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.]