Seeking the Illuminated Body


 

Of my earliest conscious memories, the times I spent in and around the synagogue with the
Lubavitcher Rebbe are still vividly present, semi-ingrained and all-too-easily
available for recall. Following the life of this Hassidic Master and
attentively listening to the teachings he imparted was the preeminent
occupation of my psyche, time and energy from childhood through the first years
of my adult life. At the age of fifteen I was asked to assist the lead
transcriber in recollecting the Rebbe's words, specifically those delivered on
Shabbos and Holidays when writing and recording devises were prohibited. Speaking
in Rabbinic Yiddish, the style, format and contend of the his talks ranged from
expansive analysis and development of Hassidic-Kabbalistic Cosmology to
practical lessons in being a mensch and at home living; from rigorous logical analysis of Talmud and Commentary to a
nuanced elucidation of a Midrashic line or a tale in Hassidic lore - all seemingly
effortlessly woven and expounded on in discourses, homilies, and transmissions
during Hassidic gatherings. Yet, the most salient within all the Rebbe's talks
was the unrelenting infusion and invocation of the hope for, and drive toward,
a cosmic redemption ready to be reveled and experienced here on earth.

During one such
talk as the Rebbe lamented the suffering of exile -- reflected in the misplaced
energy of the wandering Shekhina, the
tumultuous history of the Jewish people, and the chaotic state of human life on
planet earth -- there was an emphatic expression, that what we want is for the body to shine! With this phrase, he
seemed to be articulating a major component of his messianic vision. The body,
not a stand-alone theme in Hassidic parlance, was given a voice as more then a vehicle
for the souls' expression. Though, it was left open as to what it means for the
body to shine, and how may we come to that level of beingness.

The said expression
was heard on Hosanna Rabba, the last day of the festival of Sukkoth (Booths),
toward the completion of a ninety-minute talk following the communal prayer services
on an autumn evening in 1983. Discoursing on the transmutation of suffering while
standing and leaning on the side of his prayer lectern the Rebbe said,

The soul's
cry-out for salvation from her exilic state is all the more so in a time of
deep darkness, when "the darkness covers the earth" (Isaiah 60:2), and though
it is true that "Havaya, the Lord, will
shine onto you"(ibid.), what we want is for the
body to shine; and not to shine with another's light, which illuminates it,
but for the body to shine in it of itself, the way it will be ‘in the days to
come' (l'osid lovo).


But why can
it be so in ‘the days to come'? Because the body has this ability now as well;
not in some hidden or abstract potential, but in an actually that is ready in
the body now; it is merely locked under a lid. But the lid is locked!

There is the drive
to have our bodies overcome its inertness and be brought into the light and in tuning
consciousness to being more integratively embodied. And the Rebbe's words
reverberate as both a plea and a teaching: a heartfelt cry on the suffering of exile
articulated in bodily terms, the body being in darkness; and a teaching as to
the higher state of bodily existence envisioned for ‘the days to come,' the
integrative awakened experience within an illuminated body.

How, however, are
we to reach that state, or, at least in someway, prepare for and foster this level
of transformational body consciousness?  

The need to
elevate rather then subdue the body is already found in the teachings of the
founder of modern day Hassidism Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (also known as the
Besht {1698(?) -1760}), who set out to reverse the then prevalent practice
among Jewish mystic aspirants and Talmudist, of asceticism and negation of the
physical. In the Beshet's exegesis the line in Exodus 23:5, "When you will see the donkey of one who
hates you faltering underneath its load, and thus you halt from assisting him; you
shall offer to help and assist with him
," is read as an allegory on the
battlefield with corporality. The Hebrew word for donkey, Khamor, is similar to the term which signifies congealed
materiality,, exemplified in
the weighty energy of the body. The verse thus reads, ‘as you notice that the Khamor, the bodily needs and desires, hates
you and is dragging you down, so your impulse is to resign from offering
assistance to this overburdened aspect of your being, the animal carrying the heavy
load; nonetheless, provide help, and assist rather then subjected your body; then
by harnessing this bestial force, it is no longer you adversary, but with you, becoming a friend who joins in
the work for higher existence, transmuting corporal energy in service of the
divine.

The Besht also emphasized
the importance of joy and equality; taught methods for concentrating the mind
and how to connect to Spirit in prayer; and the importance of bringing numinous
awareness to bear even on the routine of daily life. His primary teachings as
expounded on and propagated in the Chabad School center on the ideas of Divine
Providence, Spirit's love for all and the primacy of heart centered living.  

Providence as
taught by the Besht extends to even the most mundane. Once while in the forest
with his students he pointed to a leaf whirling in the wind as it descended
from its branch and said, ‘Even the direction of the leaf's spin as it falls
from the tree is not random but divined by Providence, and as you witness the
leaf's wobbly drop it is fulfilling a part in creation's master plan.' The
recognition of this level of providence reveals Spirit's watchful eye and guiding
hand, and so there is nothing to fear but to rejoice at being in the benevolent
presence of all-loving Spirit. 

Another primary
teaching of the Besht's was on the people's equality in the eyes of the Divine.
In the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe of his time there was a strong
division, bordering on a comlete riff, between the Torah scholars and the common folk.
The Ba'al Shem Tov, whose name is Hebrew for Master of the Good Name, would
travel to small towns as a healer and spend time in the markets uplifting the
poor and uneducated folk by listening to their stories, telling them tales, and
even prescribing mixtures of therapeutic herbs and protective amulets. Later, in
his teachings as a revealed master, he emphasized that intention of the heart
trumps the knowledge possessed by the mind. One may be highly learned and
another may only know a few verses of Psalms, yet the one with purity of
intention in prayer is more likely to reach Spirit.

