This week one of our community members sent me an article criticizing the “mindfulness industry” and asked for my thoughts on the topic. The article claims that today’s mindfulness marketing totally misleads people into thinking that all they need to get rid of stress and be happy is to practice mindfulness, while ignoring the real problems in our society that actually create stress and unhappiness.
While this may be true about mindfulness as an industry, it actually points to a much deeper problem that exists not just in spirituality but in every human endeavor, and that’s the problem of reductionism. When we get excited about something – whether it’s an art, a philosophy, a spiritual practice, a political movement, anything – we tend to reduce everything to that, and ignore other things of vital importance.
The mindfulness industry may be exploiting this tendency toward reductionism for its own marketing ends, but the root of the problem is deeper. And, it’s worth noting that there are both “spiritual” people and “political” people who do this: “if only we would change society," or "if only we would meditate enough," – then our problems would be solved. In the realm of spirituality, this is sometimes called spiritual bypass, but there is also political bypass, economic bypass, and many other bypasses.
The real trick is, how can we be truly integral in our view and not bypass?
One thing that can helpful is to understand why we might bypass. Why would we believe in something so strongly that we ignore other things that are also important? If you work in a kitchen, you have to wash both of your hands. No matter how clean you get your left hand, you still have to wash your right hand; there is no point at which your left hand gets SO clean that you no longer have to wash your right hand. Why would we think otherwise when it comes to other facets of life? There are two basic reasons this might happen:
The first reason is that we may recognize some core truth, and that truth gets exaggerated into a bypass.
In the case of spirituality, this isn’t hard to see: the more awake we become, the more we are able to be of genuine service to those around us. While our spiritual practice may not seem to have any discernible effect on our political/economic system, it can have a profound effect on the real people we interact with every day. This is no small thing – as we know, our daily interactions with others affect not only the tone of our own lives, but have an incalculable effect beyond our immediate experience on countless beings whom we may never meet. And, while some of us may sometimes have a discernible and occasionally profound effect at the political level, nearly all of us are constantly affecting and are being affected by others that we encounter daily. The quality of our interactions, especially with family and others we are close with, can sometimes make the difference between life and death, or between a healthy life and a life of alienation and misery.
It is understandable, then, that in knowing the profoundly transformative and life-changing power of waking up in one’s life, that one might “overstep” and assume that if we awaken, everything else will simply take care of itself. So, it is good to remember: meditation can have a profoundly positive effect, but that doesn’t mean that it will necessarily and automatically “trickle down” to solve all the world’s problems, or even other personal problems such as health or money issues. For those, we may certainly have to do something else. But still, whatever we may have to do, Presence (or mindfulness) can help to open the inner space so that we can clearly see the choices before us, rather than be mired in conditioning and reactivity.
The second reason is the plain fact that we are not in control of what happens.
Nowadays, many of us are experiencing such extreme distress about our larger political and social realities, that it can be overwhelming. Combine that with the fact that no matter what we do, we are not guaranteed any positive outcome, and we can become tempted to give up on that arena. We can be tempted to focus instead solely on the immediate personal realm, where we may be more likely to have some positive effect. We know that we can’t control our society – so why should we drive ourselves crazy trying? Resignation is seductive, and to avoid the pain of despair, we may adopt the belief that we really are doing our best simply by meditating.
There is a wonderful rabbinic aphorism to help us avoid these pitfalls. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon says:
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.
Simple, clean, and radiating with truth: yes, we have no certainty, we have no control. It is not upon us to figure it all out; we can’t figure it all out. But we can act, we should act, from where we are and from what we see and with what is available to us, to participate in tikun, in improving the situation. And that means, don’t reduce – the Divine needs to be realized bashamayim Uva’aretz – in the heavens and on the earth, both.
There is a hint of this in the parshah, where Aaron is instructed to kindle the menorah:
בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, the seven lamps should shine toward the face of the menorah…
It is a strange sentence – how can the light of the seven lamps be made to shine back toward the menorah? Light would simply shine out in all directions.
But on a metaphorical level, the “seven lamps” are the many facets of human endeavor, such as politics, sciences, arts, relationships, and so on, and the menorah as a whole is a glyph that represents an integral vision. Each branch expresses its own unique “light” – its own expression of consciousness – and the trick is to get them all to illuminate their “root” – the unified human being, the one consciousness that we are beneath all our complexity, beneath all our multifaceted experience.
