The Unseating Of The Soul
Sentience and the Sacred
A student of the Rabbi of Lubin, a Hasidic master fasted from one Sabbath to the next. On Friday afternoon he began to suffer a cruel thirst. He thought he would die. He saw a well, went up to it, and prepared to drink. Suddenly he realized that because of the one last hour he had still to endure, he was about to destroy the work of the entire week. He did not drink and walked away from the well. He was then touched by a feeling of pride for having passed this difficult test. When he became aware of it he said to himself, “Better I go and drink than let my heart fall prey to pride.” He went back to the well, but just as he was going to bend down to draw water, he noticed his thirst had disappeared. When the Sabbath had begun, he entered his teacher’s house. “Patchwork!” the teacher criticized even before the student had the chance to place one foot into the Rabbi’s study!
Martin Buber was a very young man when he first heard this tale. He was struck by the harsh manner in which the master treated his sincere student. Long afterwards when Buber, himself a teacher, retold this tale, he understood the intention behind the great Rabbi’s criticism.
The Rabbi of Lubin was no friend of asceticism. He admitted that fasting could serve a purpose in the initial stage of a person’s development, and possibly later at critical moments in life. The Rabbi’s reply drew the student’s attention away from asceticism and toward something of greater consequence.
The Rabbi’s reproof concerns the student’s wavering. The opposite ofpatchwork is work all of a piece. How does one achieve work all of a piece? It’s achieved with a united soul. With a unitary soul we perform unitary works, as our soul prompts and enables us to do.
If our soul is divided or full of contradiction, our doings are shaped accordingly. Then nothing is left for us but to gather ourselves together midway in our doings, and somehow rally our vacillating soul, re-consecrating it once again to the work at hand.
When we are beset with a divided or contradictory soul, we are not helpless. Natural, holy force rises from the soul’s core, capable of unifying itself. With the soul’s unification comes dignity – greater freedom over our responses.
The Rabbi of Lubin reproaches his student for having made his decision before first unifying his soul. No amount of asceticism can protect the soul from its own contradictions.
It’s important to understand that the unification of the soul is not a fixed or absolute state. A soul beset by difficulties, a soul striving for unity cannot achieve unity. But any work we do with a soul tending toward unity carries us in the direction of new and greater unity. Any work that we do tending toward unity leads to a steadier and more fluid unity than was formerly possible. In time, we will be able to rely upon our soul, it’s unity will have become strong enough to resolve contradictions without unnecessary force or suffering. Vigilance will be necessary even then, but it will be a more relaxed and loving vigilance.
Another Hasidic rabbi from a different town at a different time, named Rabbi Nahum, found his students playing checkers. The Rabbi asked them, “Do you know the rules to the game of checkers?” When out of shyness they did not reply, the Rabbi answered:The first rule – one must not make two moves at once. The second rule – one may only move forward and not backward. The third rule – when one has reached the last row, one may move wherever one likes.
Reaching the last row does not mean the game is over, that you have won. The game is not over. With greater freedom of movement and choice, the stakes increase: victories are sweeter, losses more devastating. The more power one has, the more sober one should become.
We know from the Rabbi of Lubin how much difference it can make when our actions arise from a soul that is tending toward unity. We are told from Rabbi Nahum that unifying our soul is like getting to the last row in the game of checkers.
What, however, did these rabbis mean when they spoke of soul? What does Buber mean by soul? What is the relationship between physical and spiritual grace?
For Buber, the soul means people in their entirety. The soul unites when all our energies unite. Whatever work we do with our hands, if done with complete participation, with no part excluded, helps us to become all of a piece – no wavering, no shilly-shallying.
I consider myself a Jewish Buddhist, a Zen Jew, very Buddish. Buddhism has provided me with fresh insights into soul.
One May in 563 BC on the day of the full moon, Siddhartha Gautama was said to be born to Mahamaya, his mother, and to Suddhodana, his father, who ruled the Sakya country, a kingdom in the nothern provinces of India at the foot of the Himalayas.