One Yom Kippur day,
a twenty-six-hour fast day dedicated to introspection and repentance, the Besht
spend an inordinate amount of time in prayer during one of day's five services.
An illiterate peasant teenager then lost his patience after sitting mum for
hours while all the others recited the prayers, pulled out a whistle he
secretly stashed, and blow it in middle of the synagogue, an act, akin to the
playing of instruments, which is forbidden on this day of renunciation. The
Besht, who was leading the service, then emerged from his deep contemplation, quickly
completed the prayers and explained to the congregants what transpired. That
afternoon in one of his customary visionary ascensions into other psychic realms,
he was made aware of a pending ruling which would ominously effect the Jewish people.
During the lengthy prayer he was interceding to have it revoked but was
unsuccessful, until the sound of the simple boy's whistle pierced the heavens
and annulled the decree. The purity of the boy's unmediated cry-out reached to
where even the holy man's prayers did not. 

The Rebbe, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Schneerson (Nikolayev, Ukraine, Spring 1902- New York City 1994)), was the
seventh and last master of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic linage. Chabad is a Hebrew
acronym for wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and a third generation Hassidic
school, originating in 1780's Lithuania. After fleeting the Napoleonic invasion
of the Russian Empire in 1812, the movement's leadership settled for over a
century in the Russian shtetl, town,
of Lubavitch.

In the latter half
of the eighteenth century as Hassidism gained momentum and attracted a diverse
following throughout the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe, the
inspirational chaos led some factions to seek to completely overturn the rigidity
of the established Halachic order of prescribed
rabbinic law; their public practice involved continues celebrations and inebriations,
shouting and dancing in the streets, performing somersaults in the city square,
and deliberately wearing their hats and coats inside out, a proclamation of
their disregard for worldly norms.

Countering this
anarchical strain, Chabad philosophy stressed the need to cultivate the power
of the mind, specifically, in order to regulate the hearts impulsiveness, by
way of emersion in the study of mystical text and through contemplation before
and during prayer. It also incorporated in its credo the almost persistent need
for inner work, and set it as its goal not mystical transcendence, but finding the
return from divine union, and harnessing the power of the animal instinct and the
lower self on the path of integrative transformation.

In terms of tapping
into and finding the source for inspiration, the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of
Hassidic teachings stressed that though it ultimately descends from a space
which inner work can not reach, as a gift of grace, yet it is still incumbent
upon one to work in that direction that will help facilitate and evoke the
inspiration to come forth. The inner work of focusing ones attention to create
space for the divine energy to enter initiates movement in other realms, which don't
meet the eye; the inspiration then begins to descend to our lowly state of life
on the dense material plane of planet earth, where upon its arrival it then
finds a suitable vessel within which to manifest.   

Talk of bodywork in
Hassidic literature, primarily, surrounds the reason for mitzvahs, commandments,
which are intended to refine the body and by extension the space around you. For
example, the Biblical prescription to gather together the finest of four plant
species during the Harvest Holiday, a palm, citron, myrtle, and willow, is
combined with the Rabbinic ordinate for blessings, prayer recitations and the performing
of three directional shakes with the four species toward each cardinal point,
above and below. This symbolic ritual of interconnectedness aligns the plant
and human kingdoms, and also purifies the body energetically, where the corporal
energy is not used for self gratification but for a higher purpose, for
something more then mere self; thus it gets cleansed for divine light to shine
in and through the body. 

As to the revealing
of the body's inner shine, this too would seem to necessitate a practice to
facilitate an awakening. However, other then intermediate steps or preparatory
ground laying, the Hasidic directives tend towards work in using the body for a
higher purpose, subjugation of the lower self or practices to overcome the
bodily drives and inclinations.

But what of a more
specific practices to aid and tune the body's energy in revealing its inner
shine, beauty, and even its own consciousness? Where about to search for the
right key that will help open the lid on the body's inner light?

In esoteric
teachings, beings are at times classified as emanating forth from the Kabbalistic
Divine Names, Ma or Ban; Ma is utter surrender and Ban related to the feminine.
The work while embodied on earth reflects the journey the divine soul undertook
from an embryonic spirit through the realms of manifestation. The former have
an expedited gestation period, in their surrendered state there is not much resistance
from the sense of being a separate self, and thus they swiftly navigate through
the different developmental levels on the journey toward embodiment. Souls who emanate
as sons of the feminine spend more time absorbing and learning while descending
through the birthing channel.  

Beings on earth related
to the divine name Ma, concentrate their attention on working with their soul, while
those connected to Ban, focus on elevating the physical body. Examples given of
Biblical historical personages who in their embodiment reflected these differences
are Moses, Ma; David and Elijah, Ban. The eleventh century French rabbi and the
leading elucidator of the Torah, Rashi, relates, form the Talmud, that Moses
was born at six months and one day from conception. The Egyptian Stargazers foresaw a
birth at nine months for the one who may lead the Hebrews out of bondage, which
is why, as the story is told in Exodus, Moses' mother, Yokheved, was able to
conceal the infant at home for three months before being forced to place him on
a papyrus basket floating among the reeds at the edge of the river, there by sheltering
him from Pharaoh's decree to put all newborn boys to death. David was the
eighth and youngest son of Jesse, who was to have been born a miscarriage if
not for Adam, the first man, gifting him seventy of his thousand-year life. Elijah
was born already circumcised after a full twelve months in the womb.

