Sit with the feeling of being alive; simply being present using body and breath as anchor. This means just to be present with what is, without DOING anything with any of it. Just being in relation to it. Allowing it. Permitting it. Being permissive, being open to it. In a sense we are not experiencing anything at all in meditation, because experience is always grasping. And with grasping there is dissatisfaction, because whatever we can grasp we can tire of – we will tire of. And will want something else, something new. But what we just allow, what we just let come and go, without grasping or identifying, we don’t tire of, we don’t need anything more. So we sit, simply sit, in the present moment of being alive.
When we sit in this way, we find ourselves in a different relation to ourselves because we are no longer objectifying ourselves and our experiences, no longer judging ourselves, trying to improve ourselves. We are just sitting, just being there. So in a sense we are not there at all, because the person we think of as being ourselves is an object to us, a self we can feel good about or bad about, a self we present to others against whom we must be measured. This fact of being presented to the world, being measured against others, IS what we mean by our self, even in the privacy of our most intimate moments. We have been taught to internalize the world; in a sense the world’s judgments are inextricably connected to our deepest innermost sense of who we are. But when we are sitting we are deactivating this socially determined self, so we are getting a big relief, a big break from ourselves in our sitting.
Now this is odd and strange. It is completely paradoxical. Because when we are sitting we are, at the same time, of course, getting a tremendous dose of ourselves. We are probably having a greater density – or at least it seems as if we are having a greater density – of thoughts, feelings, and sensations than we normally do. So there may be a lot of familiar and unfamiliar material arising when we are sitting. This makes it seem, at first glance, as if we are being more ourselves on the cushion than anywhere else; that we are more stuck with ourselves on the cushion than we are at other times, when we can distract ourselves with other people, or with activity of some sort. But in fact the opposite is true. Because we are relating to what arises on the cushion quite differently from our usual way – which is to say, we are not taking it for granted automatically AS ourselves, we are not identifying with it automatically, in the usual way, but are instead allowing it to come and to go, using the feeling of the body and the breathing as a way of making a large enough space to let the material of the self come and go without objectifying it. Because of this simple yet radical shift in basic attitude that takes place when we are sitting, relating to the material that arises in this different way, we are actually getting a big break from being ourselves when we are sitting on our little cushions. There is a big difference between being enmeshed in thoughts and feelings and simply being with or allowing thoughts and feelings. It might not seem this way at first but little by little this becomes clear. In sitting, we are free of ourselves, even in the midst of ourselves.
And here is where sitting is directly connected to our relationship to God. Because as I understand it, God IS this more open and wonderful, in the literal sense of wonder-full, relationship to and within ourselves. When I am stuck on myself in the usual way there is no room for God to get in. And if there is a sense I have of “God” it isn’t really God per se- it’s my own sense of wanting to be helped, wanting to be saved, a projection of my own desire and need. This is poignant but I would say this is not the relationship to God that Judaism proposes. Because in Judaism God requires something of us. God is an encounter that is frightening to the self precisely because it calls into question the ordinary sense of self, wants it to open to wonder, to not knowing, to its own radical vulnerability. God comes forward all of a sudden and proclaims being in all its openness, mystery, and connection. And God’s call requires, seems to demand, a response: henani is the Biblical word for it, repeated at crucial moments in the narrative when God calls. Henani ,” here I am.” This “here I am” isn’t me or mine- it has nothing to do with my splendid personality or all my brilliant accomplishments, even my spiritual accomplishments- it is the utterance of being flowing through us, any of us, Abraham, Moses, me, you- any of us who is willing to drop the objective, seemingly secure, but in reality quite painful, self, and come out into the open, which is the only place where you can meet God.
From within the self all this seems scary; but from God’s point of view, it is liberating: and it is normal. This coming out to meet in the open is just normal for God. This meeting IS God. There are of course consequences to this meeting – one’s whole life has to change, and this can be a struggle, as the Torah chronicles. But the alternative is actually impossible. Because a life without meeting in the open, without encountering the ground of our being, is really impossible for us. It appears to us as a feeling of meaninglessness, despair, fear – feelings which we sometimes have as a prelude to our encounter with God.
I said that this encounter is normal from God’s point of view; it is also quite normal for us, at least the us that is liberated. From the point of view of our stuck objectified selves, which is all we really know, God is special indeed. This is why in spiritual practice we are always looking for the big boffo moments. The transcendental ahas. If such moments come they may well have God in them, God may be peeping out at us from around the edges of them. But as soon as we objectify these moments as “our experiences” we are destroying their virtue. Possibly the most difficult thing of all is exactly how normal and ordinary the encounter with God actually is. And this is something I have always appreciated about normative Jewish practice- it is quite normal, quite ordinary, and the encounter with God is built into the structure and routine of every day. But we don’t quite believe it. We are looking for something else.
Last week I was up in Canada doing a Zen sesshin. There’s a fellow up there who likes to practice with me, a Jewish guy, and even though he comes to the Zen retreat and does all the Zen stuff, and I am wearing my Zen robes, really he and I know that we are practicing Jewish meditation together. There are various bows and protocols for the Zen interview, but when he comes in for interview he doesn’t bother with all that, he just sits down and tells me what is on his mind. This is a guy who has over many years done a million meditation retreats. Last week he came in to see me and said, “My trouble is I am always looking for the big spectacular experience- something that is going to happen and wipe me away and from then on I am going to be ecstatic. But now I am beginning to see that maybe there is no such thing. Maybe the point is just living – just enjoying the peak moments of everyday life, the weddings, the bar mitzvahs, the sunsets.” He imagined I must have experienced such a peak moment at our son’s wedding, which had happened a few months before the retreat.
I said to him, “Does it make sense that God would make God’sself available only at weddings, bar mitzvahs, sunsets and holidays? Does it make sense that God would be there on Yom Kippur, Pesach, and the rest of the year be snoozing or absent? No, God means nothing if God is not built into the shape of each moment. True, we might miss God in any given moment. But in the next moment there would be a fresh chance. We don’t have to wait. Yes,” I said to him, “I did have a joyous and transcendent moment at our son’s wedding- but no more than now, when I am talking to you.” This impressed him- the idea that the moment of my talking to him and the moment of our son’s wedding were for me equally impressive, which was true. If God is being, the open encounter with the mysterious, contingent, ever-connected essential fact of being, beyond my objective self, than of course God is constantly available. Prayer, observance, even meditation itself, are just reminders. Just ways of tuning ourselves to what must be available always, and always so.
Recently I noticed a funny quirk of speech that you find in any language. When I refer to myself, as I just did, I always use the word “I.” But when you refer to me you say Norman or him. If I refer to Adam or Jennifer, I use those names, so it is clear that Adam and Jennifer and Norman are all different people, but when any of us are referring to ourselves we all say the same word “I.” Have you ever noticed this? Have you ever thought about how profound it is? As objects in the world we are all quite distinct and separate. What is good for Adam may not be good for Norman. But what is good for “I” is always good for I. In other words, in the intimacy of our subjectivity, of our beings subjects rather than objects, we are boundless, unnamed, and always connected. We may be Jennifer and Adam and Norman but we are also all “I” and it is in the mystery of this that God comes. God in fact is part of the I, the truly salient part. And this is why meditation is such a good way – possibly, if we understand “meditation” in the widest sense – the only way – to truly encounter God. Because meditation is the way we drop all the barriers that separate us from our real “I” and allow that real “I” to manifest in our lives; in that real “I” God is always present. So it might be right to say that although I am not God, God is my real I. This is why I am always in and must always seek to be in relation to God. There is no real me without that relation and there is no real God without that relation.
So you see why my meditation experience has led me to such a deep appreciation of the thought of Martin Buber, who, I believe, has really seen this point and emphasized it. Buber sees that in “I” there is never just I. There is always a relationship. The relationship may be I-It, or it may be I-You. If it is I-It, I confronts an objective instrumental world that will leave us unsatisfied and in the end defeat us; if it is an I-You relationship then whatever we encounter we encounter with love; and God is always there. For Buber, all truth, all meaning is encounter, and encounter, when it is most true, is always encounter with God. The story of the Bible, Buber feels, is the story of this most profound and most important of all encounters. And its meaning is this: that we need God and God needs us: we call out and we are answered.