Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
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"Unifying with this moment through Chanting ..."
This episode explores the mystery of music and its power to transform negativity without negating it, seen through the portals of the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh and Parshat Hukat. This is the second episode that focusses on Ana B'khoakh. You can access the first onehere. Enjoy!
Teaching, Chant and Meditation All-In-One
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Greetings and blessings beloved friends-
The mystical prayer, Ana B’kho’akh, which is traditionally ascribed to the Talmudic sage, Rabi Nekhunia Ben Hakanah, begins with the words:
Ana b’kho’akh gedulat yeminkha tatir tzerura.
Ana- “please”- B’kho’akh Gedulat yeminkha- “With the strength of the greatness of Your right hand- Tatir Tzerura- “untie the tzar- that which is narrow and contracted.”
What does that mean?
Right now, in this moment, see if you can open to the fullness of your experience: physical sensations, sounds, the sense of where your body is in space, the feeling of your weight as gravity pulls your body toward the earth, the feeling of any concerns you feel in your heart or thoughts recurring in your mind- whatever is present for you right now- don’t leave anything out- let everything be as it is.
Now, as you notice the fullness of your experience in this moment, is there anything in your experience that’s not part of your consciousness?
So you can notice that while you might naturally have a sense that these words right now are separate from you while your thoughts and feelings are part of you, actually these words are just as much part of your consciousness as your feelings, just as is the ground and the sky and anything else within your experience- because experience is itself nothing but consciousness- right?
And yet, we tend to not notice that, and instead identify only with certain things within our consciousness. We tend to feel that this body is me, these feelings are me, these thoughts are me, even though the body and feelings and thoughts are all experienced within consciousness, just as is the wind and the rain. So if we look closely at our actual experience, we see that we are not limited to this body/heart/mind at all, even though we tend to unconsciously assume that we are.
That’s the tzerura- the narrow, limited self-sense that we automatically imagine ourselves into. And so the prayer cries out for gedulat yeminkha- the “greatness of Your right hand.” Now in Kabbalah, Gedulah or “Greatness” is a code word for Hesed- Lovingkindness. Yeminkha- Your Right Hand- is also code for Hesed. So on the surface, it’s imploring God to be compassionate and free us from the constricted self. But on a deeper level, it’s also giving us the path for how to become free. How do you become free? Offer your awareness in a loving, openhearted way to the fullness of whatever arises in your experience. Just doing that alone can almost instantly awaken the sense that in fact you’re actually not separate from anything within your experience.
However, powerful as Hesed is, it’s not enough to sustain this realization. As soon as our mind moves from this Hesedic attitude, we slip right back into the automatic assumption of separateness. If we want to sustain it and make it really part of us, we have to use the separateness, rather than simply trying to overcome it or transcend it. Luckily, there’s an incredibly powerful tool for doing just that: music.
Music is a great mystery. Despite all the science, philosophy and spiritual writings attempting to explore the mystery of music, no one really knows what it is. Just like Existence Itself, it’s a great enigma. But what we do know is our experience of music and its incredible power to do the seemingly impossible: Music makes it feel good to feel bad. Think about that: Music makes it feel good to feel bad.
That’s why music is so important to teens, as they go through all kinds of emotional suffering. That’s why music has been so important to the survival of the Jewish people. It’s a stereotype that Jewish music is always sad sounding, in a minor key, which isn’t true of course, but that perception comes from the fact that the Jewish experience has been one of tremendous suffering and that Jewish suffering has been expressed to a great degree through Jewish music, often in minor-type modes.
But why? If you’re suffering, wouldn’t you want to get your mind off the suffering and onto something more pleasant? Why would you want to reinforce your suffering with sad music?
Because, music transforms negativity into positivity, even while still remaining negative- that’s the miracle and paradox of music. And of course that’s not just Jewish; the popular music of the entire world stems mostly from African American music, which grew out of tremendous suffering- expressed through gospel and blues, which in turn gave rise to rock, hip-hop and so on. And this is all because, music makes it feel good to feel bad. Music heals- not necessarily by getting rid of sadness and evoking joy, though it certainly can do that, but by celebrating the sadness. Music doesn’t turn away from the reality of our experience, but turns into it, transforming the tzar- the constricted-ness of life- into a musical.
