Creating and Destroying Worlds
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
Although occasionally I am told that I should have been a lawyer, the truth is that I really don’t like arguing very much. As a child and young woman, arguments and disagreements frightened me. But since, like it or not, arguments are part of how this life is, I have tried to learn how to conduct them wisely, whether they happen over the Thanksgiving table or on the larger political scene.
One of my great teachers in this endeavor has been Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He teaches that a machloket, an argument, has the power both to destroy worlds and to create them. The difference is a question of emunah, of faith.
Nachman says that when an argument arises, it can create a space in which new ideas can proliferate. These new ideas lead to the Torah itself becoming more and more complete. Since according to tradition, Torah is the blueprint of creation, if there is more Torah, there are more worlds with all their details and wonders and possibilities. But if there is a lack of faith, this doesn’t happen and instead, arguments become tools of destruction, tearing people and things down.
The example from the Torah is the pivotal story in which the Israelites were in the desert and worried about not having enough water to drink. They rebelled against Moses, not believing in his ability to take care of them. God instructed Moses to speak to a rock, but instead he struck it twice. Water started flowing, which took care of the people’s thirst, but because Moses did not show faith in God, he was not allowed to enter into the Land of Israel.
So what is this faith that Moses and the people failed to show? Perhaps it is an open, spacious acceptance of not knowing right now. This is the opposite of fear. The people were clearly afraid. They couldn’t see how they were going to be taken care of. And Moses, instead of modeling calmness and helping them trust that things were going to be okay, got hooked by their fear and hostility and reacted with harshness and violence. It can happen to the best of us. But he destroyed, instead of creating. He sullied the quality of emunah. And he paid the price.
Nachman adds that if Moses had turned towards his faith, he could have brought forth new pure waters from the rock, a metaphor for all the elusive, vital teachings that could have emerged from that challenging place. Perhaps those lost teachings are exactly the ones we need today.
We live in times when arguments and conflicts are proliferating on many scales. We are standing in the balance between the potential for new, vital, creative understandings that will help us move forward together and the potential for more violence, harshness and destruction. By cultivating this kind of faith, an open spacious acceptance, this Thanksgiving, perhaps we will bring new pure waters into the world and help tip the balance towards creativity and light. Then we will have even more to be grateful for.
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
The Place Where We Are Right
Rabbi Nancy Flam
Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid. I place the Divine before me always. (Psalm 16:8)
Equanimity suggests balance, centeredness, not being pulled internally too far in one direction or another.
Here’s what Joseph Goldstein, a well-known mindfulness teacher writes: “A mind suffused with equanimity is poised and balanced with whatever may be arising in its experience. We feel soft and spacious as things come and go; an equanimous mind does not move reactively at all” (Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom, p. 14). What he means here is that the mind does not react with craving or aversion; rather, it responds with wisdom.
This is a high level. And it’s not unlike what the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches. This is from Tzva’at HaRivash, a compendium of hasidic teachings attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov:
I place the Lord before me always” – ‘shiviti’ from the verb ‘equanimity’. Regardless of what happens let everything be equal for you, whether people praise you or despise you, and so for every other way they might treat you. So, also, regarding the food you eat, whether it is the finest cuisine or just grub let it all be the same in your eyes. Once you have removed the yetzer hara completely from within you, regardless of what happens you will be able to say, ‘Is not this also from the Holy One? If it is good in Your eyes…’ Let everything be for the sake of Heaven, such that there is no difference between your intention and that. This is a great spiritual attainment.
(Tzva’at HaRivash #2-3)
I’d like to unpack this a little bit: I think Joseph Goldstein and the Ba’al Shem Tov are basically talking about the same quality of mind. It’s not a mind that doesn’t notice the difference between praise and blame, it’s a mind that doesn’t react through craving or aversion, what is known in rabbinic literature as the yetzer hara. It’s not that chocolate actually tastes like sauerkraut. It’s not that everything becomes grey. It’s that whether we experience – sweet or sour, pain or pleasure, gain or loss, praise or blame, fame or disrepute – we don’t react through a mind of pushing this away or pulling that toward us. We still taste all the flavors of life, if you will. But a mind that is not pushed around by wanting or not wanting is a mind that keeps its center, that stays equanimous.
Here’s how Alan Morinis talks about it from the Mussar perspective:
Equanimity in Mussar usage does not suggest that feelings are idling in neutral. It isn’t a kind of numbness. You still register the ups and downs of the feelings – those are the waves – but you stay awake to the experience from an undisturbed place. When you are submerged in your feelings without at least a flicker of self-awareness, the light of consciousness is extinguished, and the doors to connection and choice are closed. But if awareness is calmly present, even amid the storms of life, your soul maintains its connection to others and to the divine source and your free will is preserved…All sorts of feelings will come, as they do in all our lives, but when you are possessed of equanimity, your inner core is not left open to being whipped around by external experiences. You are freer than that.(Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, p. 100-104)
Equanimity is closely associated with acceptance. It is a way of acknowledging: This is what’s happening now.
But acceptance of what is happening in the moment does not mean passivity in our lives, the refusal to take action. It’s not resignation. It’s being with what’s happening right now, accepting that yes, this is happening in this moment – not creating an adversarial relationship with our experience. From there wisdom arises. For instance, if we see that what we experiencing right now is anger at injustice, we sit with the anger, feel it, accept it, investigate it, know it; and then we resolve to do something about it. We write that letter, we go to that rally, we give that donation, whatever it is. The acceptance is in the moment.
In the mindfulness tradition we talk about the near enemy and the far enemy of the beautiful qualities we want to cultivate, the middot. The far enemy is what’s 180 degrees on the other side of the beautiful quality. So the far enemy of equanimity would be reactivity (reacting with craving or aversion/pull or push). It’s easy to see that that’s the opposite quality of mind.
The near enemy of equanimity is indifference or passivity; it can look similar to equanimity but it isn’t the same at all. Passivity tells us we cannot act when we can. It is “stupid equanimity”. Equanimity maintains a quality of deep connection to life; passivity disconnects us.
Equanimity helps us act, and to do so with clarity and compassion. It helps us know what’s going on inside so we can see our intentions clearly; we can see the motivations, the impulses from which we are acting, what kind of mind state moves us forward. Equanimity allows us to stay before we leave, to be present in an embodied way, to really receive our experience; it allows us to see the attitude in the mind. It helps us see clearly and respond wisely, compassionately. When we act, we want to do so with a mind that is not filled with anger or greed. Do you see the difference?
This piece is an excerpt of a talk given at the
IJS/Or Ha-Lev June 2017 Meditation Retreat.
Equanimity Text Study: Psalm 16:8
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
Jacob Joseph of Polnoyye, a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov, interprets verse, Ps. 16:8 “I place YHVH before me always; with God at my right hand, I will not totter,” in the words of his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov. The word “I place (shiviti = שִׁוִּיתִי)” resonates with the Hebrew root for “equal (sh-v-h = ש-ו-ה)”; the word “before me (l’negdi = לְנֶגְדִּי)” can also signify an obstacle in front of one.
He then reads the verse: “Even when something stands before me as an obstacle, God helps me to remain in equilibrium, with equanimity, always. Thus, even if I stumble in a moment, God will be at my right hand to raise me up with love.” This is one way to think of open awareness practice in relation to concentration practice. We bring our attention to whatever is happening in the moment. Because we are so focused we may miss something (or someone) in our path and trip over them – figuratively or metaphorically. Our attention may be so directed to our own experience that we are cut off from what is happening before us.
If we do so, however, our concentration will also help us. We will be able to perceive, in the moment, with greater clarity precisely what is happening, and be able to respond appropriately (rather than reacting inappropriately). Our “stumble” will be short-lived, and we will not fall from our commitment to practice (even if it seems in the moment to have “failed” us). Holding our attention steady in one phenomenon at a time, we become aware of awareness (which we might understand as placing God before us).
Having touched the clarity of awareness, we can remain balanced even in moments of frustration, pain or sadness.
Guided Practice for Equanimity
Rabbi Myriam Klotz
Each time you practice yoga, you can cultivate the quality of hishtavut – equanimity. Hishtavut is the capacity to stay present and open even as we notice our reactions to sensations and input of many kinds. In yoga, you commit to a pose with open curiosity: without judgment, open to whatever it is you may experience.
Focus Phrases for Equanimity
(Excerpted from the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Curriculum)
All beings are owners of their actions, heirs to their actions. Their happiness or unhappiness depends upon their actions and not upon my wishes.
I care for you but can’t control your happiness and unhappiness.
Gam Zu Yaavore
This too shall pass.
Shiviti Adonai L’Negdi
I place YHVH before me now.
Gam Zu L’Tovah
This is also for the good.
Evtach V’Lo Ephchad
I will trust and not fear.
Composed and Recorded by Cantor Richard Cohn
Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid ki mimini balemot.
I place the Divine before me always; with the Eternal at my right hand, I will not be moved. (Psalm 16:8)
This chant was composed for the Kivvun program.