Shalom dear friends!
Many of us are conditioned to think that spirituality is about creating certain conditions in our lives and in the world. If conditions aren't right, we have a hard time being present. But is it possible to use whatever conditions happen to exist in order to wake up even MORE? Enjoy this week's teaching, chant and meditation on using whatever is available to awaken more deeply...
Zekher- (Remembrance Phrase for the Week):
"Whatever suffering comes my way is for the purpose of illumination."
Chant (From Psalm 36:10):
B'orkhah Nireh Or
In Your Light We See Light
Teaching, Chant and Meditation Audio for streaming or download:
Teaching, Chant and Meditation Video:
Chant Only Audio for streaming or download:
Chant Only Video:
This week I want to talk about how you can use ordinary situations in your life to become more conscious.
But before we do that, let’s talk about what it means to “become more conscious.” In the ordinary sense, if you’re not literally asleep in bed, then you’re conscious- right? What does it mean to become more conscious? But if you look carefully at what it means to be asleep, you’ll notice that you actually are conscious to a certain degree, even when you’re sleeping. Because if you weren’t, then you wouldn’t get woken up by a loud noise, or by someone poking you, right? Obviously, even when you’re asleep, you’re conscious to a certain degree.
So this actually gives us a good way of understanding what it means to be more or less conscious. As long as you’re alive there’s some consciousness there, but there are different degrees or states of consciousness.
Here’s another example. Imagine that you’re a sighted person- you normally use your eyes to see, but you’re walking around outside at night, and it’s completely dark. But even though you can’t see anything around you, you’re still aware that you’re outside, you’re aware that you’re moving through space, and you can feel the earth is under your feet. You can also put out your hands and move slowly so that you don’t run into anything, and when your hands touch something, you can tell whether it’s a tree or a wall or whatever by the feel of it.
So in this scenario, you’re conscious of what’s immediately around you, but you can’t see what’s going on at a distance because there’s no light. So if you’re a sighted person, then the presence of light increases your consciousness of your physical surroundings.
Now let’s move from the physical level to the emotional feeling level. Imagine that a loved one does something disturbing at the dinner table, and you get annoyed or angry that person. For many people, feeling some negativity towards others when they act jerky is a pretty common experience.
But then, imagine that this annoying loved one starts to choke on some food, God forbid. Instantly, your whole experience changes. In the face of this threat to their life, whatever you were feeling a second ago is completely nullified, and you leap into action, do the Heimlich maneuver, or reach into their mouth and pull the food right out of their throat to save their life, as my wife recently did, by the way, for our daughter thank God.
So now what are you feeling? Suddenly you’re so grateful that they’re alive and safe and you realize how blessed you are to have this person in your life at all. Whatever negativity you were feeling a moment ago means absolutely nothing in the face of what’s just happened. In other words, your consciousness has just expanded tremendously on the level of feeling, because the situation itself forced you to be aware of what you normally take for granted. It’s not that the person’s behavior is no longer annoying, it’s just that the blessing of their mere existence far outweighs whatever annoyance you might have felt. The annoyance becomes trivial in “light” of the big picture.
And you can see in that expression I just used, “in light of the big picture” that light is once again a metaphor for consciousness- that’s why spiritual awakening is sometimes called Enlightenment. If you’re walking around in the dark, there’s still awareness, it’s just more limited compared to when there’s light and you can see things at a distance. If you’re feeling grumpy at someone you love, there’s still awareness, it’s just more limited compared to when you become conscious of the gift of their presence.
Similarly, when we’re talking about spiritual awakening, or enlightenment, we’re talking about a radical increase in consciousness that’s fundamentally different from all other levels of consciousness. How is it different?
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh means, “And you shall command.” It begins with God telling Moses:
“V’atah tetzaveh et b’nai Yisrael- and you shall command the children of Israel- v’yik’khu eilekha shemen zayit zakh katit lama’or- they should take to you oil from olives, pure, crushed, for illumination- l’ha’alot ner tamid- for kindling the eternal flame.”
So what’s the “eternal flame?” It’s your awareness that’s there all the time- whether you’re asleep or awake, whether you’re angry or openhearted, there’s always this basic awareness there, so you don’t have to create it- it’s already tamid- already constant. But you do have to “kindle it” so to speak. Just as when you’re in the dark, you’re aware of some things. But then you turn on a light, and your awareness greatly increases. So too there’s a different kind of light l’ha’alot ner tamid- to kindle the eternal flame- meaning, to increase your awareness that’s already there.
