Promises

On Tuesday night, we will be returning to our true core. Throughout the tumultuous eras of our Jewish existence, anti-Semitic tormentors have accused us of many awful things. One of the most damaging and disturbing accusations was that Jews were deceitful, that they would promise something and then blithely refuse to honor their word. Such accusers would sometimes point to the prayer of Kol Nidrei – a short, solemn and haunting service at the start of Yom Kippur, in which the entire congregation collectively annuls any vows that they had made during that year – as evidence that the duplicitous Jews treat their promises as ephemeral and expendable. 

That the Kol Nidrei annulment only applies to promises undertaken towards God, not towards other people, is a fact that these slanderous accusers conveniently missed. Nonetheless, the question remains. Every Yom Kippur night, millions of Jews around the world make their way to their local shule, ready for a day of intense prayer, physical withdrawal and profound introspection. Puzzlingly, however, we begin the most introspective day of the entire Jewish calendar with a dry legal formula (albeit beautifully chanted), declaring all of our promises to be null and void. To be sure, there are historical reasons for this practice: for many centuries, countless Jews across the globe were forced to practice their Judaism in secret, and would have to begin their clandestine, dangerous Yom Kippur services by declaring that their public allegiance to other religions was false. This historical legacy alone is powerful enough to make us pause for thought. But in our day, where we live as proud, free Jews, under full protection of the law, what kind of public promises do we feel compelled to annul? 
The answer, sadly, is ‘too many’. Throughout our daily lives, we all swear implicit allegiance to a whole host of foreign ideas and concepts that do not correlate with who we truly are. We bow before the gods of financial success, social popularity, or physical perfection. Far too often, these allegiances push us to mistakenly prioritize the urgent over the important, the fashionable over the faithful, and the ephemeral over the eternal. Such loyalties envelope us in a robe of impeccable respectability but obscure the simple beauty of our true inner selves. 

Yom Kippur is the antidote to all of this. On Yom Kippur, we are ourselves. We eat no food, disconnect from technology, wear no makeup, attend no social events and dress in basic white. To achieve this purity, we must first disavow (even if only temporarily) all of our outside pressures and influences, stating clearly that our essence remains loyal to those elements of life which are non-negotiable: our values of faith, truth, justice and love. Kol Nidrei is a crucial step in this act of Teshuva, of returning to our untarnished essence. It is the moment where we stand exposed and vulnerable in front of God, taking stock of our choices and actions while asking Him to judge us favorably. This inner return to our true core is the what this holy day is about – and it is this that will, please God, secure us blessing in the year and a year of blessing. 

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Imperfection

What a powerful way to start the new year as we shared together in such a beautiful Rosh HaShana experience. Now is the time to carry this momentum forward as we consider the social genius of Yom Kippur which we will be living through this time next week. 

Imperfection is part and parcel of being human. In fact, an essential part of our experience is recognizing the extent to which we make mistakes. And perhaps most agonizing is the recognition and guilt of the mistakes we make in our dealings with other people. 

On the one hand, we are painfully aware of our own sensitivity. It is remarkable how easily we can be hurt or saddened by a nasty remark, cold shoulder or rejection of any kind. However, in our pride, we often struggle to admit to ourselves how profoundly hurt we have been by the actions of our friends and family. Instead of confronting and facing our feelings, we bury them deep inside. We are also acutely aware of the guilt we feel when in moments of weakness, frustration or fear we lash out in the same hurtful manner, causing similar grievance. This discomfort is often very difficult to face up to; sometimes we can spend years ignoring or maligning our friends or family, simply because we cannot admit to ourselves how deeply we have hurt them, nor express how sorry we truly are for having caused them pain. Our remorse paralyzes us to the extent that we find it almost impossible to apologize. It is indeed quite tragic that we social beings spend time either feeling angry and upset towards those who have hurt us or feeling guilt and torment towards those whom we have hurt. 

How can we attempt to overcome these blemishes and restore societal harmony? Judaism, with its uncanny perception of human nature, has come up with a brilliant response: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, we stand in shule and declare an elaborate list of our collective failures and transgressions. In other words, we proclaim that we are all guilty in the eyes of God. 

