A friend once asked me, "I don't understand this stuff about being present. What if the present sucks?"
There's a dimension of our experience that is beyond the particular experience we're having– beyond our feelings, thoughts and sensations. That's our consciousness that's aware of the feelings, thoughts and sensations. That consciousness is similar to the empty physical space that allows us to exist physically. We're often not aware of the physical space, but without it, we couldn't be here. Similarly, without the space of awareness, there can be no experience.
Being present doesn't just mean to be aware of what's going on in our experience, but more importantly, it means to be aware of the space within which it's happening. As you become aware of the space of awareness, you come to know yourself as this space, rather than as the content of the space– your particular thoughts and feelings. And as you come to know yourself as this space more and more deeply, your thoughts and feelings and sensations begin to resonate with the space, and that creates a feeling-sense of freedom, bliss and joy.
But this all requires some trust in the process, because sometimes the experience of the present can be horrible, and you'll want to resist, to run away and hide or fight tooth and nail. But if you treat the present moment as an opportunity to be Presence, then every experience becomes a steppingstone to greater freedom and joy.
This is reflected in Pirkei Avot, 4:21: "Rabbi Yaakov says, 'This world is like a waiting room before the World to Come. You should work on yourself in the waiting room, so that you can enter the banquet hall.'"
The common understanding of the "World to Come" is that of the afterlife. But the hint here is that there's an eternal dimension of experience that's available now, though you may not yet be aware of it. If you're not yet aware of it, you have to "work on yourself in the waiting room"– meaning, treat your temporal experience as an opportunity to practice being present, and you will come to enter the "banquet hall"– that eternal dimension of experience that is the space of your own awareness.
In this week's Torah reading, Parshat Devarim, Moses begins recounting the journey of the Israelites. Much of the actual story is simply skipped over, but then Moses emphasizes the incident with the spies:
The spies go to investigate the land. They bring back the report that the land is great, but their are "giants" in the land and they should turn back. Hashem says that because of their cowardice, they will never enter the land, and only their children will enter. Then the Israelites say, "No no! We were just kidding!" They run up the mountain to do battle with the "giants" and are slaughtered.
Talk about being out of sync!
But what a wonderful metaphor for such a common disfunction– the disfunction of not being in alignment with the reality of the moment. One moment calls us to fight, the next calls us to retreat, If we're not in alignment, if we're spending energy wishing that things are other than they are and responding to how we think things should be rather than how they are, we get in trouble.
But if we know ourselves as the space within which our experience is arising, we can easily align with the needs of the moment and act appropriately, fearlessly going to battle when we must, and surrendering when we must, rather than the other way around.
There's a story of Rabbi Yitzhak Eisik, who had a condition that caused him extreme pain his whole life. His doctor asked, "How can you take all that pain without grumbling or complaining at all?
"You would understand if you knew how I see pain," replied the rebbe. "I regard pain as a scrubbing of the soul, like putting a coin in a strong cleaning solution."
"But how can you take that level of pain for so long? You've had it nearly all your life!"
"It's not a question of how long. Whatever pain I've had in the past is over; it doesn't hurt anymore. Whatever pain is to come is in the future doesn't yet exist, and so I don't have to bother with that. I only need to be aware of the pain that's happening right now, and that's totally doable!"
As we approach Tisha B'Av, the holiday of pain and destruction, may we be cleansed by whatever pain arises, making way for something beautiful and new to emerge from the depths of our souls, healing ourselves and the world...
More on Parshat Devarim–
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The Great River- Parshat Devarim
Have you ever had the experience of finding yourself in conflict with someone, and then realizing that the same conflict has happened a thousand times before, in different forms? It is as if the conflict is a virus, a replicating pattern. It has no real life of its own; it is just a dead, repetitive, automatic story that lives off your life energy, playing itself out again and again.
Once there was a scorpion who was looking for a way to get to the other side of a river. As he searched up and down the banks, he came upon a fox who was about to swim across.
“Please let me swim on your back!” implored the scorpion.
“No way!” replied the fox, “You’ll sting me!”
“Why would I do that?” argued the scorpion, “If I stung you, we would both drown.”
After thinking about it, the fox agreed. The scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim across. But, when they were about half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. As the poison began its work, the fox started to sink.
“Why did you do it?” said the fox, “Now we’ll both drown!”
“I couldn’t help myself,” said the scorpion, “It’s in my nature.”
Is it in your nature to always react in the same old ways, perpetuating the same old conflicts? Or is there a way out?
Of course there is a way out, but it can be difficult because the old patterns are usually motivated by the desire to escape pain, and it’s totally natural to want to escape pain. Something happens, someone does something, and it triggers a painful emotional response. You naturally want to avoid this pain, so you lash out unconsciously or passive aggressively or whatever, in an attempt to vent the pain and punish the one who caused it.
But, it doesn’t work, because it just perpetuates a dynamic that guarantees the cycle will continue… that is, until you wake up.
To wake up means to see the pattern, and to stop feeding it. This usually means feeling the triggered pain on purpose, without doing anything about it... just being with it.
You might think that a lot of meditation can help you “just be with it,” but sometimes the opposite is true. Meditation can give you beautiful and blissful experiences. If you get attached to those experiences, then the pain that life brings can sometimes be even harder to endure. I often hear people lament about having to come down from the lofty mountain of the spirit to deal with the pain of life.
It reminds me of a passage I read in one of Ram Dass’ books, where he talks about coming down from a spiritual high and literally “seeing” a tidal wave coming toward him- a tidal wave made out of all the broken relationships, tedious responsibilities, unconscious expectations- the whole mess. It’s natural to resist the pain of that tidal wave!
And yet, what are you resisting? What are you holding on to?
There is nothing but the Divine, unfolding in ever-new ways through time. If you cling to the spiritual experience of a moment ago, you lose its most important message: God is speaking in and as everything. The unfolding of life in time is God’s Speech. Open to it, as it is.
This week’s reading- Devarim, the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy- gives some beautiful hints of this truth. “Devarim” means “Words”- the words spoken by Moses to the Israelites. They too stand by a river, preparing to cross, and Moses tells them the story of their journeys. He begins by recounting the highest moment, when they stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak to them.
But does he tell them about all the Torah they learned there?
He tells them only one piece of Torah-
“Rav lakhem shevet bahar hazeh!
“It’s too much already for you to still be dwelling by this mountain! Turn and journey for yourselves!”
In other words, don't be the scorpion! Life is change. The world is turning; you must turn with it. The journey is “for yourselves”- it is for your own happiness and fulfillment that you have to not cling to your idea of happiness and fulfillment!
Then it says, “Uvo’u har ha’emori- and come to the mountain of the Amorites…”
On the surface, this is talking about a tribe called “Amorites” that live on a mountain in the Promised Land. But the word for “Amorites” has the same letters as the verb “to speak”- aleph-mem-reish. The hint here is that you must leave the “mountain” where you hear God’s “speech” so that you can come to a new mountain, where there will be new “speech.” Don’t cling to the old speech; it’s dead.
Then it goes on to say, “… on the mountain, in the plain, in the lowland, in the desert, and on the seacoast…”
The point is not only the next “mountain” experience you will come to. There is also the “plain- aravah”- the ordinary, daily work of life, a mixture (erev) of many different kinds of experiences.
Then there is the “lowland- sh’felah”- times of sadness, of tragedy, of failure- all part of God’s speech! These times are medicine for the distortions of ego.
Then there is the “desert,” or the “south- negev”- times when your life and work don’t seem to be yielding anything good, but you must persevere through these stretches! These times train us to stay focused and true to our goals.
Then there is the “seacoast- hof hayam”- like when the children of Israel stood at the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army behind them. These are times when the outcome is unknown, when we are tempted to fear and despair. This is training for the supreme quality of Trust, to take the leap into the unknown. (Of course, all outcomes are always unknown, but only sometimes does this become obvious!)
Finally, it says you will come all the way to “Hanahar Hagadol- the Great River!”
The Great River is at the end of the journey, because if you can learn to work with life in all of its manifestations, you will see that life is the Great River. God incarnates in the form of your mind and your body, for just a brief time, to take a little journey on the Great River. This moment is the arena within which we are learning to journey.
The Baal Shem Tov taught:
“In the Amidah prayer, we say: ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,’ and not: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ because Isaac and Jacob connected to the unique form of God’s speech as they heard it; they didn’t rely on what Abraham heard.”
As we enter Shabbat Devarim, the Sabbath of Words, may our words be ever fresh and alive, free from old and dead patterns. May we hear the Living Words that are spoken anew, flowing as the Great River, always in this moment.