And speaking of gospel, that’s why music is so closely allied with prayer. Prayer that implores, that cries out for salvation, also has the power to bring us deeply into our suffering in a way that breaks us free from conflict, negativity, judgment, complaining and so on, by connecting us with the eternal present, with that underlying openness within which the suffering is experienced.
And so the next line of Ana B’khoakh says, “Kabel rinat amkha, sagveinu tahareinu, Nora!”
“Kabel rinat amkha- Receive the song of your people! Sagveinu Tahareinu, Nora- Strengthen us, Purify us, oh Awesomeness”
So what does it mean to ask God to receive our song? To receive something implies an openness. When we experience suffering, there’s the natural tendency to shut down, to turn away from our experience. And while it’s natural to try to lessen our feeling of pain, the effect is that we go more deeply into the tzar- into mitzrayim- into separateness. We’re sent into exile, so to speak, from the fullness of Being in this moment. So when we ask God, Kabel rinat amkha- Receive the song of your people- we’re crying out to be returned from the exile of separateness into the wholeness that we actually are. And in fact, if we cry out with sincerity, if our prayer is truly a rina, a song, then the power of music itself answers the prayer. In fact, the song, the prayer, and the Divine are all one. That’s why it says, in the Havdallah prayer, this verse from Isaiah- Ozi v’zimrat Yah- Yah- God- is my strength and my “z’mira”- my song. Since God is simply Reality Itself, the prayer that we sing is a form of God, and as the song releases us from the bondage of tzerura, of separation, the singing of the prayer its own answer.
There’s a hint of this in the Torah’s description of the Para Adumah- the red cow used to make a special potion that ritually purifies members of the community who had become ritually contaminated by death.
In Parshat Hukat, it says, "Zot hukat haTorah- This is the hok- the decree of the Torah- v’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah- and they should take to you a cow that is red, completely."
The red cow is then burned up, and the ashes are mixed with water to make a special potion for purifying anyone who touches a corpse. The premise behind this is that if you touch a corpse, you become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that you wouldn’t be able to engage in certain rituals without first doing a purification process. So what’s this all about?
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught that “death” represents the past, because the past is over already; it’s dead. The tuma, teaches the Ishbitzer, is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that’s already happened keep you stuck- you’re holding on to something that you really need to let go of- and that’s the tuma- the spiritual “contamination” so to speak.
Now the red cow is itself the very embodiment of death. Why? Because it’s a living creature that’s completely burned up. It’s also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death? Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death- from being angry at something in the past- from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So paradoxically, it’s in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. Now that you accept what has been, you get soaked with the ashes of the red cow, so to speak, and you can let go of it. Then you’re tahor- purified from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the present, into the sacred dimension of simply Being.
So how do you do that? How do you accept whatever you’re resisting, and let go of it? In other words, what are the “red cow ashes” we can use today?
There’s a Hebrew cipher known as Atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to kabbalah, words that are connected through Atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
Now the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah- song. And that’s exactly the power of song and music in general- to transform negativity and resistance not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad- hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples.
That’s the miracle of music- it makes it feel good to feel bad- it transforms negativity without negating it, allowing you to accept and even embrace whatever it is you’re resisting. And out of that letting go grows the realization that there’s only One Reality- there’s not me, on one hand, and that thing I’m judging, on the other, there’s just What Is- there’s just Hashem- Reality, Being, God. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway? That’s the great hok, the great mystery of music itself, and its power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the wholeness that we are.
So let’s chant these words, Kabel Rinat Amkha- Receive the song of your people. As you sing kabel, Receive, be aware of the vast space around you, without border or limit. You can open your hands palms us to help you do that.
When you sing Rinat, Song, bring your hands palms together and bring awareness into your heart. Have the kavanah that your voice is an offering; your singing is a gift. Now if you think you don’t have a good voice, that kavanah might challenge you. So let yourself be like a baby, without judgment or expectation, just singing out- that’s your offering.
When you sing Amkha- Your People- bring your hands still palms together close in to your body, drawing awareness down into your belly, legs and feet, up into your chest, shoulders, arms and hands, up into your face, your skull, your brain. That’s the full sequence.
So Kabel- Receive- is hands open, aware of space, Rinat- Song- is bringing palms together, awareness drawn into the heart, and Amkha- Your People- is bringing hands close to your body and expanding awareness from your heart into your whole body...
Kabel Rinat Amkha
Receive the Song of Your People