With human error declared, on Yom Kippur, as a universal truth, it now becomes significantly easier to face up to and admit our own personal infractions, however deeply entrenched or ignored. It is a day where we recognize our flaws, and confront them with courage and absolute integrity. Only once we achieve this self-recognition are we able to address our obligation to rectify the damage that we have wrought upon others. And through this process we chip away at the resentment and pain, slowly opening ourselves to the possibility of forgiving the mistakes of our fellow beings. It is a most cathartic day, one that offers hope for renewal and improvement for every person created in the image of God. 

Just imagine if this Jewish concept went global? Imagine a scenario in which the whole of humanity takes a full day out of their calendar, refuses to indulge in food or physical pleasure, and instead focuses upon sincerely forgiving and seeking forgiveness for any harm? It may seem inconceivable, yet it is possible that Yom Kippur – when entered into with the correct preparation and genuine sincerity – can provide a blueprint for achieving a permanent ceasefire in the battle between our individual selves and all of our fellow creatures. May we all merit such peace in our lives this Yom Kippur and always. 

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Rosh Hashana - The centrality of History 

If you were to stand at the base of a mighty mountain, at the front door of an extravagant palace, or an inch away from a sweeping tapestry, you might know that you were standing in the presence of something special, but you would fail to grasp its greatness. A single stone of the Kotel or a solitary chunk of rock at the base of Mount Everest can fail to impress. Retreat to a point at which you can take in the magnificence in its entirety and only then will you be able to truly appreciate what your eyes behold. 

On Rosh Hashana, we spend a great deal of time mentioning remembrance. Indeed, a centerpiece of the main prayer service is called Zichronot, or remembrances, during which we invoke many heroic deeds of our ancestors in the Bible (such as the righteousness of Noah, the self-sacrifice of Isaac and the ironclad faith of the Jews in the Desert). We beseech God to remember these great individuals - and in their merit, to remember us too. Like all compositions of prayer, these paragraphs are not addressed solely to God - they are equally written with the intention of impacting each of us. While we will never be able to fully comprehend the notion of God ‘remembering’, this focus on memory and on memories teaches us a crucial lesson about the underlying meaning of Jewish living. 

To be a Jew is to remember. To actively remember. Zachor. 

This principle constitutes the essence of our existence and permeates throughout the contours of our calendar. Every Friday night we lift a glass of wine to remember that there is a Creator behind creation, every Seder Night we engage our senses to relive and remember the salvation from oppression of the Exodus, every Tisha B’av we remember and commemorate the tragedies of a long, painful history, and every Yom Ha’Atzmaut, we remember and celebrate our miraculous national resurrection. 

To be a Jew is to set aside time for intense and active remembrance - affording us an opportunity to reflect upon our history, our mission, and our lofty purpose in this world. As Jews, we must learn the art of contextualization - to orient our internal paradigms until we perceive ourselves not only as individuals (which is important in and of itself), but as an essential element of an enormous tapestry of breathtaking beauty and irreducible meaning. 

Rosh Hashana, as the first moment of the Jewish year, represents the opportunity to put this into action. This is the time to step back and contextualize. The ‘memories’ that we invoke in our prayers compel us to recalibrate, to take the time to remind ourselves to see beyond our own interests and understand our larger contexts as we create new memories. This process reminds us that we do not stand alone before God - rather, we are linked to vast networks that imbue our lives with purpose, significance and commitment. We remind ourselves that we are part of a global Jewish community that lives in a time of both obstacles and opportunity, and therefore we pray for the strength to overcome the challenges. We remind ourselves that we are part of the magnificent Jewish story, a narrative replete with heroines and heroes, whose faith and righteousness serve to guide our own decisions in the service of God and our people. We remind ourselves, finally, that we are part of humankind as a whole, whose peace and prosperity we yearn and pray for every day. 

Through remembering the greater context in which we live our lives, we give meaning to our existence that exceeds the fleeting pursuit of our own individual ends alone. This expanded consciousness and broadened perspective enables us to connect to something infinitely greater than ourselves. 

