April 06

The Freedom of Being

Jay Michaelson

Delight is the secret. And the secret is this: to grow quiet and listen; to stop thinking, stop moving, almost to stop breathing; to create an inner stillness in which, like mice in a deserted house, capacities and awarenesses too wayward and too fugitive for everyday use may delicately emerge.
Alan McGlashan

It's true:
everything really is all in your head.
Except, it isn't your head.

Passover is the feast of freedom -- but what is freedom in a world in which the rich man is one happy with his share? What is the freedom from, and toward?

The mind thinks of the future; the heart mourns the past. But the body always is. Rooted in its present experience, it frees the self from the mind. It calls attention back to what is actually happening, with sensitivity as subtle as one is able to cultivate. As attention sharpens in its acuity, the body gradually reveals that concepts ordinarily assumed to be real are illusory: "walking" is a composite of a thousand gradations of movement, "joy" is but a summary; "consciousness" merely the illusion producyed by a well functioning machine, like the images at the cinema which seem to be so whole.

Thus the body awakens one not only to the facticity of present experience, but also to its unity. As we closely raise, inspect, and drop the phenomena of the body, each reveals itself to be a concept only, a useful label without separate reality, existing only according to the level of abstract seeing. What, then, is real, in the sensation of a breeze gently caressing your face? If "the body" and all its constituent parts are real only as labels, what is?

Beginning as they do from the premise of divinity, the sages of Kabbalah often speak in a language moderns cannot understand. They start with what we would deem the conclusion, if the proofs were satisfactory: that God exists, and is Infinite. From there they proceed down the chain of being, through the emanations of the One to the Many, and then back again. Thus they ask, if God is infinite, then what is your body, your heart, and your mind, but God itself? What are joy and terror, open fields and pits of darkness, other than the skin of the Infinite?

We meet -- rabbis beginning from the transcendent, and contemplatives from the immanent -- in Being itself. The label of "God" makes no factual difference, for God is not a figure within the ground of the universe; the universe is a figure within the ground of God. What is, is; Being, not separate selves; truth, not superstition. We cannot help but divide perception into pieces: we see a tree, not God; feel our fingers, not God; experience pain and bliss, not God. Yet in a sense, there is only one thing in the universe.

Simply to be, to experience Being as Being, is the practice of Shabbat, perhaps the cornerstone of Jewish religious life. Shabbbat it can be at once very distant and very near, nearer than any "spiritual" sensation -- those are sensations of something, no more and no less proximate to the Divine than anything else -- but also so transparent as to be invisible.

"Just Being" is a subtractive aspect of ordinary consciousness, a gradual loosening of the grip of concepts. In the body, it is becoming mindful of experiences to subtle to note ordinarily. Pressure on the back, sounds being heard, the expansion and contraction of the chest. And then: just pressure, just sound, just expansion and contraction. Slowly the mind quiets, and the body rests in repose -- in sabbath, which we are told is a taste of the world to come, a world none other than this one, yet seen from God's point of view.

Shabbat is observed with the body, for it is the body which manifests the will to create and destroy. And most of its practices are, like meditation, subtractive rather than additive in nature. Often, this devolves into a series of Don'ts: don't make a fire, don't play music, don't drive or write. But the deeper meaning of Don't is Be. On Shabbat, life transpires for its intrinsic quality alone; it ceases to be an instrument to get us to the next place, where perhaps our preferences might be better accommodated. Being simply is.

When the body is allowed to rest in this way, it detaches from the yetzer, the will to arrange the conditions of the world to enable our maximum happiness. Only then does true happiness appear. As Byron Katie says, what we really want is to want what we have. Or, in the words of the Ethics of the Fathers: who is rich? He who is happy with his share. Not doing, not changing, not thinking or talking or arguing -- just being. The rest of the week, we go about the business of pursuing justice and peace -- and of course, the desires of the ego as well. But one day a week... not.

There are holidays, too, which are observed in this way. For example, Sukkot, nicknamed by the sages "The Holiday," whose joy and practice derive simply from placing the body in a temporary home, and resting under the shade of the tabernacle. Just Being -- without planning, creating, chanting, or doing. So the boundaries of self slowly become transparent, for without purposefulness, the self loses its definition. Not to regress -- but to transcend the slavish delusions of need. Ending, for once, the competition.

Nonduality includes both doing and non-doing, but is best known through the latter. At some later time, there can be the return of the monk to the marketplace; the descent of Moses from Sinai; a return to the material, where the Infinite puts on masks of distinction. But Shabbat ensures that our return is not a regression, that it maintains an almost transparent knowing -- that all this is real, that none of this is real. Ironically, it is the most physical, the most separate-seeming part of the material world, which is the greatest vehicle for remembering. Spiritual states may come and go, but the body endures for a lifetime.

One cannot get beyond the body except through the body, in the body itself. Otherwise there is still something to be denied, or utilized, as if "we" are merely inhabiting our bodies, trapped souls waiting for release into paradise. The pious will argue that some desires are loftier than others; hedonists will reply in kind. But all the while, Being will be unfolding, just out of range of periphery, in the shape and form of the ordinary. It is, in a way, a solitary path, for there is, in the truest possible way, no one else here. But then again, you aren't either.

There is only Me, God says. You are not alone, because this ego, this "you," is not what is ultimately real. These sensations that are happening to the body -- who are they happening to, if consciousness is but a phenomenon of the brain? Who is really here? And how do "you" know anything? In the end, the solitude of the nondual path is only as temporary as the intimacies of the alternative -- because when the true Self is known, suddenly there is love within the fabric of being itself. Not beyond, not denying, not leaving behind the substantial; but in it, as it, inviting you to join heaven and earth. And promising, in a silent and intimate vow: Be faithful to Me, and I will show You love.



Jay Michaelson is chief editor of this magazine. The above is taken from his book God in Your Body, scheduled to be published this fall.