (symbolizing our sins), and toss them into the waves. Some of us expand on the breadcrumb theme by throwing ourselves into the cool, salty swells for some bodysurfing or boogie boarding. We allow ourselves to have fun during the High Holy Days. This reminds us that even during the most serious of times we need a little playtime, a sense of shared pleasure to give ourselves a break.
I gave myself a break (from a year of intense caregiving) last month when I attended a writing workshop/retreat at Esalen in Big Sur. Yes, Esalen, the apex of 1960s counter-culture experimentation, famed for its bathing-suit-optional natural hot springs and devotion to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called “the human potential.” When I told my brother I was going to Esalen, he joked, “Take a few bong hits for me while you’re there.”
A preppy, 20-something Esalen attendee did ask me on the sly, “Do you smoke? Do you know where I could find some pot?”
“Sorry, no,” I said. And that was the closest I got to any illegal substance there.
In the 21st century, Esalen has morphed into a well-respected center “for personal and social transformation” — more New Age than psychedelic. The possession or use of illegal drugs is now “strictly prohibited.”
Believe me, at Esalen you don’t need drugs or alcohol to relax and enjoy. With the stunning, jagged Big Sur bluffs knifing into the blue Pacific before you and the pine and redwood studded Santa Lucia Mountains rising just behind you, the place itself provides a natural high.
I had the most liberating, uninhibited fun I’d had in ages in an 8 a.m. class called “Dance Awake.” JJ, the wiry, goateed instructor, had 40 of us dancing to an upbeat mix-tape of pop songs “in a Zen boogie of mindful movement meditation.” This meant a 45-minute aerobic workout free-dancing in a room with a group of relative strangers. At the end of class, JJ piled a stack of cushions in the center of the room and invited us to fall onto them. We lay down in concentric circles of sweaty humanity and laughed together. I felt like I was back in kindergarten playing with new friends.
Stripping my clothes off to soak in Esalen’s curative natural hot springs prior to a massage made me shy and self-conscious. But after the angelic, wispy redhead Daphne massaged away my tension and sang me a magical lullaby at the massage’s end, I felt innocently childlike and uninhibited.
My Esalen experience made me think. Why do we parents abandon our inner children? Do we sacrifice our natural playfulness on the altar of parent and adulthood? Must we really be so uptight and serious? Wouldn’t it be great if we showed our kids we’re capable of having fun without using alcohol or drugs? Why will our kids ever want to grow up and become parents if they never see us having fun?
Psychologist and Jewish parent educator Wendy Mogel provides some answers in her book “The Blessing of a B Minus.”
“As a parent, you have a heightened obligation to experience pleasure because, by watching you, your children will learn the value of delight and sensuality,” she writes. Sensual delights confer the additional benefit of providing emotional fuel for parents, enabling us to be refreshed and patient when our children try our nerves. Mogel needn’t convince me of the importance of sensual delights. I plan on having fun and refueling at Esalen once a year.
“Seeking pleasure and happiness in this world…is a central Jewish commandment,” Mogel asserts. She explains that in Judaism, delight is directly and consistently linked to holiness. I’m keeping this Judaic principle firmly in mind as I atone for my failings on Yom Kippur. For all the personal foibles we take into account this time of year, we’re obligated to balance the heavy weight of our flaws with some light-hearted future fun.