Hard and Easy

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Shalvah Journal
Big Tent #53
So Hard It’s Easy

Rabbi James Goodman organizes a recovery support group called Shalvah (Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew) that emerged out of an earlier effort started by Rose Mass and Rabbi G in 1981. Shalvah presently meets twice a week. It is bundled with two other programs, Positive Jewish Attention to Mental Illness-Mental Health and Jewish Prison Outreach because the borders are elusive.

He thinks it’s time to tell the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem. He’s asking everyone he knows for help, because it’s time. He feels like his community is asleep and the stakes are too high to be quiet.


A room full of difficult stories almost none polite most of them protected in their freedom to disclose by the principle of confidentiality. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is now part of the problem. What to do. It’s the same principle that applies to the discourse at the meetings: Tell your truth but be discreet. It’s a civilized discourse about unsavory pasts and alterable experiences. Regrets and falling down and getting up and on with it. I am transforming by being present.

Breath, air, let it move through, share, be economical with language, above all — listen. In our space a roomful of stories if articulated too much might scare the beejeezus out of someone. Don’t be scared, this is the safest room in town. Everyone says that.

In this room are stories of degradation and pain, descent and most often the hidden movement of ascent present in every story in some hidden or expressed way. We stay with our experience, strength, and hope. If it sounds hard, it is and it’s do-able. It’s life saving and healing and revealing and a release from the confines of what has become too narrow for us: Our former selves. Too small for us now. We do not cure, we transcend.

Our response to the challenges of our lives: We grow.

Thus the spiritual basis of our discourse, it’s not so much about God as it is about the ascendance of this or that over Self-full-ness. It’s not-god. There is a God, it is not-me. That’s as close as we get to a God concept. It’s not theology, it’s story telling for adults. This is my story, it has features of descent, it has features of ascent. It leaves the residue of hope. Jakob J my teacher of theology — you would be proud. I often quote you from one of our first classes: Think of theology as story-telling for adults.

We tell stories. A lot of the stories are gruesome. Most of them are funny. If we haven’t had one when we came in, we all acquire a sense of humor. We learn to laugh. This may one of the most important lessons of the group: Tell the truth but find the funny in it. I suppose funny is a form of detachment, some sort of Buddhistic disengagement with the heaviness of our own tales.

Yeah it’s heavy and true and brutal and we carried around a lot of weight for probably a long time, how good it feels to free it up with laughter. Accept and release. How is it that what might have killed us now makes us laugh? Exactly.

The strange algebra of what we do with talk and experience and breath and communication and truth-telling and real life responses to real life challenges.

We grow. We laugh. We tell some cautious truth. We disengage. We are serious and happy. We glimpse the possibility of a better life and we work toward it. Toward: Another good description of our process. A lot of Toward and How, less What. People do not generally give advice. No one will solve your life for you.

We have lost people, we have found people. We have found more people than we have lost but we do not forget that we lose people too. Beneath the laughter is serious business. I think of it this way: We are sitting in a circle around God. Sitting next to each other on the circle are tears and laughter. They are always in proximity. All of us sitting attentive, one eye laughing one eye crying.

That’s the easy part. We meet twice a week. Drama erupts, lives change, the eclipsing of former ways of being present in every meeting. Every meeting like a chapter in a drama of ascent and descent, the systole and diastole of hyper-awareness. It’s a wonder to witness.

The hard part is outside the room. How to take what we learn in our safety and make it real in the expanded circles of our lives. How to live in community. We talk about that. The goal is not talk, the goal is to live.


What to do with those who want to help? What to do about those who are reluctant to help? Example: We get a couple of bucks from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis that we mostly give back to advertising to the St. Louis Jewish Light. This year, the Jewish Federation trimmed down that money. Are they serious? Read the newspapers. We’re living an epidemic. Time to wake up.

What We Do


What We Do

Shalvah Journal
Thursday, Aug. 18

We have a schedule of speakers for three weeks out of the month. The first week of the month we practice a form of meditation or prayer or do some inner work with music and poetry. The other weeks we begin with a speaker, the speaker speaks for twenty minutes or so, and the rest of the hour is given to spontaneous sharing from the group.

This is the first time she has spoken in our group. She was urged to do so by her sister who also attends the group and it’s clear she has more experience with such groups than does her (older) sister who signed up to speak tonight.

The speaker tonight has been a loyal attendee to the group but has not spoken much, she comes and listens, and I think everyone in the room recognizes the look of someone searching and not sure whether this is the correct location for her search. Does she belong — this is the question that appears on her face at every meeting though she has not spoken much about it.

She went bold and signed up to speak. It was not an easy gesture for her. She came to the meeting this night wearing the drama of vulnerability on her face, she had a small sheaf of notes she pulled out, I had to write it out she said by way of explanation, it’s the only way for me. That’s fine, I said, you know the meeting is an hour long. I’ll stay within the limits, she said, maybe missing maybe not missing the joke. She was nervous.

