Constricted Consciousness

Posted: July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I’m now reading the classic out of Jewish mysticism, Pillars of Prayer. It is a collection of writings on the practice of prayer, reflections on the Kabbalah,  from the Ba’al Shem Tov and his school. The third chapter is given to the experience of “constricted consciousness,” and they give no little time to addressing this condition of the spiritual life.

The life of prayer is the constant journey to unite with the beloved, to attach oneself to the holy presence of God. There are different levels of attainment, like climbing a ladder. And many times on this journey toward union the mind, the heart, seems blocked, constricted, blind to the upper reaches, what they call the upper worlds. If one encounters such a time, that is not the moment to say, “Well, I’m not in the mood, I’d better wait until I feel like it.” To the contrary, that is exactly the time to persist in the constriction for a grace may come that dissipates that constriction instantaneously.

I’ve often had those “constricted” or dry times in my spiritual life, in my prayer life, in my relationships, in my everything. Like the impact of drought on the cracked earth, I wait with sand in my mouth. And when, through some grace not my own, I have waited expectantly, or even when I was not aware of waiting, the dam broke and water burst over the spillways.

There is something else about those constricted times, when one feels disconnected from the source of our life. When we are constricted, not able to access the higher realms of spirit, we are pushed down to this human level to experience it in its fullness. And here is the catch, according to the Ba’al Shem Tov: Since God is everywhere and in everything, we are pushed to the place where God fills the world. In other words, we may not be in divine union, but we are experiencing the way God fills every manifestation of God, the creation in all its aspects. Some even went so far as to say that constriction, keeping us anchored, is the source of conversion for the neighbor; we sink our passion/compassion into this world and not another. It’s why we can find the sacred in everything from suffering to sex to surfing.

Blessing comes in many forms, as does God. And I part with two other words from the Ba’al Shem.

The first is that where your thoughts go your whole being goes. What our minds attach to is where we are.

The second is that in reading sacred verse or saying prayers, we should “scream silently.” What he meant by “scream” is something akin to intensity. We should channel our energy and passion like a lazer.

The Quaker mystic Howard Thurman put it this way: The shaft of frustration transformed into a beam of light.

So let’s hear it for constricted … until it’s not.

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