Religion & Beliefs

A Jewish Perspective on the Jhanas, Part Two

Part II: Is there God in the Jhanas? So what about that “Is“–that sense of devekut, the numinous, the Lover, that I found in the fourth jhana? As I’ve indicated, I didn’t just experience the jhanas as a blissful or … Read More

By / February 5, 2009

Part II: Is there God in the Jhanas?

So what about that “Is“–that sense of devekut, the numinous, the Lover, that I found in the fourth jhana? As I’ve indicated, I didn’t just experience the jhanas as a blissful or contented state, which is how the Buddhist texts described them. I experienced them as holy–which is how the Hindu texts did. I’m not prepared to say that any particular experience was necessarily an experience of God, or an angel, or anything in particular–but I will say that they were extreme encounters with the “numinous.” Moreover, if I were setting out on this practice from a specifically religious perspective, there’s no question that these experiences would be described in terms of visions, mystical union, blessings, even prophecy. Jewishly speaking, they correspond in interesting ways with the states described in some of Abraham Abulafia’s books, and in the Shaarei Tzedek, a text by one of his disciples that is translated in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. If the jhana practice doesn’t match these mystical states, I don’t know what does. (For more on this, see “Does Mysticism Prove the Existence of God?“) The presence, the light–it is literally bringing tears to my eyes as I write this, because it is so healing, beautiful, gorgeous, holy, and pure. For example, sometimes, during the third and fourth jhanas, there would arise a bright, hot light at the “third eye” spot–basically, where the head part of the Tefillin rests, a correspondence I did not fail to notice, although sometimes it would move up to the crown chakra point. This I will not describe further, except to say that I experienced all kinds of wisdom and insight in connection with this light. If you’ve had similar experiences, hameivin yavin. If not, I’m going to shut up about it anyway for now. Go see for yourself. Now, what’s going on in such experiences? As I see it, there are three options: This is a sacred state, and it’s just ignorant not to see that. Buddhists experience the state but choose not to see it as sacred (my Burmese teacher told me not to get distracted by any of these sensations, and that doing so was dangerous); materialists don’t see it because they are willfully blind. If love is real, this is real. This is purely a mindstate, which perhaps one day we can measure and stimulate artificially. The sensation of “holiness” is purely a sensation. Any claim that this is of anything–whether God or anything else–is reification, and thus delusion. Great that the states healed you and helped you see truth; leave it at that. God is there if you look for Him/Her. My choice, no surprise, is number three. It would be dishonest to sit here and tell you that I did not experience an intense closeness to God in these states, far more than any in prayer, meditation, ecstatic, entheogenic, or energetic work I had done in the past–and again, I’ve done a lot. This is what I experienced, and I don’t want to lie in order to make myself seem sane, credible, or level-headed. But I also don’t want to make any assertions or jump to any conclusions. I just don’t know. And I like resting in that question, because it prevents me from falling into idolatry, fundamentalism, reification, or attachment. As I’ve written about at length in my book Nondual Judaism (coming out next September from Shambhala), I think this word “God” is a kind of naming, a way of relating to “Is” that some people choose to do and other people don’t. Remember, “Ein Sof” does not mean “God”–it means “infinite.” And YHVH doesn’t mean God either–it means, I think, “is.” Asking whether “is” exists is nonsensical. Asking whether “God” exists is a question of naming. Do we choose to experience this moment as You, rather than It? If we do, You appear–quite reliably, the more spiritual practice one does. God is here, right now, I know it. However, it is also possible to choose to experience this moment as It, in which case the personality of God recedes, and is replaced only by a placid, transparent, omnipresent, maybe-aware emptiness. This is also true, right now, and I know it too. I know both of these things because, thank God or karma, I am blessed with these two ways of relating–the secular Buddhist one, and the religious Jewish one. I find both of them incredibly nourishing. On my jhanas retreat, days would go by without God-consciousness. I would surrender to the practice, experience ecstasy, bliss, contentment, and equanimity as factors of mind, and grow very quiet and precise. Other times (especially since the retreat coincided with the Jewish holiday season), the protective, loving, and sometimes erotic natures of God/dess would arise even during quiet concentrated mindstates. Even in the fourth jhana, there was a sense of “I am always here.” At the very least, there was often a sense of gratitude–and “God” was just a name for Who/What I felt grateful toward. So, I really do want to say that everybody is right–partly because I experience both sides myself. As Ken Wilber has described in great length and of great use, it’s a matter of looking, and as Wilber also discusses, it’s really helpful to look from as many perspectives as possible. I don’t think the Buddhists are ignorant because they’re missing the God piece, and I don’t think the Christians are deluded because they’re seeing Christ. I think we approach the mystery with perspectives, expectations, and vocabularies that both shape and interpret those experiences. The wings of the Shechinah are the flapping ears of Ganesh, and both are just a visual impression that should not be reified. Which perspective works best depends on the moment, and your heart. Now, this may not be enough. In a way, the jhanas really undermine some of the foundations of Jewish
spiritual life: if these amazing and holy states can be stimulated purely through concentration, then what do we really mean by “an experience of God”? Is devekut just a mindstate? Isn’t this just the kind of non-religious version of religious experience that Sam Harris, at the end of The End of Faith, says we should institute in place of dogma and religion? If you can “get there” purely with concentration, then what’s the point of all the God stuff–the piety, the worship, and the inevitable attachment to form? Biggest of all: is “God” purely a projection of the mind, a reification of a feeling? And not only that-what if “God” is an unhelpful projection of mind? Several times during retreat, I found myself engaged in what I came to call “pseudo-covenant,” or making neurotic deals with God to please grace me with another mystical encounter. From a Buddhist perspective, this is a really unhelpful delusion, because it prevents the clear seeing of the conditions that actually bring jhana about: concentration, effort, and so on. Even from just a nonsectarian spiritual perspective, though, pseudo-covenant is crazymaking. There’s no end to it–it’s basically a prolonged state of fear and insecurity. Whereas, when the states are seen as simply conditioned states–profound, amazing, life-changing, loving, blissful states, but still just states–calm and clarity prevail. I really don’t know, but I have a few replies–or at least, ways of seeing. First, I come back to a very basic understanding that it’s easier to see the truth at some times than others. This is true in mundane as well as spiritual contexts. Ever have a moment in a relationship when, due to whatever reasons, you suddenly see the truth (for better or for worse) about your partner? Conditions enabled that seeing–a crackling fireplace, a blown responsibility–but the seeing is true nonetheless. Maybe jhana is just an extreme example of that. With the mind blown and the heart open, the numinous just appears–at least to those of us who are looking. Second, let’s remember that sometimes this state appears even when we’re not looking. I didn’t come on this retreat looking for God. I had my intentions, and they were not particularly Jewish ones. In my experience, which I trust but do not defend, which I fall back on but do not proselytize, purely in my experience, without any assertion but with an admission, a confession, a release: God found me. Again, I’m not saying I saw God or spoke to God or anything like that. I’m just saying these are the holiest experiences I’ve ever had, and that if I was inclined to ascribe such labels to them, they would certainly fit. Third, let me return for a moment to the fourth jhana. One of the lessons of that state is how thin it is. It’s extremely subtle, which is why it takes the most concentration to enter, and why it holds so much power for spiritual practice. It is devoid of qualities: it’s not loving like the third jhana, or ecstatic like the first, or delightful like the second. Just pure equanimity. Now, that too is a conditioned phenomenon–but it’s a very
thin one. The “God” that emerges in that state is the nondual God: Is. So we’re not really reifying a mindstate; we’re seeing What Is through different prisms, some of them colored with love or joy, and some entirely colorless. This seems really important, and as I mentioned above, is one of the most important Jewish teachings of jhana. God is not a name for when you feel good. Fourth, I want to really inhabit that “I don’t know” for awhile, and see where it leads: not answering, not knowing, surrendering and letting go to this mystery that is beyond any capacity or concept. Surely this is wisdom. If there is God, nondual or otherwise, surely it’s beyond our capacity to explain. And if there isn’t, but there’s just a vast emptiness when all conditioned phenomena are let go of, well, then it’s exactly the same, isn’t it? Both “God” and “not God” end up in exactly the same place: empty of all concepts, radiant, mysterious, and yet somehow with a tinge of knowing. Finally, I don’t want to get lost in theology, when the point is the experience, whether its religious in nature or not. Let’s assume these are purely conditioned mindstates, whatever the consequences of that assumption may be. Let’s let go of magical thinking, and religious thinking. Great! Now the question is what are they good for, what do they teach, how can they enrich our lives. Sharon Salzberg, following the Buddhist canon, defines the quality of faith as “trusting your own deepest experiences.” Trust, not explicate or define or reify. That seems right to me, and these were certainly some of the deepest I’ve had. Everything is as it was: tables and chairs, loneliness and wisdom. But in my heart, there is now a deep knowledge of love. All images by Harriete Estel Berman.