Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Taste & Smell


“Don’t argue regarding taste and smell” - a Jewish adage

One evening, while I was patronizing a Starbuck’s cafĂ©, the help behind the counter suggested that I try a newly featured coffee. When I explained that I already tasted it and found it too bitter, she expressed surprise that I did not enjoy a brew in such popular demand. I asked her to please not worry about it, in Hebrew we have a saying, “Al ta’am v’al rey’ach al m’fah’kay’ach” which means, “Don’t argue regarding taste and smell”. (I know … in Hebrew the phrase comes out more poetic.) I was trying the phrase on her, to convey, “Please don’t take it personally if I am uninterested in what you are recommending. Taste and smell are very subjective and can vary widely from person to person.”

Even though I was employing the adage to convey a simple message, truthfully, the saying is very ripe with mystical meaning. Different creature’s experience the universe so radically differently that many of them perceive themselves are living in different universes. An angel and a human would probably not consider each other to be inhabitants of the same universe. The human thinks of himself as dwelling in physical time/space; whereas, the angel considers himself a dweller of spiritual time/space. From the perspective of the human and the angel, their realms don’t meet. Yet, strangely they share the same universe. They just experience it very differently.

“Taste and smell” are in this poetic phrase representative of all perception. Chassidic mysticism teaches that “taste” refers to what Kabbalah calls “inner light” – light which streams into a vessel, filling it with life. The containing entity becomes alive; just like a body when the soul's lights pours in.  “Smell” refers to what Kabbalah calls “surrounding light” – light which is too pure to be taken into a vessel and only exerts a vague influence, behaving as if it’s outside the containing entity. An example of this are soul levels too pure to enter into the human body. Yet, these higher soul levels often interact with the soul lights entering the body.

Examples of inner and surrounding light abound abundantly throughout reality. The reason why taste is “inner light” is because it’s a sensation that occurs while taking something in – like food. Smell is a sensation which occurs even before food is taken in. It’s a vague foreshadowing of the taste to come.

There's often a broad consensus on what tastes and smells people enjoy. However, this overlap in human preference does not mean that a particular taste or smell feels exactly the same to everyone. The fact that some like a dish and even a few don’t, teaches us that even our most physical of senses are subjective and literally wired to pick up differently. I remember when I was introduced to using of cilantro as a condiment I was warned, “People either strongly love it or strongly dislike it. There’s no such a thing as a person who’s neutral about cilantro.”

From the phenomena of taste and smell we can appreciate the subjectivity of the rest of our sensory perceptions. If humans, who are of the same species and in general share a common biology, exhibit such variety in their sensory experiences, then certainly between species there are vast varieties of sensory perceptions, altering their experience of the universe. Their experiences of the universe can be so radically different that some creatures would not consider themselves as inhabiting the same universe as other creatures at all. It’s all in what powers of perception particular creatures were designed with.

What’s so interesting is how what we experience as a “universe” is probably not really even a universe at all. Rather, it’s more like the very best a dream character can do to experience his Dreamer. If he really experienced the Dreamer, he’d disappear into the Dreamer’s consciousness. So really from the character’s perspective, the surrounding dreamscape is the extent of his experience of the Dreamer. Only it’s constrained by what his powers of perception can handle. Anything more and his identity deftly vanishes into the Dreamer’s consciousness, seamlessly dissolving into the Dreamer's identity. This is what happens when the Dreamer awakes – the lesser self becomes absorbed by the Greater Self.

Just as the dreamscape is all of the Dreamer the dreamed can handle, so too, the universe we see in front of us is all of the Creator our five senses can handle. The vast array of potent spiritual lights an angel perceives is all of the Creator an angel can handle. Anything more, is much too overwhelming. The angel will disappear in the act of being absorbed into his Higher Source. 

So really in the ultimate sense, there’s only the Creator!  The vastly varied perceptions of the universe are really a range of varied limited perceptions of the Creator.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Universal Mysticism

Understanding the Creator's Oneness (to the extent humanly possible) carries implications which logically force a reformulation of how we understand our very own existence. This newly reformulated understanding can be used to design a universal mysticism, which openly invites all humans to participate. Biblically speaking, the Creator desires all humans to relate to His Oneness. So a mysticism that centers on understanding His Oneness can become a temple for all people from varied of backgrounds and beliefs to meet, study, pray, meditate and share.

Before explaining how an attempt to understanding the Creator's Oneness lends itself to rethinking all existence along mystical terms, a brief overview of the Creator's Oneness will help us guide into the topic.

The Creator is "One", but, not in a mathematical sense. People commonly conceptualize "one" numerically. Mathematical concepts, being "creation based", are too limited to be applied to the Creator. Also, every oneness people refer to is "composite", meaning composed of parts. Being composed of parts, such oneness declares, "I may look to you like I'm one. Really I'm two, three, four or more."

Containing such an untruth dulls any composite oneness ~ rendering it too imperfect to apply to the ultimate truth and perfection, the Creator Himself. 

