Sunday, November 8, 2009

The breath of all life: Jewish meditation part 3

Continuing contemplations on the spiritual wisdom emerging from the breath, today I share teachings that I have gleaned from some of my teachers, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Rabbi David Cooper and Shoshana Cooper.  Opportunities to study and practice with these teachers directly can be found at The Awakened Heart Project and at Rabbi Cooper's website.

We know from science that the air that we breathe in is air that the trees and plants have breathed out, and the air that we breath out is the air that the trees and plants breath in.  But to know these things intellectually is quite different from knowing experientially.  Contemplative meditation on the breath can open us to the experience of our interconnectedness with all life in a profound way.  Jewish wisdom guides us to understand this experience as a God experience.  Sometimes our inability to see it that way is more about our choice to claim that label for what we know, instinctively, to be a deeply spiritual awakening and realization.  But the Torah points us toward the truth of this realization when Moses asks God how he should explain to the enslaved Hebrews who it is that has sent him.  God responds:

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh  (Exodus 3:14)

The hebrew letters in the first and third word revolve around the verb that means 'to be'.  Biblical hebrew has two basic grammatical forms - the 'perfect' (something that has happened/has been completed) and the 'imperfect' (something that is in process/ongoing).  And so, encapsulated in this label is the teaching that God is constantly in the process of being; some would understand this to point to God as Existence itself.  And, in our world of experience, our ability to exist in this moment, and the next moment, begins with the breath.  

Many Jewish translations of the Torah do not translate this phrase, because to do so using the English language would limit something that is pointing us to the Infinite.  It is not dissimilar from this teaching from another wisdom tradition:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
(Lao Tsu)

And, drawing from early Jewish philosophical teachings:
And God said, "At first say unto them, 'I am that I am, ' that, when they have learnt that there is a difference between Him that is and him that is not, they may be further taught that there is no name whatever that can properly be assigned to Me, who am the only being to whom existence belongs. --Philo, from Plaut, p 408 (both this and the preceding quote are found at

There is much to contemplate here, and the next posting will offer some paths from the practice of Jewish chant - mantra meditation - that can deepen our understanding of these teachings.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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