This week's teaching goes more deeply into the second "Portal of Presence" in the Integral Jewish Meditation practice- the portal of the body. Why is it helpful to sustain awareness in the body? What is the relationship between body awareness and ego? Enjoy!
Zekher- (Remembrance Phrase for the Week):
"What does this body feel like?"
Chant (From Psalm 150):
Kol Han'shamah TehalelYah!
Every soul, praise the Divine!
Teaching, Chant and Meditation Audio for streaming or download:
Teaching, Chant and Meditation Video:
Chant Only Audio for streaming or download:
Chant Only Video:
Greetings and blessings dear friends! In this video I want to go more deeply into the second portal of the Integral Jewish Meditation practice- the portal of the body and the senses. Why is the body so important?
In the last video we established the kavanah- the intention or motivation to take on when you want to meditate or become present at any moment. The kavanah is: offering your awareness as a gift. Why? Ordinarily, when we decide to meditate, there’s often a selfish motive behind it- understandably, because meditation is good for you, and it helps you connect with peace and joy. But the selfish motive itself is contrary to Presence. So to counteract this, realize that your presence is also an act of service. When you work on yourself, you’re going to be more of a blessing for others, and Presence is actually the most basic gift you can give to anyone.
So in IJM, we begin with the heart, offering our awareness to the fullness of this moment, and chanting L’kha, which means, “For You.” That’s the first portal.
You can become present instantly just by doing that. And, there’s no real mental discipline involved here- it’s just about taking on an attitude of loving kindness, also known as Hesed in Kabbalah.
In the next part, the portal of the body, we now introduce a little discipline, in the sense that as we connect awareness with the body, the mind inevitably wanders, and so we have to simply return back again and again. This is kind of the opposite of Hesed (Lovingkindness) which is simply about opening and offering, because now we’re focusing, limiting awareness to the present moment experience of the body, and restraining it from the ever flowing tendrils of thought. This takes a little strength, and so in Kabbalah, this is called Gevurah, Strength. Gevurah is the complementary opposite of Hesed.
So why is there such a strong inner tendency to get seduced by your own thoughts? It’s because that separate self-sense known as ego needs your continuous thinking in order to exist. Let’s talk a bit about this thing called ego to get a better sense of what’s going on when our minds are constantly moving.
There’s a story about a certain rabbi who was leading services for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Now Yom Kippur is very long and intense, filled with language of remorse and repentance for one’s sins. It’s also a twenty-five hour fast, so you’re hungry and weak.
As the rabbi was davening, praying with great intensity toward the climax of the service, he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of his own insignificance. Before he knew what he was doing, he spontaneously cried out, “Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan- the cantor- saw him do this, he too became inspired. The sincerity of the rabbi’s cry combined with the intensity of the holy day shot through him, and he suddenly realized the same thing. “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” cried the hazzan.
The truth was infectious. Suddenly, a poor congregant, Shmully the shoemaker, also became deeply moved and cried out as well: “Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” When the hazzan saw Shmully’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi and said: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
The irony of this story, of course, is that the hazzan becomes arrogant about being humble! And this is the great trick of the ego- the ego can turn anything into itself, even the idea of being egoless. That’s why it’s so important to understand what the ego is if we want to not be seduced by it.
So what is the ego?
The word ego, as I’m using it, refers to the natural, felt sense of self. It’s really like a psychological version of a creature. Just as an animal wants to survive, protect and perpetuate itself, so does our ego, only on a psychological level. And just as an animal is basically concerned with the physical body, ego is concerned with identity; ego is made not out of flesh but out of thoughts and feelings.
Have you ever gotten angry about being “right,” or felt insulted by someone else’s opinions?
This happens because words and thoughts that go against what we believe are a threat to the ego; they threaten the thoughts and feelings that form our identity. For this reason, the Tanya, the classic Hassidic text written by Rabbi Sheur Zalman of Liadi, calls the ego the Nefesh Behamit, or “The Animal Soul.” The Tanya then outlines the qualities of the ego in terms of the “four mystical elements”- fire, water, air and earth. These four “elements” which take their names from physical phenomena, are really inner qualities of consciousness that have both negative and positive manifestations. If you can understand and remember these qualities in real life situations, you can learn to identify the negative qualities of ego within yourself and not be controlled by them.
So what are the four qualities?
Fire is arrogance and anger. The Tanya points out that arrogance is actually the cause of anger, because anger results from things not going how we’d like them to. It’s only because we arrogantly believe that things should go the way we want that we feel conflict, and from that conflict anger is born.
So, fire represents negativity and conflict with “what is.” It’s related to the slang term “hot head,” and is the most aggressive and nasty face of ego.