Examples of composite oneness are all around us. Anything in creation which we consider as being one is really a composite of parts. For the sake of convenience, let's consider how one finger is composite. One finger is composed of cells. One cell is composed of molecules. One molecule is composed of atoms. One atom is composed of subatomic particles. One subatomic particle is composed of a "beginning, middle and end". Each "beginning, middle and end" has its own "beginning, middle and end".  Even if what's subatomic is nothing more than amorphous smears of energy, they still contain some version of "beginning, middle and end". No one would refer to a finger as a truly singular entity, except to conveniently ease human communication, when it contains such a world of varied composition, .

This contrasts with the Creator's Oneness which is so inherently pure, flawless and perfect that it contains no parts, no version of multiplicity whatsoever, no "beginning, middle and end". Such divisions are finite and He's the very opposite, truly Infinite!  It's interesting how His Infinity logically extends from the idea of His true Oneness and vice versa, His Oneness logically extends from the notion of His Infinity; Demonstrating that they're complimentary ideas ~ both pointing in the same direction.

Being One and Infinite, He's all of existence or more accurately, the only existence. If there's a space anywhere in reality devoid of His Oneness and Infinity, then He can no longer truly be called, "One or Infinite",  as His Being stops somewhere, recasting Him a composite being shackled by finite constraints. Since He's One and Infinite in the most perfect possible sense, obviously this is not case. 

We see before our very eyes so much multiplicity. How does this barrage of multiplicity fit consistently with the presence of a Being Who is the only existence, as "only" excludes all else? In an oversimple sense, this would expecting to place a pebble in the exact same place occupied by a huge hulking mountain. Sorry, the mountain is in the way. Similarly, how is there room for any second entity in the exact same reality occupied by the Infinite Being?

Attempting to answer this question can become the basis for universal mysticism. The closer we come to answering this question, the closer we come to understanding the Creator's Oneness (to the extent humanly possible).  It's a lot like Einstein's discovery of the constancy of the speed of light. This discovery forced him to reformulate his understanding of time and space, leading him to develop the theories of relativity and time dilation. So too, the constancy of the Creator's Oneness (and all implied) requires us to reformulate our understanding of everything finite. This reformulated understanding leads to deeper understanding of the Oneness and finite existence,  opening our minds and hearts to mystical insight. 
Through the years, I've seen many question whether studying standard Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, is for everyone. My stance on this issue is beyond the scope of this essay, especially since it's more complicated than a simple yes or no. However, what I am outlining here is a new mystical approach which should be free from such questioning and should be made available for everyone because it deals directly with the Creator's Oneness ~ which really is for everyone. The more a person delves into trying to relate to the Oneness, the more s/he enhances his/her observance of a Biblical commandment given to all humans.

There are a number of great rabbinic works which can serve as central hubs to begin formulating this understanding. Among them are "Duties of the Heart" - the Gate of Unity by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda, "An Explanation of the Ten Sefirot" (currently, only available in Hebrew) by Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, "The Gate of Unity and Faith" by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and "The Wellspring of Moses" (currently, only available in Hebrew) by Rabbi Moshe Schatz. Ideas can be culled from these works in order to reach and teach higher levels of Monotheism. Indeed, if done correctly this can turn into a life long study, as every inch of reality is rediscovered in the light of it's relationship to the Oneness.

Are you ready for the journey?


Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Question of Space

The Jewish sages teach that the Creator is space for the entire creation. In other words, the whole creation, spiritual and physical, is inside the Creator.  There’s nothing outside the Creator, lest it infringe on His infinity, by implying some outer border. 

I was once discussing this concept with someone who questioned, “Doesn’t all this talk of the creation being inside and not outside the Creator somehow ascribe a notion of space to the Creator; Isn’t He’s supposed to be beyond space?”

I was dazzled by the powerful depth of the question.  However, at the time I had no real answer. So, for more than a decade I simply accepted what my ancient sages taught on faith. Then the other day an answer dawned on me (though I wonder whether it would have satisfied the original questioner).

It seems likely to me that the sages spoke only from the perspective of creations, like us. From the Creator’s perspective, He’s the One and only reality. In the midst of such seamless Oneness, there’s nothing besides the Creator Himself.  So the question does not even begin, as there’s only Him.  There’s no other being to be inside of Him.   

Yet, from the perspective of those who dwell within the illusion of separation, the question of how separate identities are placed in relation to each other first begins. It’s this particular perspective which the sages were probably addressing.


Monday, June 27, 2011

"How does the Creator know everything?"


The Creator has no “outside”.
All Creation resides within Him,
United within His Beingness.
Just by knowing Himself,
He also knows everything else.