How do we do that?
By constantly working to bring our awareness into connection with the Divine Presence as it manifests in and as this moment, not merely as a technique to bring about a certain effect such as less stress or more happiness, but to be really open to how the Presence is calling upon us to respond, so that we may shine from all “seven branches” – in all dimensions of our lives and at all levels of responsibility, without bypassing even one…
More on Beha'alotkha...
Who is Seeing? Parshat Beha'alotkha
5/29/2018 1 Comment
Once, when Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was traveling, he stopped to spend the night in the town of Lwow. He knocked on the door of a very wealthy man and asked for lodging.
“I have no use for vagrants like you! Why don’t you stay at the inn?” said the man.
“I am not able to afford the inn,” replied Reb Levi Yitzhak. “Please, I won’t be any trouble, let me stay in one of your rooms just for the night.”
“Well then, if you can’t afford the inn,” said the miserly rich man, “go around the corner to the schoolteacher. He likes to take in vagrants, and he will offer you a room, food and drink.”
So, Reb Levi Yitzhak went around the corner to the schoolteacher and was offered lodging. But on his way there, someone in the town recognized him, and began to spread the word that the great Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was at the schoolteacher’s house. Before long, there were throngs of people crowding the house, trying to get a blessing from the master.
Among the crowd was the miserly rich man, who pushed his way to the front. “Master! Master! Forgive me! I didn’t know who you were! Please come and stay with me. All the great rabbis who come through town stay with me!”
“Do you know,” replied Reb Levi Yitzhak, “why such a fuss is made over Avraham and Sarah for their hospitality when they opened their home to the visiting angels and gave them food and drink? Didn’t Lot also invite them in and give them food?
“But in the Torah’s description about Lot, it says, ‘vayovo’u shnei hamalakhim s’domah – two angels came to Sodom,”but with Avraham it says, ‘shloshah anashim nitzavim alav – three men were standing over him.’Lot saw majestic angels, whereas Avraham saw only dusty wayfarers…”
It is easy to see the value of helping others out of love, without ulterior motive. But the “dusty wayfarers” are not just people in need; they can be any undesirable experiences that come to us. When was the last time you were annoyed with something or someone? Were you able to open yourself fully? Did you give your attention generously to the situation or were you like the miserly fellow: “don’t bother me!”
Every experience is an opportunity to remember: “this, now, is the Divine, appearing to me in this form. This, now, is the moment to live my destiny, to step up to the task the Divine is now giving.”
But to do that, you have to be aware not only of what is happening around you, but of what is happening within you. This week’s reading describes the lighting of the menorah:
בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת
When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps shine.
How can the lamps shine their light “toward the face of the menorah?”
Light is awareness; the menorah is your own body. Ordinarily, our “light” tends to shine mostly “outward,” so that there’s a sense of “me” in the body, looking out. But shine your “light” back into your body, and you will be able to sense your own impulses, your own feelings. And as you sense them, you also transcend them; you are not your thoughts and feelings alone. You are the light.You are here now to be a light in the world, to be a beacon of hospitality toward everything that appears to you.
To realize your own being as the "Light" of awareness, try inquiring: "Who is seeing?'
"Shine!" Seven Affirmations for Liberation – Parshat Beha'alotkha
Psalm 91 talks about a person yosheiv b’seiter Elyon- who sits in the refuge of the Most High. Such a person, it says, is protected from all danger. Rak b’einekha tabit- all they have to do is peer with their eyes- v’shilumat r’shayim tir’eh- and the retribution of the wicked they will see.
So it sounds like it’s saying that when you take refuge in the Divine, then you’ll see anyone who does you harm be punished. But the words for retribution of the wicked, v’shilumat r’shayim, imply something much deeper. The root of retribution is shin-lamed-mem- the same as shalom- peace, as well as shalem- wholeness. In other words, it’s not talking about punishing your tormentors, but coming into harmony with them.
And how do you do that? Rak b’einekha tabit- only peer with your eyes. In other words, when you only “see,” meaning when you stick to just being aware of the r’shayim- meaning the things that disturb you- rather than reacting, rather than judging, rather than trying to push or pull anything in any direction, then shilumat r’shayim tir’eh- the “seeing” meaning the perceiving itself creates a sense of shalem- a sense of wholeness and peace. This is because the more you simply perceive, the more you can sense yourself as the perceiving, rather than the reacting and the judging. And that perceiving, that deeper awareness, is always already at peace, always already whole, because perception is nothing but an open space, simply knowing and connecting with the experience of this moment.
