October 06

Yom Kippur and Nonduality

Jay Michaelson

What is the meaning of repentance, if everything is God?

On the purely cognitive level, the answer is not complicated. All of us live within the delusions of the ego, the yetzer hara, which sees the world not as it is -- as manifestations of a single Being, according to the Hasidic nondual reading of the Shema -- but as divided into many different, separate objects. Most importantly, the ego sees itself as separate from the rest of the world, and evaluates the world according to how well what's outside is pleasing what's inside. It's as simple as "have a nice day" -- "nice" being a term that means "pleasing to the self." This is our ordinary existence, conditioned by eons of evolution and natural selection, and without this ordinary frame of reference, we'd all be dead. Pure nonduality doesn't do well at crosswalks.

But it is, all the same, delusory. Yes, there are neurons at a certain location in the cosmos which behave in such a way as to create the cognitive phenomenon of consciousness. Yes, on a cognitive level, it seems as though that phenomenon is distinct from everything else in the universe. But seems is not is. Really, every thought you are having, at this moment as at every other one, is wholly conditioned by an uncountable number of causes, which are themselves wholly conditioned by other causes, ad infinitum -- ad ein sof. "Yes! I get it now" "I don't agree" "What's next" "That link looks interesting" All of these impulses, ideas, predilections -- all that, together, comes to form our ideas of ourselves -- are not "ours" at all.

Tshuva, translated as repentance but literally meaning "return," is, on the cognitive level, simply a return to what the Buddhists call Right View, or in the words of the popular Neo-Hasidic song, the "Return to Who you are." It's the shuv of ratzo v'shuv, running and returning -- coming back to the Source, the undifferentiated Awareness that somehow gives birth to the cosmos. Running out into differentiation, with (for all but the most awakened of us) all its traps and delusions -- but then, at special times in the year, returning. And from that place of unity, reflecting on the actions of the small self, observing how they may have caused harm, and attempting to repair the harm by reconnecting with other people and with God. Hopefully, the day after this essay appears online, you'll consider spending some time doing that.

So much for the cognitive level. Emotionally, the predominant tenor of the Days of Awe is quite removed from the nondual perspective. The traditional Jewish path to Return is not through emptiness, but through kapparah: atonement, catharsis. It's not meditation - it's breaking the self. It's not early Chabad style contemplation - it's Rabbi Nachman's hitbodedut, a searing self-examination which, far from leaving the self behind, puts the self through the metaphorical ringer. Beating the chest, reviewing one's transgressions, fasting to break through the resistances of the ego -- the mainstream Jewish path of Yom Kippur is one not of nondual Right View but of dualistic wrestling with the small self.

The end is essentially the same: bittul ha-yesh, annihilation of the wrong view that "stuff" exists in the way it appears to exist. Normally I am sure that I am the center of the universe, just like you are -- or at the very least that my happiness is dependent on getting what I want. But through work, and spiritual practice, I am disabused of those incorrect, and sometimes dangerous, ideas. We get to a similar place, the nondual contemplative and the pietist, but the path feels very different.

And who knows -- maybe the end result isn't the same at all. The pietist beats her chest and repents and reforms herself, but all the while maintains the dualistic notion that she is striving for Godliness, and God is judging her, because what real bittul ha-yesh means is not the annihilation of all "yesh" but just the "yesh" of the ego, and so humility is what's most important, humility and remorse and regret, and hopefully my merits outweigh my sins, because, sure, the Book of Life is a metaphor, but it's an accurate metaphor, because if we are weighted down by sin, we're barely alive, and so we have to fight the yetzer hara with all our might, to really beat it down, to really get the yetzer hatov stronger, and boost it up, and steer clear from sin, and abnegate the ego in the face of the Torah which is true... and all the rest.

That's the thing about Judaism -- we're all on the same train, but we're going to very different destinations.

As I've written about before in these pages, the predominant Western mode of ethical improvement -- disciplining the self, striving for better behavior through a series of Oughts and Shoulds -- generally does not work for me. On the contrary, it elicits anger and resistance. I feel like I'm back in Hebrew school again, being forced to sit still through lectures I don't agree with. And I get the sense that all this pietism is, itself, a tragic delusion: you're beating yourself up, but the sun is shining outside, and the delicious, sensual world is inviting you to play. Where does it end -- with self-mortification? Denial? Repression? I've been there before, thanks.

Whereas, for me, arriving at compassion through wisdom -- contemplation, rather than self-flagellation -- does work. I have found, time and time again, that when my mind is truly quiet, I am compassionate, kind, and a lot less selfish. I find it easy to see why behaving ethically, kindly, and even, in my way, piously, leads to more joy and more happiness -- not because of Oughts but because of Is's.

This year, I spent several of my summer weeks in processes of reflection and work. After teaching for a month at a summer camp, I taught two retreats, then, without a break, did a week of intense body-energy work with Body Electric, sat a week of silence at Spirit Rock in California, and went again to Burning Man. It was a powerful month for me personally, and the work I did brought me to exceptional clarity in my personal and professional life. And then, upon my return, all the work I'd postponed came crashing in: book deadlines, magazine deadlines, essays promised and needing to be delivered -- it's been quite a whirlwind.

The combination of the discernment of August and the rush of September has been even more aversion than usual to the traditional narratives of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's fine when I stay in my Buddhist-Jewish-Nondual cloister, talk with my friends who agree with me, and don't read the Jewish Week. But as soon as I open up the Machzor, stories come up. "I did that in August, when I was meditating!" Or "I don't want more shame! Don't wrap me into your drama of sin and expiation!" Or "I'll think about it later."

The way in for me, this year, came from recognizing that repentance is only half of the process of Yom Kippur. Forgiveness is the other half. Real tshuva requires that we ask forgiveness of those we've wronged -- and grant it to those who've wronged us. That includes self-forgiveness too, of course, but I'm more interested in forgiving other people, and what that's supposed to mean. I was inspired to consider these questions by an interview in The Sun magazine with Richard Smoley, author of Inner Christianity. (The interview was actually from a couple of years ago, but I just got around to reading it last month.) For Christians, of course, forgiveness is even more central than it is for Jews: it's the essence of imitatio dei and one of the primary avenues toward opening the heart within the Christian tradition.

Smoley, like me a nondualist, was interested in the same question I asked at the beginning: how the discourse of forgiveness fits into a nondualistic, panenethestic worldview. His answer was that ordinarily, we think of forgiveness as something that really virtuous people do -- people who are stronger than you and me, who are good at all those Oughts and Shoulds -- when they accept that someone has wronged them, but somehow are able to get past it and move ahead. This, Smoley said, makes forgiveness an act of exceptional virtue -- and he was having none of it.

What Smoley offered instead was forgiveness as an act of enlightenment. He invited us to ask just who we think is really "wronging" us. Why did that person make the choice, say the words, do the deed that s/he "chose" to do? Well, obviously, because of a thousand causes and conditions -- and not a hair's breadth of soul more. Being angry at someone for an offense they have caused is like when we get angry at traffic for being there, or at a computer for not working right, or at a baby for crying. Sure, the offensive person is more intricate than the traffic patterns, microchips, and baby -- but only different in degree, not in kind. Really, all of us are beautiful, glorious, wonderful machines, gathering together a thousand strands of God, and then sending them out in uniquely recombined ways.

Forgiveness, in this light, is just seeing clearly. Everyone is doing the best they can -- if they could do better, they would. If wisdom were stronger, they'd make better choices. If patience were stronger, they'd be less angry. But these dispositions which arise in the mind -- is any of them "me"? Or "you"? When we feel ourselves to be wronged by another person, we are not seeing clearly. We are being wronged by the universe. And, take it from me, it's a bad idea to nurse a grudge against God.

Forgiveness is not really something we do for other people; it's something we do for ourselves. Personally, I had a good year in 5765 -- but there were an unusually high number of people who, I felt, "wronged" me in trivial, but still really irritating, ways. The contractors who took four times as long to do the intrusive, noisy, horrible renovations on my apartment building in Jerusalem. The taxi driver who ran a red light and ran into me (I could've died, so I'm grateful, but then, the impact busted my already shaky left knee, making it very hard to run like I used to, so I'm angry). People I do business with who spoke to me unkindly and unprofessionally. I could go on -- as I'm sure we all could -- but the more I go on, the more unhappy I get. And if someone were to come with a beatific smile on his face and ask me to be more forgiving, I think I'd punch him.

The more I hold onto idea that the taxi driver is some separate guy out there -- screwing me over, not paying me even for my medical expenses, lying about what happened -- the more angry I get. And justified -- the guy really was a jerk. But, once again, the truth will set you free. The truth is that jerkiness arises. It's the result of many causes and conditions, which I don't know. It's not that the jerkiness is justified (because he had a hard childhood, or is working hard, or whatever). It's just that it's a phenomenon that isn't "owned" by the taxi driver. From the mochin d'gadlut (expanded mind) of God-consciousness, causes lead to effects. That is all.

And my own sense of indignation -- it's also an effect of many causes, the chief one of which is that I got hurt. So, seeing clearly, I can act more skillfully. I got hurt. Is the anger helping, or hurting me more?

I find this perspective helps me a lot -- heals me, even. The conventional drama of interpersonal relationships does, of course, continue. But instead of being one of the actors on the stage, a nondual Yom Kippur invites me to watch the play unfold from the audience's point of view. It's still happening, and still quite moving -- and I'll still hop right back onto the stage soon, playing one of the roles I've learned for decades. But there is also the great play of life itself, and the miraculousness of the actors that transcends their transitory (or even recurring) moments of chutzpah.

This is nonduality from personal, rather than theological language: that what we take to be a world of people who please or displease, whom we regard or disregard, is really a vast, self-less matrix of causes and effects, conditions and consequences, with only the illusions of a well-functioning brain leading us to think differently. This is true tshuva, true return to your Source: knowing clearly that self is an illusion -- a blessed, vibrating, shining, dancing illusion, but an illusion still -- and that there is only God pretending to be wronged, pretending to be evil, pretending to be you.

And where there is suffering -- on the planetary scale, or in the political world, or in your own life -- there the work begins.


Images: From Doug Fogelson, Intersections


Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of this magazine and the author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice, to be published next month.