Love, Blessings, and Happiness:
I Asked for Wonder

Every five years members of my Harvard class of 1969 are asked to submit an anniversary report. This article is an updated version of my forty-fifth anniversary report.

The last five years have been filled with love, blessings, and happiness. I marvel at the fact that I have been on planet Earth for two thirds of a century and still every day is new, bringing challenges and occasional miracles and numerous opportunities for growth and insight. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King in the Selma Civil Rights March during our senior year in high school, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” It sounds better in the original Yiddish, my first language and a legacy from my beloved grandparents that becomes more precious to me as time goes on: Khob gebetn vunder anshtot glik, un du host zey mir gegebn.

The blessings started with being born and being raised by caring parents and then meeting Alison at age sixteen. When I saw her smile, I immediately fell in love with her. We dated in college and were married on the summer solstice of 1969. Thus we are celebrating the same forty-fifth anniversary that our class is now celebrating. After teaching first grade for twenty-two years, Alison retired two years ago. By chance she frequently meets former students and their parents, many of whom tell her how deeply she touched them. Whenever Alison shares these encounters with me, she smiles. Alison has no ego.

The joys of our lives are our children and grandchildren. Our daughter Melissa and her husband Ken have two children. Noah is nine, and Lilah is six. Noah has bestowed upon me the supreme compliment that I am the funniest person he knows. Our son Michael and his wife Lauren have a son Isaac, age three, and a daughter Rose, who was born on April 26, 2014. While our children were growing up, we ate meals together, spoke together about daily activities and world events, and traveled extensively together. A legacy of that togetherness, reinforced by three overlapping years at Yale when Melissa was in medical school and Michael was an undergraduate, is that our daughter and our son are lifelong, intimate friends. Melissa and her family live in Manhattan, and Michael and his family live in Brooklyn less than ten miles away on the same 2-3 subway line as his sister.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I did not consider my life to be filled with blessings and happiness. The trouble started in February 2000 when an earthquake of incapacitating headaches exploded inside my head. I suffered from the pain and even more from my outrage over the pain, which I reacted to with anger, fear, and self-pity, all of which made my pain and suffering much worse. “How could this have happened?” I shouted. “Why me? Why now? I don’t deserve it.”

During a meditation retreat in the summer of 2003 I realized the truth. It is not the pain that causes suffering, but the mental state associated with the pain. The mystery of this wisdom. It had taken me three and a half years to understand deeply what I could now express in a single short sentence.

One of the spiritual causes of my suffering was the fact that I blindly accepted the conventional understanding of society. This understanding says that pain is evil. That pain must be forcibly banished, the quicker, the better. That pain is a terrorist with a forged passport who has no right to cross over the boundaries into MY life, MY body, MY consciousness. Until the headaches erupted, I followed the rules, and for the most part I succeeded. Hence when the headaches came, I continued to follow the rules by blindly accepting the conventional understanding of society. Doing so allowed the blinding pain of incapacitating headaches to nearly destroy my career, not because they made it impossible to work, but because they sucked all the meaning and pleasure out of my work. The relentless, pounding pain, from which there was no escape, plunged me into an existential crisis of the first degree. Meditation and the guidance of my wife and my psychotherapist eventually enabled me to get past this crisis and reach the place of acceptance and gratitude where I am now.

My psychotherapist was Jean Colucci. At the age of forty-five she died of brain cancer, exactly one year after I stopped seeing her. When I heard about her death, I cried.

The existential crisis caused by the headaches had another painful component. Having spent a lifetime achieving, controlling, solving, and knowing, I was unable to figure out why the headaches had begun and why they were continuing. The words of Emily Dickinson, the poet laureate of my hometown, uncannily describe the process that I underwent, as if Emily had known me personally:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -

As Emily understood, something indeed had died within me. It was the Richard S. Ellis who achieved, controlled, solved, and tried to figure everything out. What made this insight so frightening was that I had no idea what would replace it. Paradoxically, the suffering and fear caused by being plunged into this place of not-knowing would eventually blossom into insight and growth.

The process of accepting the pain allowed me to embrace another paradox. The pain, which I had hated because it had tortured me, has become one of my best teachers, a wise guide who continues to reveal new insights about life and pain and suffering and letting go and love. Meditation helped me understand this. It healed the suffering caused by chronic headaches and bestowed other rewards of infinite value, opening me up to the vast landscape on the other side of pain, to the unknowable mystery and grandeur of life, of which the headaches and their comings and goings are a symbol.

My experiences — headaches and healing, interacting with Jean Colucci and the many neurologists I consulted, suffering from pain and watching pain dissolve in the insight that “pain” is just a conceptual abstraction — were so profound that I wrote a book about them. Titled Blinding Pain, Simple Truth: Changing Your Life Through Buddhist Meditation, the book was published in 2011. Its goal is to help people who suffer from physical and emotional pain let go of the image of themselves as victims and, as I did, learn how meditation can help them embrace their lives with equanimity, gratitude, and joy.

