As I wrote in my last essay, at the end of July I attended a large spiritual retreat, the ALEPH Kallah, where I studied with two wonderful teachers. Today, my hope is convey a few of the insights I gained from Rabbi David A. Cooper, whose class in “Kabbalah, Zen and Dzogchen: Interweaving Contemplative Paths” was the highlight of my mornings. (My understanding is highly imperfect, to say the least, so any misimpressions here are my own, not the fault of this gifted teacher.) He has a new book and CD coming out soon — \The Ecstatic Kabbalah: An Interactive Spiritual Practice Tool\ — which I can’t wait to read.
This is an exciting moment for students of contemplative and mystical paths, because the insights of modern science are corroborating what has always been understood by mystics: that if we look deeply, we see a universe which is more space than substance, down to the level of individual atoms and beyond; and that when we look closely, it is impossible to see where you leave off and I begin. No words, no petty distinctions, are adequate to express this unity, which may be glimpsed when words fall away.
When I was a child in school, we were given to understand that science and spirituality were opposites, that as science marched on, it would uncover all of life’s secrets, revealing the measurable interactions of chemicals and energies that would explain absolutely everything once and for all. This mind-set was expressed most fully in popular culture, which posited the future as a place where people would come to resemble machines, giant brains tooling around in our individual space vehicles, popping energy pills in the place of food, freed from messy emotions and other outmoded impediments to the march of intellect.
But contrary to such predictions, science seems to be telling quite a different tale. In the age of quantum physics and string theory, the experience of oneness, which is so fundamental to many spiritual traditions, can no longer be dismissed as a fairy-tale. The idea that all we perceive is actually in constant flux and interaction, that what seems solid is constantly being created, is now a description on which mystics and physicists can agree.
How then do we see the world as we do? Again, science shows us that perception is not simply the act of receiving what is, but a creative collaboration involving our own minds and sensory apparatus. For example, we are capable of processing only a small fraction of available visual information, so the act of seeing entails a lot of filling in the blanks. Have you ever seen something at a distance, and as you approach, discovered that the cow crouching in the field was actually a boulder, or vice versa? In David Cooper’s class, the development of motion pictures served as one of many useful analogies: what is projected on the screen is actually a string of still images from which we compose the movie. In contrast to the jerky motion of early films, what we see at the cineplex seem so real because experimentation has determined the correct number of frames per second to allow our minds to complete the illusion of seamless motion. In collaboration with the projector, we create the illusion of reality.
For me, it was most exciting to observe how the same thing happens in the realms of thought and feeling. Our minds are constantly generating the thoughts that create our relationship to experience. (Indeed, we keep generating thoughts even in the silent dark, without evident stimulus.) On a hot day, I have one type of experience (miserable) if I constantly generate pointless mental complaint — “I wish it weren’t so hot, it would be so much better if there were a cool breeze, I’d really like to be in a different part of the country right now,” etc. — and an altogether more pleasant experience if I simply accept what is and stop generating suffering about things like the weather that I am powerless to change.
It was pretty interesting to be studying the workings of my own mind at such a huge gathering. As a veteran of countless conferences, I can say that the culture of kvetching permeates any event that throws hundreds of people together to sleep in dorm rooms and stand in cafeteria lines: the bed is too hard or soft, the weather uncooperative, a program starts late or goes on too long…. That the Kallah was truly wonderful, permeated with care and consideration, reduced the kvetch factor only somewhat. I am reminded of that venerable joke about two long-time patrons of a summer resort. On the first day of vacation, they meet up on a park bench. “So,” asks one, “how do you like things this year?” “To tell you the truth,” the other replies, “the food isn’t so great.” “True,” says the first, “and such small portions too!”
One of our assignments was to use techniques we’d learned in David Cooper’s class to cut through the mental chatter, experiencing moments of simple presence. As I made the short walk after class to my next destination, tuning into the workings of my own mind was a little like channel-surfing: now I’m congratulating myself on some clever quip, now I’m chastising myself for some mistake, now I’m remembering something that happened yesterday, now I’m planning what I’ll do later, now I’m envying this person’s beautiful clothes, now I’m wishing I had something amusing to eat…. We were encouraged to observe our thoughts and release them, rather than grabbing on and chewing them dry. So naming them wasn’t really in the spirit of the thing, but I kept cracking myself up with an image: walking along, holding an imaginary remote control in my hand, toggling back and forth between pride, self-loathing, fear, hope, anxiety, delight, scheming, desire and so on, all the while failing to notice the lush green grass on either side of the path, sunlight glinting off treetops, birdsong floating on the air.
I imagine some people thought I’d gone a little mad, walking around laughing to myself, entertained at the antics of my monkey mind. But laughter really helped the letting go. I had the best time not kvetching about it, a completely novel experience for me. So delicious, and such huge portions!