ADVANCED ABULAFIA BREATHING AND CHANTING PRACTICES
Yah-Weh: Third Phase
About a month after we have been doing the first and second phases of practice, we add the sound of the last two letters of the tetragrammaton: vov and hey. The vov can be pronounced as a hard sound: Veh, or as a soft sound: Weh. In this practice, it is suggested to use the soft sound, for it can be articulated in the back of the mouth as opposed to the hard sound which requires a push forward to the lips, making it less subtle. Try it yourself. Say “vacant.” Try to say it without moving your lips; you will find this almost impossible to do. However, say the word “way.” This can be said with a minimal movement of teeth and lips.
So now the practice is to gently say “Yah” as we inhale and “Weh” as we exhale. Together we are making the sound “Yah-weh,” not as a single word but as the natural breath. (This is NOT a name “Yahweh,” which cannot be pronounced, but the separate sounds Yah, on the inhalation, and Weh, on the exhalation.)
In Kabbalah, the Yah sound represents the transcendent aspect of the Divine, that which is beyond our grasp. The Weh sound, the last two letters of the tetragrammaton, represents the immanent aspect of the Divine, everything that is knowable in this universe. Thus, this breathing method esoterically unites the yod-hey, with the vov-hey, the known with the unknown.
Visualization on the Breath
When we begin this yah-weh form of the practice, we drop entirely all the Hebrew letter visualizations and change to a different form. In the new visualization, we gently think as we inhale (Yah) that we are drawing into this body, mind and soul of ours the unknowable Presence. As we exhale (Weh), we gently think that our actions, emotions and thoughts are becoming more and more clear, informed by the Yah aspect that grows within us. As we inhale, we are drawing in and spreading the God-face of Yah into every corner of our being. As we exhale, we are putting out into the world our most refined nature and our highest self.
Do not hold or extend the breath; simply breathe normally. For the first few minutes of practice each day, visualize as instructed above. After a few minutes, gently let the visualization disappear, but continue to breathe naturally, repeating the inner sounds on each breath, allowing the mind to rest completely.
Yah-Weh: Fourth Phase
Once again you will find yourself spontaneously experiencing the inner sounds on the breath in various life activities. You need not stop what you are doing when the breath practice suddenly appears, but be sure to keep your eyes open. Simply feel the slight shift in mood as you experience the inner sounds—then let it go. Let it arise upon its own, not attempting to cling to the breath or to sustain it. You will breathe as you always have, but every so often, you will be called back gently to the imagery and the sound of the Divine in the breath. In this phase, it is very important to sustain a daily practice as described above for thirty to forty-five minutes.
Weh-Yah: Fifth Phase
The Yah-Weh breathing practice can be continued for many months before becoming almost automatic. Some have said that this practice alone is sufficient to bring students to the highest levels of awareness. It definitely induces a strong sense of Presence as it develops.
When we have integrated the Yah-Weh practice over a period of months, there is another plateau of practice. Interestingly, one of the most powerful experiences of this practice occurs when we reverse the Yah-Weh sequence as described above into its opposite, the Weh-Yah breath.
In this form, we internally whisper Weh as we inhale, and Yah as we exhale. Our visualizations with this reversed breath are quite different. Now, we inhale (Weh) the world and all of its problems; we bring it all in, the joy and the sorrow, the pain and the happiness, the difficulties and the suffering. We do not hesitate or edit out anything that arises during our inhalation, no matter how terrible it may seem. We take in the darkness and breath out the light.
This is a challenging practice and quite difficult for some people. In Tibetan Buddhism, this particular practice is called Tonglen. It is an advanced discipline for building and perfecting compassion. Many of us have the belief that we must protect ourselves, set up barriers and avoid being corrupted by the diseases of the world. When we are engaged in thoughts of self-protection, we strengthen our belief in a separate self. As long as we set ourselves aside, we will necessarily be defended and we will be alone with the illusion that we are hidden behind our self-constructed shields and thoughts that alienate us from life.
The inner teaching in this practice is that our real nature extends far beyond the limited self. When we are able to recognize the divine nature in which we are infused, there is no limit to what we can embrace. The troubles of the world, as terrible as they may be, are a mere drop in the ocean of the Divine. By doing this practice, breathing in suffering, taking on all the sorrows of the world, we dissolve our self-consciousness and then simply become vehicles for divine expression. This is what we exhale and share with the universe.
Wah-Yeh: Sixth Phase
Developing skills in this breath practice leads to full compassion. Many forms of behavior that we think are compassionate are actually self-serving, we do things because they are politically correct or because we believe it will enhance our image. True compassion comes out a deep realization of the predicament that life brings to all living beings. We are all touched by the things that give us pleasure and by those that cause us grief and pain. The predicament is that we cannot avoid difficulties; they will assuredly arise at different times in our lives. Deep compassion does not necessarily attempt to relieve this suffering; rather it knows how to accommodate it.
This last phase of practice is one of the highest forms of character development. Sitting with the suffering of someone else, being present for them, holding them and caring for them, this is our outer compassion. Willing to do the breath practice of drawing in suffering, taking in the pain of the world, is a major plateau one can achieve in this kind of compassion.
The highest level appears only when we ourselves are in considerable pain and suffering, almost blinded in our own misery. Instead of running to block it or to avoid it, we invite in more! This is not a masochistic invitation, which gains pleasure through pain, rather it arises out of the profound realization that if it were at all possible to alleviate the pain of others through the suffering of oneself, then we are willing to take it on.
Obviously, this is not an easy path. Most of us are not ready to welcome our own suffering, we have not developed a big enough heart or a strong enough discipline. The visualization that accompanies this practice is to receive on each inhalation, without resistance, our own troubles, knowing that this is the same experience many others have had and will have. In this opening of our hearts to others, we pray that our own suffering will in some way alleviate theirs. Then, we visualize as we exhale, a divine light that has become purified to ever increasing degrees by our willingness to accept what is happening to us in that moment.
We must distinguish here between two of the highest levels of spiritual development in Judaism: a martyr and a tzaddik. A martyr is willing to suffer and die for a belief. In the Talmud, life is considered sacred. One is permitted to break almost all Jewish law if a life is at stake. However, there are three areas of the law that one is not permitted to break, even if it means sacrificing his or her own life. The three areas are: idolatry (serving other gods), doing certain forbidden sexual acts (incest and adultery), and murder. Choosing death rather than being forced to commit one of these acts is called: kiddush ha-Shem, sanctification of the Name, or martyrdom. Kiddush ha-Shem is one of the highest states of spiritual awareness, and a number of the most famous sages in Jewish history are said to have died in this state. The main point of martyrdom is the sacrifice of one’s life under certain conditions based on beliefs and moral principles.
Being a tzaddik is different. One of the defining characteristics of a tzaddik is that he or she “descends” from higher realms in order to help raise up those who are in the lower realms. So, a tzaddik does not view his or her station in life as a sacrifice, nor is giving up one’s life the measure of a tzaddik. Rather, the defining principle is the choice and willingness to take on suffering in a way that will relieve others. Whenever anyone is able to bring clear awareness to one’s own pain in a situation and is able to say, “May my pain be such that it helps at least one other person to be free of such pain,” we have achieved a level of consciousness that is identified with a tzaddik.
While a martyr is profoundly honored, a tzaddik clearly holds the higher ground on the spiritual level of compassion. A martyr may or may not be dwelling in a compassionate state; he or she is simply standing up for what is believed to be right. A tzaddik, on the other hand, is the living representative of the heart of compassion. This state of being can only be accomplished when one has vanished into Presence and there is no longer a separation of oneself from all of humanity.
So this practice on the breathing begins with concentration and calming the mind. It develops into something that is known as dwelling in Presence. And, in the end, it manifests in engaging the world with actions associated with the highest level of spiritual development: the tzaddik. We do not need miracles to become saintly, rather we need to shift our perspective in a way that allows us to embrace the world completely and willingly with all that it presents in the recognition that everything is connected on a vital level.