In the Biblical story
Elijah is a sole surviving Prophet, who battles with unrelenting conviction to
(re)turn the peoples' hearts from idol worship, or worse their fickleness in
straddling the fence as to which lord to serve. After his victory at a showdown
on Mount Carmel, where a heavenly fire consumed only his sacrifice, he put to the
sword the Ba'al prophets. Despondent, he asked the Lord to end his life as he
is no better than his fathers, then found refuge in a desert cave where he heard
a call questioning what he is doing there. Elijah responded, ‘I executed vengeance
in the name of the Lord of Hosts after the Sons of Israel deserted Your Covenant,
destroyed Your alters, and put Your prophets to the sword; while I was the lone
one left and they sought to take my life' (1 Kings 19). He was summoned from
the cave by an awesome display of wind, thunderous quakes and fire, yet in all that
was not the Lord. Hearing a kol d'mama
daka
, a still-soft voice, he wrapped his face in his mantle and appeared at
the cave's entrance, where the Voice again asked what he is doing there. Elijah
repeated his story of vengeance and isolation. He was then told by the Lord to
return to the people and was given directives to anoint Kings for Aram and
Israel and Elisha as his successor. Fulfilling his work, Elijah split and crossed
the Jordan river, then entered a heavenly chariot of fire and ascended, leaving
behind his weeping disciple Elisha who requested of his master twofold of his
share in Spirit, and then gained it when he kept his eyes on Elijah as he was
taken up.

I chanced on the Elijah
story while in the Amazon rainforest readying myself to participate in an Ayahuasca
ceremony officiated by a gringo Curnadero
gone native, the mostly toothless Ron from Kansans. Riding on a
packed rickety bus shuttling people home into the lush jungle form their day
labors and escapades in the industrialized and polluted city of Iquitos, Peru,
I was exercising my faculty of concentration and preparing to enter the
rarified psychic space accessed by drinking the sacred elixir, by reading up on
the visionary inspired lives of the Hebrew Prophets spanning the first
millennium BCE.

Two years earlier,
in my inner quest, the Ayahuasca medicine confirmed the possibility of manifesting
higher living and being within our earthly existence, an alternative, to the
alienating and mechanical lifestyle of the western mind, practiced under the banner
of progress, as well as to the insularity and dogma of religious life. But when
the jungle brew began to untangle my psyche, it also sent me on a return
journey to investigate my heritage, following more then a decade where all
which I youthfully ingested from the remnants of the Hebrew tradition, evoked,
either a shudder or various expressions of masked indifference. And one avenue
I was looking into was the apparent historicity of the Israelite civilization,
recorded and written by eyewitness accounts, and passed down for over two
millennia.  

What struck me in reading the Elijah
story was that his otherworldly vision while in the desert takes place after he
was guided there by an angel in a forty-day trek with no food. Why then was the
Voice querying him as to what he was doing in the desert cave? Perhaps, Elijah's
wandering and hiding implies that in the public miracle he performed to demonstrate
the validity of Spirit over idols and in his then putting to sword the Ba'al
prophets, he overstepped the bond; for not
by might or power but by my Spirit, so said the Lord of Hosts
(Zechariah
4:6).

The explicit lesson
I took away from the story is that it is not by the awesomeness of visions
where Spirit is heard, but through the ‘still-soft voice'.    

Elijah is the
manifestation of the archetype who's energy body reached the ready state that
enabled him to ascend to heaven alive, not experiencing physical death; and
so it was with Chanokh, Enoch son of Jared, "Who walked with the Lord and was
no more for the Lord had taken him" (Genesis 5:24), though that was before life
on planet earth is reported to have been wiped clean by the Deluge, when the
Bible chronicles the average age as 900 years plus, with the exception of Enoch
who only made it to 365 before being taken up.

Elijah's path is
the body's surrender to the soul at all points, almost willing itself to nullification,
and is an expression of the unsettled drive of continuous ascension. But it lacks
the integration of the return journey, where the physical body itself is
brought to a state where it expresses spirit.

Another, more
exalted level, in the literature, is that of Moses, "The humblest of all men on
earth" and "Rabon, Master-Sage, of
all the Prophets (Maimonides), who demolished tyranny, liberated the oppressed,
established moral law, and "knew God face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10). Moses
is distinguished from all the other Israelite Prophets as having seen directly
and not by reflection or in a dream (Numbers 12:7). His body-soul consciousness
was at the level of Ma (not) and so did not interfere, thus he attained Spirit
Vision while embodied on earth. Moses' body of flesh, "whose eye did not dim
and cheek did not wither" even as death called, was a form for a higher being
to manifest and at the age of 120 was buried in an unmarked valley in the land
of Moab.

Moses level of bodily surrender, where
ordinary mind and body interfere not, enabled him to be a clear channel for Spirit
even while dealing with earthly matters; as he was standing in front of Pharaoh
and his sorcerers in Egyptian bondage or while being harangued by his own
people in the desert, he communed directly with Spirit "mouth to mouth"
(Numbers 12:8) and delivered its message. Moses refined his body by way of a compatible
and settled surrender, where the body dos not seek to lose itself and disappear
into higher being, but where body consciousness, in a settled manner, tailors
its functions specifically for the soul's differing forms of expression.

While these
Biblical figures may represent archetypal characters that offer us lessons as
to possible attainments and to ways which Spirit manifests, or as highlighting
the various rungs in the ladder of our collective inner development; what does it
imply or teach us as we move forward in historical time? And what about the
specific practices that aided these beings in their journey which may be
relevant and helpful to our being existence now? Or are those mere
technicalities of technique which shifts and develops over time, and we may
each creatively devise our own methods once we are made aware of higher
existence or have an inkling as to what it may be about.