So how to you cultivate this kind of simple awareness? There’s a wonderful hint in this week’s Torah reading.
In Parshat Beha’alotkha, it says, beha’alotkha et haneirot- when you kindle the flames- el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shiv’at haneirot- toward the face of the menorah the seven fires shall cast their light.
Now when the Kohanim would kindle the flames of the menorah, most likely they didn’t create the fire by rubbing sticks together. Rather, they had some fire already from which they would light the lamps, so that the act of lighting would be almost effortless. Once you have some flame, it’s not difficult to ignite another flame.
Similarly, if you want to become present, it’s almost effortless because your awareness that connects with the simple reality of this moment is already here. All you need is the intention of becoming present, and miraculously it happens almost by itself. Beha’alotkha et haneirot- to light the fire of awareness- just ask yourself, what is present? And then you can notice- are there sounds that you’re perceiving? Are there sensations? Are there feelings? Emotions? Thoughts? It’s very simple because with Presence, you’re not doing anything about anything, you’re just staying in the noticing.
And when you do that, there’s this wonderful paradox. On one hand, this temple of your own body comes into the foreground. Your own breathing, ordinarily taken for granted, becomes the central event. Your body is like the menorah- just as the menorah supports the fire, so your body is the basis for your consciousness, and when you become present, the lamps of awareness are all facing into your body.
On the other hand, just as the light that shines on the menorah isn’t confined to the menorah but shines without limit or border, so too your awareness isn’t confined to your body at all, but rather is an open field, vast, spacious and without border or limit. So as you notice what is present right now, see if you can also notice the vastness that notices, the light of awareness el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru- shining on the menorah of your body, and also beyond.
And yet simple as Presence is, the forces that pull us away from Presence can be very powerful. Thankfully, we have not one but seven lamps- shiv’at haneirot- to help us. These are, of course, the seven sefirot of the Kabbalah, which correspond to the seven weeks of the Omer period that just ended with Shavuot- Hesed- Loving-kindness, Gevurah- Strength, Tiferet- Beauty or Harmony, Netzakh- Persistence, Hod- Gratitude and Humility, Yesod- Foundation and Malkhut- Kingdom.
CHANT AND MEDITATION
We can use each of these sefirot as kavanot, or affirmations of Presence, and when you do all of them together in sequence, their effect together is very very deep. Let’s try it now:
Bringing your right hand to your heart for Hesed- Loving-Kindness, and please repeat after me:
“I offer my awareness”
Now left hand on your belly for Gevurah- Strength- and say,
“to the temple of this body”
Now touch your right hand to your forehead for Tiferet, Harmony, and say,
“arising in the open space of awareness”
And bringing right hand palm up to your right thigh for Netzakh, Persistence, and say,
“Returning again and again to Presence”
Now bring your left hand, palm up, to your left thigh for Hod, Gratitude, and say,
“Giving thanks for this constant opportunity to Return”
And bring your palms together over your heart for Yesod, the Foundation of living Presence, and say,
“Expressing this Presence in loving words and actions”
And finally opening your hands, palms up, for Malkhut- the Kingdom of Reality, and say,
“Trusting the way everything is unfolding.”
Amein. And chanting from the parshah, ya’iru- which means, they shine, referring to the seven sefirot. So as we chant ya’iru, perceptualizing the seven lights shining in your body.
And coming to silence, chanting Ya’iru___ silently in your mind for about seven minutes. When your mind wanders, you simply return to the chant- "Ya’iru" letting it vibrate in your mind...
Chopped- Parshat Beha'alotkha
During my son’s tenth year, he started getting really into gourmet cooking. He was inspired mostly by the competitive cooking show, “Chopped.”
On Chopped, four contestants would cook under pressure, limited by time and strange ingredients. The challenge was to come up with something delicious and original under the constraints they were given.
I’ve watched Chopped many times with him. One thing I’ve found interesting is that in the interview clips with the contestants, they would all boast about how great they were and how they would beat everyone.
As the show unfolds, three courses are prepared- an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. After each course, the contestants are critiqued and one is “chopped” by the judges, until one winner is left at the end.
As each contestant loses, we see some post-losing interview clips. Almost invariably, the contestants express a little sadness for losing. But then they express gratitude for having been given the opportunity to compete, and say they look forward to improving their skills and continuing to serve people with their cooking.
It seems to me that the contestants must be coached by the producers on what to say in the interviews, because it just doesn’t make sense- people who boast generally don’t turn around and express gratitude and humility when they lose, and people who are humble generally don’t boast about how great they are. It's as if when they are "chopped," their egos get chopped as well!
On the other hand, tremendous self-confidence can paradoxically live side-by-side with tremendous humility and gratitude.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses-
“V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od-
“And the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble?
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel, delivering laws from God and leading them in numerous victorious battles with their enemies. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t have to mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you.”
In fact, there is no separate “you” at all, there is just Reality in all Its different forms. That's why Moses was humble- he was great, but he wasn’t concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and empowering at the same time.
Which brings us to a second paradox:
In order to keep your attention on the greatness of Reality, rather than on your own self-image in relation to others, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your own body. Your fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens:
“Beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot-
“When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness, the menorah is your body.
Keep the “light” of your awareness rooted in your body, and you become present. Become present, and the vastness of Eternity is open to you- not as some heaven or afterlife to be earned and enjoyed later, but as the living experience of this moment- free and open to all.
And yet, this gift is not completely free. To receive it, you have to “chop” the idea that it must be earned, by you or anyone else. Otherwise you will judge yourself and others, and in that judgment, the present moment is lost.
Instead, let the truth of this moment be as it is. Let the truth of your own talents and flaws be as it is. Let others be as they are. That’s humility- and greatness- honoring the truth without judgment, being present to Reality.
Then, the separate ego-self that demands and judges naturally gets “chopped,” and the vastness of heaven is available.
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to say that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come. He explained that when he dies and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come on in! We can see that you honor the truth, and for that you are ready for all the rewards of heaven!”
On this Shabbat Beha’alotkha, the Sabbath of Light, may the light of awareness shine in our bodies with great depth and presence, opening the vastness of heaven that's ever available. May we serve the Greatness in whatever way it calls to us, and may that service bring benefit to all.
Can't You Do Anything Right? Parshat Baha'alotkha
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to express his immense gratitude that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come.
He explained that when he leaves his body and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the Mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come right on in! We can see you are telling the truth, and for that you deserve all the rewards of the World to Come!”
The “World to Come” is actually free, and it is not even in the future, but is present now- thank God! The wholeness of your innermost being cannot get anymore whole than it already is!
But, it is easy to get blocked from feeling and knowing this truth for yourself, simply by craving validation and defending yourself. Reb Elimelekh was considered to be a tzaddik, a spiritual master, yet he had no need to claim anything. He admits- “I could have done better.” He is not defending himself to the heavenly court, and therefore he is open to receive the spiritual gift that is ever-flowing.
Why does defensiveness cut you off from your inherent bliss?
Because defensiveness actually creates your “self” as something separate, as something incomplete. That’s the paradox- if you claim to be somehow superior, valid, righteous or whatever, you create a sense of self that is inherently inferior, invalid, incomplete and separate.
But if you admit- “I could have done better… and whatever good I’ve done is by the grace of God”- then you relax the tense contraction of self concern, and return to the Wholeness that you already are, but that you can’t claim or own.
Then, simply to be is a tremendous gift, not a burden. In fact, it’s the need to defend yourself that’s the burden! Let go of that, and gratitude naturally follows.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses, “v’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- and the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble??
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you”; in fact there is no separate “you” at all, there is just the Mystery of Being in all Its different forms. That's just what Moses did- he was not concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
What Greatness is calling to you?
At this moment, what are you being asked to step up to and serve?
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and liberating.
Which brings us to a second paradox: In order to keep your attention on Being, rather than on your identity, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your body. That’s right- your own fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens: “…beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot- when you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness. The menorah is your body, with its seven centers of consciousness and seven basic “middot”- spiritual qualities that express your inner Divinity, beyond ego.
Of these qualities, “humility” and “gratitude” are often coupled together as the fifth middah (if you are counting from the top down, or the third of you count from the bottom up).
On this Shabbos Beha’a lotkha, I bless you that you should ignite the fire of your awareness to greater depth and presence in your body, that you more deeply taste the freedom and bliss of your inner Divinity, and that you recommit to serve the Greatness in whatever way you are being called to serve.
Be good to one another, Good Shabbos!
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