Jay Michaelson
Guilt and Groundedness, p.3

Mystical, spiritual religion is often set up as the opposite of ethical, traditional religion. It's supposed that the former values experience and spiritual states, whereas the latter is less about how you feel than whether you are acting correctly. But how does "acting correctly" make you feel? In contrast, what does it feel like for a traditional religious person to disobey God's command?

Really, traditional Judaism is every bit as experiential and individualistic as mystical religion. It just values different experiences, particularly that of feeling grounded. And guilt is, I think, the primary tool of maintaining that experience.

It's notable, in this light, that most of the world's mystical traditions require lots of groundedness before the destabilizing work of mystical practice may be undertaken. As a teacher of Kabbalah, I've encountered many students who ask whether it's OK to learn (let alone teach) Kabbalah before you're forty years old and fully learned in Bible and Talmud. And other traditions have similar restrictions.

What these restrictions are saying is: be grounded. The spiritual practitioner is like a tree: if the branches are not broad enough, the tree will not be nourished. But if the branches are too broad for the roots, the tree will blow over. So, know the Ten Commandments before the ten sefirot; learn about suffering before you say that all is perfect.

At the same time as I appreciate this wisdom, I used to think, with regard to the Kabbalah in particular, that these groundedness-restrictions were more or less about guilt. Forty, in the Jewish tradition, denotes completion. It means you've lived a life. You've had children, you've built a home -- you're not going to jump off a cliff because you've experienced that all is One and "you" don't exist as a really separate entity. And you're not going to stop keeping shabbat either. Just as something holds you back from jumping off the cliff (love of family, or the norm of preserving life, or just a deep instinct for self-preservation), something also holds you back from transgressing the law. Observance is part of your infrastructure; you're grounded.

So the Kabbalah is reserved for those who won't sin as a result of it. At the far reaches of Jewish mystical practice is antinomian heresy: the followers of Jacob Frank who wanted to sin in order to uplift sparks of divinity, for example. But a bit nearer are the Hasidic rabbis, such as R. Aaron of Staroselse or R. Mordechai Lainer of Isbica, who grasped the contradiction between the concept of sin and the reality of God's omnipresence. The Ishbitzer created a worldview in which one becomes fully Divine by becoming fully oneself, refining the individual conscience and even, on rare occasions, transgressing the superficial law in favor of the deeper. What separates the heretics from the Hasidim is their practice -- the Hasidim never strayed from pious observance, even as their metaphysics allowed them to do so. Why? We don't exactly know -- but surely guilt played a role.

I want to be clear that, in the mystical moment itself, the energy of guilt and the energy of groundedness are almost identical. Why not jump off the cliff? All is God -- do it! Go farther... sin... unite the opposites... cross the boundary that separates the sheep from the shaman. What calls me back, in such moments, are thoughts of home, and attachments to precisely the illusory self that gets effaced by contemplative work.

But there is another kind of groundedness.

Unlike the groundedness that is attachment, that so closely resembles guilt, and that is tied to specific norms and behaviors, I have experienced a form of resting -- that is the operative word -- in consciousness itself, and in a mode of consciousness that is ever-present. The phrase "resting in the present moment" carries a slight whiff of the New Age, but what it means is that the mind has been practiced-upon enough that it can stop worrying, stop thinking so many thoughts, and stop rewinding and fast-forwarding to times other than now. "Resting in now" is a form of relaxed concentration. The mind witnesses the arising and passing of desires, it sees them clearly, and it holds to commitments without the tightness of guilt. And, as such -- here is the crucial turn -- it allows a wider, deeper journey to unfold. Without a practice of being grounded in the present moment, I experience fear -- and it's a good thing, too, because otherwise I might well jump off the proverbial cliffs. (Indeed, the possibility of doing so itself creates more fear.) I feel called back, restrained, rooted -- but with the sense of "I haven't yet made it." On the other hand, with the practice of concentration and grounding in the present, I can allow myself to cut loose, and be almost fearless. Images, energies, emotions, ideas -- all can arise and pass, and I am resting, watching, feeling. Amazing trips happen when you're free from fear.

What if, instead of reserving mysticism for those who won't transgress, the restrictions on Kabbalah study are meant to reserve it for those who can truly take such journeys? Without this form of groundedness -- the content-less kind, the kind that comes from concentration and practice and lots of hard work on the mind ("effortless effort" it's called in the Buddhist world) -- you can't go anywhere. You'll see a vision, and be afraid. In the terms of the Talmudic story, you'll cry, when you visit the palaces of pure marble, "water, water!" and you will be destroyed. Or you'll think too much, creating stories of apostasy. Only the grounded one -- Akiva in the Talmudic story -- is able to journey to the heights and the depths.

Again, the crucial difference is that the groundedness is not a groundedness-in-something. It is not tied to a specific code or text or feeling. And it's not a puerile sense of guilt. Rather, it is a form of stability of mind that, in my experience, allows all kinds of wonder to be held. There is more to heaven and Earth than is measured in Horatio's philosophy -- but without the preparation of mind, fear will get in the way.

The practice of grounding the mind in the present -- experiencing whatever arises, remaining with the fact of experience rather than becoming trapped by fears -- also cuts through the recursive circuits of guilt. It is a paradoxical state -- one holds onto it by letting go, again and again and again. Guilt works by fighting, but this practice works by surrendering. Yet it leads to the same, grounded, secure, trusting place. Hinei el yeshuati, eftach v'lo efchad: here, God is my salvation, I will trust and not fear.

As one of my teachers said on a recent retreat, "stopping the war has no limits." It takes a lot of work, and I am a beginner who makes many mistakes. I get trapped, and it's not like meditation is a cure-all that dispenses with problems. I have no way of knowing whether I've really cleared my mind of biases, guilt, and fear, or whether some still remain, so it's not as though I can just breathe a few times and then make the right ethical choice. And I still get driven crazy by annoyances. But every so often, I remember to stop judging, stop preferring, stop fighting. And then a real groundedness appears, one conditioned not by social norms but by a state of mind which arises through practice. Trusting in that one attachment, the attachment to whatever is happening now, real concentration: this is what is meant by "stopping the war."

From the perspective of this witnessing mind, guilt is just a conditioned phenomenon like everything else. It isn't a still small voice, or the internalized voice of the patriarchy, or anything personal at all. It's mechanistic. Play with a dog, and he'll want to play more. Give a man enough drinks, and he'll get drunk. Transgress old boundaries, and there will be guilt. It's been my karma to have been conditioned in a certain way, where some bad things (like theft) give me guilt, some good things (like sex) give me guilt, and some completely neutral things (like treif) give me guilt. Sometimes guilt obstructs love, and sometimes, let's be honest, it helps love grow by constraining our behavior, either with respect to other people or, in religious life, with regard to the One. Guilt works well in an identity constructed out of fears and desires, and since I still mostly live in that identity, I am learning to accept it and appreciate it for just what it is. Would I rather it be gone from my life? It depends. I would let it go, but only if it were replaced by concentration. Only, that is, if the groundedness in inherited truths might be supplanted by groundedness in the real truth -- to cleave only to what sages call the one fortunate attachment.

[1]       [2]       3
Image: Lynne Marie, Open the Throat

Jay Michaelson will be leading a retreat on holistic Jewish ritual this month at Elat Chayyim.

Lynne Marie (jubileeartist.com) is an accomplished outsider artist with a distinctive, innovative visual voice emerging in New York City. An advocate of art in women's prisons, her work in prison ministry grew over five years, producing and facilitating art programs to revive the creative spirit was at MCI Framingham. Her work continues a creative process invoking atonement [covering and mending]: the work itself is prayer.

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