"Is this really all there is?"
If you're one of the many asking that question about your life, author Marc Gafni thinks he may be able to help.
"If you feel empty, you need to do something to fill that emptiness," he said. "It is only by reclaiming authentic love and eros as part of the fabric of our private lives and public cultures that we can avoid the meltdown and flourish, both as individuals and societies."
Gafni, also known as Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, gave talks at several Bay Area synagogues recently, sponsored by Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley. In addition to his teachings though, his visit coincided with the publication of his latest book, "The Mystery of Love."
The author's best-selling "Soul Prints," published in 2001, was adapted into a PBS television special and won several awards for books on spirituality.
Gafni is the founder of Bayit Chadash, which he defines as a neo-Chassidic community in the Galilee. Most who study there are secular Israelis who have returned from extended stays in India and are ready to investigate what kind of spirituality Judaism has to offer.
A native of Pittsfield, Mass., Gafni moved to Israel in 1989. Though he received Orthodox smicha (rabbinical ordination), he considers himself "post-denominational" and is a well-known teacher in Jewish Renewal circles. He teaches at the Renewal movement's spiritual gathering, the Kallah, and has lectured at the Council of Jewish Federation's General Assembly.
"I need to stay connected to the mainstream," he said. "I'm trying to merge these worlds in a deep way."
In "The Mystery of Love" he makes the point that hatred and fear — not love — seem to be making the world go 'round, and he relies on Jewish mystical sources to recover hidden truths about love.
Gafni frequents the topic of sex in his book, because, as he says, "Everyone in the world is constantly thinking about the same thing — sex." But as a rabbi would, Gafni talks about it in terms of its holiness.
"Sex is holy because it provides a model for living erotically in every area of life," he said. "To be holy is to be on the inside — to feel the fullness of the world, the fullness of divinity." That everyone is always thinking about sex, says Gafni, is proof that God is trying to grab our attention.
Gafni distinguishes between love and eros, which he defines as the feeling of being on the inside or, more specifically, the feeling of being full on the inside. "Eros is the experience of living in the fullness of your life — so deeply in the flow of life that it wells forth with joy. To live without eros means falling into the 'if only' trap. If I only had this or that, then my life would be better."
One reason why Gafni believes so many people feel such emptiness is because they are not fully present in their own lives. To be more present, Gafni recommends slowing down, something he readily admits is much harder than it seems in this era of cell phones and instant messaging.
If someone has trouble slowing down, Gafni suggests maybe saying a few words of gratitude before eating a meal. "Visualize the multitudes involved in bringing the Wheaties to your table, and say thank you. This expansive practice makes room for you to taste, to breathe, to gain perspective and start living on the inside, where eros truly resides."
Taking a cue from his last book, Gafni advises people to find their own "soul print" — that which is unique in their own lives.
"There is no higher calling than living your story," he said. "You are a messenger of God, sent to this earth as God's personal envoy. There is something in this world you, and you alone, can do."
Gafni recommends taking steps to ease the fear with which many people live. One way is to ask the name of someone you interact with, such as a waitress, bank teller or store clerk. This assures an acknowledgement of their humanity, he said, and then there's no ground for alienation and fear.
"A person who has a name has dreams, hopes and aspirations just like you do. Recognize that and they will recognize you. Fear will recede and love will begin to take its place," Gafni said.