Next week, on Rosh Hashana, may we merit to truly grasp the greatness of our existence, to experience this deeper level of meaning throughout the upcoming year, and to spread our light throughout the entire world. 

Shana Tova Umetuka!

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Multitasking

In today’s world, the term ‘multi-tasking’ has become a misused word rather than a valued skill. What most of us are doing when we talk about multi-tasking is actually switching tasks. 

If you are having people over for lunch, you will have to consider multiple things; how many spaces you need, what food you will serve, when and where you will go shopping, etc. You have to focus on multiple tasks in order to achieve one overall objective. This is multi-tasking. 

Switching tasks on the other hand doesn’t have a common focus. Switching tasks, like checking Facebook while emailing your friend and sitting in front of other people having coffee, slows us down dramatically. 

Psychologist Megan Jones at the University of California, Berkeley, had author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang count from one to ten as quickly as possible. She then asked him to recite the alphabet from A to J. He did both in 1.5 seconds. Then, she asked him to alternate between numbers and letters – “one, A, two, B” and so on. The switching took the author 4.5 seconds – three times as long to complete. 

It is okay and even beneficial to multi-task when each task is part of the same overall objective. However, switching tasks, in today’s super busy environment, is never a good idea as we are ultimately taking 2 steps back in order to try and take one step forward.

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Time

How long do you think you could expect to live in the period of Enlightenment? Fifty years, maybe sixty?

Well, while definitely exciting times, the global life expectancy back then was only 29 years of age. I would have been seen as old relative to the average age, yet in the 21st century, I’m still considered to be quite young.

Less than a century ago, people died from a whole lot of basic injuries and sicknesses. Take for example the son of US president, Calvin Coolidge. In 1924, 16 year old Calvin Jr. died due to an infected blister from a game of tennis. 

Contrastingly, in this Post-Enlightenment time, our health and our life expectancies have flourished. When you think about achievements of some of the greats of those times, despite their young age, the question should be… What do we do with our time? 

If you add the fact that life was so much less efficient without things like cars, microwaves and emails, it’s even more mind boggling. But maybe we are using our efficient tools to make us less efficient. So much of our time has been filled with things that didn’t exist before, for example, watching TV and scrolling through social media. 

It has been on Counterpoint the last 2 weeks that I noticed how much this applies to the next generation. The quality relationships they built, deep ideas they discussed and meaningful moments they took advantage of in less than one week was more than they usually have in months and this is because they disconnected from some of these distractions to reconnect to themselves.

As we approach Rosh Hashana in less than a month and begin another year, we should be asking ourselves if we are not just using our extra years wisely, but the extra days, hours, minutes and even seconds...

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Tu B'Av

If the month of Av had a horoscope reading it would sound something like this: “buckle up – you’re headed for an emotional rollercoaster – a time when emotions run rampant.”

Just after we are left feeling fragile and lost from the sadness of Tisha B’Av, tonight we bring in Tu B’Av, which rolls around on the full moon of Av and things take a dramatic shift. The second half of Av turns into a celebration of love and connection – culminating in Tu Ba’av – the Jewish Love Day.

Jewish teachings say that in order to feel whole, we must know what it is to feel broken. Just as we smash the glass under the Chuppah to commemorate the destruction of the temple in our most joyous time of union, we learn that we cannot have light without reflecting on darkness. 

Only by acknowledging our individual flaws and vulnerabilities can we then begin to heal them. Tonight, lets come together under the full moon of Tu B’Av to bring more light and love into this world.

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Tisha B'Av

Concluding Tisha B’av today, many powerful emotions are evoked; like sadness, longing, despair, and - most poignantly - a deep sense of loss. However, I’d like to suggest another way of focusing as we move forward: this day should have awoken within us a deep sense of responsibility.

Why? Because we don’t live this way any more. Because we are fortunate enough to live in a free country, in a society that protects and defends us, close to friends and family who imbue our lives with joyous meaning. Jews today hardly experience starvation, destitution or lethal persecution, relative to the past. In general, our terrible past contrasts sharply with our comfortable present.