The most modest historical accounts state merely that Siddhartha was a youth of noble bearing with an athlete’s skill and a scholar’s intellect. At sixteen he married Yasodhara and, thirteen years later, had a son, Rahula, For thirty years Siddhartha lived a sheltered, luxurious life. He was wealthy, cultured, comfortable, and secure. But Siddhartha grew increasingly troubled by the sickness, poverty, misery, and death he saw around him. His life began to feel empty. He made the extreme, but not unusual choice in that time and place, to renounce the world and live an ascetic life. What made Siddhartha so interesting is that, in his quest for the cause and prevention of human anxiety and suffering, he went on to renounce not only the ways of luxury, but the ways of asceticism as well. In the eyes of Siddhartha’s fellow-ascetics, he was a disgrace.
Siddhartha’s teachings are founded upon three major realizations. One, life includes suffering. Have the courage to accept it. Two, everything is temporary. Have the courage to accept it. Three, everything depends, that is to say, everything is particular and situational. What’s the right thing to do? Well, that depends.
It is said that upon these realizations Siddhartha arose from the tree under which he was sitting. He walked to a nearby farm where a woman offered him some boiled milk with honey in it. He accepted it, drank, and found the milk and honey delicious.
For many Jews and Buddhists the soul means people in their entirety. The soul unites when all our energies unite. Whatever work we do with our hands, if done with complete participation, with no part excluded, helps us to become all of a piece – no wavering, no shilly-shallying.
Buddha got to the last row. Once there, he moved through life differently. He referred to the Last Row as the Middle Way. For Buddha the Last Row meant choosing not to drift unconsciously into the extremes of a situation. Better to gently gravitate toward the center of situations as they simultaneously arise and fall away.
While I don’t think of myself as a Christian, Christian thought, music, and metaphor has had an enormous impact on my life. Bach’s Mass in B-minor has sustained me in times of darkness. Crucifixes open my heart. Michelangelo’s Pieta, particularly Mary’s strong back, quiets and comforts me. Meister Eckhart’s writings guide and challenge me.
In 1793 English poet William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, challenges religion without wavering or shilly-shallying: He declares:
Man has two real existing principles Viz.: a Body & a Soul.
Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this Age.
Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body,
& that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
Energy is the only life and is from the Body
and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
Energy is Eternal Delight.
In essence, Blake stated that we are all of a piece, all soul and only soul. What we call our body is our soul. What we call our senses are our soul. What we call our heart is our soul. What we call our mind is our soul. And what we call our soul is our soul. We are entirely soul.
For Blake, the soul means people in their entirety. The soul unites when all our energies unite. Whatever work we do with our hands, if done with complete participation, with no part excluded, helps us to become all of a piece – no wavering, no shilly-shallying.
Blake was part of the late 18th Century revolt against the betrayal of the body, against the disrespecting of ordinary life, and against the demonizing of nature. Another Christian mystic, Friedrich von Hardenberg from Germany sheds more light upon the reality of soul.
Friedrich von Hardenberg became known as Novalis. Novalis died young, though not before he left his mark. In his aphorisms he hallowed nature and the body. “There is no doubt that our body is a molded river.” “We are the sun and our senses are our planets.” Novalis insisted on our need to study the outer world, the world of plants, animals, and insects. (Goethe, as well spent years studying plants, comparative anatomy, rock and cloud formations and colors becoming one of the most astute naturalists in Europe in his time.)
Novalis implied the soul was not a separate immortal entity, given to us by God at birth, which resides in our bodies until its release at the moment of death. Rather, Novalis said, “Our souls dwell where our inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.” The soul is to be found, not within or without, but between.
When Monet was asked how he was able to capture the atmosphere of a particular place his reply was, “I don’t paint what I see. I paint what exists between what I see and me.”
Our Last Conversation
During our last conversation, Marjorie Barstow, my teacher, seemed sad and resigned. Her kyphosis was getting worse. Curled way over, sitting next to me, as we drove down the highway, Marj said, “One person can only do so much.” I didn’t say anything. I just kept driving. I felt she had contributed tremendously.
I could hear her thinking. I turned and looked at her. She was already looking at me. With a blinding sparkle in her eyes, she said, “Bruce, and what will your contribution be?”
When Marjorie died, I was teaching in Japan.
For a couple days I seemed fine, and then it hit me. I was overwhelmed by dread, by doubt, that I had missed something, not heard something, that I didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn, that I failed her as a student. I didn’t know what to do. And then, suddenly, I knew.
I knew finally and completely that for me now, there is no room for wavering or shilly-shallying. It’s time to become all of a piece, relaxed and vigilant.