(Adapted from Tanya I 48)

This past Sunday my students had asked me, "How does the Creator know everything?"
I explained, "He knows everything just by knowing Himself."
The class shot me a puzzled look.
"Look" I continued, "The whole universe is inside of Him. There's no such a thing as being outside the Creator."
"Really?", Came back the incredulous response of several students.
"But ... the universe is so amazingly large. How does it all fit into the Creator", They protested.
"Ah", I lifted my eyes, "You think the universe is so amazingly large? According to Kabbalah this whole vast expanse that we see all around us it's merely a teeny tiny universe within a even vastly larger spiritual universe."
I waited to them to absorb what I just said. Once their faces and body language appeared settled, I continued, "And that vastly larger spiritual universe is merely a teeny tiny universe within an even larger spiritual universe. And that within an even larger one ... the process continues until universe is layered within universe like the layers of an onion with our physical universe right in the deep center. All these universes are inside of the Creator. He's around all of them."
However, we ran out of time. So I did not yet have the opportunity to finish explaining to the class how the universes are truly one within Him. My concern is that from everything I explained, a student can mistakenly walk away with the notion that the Creator is positioned around a "bubble". Within this "cosmic bubble" there's a layering of universes. However, this is not truly the picture I was trying to convey.
The picture I was trying to convey is closer to a dreamer having a dream. The dream, dreamscape and dream characters are not merely "inside the dreamer" - they are literally one with the dreamer. The very fabric of the dream is the dreamer himself. On the level of the dreamer's psychological fabric there's no distinction between dreamer and dream. They are seamlessly one and the same. So dreamer knows everything going on in his dream simply by knowing himself - for they are the same.
Similarly, in a metaphorical sense the Creator is dreaming creation into being. This is why He knows everything  that is going on simply by knowing Himself.

Hopefully, with the Creator's help I'll soon have the opportunity to convey this notion to my class.

As the Holy One fills the universe ...

  • As the Holy One fills the universe, so the soul fills the body.

  • As the Holy One sees and is unseen, so the soul sees and is unseen.

  • As the Holy One nourishes the universe, so the soul nourishes the body.

  • As the Holy One is pure, so the soul is pure.

  • As the Holy One dwells in rooms within rooms, so the soul dwells in rooms within rooms
     Let the bearer of these five qualities praise the One Who bears these five     qualities.

~ Translated from the Talmud, Berachot 10A

Delight in Love

The Dreamer and the dream are One.

There is no separation between a Dreamer and his/her dream. Every detail in the dream from mental space, the dreamscape, the characters are really crafted out of the Dreamer’s own mental forces. They are One with the Dreamer, despite often seeming like they are separate entities with their own identities. This experience is only a passing illusion. As the Dreamer awakens, their “identities” disappear; merging back into their Source - the Dreamer’s own mind.

Perhaps, this relationship between the Dreamer and his/her dream exists in our lives to serve as a tiny reflection of a much grander reality – the relationship between the Creator and His creation. In the Creator’s kindness, He allows us a parable in our daily (or nightly) experience to help us climb up to the more abstract notion of His relationship with the creation.

However, the Creator does not “sleep”. In His case, only the characters feel the dream. He feels awake. While the characters are caught up in illusion of identity separation, He experiences everything as a single merged identity – Himself!

As earthlings, we do not easily access a sense that our identities are really part of His greater identity. In order to even begin, we need to feel beyond our boundaries of self – another being beyond own skins. Loving another human being is the beginning of this growth. We can feel our identity enlarged and enriched by its merger with another identity.

In essence, love is not about merging living space, bank accounts or even bodies. It’s about merging identities. A good question to mentally ask your self on a date is, “Would I be happy to become this person?”

It’s best to resolve this question before “getting involved”. Once “involved” you’re passed the stage of this question. Now you’re working to become one with each other.

By becoming one, a couple draws down a revelation of the Creator’s own Identity. They do this by drawing down their shared point of identity merger within the Creator. The couple’s field of love forms a crack in the illusory wall of distinct identities - allowing each other a tiny peek beyond the wall into the real Oneness.

The Universe Needs a Creator

The universe needs a Creator because nothing can create itself. Why?

This is because there are only two choices of when something can create itself, either before it exists or after it already exists. Before it exists, it’s not there to make itself. After it already exists, there’s no need to make itself.

(“Duties of the Heart”, Gate of Unity)


Today, reviewing this concept was the highlight of my daily Torah study session. In the course of today's study, I have learned so many deeper concepts. I was baffled about why this teaching really stood out in my heart and imagination. Why wasn't it one of the deeper teachings that lingered on in my heart when I closed my books?

At first I thought maybe because this teaching comes as representative of a special time and place - the medieval Golden Age of Spain. This period was really the renaissance before the renaissance. It was a special time and place of high achievement, education, discovery and the arts. After musing a while, I felt that this could be a reason, however, I felt deep inside that there was something more ...

Finally it dawned on me that I was being subtly tickled by the underlying humor of the logic. I found it funny to imagine something that does not yet exist working to the point of exhaustion to create itself. I imagined the non-existent's gyrations and struggles as it engaged in the futile effort to exert and sweat itself into existence - like zero engaging in the impossible struggle to become one.

I also found it funny imagining something already existing struggling very hard at the redundant act of creating itself. The unstated silliness had silently reached me.

Humor makes a great teacher, even in disguise.