Therefore - we have a responsibility to celebrate our circumstances, to live lives full of rich experiences, spiritual beauty, and deep commitments. We have a responsibility to take advantage of all our resources and freedoms, to demonstrate that Jews don’t need persecution to be fully aware of their Jewishness. We have a responsibility to our ancestors, who clung to their Jewishness through hellish experience, to embrace it amid comfort and opportunity. And we have a responsibility to our descendants who will look to us and ask: what did you contribute to the Jewish story?

Having felt the destruction, we should truly rebuild. A Jewishness that thrives on freedom and opportunity: let that be our legacy.

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Family and Friends

We all like to prepare for the year – but how do we prepare ourselves for a successful holiday period?

Imagine you are offered a delicious sizzling steak (or vegetarian equivalent). As you are about to take your first bite you are stopped and offered $1000 instead. You choose the $1000, and are then offered two round the world tickets for you and a friend.

Clearly, the choice is obvious. Yet, once again as you reach out to take the tickets, the ultimate offer arrives – an unlimited credit card that can be yours for the rest of your life. Instantly, your the excitement kicks in and you realise what this could mean… However, there is a catch. Accepting the credit card means that you have to give up seeing and speaking to your family and friends for 10 years. I don’t know anyone who would accept this offer. Yet, how often do we get caught up in pursuing life’s superficial luxuries without considering the toll that this takes on our relationships. We are all guilty of seeking out external pleasures when in reality, positive relationships with those we care about are priceless. It is no wonder that we constantly need to replace our material possessions after a finite period of time and yet when it comes to those we love, nothing can replace quality time together.

Last week, my wife Renana, went away for a few days. Her absence forced me to spend even more time with my children. And I loved it! Being the sole person responsible for getting them ready every morning, putting them to sleep every evening and being there for anything they needed was a true joy and reminded me how lucky I am. 

We should challenge ourselves to use the opportunity to bond more with our family and friends, to foster those relationships and make memories that are more valuable than any possession we can acquire! Whilst the steak may seem tempting, the gifts we have been bestowed outdo any ‘treat’ any day.

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Fast Days

National fast days are always a time to pause and reflect, to internalise some of the historical wisdom that such days impart. It was on the 17th of Tammuz that the Roman army, on their way to destroying the second Beit Hamikdash, managed to breach the wall of the holy city of Jerusalem. Breaching the wall was the beginning of the fall of the city - the moment where hostile strangers would storm in and violate the peace and sanctity of God’s home. Thousands of years later, we still mourn the breach of these walls. 

Walls are important. To be human is to put up walls, to define yourself and decide which elements of your life are to be open to the public and which elements are to remain private and intimate. These walls exist to guarantee the safety and the individuality of each person, to remind us that no matter how well we think we know another person, there are always deeper, more personal layers to this sacred human being, boundaries that we cannot and should not cross. We must think carefully when erecting boundaries around ourselves, as this will define us and our relationship with other individuals. 

Over the past few years, scandal after scandal has crossed our newsfeed, as the #Metoo movement has successfully exposed the crimes of individuals who did not respect boundaries, who selfishly tore down other people’s walls and imposed themselves on the inner lives of their victims. Truly, such behaviour is a tragedy worthy of a fast. If we wish to make our communities (both real and virtual) a safe place for us and our children, the first thing we must insist on is that walls are put in place, and that everyone respects the red lines that people place around themselves. Only when we respect everyone’s individual self-creation, when we understand that personal walls musn’t be breached, can we come together to create a holy community.

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Thank you.

Feeling overwhelmed with gratitude by the amount of people that shared with us in our gratitude today. Many people asked for a copy of Renana's speech on our behalf

What a year it has been. Even though this was something that our immediate and extended family have been going through. We have never felt alone as we have had the tremendous support from this community the whole way through. 

We are overwhelmed by Lital’s middle name – gila or joy, to be here celebrating Lital’s health. I want to take this opportunity to learn a short Mishnah together (Avot 5:10):

[Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: Go and see which is the best trait for a person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what is born [out of one’s actions]. Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.