Or have these exceptional beings already
paved the way for the day when living at that level of consciousness may be the
norm, perhaps without the need for us to individually chart such extreme levels
of surrender and self nullification bordering on annihilation? Are we
then collectively closer to a time of unbounded Spirit manifestation on earth; when a
cleansing of our psyche will bring the experiences of the past, individual and
historical, to the fore, and when purified be seen as steps toward the day when
the layers of ego and separateness are shed both within the individual and
between the collective; and we as humanity will merit to Know Essence and Be Love?

In closing the above
quoted tear-soaked talk on the pain and incomprehensibility of the depth of the
darkness, suffering, and length of the exile the Rebbe said, "One of the
solutions to overcoming this darkness and bringing about the redemption within
a moment or instant, (despite the limitation of it being nighttime when the
temple can not be build... and all the other questions to the as of yet
unfulfilled parts of the story...) there is the need for great joy in general and
especially on Hosanna Rabba; and a genuine joy, not, chas v'sholom, protection and peace, a feigned one. And remove from
your thoughts for these moments or hours all matters which distract from the
joy, (though they are legitimate complains...and the Torah wants you to voice
them and demand [an explanation]...). In the spare moments left in this holiday,
whose theme is joy, may there be dancing in the street; first getting the
street [that which is still on the outside] to join you in dance and then the
street will get you dancing."

Following the talk,
a quick bite to eat in the Sukka (a hut roofed with vegetation of bamboo and cedar
or palm leaves, which functions as a temporary habitat for the fall holiday), and
the reading of Moses' Book, Deuteronomy, I joined the masses of Hassidim as we
danced and celebrated on the streets of Crown Heights Brooklyn for a few hours.
At one AM, midnight in ‘real time' and morning enough for public Biblical
readings to commence, we gathered once again with the Rebbe in his synagogue
for the public recitation of the complete book of Psalms.

At some point in
the two-hour Psalms reading, I experienced the inner struggle of my then ten
year old self. As I stood among thousands of men in the back of the overstuffed
basement hall under the women's balcony while facing a stack of oversized books,
I began to be overwhelmed by fatigue. At first, I set out to finish reciting
all 150 psalms for perhaps the third time that month, but I kept on nodding off
and waking when my neck slightly snapped and my head slumbered down. I gave up
keeping up with the crowed and kept telling myself that if I focused my mind I
can override the body's automatic shutting of my eyes, simply, by the power of
deciding to not do so no matter what. I lost track of the psalms and battled
back and forth, between nodding, waking and resolving to stay upright. The body
was mostly victorious as my knees kept buckling and I continually slumped down,
but I recall being baffled at my inability to stay awake if I so choose.

The Rebbe,
however, it was said, did not go to bed all the seven days of the holiday. He
would quote from the Talmud that in the days of the Jerusalem Temple in
connection with the annual ritual during this harvest holiday of drawing water
from the Shlioah spring and the
ceremony of offering it over the alter, there were all-night festivities in the
large women's section of the Sanctuary, which included fire juggling by leading
rabbis, due to which, people did not taste sleep for seven days; explaining, that
taste meant there was no going to bed, but as humans can not, as read in the
Talmudic laws on vows, subsist for even three days with no sleep, they would
nap by leaning on each other's shoulders. He would encourage his Hassidim in his
nightly talks during the holiday to push themselves so now as well. On day
seven when the he was in his late eighties I witnessed the Rebbe seeming so
tired that when he walked into the synagogue or as he spend many hours
distributing to all who requested a piece of honey cake with his wishes for a
sweet year, it looked like he was moving, even dragging, his body, by the force
of his will. But being the Rebbe he did not succumb to fatigue or allow himself
any rest from his continuously mounting activities.

After the Rebbe's
passing in June 1994, following the hype surrounding him as a potential or the actual
Messiah, I transitioned away from the community and culture of late 20th century Hassidic Brooklyn, as well as from the ideas and teachings I absorbed
there. I first focused my energy learning to read and write in the English
language; to that point in my life in the insular neighborhood of Crown Heights
I spoke Yiddish, read in Hebrew and Aramaic, and wrote almost nothing in any
language. I satiated my academic curiosity studying the ‘secular' subjects that
growing up were highly taboo to read about or even to know of their existence, and
were, unquestionably, not legitimate avenues for inquiry; such as evolution,
physics, biology, writing, math, philosophy, and the arts; graduated with a
degree in English literature from Columbia University; danced at all night beach
parties and hippie gatherings; backpacked around East Asia for ten months; and had
my heart open to the beauty of life at an art festival in the desert; all while
searching and seeking for human connectedness, myself, love, spirit; and later my
tribe, calling and voice.

As to the question
of body consciousness, perhaps, due to the time spend in the Hassidic world of
bodily neglect and the academic world which construed the body as a mechanism for
housing Man's functioning apparatuses, I began to suffer from periodic bodily
breakdowns and severe debilitating illnesses. In my early thirties, I began a
consistent physical yoga practice, which help awaken my spirit to its habitation
within the structure of the body. Though yoga gave me some experience in
consciously aligning mind and body energy and helped mend some of the disconnect
and abuse of my structure, I still felt removed from living consciously through
and with my body. It was when I found my way to a silent mediation retreat that
I felt, by way of a practice, that I was discovering an integrative means to
bring our being and consciousness into harmony with what seems like the innate
matter of the corporal.

*

Recovering from living
for close to two years as itinerant in New York City, which left me feeling scattered
and unfocused, and looking to regain some personal equilibrium and to find a
consistent level of discipline in my writing practice, in the fall of 2009 I committed
to spending ten days at a Vipassana meditation retreat in Northwestern
Massachusetts. Perhaps, I reckoned, sitting in complete silence will help flush
out the chatter in my psyche and tune my mind to a subtler, more serene pulse,
which may then give rise to the emergence of my inner voice, the pure voice of the
soul, dressed in the regalia of conscious experiences, finding coherent self
expression. Or, more modestly, to learn something new about the nature of
psyche and the idiosyncratic driving forces beyond my own mind, thereby coming
to better understand its workings, with the objective of attaining a degree of self-control
and becoming more of a conscious agent rather then a reactive one.

I was a bit
apprehensive about being silent and sitting still for a week and a half. When in
preparation for the course I dedicated some time to sitting in quietude and in focused
attention on the breaths rhythm, even thirty minutes was tough and required mustering
quite a bit of will power to be still or not peek at the clock. I knew of a few
friends who bolted midway through, but another handful of people I spoke to who
completed the ten days reported, that it was difficult but very doable. Would I
be able to patiently stay the course regardless?

As I was also struggling with a
pervasive habit of smoking tobacco, with a ration creeping up on 15 hand-rolled
cigarettes daily, it made the prospect of my ten days in seclusion with no
option of feeding my oral fixation, seem all the more daunting. On the other
hand, I took solace in the thought that this might be the final nudge that will
help free me from the addiction which had taken hold after ten years success as
a causal smoker. Not wanting the urge and its suppression to dominate my psyche
in meditation, with the aid of tee tree toothpicks soaked in essential oils and
tasting of mint and cinnamon, I was able to stay off the nicotine for five days
before entering the retreat, and once there felt almost no urge to puff burning
tobacco.

A communal ride up to New England in
a van with six other New Yorkers' looking to deepen their horizons, with a stop
in the boutique-ish town of Northampton for a last sumptuous meal and some
chit-chat in an attempt at getting to know each other at an Indian restaurant,
brought us to the mediation center in the mountainous country hills of
Shelburne Falls MA, promptly enough to check in and leave with the volunteer
staff at the registration desk all items with which we may be tempted; pens and
paper, phone, music player; and even our keys, (was that, least we run away?).

This meditation franchise has been
propagated by Sri Satya Narayan Goenka, a Burmese born Hindu, who has
established hundreds of centers around the globe, which are billed as ritual
free, non-denominational, and open to all for the price of a commitment to stay
the course and to donate at the end as one's heart desires. Goenka leads the
meditation sessions and nightly darma
talks where he discourses on the teachings and philosophy of Vipassana, through
audio and video recordings. In the late 1960's he began teaching this
meditation technique in India, the birth place of Buddhism. After close to
twenty years of practice, which he took up as a last resort treatment for his
migraines, his teacher authorized Goenka to share the ways of this mediation in
India, with his first student being his mother. A special intersession with the
authorities allowed Goenka, once a prosperous businessman and leader in the Burmese
Hindu community, to leave Burma, a country that was then and is still now under
the tight rule of a military dictatorship; where in cities and towns one is
bombarded by ten story high Orwellian billboards visually depicting the
supremacy of state, communism and the heroism of military sacrifice,
underwritten with strong admonishment, for some reason exclusively in English,
as to the crushing of all who oppose or disavow these truths. Way before I ever
heard of Vipassana or had taken interest in mediation, in the summer of 2002,
as my final stop in my ten month post-graduation Asia sojourn, I visited the
isolated country of Myanmar, the former British Colony of Burma but where these
days almost no one speaks English. What stuck me about the Burmese was their body
posture, carrying themselves in the most upright and organic fashion I have
ever seen, owing perhaps to the heavy loads they carry on their heads in their
daily coming and goings even while steering their bicycles, mostly while
attired in intricately patterned wraparounds in lieu of trousers.

The Land of a Thousand Pagodas,
Burma, is proclaimed to be the place where Vipassana has been preserved in its
unadulterated form as it was first revealed by the historical Buddha, Gautama,
and the time period of its return to India is purported by Goenka to coincide
with a 2,000 year old prophecy that the Buddha's teachings will return to the
land of their origin 2,500 years after he moved on from this planet at the age
of eighty.

The aim of the practice is to get to
a place beyond mind, or mind as it was here defined, the thinking apparatus,
and to do so we first need to cleanse our psyche and find harmony in our
consciousness of mind and body. The ultimate attainment, where the sankaras, karmic traces born form attachments, are burned through
and the no-self enters the realm of pure consciousness is mentioned in passing
and qualified as something which is a long way, many lifetimes even, down the
road, and not to be paid much heed to in the here and now, perhaps because it
will just feed another goal-attachment and distract the student from, the
oh-so-illusive, being present in the moment.  


The days in silence commenced with a
4-am wake up to the sound of clattering bells and at 4:30 we gathered in the
hall for a three-hour collective meditation sitting. First we practiced anapana, exercises to quite and
concentrate the mind by focusing on the breath and the sensations it produces
within the nostril area. On day four we transitioned into Vipassana, Insight
Meditation, with a focus on the workings of body and mind.

Those first days were bordering on
torture for me to just keep my body still while sitting in a meditative
posture. Positioning and repositioning myself on cushions of various sizes and
densities to get into a comfortable sitting position and enter some kind of
meditative state, the body was reacting and even revolting with restlessness
and agitation. Observing, I noticed how the body mostly moved of its own accord
without volition or conscious choice; the body was operating on a mind of its
own and I was in the dark, unconscious, as to what it was doing, and even less
so as to why.  

