Monday, January 04, 2010

To Whom Do I Pray?

Jay Michaelson’s article, “Prayer and Nonduality” (Tikkun Nov/Dec 2009) prompts me to share a little of my own wrestling with this topic.

When I was 16 and a beginning student of Zen, I sat on the shore of Cape Cod and disappeared. No body, no mind, no “me” at all. When I returned I knew that whatever Reality is, it has nothing to do with the isms that seek to define it. It is what is: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (to quote God in Exodus), the ceaseless Is’ing of birth, death, and rebirth. To speak of God and Creation was to speak of Ocean and Wave, the former greater than but not other than the latter. Can the wave pray to the Ocean? I didn’t think so. I stopped praying.

Then, decades later, I began to experience Shekhinah, the presence of God as Divine Mother. I resisted the experience as best I could, but I could not do so for long. So I began to speak to Her and to hear Her speak to me. The trouble was that this clearly dualistic encounter with the Divine violated everything I knew to be true about the nondual nature of Reality.
I was no less Her; She was no less me; and yet we spoke. What She taught me is that if God is All, God must be Other as well. Nonduality when juxtaposed with duality is simply part of a larger duality. True nonduality embraces the Other as well as the One in a greater Reality for which there are no words.

So now I pray. What do I pray? There is little in Jewish liturgy that speaks to me, but what little there is I use as mantra. I chant single lines of Hebrew, the core wisdom of the liturgy, and then I wait. What emerges from this waiting is a conversation: me pouring my heart out to Her, and She mirroring my self back to me in a way that allows me to see through the madness and move beyond it. These are moments of ecstasy unmediated by ritual and decorum. No rising or sitting; no responsive readings; no moments of mumbled pseudo-silence. Just raw, uncensored speech; just saying “Thou;” just hearing echoes of “I.” In time the speech gives way to silence, the wave returns to the Ocean. I am gone. God is all.

Unlike Jay I don’t pray to be transformed. There is no static “me” at all. There is no transformation from one fixed state to another, just ceaseless teshuvah, endless turning from self to Self to self again and again and again. And with each turning there is expansion: not a going round like a planet in orbit around a sun, but a spiraling out like a galaxy. And with each turn and return my heart of opened wider; I am (I think) more loved and loving. I pray for nothing. The turning is its own reward.

Can this happen in a formal synagogue service? Of course, but for me it happens when I walk outside, the rhythm of my steps matching the rhythm of my breath, dancing with the rhythm of Life. Can it happen with our heads buried in a siddur (prayer book), our mouths reciting ancient scripts? Of course, but for me it happens in the far simpler chanting of single lines, the uncensored wildness of unscripted speech, and the greater silence that ultimately engulfs them both.

My thanks to Tikkun magazine for giving us yet another opportunity to hear Jay’s wisdom.

[Tikkun is a wonderful magazine and I urge you all to subscribe/support it. Jay also writes a column for The Forward, another great publication. The magazine business is tough. Subscriptions are its life-blood. Support those magazines you cherish. And check out my column in Spirituality & Health, another important publication worthy of your support.]


Patti said...

I was pretty excited about this topic and read your and Jay's articles with the pregnant hope that I would see a reason to return to prayer.

I, of course, know how you walk your mediation since I follow your writings and think often of your view of the femininity of the Divine; trying hard to overcome hard earned biases. I enjoy reading about it thinking, maybe someday…

Jay's writings hit home and in a few areas I have found topics for new exploration. My issue is though, that he speaks of nondualism as a goal, but then uses examples that seem to contradict or not support the concept. Firstly, he breaks individuals down into elements which make us less than nondual; the heart and the mind specifically, as if these parts act of their own accord. He writes of the mind understanding the truth, but the heart needing convincing; therefore pray. Using the implications of the man-made word “devotion” to further promote the concept of duality seems a step in the wrong direction.

“ And while the mind may know the oneness of philosophical reflection and nonduality, the heart knows the two-ness of presence and absence. Devotion implies a devoted-to. It implies duality.”

Further, he refers to “The Cloud of Unknowing” and how freeing it is to let go of the need for answers, then in the next sentence his purpose for prayer is to know the self better. Can nondualism possibly be both the unknowing of God and the better knowing of self? Maybe I am missing the spirituality and deeper meaning of his discourse.

"From this un-knowing springs a kind of permission given by the mind to the heart. Of course, prayer is absurd. Its language is primitive, outmoded, and ridiculous — nearly as ridiculous as love itself. Nor is it strictly necessary. But to those of us who seek to be connoisseurs of the self and to know the intimations and stirrings of our souls, to go without the self-abnegation of prayer is like forgoing music or wine."

But to his credit, I think he rightly describes my issue with his supposition: “In this regard, nonduality — whether conceived mystically or philosophically — has more in common with the insecure skepticism of the slightly embarrassed religionist than with the zeal of the prophet.”


Raksha said...

Rabbi Rami: Thank you for posting this. I didn't only need to read it this morning; I also needed to say it to someone, especially the part about the Shekhinah. But for the past week I've been having a very hard time doing that. I think I was simply too embarrassed, too self-conscious. You don't know what I mean by that, of course, but the important thing is that you said it for me.

I may post another comment later on after I've read the Tikkun article. Thanks for the heads-up about that.


Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the comments. I would like to follow up on Patti's question about the unknowing of God and the better knowing of self. You may have found an inconsistency in Jay's piece that I missed. To me unknowing is universal. That is to say the ultimate gift of prayer--prayer beyond I-Thou dialogue--is the capacity to rest in the ambiguity, the ambivalence, the absurdity, and the unknowing of Reality. Self emptying is not about transformation or knowing, but about dying to the known. Language always fails us here, but I hope this makes some sense.

Patti said...

Thanks Rami, I am still stuck at this point though. Christians use the phrase "die to yourself" also. But..again, set me straight, should I not be accepting myself as part of God and spend time trying to figure out how to navigate those waters? Rather than chopping off part and clinging to the other? This concept seems very dualistic still.