These are some of the best traits we can acquire – so let’s consider each one:
1) Ayin Tova – A good eye – the eye is the part of our body with which we perceive the world. We see according to the light waves that are reflected through the lens of our eyes and it is without doubt the light, positivity and perspective, that our family have brought, that has allowed us to maintain an ayin tova. 
a. Debbie and Geoff, Rachel and Brad, Gabi and Eitan – your endless devotion is beyond anything I have ever seen. You have brought new meaning to the words unconditional love and I truly love our relationship. I cannot tell you how glad I am that the formative years of our children’s lives was spent with you and the bonds that you have formed will be there for life. 
b. Mommy and abba, Tzippy and Jason, Chana and Richard, Avishai and Danielle, Jon Jon and Lior – it’s been hard not having you around us. But when you dropped everything to come at different times to support us, it showed me that no distance can ever get in the way of our special bonds and even when you were not here physically, we always felt your support as if you were right by our side.
c. Yehuda and Shayna – you are the best big siblings Lital could ever ask for. You have had to go through more than most children have had to go through at your age and we are so proud of you for your love and understanding, continuing to grow as such incredible individuals as you make our family complete.  
d. Benji, there is no one else I would have wanted by my side during this whole episode. You have allowed me to lean on you when things got too overwhelming and you have always been there show all of us the ayin tova in all of this. I am blessed to have you as my husband and of course the father of our 3 beautiful children. 
2) Chaver tov – A good friend – this period has made us realize how lucky we are to have such wonderful friends around the world. chaver comes from the word chibur – connection. Our connections with one another and sense of friendship is usually tested at times like this and with so many of our friends it has only strengthened, reminding us how lucky we are to be so connected.
3) Shachen tov – A good neighbor – before we moved here Benji always told me about the Sydney Jewish community. But never did I understand how special this community truly is. Wow. To walk around the school, shules or street and have every second person ask about Lital with such genuine care and concern or cry tears of happiness when they see her out and about, makes me realize why this is one of the most special communities.
4) Haroe et hanolad – To see what is born [out of one’s actions] –this can be interpreted in 2 ways. 
a. The first is the ability to appreciate what is going to happen next. Birth is painful, but it brings life into this world. And while we went through pain – it was side by side with our family, friends and community and therefore we were never truly alone and able to experience the elation of what we are celebrating today.
b. The second, is the ability to appreciate what is going to happen next, meaning to anticipate what is going to be and therefore what is going to needed. We had people bringing over gifts to help our kids feel special. Meals were taken care of, baskets of fruit and vegetables. This was you guys anticipating the things we needed at a time that were not able to anticipate ourselves. So many signed up for www.hods.org to be organ donors and tens of thousands of dollars was raised for this important cause, extending this to anticipate the needs of others.

In one foul swoop, our family provided an ayin tova with such a positive perspective, we had good friends and good neighbors in the form of our community, all who came together as one to anticipate and support us. 

5) Lev tov – The final trait, a good heart, is something that I have learnt from Lital herself. Rebbe yochanan likes this answer the best because he says if you have a good heart you automatically have all those other qualities. 

One moment that sticks out in my mind was in the hospital after her transplant, one of the nurses came into Lital’s room to perform some tests. While the nurse poked and prodded Lital – she cried and screamed but when it was all over, she looked up at the nurse giving her that gorgeous signature smile. The nurse smiled too, looked over at me and said, ‘Lital is the most forgiving baby I have ever met.’

These have been trying times and while we have a strong relationship with Hashem, many times, I was definitely left wondering why. Why Hashem have you made such a young innocent baby go through this torture. Feeling so unwell within herself, needing test after test, not tolerating food, vomiting and having endless medication. Why do Shayna and Yehuda need to compete for their parent’s attention, scared to wake up in the middle of the night to find that we have had to rush back to the hospital for who know how long. Why do we all need to have our lives thrown completely out of control. But then I go back to Lital and her gorgeous smile.

Everyone that has spent time with Lital knows that she is one of the most enthusiastic and happy babies I have ever met. Even with everything she has gone through she is still able to be positive, smile and enjoy the good moments. It is as if, in her short time here, she has already gained a wisdom to appreciate and make the most of the gift that is life.