My field is mathematics. I love teaching both undergraduate students and graduate students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I have been since 1975, and I love doing research in my field of probability. I particularly value mathematics as a spiritual discipline. It gives me clarity and insight otherwise accessible only through meditation. I continue to meditate daily and have tried to incorporate mindfulness into my teaching. I start each class with a short meditation exercise that I call a moment of becoming present and try to share the rewards of meditation with graduate students in my department, with whom I meet weekly to discuss issues of stress and to meditate together. Retirement is not yet on the horizon for me.

My research specialty is the theory of large deviations. Mathematically, a large deviation is a random event having small probability and often significant effect; for example, being dealt a royal straight flush in a high-stakes poker game. More broadly, a large deviation is any event defying expectations: a surprise, a disaster, a miracle. We begin to see large deviations everywhere as we live more openly and more meditatively. From this perspective my life has been a series of large deviations. Being born into a loving family, meeting Alison, having children, moving to Amherst, living in Israel, becoming an adjunct professor of Judaic studies, being cut down by headaches, meditating through the pain and the suffering caused by the headaches to reach a place of healing, becoming a grandfather, finding myself in an academic environment where every day gives me opportunities to help people, writing this forty-fifth anniversary report.

The blessings of my life can be seen in how a single day in April 2014 unfolded. The night before, I had presented my second class in the course on “Spiritual Transformation in the Book of Job” that I am teaching at our synagogue. I started the class by encouraging the attendees to express their gratitude to be able to study the Torah as free people in a great country that allows us to be Jews and, for one of the few times in our long history, does not persecute us. How fortunate we are. How blessed we are. I was Job when the headaches struck. Like Job, I eventually discovered the vast landscape beyond pain that is illuminated by the light of not-knowing.

I wake up on that morning in April at 5:30 AM with tightness in my forehead. It completely disappears during the half hour of meditation that seems to last only a few minutes; that.s how peaceful it is. Alison is still sleeping. I leave the house, listen in the car to part of a lecture on the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, buy a cup of coffee, and enter my office high in the Lederle Graduate Research Towers. The building is quiet. “How awe-inspiring is this place,” I whisper, repeating the words of Jacob after his dream in which he sees a ladder reaching to heaven. In the beautiful words of the Hebrew Bible: Mah nora hamaqom ha-zeh. The view out my window looks north over the UMass campus, trees, apartment buildings, homes, over Sugarloaf Mountain and the Pocumtuck Range, named in memory of a now extinct tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area prior to 1800, and on to infinity, mountain fading behind mountain until their profiles merge with the spring-engendering sky.

I prepare for my graduate course in probability, a subject that is totally familiar to me because I use it in my research. Yet it is a subject into which I continue to get new insights because the students in the class are so good. I work on a research paper and then meet with a student. When I learn that he came to the U.S. from Vietnam. I ask him about Vietnam today and whether his family discusses the Vietnam War. While I was able to avoid the draft, the war changed my life. I then teach the graduate class. The material is deep: the Kolmogorov Zero-One Law about tail events lying in a sigma-algebra of infinite-dimensional sets that are infinitely beyond the grasp of the human mind. I meet with two other students and then leave the university to do errands in town.

One of the errands is to bring my beat-up 35-year-old boots to the shoemaker to see if he can breathe new life into them, as he has done with other shoes of mine. “No problem,” he says. “In those days boots were made well.” I smile again when I see the photo on the wall showing a shoemaker.s cluttered shop in Tel Aviv in the 1940s. “Who gave you that wonderful photo?” He tells me that it is a woman who grew up in Israel and teaches at the university. I know her and have had many conversations with her, and I say her name. He nods. She taught my wife Hebrew, and I haven’t seen her in years. I am not surprised when a few minutes later I meet this woman in the center of town and tell her the story. How nice to see her again. We hug each other. “Yes, my father took that photo many years ago, and now they are both dead.” Events like this used to happen only when I traveled far away or my family and I lived in Israel in the 1980s. Now they happen in my hometown. I return home to greet my beloved wife, who is smiling and happy.

That evening we receive terribly sad news from Alison’s sister, who lives near Boston. It concerns a childhood friend with whom we stayed in contact during the half century since those halcyon days in the Blue Hill Avenue area of Dorchester and Mattapan. The sad news was that this childhood friend had died the day before, the first member of our circle of friends who, in the innovative words of Jewish renewal, is on the path to her next world of being. Zichronah levrachah. May her memory be for a blessing. The funeral is tomorrow.

On the morning of the funeral I wake up early and write these words. How shall I prepare for my own death? How will I cope with Alison‘s death if she precedes me to her next world of being? The treasured moments that I share with her. I close my eyes. I express gratitude for all the blessings, especially being able to spend my life with this woman, my lover, teacher, and best friend. Everything is transient. Everything is precious. Alison and I eat breakfast, then drive to the funeral, reminiscing about the days of our youth and sharing our profound sadness over our friend’s life being cut short.

I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.

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