Summer is here and, for many of us, it is a time of greater relaxation, more freedom from our routines, potentially exciting opportunities and the promise of vacation. Warm weather and more hours of sunlight can invigorate us. Travel excursions and time off from school and work offer us chances to explore, and spend in-depth time with family and friends. It is a fine time to refresh our lives, to refresh and renew our spiritual outlook, and to seek out ways to deepen our spiritual connection.
There are many ways to achieve greater spiritual awareness. Here are 7 types of places to take advantage of in the summertime, and perhaps boost your faith, your religious feelings, and your spiritual growth.
First take stock of what tends to bring this out in you. Do you relish the chance to be outside and commune with nature for heightened spiritual definition? Do you prefer quiet spaces with few or no people around you (or just a partner or two), or would you instead immerse yourself in a crowd and create your own haven within that space? Do you have some ideas you would like to test out and have not had the chance to do throughout the rest of the year? Now is the time. Here are suggestions for doing so.
1.Park: Summertime can be prime time for park attendance, and you should take advantage of this. Perhaps you would could visit one of your favorite local parks, but spend time in a section you don’t usually frequent. Or journey to a park you have not visited before, especially while on vacation. In fact, ww.nps.gov is a wonderful website devoted to United States national parks. Find one or more that inspires you.
For example, just about every New Yorker has spent time in Manhattan’s Central Park. You might check out a lesser known and traveled area such as the northern section. Walk or bike to a quieter area and meditate. Or bring a sketchpad or easel and attempt an artistic spiritual exercise. If you feel more comfortable and safer with a partner, bring someone with you. Perhaps take turns being the meditative one and then the “sentry.”
The northern region of Central Park has hilly sections as well as quiet low-lying places. Meditate while sitting; practice exercise moves or Tai Chi; make a rubbing of one of the plaques or statues.
Perhaps visit a park very early in the morning or at dusk. Venture outside when a light rain is falling (not during lightning and thunder) and breathe in the fresher scent. And in a similar vein, pay a visit to botanic(al) gardens in your hometown or when you are a tourist. Meditate, sketch, walk slowly, daven/pray, and so on. Clear your mind and listen carefully for the sounds of insects and animals.
2. Beaches: Beaches can be loud, crowded, hectic places. Have you ever seen photographs of Brooklyn’s Coney Island in the 1930s and 1940s, when the sand was packed tightly with people? But beaches can also have their quiet moments. Certainly in the dead of winter they are very quiet, but even at the height of the summertime you can find mellower interludes. Sunrise visits can be especially meaningful, when the sun is not beating down on you. Or a midweek nighttime visit, when there is a hint of wind or chill, could be ideal.
While you should not swim without lifeguards on duty, you might like to skirt the edge and try a walking, jogging or singing meditation. Or venture to the end of the beach, far from the concession stands.
A few years ago, I visited Jacob Riis Beach in southern Queens, when it had not yet been fully renovated after storm damage from Hurricane Sandy. There were few people on the sand, making it rather tranquil. I did a slow walking meditation and then snapped photographs. It was a wonderful feeling.
3. Museums: When you want to avoid the hottest, muggiest summer rays, or on a rainier day, you might want to visit a local museum, be it an art museum, nature and science museum or history museum. Pick a quiet gallery and study a piece or two that you have never quite noticed before. Or cozy up to a display you have oft admired and study it in a much fuller fashion. Or walk into a busy, tourist-filled gallery and block out everyone else, so that you commune with an individual artwork.
Some museums offer special summer meditation opportunities. For example, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan advertises “Quiet Mornings” on the first Wednesdays of each month. Among the activities are half-hour long sessions of guided meditation. This is the kind of thing that people tend to have more time for during the summer, when work may be less hectic (unless you are a lifeguard or day camp director).
4. A Different House of Worship: Many people who attend religious services will regularly frequent one or two houses of worship. Perhaps they do so because of the proximity to their homes or businesses. Perhaps they like the clergy, have many friends among the congregants, or are at ease with the style of the religious service. There is comfort in the familiarity. But it can also become rote, even boring.