Although I don’t have answers to my questions of Why Lital has taught me to enjoy the wonderful things life has to offer. She has brought so much love and joy into our lives. She has taught us to smile even during the tough times, to cherish family and community and to appreciate life in ways I never thought possible.

Lital has done so much good in her short life without having any knowledge she is doing it. Most people take a lifetime to teach about life – Lital started from day one. For all that she has given and taught us through this experience I am forever grateful. I am grateful to all our family who have been there every step of the way, grateful to all of you for all your friendships and support and grateful to Hashem, the surgeons, doctors, nurses, Lital’s organ donor and his entire family, who saved our babies life making it possible for us to celebrate today.

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Judging the Donkey

A donkey doesn’t have the grace of a horse, the height of a camel, or the personality of a dog, but has a well-earned reputation as a short, graceless, dull beast of burden, only useful for the simple task of carrying heavy loads. Yet in this week’s Parsha we learn that even this lowliest of creatures could see the angel of God where Bilam, one of the greatest prophets could not! This simple beast had maintained a basic moral clarity and could identify an angel when it stood in front of him. His master, despite all his fame, wealth and glory, had been eager to use his Divine talents for the worst possible means. Bilam had lost his moral compass, his ‘vision’. All his amazing prophetic abilities became useless the moment he chose to utilise them for evil. Having sold his values, Bilam could no longer see the angels guiding his path.

The story of Bilam’s donkey has never been more relevant. It serves as an annual reminder of how we should go about choosing our leaders and role models. We must never be blinded by ‘celebrity’ status. Rather, we must judge each person by their character, their moral standards, and their efforts to make the world a better place. Because any human being who chooses to violate basic standards of moral decency, (even if they have reached a level of prophecy comparable to Moses himself) is inferior to a donkey.

As parashat Balak is approaching this Shabbat, may we all be able to maintain our moral clarity, and perceive the angels along the way!

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True Kindness and Customer Service

One day, a small family crisis erupted when a little boy realized that he’d forgotten his stuffed giraffe (Joshie) at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. The father quickly contacted the hotel staff and requested they send the giraffe as soon as possible and he also asked whether, in the meantime, they could send a photo of Joshie so that his son could be comforted with the knowledge that the giraffe was safe.

Well, the Ritz-Carlton did far more than send the boy a simple photograph of Joshie; in fact, they sent a binder full of photos – Joshie lounging on a chair next to the pool, Joshie riding a golf cart, Joshie getting a spa treatment, hanging out with the hotel parrot and other fun activities at the hotel. By going above and beyond expectations, the Ritz-Carlton created a memorable experience that the boy and his family won’t forget soon. Psychologists Roger Schank and Robert Abelson describe this as breaking the script, and it’s a useful way for businesses to create lasting bonds with customers and, more importantly, for families to learn with one another.

For any given situation, there’s a typical script of how events unfold. Let’s say a customer orders a burger and it’s delivered cold, following the standard script, the waiter apologizes and the customer leaves a smaller tip than usual. But if the restaurant wanted to break the script, it could apologize, offer to cover the customer’s meal and give him a free dessert as well. This unexpected offer happened to me last week at Wolf and lamb in New York and that is why I am giving them a mention here and will go back there again. 

The bakery chain Pret A Manger implements a non-traditional strategy by incorporating the element of surprise into consumer elations. They allow their employees to give away a certain number of products to customers each week. So, if a customer comes in who looks like she’s had a bad day, the staff behind the counter can cheer her up by giving her a free cinnamon roll. I too like to empower my colleagues with the opportunity to break the script in their day to day encounters and I always learn of great results!

The unpredictability of this random act of kindness makes it a win-win situation: the customer is happy and, thus, the business increases its chances of seeing them again.

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Time

Nothing ever happens in the past or future. Time is merely a succession of each moment. Whether you feel annoyed, happy or sad, you experience that emotion in the present. Similarly, when you anticipate or fear the future, you’re only capable of imagining that future in the now.

This is why presence matters. It doesn’t help to be swamped by the illusion of having to deal with the entirety of a future challenge all at once. As Mary Schmich said, ‘worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.’

It’s great to plan for the future, but the place to live and feel is in the now!