I sat next to her and there were some announcements and discussion, I moved to her talk as soon as I could as I imagined it was agonizing for her to wait. She launched, reading her notes clearly and with good voice, articulating what she had written that was carefully thought through.

It was a rough story, she opened with a sense of herself she was taught from her parents that was brutal and devastating for a little girl to have heard early on in her life. It was a theme that continued throughout her talk with the details of failed and failing relationships, bad choices, disappointments, and also the sense of the few joys of her life easier to remember partially because they were in the minority of her experience.

Five, ten minutes into her talk I admit I was thinking uh oh, this could be a difficult thing for her and for many of those in the room, some who might not relate to some of the particular details of her life that she emphasized. It wasn’t what we usually talked about when we talked in our group. She knew this and prefaced her talk with I’m not sure I belong here and I don’t know how familiar this will be to anyone else in the room. Ten minutes into her talk I wasn’t sure myself. Plus there were four or five new people that night and they had no sense that this was not our usual meeting. There is no usual meeting; sometimes I forget that and we’ve been doing this a long time.

Then she came to the denouement I’ll call it, of what she gave over that evening. The last chapter. In the last chapter, the last eight nine ten minutes of her talk she went right to the heart of the matter.

She spoke about the emptiness within that she felt was behind many of her poor choices in life, her responsibility for missing some of the elusive happiness or meaning she pursued in her story, she talked about that space within that drove her that brought her to this meeting that she feels she is touching is touched when she comes to the group.

She spent the last seven, eight, ten minutes of her talk sitting in front of that need within that space into which we stuff substances food people love success whatever it is we are chasing that is in partial recompense for the inner strength or prosperity the inner life we feel is deficient, wounded, absent, emptied out; this the center of the deal we do at the meeting.

I felt the room spring to life. When she was done, every comment was right to the heart of the matter where she had landed, confirming her presence in exactly the right place, everyone who spoke sat in that inside place with her. I live there too they said and thanked her or congratulated her or embraced her for the courage of taking us all with her because we are all familiar with that place and when she visits there we all visit there and it helps us make the trip and make it home in a more whole-some way than the old journey of defeatism and negativity sadness and despair. Everyone who spoke was familiar with that place. Everyone seemed to be switched on by her talk.

The other quality of the comments was the complete generosity of spirit that erupted from the group that night. The comments were true and personal and perceptive and they were also generous. I was moved by both her courage to be that vulnerable and the generosity of the group to intuitively give over a truth to her that was so profound it could make a significant change in her life. That night. That one night. It felt that large to me.

There were also some difficult comments going around the room, necessary and no surprise to many of us in the group, but the hard material of truth-telling and getting up and on with it, full disclosure, vulnerability in the extreme, we’re all doing the best we can and for many of us it starts with truth-telling stark and painful but better than the alternative. There was that too.

Real life. Every meeting real life. People often ask me what do you do at those meetings? We don’t talk about drugs or alcohol or other substances that much; we talk about inside things. Difficult things. The meeting is called Shalvah. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew. There is no formula, few rules, just a couple of guidelines. You want to know what we talk about? Read these pieces. It’s time to tell the stories.

james stone goodman

Af Tsu Lokhes/In Spite Of: Story #51 Big Tent

thumb lebowski

Story #51
Big Tent

In Spite Of: Af Tsu Lokhes

The day I wrote the piece #50 in the series Big Tent, June 20, 2013, describing a slice of the meeting the night before just a moment out of an hour of moments not to say too much respecting confidentiality to the maximum, I think I captured a sense of the life-saving nature of what we discuss when we convene on Thursday evenings. I wrote the piece late Thursday night only several hours after the Shalvah Recovery from Addictions meeting, submitted it to the blog site set up by my community to feature events and ideas etc. of the locals. I have a blog on that site, and I submitted my account of the Thursday night meeting the next day, Friday, the day after another heavy Thursday night session. It was fresh.

On that Thursday I decided to start a journal of the evening session, something written to capture a bit of what we do on Thursday nights that has been so healing for so long. I write about everything, I thought, I ought to write about this too. Besides, I had made a formal request for funding from my community after having been approached by the new CEO of the institutional mechanism asking me for it.

I write a journal of my prison experiences, I write about the mental illness project, I should write about the Shalvah recovery meeting we have been running in one form or another, almost continuously, since I came to this town in 1981. So I started to keep the journal, the first entry was that Thursday, that night, June 20, 2013.