And how do you do that? You need shemen zayit- olive oil.
Now olives have a hard, inedible pit within them. Similarly, there’s ordinarily a hard, seemingly impenetrable pit at the core of who we are. From the moment we wake up in the morning, there’s that sense that “I” have woken up. You feel angry at someone, there’s a sense that “I” am angry. If you let go of the anger and you get all expansive and forgiving and loving, there’s still the sense that “I” am expansive and forgiving and loving. That’s the pit- the pit is the “I.” And just like you can’t eat the pit and transform it into nourishment, so it seems that the “I” is irreducible. No matter what experience you have, it’s always “you” having it.
But just as the olive fruit is crushed along with the pit to make olive oil, as it says, zakh katit- pure and crushed, so too that hard sense of “me” known as the ego can be crushed into oil, and that oil becomes fuel for consciousness- fuel for enlightenment.
So how do you get the oil from the olive pit of the self and burn it in the light of awareness? Paradoxically, it’s the opposite of what happens when you turn on a light and can suddenly see far distances. Turning on the light involves an expansion of the content of your awareness. Or, if you go from being angry to being openhearted, that also involves an expansion from the narrow focus of whatever made you angry, to the broader context of the person.
But if you want enlightenment, if you want to burn the oil of the “me” in the fire of awareness, then you need to actually reel in your awareness from its ordinary involvement with all kinds of thoughts and judgments, which are the very things that keep the “me” going by the way, and instead let your awareness rest in the actual truth of your experience in this moment- being present with your feelings as they arise and fall, being present with your body and the rise and fall of your breathing, and being the perceiving presence behind your thoughts.
In this way you let go of the mental urge to know and understand things, which is what creates the sense of “me,” and instead feel yourself as the luminous presence within which the mystery of this moment is unfolding. There’s a wonderful hint of this in the next line:
“B’ohel mo’ed- In the tent of the special time of meeting- that is, the tent of meeting the present- mikhutz laparokhet asher al ha’eidut- on the outside of the concealing curtain that’s over the tablets on which the ten commandments are written, that’s where Aaron will kindle the eternal flame.
Now the word for the tablets, eidut, actually doesn’t mean tablets, that would be lukhot. Rather, eidut means testimony or witness. This witness is behind the parokhet- behind the curtain- you can’t see the witness. And this is exactly the nature of consciousness. Consciousness sees everything else, but just like the eyeball, it can’t see itself; it’s a mystery to itself. So what you get in spiritual awakening is not any new piece of information or expanded knowledge, but rather the awareness of the Nothing- the is-ness beyond all understanding that’s forever behind the curtain, so to speak. And yet, you are the witness- you are behind the curtain. You can’t understand consciousness, but you can simply be conscious- you can simply be present… and that’s awakening out of the dream of the mind.
But to do this in a really deep and transformative way, the olive pits have to be katit- crushed. This means that when suffering comes your way- when things go wrong, when you suffer loss, when you experience anger or worry or fear- bring your awareness into the feelings. Let the feelings be without elaborating on them too much in your mind, without blaming or trying to figure out how to avoid them in the future. Instead, let their energy crush the pit of ego. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s temporary and leads to greater illumination. To help remember, you can say to yourself repeatedly-
“Whatever suffering comes my way is for the purpose of illumination.”
So write that down, and say it to yourself over and over. In this way, any ordinary situation that produces suffering can be an opportunity to increase the light of consciousness and ultimately open to greater joy and bliss in simply Being.
So as we approach this Shabbat Tetzaveh, the Sabbath of Command, may we all receive this mitzvah- this commandment- to ignite the eternal flame of awareness with the oil that’s pressed out of us through whatever suffering happens to come our way. And as our light increases, so too may we transform our actions to crush any stuck patterns of negativity and open to the blessing inherent in this life.
The chant we’ll do comes from Psalm 36:10, which is traditionally chanted when you put on your tallit in the morning. It says, B’orkha nireh or- In Your light, we see light. When we chant b’orkha- In Your light, we’re acknowledging that this light of consciousness within which this moment arises is far more than that contracted olive pit called “me.” It’s Your Light- the Light of Being, the Light of Reality. Then when we chant nireh or- which literally means, “we see light”- you can think of this meaning, “we are the light that sees”- or more simply, “we are enlightened.”
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks