(first appeared in Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2008)
I never want to read anyone else’s account of their spiritual awakening. Some crusty old part of my soul feels annoyed, usually by how happy and slightly smug they sound. When my friend Ramona started talking about feeling “ecstatic” as part of the daily ebb and flow of her life, I hated her just a little bit.
I have the same higgily piggily feeling about the word “enlightened”. For no good reason, except that I feel I will be left out. You will be better than me. You will have all this light streaming out of your head and you will be Above and I will be Below which will make me feel separate from you which is not even close to “unity consciousness.”
For me, spiritual awakening remains as complex as that old Hundredth Monkey legend which goes like this: on an island in Japan, a group of monkeys learn to wash sweet potatoes and teach this skill to their children, through observation and repetition. Once a critical number of monkeys have this skill down-thus the Hundredth Monkey-the behavior suddenly jumps across the water to a nearby island where other monkeys suddenly know how to wash sweet potatoes.
Actually, the researcher who published this story made it up. The part about learning to wash sweet potatoes was true, but the part about the monkey’s behavior jumping to another island just didn’t happen.
For years, I thought this tale was true. It was a hopeful story, designed to give meaning to our individual toil, creating hope that we are of service on a grander scale simply by doing the smallest acts of life.
And now we get back to my opening thesis. Spiritual awakening is complex. It takes a lot of observation and repetition with no guarantees. AND-here comes the paradox- sometimes it seems simple. All the years of practice and intention to know the Divine pay off big time. A flood of pure love and gratitude tumbles through. All doubt disappears. In these moments, it’s easy to believe something so powerful must affect the lives of all monkeys everywhere.
Which brings me to my awakening as a Jew. The basic tenant, the one that set Judaism apart at the time of its origin, is the belief that there is only one God and God is everything.
Sitting in bed one morning, reading because I was too restless to meditate, I came across this paragraph in Avram Davis’ book, The Way of Flame:
“There is a teaching: ‘When we become aware that only God exists, then God receives from us the complete joy he hopes for.’ This expresses two pivotal points. First, there is only God, by which we mean the Oneness that subsumes all categories. We might call this Oneness the ocean of reality and everything that swims in it. ‘Only God exists’ – this teaching is itself a wonderful and ancient meditation. It is the first admonition of the esert hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. Ultimately, no matter where we are in our level of perceptions, there is only zot, thisness. Zot is a feminine word for “this.” The word zot is itself one of the names of God-the thisness of what is.”
ZOT! I finally got what it means to believe in only one God. I am going to risk sounding sophomoric. If there is only one God, and God is everything, then, really, God is everything. This was the turning point for me, after years of studying every other theology I could get my hands on. When I finally returned to my own roots, the key to the door was sitting on my night table.
God is not only in everything, God is everything. Even in the ignoble thoughts, the sleepless nights, and the traumatic stories of childhood. Suddenly, I am the mythical monkey hundred and one, on the other island, shocked into noticing that I am washing a fat orange vegetable for the first time. I don’t care if this story isn’t true – metaphorically it packs a whopper. All the observation and repetition seem to kick over into something new. The words might be ones I have read a thousand times, but the state of awareness is profoundly different. The Divine is really–no kidding-everything.
However, there is another step. If we stop at “God is everything”, it does not solve the issues of torture, poverty and starvation. We actually have to do something; we have to choose something amidst all this “everythingness” of God’s. Let’s say I decide that I will love God as my first choice. What does this mean? Is it the same as I love other people? Actually, yes. In Jewish theology, there are two basic ways we can love God: through right action and loving-kindness. How terribly self-responsible and accountable this makes me. While even my shitty choices are part of “God is everything,” loving God is a practice of right action and kindness.
Right about now, when I think I have it all settled, paradox rumbles mercilessly forward. Is it enough that I choose right action and loving-kindness? Why does this “everything God” appear to respond so slowly? How does this “everything God” resolve the really dreadful realities of suffering? Is my “everything God” in Hitler, the starvation of children, and all the truly unspeakable realities of life? The light inside my awakening experience begins to dim.
All I know to do here is struggle with God. I love this about Jewish faith. In the very heart of our people is the word Israel, He who wrestles with God, not he who knows for certain. After struggling for a long time, I realize, with humility that maybe should’ve been there before I started wrestling, that I don’t know why there is so much suffering. As I understand Jewish theology, we have to travel to ayin, nothingness, (which translates literally as “nothing,” but I translate as “no answers”) in order to hear the still small voice of God. Zot and ayin. Now I am saying that God is everything and nothing.
A sequence of feelings arises when I offer my question about suffering to the nothing. There is a release of often paralyzing grief, usually followed by feelings of despair, hopelessness and guilt. Some version of, “Why didn’t I personally stop the Holocaust even though I wasn’t born yet?” And in the meantime, have I given enough of my time, money and spirit to tikkun olom (repair of the world)? Is tikkun olom a specific formula? Have I done enough? Is it a doing?” Usually at this point, my whole system floods with too much input. Overwhelm threatens and I move into the giving up phase.
The high spiritual attainment that can follow giving up might be called surrender. On a good day, I allow overwhelm to relax towards surrender: what will happen if I don’t know the answer? In this letting go place, sometimes, new ideas arise. The thoughts seem to come up from inside my heart. Here is an example of a heart thought from the center of ayin: What if we are all one and attached like a great membrane? From this position, there isn’t an answer because there is no “One” outside the system to answer.
As I go deeper into the stillness of ayin, a feeling of compassion arises, so powerful it is painful. It feels like “falling inward.” Like I am falling into a mysterious awareness that is truly bigger than me and in this compassionate presence, the questions rest.
They don’t go away. They rest. From here, I find I have the energy to take right action. It isn’t such an effort. From here, I cry a lot because I am so grateful to feel love in my body. From here, at a healing school in Europe, I sat with the adult children and grandchildren of WWII, listening to grief, confusion and longing. From here, I lived in Uganda and fell in love with an entire people, becoming powerfully aware that to be brilliant, creative and spiritual is in no way dependent on having a bunch of things. And from here, I trudge into my back yard to hang my laundry on the line instead of using the dryer. From here, tikkun olom becomes part of the fabric of my day rather than a duty so overwhelming that it suffocates hope.
I fear I am sounding like my friend who is ecstatic. Actually, from here I am happy for my friend. I don’t have a clue why there is so much suffering. All I know is that when I center deep inside, the still small voice has a chance with me.
Suddenly, having an awakening experience doesn’t sound so separate, so “aren’t you special?” so exclusive. It is “awakening” experience, not “completely awake forever” experience. It’s available inside every body, part of the human equipment. Rest assured, for those of us who need a dose of shadow with our ecstasy, it rarely lasts all day. In fact, just writing this brings a powerful rush of self-doubt that threatens to paralyze me. Who am I to have anything to say about God? What about those children who are still suffering?
And so the cycle begins again: God is everything; I am not separate from God. These feelings are part of God: sit with the suffering, fall down into the heart, wait for the connection with the still small voice, watch the right action arise out of the field of love, and take it.
So here are the great awareness’s of my recent life:
God is everything.
We have to choose because it is right action.
Choosing from a heart of compassion seems to make more compassionate things happen. It does not guarantee the end to suffering.
Awakening means more awake, not always awake.
Enlightenment means feeling lighter, not the absence of dark.
Now I think I will go about my day. The washing machine has stopped and I am wondering how long it will take the clothes to dry in the fog.