The next day I was scheduled to have a phone conversation, I should note here, with the official CEO who represents my community and who contacted me about ways in which the community mechanism might support the program. I told him I would need him to see the program through the bureaucracy in which he works, make a case for it however that is done I don’t know, and whatever materials I could provide him I would do to the best of my abilities.

Of course they have a right to ask what is it that we do on Thursday nights. I invited them to come and see; I am sure I can get the permission of the participants for you to come because they all know the life-saving significance of the Thursday evening group [note: the group has much expanded since then, is now meeting twice a week, welcoming new people almost every week and we have discussed going to a third night] and I believe the group would compromise its anonymity/confidentiality to further the notion not for the sake of themselves but for the sake of others in our community and beyond whom we could be helping.

And if those who hold the purse strings did not want or could not attend any of our meetings, I could always refer them to my writings, and through the accounts anyone could discern a good sense of what we do on Thursday nights we call Shalvah (serenity).

He had given me a load of directions by which I could provide him for what he called a logic model (I had no idea what a logic model was) that he could then take into the place where he works.

He came back at me with a load of more requests, I had provided the information for the logic model as he requested, now he was asking for a metric (another notion I wasn’t familiar with, I have not been trained in these matters). I thought I included a metric with which to evaluate in the logic model we submitted (love this language), and by then I noticed that the vocabulary had shifted from how can I help you to how can this not happen, an elucidation of all the reasons why it would be impossible for his organization to support my efforts. I have experience with this kind of shift in language. I am sensitive to it; I’ve been at this a long time.

A few days after this conversation, one of the great leaders of our community passed away. He had been in the very position of the individuals I was now dealing with; I knew that his way was the way of activism. If he saw a need, his attitude was how are we going to do this, what I call the af tsu lokhes approach, a great Yiddish phrase that has the sense of in spite of — with an attitude. It’s a useful expression without an exact equivalent in English, a sense of: you think I can’t do what? I’m going to do it in spite of all obstacles and with more punch. Just because. I could feel the difference in the individuals I spoke with on the phone; there was no af tsu lokhes attitude.

The man we would soon be burying was a force in our community, and my experience with him was deep. When we started the addictions outreach, he was as a matter of fact in the same position as the individuals I was now speaking with in the early days of our program. These teachings were not lost on me; a week and a half later at his funeral I felt the need of such individuals now and what a loss to our community such a spirit is. Where are they when we need them?

I am searching everywhere for those af tsu lokhes individuals, who see a problem and all the difficulties attendant to relieving suffering, but enter with the attitude: Let’s do this thing, let’s make this happen, let’s do some good. Obstacles? Let’s go around them.

There’s a story my teacher used to tell. When there’s an obstacle in the road, you don’t sit down, unpack a table, have lunch. You build. Around it.

james stone goodman

Addiction or Old Wisdom

The Problem of Addiction
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by his story, we are saddened like everybody, but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.

It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction, how a person with twenty plus years of clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, etc., didn’t he have enough help, all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you have it for life, and it requires vigilance daily, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – you name it. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.

The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror.

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substance. The problem has a physical component, and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that. No one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him or her what he has to do for herself.

You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him or herself.

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person makes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: all you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense; every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

Rabbi jsg runs a program called Shalvah, “serenity” in Hebrew, that meets every Thursday night at Congregation Neve Shalom, 7 PM. It was founded in 1981 by Rose Mass and jsg.

Jones Hungers

Jones hungers in a way that cannot be
filled. It waits an active waiting its eyes
tracking you wherever you go.

Jones is an emptiness. A space a
hunger a bottom-less-ness.

Jones will not be filled by drugs by
booze by love by success by food by —

You may try to fill Jones with all or
some of these. Jones can only be filled
by Everything.

Until you encounter Jones — its
unformed and empty-ness — until you
fill Jones with something more
nutritious, sustaining, full — Jones waits
patiently and poised to spring.

You can spot Jones every morning in
the mirror and you will need to.

You will learn not to wrestle Jones; you
will learn to be bigger than Jones.

Jones is hovering and you are called to


How Do You Know Jones

How Do You Know Jones

Does it matter? I could tell you but it’s
not significant.

I know Jones. What difference does it
make – how?

I see Jones every morning in the mirror
and Jones knows me.

I have come to know Jones better, I
think, than Jones knows me. I have the

It’s not much of an edge but that’s all I
need — an edge.

The edge keeps both Jones and I on
our toes. Nimble. That edgi-ness.

It’s a matter of degrees, edges;
Absolutes? No way.

Jones loves absolutes, will try to
distract you with them —

Do not be distracted.

Stay on the edge. Keep the edge. The
edge, baby, the edge is everything.


The Dragon Jones

The Dragon Jones

You need a lot of friends to elude that
dragon. Friends and talk. Talk talk, then
more talk.

Jones insinuates itself within, the
dragon Jones. The dragon will try to
engage you in conversation. Do not. No
talking with the dragon.

