Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
Greetings beloved friends!
This Friday night, running through Saturday night is Tu Bishvat (The 15th of Sh’vat)- the New Year of the Trees. There’s a wonderful ritual of eating different kinds of fruit to celebrate the trees, and also to connect with your inner tree, the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah. There’s a beautiful seder put together by my friend Rabbi David Seidenberg, which I’m posting as well, and you can get a lot more wonderful materials for Tu Bishvat on his website, neohasid.org, so check that out if you’re interested.
View or Download Rabbi David Seidenberg's 1-Page Haggadah Flow Chart:
In this video I want to talk about two kinds of motivation to do your avodah, your spiritual practice:
Download or Stream Audio mp3:
Karov Karov Karov l’khol korav
Hashem is close to all who cry out-
There are generally two kinds of motivation for spiritual practice:
The first kind of motivation comes from your mind. You understand intellectually that it’s a good idea to meditate, so you try to convince yourself, discipline yourself, make rules for yourself and so on, in order to motivate yourself to practice.
For most people, this strategy alone doesn’t work too well. Just look at all the people who smoke cigarettes or eat unhealthy food. Nearly everyone knows those things are bad for you intellectually, but that’s not enough to change their habits. Why? Because the motivation to smoke the cigarettes is much more powerful, since it comes from desire. You may understand that you should stop, but you don’t want to stop, and want is far more powerful than intellectual understanding for most people. So, if you want to be motivated to do your avaodah, it’s usually not enough to think you should do it, you have to want to do it, which is the second and far more powerful type of motivation.
So where does that thirst come from- that longing for the Divine, or for liberation, or for Truth, or Oneness?
It can come in one of two different ways. The first way it may come is from experiencing intense suffering, and wanting to get free from it. The second way it may come is from getting a little taste of Divine bliss or freedom or Oneness and wanting more. And sometimes, you might be motivated by both.
There’s a story about the legendary Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Barukh, that illustrates this last scenario nicely. The story goes that Rabbi Barukh was teaching on the hundred and nineteenth psalm, which says in verse 19:
“Ger anokhi ba’aretz- al tister mimeini mitzvotekha- I am a stranger on the earth- don’t hide Your commandments from me!”
Rabbi Barukh explained that this is like a person who’s been driven into exile, and they come to an alien land where the language and the customs are completely different. But then, a second stranger appears, and even though the first stranger may have had nothing in common with the second stranger, they both now have one thing in common- they’re both strangers in the alien land, so they become great friends, all because they’re both strangers. And so this is what the Psalm means- it’s saying to Hashem:
“Ger anokhi ba’aretz- I feel like a ger- a stranger- out of place and disconnected from my life and the world. But you Hashem are present here as well- so please, al tister mimeini mitzvotekha- don’t conceal Yourself from me, but let me connect with You.” (The word for “commandment” shares a root with the Aramaic word, tzava, which means to connect.)
So in the story, first is mentioned the feeling of being disconnected, separate, or alien. That’s the suffering that leads the stranger to a spiritual longing, and so the stranger cries out to God, “Don’t conceal yourself.”
Practically speaking, you can try this yourself any time you’re feeling suffering. The tendency when you feel suffering, of course, is to pull away from your feeling, to judge it, to wish you were feeling something else. But instead, try remembering- this suffering is part of Reality, arising in the space of this moment, and therefore God, or Truth, or Being is just as much present in the suffering as in the highest spiritual experience. You can even pray like the story, “Oh Hashem, reveal yourself in this space.”
When you do that, what happens?
Instead of pulling away or judging your experience, you come into it, you savor it- in other words, you become present. And when you become present, you can begin to notice that however unappealing or strange your situation is, it’s all happening within the space of this moment, which is not different from the space of your own Presence, and there’s nothing more intimate, more complete, more beautiful than this Presence.
So when you approach your suffering in this way, coming close to it rather than pulling away from it and transforming it into prayer, you may feel the suffering more not less, but you move through it much more quickly to the Divine Presence that’s underneath. In this way, you’re motivated in your practice both by the experience of suffering, as well as the sweet taste of Presence.
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Behsalakh. Beshalakh means, “sending out.” It says:
“Vay’hi beshalakh Paro et ha’am- and it was when Pharaoh sent out the people- v’lo nakham Elohim derekh eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu- God didn’t lead them on the road to the land of the Philistines which was closer- ki amar Elohim pen yinakhem ha’am birotam milkhama v’shavu mitzrayma- because God said, ‘The people might reconsider when they see battle and return back to Egypt.’”
Metaphorically speaking, Pharaoh sending out the Israelites is like when we are sent out of our inner bondage by the experience of suffering; we don’t like the suffering, so we’re motivated to find spiritual freedom. And if you want spiritual freedom, there’s a really fast, direct way to get it- just come to this moment as it is, without resistance. That’s the practice of Presence.
But then it says, “…v’lo nakham Elohim derekh eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu- God didn’t lead them on the road to the land of the Philistines which was closer…”
The reason is that when they encounter battle with the Philistines, they might go back to Egypt. And this is the obstacle that many people get caught in when doing spiritual work. You start practicing Presence, then all this inner pain comes up- all your psychological issues and resistances, and rather than be motivated by all that suffering you’d rather go back to your old strategies. It’s easier to just drink some wine and watch a movie.
At that point, you need something even deeper to keep you on track, and that’s the power of faith hinted at in the phrase, “Ki Karov Hu.” In the plain sense, this simply means, “which was close” referring to the road in the land of the Philistines, which would have been the closer path for the Israelites to take. But the word Hu is also a Divine Name. Karov means close, but it can also mean intimate, connected. So on this deeper level, it’s saying that the Divine is present on the road of battle, that is, the experience of deep suffering. Have faith in that, because at first you won’t experience it. You’ll experience pain. But know ki karov hu- beneath the suffering is the spacious openness and wholeness of this moment, the Divine Presence that is not separate from your own presence, your own consciousness. You can access this Presence by being present- that is, by being karov, coming close to your actual experience in this moment, especially in suffering. Faith, and prayer, can help you do that.
So as we come close to this Shabbat Beshalakh, the "Sabbath of Sending," may we come close, karov, to the Reality of our actual experience and allow that truth to send us out from Mitzrayim- from the constriction of separation, into the wild mystery of Presence...