Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
(Membership Episode 34)
This episode is the first in a special series for the "Omer" period- the seven weeks between Pesakh and Shavuot. In Kabbalah, each week of this period is associated with one of the seven lower "sefirot" on the Tree of Life. For each of the seven weeks, I'll be putting out teachings based on each of the seven sefirot. This one is about the first of lower seven sefirot, called Hesed- Lovingkindness. These videos will also teach a new practice that expands on the IJM practice and the Three Portals of Presence into all Ten Portals of the Tree of Life. Enjoy...
Zekher- (Remembrance Phrase for the Week):
"The pleasure of Presence is ever-available."
Chant (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:5):
Hashevota El Levavekha
Return To Your Heart
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 the following several videos, we’re going to expand out from the "Three Portals of Presence" in the IJM practice into the "Ten Portals" or s’ferot of the Eitz Hayim- the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah. As you may know, the Tree of Life is a mystical glyph with ten spheres, each sphere representing a particular Divine quality. For our purposes, each of these ten spheres (or s’ferot as they’re called in Hebrew) are portals of Presence just like the Three Portals of the IJM practice, only expanded to give more nuance, so that your practice of Presence can also expand more deeply in your nervous system and express more clearly in all your life situations. We’re going to do this with a guided meditation in which we’ll focus on the ten portals through ten different body movements. Again, this will include touching the heart, belly and head from the IJM practice, but will also expand on that, adding seven more movements to connect with all ten s’ferot.
But before I guide you through the ten s’ferot, I want to focus a bit on the fourth s’ferah, called Hesed, or Lovingkindness. As you may remember, we learned about Hesed as the first portal of the IJM practice, which is the portal of the heart. but on the Tree of Life Hesed is the fourth portal. You don’t have to worry about that now, or ever for that matter, but I just wanted to mention it for basic orientation.
So let’s explore Hesed, or Lovingkindness, by looking at the root mitzvah for Hesed.
(In case you don’t know, the word mitzvah means commandment, and it comes from the traditional idea that God gave mitzvot, or commandments to the Jewish people through the prophet Moses about 35,00 years ago. Now you may or not believe in that literally, but the point is that the Jewish practices known as mitzvot are very ancient and they’re a way to connect the work of your spiritual awakening to the tremendous richness that flows from the Jewish lineage.)
So what is the root mitzvah of Hesed?
It’s the mitzvah known as ahavat Hashem- love of God. The text of this mitzvah is traditionally chanted four times a day as part of the Sh’ma and comes from Deuteronomy, or Devarim, chapter 6 verse 5.
It says, Ve’ahavtah et Hashem Elohekha b’khol levavkha uv’khol nafsh’kha uv’khol meodekha- Love Hashem your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.
Now this mitzvah is strange for a number of reasons. First of all, how can you intentionally love something? Isn’t love a feeling that either arises on its own or it doesn’t? Can you actually decide to love something or someone, or does your heart simply feel however it feels?
Second of all, if we dig a little deeper into the language, we see that the Name of God is composed of the letters Yod, Heh, and Vav and Heh, which come from the verb “to be,” so the Name of God really means Existence or Reality, as I’ve also mentioned in the IJM materials. Now if you experience something that you already love, such as closeness with a person you love or you hear some music that you love, or taste some food that you love, then it’s relatively easy to elevate that experience into ahavat Hashem through gratitude. You simply give thanks for the gift that you’re experiencing, and that gratitude opens you to an even deeper pleasure of connection.
However, ahavat Hashem through gratitude is incomplete by itself. That’s because by definition, Existence or Reality includes everything that exists- everything that’s real- not just the things you love. So how does it make sense to love everything that is? Isn’t the very experience of love based on the fact that you love some things and not other things? How can you love something that’s evil for example, or how can you love being sick, or being in pain, and so on? It seems that the very reality of love is dualistic- we love somethings and hate other things. So how can you possibly love God, how can you do the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem if Hashem includes everything, even the most hateful things. So let’s explore this a bit.
Imagine that you are a sculptor who works with clay. So for you, clay is the most wonderful thing because it’s the medium of your craft. Your whole life is devoted to working with clay. You LOVE clay. But, you’re also very opinionated about what makes a good sculpture and what makes a bad sculpture, and because you’re so serious about your art, nothing is more disturbing to you than a terrible sculpture.
Along comes one of your new students who hasn’t learned much yet, and they eagerly show you their latest work, which happens to be a terrible sculpture in your opinion. So what do you do? Do you whack your student in the head and vow to never touch clay again because of the ugly thing your student made? That would be really immature and kind of crazy, right? Hopefully your hatred of the sculpture would instead motivate you to help your student improve. If you’re a mature person, then you can love your student even if you hate this particular sculpture they made. You can also, of course, continue loving clay even though the bad sculpture was made out of clay, because clay in general and the bad sculpture in particular exist on two totally different levels; you can hate the sculpture and yet love the clay that it’s made from, and also love the person who made it. It’s all just a question of where you put your energy and attention.
The analogy here is that the clay represents Being or Existence. You can love God, meaning Being or Existence, while still disliking some particular experiences.
But, you may ask, this analogy takes for granted that you love clay. What about the case of someone who doesn’t love clay? In other words, we’re still left with the problem- how do you command ahavat Hashem? With clay it makes more sense. You’re a sculptor, you love clay, though you may not like a particular sculpture. You’re a musician, you love your instrument, though you may not like every piece of music that can be played on it. But what does it mean to love Existence or Being, and how can you possibly practice that?
Let’s look at what happens when you’re craving something, and then you get what you’re craving. Take food for example. You feel the pain of hunger, the desire to eat something, and then you eat it and feel satisfaction. But there’s something else going on that you might not be aware of unless you’re really paying attention, and that is the sense of incompleteness that’s caused not by the hunger, but by the mental and emotional fixation on the object of your desire. It’s not just that you’re hungry, it’s that there’s a basic dis-ease with the present moment, and a psychological “reaching” for a future moment when you imagine that you’ll be satisfied.
Then, when you finally get what you were craving, not only is there a satisfaction with the experience of the food, there’s also hopefully a relaxing into present moment reality while you enjoy the food, and a dropping away of that dis-ease of wanting. And that simple connection and dropping away of dis-ease is itself very pleasurable, and naturally lovable, even more so perhaps than the food. Now everyone experiences this at least to some degree, but rarely to people realize that what’s going on. Instead, people just assume that all the pleasure comes from the food or whatever particular gratification they’re experiencing.
But the truth is, the deeper pleasure comes not from the food, though food is certainly a wonderful thing, but from the letting go of wanting and instead connecting deeply with the present. That’s why we have practices like fasting, for example, or giving up bread on Pesakh. Normally when we feel a craving, the heart tends to run after what we want and we lose connection with the present. But if you let yourself feel the craving on purpose, returning your attention to your heart again and again so that it doesn’t carry you away, then you can learn to open your heart and drop into the wholeness and bliss of the Present without needing to satisfy whatever urge you’re feeling. In that way, you get to experience Ahavat Hashem- love of God- meaning love of Being or Existence or Reality Itself, because your connection to the Reality of the present is by its nature very pleasurable, healing and liberating.
There’s a hint of this in the Torah reading Parshat Sh’mini. It opens, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini kara mosheh- It was on the eighth day that Moses called out." Moses then gives instructions to the Israelites for the offerings they should bring in order for them to have a vision of the Divine. It then goes on in great detail about the animals and grains and oils they burned as fire offerings. At the end of this litany it says, “… vayeyra kh’vod Hashem el kol ha’am- the Divine Glory appeared to all the people.”
When you experience satisfaction such as eating delicious food, you can elevate that experience through gratitude- through realizing that your food is literally a gift from God, emerging from the field of Being. But if you want to experience ahavat Hashem- the love of God that’s there even when you’re not feeling satisfied, you have to differentiate the pleasure that comes from Presence from the pleasure that comes from gratification, and you can do that through sacrifice- through purposely giving something up. Then, just as the Divine Glory appeared to the Israelites, so you too will perceive the deep satisfaction and bliss of connecting with Reality as it is, beyond all those temporary and finite pleasures, wonderful as they might be. And when you do that, a much deeper gratitude can emerge- gratitude not only for the particular blessings we experience, but for the constant opportunity we have to practice Presence and connect with the completeness and peace of this moment.
This is also hinted at in the opening verse, “Vay’hi bayom hashmini- It was on the eighth day…”
Y’hi is a form of the verb “to be.” Bayom means “on the day” but it can also mean “in today”- meaning, in the Present. Hashmini means, “the eighth.” The number eight on its side is a symbol for infinity. So the idea here is that you connect with the Eternal- hashmini- through Being- y’hi- in the Present- bayom.
Now all of this may seem every complex. But at its root, it comes down to returning your attention to your heart, again and again. When you crave something, it’s as if your heart is running after what it wants, disconnecting from this moment. But when you return your attention to your heart, you open to reality as it is, and all that heart energy that normally wants to run after things opens into that deeper bliss of Being...