Cave of the Heart (vi) : PART TWO (The Method)

2b: Standing still before God
Though I have dipped into the literature of the Kabbalah and borrow some of its terminology I am not a kabbalist. My net searches show me the enormous body of literature that has arisen over the last twenty or so years expounding kabbalistic meditation techniques for an obviously ravenous section of the Jewish community who are searching for a contemporary spirituality within mainstream Judaism. I have not yet read this literature in any depth and may never do so.

My problem with a lot of “spiritual literature”, and particularly with “methods of prayer” is that they often seem to increase and feed the self-centredness which is a natural part of every solitary contemplative’s psychological makeup. (see the evidence of these pages!). I feel sure that many readers will share the frustrations of that problem. I needed to find (or was found by) a way which would short circuit or re-route that natural tendency and transform it into a form of prayer which ignored or silenced the ego whilst still allowing it to function naturally but unobtrusively.

For me, and those like me.....Any system which speaks of spiritual or personal “progress” or of ascending or descending through stages or levels is simply too likely to produce self-observation and a false sense of achievement for it to be sustained over any length of time without causing spiritual narcissism.

I certainly did not want to be staring at my own face. But then neither did I want to see God’s......I just wanted, and still want... to relate to Him from a safe(ish) distance and try to be useful to Him.

As a Carmelite, though I could be stunned by the beauty and profundity of single phrases in the poems of San Juan de la Cruz,
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I was actually quite frightened by the giddy heights expounded and analysed in his prose. I found myself quite content in the simple world of Brother Lawrence whose “Practice of the Presence of God” (with its method of developing a constant awareness of God in the midst of ordinary activities) seemed more than enough to be going on with.

As a Jew I have been dazzled and gripped by lines extracted from the Zohar but the classical forms, analyses, and systems of kabbalistic meditation are just too complex and intellectual for me. They may well be so for you too.

If you are reading this hoping for some insight into such meditational techniques you will be disappointed ….what I am sharing in this chapter is extremely simple.

There is presumption here.

I’m convinced that there is a simple way for those needing a kind of spiritual minimalism.

It is a path I have been on since my conversion thirteen years ago, and having given it a “good try” and found it to be meaningful I want to share it. I have the trepidation of a Bar-Mitzvah boy in making it public here but my “instinct” tells me there are others out there who may actually need to read these words. It is a method for those who are fired by what can only be described as an ache to be connected to God and to be of use to Him, but whose psychological or intellectual inadequacies make the ascent of Mount Carmel or Mount Horeb necessary by a less travelled side-path.

It is a simple path, but in no sense is it an easy short cut….and travelling on it can often be boringly “uneventful”.
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This whole booklet is just the frame for the three point statement I have come “here” to make.

Here it is:
Contemplative Prayer is giving God
a chance to speak to us/ do something to us.

It is not about us, it’s about Him.
The method is simply
To stand in His Presence;
Make space inside ourselves for Him to act;
and then
Listen to what He may have to say to us
personally and individually.

That’s it.

Yes, that’s all of it.

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If you were expecting manipulations of hebrew letters and numbers, or mantras, or ascetic practices you will be very disappointed by that little revelation.

If you are a scholar of Jewish mysticism you might be irritated by my impertinence. If you are somebody who feels relief on reading those statements but need a little bit more help to make those words make sense: then read on!

Both congregational and private prayer can be focused on combinations of praise, thanksgiving and petition. Private prayer can also be a form of self analysis and questioning. I practice all four of those aspects of formal prayer as do many Jews. They can be performed with much devotion and spirituality and they can sometimes be mechanical and verbose.

But just as the Carmelites I lived with complemented their liturgy with daily periods of both communal and private silent meditation; just as Nachman of Breslov recommended spending daily time “secluded” in a private space attempting prayerful (though sometimes noisier) communication with God…..I am suggesting that a prayer life without this element of contemplation is incomplete.

I realise that there is nothing new in this suggestion or for that matter, in the three-point “method” I have just outlined. The method is ancient. Consisting, as it does, of nothing more than the development of periods of attentiveness and receptivity in prayer, it… or something very like it… must have been the core curriculum of the “Schools of the prophets” which I mentioned in chapter one. It may however be “new” for many Jews who will not have considered that prayer could include a “time for response”. Jews are very familiar with the idea that “listening to God” takes place whenever the Torah scrolls are read, studied, or discussed but 
that same Torah is to be found in the heart of each individual Jew. That Torah of the heart is rarely accessed, but it can be.

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2c: The Voice

The method I am recommending “happened” very early on in my life as a Jew and seems to have arisen during the private recitation of two prayers. The Shema and the Amidah.

(For non-Jewish readers: The Shema consists of the opening proclamation already quoted and is followed by a study meditation of three passages from Deuteronomy and Numbers.
The Amidah is a prayer of eighteen blessings recited in the standing position to which its name refers.)

What would happen was simple. I would get “stuck” on a word in private recitation and would find myself paused in silence. This is something which must happen to many who follow the tradition to say these prayers regularly. That pause became a door to a “place” where I could simply stand in God’s presence and give him my silent attention.

To this day I find it hard to believe that in all the years preceding this I had never actually thought to do something so obviously necessary. I had expected “answers” to prayer to come obliquely (if they came at all) by insights during prayer or through insights and events outside the time of prayer. Never, with immediacy or directness, whilst in the midst of it.

If private informal prayer is “conversing with God” why had I previously made it a monologue?

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Who would be so impolite as to ask a question or make a request and then not leave a pause for a reply….not even the tiniest of pauses?

Leaving such a pause was little more than an small act of courtesy, and yet it had never occurred to me to make it.

Once this had dawned upon me, this is how it developed:

I simply formalised that period of silent attention by regularly including it in my recitation of the Amidah. Chazal tell us that the earliest practice  of reciting  the Shemoneh Esreh took several hours. Some say that this was because of the  time spent in oreparation before its formal recitation. Others say it is because the prayer was recited slowly and with lengthy pauses for meditation.  It is this latter practice that I adopted and whenever a pause became a lengthy mediation period, I simply allowed that to develop into wordless contemplation.

Sometimes something happened. Most often nothing did. But I kept at it.

I really believe that what happens to an individual in contemplative prayer is a private matter and needs to remain so, but the whole point of me writing this down at all is to share this “method”. Consequently I need to be just a little more specific on form if not content here.
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I believe that we are all capable of hearing God’s voice. Not in the way Moses did, for sure, but in the way all Israel did at the foot of Sinai. We hear it in our “hearts” and not through our ears. It is not our own voice, (though part of it is). It seems to have a “tone” all of its own and does not speak often. (There may be years between perceived occurrences).

The Voice seems to respond to questions and its answers are usually either unexpectedly mundane, brief and brutally to the point, or just plain odd. In the latter case the meaning or significance of what we have “heard” can emerge long after the event, maybe in another prayer session or when something happens in our lives to explain it.

The Voice sometimes answers us before the first “word” of such a question has been expressed.

Sometimes “answers” are delayed while we rephrase our question after realising that the question we thought we needed to ask had been masking one we were afraid to ask.

Sometimes we are given an “answer” which seems to bear no relation to any question we may have asked, in such cases it is what we really need to hear.

Often, we are the ones being asked a question. Our answers however, are rarely so forcefully convincing or honest.

Often, we are left to our own devices to find our own answer but, if we are fortunate, we can then be blessed by hearing a “voice of approval” as from a parent who congratulates a child on developing its independence. The Voice can be commanding, but it never makes our decisions for us.
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The Voice may be heard synaesthesically. It may “use” verbal communication, it may present a visual image, it may cause a movement in our body, or it may not be sensed at all save by the “heart”. (I refer to the “place” of this encounter inside God/us as our lev, our heart… but I am referring to a spiritual, intuitive faculty which is neither intellectual, emotional, nor imaginative.) On the many occasions when absolutely nothing seems to have happened, this part of our consciousness often seems to be aware that “something” has been done to us even though it is not necessary for us to know what or why.

There is some similarity between the type of awareness I have just described and the dream state. The same “Voice” sometimes speaks in dreams. In such “special” dreams (special because we recognize they are in a class of their own, not that we are) it has the same synaesthesic quality and we wake suddenly with a flash of intuition or have it on our lips as we arise in the first moments of the morning so that we should not forget what we have been told. I think that sometimes such special dreams act as a channel of information because we were somehow not sufficiently receptive in recent prayer.

The Voice sometimes seems to make use of synchronous events.....inexplicable chains of coincidences which seem to come in bursts to ensure that we “get the message”. Often they come as a sort of “underlining” of something we have just experienced in contemplative prayer. Their rapidly consecutive appearance convinces me that, as the Baal Shem Tov said: “there are no accidents” where this little miracle occurs. Such an “underlining” can also act as a confirmation that what we are listening to is not merely our own imagination.
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My use of the terms “Voice”, “hear”, “see” etc can be taken (almost) literally or metaphorically. They are an attempt to describe an experience which will differ from person to person, and which takes many different forms in the various periods of an individual’s life. The common denominator is that they describe a process of intuition, maybe even one of inspiration or revelation which operates on a level beyond the superficial, emotional or intellectual. However it is perceived, it is a process which produces insight, learning experiences, and attentiveness to God in our deepest self and in the world about us.

I apologise if that does not make sense to the reader. My hope is that in many cases though, it will make sense and that for such readers it will give some peace. In isolation it is easy for normal healthy people to suspect their sanity or their faith when exploring contemplative worlds. Hearing such a Voice does not produce rock solid faith, if anything it is more often accompanied by an increase of doubt and periods of self-questioning that are part of the sort of intellectual and spiritual struggle that gives us the name Israel. (God-wrestler).

These periods of struggle are sometimes agonisingly empty and desert-like. Sometimes they are times of storm, wind and fire. The Voice may be “a still, small voice” but its stillness resembles the apparent stillness of a surgical laser beam coming sometimes with anaesthetic, sometimes without. Our delusions and our false securities are burnt out. One way or the other.

It has to be said here that those delusions sometimes come “gift wrapped” and are hard to differentiate from the “real thing”. Hard, but not impossible.
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People who “hear voices” may be suffering from illness; they may feel commanded to perform selfish or hateful acts; they may feel driven by a compulsion which leaves no room for argument or discussion. The Voice I am referring to never causes any of these.

If you “hear” a voice in prayer and doubt its origin, test it: If “hearing it” produces an increase in practical acts of justice and love, of tzedekah and chasadut, and removes self-absorbtion or ego-focus, then it is (comparatively!) safe and healthy.

There are times when we are excited by emotional or ecstatic episodes in prayer. Sometimes the mere sensation that we are engaged in a “spiritual quest” can itself create excitement or produce spiritual self-gratification. Perhaps these “curses” are sometimes actually “blessings” sent to maintain our interest….but they are ultimately red-herrings and relying on them or dwelling on them is spiritual masturbation.

I am sure that any “secular” psychologists reading this will be having a field-day examining the mental processes described in those last few paragraphs from a purely natural view-point, superimposing whatever model they subscribe to in analysing them.

I am not at all embarrassed by the exposure because I actually expect God to operate using natural human processes when communicating with humans.

I believe that the “Voice” I have described is both God’s Voice and ours simultaneously. The extent to which it is His Voice, I cannot say. If you are brave, ask it!

How much of it is “our voice” can often (but suprisingly, not always) depend on the level to which we have removed our 
self-centredness, our insatiable desire for (material and spiritual) things we don’t really need, our prejudices, and our totems. Or had them removed for us. That is an ongoing process and as it is a “work in progress” we may mishear the Voice by hearing only the frequencies we want to hear, or simply by filtering it in inaccurate language.
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If we look to the Biblical prophets whose attention to the Voice was much more finely tuned than ours, we will see that even they encountered the hidden meanings or word-play we might experience.
But if our intention is truly to listen to God alone with the motivation of service overiding all others, then our misinterpretations are shortlived. Other presentations of the same “word” are made till we get the message. This way we get as near to understanding it as we can.