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Posts Tagged ‘paradox’

In the practice of Mussar, a Jewish system of gradual self-transformation, the greatest barrier to self-realization is often identified as busyness. Distractions, errands, entertainment, talking, running, work, driving, rushing…all make the task of self-awareness and growth more difficult. We occupy ourselves with physical reality—moving things, including ourselves, about in space—and forget about spirit, the underlying force that sustains that space and everything in it.

The essence of Sabbath is the undoing of this tendency, the interruption of our one-thing-after-another lifestyles that absorb so much of our time and attention. It’s about redirecting our awareness from doing to being.

The story of Kain and Abel is a perfect illustration of the distinction between being and doing and their consequences. As you recall (see “bizarre bazaar” from two weeks ago), both brothers offered sacrifices before God, yet only Abel’s was accepted. The only difference the Torah records between their two offerings, besides the purely physical details that Kain, the agriculturalist, brought from the fruits of his field while Abel, the shepherd, brought animals from his flock, is that Abel brought the “best” or “choicest”. This distinction is emphasized by the word “and”, as in, “and from the choicest,” indicating that Kain’s offering was not from the best of his fruits.

How did Abel know to bring the best while Kain did not? Let’s consider their two lifestyles: Kain was a farmer. He cleared his fields of stones, tilled the soil, erected fences to protect the plants, gathered seeds, planted, weeded, watered and, finally, harvested. By the time his crop was ready, Kain had put in quite a bit of labor. It’s easy to understand how he could look out at his land, burgeoning with fruits and vegetables, and think, ‘I did this.’

Abel on the other hand, was a shepherd. All he really had to do was protect his flock from predators. He didn’t tell the sheep and goats to mate and multiply, produce milk and grow wool. They did that all by themselves. He just watched.

When the time came to make their offerings, it’s easy to see how Kain would have gotten confused. He lost sight of the nature of the sacrificial transaction. Thinking he had produced his crop through his own hard labor, we can forgive him that he found it acceptable to keep the best for himself and offer some still very nice fruits to God. Abel, by contrast, could see that he had done nothing. He was still intimately aware that everything he had—the sheep, the goats, the pasture—came from God, and that in truth he could offer nothing that wasn’t already God’s to begin with. Give the best? Of course. He wasn’t actually giving anything. Abel could see that he was and would always be only a receiver.

Our world of doing is based on Kain’s error. The constancy of our busyness is founded, in part, on the misperception that we are actually doing something, that there’s something we need to accomplish that isn’t already here, that there’s something we need to get that we don’t already have. This is the terrible paradox of the spiritual journey: There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to accomplish; there’s nothing we need to become that we are not already. We are still dwelling in Eden, enlightened from the beginning; we haven’t actually gone anywhere, moved a single inch. There is nowhere else to go. The tragedy is only that we cover up this reality with mental noise, projections and constant, frenetic movement. We distract ourselves from the truth that pervades every moment of our lives. The challenge is that our minds, our identities caught up in doing, can never figure this out, never accept it.

The remedy is not about doing, it’s about undoing, about shifting from doing to being. How? See if you can stand in Abel’s sandals and recognize that everything you see, touch, taste and smell comes from a deeper source—that in reality, despite all our busyness, we are actually doing nothing at all. The only thing we are here to accomplish is to actually be here, to see the world as it is, to actually experience life. We have taken form only so that God, the universe, consciousness, can know and experience itself. Awakening to that truth, living it, is the fulfillment of all that we are and the ultimate end to all suffering and destruction.

The challenge we face is that from where we stand this seems like the most difficult thing we could possibly accomplish. From the “other” side it seems the most natural thing in the world.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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All week long I’ve been planning to write about something else—Adam and the fiftieth. But now I want to talk about paradox.

Paradox—two seemingly opposite, apparently mutually exclusive phenomena being true simultaneously. Or something like that.

For a while now, one of my takes on the story of Adam and Eve is that in the Garden they lived in a pre-paradoxical state. They saw only their oneness, their unity. They were merged with the divine and with one another. They saw no other, no multiplicity.

After eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve entered a state of paradox. Suddenly, they could see otherness, separateness. Reconciling this manyness with the unity they could now only remember became the source of great confusion. Living in a world of reason, they could no longer see how two could possibly equal one. It didn’t made sense, and still doesn’t, for these two seemingly opposite, apparently mutually exclusive possibilities to be true simultaneously.

The objective—of spiritual practice, of Torah, of humanity—can partly be characterized as a shift into a post-paradoxical state—where we see two, yet know one, and hold these two truths simultaneously and without conflict.

Why am I writing about this now? It’s Thursday evening, actually really early Friday morning. I’ve just been outside doing my practice, dialoguing about my day with, for lack of any truly appropriate terminology, God. I’ve had a long, challenging day. There were several stories percolating in my mind about situations with other people. This hasn’t been the case recently. Mostly, I’ve just been in a place of blessed union (not ultimate union, but still blessed). Going into the dialogue this evening I felt confused, agitated, concerned. After clearing away the cobwebs of identification with my stories, I came back to the recognition that everything coming my way is for my own good, that literally everything that comes towards me is a gift, beckoning me to awaken. I return feeling present, connected and blessed.

It struck me how one set of phenomena can lead to two such disparate results. On the one hand, I can get completely trapped in my stories about events, their impact and consequences. This, evidence seems to indicate, is the general state for most of us. On the other hand, knowing the stories fully, moving through them, understanding my relationship to them in the deepest sense, the same events can help lead me to clarity, truth and greater peace.

The great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, said that in Egypt (where we just were 15 days ago) the nation of Israel had reached the 49th level of degradation. According to this view, had we remained slaves for even one more instant, we would have fallen to the 50th and suffered complete spiritual death as a nation. As we know, we turned things around, 180, and reached instead the 50th level of purity at Mount Sinai. One circumstance, two opposite directions.

This challenge, and opportunity, is the paradoxical universe we face still today. As we move through this time of year, counting the fifty days of our journey from Passover—physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual slavery—to the ultimate freedom of our encounter with the divine, I pray that we can find the strength, as a species, to not turn from the great challenges we face, but to confront them head on. I pray that we come, all of us, to fully grasp the pain of a world plagued by violence, hunger and ecological destruction, and that we move through these crises to see them as terrible gifts, urging us ever more intently to awaken to our true nature—many-faceted beings who, to survive and blossom, must come to comprehend and embody our fundamental and astonishing oneness.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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