Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
Weekly Remembrance Phrase:
"Listening to the Voice of the Body..."
This episode explores the "pupil of the eye" as a metaphor of awareness. It is the third episode and chant from the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh and connects with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Balak.
To access the other two teachings, on Ana B'khoakh, click here for the first and here for the second, or check out those and many others in the new index that I'm building, thanks to the suggestion and extra support of Rahmaneh in New Mexico. Enjoy!
Teaching, Chant and Meditation All-In-One
Audio for Streaming or Download:
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” meaning, the narrow, limited self-sense that we tend to imagine ourselves into.
Kabel rinat amkha, sagveinu tahareinu, Nora!
Kabel rinat amkha – "Receive the song of your people!" – Sagveinu Tahareinu, Nora – "Strengthen us, Purify us, oh Awesomeness!”
This mystical prayer, Ana B’khoakh, goes on to say:
Na Gibor dorshei yikhud’kha, k’vavat Shomreim –
Na Gibor- “Please, Divine Strength” – dorshei yikhud’kha- “those who foster Your Oneness” – k’vavat Shomreim - “like the pupil of an eye, guard them.”
This third line is unusual. If we’re asking God to guard us, to keep us safe, why are we likening ourselves to a bavat- a pupil of an eye? It seems like it would make more sense to say, please guard us like a baby, or guard us like a city, but guard us like a pupil? It’s a strange idiom.
So let’s go into this a little bit.
What is the pupil of an eye? The pupil is actually the opening through which pours the light that creates the images we see. The pupil is essentially a hole. And if you make eye contact with a person, it’s really the pupil of the eye that gives you the sense of eye contact being made. That’s why in all those zombie movies, when they want to make a person seem like they’re dead, they somehow take away the pupils from the actors’ eyes. Maybe they do with special contact lenses, maybe they use CGI, but however they do it, the effect of an eye with no pupil is the effect of there being nobody home. It’s a disturbing image to see a person’s eye with no pupil, because we somehow know intuitively that the pupil indicates consciousness- it indicates that there’s someone there.
Which is interesting, because everyone’s pupils look more or less the same. The color of people’s eyes are different, the shape of people’s eyes are different, the face in which the eyes are set is completely unique for each person. You can’t tell the identity of someone by their pupils; you need to see their face. And yet, it’s the pupil that tells you there’s consciousness, that there’s someone home.
And this fact of the pupil indicating consciousness, on one hand, yet also being nothing but an opening, on the other, is also a great symbol for who we really are. Are we our bodies? No. Are we our faces? No. Are we our feelings? Our thoughts? Our personalities? All of these things are part of us, but none of them are essentially us. The only essential ingredient is consciousness; and like the pupil of your eye, your consciousness is simply an opening. It’s not unique, it’s more or less the same for everyone, and yet it’s the most miraculous and precious thing. Without consciousness, everything else is just a shell; just a bundle of patterns.
So this prayer is crying out, in the first line, tatir tzerura- untie the bundle! Meaning, uncover and reveal this essential openness that we are, beneath the bundle of patterns of our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings, so that we can know ourselves as this simple openness, k’vavat- like a pupil.
Now there’s a certain paradox of consciousness which is also reflected in the pupil.
On one hand, the pupil is a simple openness, taking in the whole image of whatever is being seen. Similarly, consciousness is also the simple openness of experience. So in this moment, you may notice, there’s a richness to your experience- there’s your sensations, your senses, the movement of your breathing, any feelings or emotions that may be vibrating in your body, as well as thoughts that arise, persist for some time, and then dissipate. And all this richness is part of one unfolding experience in the present.
And yet, at the same time, when you’re aware of the full richness of experience that’s arising in this moment, there also arises the choice to entertain some things within your experience and to not to entertain other things. For example, some anger arises, or the impulse to judge or complain – and you can notice that it’s there, but not act on it. So on the deepest level, you’re saying “Yes” to it, you’re recognizing that this negative impulse exists in this moment, and that’s perfectly okay, but on the level of choice you can say “No” to it by choosing not to act on it; you just let it be there and then to let it dissipate.
On the other hand, an impulse may arise to really listen to the person talking to you, or to be generous in some way, and you may choose to say “Yes” to that impulse on both levels; you say “Yes” first to its existence, just as you would to anything that arises when you’re being present, but you might also say “Yes” to act on it. So on the deepest level of awareness, there’s a single “Yes” to everything that arises in the moment. That’s the akhdut- the Oneness, or non-duality of experience. But on the level of choice, there’s a “Yes” to some things and a “No” to other things; that’s the duality of discernment or wisdom.
This truth is also reflected in the metaphor of the pupil, in that we generally have two pupils. So on one hand the pupil is a simple openness to light which creates a single image, a single experience- that’s the akhdut, or Oneness level. And yet, there are two pupils, hinting at the yes and the no, the duality of choice that arises within the akhdut of the present.
There’s also a hint of this in the Torah story of Bilam the sorcerer.
In Parshat Balak, the king of Moav, whose name is Balak, becomes frightened of all these Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley. So, he sends messengers out to the mysterious, reclusive sorcerer Bilam to request that he put a curse on the Israelites. At first, Bilam refuses. But after several requests, he concedes and rides out on his donkey. Next, there’s a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals. (The other one is the talking snake in the Garden of Eden).
In this passage, Bilam rides out on his donkey through a vineyard, when suddenly an angel appears and blocks his path with sword drawn. But, only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets angry and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” says Bilam.
Suddenly, Bilam’s eyes are magically “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, apologizes and offers to turn back. The angel tells him not to turn back, but he should be careful only say the words that the Divine will place in his mouth to say.
So, Bilam goes on his way, and meets up with King Balak, who pleads with Bilam to curse the Israelites. But, every time Bilam opens his mouth, he pronounces blessings instead. King Balak tries again and again to get Bilam to curse, bringing him to different places on a mountain overlooking the Israelite camp, as if that would change something. But every time, it just comes out more blessings. In Bilam’s final blessing, he says,
“N’um Bilam, b’no v’or un’um hagever sh’tum ha’ayin-
“The words of Bilam son of Beor, the words of the man with an open eye…”
“N’um shomea imrei El, asher makhazeh Shaddai, yekhezeh nofel ug’lui einayim-
“The words of the one who hears the sayings of God, who sees the vision of Shaddai, while fallen and with uncovered eyes-
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
-and the blessings flow on from there.
So what’s going on here? Why is it that Bilam’s donkey perceives the angel before he does, and why do his eyes become “uncovered” as a result of the donkey speaking to him? And, once his eyes are uncovered, how does that allow him to “hear” the Divine voice, transforming curses into blessings?
So one way to grasp this passage is to understand that the donkey is your own body. There’s a tendency to take the body for granted, as if it’s just a vehicle to achieve your intentions- like a car, or a donkey that you ride on. But the spiritual potential of your body is to be a temple of Presence – a vessel for the light of your awareness.
So at first, Bilam is just hitting his donkey, trying to control it. That’s the ego- selfish, angry, and entitled. But when he starts listening to what the donkey is telling him, then suddenly he can see the angel and hear it speak. Meaning, when you become present with your body, anchoring your awareness in your breathing, then you can clearly see the nature of your impulses that arise, and hear the “angels of your better nature” so to speak. So rather than simply being taken over by yoru impulses, there’s space to really see which which ones are blessings and which are curses. That’s the “uncovering of the eyes” so to speak. There’s an impulse of anger, or an urge to put someone down- you can see that clearly and not be taken over by it. Or, there’s an impulse of love, of supportiveness, of listening- that’s a blessing, and you can choose that. That’s the Yes and the No of being conscious.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, being warm and loving, but see candy with your left eye, not being taken over by that urge to grab at it!”
But to maintain your Presence in your body so as to be aware of your freedom to choose blessing and not curse, you have to be ever-watchful; you have to be on guard constantly. Just as the pupil of an eye- k’vavat- is an open space of perception, so your awareness is also an open space through which you can watchfully guard- shomreim- the movements and sensations of your body with gibor- with strength. And, in so doing, we become dorshei yikhudekha- the ones who foster or tap into the Oneness of Reality, the Oneness of this moment.
So let’s chant these words: K’vavat Shomreim. As you sing k’vavat, “like a pupil,” open your hands palms upward, to express the openness and transcendence of awareness. And when you sing Shomreim, “Guard Them,” bring your hands in, palms together, intensifying presence in your body. So k’vavat, open hands and aware of the open spaciousness of awareness beyond the body, the space around your body, then shomreim, bringing in hands and intensifying awareness within the body...
Like a Pupil (of an eye), Guard Them