[Here is a summary some of what I taught about emptiness at La Casa De Maria in Santa Barbara, CA. last weekend.]
Emptiness, despite the limits of English grammar, should be understood as a verb rather than a noun, a process rather than a condition, a practice rather than a state. In Hebrew this practice is called bittul, annihilation—the ending of all clinging to concepts of what is, and who you are.
There are many ways to practice bittul. We will work with three, though I wish to make quick mention of a fourth: the practice of limud, Torah study. Limud is to be done lishma, without ulterior motive. We Jews study for the sheer play of it, the sheer joy that such unfettered word-play calls forth in us. The rules of limud are simple enough, but they require the ability to read Torah in her original language, Hebrew. Those with enough Hebrew mastery can, when studying the Torah, continually deconstruct the words, turning them inside out and upside down to reveal both sense and nonsense, and in this way free themselves from Torah even as they open themselves to the deeper process of revelation through Torah. Most of us here lack that level of proficiency, so we will not engage in limud in any serious way. I mention it only because there is no Jewish spirituality without it, and to plant the seeds of longing for a Hebrew education that will allow you to play with Torah.
We will work primarily in English, taking our cues from Torah, but working with the “text” of self. The three practices we will employ are hagah, chanting, Mi Zeh, self-inquiry, and Sh’ma, deep listening.
We begin with singing Rabbi David Zeller’s version of Ani Chai, I am Alive:
I am alive!
And who is this aliveness I am,
If not the Holy Blessed One
The text begins with an affirmation: “I am alive!” You cannot doubt that. Your entire experience of the world is predicated on the existence of Ani, an “I.” Even if you argue that you are dreaming, still it is “you” who is dreaming. There is no escape from this Ani. The text then asks a very simple and subversive question, the question we will ask in different ways throughout the weekend: “Who is this aliveness I am?”
We assume that we know the “I.” We assume it is unique, separate, autonomous, willful, and free. Our sanity depends on this. Yet the assumption is just that, an assumption.
When you look more deeply it begins to crumble under the weight of its own hubris. Are you unique? Look at your likes and dislikes, are these not market driven choices that mask a greater herd mentality? Are you truly separate? Could you exist for even a moment if not for your integration into the greater ecosystem of earth, solar system, galaxy, and universe? Are you autonomous and free? Or are you hemmed in on every side (inside and outside and all around) by physical, emotional, intellectual, and cultural limits over which you seem to have no control? Do you will what you want, or do you simply respond to wants fed to you by genes and memes?
Our song then reveals the truth of who you are. First you are not alive you are aliveness. Aliveness is a process of which “you,” whatever that is, is a part. In Judaism we call this process YHVH and Ehyeh (the Is’ing of reality), and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One, as our song puts it.
But this practice only replaces one idea with another: Ani with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This too must be emptied so that there is no cling to self or Other, the I or the Not-I, the I am or the I Am. So we sing with no pretence to liberation or emptying, only to plant the seed of inquiry.
Our next practice is called Mi Zeh, Who is This? This is the question God asks Job from the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? (Job 38:2). Who is this who that hides counsel without knowledge? (Job 42:3).
Both texts reference aytza, counsel. Aytza is the wisdom that arises when the barriers to experiencing it are removed. Think of a great body of water straining against a dam. Remove the dam and the water flows freely of its own accord. The water is wisdom; the dam is ignorance, blee da’at, as our text puts it. Remove the ignorance and the wisdom will flow. Our task is not be become wise by grasping wisdom, but to end our ignorance.
Ignorance comes in two forms: darkening wisdom with empty words, and hiding wisdom. The first is active, the second passive. We actively darken wisdom when we blind ourselves with fixed ideas, words, concepts, ideologies, theologies, and the like. When we in effect mistake the menu for the meal, stuffing ourselves with ideas rather than feasting on reality. Yet even if we learn the art of silence, and let go our attachment to words and abstractions, we still cling to our sense of “I am-ness.” We are without words, but not without “self.” And this self hides the wisdom of Reality from us.
The practice of Mi Zeh works with both kinds of ignorance. Find a partner and decide who will ask the question and who will respond. You will trade positions after a while, so you get to experience both roles.
If you are the asker, sit (on a chair or on the floor) just behind the responder. Without any inflection or affect, lean closely into the responder’s ear (right or left) and whisper the question, “Who is this?” Give the responder a moment to respond. When he or she offers an answer do not react to it. Simply take a breath and repeat the question. If no response is forthcoming, continue to breathe and ask the question until instructed otherwise.
If you are the responder, sit comfortably (on a chair or on the floor), close your eyes, and speak aloud, though softly, whatever word arises in response to the question whispered into your ear. If nothing comes up, do not speak at all, but do not imagine that you have nothing more to say. Continue to listen to the question each time it is asked, and you may find new answers arising. Speak aloud whatever arises whenever it arises.
Our third practice is Sh’ma, hearing. The practice comes from the central affirmation of the Jewish people taught to them by Moses, Shema Yisrael, Yah Eloheinu, Yah Echad! Hear, O Israel, the Ineffable is your God, the Ineffable is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The interpretations of this text are legion, but for our purposes it means this: When you deeply listen, you experience the unnamed and unnamable reality that is the singular Self manifesting as all relative selves. God for short.
The practice of Sh’ma is twofold. We begin with the recitation of the text as a mantrum. Beginning on the in-breath (see Genesis 2:7) say silently, Shema. On the next out-breath say, Yisrael. Continue with the rest of the mantrum: in-breath, Yah; out-breath Eloheinu; in-breath Yah; out-breath Echad. When you come to the end of the mantrum do not rush to breathe or to begin again. Simply sit in the silence and listen. When you naturally need to breathe, do so and return to the recitation of the mantrum.
We will do this for sometime simply to settle into the practice of listening. At some point I will invite you cease the recitation and simply to listen. You begin by seeking out the furthest sounds you can capture. Slowly you bring your attention closer: the sounds of the surrounding lawns, then the sounds of the room, the sounds of your fellow students, the sounds of your body, the sounds of your mind. Then reverse direction: move outward and attend to the sounds outside yourself, shifting attention further and further out. Then reverse direction again and over and over again until instructed otherwise.
We end the practice with once again returning the text of the Sh’ma and reciting it silently as a mantrum.
What do these exercises do? Only you can answer that, and to do so you have to practice. There is no right answer. There is only your experience. What they do for me is this: they continually pull the rug of Ani/Self out from under “me.” And when Ani is gone, Ain, nothingness, is revealed. Not nothingness as a static reality, that is just somethingness masquerading as nothingness. But nothingness as a process of continual emptying.
I am left in what I call divine freefall, tumbling effortlessly into and through that which is, isn’t, and beyond both. There are no words or self to darken wisdom here. There is just the effortless grace, wonder, love, and ecstatic joy of birthing and dying and rising and falling and ising and ainting.