Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
Weekly Remembrance Phrase:
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In this episode we'll explore two steps toward gaining self-mastery in the midst of difficult experiences, and how this relates to dealing with unconscious people and groups, such as the Neo-Nazis in the news lately. It is the also the seventh episode and chant from the mystical prayer, Ana B'khoakh and connects with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei.
To access the other six teachings on Ana B'khoakh, Click here for the first, here for the second, here for the third, here for the fourth, here for the fifth, and here for the sixth. Or, check out those and many others in the new index (under construction).
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
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The seventh line of the mystical prayer Ana B’khoakh says, Shavatienu kabel – Receive our cries – Ush’ma tza’akateinu – and hear our bitter cries – Yodea Ta’alumot – O Knower of Mysteries!
Let’s look at the first two phrases: Shavatienu kabel – Receive our cries – Ush’ma tza’akateinu – and hear our bitter cries. One thing that pops out are the two different words for “cry.” Let’s look at how those two words are used in other places to get a sense of their difference.
In Psalm 30 it says, “Shivati eilekha vatirpa’eini – I cried out You and You healed me.” Shivati, I cried, is a different form of shavatienu, our cries. It sounds like the author of this psalm was either sick or in pain, so he cries out to God and is healed. In this verse, the cry is a kind of prayer, and it has a positive result.
This is different from the second kind of crying. In Bereishit, in Genesis, there’s the story of how Ya’akov, Jacob, steals the blessing of the first born from his brother, Esav, by tricking their father. In chapter 27, verse 34, Esav has just found out what happened, and it says, “Kish’moa Eisav et divrei aviv – When Eisav heard his father’s words – vayitz’ak tz’aka gedola umara ad meod – he cried out with a great and very bitter cry…” A few lines later, Eisav thinks to himself that he wants to kill his brother for revenge.
So, this kind of cry, a tz’aka, like tza’akateinu, is more of a negative, bitter, angry kind of cry, a cry that leads to causing more suffering, whereas the first cry may begin with suffering, but it ends with healing. For us, it’s vital to really get the difference between these two kinds of cries, and to learn how to transform the second kind into the first kind. So, let’s dive in...
To begin, let’s notice that there are two basic kinds of experience. The first kind are your experiences that are more or less constant – the feeling of your breathing, the sense of your body, are obvious ones. So just sense that for a moment. Your breathing and body are always with you.
Now, notice that there’s something else that’s more or less constant as well, something we might call your background feeling tone. What I mean by that is, what’s your general feeling of being? Is it a little fearful? Is it worried? Is it blissful? Is it joyful? Grateful? This is the felt sense of being that you carry around with you all the time, beneath whatever other experiences you’re having.
So that’s the first kind of experience – the experience that’s more or less constant.
But on top if that, there are experiences that are always changing, always coming and going. Most of these experiences aren’t particularly noteworthy, but what is noteworthy is that when you have intensely negative experiences, experiences that maybe causes you to cry out, or blurt out obscenities, or whatever, these intense experiences also come and go. They’re temporary. Think about it: have you ever had an intense emotion of anger or frustration or jealousy, or even an intensely positive experience like joy or pleasure, and then it just stayed the same forever? Probably not. When it comes to intense experiences, you can pretty much count on one thing: as sure as the experience comes, it will go.
And yet, for some reason, we often behave as if that’s not true. Something good happens, and we want to hold onto it. We get disappointed when it fades. Or, something gets us upset, and we get all insistent about how things have to be, how we absolutely can’t deal with this or that, when in reality all these experiences are just passing through.
So, the real problem with regard to experience is not the experience itself, but rather it’s the tendency to get hypnotized by our experiences; to give them way, way more importance than they need to have. Experiences arise on their own and fade on their own. Once they appear, you can’t force them away, and when they do leave, you can’t force them to stay.
So, to gain self-mastery and not be tossed around by your experiences and feelings, the key is not to control them, but rather to control your impulse to control them. That you can control, and it’s not even difficult, as long as you can remember and not get hypnotized.
Because when you do get hypnotized, not only are you creating more suffering in the moment, but you actually pollute the first type of experience we talked about as well – the level of experience that’s always constant. That’s because, when you hold on to things in an emotional way, by resisting negative feelings or dwelling on how you want to get back to some positive feeling, you create tension in your nervous system. That tension dampens and distorts your natural bliss and joy of Being. It can even get trapped in your body and create all kinds of physical pains as well.
So how to do you make sure you don’t get trapped by your experiences and then also clean yourself out from all that accumulated tension from the past? Let’s get back to the Ana B’khoakh verse:
Shavateinu kabel – Receive our cries. This is the prayerful cry that leads to healing. When you have a negative experience, remember this prayer: that you want to become a master. That you want to be free from any impulses, feelings or experiences that arise by remembering that it’s all temporary. So rather than aggressively projecting your anger onto others, shavateinu kabel– remember to receive this cry from your heart, the cry for the Divine. Don’t let it be squashed by whatever you’re feeling in the moment. You can do this in your own words, praying something like, “O Hashem, help me to simply be with this emotion, help me to know that it is coming and going, help me to use this experience as an opportunity for practice.”
So then, once you do that, once you re-member your spiritual goal that tends to get hidden by powerful emotions, then what do you do?
Ush’ma tza’akateinu – and hear our bitter cries…
In other words, when you feel like Esav, wanting to murder your brother or whatever, don’t resist your feelings; be present with them. Feel them completely. Because when you want God, when you want freedom, it’s easy to accidentally push down your negative feelings, and that resistance only causes them to get stuck, polluting your constant state of being.
So, the first part, Shavateinu kabel – Receive our cries, reminds us to get in touch with our desire for freedom. It reminds us to use the negative experience we’re having as an opportunity to practice. The second part, Ush’ma tza’akateinu – and hear our bitter cries, is the path for how to do that. It tells us that the path to freedom isn’t about pushing away negativity, but rather being present with it, allowing it be as it is. It’s going to fade away anyway on its own; why put energy into pushing it away? And, paradoxically, when you really allow your experience to be as it is, then whatever tensions there are in your nervous system from the past will get burned away in the fire of your awareness. That’s the paradox- when you allow negativity negative, then over time your experience becomes more and more positive, more enjoyable, because your natural state without that tension of wanting things to be different, is enjoyable. And the best part is, it’s almost effortless. You don’t conquer yourself through battle with what is, but through opening to what is. There’s a hint of this truth in another piece of Torah.
Parshat Ki Teitzei begins, “Ki teitzei lamilkhamah al oyvekha – When you go out in battle against your enemies – untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – and Hashem puts them in your hands – v’shavita shivyo – and you capture their captivity…”
On the surface, it’s starting to talk about laws of battle. But on a deeper level, what are your enemies? They’re the intense experiences that we tend to get caught in. You get angry, and you project the blame on something out there, struggling, maybe yelling, or judging, all of which are all about trying to force reality into conforming to your will, or maybe punishing it for not conforming. Or, you have a wonderful experience, and you get disappointed or even depressed when it’s over, because you’re psychologically clinging to the past.
But this verse is saying, untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – and Hashem puts them in your hands. In other words, you can have victory over your enemies, but it doesn’t come through fighting or struggling. Your victory is put right in your hand, if you open your hand. Meaning, don’t struggle with your experiences. Fully let them be as they are, without clinging to good things or blaming anyone for bad things, and then let them go when they want to go. It’s really effortless, because it’s not about controlling things, but about relaxing the impulse to control things. That’s why it says, shavita shivyo – you capture their captivity. Meaning, our experiences are constantly trying to capture us, to draw us in to their dream and sometimes nightmare, but if you remember: simply be with this moment as it is, and let it go when it goes, then you easily “capture its captivity” – you can control your impulse to control, and be victorious over your own mind.
This is also totally relevant in dealing with other people that may be possessed by collective ego, such as what we are seeing today neo-nazis and so on. When you see others that are hateful or angry or demeaning, and you get dragged into their drama, judging and hating them back, you only reinforce the context that creates people like that. So even as you stand up for justice, even as you say no to ideologies of hate and the people who promote them, remember that you have a tremendous power to make a difference in the world on a very deep level if you can stay conscious and not get dragged into the drama. Because ultimately, it’s only when there’s a profound change in consciousness, only when enough people learn to see through their own egos, only then will the plug get pulled on the destructive forms of collective ego that we see today.
And to help make that change in consciousness, there’s ultimately only one way, and that’s to see through your own ego. You’re never going to get someone else to see through their ego by judging and yelling at them, right? You can only see through your own, and in so doing, create a ripple of awakening that will join with other ripples of awakening, until enough people wake up. It doesn’t have to be everyone, it just has to be enough to tip the balance.
So on this Shabbat Ki Teitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, let’s remember that to engage the enemy of resistance, of ego, don’t “go out” into battle, because that only creates more ego, more resistance. Instead, know that untano Hashem Elohekha b’yadekha – Victory is being put right in your hand, if only you open your hand, if you open yourself to the experience of this moment.
And that brings us to the last piece of our Ana B’khoakh verse, Yodea Ta’alumot- Knower of Mysteries. It’s a funny phrase – kind of like “taster of the tasteless” or “seer of the invisible.” Because what is a mystery? It’s something you don’t kno! So, what does it mean to be a “knower of mysteries?”
In Hebrew, the word for knowledge, Da’at, doesn’t necessarily mean intellectual knowledge. It can also mean knowledge through intimate connection, as in the creation story, where it says, “Adam knew Eve,” referring to intimacy. So, in this sense, to be Yodea Ta’alumot- Knower of Mysteries, means to be intimately connected with that which can’t be known by your mind. And what is it that can’t be known by your mind? Reality itself! All things are ultimately ta’alumot- all things are mysteries.
But when you think you know, when you project your anger and judgment on others because you think you know them, then there’s no intimacy with the present. But if you’re aware of your impulses and don’t get trapped, you can open ever more deeply to the fullness of this moment, to the fullness of the Mystery.
So, let’s sing these last two words, Yodea Ta’alumot- Knower of Mysteries, having in mind that everything arising in our experience is ultimately the One Mystery. You can hate things, you can love things, but above all open to everything as it happens. Because as you stay with whatever’s happening, you will know yourself more and more as the open space of Presence, naturally blissful and fully at peace. So when you sing Yodea, Knower, feel your awareness reaching out and opening to whatever is happening now. When you sing Ta’alumot, Mysteries, have in mind that everything you perceive is a form of the One Mystery, a form of the Divine...
Knower of Mysteries