This week's teaching goes more deeply into the third "Portal of Presence" in the Integral Jewish Meditation practice- the portal of the awareness itself. What's the relationship between the Oneness of God and dis-identification from thought? How does radical separation from the content of your consciousness lead to unity with the content of your consciousness? These are some of the topics explored this week... Enjoy!
Zekher- (Remembrance Phrase for the Week):
"Is there anything that is not made out of awareness?"
Chant (From Psalm 150):
Mimalei Kol Almin, Soveiv Kol Almin, Umibaladekha Ayn Shoom Mitziut Klal
Filling all Worlds, Surrounding All Worlds, Without You There is Nothing At All
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 third portal of the Integral Jewish Meditation practice- the portal of awareness itself. Of course, awareness is really the basis of the first two portals as well. But those portals are about the function of awareness, which is being aware of something. In this third portal, however, we turn our attention to attention itself. Awareness becomes aware of awareness.
But what is awareness?
We know awareness as the basis of all experience, and so therefore we can never perceive awareness objectively. Awareness is always perceiving objects, but awareness can never be an object, it can never be a thing that we perceive. So really awareness is more like a no-thing- like nothing.
Now the word “nothing” in English usually isn’t such a positive term. For example, when a person is called “nothing” it’s often either meant as an insult- implying that the person is worthless- or as an expression of humility, as in- “Oh Hashem! I am nothing!”
Now it’s probably obvious that putting someone down is an expression of ego, as it aims to enhance one’s own self-sense of being a something, by degrading someone else in calling them a nothing. But claiming to be “nothing” can also be an expression of ego, especially if you believe that humility is some kind of spiritual attainment that you can wear like a badge.
But the real nothing is totally different. Awakening to yourself as nothing comes from simply from seeing that you’re not limited by your mind-based identity of thoughts and feelings. You’re not limited by any particular things because you are not a thing- you’re a no-thing- because awareness is the space within which all things are perceived, and you are that awareness. So you’re not a special somebody, you’re not a worthless nobody; you are the space of this moment- you are nothing. Furthermore, being no-thing isn’t some special attainment; it’s just a basic fact.
Now if this seems difficult to grasp, don’t worry. The more you do the practice, the more you’ll naturally get a sense of what these words are pointing to, rather than trying to understand it through a lot of thinking. In fact, this experience of no-thing that’s inherent within the portal of awareness blossoms naturally from the first two portals; you don’t have to force it. Let’s review once again the first two portals:
In the portal of the heart, we begin by invoking the kavanah of open-heartedness, or Hesed. In offering our Presence to the fullness of what is in this moment, we invoke that fundamental openness of awareness, rather than reaching for a particular experience. In this way, we don’t practice for the sake of reaching a goal, but rather we begin with the goal. We can do this because the “goal” is already present- it was and is the natural state of your awareness all along, beneath your thoughts and feelings.
In the portal of the body, we learned about sustaining Presence through connection with your senses. Unlike the thinking mind, which tends to seduce us into the imaginary worlds of past, future and fantasy, sensory awareness provides an anchor to our present moment experience. And while the attitude of Hesed is nearly effortless to invoke, the sustaining of Presence in the body takes some mental discipline, some Gevurah, or strength, to complement the Hesed.
Now as you practice these first two portals, you may still feel a basic duality between yourself, on one hand, and the object of your awareness, on the other. If you’re aware of your breathing, for example, there’s that sense that “I” am aware of “my breathing”- two separate things. We might call this the experience of duality. Another example of duality might be the experience of “me,” on one hand, “my awareness,” on the other. In this dualism, there’s the sense that awareness is something you have rather than something you are.
But as you deepen in Presence, a new experience of unity begins to emerge as you learn to know yourself not as your thoughts and feelings, but as the awareness behind your thoughts and feelings. This experience doesn’t erase the sense of duality; on the level of thought and feeling, duality is natural and necessary. But on the level of awareness, there emerges a complementary experience of Oneness in which all things are part of the Whole. From this point of view, the ego sense of the separate “me” drops away, and a new sense of simply Being, of no-thing, naturally emerges.
Now there’s a kind of paradox here. On one hand, knowing yourself as awareness involves a radical separation, as you dis-identify from your thoughts, feelings, and everything else that arises within your experience. In a sense, this is the ultimate duality- the duality between your awareness, on one hand, and everything that you’re aware of, on the other.
