EXPERIENCING A SENSE OF DIVINE PRESENCE THROUGH GAZING
An almost universal goal of spiritual practice is to evoke a primordial realization: that all things are inseparably interconnected; therefore, we are never alone. The full implications of apprehending this understanding on a gut level draws us out of our sense of separation and aloneness to an extraordinary spiritual experience, known as Presence.
In physics, the idea of Presence is expressed in the theory of energy. In simple terms, the entire universe is composed of the presence of energy in various forms. Each cell in our bodies is a function of energy, each breath we take, every step, every movement, every relationship, every event is an expression of energy. It is impossible to consider that we might separate ourselves from the source of energy. Indeed, even after death, our energies transmute into other energetic forms. This idea is so elementary, a universe without energy is inconceivable and absurd.
In spiritual traditions, however, there is a tendency to transcend the normal dimensions of time and space, which are clearly a function of energy, and explore other realms that are mystical in nature. As an example, while the quality of love can be recognized in its energetic universal form, the mystic would suggest that there is also a trans-state of love in a dimension that defies understanding. This form of love does not express itself in any ordinary way that is recognizable; rather it is the metaphysical glue that holds all of existence together.
For example, a physicist can describe the mechanics of gravity, and these mechanics can be measured. We recognize immediately that if there were no gravity, this universe would not hold together. We can determine in science just how important gravity is in our lives. But, actually, nobody understands how gravity works. The mystic feels the same way about a gentle Presence in which we are immersed. It is unknowable and yet, seemingly, undeniable.
This experience has many names. In some forms of Buddhism, it is called Buddha-mind. In Hinduism, it is seen as the spirit of Brahman. In Christianity it is often called Christ Consciousness. In Islam, it is summarized in the chant: “There is no God, but God,” which in essence means, “There is nothing but God.” The core of Judaism is centered on the same idea: the entire universe and all of its hidden dimensions are enveloped in the expression of oneness.
Our normal experience of life is filled with ideas of multiple things that seem solid and separate. We have a strong intrinsic sense of “this” and “that,” we have a sharp ability to distinguish fundamental differences in shape, color, form, solidity, temperature, light, and so on. Therefore, when spiritual teachers suggest that all the mental differentiations actually arise out of a basic oneness—or nothingness—we are often befuddled by this idea. Our confusion arises out an elementary reality: we know it, feel it, touch it, experience it. The teaching of oneness conflicts with our sensory experience of multiplicity.
Imagine if we had magical glasses that when worn only allowed energy to be seen. What we normally see as a tree, we would instead see raw energy with these glasses expressed in elemental forms of light and sound. The glasses would allow us to see or hear every elemental form of light and sound covering the entire spectrum, but nothing else. So, our visual experience of everything in the world would become light interacting with light; our aural experience would be combinations of sounds. We would dwell in the Presence of light and sound.
Another essential element of energy is heat. Heat is generated from movement, and all matter is built upon movement. So there could be another set of magical glasses that could just recognize heat in various degrees, and nothing else. With these glasses on, we would dwell in the Presence of heat; our entire universe would be nothing but different degrees of heat.
From a metaphysical perspective, we could propose that the fundamental element of the universe is love. Love is the bonding force that holds everything together. Imagine what the magical glasses would reveal to us if we could only see love, and nothing else. We would dwell in the Presence of love.
In literature composed over many centuries of spiritual exploration, we find thousands of testimonies of individuals who have experienced a spontaneous immersion in Presence. Call it God, Buddha-mind, Christ Consciousness, Allah, Brahman, Love, Light, Sound or Warmth, there is an experience described by many different people in different situations in which all distinctions disappear and an extraordinary sense of connectedness arises. All of these experiences are contained under the umbrella of Presence.
But there is one final step to this process of being in Presence that is crucial to fully understand. It is a powerful recognition that has a mind-altering effect. This step, even though it occurs spontaneously, must be pointed out for it is easily missed.
Here it is: When we are looking through our magical glasses, we can learn to realize that there is only energy in a primordial form. But the full leap in consciousness occurs when we realize that the one who is looking through the glasses, and indeed the glasses themselves, are the same as what is being seen—it is all energy, or all love; the subject is identical with the object. We realize that there is no separation between what is being seen, and the “who” that is seeing. This is the ultimate and deepest meaning of Presence.
At first we may think that we “experience” Presence, but that is a dualistic mindset that will eventually be transcended. One may say: “I had a wonderful experience today; I experienced Presence!” However the statement betrays the fact that the speaker is using dualistic language, there is subject “I,” and an object “Presence.” This is a deluded experience. The student has missed the point. When we fully realize the all-consuming nature of Presence, we release our sense of self and all of its encumbrances. This is the point of liberation: there is only Presence, the oneness. Thus, the actual experience might be stated, “Presence is all there is,” or, “This is It.”
First Practice: Building the Recognition of Presence
Gazing is a basic practice used in many traditions. Some gazing is done with exotic mandalas, some with thanka paintings, some with symbols representing primordial vowels, such as the Aum, some with candles. All of these methods can lead to an altered mind state, a one-pointed concentration that settles and calms a normally busy and active intellect.
Kabbalists have used gazing in a number of different ways. Abraham Abulafia gazed at Hebrew letters, words and phrases for extended periods—often for hours—and this process would lead to: 1) great concentration, 2) discovery of hidden meanings in the shapes of the letters themselves, and 3) a strong, ecstatic arousal when he mentally moved the letters into different combinations. A new state of mind arose as he stumbled upon permutations of letters that formed new words and phrases.
This process of contemplating different possibilities as the letters were mentally reorganized was, from a kabbalistic point of view, a way to uncover hidden codes in the Torah. Kabbalah is built on the principal that aspects of the Divine are hidden in deeper and deeper layers of reality. So when a method was discovered that revealed some of these secrets, the result—for Abulafia—was an extraordinary sense of joy. It was this practice that led to Abulafia’s school of Ecstatic Kabbalah.
The beginning practice is simply to gaze at a single letter. The Hebrew letter aleph is often used, as it represents the eternal nature of existence. It is a letter that bridges between the unknown dimensions of “nothingness” and the beginning of things. It has no sound of its own, but is considered to be the most important letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It represents both the transcendent (ayin: no-thingness) and immanent (yesh: every-thingness) forms of the Divine.
When one gazes at something long enough, one begins to see it everywhere. This changes our perspective of things. Our practice will be to gaze at this letter while engaged in one of a series of fundamental breath practices that settle the mind. Once you have learned any of the fundamental breath practices, do the breathisn practice for a period of time while gazing any letter in the Hebrew alphabet.