Sitting, fidgeting, or trying not to
for a few days, a semblance of body stillness began to take shape by day four
as the Vipassana meditation began in earnest. Master Goenka in his booming
voice initiated our entry into Insight Meditation by deep chanting in the
ancient tongue spoken by the Buddha, Pali. Right form the go I felt a switch in
my energy state, things were moving into higher gear, and my body began to feel
like waves of energy were running through it. And though sitting with my eyes
closed and absorbed in my inner world, I had the distinct impression that by
the power of Goenka's channeling and the collective focus of the meditators,
the whole room was now vibrating on a more intense frequency.

The first phase of Vipassana, variations
of which were practiced for the rest of the retreat, involved sequential up and
down scanning of the body's energy form the crown of the head to the bottom of
the feet, feeling and noticing sensations on the skin's surface. Later when the
energy coalesced, and in the sweep of one in-breath you succeed in smoothly
traversing the whole body on the way down and with your exhale move up to the
tip of your head, the attention is turned to the inner organs, opening them, by
the inner gaze of awareness, from being static processers to vibrating on a conscious
frequency. But for starts, with the scans I registered no or little sensation, easily
confused by the mind's great ability to project, interpreting the thought about
the surface of the body for the feeling of an actual sensation on the skin.

The idea of this meditation
technique is to just sense, notice, and move on, or if a part of body is
particularly dense and nothing is sensed or if pain is felt at some spot, we
were instructed to spend a few extra breaths while our mind's attention is on
these areas, allowing it to open, release and reintegrate its static energy.
Putting myself to a challenge, while noticing the coloring of different
sensations, before moving on to another spot on the body, I began devising
names for the differently felt sensation, identifying them with labels, such
as, harsh or piercing,  flighty or dense,
etc. But I was, soon enough, disabused from my attempt at honing my descriptive
skills while meditating when I consulted with Michael Jordan, the in-person
leader of the men's workshop and a calming meditative and teaching presence,
while his wife, Leslie Gray, led the women, as they sat side by side perched on
a knee high podium. The idea, he said to me, is to just observe and move on and
not get attached or entangled in the experience or thoughts by creating ever
more categories. Thus, in Goenka's lingo, you put into action on the visceral
plane of the body the foundational Buddhist principle of non-attachment through
the recognition of anicha, impermanence.
Sensations in the body come and go, observe, notice, and let them flow on.

 
These sittings reveled to me not so
much my mind's attachments or the overall restlessness of both my body and
mind, easily attributed to the lack of harmony between them, but my own slacked
consciousness. How much my body reacts to situations out of habit or impulse,
and how I'm only aware of its movements after it has begun; as when sitting in
meditation and trying to keep the body still an itch will arise and unconsciously
I begin to make the move to touch or rub it, or an impulse momentum begins to
move my body out of a position of discomfort long before I noticed any movement.
I found that in these situations I was at times able to catch myself at the
beginning of an action before its fruition; I would move my hand toward my face
and halt it in midair before the desire to rub the itch was satisfied. As my
meditation deepened the gaps between urge or action, and awareness or halting,
narrowed. As an improved meditator, I was also becoming more of an actor and
less of a reactor, though still not in meditative awareness.

As my body began to accustom itself
to stillness, my mind was still jumpy. It would move from a state of flow in
scanning my body, to times when mind would play tired, bored, restless or
agitated, and proceed to wander and muse over the myriad of subject matters I
entertain in my psyche. 

As my chief preoccupation at the
time was my attempt to find consistency in putting my story and ideas into
written form, I found myself beginning to script out paragraphs in my mind.
During one of these brain-writing exercises, I heard a voice. In clear
Hindu-accented English the voice of Master Goenka spoke to me in a firm but
benevolent tone, "It is not helpful to do the writing in your head, save
it for when you are sitting down to write."

By continues observance of the mind
and the places where it likes to wander I also gained insight into my life and
the unresolved spaces in my psyche. One was the longing for connectedness in
the form of a partner with whom to share in love and life. I found myself quite
a few times during meditation going through lists of different women I know and
am fond of and resolving to connect with them upon my return to society. It was
at these points that I felt almost compelled by some outside force to remember
the names of these women, even while I was diverting my consciousness with the
scanning technique. Part of me was scanning the body and another part was
making lists of women in New York I knew. While some of these women I
visualized with the potential for cultivating a sacred partnership with, another
six or seven were seen as companions in social intimacy. When I got back to the
big city I sought out and contacted the women who appeared to me in mediation to
foster a more meaningful connection with them and I even got together for a few
dates, but a love relationship had not to flicker.

As my consciousness was being
subverted into the realm of gender relations I also began to mull over past
relationships and lessons I may learn from them; was I too guarded, too forgiving,
or not loving enough? This was all after I had taken up Sila, Buddhist morality, which includes
renouncing sexuality and practicing abstinence during the retreat. Men and
women are housed in separate buildings and sit on opposite sides of the meditation
hall. They even had a curtain hanging at the main entrance which divided the
kitchen and the women's quarters from the dinning hall where we men silently
ate our twice-daily intentionally bland vegetarian meals. It was reminiscent of
my life growing up in the Ultra-Orthodox world of Jewish Brooklyn and the
customary divider, mechitza, that
separates the sexes in synagogues and at weddings, and can now even be found on
buses, where a veil is stretched across the isle between the men and women
sides. But while the physical segregation of the sexes in the Judaic world also
assigns to each gender different roles in the individual and communal life,
with females as outsiders to the male world of studying scripture and the daily
routine of ritual practice, in Vipassana both men and women do the same
practice, in the same room, and are given equal footing on their inner quest.

Even while thinking of women to
connect with, my experience in meditation was mostly mind based, and not much by
way of entangled emotions, desires or urges came up. However, more then once
when the name of bliss aficionado, Linda, appeared in my psyche it brought up a
surge of sexual energy pulsating through my whole body.

One Saturday night the prior
spring I was on my way to a mock wedding of two male party promoting friends,
when Linda who I met a week earlier at a masquerade party celebrating
Mesoamerican pyramid culture, invited me up to her crash pad in a mutual
acquaintance's cookie cutter apartment in the East Village, to just say hi and
maybe share a class of wine. Once there, she showed me slides of her
photographs on her newly minted Mac, glossy but quirky shots that included
fruit picking in Parisian markets and mountainous living on the foothills of
the arctic circle. In waivery indecision – to move on to the next party or
deepen our getting to know each other? – we consulted a not so precise oracle
in the form of a deck of divination cards. She picked Archangel Hilarion,
crystal pure light, and I pulled a double, Moses, strength in action, and
Buddha, meditation and clarity of mind. This called for a dab of Hoffman's
potion. We then found ourselves stretching on a yoga mat where Linda fluidly chanted
prayers of surrender to vibrations of infinite love. The rest of the night had
us embracing in all sorts of eros pastures, and rolling around on the hardwood
floor in cries of ecstatic commitments to love while teetering on the brink of
everywhere and nowhere, with exclamations piping forth from our mouths, ‘wow,
it is you!', ‘how did you know?!' and ‘love, love, love, only love.'

Our surrendering to infinite love helped
silence the ego’s fear of merging into oneness, which in my mind has played
itself out as the voice of skepticism as to the truth of this love, or a
seduction into some mental labyrinth of distraction disguised as truth seeking, tending to rear its asserting voice at the moment of union in the ego’s fear
of identity lose. Yet this level of surrender of the self to union with divine
love is in Buddhaistic terms the entry into ultimate bodhicitta, which then brings one to relative bodichitta, the practice of working within the awakened state, where
we learn how to act and work with that energy in the variant manifestations of love
and compassion, differently expressed with our cat or when engaging a fellow
human, and different in the nurturing given to a child to that offered a plant,
and so on we learn to work are way up to the experience of love with another
where we fully embrace not merely the archetype or even the manifested divine
being within, but also the person as they are in their individuated earthly
dimension.

As the morning
shun, the floor of the antique looking apartment was no longer quite as
inviting, and so the affair was left unconsummated, which left me hobbling
around the city in the day's rain. A few further encounters and attempts to rekindle the union faltered in a game of hide and seek, and we dropped out of touch, with
me having long ago resigned from meaningfully reconnecting with the tall
Icelander. Yet in the depths of stillness, with the mere trigger of her name, a
powerful carnal surge rushed through me which I needed to actively quite and
not just allow to dissipate. I later chanced to learn from Linda, that when the
syllables of her name unleashed in me visceral creative energy, she was transitioning
from teaching yoga to serving as an erotic message therapist catering to rich New York
men unsatisfied with their partners.


With the exception
of three ideas which I took note of and even considered pondering, for my time
at the retreat I was able to put aside my proclivity to actively remember my experiences
and thoughts. Two ideas, on the wave function in Quantum Mechanics and ways of priming
the body to shine, were reveled in mediation; the third one came to me as I sat
by the creek during our lunch break.

There were fleeting moments when it
felt like I was entering into a deep meditative state, not merely a relaxed mind
or the feeling of energy flowing through the body, but where mind and body were
in harmony and attention would just be in state of serene presentness. However,
upon noticing and registering this as a unique state of conscious awareness, my
mind would straight away jump from the tranquility of wave-flow to fixating on
a thought or a specific body part. This was so eerily similar to the description
of the wave particle duality I studied in physics, that I wondered if perhaps this
is the experiential equivalent to the collapse of the wave-function in Quantum Mechanics? 

May it be, I pondered, that the experience
in Vipassana can shed light as to what happens to the Quantum Mechanical wave
when instrumentally measured. And may it help resolve the so called Measurement
Problem: how and why do the quantum mechanical laws of motion, experimentally
found to apply to all atoms and particles in the universe, go from eloquently
being described as waves and predicatively answering to the precise mathematics
of probabilistic wave equations, to then, in a flash, when observed with atomic
measuring devises, found to have clasped into determined and localized
characteristics of discreet particles?

At times in meditation, I glimpsed
another realm, where the usual constitutions and division of space-time no
longer convey or are even relevant to the experiential content of the mind; a
mental state where the incessant flow of thoughts cease, seem to no longer
grasp or attach themselves to a specific experience, and in this heightened
consciousness, clarity of awareness may even be in more then one place at the
same time and with such acuteness that informational content can be observed
and retrieved from both spaces. May that be another dimensional space and
similar to the state of matter described by the QM wave before it is localized
by measurement? It seems that our crude minds have trouble fathoming what it
means for something to exist without fixed boundaries or without being located
in the ordinary parameters of space and time. Would tapping in and experiencing
what is beyond the norms of our accustomed four-dimensional space-time
perspective, expand our conceptual framework and help us develop a more cogent
theory as to the fundamental and foundational workings of the universe, and the
relationship between matter-energy and experience?

From the abstract hope of a discovery
in the western scientific paradigm of a theory which may then even shed
conscious light on Beingness, I later contemplated the traditional route and practices
which claim to help birth us into beingness. As I sat by the icy creek during
our lunch break, thinking of the different wisdom schools that focus on giving
us a glimpse of the beyond, transcending our ordinary modes of consciousness
and perception, and how they tend to involve both knowledge and practice, a thought
came to me concerning these methods familiar to me from the Hassidic tradition
within which I was raised, taking the form of study and prayer; work with the
mind and the heart.

In the world of the Hassid the means
of connecting to the divine were through study, exemplified as the esoteric
immersion in the teachings of mystics and masters, and prayer, which was the
many hours spend in expressing your soul as a dialogue with your higher-self or
at the level of stillness where you achieve Union with the Divine.

For most Hassidic men and recently some
women as well, where the peak experience of absorption and communion with the
Divine are far from common, daily prayer is a form of entry into a another
state of soul being, lifting yourself and being lifted out of prosaic
consciousness; like a meditative practice that guide’s the mind into soul mode.
And the study of Hassidic cosmology, the counterpart to prayer, serves as a
navigational prep for the moments when you achieve that entry into the mythical
kingdoms of the psyche.


In the concrete reality of
the mediation hall day ten came around, and in that evenings lecture Master
Goenka implored us to keep at our spiritual practice, whichever path we may
choose, and
not waste our lives as incarnated beings on earth with the ability to
elevate and shift karmic inertia, and he also gave us pointers for our further at
home meditation practice. The noble silence was lifted for a few hours on that
day, and as I worked on keeping at it to deepen my practice I was being distracted
by the noisy chatter of people in the hallways dissecting their experience, so
I joined them. We introduced ourselves, and shared thoughts and tidbits of
experiences.  In the conversational
circle with the men with whom I spend ten days in silence, some voiced
apprehension at embracing the ways of the meditator due to the lifestyle
changes they deemed it to demand, like relinquishing their mundane pleasures of
beer drinking or idol conversation. I insisted to them, based on a deep
intuition, that it is a mere momentary renunciation, once you get to the other
side, if you still so please, you may have those pleasures, and what not, in a
more refined and conscious fashion, and I was happy to return to the cushion.

And here is the
final thought I recall from my days of quietude and stillness. For many years, I
have been wondering about the Rebbe's expression ‘that we want to see the body
shine' (see first part of article), what exactly is it referring to and what endeavors
may help initiate this state. Experientially I had the sense that I gleaned it
at times, like in those rare moments when a flow arrived during a yoga practice
and the different centers of being moved in alignment or when ‘feeling it' on
the dance floor, but I was seeking a deeper understanding of the dichotomy
between the subsets of our consciousness as well as a consistent method for harmonizing
the divergent forces within, when these elevated states do not just happen to
us but when we are able to have a degree of control over their manifestation, thus
becoming conscious co-creators of our inner experiences.   

While meditating at
the retreat on the energy flowing through me, the mere focus on the consciousness
of the body was opening spots of pain or stagnant energy and bringing my body
consciousness into awareness and harmony with the rest of my being,  and I felt an awaking to a more
enlightened relationship with the different aspects of self, not seen as
disparate but with the possibility of uniting in being expression and including
the body as a conscious element of the whole. Then a moment arrived where
something clicked. The observing part of self hooked up with the vibrations of
the body's energy, and for some moments I felt an alignment of body and mind
consciousness. Not a oneness in mind but a oneness of being. Vipassana Meditation
thus seemed to be an integrative practice I've been seeking; a key which may
bring the body's energy into conscious awareness, a step toward the body itself
being illuminated, and through which essence may come to physically shine.

Yet, the journey
to enlightenment and unitary consciousness is a long one. Why is the road so uninviting
and fraught with obstacles where so few seem to have reached the other side,
much less have attained an illuminated body? Might we be holding out for a
reason? That even those of us who arduously practice and have a glimpse into
the other side of the veil, consciously or unconsciously, retreat from entering,
not because the allure of mundane pleasures still lurks but, because the other
side does not quite live up to our idea of enlightenment living.

As the Buddha arrived
at the gates of heaven, he refused to enter until he succeeds in bringing all
living beings along with him. It was not mere altruism which motivated him to
work for the benefit of all but the recognition of the interconnectedness of
all. Enlightenment, in this sense, is not reaching a place full of light or dazzling
visions, of transcend bliss or an illuminated mind, not an attainment of any
sorts, even of a divine consciousness, but the core recognition of the oneness of
life and the unitary essence within all living beings. As long as there are
suffering beings then there is a part of us and part of Universal Essence which
is still in need of liberation, and true liberation is not just the leap forward, entering
into a new existence while leaving the past behind but is redemptive in nature,
one which brings liberation to all aspects of self and the world, including the
terrain of the psyche muddled by past experiences. The redemptive drive is for
an all-inclusive enlightenment, embracing the body and the lower self, as well
as the collective.

But all this being said, as the
Masters teach us, when we are then touched by Essence, prior ideas no
longer hold and past notions evaporate; all the doubts questions and 
and pontifications
as to
the nature and validity of Truth and Love vanish when we come to Know. The
mind's conceptions and divisions suddenly surrender their utility, and the
cloud of mist lifts to the sight of the real thing in acute clarity. It is the
moment of arrival, when one merits entry through the most sacred space of the
heart.

Image by jurvetson, courtesy of Creative Commons license.


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mso-style-link:Footer;}
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