And yet, the more you know yourself as pure awareness, separate from the content of your awareness, the more you will sense that your awareness and the content of your awareness make up one single Reality, a unified Whole. Let’s look at some traditional sources that offer methods for connecting with this underlying unity. The very first paragraph of the first chapter of the Shulkhan Arukh, the classic guide to Jewish practice, begins by quoting Psalm 16 verse 8- “Sh’viti Hashem l’negdi tamid- I set the Divine before me constantly.” It then goes on to explain:
“… for there is no comparison between one who is amongst family or relatives and one who is in the presence of a king. How much more so when you contemplate (that you are in the presence of) the Holy One Whose glory fills all creation… as it is said ‘Do I not fill the heavens and earth?’ (Jeremiah 23:24) Bearing this in mind, one will acquire a sense of reverence and surrender before the awesomeness of the Divine…”
Similarly, in chapter 3 of the Tanya, it says:
“…When the intellect deeply contemplates and immerses itself in the greatness of the Divine, how It fills all worlds and encompasses all worlds, and in the Presence of whom nothing separate exists, there will be born a feeling of awe before the Divine majesty- to be humbled before the Blessed Greatness, which is without end or limit, and the awe of God will be born in the heart. Next, the heart will glow with intense love, like the burning of coals, with a passion, desire, longing and yearning towards the greatness of the blessed Ayn Sof- the blessed Infinite.”
Now although these two pieces use different language, their essence is the same: they’re aimed at shifting your focus from a world of separate beings and things into the underlying unity of Being. It accomplishes this through a kind of “radical amazement” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, reminding us that behind our usual, mundane experience of things, there is an “awesomeness” and a “blessed greatness” of Existence Itself that “fills all worlds and encompasses all worlds, and in the Presence of which nothing separate exists”- to quote the Tanya.
Now if you examine your own experience right now, you’ll see that this description from the Zohar- that the Divine “fills all worlds and encompasses all worlds,” also applies to your own awareness. Think about it. When you see the sky or hear a bird, you tend to think that you’re perceiving something external to you. And on one level, that’s perfectly reasonable. But at the same time, whatever you perceive, whatever is part of your experience, is literally made out of consciousness. That’s not to say that the actual sky or bird is made out of consciousness, but only to say that your experience of the sky and the bird is made of consciousness. You see? You’re never really experiencing anything except different forms of consciousness, because all experience is, by definition, made out of consciousness.
So in this sense, your awareness is literally filling everything within the world of your experience, because everything within the world of your experience is literally made out of your awareness. This the expression of the Zohar, Mimalei kol almim- fills all worlds.
At the same time, when you stop perceiving the sky or the bird or whatever, the awareness remains. Your awareness is never limited to whatever you’re perceiving, because it’s the open and borderless field within which you perceive everything. So your awareness is also soveiv kol almim- encompassing or surrounding all worlds.
The Torah reading Parshat Vayikra begins, "Vayikra el Moshe, vay’daber Hashem Eilav- Hashem called to Moses, and spoke to him." The word Vayikra means, “called.”
The 14th century Rabbi, Ya’akov ben Ra’ash, known as the Baal Haturim, pointed out that the letter aleph at the end of the word Vayikra is written really tiny. He explains that Moses, in his humility, wanted to write it without the alef all together, so that it would spell Vayikar instead of Vayikra, implying that God didn’t call to Moses, but simply happened upon Moses by accident. God said "No, I am calling to you Moses, you have to put the alef in there," so Moses wrote it small, as an expression of his humility.
So why is a small alef a symbol of humility? Ordinarily, there’s that sense of the separate “me”- that’s the ego- the sense of self that’s made out of our thoughts and feelings. This egoic self-sense tends to get inflated- puffed up like a big alef. But when you become aware of your thoughts and feelings rather than get absorbed and identified with them, that inner “me” seems tiny compared to the vastness of your awareness. And that vastness isn’t ego because it doesn’t have any content- it’s not based on thoughts or judgments about “me” and “my story,” it’s just aware. It’s literally nothing, called ayin in Kabbalah, because it’s not a thing. It’s the space within which everything is perceived.
At the same time, everything you perceive is literally made out of awareness- it doesn’t have any separate existence at all, at least not within your experience. When you really get this, that nothing in your experience is separate from you, you can spontaneously drop all resistance and know that basic Oneness for yourself, as yourself, or more precisely, as nothing.
So to open up this awareness of awareness, and know the Oneness that includes everything, let’s chant these words from the Zohar- Mimaleh kol almim- filling all worlds- soveiv kol almim- surrounding all worlds. This melody was written by Michael Shapiro and I learned it from my friend Arik Labowitz.
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks