METHODS TO ATTAIN HIGHER AWARENESS
There are three traditional methods to attain expanded consciousness. The first approach is to immerse in activities and studies that have provocative content and meaning. In a Jewish context this means scrutinizing one's own behavior, developing a regular rhythm of study of inspirational works, paying more attention to one's spiritual life, devoting one day a week to spiritual practice, and so forth. This approach, common in many spiritual traditions, is based upon the principle of adaptation. We adapt to our surroundings, the food we eat, the words we read, and the exercises we undertake.
The second approach for raising awareness includes the first, but the direction is much more internal. The main objective of this strategy is to gain insight through seclusion, contemplation, and soul-searching. Although we do not see much in modern Judaism that supports withdrawal from the busy world into an environment of personal retreat, the practice of seclusion and deep meditation was commonplace among Jewish mystics.
The third approach is what I call kavvanah practice. Normally, the translation of kavvanah is "intention." It is discussed in the context of prayer or observance of Jewish law. The sages asked if there was more merit when performing a religious duty when one's intentions were clear, or if doing of the act itself was more important than what was going on in the person's mind. Obviously the ideal situation is when one's mind and heart are connected with what one is doing. But what if they are not? The sages ultimately divided on the issue, and as with many other aspects of talmudic scholarship, we can make a strong case for either side.
But this can be taken one step farther. Kavvanah can be applied to everything in our lives. Kavvanah comes from the root word kavvan, which means to direct, aim or attune. As we will see, Jewish mysticism is built upon the idea that every aspect of creation interrelates with every other, resulting in the precept that every thought, word, or action reverberates throughout the entire creation. Moreover, whether a religious obligation or not, every event that arises has the potential for raising holy sparks.
In this context, kavvanah suggests a continuous awareness of the implications of everything we do. Therefore, kavvanah is of crucial importance to Jewish mystics. Indeed, Kabbalists were often referred to as mekavvanim, meaning "those who are always intentional," or better, "those who are constantly attuning." The Kabbalist wants to have focused awareness in every moment. We can develop a special practice for developing this awareness, just as we did above.
THE PATH OF AWARENESS (Kavvanah)
Here is a simple exercise. Stop reading for five minutes and do nothing but count the number of times you inhale and exhale. That is all. Do not think about anything. Don't count on your fingers, don't use a pad of paper. Simply close your eyes and count. The rule of this game is that if you get caught in a single thought about anything at all, you must begin counting over again.
"Thinking" means anything that arises that is not simply the experience of the here and now. A sound is simply a vibration; if we identify it in any way, knowing it is a "bird," "airplane," or whatever, that is a thought. If we ruminate about something that happened, or plan for something about to happen, that is a thought. If we find ourselves wanting more of something, or wishing something would go away, that is a thought. Are you able to count your breaths for five minutes without having a single thought?
Most people discover that they cannot control their minds to stop thinking for even one minute at a time. We are not the rulers of our own minds! This is a depressing experience for some people. Thoughts come and go on their own and there seems to be nothing we can do about it.
This being the case, the mind takes us to places throughout the day which may not be related in any way to where we are standing or what we are doing. The mind takes us so fast and so far, we enter our own universe and play out our own dramas time and time again throughout the day. We lose all sense of time and place, we lose all awareness of what is happening around us.
This experience is not an aberration that occurs a couple of times a week, or at odd moments of the day; it is happening constantly, hundreds or thousands of times each hour! It is like a mind blink. Do you realize how many times you blink your eyes each minute? We don't think about blinking because it is automatic. We don't realize the number of excursions our minds take because we have become accustomed to them. Indeed, we believe that this is the normal condition of the mind. Unfortunately, this belief is profoundly mistaken.
In spiritual traditions around the world, the most elementary contemplative practices are designed to help the student realize the degree to which the mind is out of control. Sitting meditation, mantras, mudras, walking meditation, moving practices such as t'ai chi chuan, controlled breathing, silence, prayer, and so forth all quickly reveal the chaotic mind. Every meditator discovers this in the first session. Everyone who has attempted to pray soon comes to the realization that the mind simply will not stay concentrated for long.
Whenever I offer a new class for people who want to learn about meditation, a frequent question that arises in the first or second session is, "My mind is so busy; how do I stop it?" This question is the result of a widespread misunderstanding about meditation and what it is supposed to do. Inexperienced people think that with practice we can stop our busy minds. Unfortunately, this erroneous belief is exacerbated by some meditation teachers and schools who promise that their method will lead to bliss and total control of one's thoughts. This is nonsense.
The students of the Baal Shem Tov heard that there was a great teacher coming to town and they asked their master permission to learn with this person. The master gave his consent. Then they asked him, "How will we know if he is truly a great teacher." The Baal Shem Tov replied: "Ask him to advise you on what to do to keep unholy thoughts from disturbing your prayers and your studies." Then the master continued: "If this teacher gives you advice, you will know that he is not worthy. For it is the service of every person to struggle every hour until their death with extraneous thoughts, and time after time to uplift these thoughts and bring them into harmony with the nature of creation."1
We use contemplative practices in Judaism to raise the sparks of whatever we engage, whether they are situations that come up with other people or thoughts that arise in our minds. The goal is not to attain a state in which no thoughts arise, but to deal quickly and appropriately with whatever comes up. As we practice this, we do indeed become much more refined, calmer, and more in control. But we will never eliminate disturbing thoughts entirely until we pass out of these bodies.
The process of learning to deal appropriately with our thoughts and anything we encounter is elementary in all contemplative work. It is the practice of building awareness. In Judaism, it is related to the way we live our lives in general.
There are many ways to bring a heightened degree of kavvanah into our lives. One of the most interesting is to spend one day a week trying to do everything opposite from our normal routines. If you usually get up at 7 AM, try getting up at 6 or 6:30 AM; do something unusual during the extra time. If you do everything right handed, try it with your left: combing your hair, brushing your teeth. If you dress yourself right to left, try it left to right. See how many things you can reverse throughout the day, without jeopardizing your safety, your job, or causing harm others.
Much of our loss of awareness is the result of a routinized life. By forcing ourselves to change our habits once a week, we become aware of little things that we had not noticed before. This new noticing is the key for developing skills on the path of awareness. The more we notice trivial detail, the more we gain in awareness.
Normally we spend only a small fraction of time during the day really being aware, perhaps less than one percent. By doing the simple practice outlined above, and those that follow, we can improve our awareness quotient two or three times, or maybe more. That still is only a tiny percentage of the day. But the rewards are enormous. Life becomes more vivid, colors seem sharper, events are more interesting, situations more provocative, and our own sense of purpose becomes heightened. Moreover, if we are diligent in becoming sensitive on a moment-to-moment basis, a high degree of mochin de gadlut, expanded consciousness, can be attained, and we thereby achieve a new plateau in the process of enlightening.
The goal of the following exercises is to learn to bring awareness of the Divine to everything we encounter, and thus expand our consciousness. This may be relatively easy to experience for the wonderful things that happen to us, however it applies to every facet of life. When we are able to experience the presence of God within difficult events, and even our own disturbing thoughts, we begin to grasp the sparks of holiness within those events or thoughts and raise these sparks back to their source.
Here are two specific practices to raise awareness. Either can be done daily for only twenty minutes and within a matter of weeks the practitioner will notice changes in his or her awareness. The first one is based on traditional morning blessings.
PRACTICING KAVVANAH #1
1. Sit very quietly and notice the experience of the body, the feeling of the chest rising and falling. Whenever you notice you are thinking about other things, stop what you are doing, take a couple of deep breaths and come back to the experience of the body. When you know you are centered continue with the exercise.
2. Allow yourself to appreciate being here right now, saying to yourself something like: "I am aware. I am free to make choices in life. I am a whole person and I am thankful for being alive." Notice your awareness, your sense of wholeness and how your feeling of thankfulness expresses itself.
3. Now, let yourself focus on your mind, what it does for you, how it works and its potential. Whisper to yourself something like: "I am grateful to have the ability to see things, to understand, to notice light from dark, truth from falsehood. My mind works and I am grateful for having insight." Notice this mind and be grateful for its capacity.
4. Now, let yourself focus on your body. Many of us have poor body imaging. This is not the time to be body-critical, but rather to be body-positive. Think of the body in its wholeness, be aware of its strengths. Examine the parts that are in good working order. There are thousands of parts that are functioning well and perhaps a few that are not. Offer thankfulness for the parts that are working.
5. Stand up and walk across the room. Notice as many movements as you can in the process of walking. How does it feel to lift and move your body? Try to notice the ankles, knees, hips, thighs, the feel of clothing on your skin. Notice how the shoulders, arms, back, neck and head move while walking. Go as slowly as you wish. During this time, give thanks for the ability to move and to feel the movement. Give thanks for each part of the body that does its job while you move.
6. Return to your seat and sit down again. Keep your eyes open and look straight ahead without moving your eyes or your head. How much can you be aware of seeing without moving? Notice that you try to identify and put names to the things that you see. Try simply to notice shapes, colors, shadows and movement without naming. Notice any sounds that are occurring. Try not to dwell in a sound, but to be aware of each new sound in every moment. Give thanks for the ability to notice so many things and that life can be so full.
7. Now, simply sit quietly and notice everything that happens in each moment, to the best of your ability. You will discover that when the mind is active you will not be able to remain as aware. Whenever you realize that the mind is thinking, pulling you out of your physical awareness, gently come back to the experience of the body. In time you will be able to observe your thoughts without being overwhelmed by them. Once again, give thanks for the wonderful gift of awareness and the richness of life in each moment.
8. If you do not already have one, get an inexpensive watch that has a timer. Set the timer for approximately, but not exactly, one hour. Throughout the day, whenever the timer beeps, stop what you are doing as soon as possible and take 10-20 seconds to conduct a body scan; be aware of what is happening in your own body and around you. You can do this even while you are engaged in another activity. Simply notice where you are, how you are feeling, what is happening in different parts of the body, what sounds are occurring and your general visual experience. Each time you do this, give thanks for the fullness of the moment, your awareness, and the abundance of life around you.
9. Every few days change the time by a few minutes so that it never becomes a routine. Soon you spontaneously will become aware of things, without the timer, and this will begin to change your perspective. In a matter of a few weeks you will begin to notice the difference and will be much more present in you body. Being present adds an entirely new dimension to life.
PRACTICING KAVVANAH #2
1. Sitting quietly with your eyes open, trying to be very still, allow yourself to think about a simple physical movement, like turning the page of a book, reaching to pick something up, scratching an itch, but don't move. Simply notice what you want to do, but don't do it.
2. Be aware of the tension of wanting but resisting. At some point you will do something, but do not do it just yet. Your mental task is to observe exactly what happens for your desire to overcome your resistance not to move. Sooner or later you will allow yourself to reach for the book, or turn the page. While you are waiting, what thoughts go through your mind; what does it take to get the body moving?
3. At the precise moment that you begin to move your hand, are you able to observe your own will that draws you to a particular movement?
4. Now, imagine that every aspect of existence is connected to a power source. If this connection were cut, that piece of existence would instantly cease. Nothing can exist without being connected to its source from moment-to-moment. Now, imagining the presence of the source of life, that which empowers all movement, repeat steps 1-3 above.
5. When you are ready, reflect on everything around you from the perspective that the source of creation is constantly present. This source vitalizes every movement and attends every action, word or thought. Experience this as the presence of the Divine.
6. As in the previous exercise, get an inexpensive wrist watch with a timer. Set this timer to go off every two hours or so. Each time it sounds, reflect on the presence of the Divine for as long as you are able to do so. This will become automatic. A major aspect of the enlightening process is to bring the presence of the Divine into as many moments of your life as possible. As in the previous exercise, in a few weeks you will begin to experience the change.
The first exercise, being aware of every physical stimulus arising in each moment, is easy to describe but difficult to master. In its early stages we make quick progress. But we usually find the required concentration too much to sustain and we slip into our old patterns. Actually, as simple as it sounds, this is an advanced method that has parallels in a number of traditions. In Zen Buddhism it is called shikan-taza, the state of mind of a highly skilled samurai whose life depends upon acute awareness. In Tibetan Buddhism it is called Dzogchen, or Mahamudra, considered to be the most lucid disciplines of awareness practice.
The second exercise, sustaining a sense of the continuous spiritual presence of the Divine, is also difficult to maintain. This, however, heightens the sense of the immediacy of the source of life in everything that unfolds, and slowly melts barriers of self-identity that keep us believing we are separate. Once we fully realize the degree to which we are integrated into the spectrum of awareness--we are part of it--our perspective of life changes dramatically.