Here in Oakland, the fleas are like monsters- much bigger than on the east coast. Our cat brings them in, so we have to treat the cat once per month with some anti-flea stuff. To get the flea stuff on him, I have to part the hair on the back of his neck and squirt the stuff as best I can onto his skin. To do that, I first have to pet him, make him feel relaxed, then apply the fluid when he’s not suspecting.
There’s only one problem. When I first got the cat as a kitten, I lived in a bachelor pad with two roommates. The cat got plenty of attention. Since having kids, however, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for taking care of a pet has waned. Two little humans with all their needs, desires and demands are simply enough; I can’t get so excited about taking care of an animal too. Not that I am neglectful or anything- the cat gets fed and taken care of- but I don’t exactly sit around and pet him.
And that’s the problem: Since I only pet him when I am about to put the flea stuff on him, he knows what’s coming! As soon as I start being nice and try to pet him, he runs away. In order for him to relax when I pet him, petting would have to become an every day thing, not a monthly occurrence.
It’s exactly the same with spiritual practice. If you only do it occasionally when you feel like you need it, it’s not going to do what it has the potential to do- transform you completely. For that, it has to become an every day thing.
There is a spectrum of spiritual intelligence along which the human experience dances. At one extreme, a person is like a “black hole”-never satisfied, always needing to grab more for him/herself. At this extreme, a person lives to “get”. The “black hole” is always restless, always seeking the next experience to feel more complete.
At the other extreme, a person can be like a star- radiant, burning with joy and aliveness, giving of him/herself for its own sake, out of love for giving.
Each person lives somewhere on this spectrum. These two poles are not merely potentials of the human personality; they actually exist at different levels of our being. For example, at the level of the body, we truly are like black holes. Every day we have to take in more food and water. Even more desperate is our need for air. The body is not satisfied with a deep breath for more than a few seconds before it has to take another.
At the level of awareness, however, the opposite is true. The job of awareness is to sense what is, not to prefer one thing over another. If awareness were to have preferences, it wouldn’t work. First we have to perceive whatever is there, then our mind can have preferences about it. Awareness itself is just openness- a boundless field of knowing.
As long as things basically go our way, as long as our needs are pretty much taken care of, it is very easy to live in the dream of the “black hole” without even knowing it. The satisfied person may feel no need for spirituality, because the “black hole within” gets its needs met. But sooner or later, the system shatters. Health fails, loss happens, failure happens, and a person goes into crisis. Like the body gasping for air, the ego can desperately seek a way out of its pain.
So what is the solution? How can we awaken from the dream of ego without having to get shattered?
Parshat Mikeitz begins with the Pharaoh having a disturbing dream. He dreams that seven robust, healthy cows emerge from the Nile, grazing in the marshland. Then, seven sickly emaciated cows emerge and swallow up the seven healthy cows. Furthermore, after the skinny cows eat the fat cows, they are just as skinny as before. He then has a similar dream with ears of grain rather than cows. Pharaoh calls on his necromancers and wise people, but no one can interpret the dream. He then gets a tip that an imprisoned Hebrew named Joseph is a great dream interpreter. Joseph is summoned and interprets the dream for Pharaoh: The seven healthy cows and ears of grain represent seven years of plenty. The seven bad cows and grain represent seven years of famine that will follow the seven years of plenty. Pharaoh is impressed. He elevates Joseph to a royal status and places him in charge of gathering and storing grain for the time of famine. In this way, Egypt is saved and becomes a breadbox for surrounding countries during the time of famine.
The essence of Joseph’s message is to not take for granted the abundance you’ve got. Prepare for famine, because famine is sure to come. Spiritually speaking, this means you need to awaken from the dream of entitlement, from the unconscious belief that your ego will continue to be fed. Make a “crisis” for yourself now. This is actually the job of daily spiritual practice: to shatter the callousness of your ego that takes things for granted and open to the living uncertainty of the present.
How do you do it?
During the seven years of abundance, the people gave Joseph their grain to store away for the years of famine. In the metaphorical sense, Joseph represents the Divine. He interprets dreams on behalf of the Divine. His own dream has the stars, sun and moon bow down to him. His very name, Yosef, means “to increase”, indicating the Source from which all things in the universe come into being.
So, in this sense, the people giving Joseph their grain suggests a profound practice in which we intentionally “give back” everything we have to G-d. This is the purifying fire and water of daily prayer and meditation, stripping away the expectations of ego and “me”, accustoming us to being in the naked present. For a person who lives in the naked present, times of “famine” do not lead to crisis, because that person is not relying on the temporary and transitory. That person is like a star, burning with bliss and truth, giving without ulterior motive.
This Hanukah, as we increase the light each night, may the flames burn away the barriers of the heart, that we may feel ever more clearly: That which we seek is the only thing there is. That which we crave is what we already are. Amein, Hag Samayakh!
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