Talk to your friends.

Talk to others who know the dragon.
Make it daily. First today, then
tomorrow, the next day, etc. Every day
the dragon perches.

Every day is the day to meet the
dragon. Today, for example.

Take your friends with you until you
understand. We have to be together on

Alone — we are lost.


What To Do

Don’t know what to do
I can’t decide right now
The meditation was

You’re about the same age as my
And it gives me hope to hear you

Thank you for the quiet

[He left a large space behind him
One time he held my hand
Through the whole meeting
I was having a bad day]

I’m really glad to be here

He couldn’t practice tough love, he said
he had so much to learn
About love first

Try to be a person that has
Something To go
He said

I’ve been happy since January 24, 2004

— December, 2011


For the miracles who sit around the tables
Thursday nights

Master of the Universe,

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps — [Step 12]
We are about to make tea. [Ex. 24:10-11]
Muse of rooted serenity and integration*
Let peace rise from the kitchen
Let us repair the world from our seats around the table.
Shall we save ourselves and not help others?
We want peace and we want it now
We are starving for it
For it and the living God
For everything that issues from Your mouth. [Deut.8:3]

We will receive each of us to our own capacity [Ex.16:21]
Along this journey of secret destinations
We who have sat long and alone
On deserts of our own and other’s making
Instruments of the working out of all things partial becoming whole
Schooled by nothing loftier than the poetry of our own lives
Our hearts unlocked because God entered through our wounds

The last place we expected.


* Wholeness, she-lei-mut, comes through the vehicle of blessing.
The power of the upper root descends. — Sefat Emet on Noach

james stone goodman

Truth that Mangy Dog

Another story from the Thursday night group.

Grief in Recovery
Or: Why the Truth is a Mangy Dog

Grief in the recovery process has as much to do about the future as it does about the past. It has to do with all the “supposed to bes” of our existence. We grieve the life that we do not have, the health, the success, the love, the dreams we held close to our hearts about what our future was supposed to look like. It didn’t happen that way.

Nothing has turned out the way I had imagined it. My expectations are showing and they are demanding, insatiable really, uncontrollable, I am a slave to my expectations. Nothing will satisfy me until I begin to master my expectations.

Sometimes that means grieving. Grieving the “supposed to bes” acknowledges how powerful they are, that they area important to us. Because they are our dreams, and no one should ever underestimate the power of a dream.

Dreams: this is the way I wanted my life to be. For better or worse, realistic or not, these dreams represent our vision of a tidy world and full of everything we love. Then reality begins to unfold and we are stuck with our mouths hanging open looking at the unedited version of our own lives as if it couldn’t be. Not my life.

We would rather not look. But reality forces us to look, sooner or later we have to take off our expectations and take a good, hard look at what we are and what has happened. It is at those times of insight, of vision, that we come to see how our expectations have hindered us.

“I wanted my dream so badly that I failed to look at what was really happening,” she says to the group. She tells them about her life, about the years spent shielding herself from dealing with what was really happening in her world. “I just couldn’t look at it,” she says, “because it is so different from what I wanted.” Your expectations are in the way now, someone says to her. They are not helpful anymore because they inhibit your ability to deal with reality. They sap your best strength. Only the truth will set you free. Only reality now. Only the truth can set you free now. Only reality will give you back your power.

The truth is a mangy dog, once it is unleashed it respects no boundaries. You cannot set it free on the streets of St. Louis and keep it out of Chicago. The truth will follow you everywhere. You cannot unleash it on your husband and muzzle it against yourself. The truth is a mangy dog, it goes everywhere with you, barking at your heels. You cannot turn it on your neighbor without turning it on yourself. The truth is a mangy dog, and it always comes home.

When we look hard at our expectations, when we grieve the “supposed to bes” that never were, we are accompanied by that lone servant, a human being’s best friend, truth. This is what my life is, not what it is supposed to be. Truth is there with me sniffing out the what it is. This is who I am, not who I am supposed to be.

Truth loves you, of course, just the way you are. You will come to love truth too. You will come to love truth because only truth will set you free from your expectations. When you relinquish the expectations, you relinquish control, and you enter that great cosmic float on the surface of the great sea which is reality. The way it really is is a great sea that ebbs and flows in some ineffable way that has nothing to do with what you do or what you want or how you think it is supposed to be. It just is. This is a sea you cannot swim, you float. When you learn to float, it is so beautiful you wonder how you ever did anything else.

Here we have come to the end of the story, I leave you here: floating on your back on the great sea, up and down the gentle cadence, reliable, infallible, beyond expectations, the beautiful rhythm of life’s ebb and flow, accompanied by that trusty beast, that mangy dog, Truth, who follows you everywhere.

jsg, usa