Posts Tagged ‘Kabbalah’

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.

Halfway through Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s A Heart Afire – his comprehensive collection of stories and teachings of the early Jewish Hasidic Masters – I discovered the the writings of the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezritch. He was an especially gifted teacher, defining the ways in which a master teacher is able to communicate large truths and bodies of wisdom in ways the student can comprehend them.

One of his delightful interpretive teachings portrayed the Kabbalah – the collection of mystical Jewish writings – as a body. His anatomy of the Kabbalah included four levels of encountering Torah.

The skin represents the simple, surface reading of the text. The underlying muscle is equivalent to the help we might find in daily living. The tendons and sinews move us to the allegorical interpretation that turns us from the superficial to the deeply spiritual meaning. And the bone is the deepest level, the marrow, the hidden structure that determines all layers above.

Each word of Torah, each letter, said he, may be viewed in the same way; one moves from surface to “bone” and the journey is not automatic or accessible to all. Only a few are able to taste the marrow.

This insight is a gift for all of us, regardless our tradition, for we all read and interpret our sacred scriptures. This encounter takes place on many levels – superficial story, life application, shocking insight, opening mystery – and not everyone is able to access all levels. Like a parable, the story speaks to each one in the place they presently reside.

The challenge, it seems to me, is to present the “diamond with many facets” in such a way that each person may discover their “own Torah,” their portion, where they are. Hopefully, with the aid of wise teachers and experienced spiritual travelers, we are able to move from skin to bone, not only in the reading of texts, but in the way we live our lives in the spirit.

This reminds me of another Hasidic story:

Once upon a time as a Rabbi was conducting services he noticed a man in the back row, looking downward and muttering to himself. As the Rabbi listened more carefully he could tell that the man was reciting his ABCs over and over again. After the service was over he went to the man and introduced himself. He asked the man about what he was repeating in the service and he said, “I am a simple man who doesn’t know how to pray. And so I decided that I would say the ABCs and just let God put it all together in the right prayer.”

You could call that skin. Or you could call it bone.