For those who spend most of their religious time at one or two particular synagogues or churches, the summertime offers the chance to patronize other houses of worship. Consider it “checking out the competition” if you must, or an exercise in compare-and-contrast. Or when you are on vacation out of town, attend a synagogue or church new to you, with a companion or by yourself. Are you curious to hear other tunes? Listen to the oration of a different rabbi or minister? Interested in the architecture and design of other synagogues and churches?
This can be more than just an opportunity to fulfill your curiosity; it can be a chance to explore spirituality. With a different locale and an unfamiliar sanctuary, atypical prayer tunes and customs, you may feel yourself compelled or forced to experience the liturgy differently. You may find yourself moved and invigorated, but it helps if you do not act defensively about the differences you see.
I can think of a few times when I visited other synagogues during the summertime and was quite taken by prayer tunes, or the overall spirit of the congregation. For some reason, I have noticed this more for Friday night, Erev Shabbat services. But perhaps for other people it could be a Saturday morning service that sparks these deeper feelings.
For those who are inclined, perhaps a visit to a house of worship for a different religion could be invigorating. I admit to sitting briefly in a few very old New York churches, to listen with joy to organ music or choral singing, while taking a break from walking around town.
5. Hometown, lesser-known places: You may think you know your hometown city, town or suburb like you know the back of your hand. And that can lead to malaise, being jaded. There must be places in your region that you do not know well: they could be new, or renovated, or just lesser-known spots that you could explore. Maybe there is a local museum, monument, park or historic house you have not yet visited.
Check it out and you may find yourself a place to reflect. Explore it a bit and then find a spot to meditate, to recite prayers, or another spiritual activity. The novelty of this location may help invigorate your spiritual search.
For example, I have found it moving and gently spiritual to sit or stand by obscure monuments in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. These sites that are under-appreciated can be good for spiritual reflection. One afternoon last summer, I stopped by Manhattan’s Riverside Park and came upon the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. I wasn’t sure I had ever really examined it before, and did so. Then, I sat for a while and closed my eyes, feeling a gentle breeze. I was able to concentrate deeply.
6. Cemeteries: Some people find cemeteries to be good spots for meditation (certainly many other people do not). You may wish to visit a cemetery where none of your relatives are buried… or you might feel a special closeness to the cycle of life if you do pray and contemplate by your family’s plots. Perhaps visit a cemetery where revered religious leaders and sages are buried. For instance, the Montefiore Cemetery in eastern Queens, New York City, (where Chabad-Lubavitcher rabbis and their families are interred) is a destination for Hasidim, as well as less observant Jews (and perhaps some non-Jews) who wish to pray and meditate at their sites. People leave notes on paper, light candles, make charitable donations in pushkes (charity boxes) as well as pray. Christians also have their many pilgrimage spots, where saints have been “seen” or were actually active so many years ago.
Summertime is particularly good for this type of pilgrimage because it is warmer. While many people find this sort of thing creepy or morbid, others feel a spiritual connection while praying or reflecting in a cemetery. It can be very quiet, with light breezes rustling in the trees and buffeting the headstones. (Although workers using power tools to trim shrubbery might be off-putting.) This can be a somber place to think and ponder life, or it can be inspiring. It really is up to you.
7. Zoos and Aquariums: I have included this idea, inspired by discussions with my animal-loving younger daughter. Zoos and aquariums are especially delightful destinations in the warmer weather. But many adults only visit these places with young children. Go ahead, don’t be self-conscious about visiting by yourself.
Perhaps you are particularly enamored of certain animals: very colorful fish or birds, snakes or monkeys, prairie dogs or tortoises. Or you wish to focus on a particular area of the wildlife park. You might want to avoid noisy day camp groups (if possible). Treat the visit as if it is a social interaction, and commune gently with your selected animal. Or bring along a sketchpad and pencils or markers, or even an easel and paints, and render the animal artistically. Or use a notebook (print or computer) to write observations about the animal. Any of these can be a spiritual exercise. For those of you who are interested in dance or martial arts, observe the movements of animals in their spaces, and then try to integrate the movements into your own.
Consider this article as a guide to jump-starting your summer spiritual quest. There may be other places you would consider as well. (Shopping malls? Indoor ice skating rinks?) If you have lots of time on your hands, then this guide can steer you well. If you are even busier than usual because of your seasonal job or your summer semester, then this guide can help you figure out a few respites. Here’s to a summer of spiritual meaning and depth.
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.