Next is water which represents desire and craving for gratification. So while fire is about what you don’t want, water is about what you do want. Craving for sensual pleasures, wealth, fame, success- these are all examples of water. The Tanya points out that water is the symbol for craving because it’s the nature of craving to continuously grow, just as water causes living things to grow. When we get something we want, we may feel satisfied temporarily, but sooner or later there’s always something else to want. And, the more we satisfy a particular desire, the more we crave. The extreme example of this is addiction. While fire keeps us in conflict with what we don’t want, water keeps us running after what we do want. These two negative forces are the flipside of each other, keeping a person trapped in a state of restless discontent.
Next is earth, which represents fear, anxiety, sloth and ultimately depression. While fire and water keep a person dissatisfied and restless, at least the person is active and functional. With earth, a person’s mind becomes polluted with constant thoughts about how bad everything is; and instead of getting angry, a person becomes anxious, fearful and unmotivated. If something bad is always bound to happen, what’s the point? Why even try? This is the negative energy of earth. If a person gets taken over by this energy, one can become psychologically paralyzed and non-functional, God forbid.
Lastly, air is the quality of meaningless activity. It’s the tendency to always be busy with something, and so it’s kind of the opposite of earth, in which you don’t want to do anything. Externally, air could manifest as constant chattiness or jokiness, gossip, boasting and general discomfort with silence. Internally, it manifests as that busy mind we were talking about, always churning with thoughts about this and that. It’s related to the slang term “air head,” because it’s the craving for superficiality, for constant entertainment. Imagine someone talking incessantly with the television on in the background- that’s air.
This air quality is unique among the four elements. On one hand, it doesn’t carry much of an emotional charge with it, as the other three do. In this sense, it’s easier to master in any given moment. Once you are angry, depressed or craving something, it usually takes time for these feelings to subside.
A busy mind, however, can often be cleared almost completely by taking a few deep, conscious breaths. Of course, cultivating a mind that stays quiet over time certainly takes more practice, but clearing the mind for a few moments is effortless. In this sense, the air quality is much easier to deal with.
But easier doesn’t mean less important. In fact, mastering air is the gateway to mastering them the other three. This is because all of the ego’s qualities, as we’ve said, are fed by thought; thought is their “food.” If you can free yourself from thought, you have the master switch that frees you from all four elements. In the Tanya, this is expressed in the phrase, “the mind controls the heart.” When you direct your mind to watch your own thoughts, to watch your own feelings and to watch everything that your senses perceive, the negative energies of the ego are powerless to seduce you, and you’re free.
The Torah reading Parshat Vayak’heil begins with Moses assembling all of the children of Israel. The word Vayak’hel means, “He assembled.” Moses then tells them about the mitzvah of Shabbat-
"Six days you should do work, but the seventh day will be holy for you- A Sabbath of Sabbaths- all who work on it will die."
Now these last words may seem disturbing- kol ha’oseh vo m’lakha yumat- literally- "all the doers on it of work, will die." This is usually understood to be harsh law, that those who violate Shabbat will be put to death- death penalty for not keeping Shabbos. Oy vey.
But there’s another way to read the verse- kol ha’oseh melakha- All the doers of work- vo yumat- on it will die. In other words, the "me" that is the doer of work, the me that’s identified with my thoughts, feelings and actions, will die on Shabbat. Why? Because Shabbat yiyeh kodesh- Shabbat is the sacred space of simply being. This is the deeper meaning of Shabbat- not merely as a particular day in the week, but as the space of consciousness within which this moment arises.
So how do you enter Shabbat consciousness?
Simply allow the presence of everything happening in this moment to be assembled within your field of awareness. This is the hint of the word Vayak’hel- assembled. Rather than be out in the whirlwind of thoughts, judgments, and emotions, come to the eye of the hurricane by simply connecting with your breathing, connecting with your sense perceptions, returning your awareness back to the present moment experience of your body... and back again, and back again, training yourself to live from kadosh kedoshim, the center of awareness within which all the elements of your experience are assembled into a Whole, regardless of what’s going on.
To help us with this practice of continuously returning our attention to the body and breathing, allowing the fullness of everything we perceive to assemble into Wholeness- let’s chant the words, Kol han’shamah tehalelYah. Kol Haneshamah can mean every soul, but it can also mean “all of your breathing” because neshamah is soul, and nishmah is breath. TehalelYa means, praise Yah- praise the Divine Wholeness that includes but also completely transcends everything in your experience. So the idea here is that when you ground your awareness in your breathing, your body comes alive with Presence, and every breath is like a prayer, a tehilah.
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks