Insights from a Nondual Rabbi
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Rabbi Rami is an award-winning author of over two dozen non-fiction books, whose poems and short stories have been anthologized in over a dozen volumes, and whose prayers are used in prayer books around the world. Rabbi Rami received rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, and holds a PhD in religion from Union Graduate School.
A congregational rabbi for 20 years, Rabbi Rami is currently adjunct professor of religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Rabbi Rami is also a featured presenter at Sounds True’s 2013 Wake Up Festival, which will be held August 14 through the 18 in Estes Park, Colorado. And for more information on our 2013 Wake Up Festival, you can visit WakeUpFestival.com.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rabbi Rami and I spoke about his early experiences of what could be called nondual realization, and how his teachings on nonduality have evolved quite dramatically over the years. We also talked about preparing for dying and teachings and practices that he offers to help people with what he calls “dying into the arms of love.” We also talked about Rabbi Rami’s unusual take on the practice of forgiveness. Here’s my conversation with Rabbi Rami Shapiro.
Rami, I’m eager to talk to you as somebody who both stands as a rabbi and as a member of the Jewish faith, and as somebody who speaks a lot on the perennial philosophy and is often invited to be part of conversations about what all of the traditions of the world actually have in common. So to begin with, I would love to know how that posture works for you, being both a rabbi and a Jew, and also someone who cares deeply about this common ground that all the traditions share.
Rami Shapiro: Yes. I’ll tell you, it’s something I wrestle with regularly because people say, “Well, you’re a rabbi, how can you be drawing from Christianity and Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism and the rest of them?” But I take my cue from my own rebbe, my own spiritual teacher Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who once told me he calls himself a Jewish practitioner of a universal truth. And I found that very compelling.
So I sort of think of myself the same way. What I’m interested in is not so much the common ground. I mean, we could look at—I teach comparative religion, and you can look at structures of religion and different ways of analyzing religion, and find a lot of similarity. I’m interested in what I consider to be the Truth with a capital “T”. And that [leads into] that perennial philosophy. And then I find that Truth articulated in slightly different language—or very different language, in some cases—in every tradition.
So to me, the perennial part is what I’m really resting in. And when I speak to audiences because of my training, I tend to speak using a Jewish language more than any other. But I’m pretty bilingual when it comes to this stuff.
TS: Or multilingual, probably, really.
RS: Yes, multilingual, yes.
TS: OK. So you talked about Truth with a capital “T”, and your own deep work in the study of comparative religion. And some people would say that different spiritual paths take you to different places because they have a different logos, if you will. They’re built on different assumptions. And other people would say, “Oh no, these different traditions, they all take you to this same capital “T” Truth if you go deeply enough.” So where do you weigh in on that issue?
RS: I would say yes. “Oh no!” [Laughs] I would say both. Let’s start with the “oh no.” Each religious traditions is its own unique world and own unique worldview. And I think we do a terrible disservice to our religion when we try to say, “This one is saying the same thing as that one.” There is no way to do that on a mainstream theological level.
For example, Judaism says that there’s one God who chose [the] Jews, who gave his—and it literally is—his only revelation, to the Jews, and promised the Jews a strip of real estate in the Middle East as their Promised Land. That has nothing to do with Brahman. So the God of the Jews and the God of [whichever] Hindu group we’re talking about, Ganesha or Krishna—they don’t know anything about the Jews.
So these are [definitely] different traditions that take us in different directions. Christianity, though they may claim to have the same God, that’s simply a PR kind of thing. The god of Christianity, especially Trinitarian Christianity, has a son. And in Islam and in Judaism, God can’t have a son. So I think we have to recognize the different qualities and worldviews of each religion and honor those differences by being honest about them.
But at the same time, I think that the great mystics of all these religions point beyond the official doctrine to something else. And it’s the something else that I’m most interested in. When I teach comparative religion at Middle Tennessee State University, I make sure the kids know the differences. When we get to the mystical side of religious traditions, then I try to show what I think all the mystics are pointing at.
So it’s that Zen concept of the finger pointing to the moon. We tend to obsess on the finger and we forget about the moon. But the mystics are trying to redirect our attention. So I think it’s both, and; that each is unique, and the mystics are all pointing or leading us toward the same reality.
TS: OK, but even within saying that the mystics are taking us all to the same reality, some people would say, “But because different practices are being offered and because there’s a different emphasis, we’re not actually getting to the same ‘place.’” Do you think that’s true or not?
RS: Well, OK. I can be a little bit more subtle, then. I don’t think any practice takes you there. So I get what they’re saying, that to practice Tonglen in the Tibetan tradition, you’re going to have a certain experience. If you practice [zazen], just sitting in the Zen tradition, you’ll have a different experience.
But my “experience,” in quotes—and I’ll come back to that in a second, maybe—I think there’s something beyond my egoic experience. And that’s when all the paths end. That’s when all the practices cease. That’s when I’m just present and there’s nothing to call it, and there’s no system involved, and it’s just that, whatever that is.
My conversations with people who have a serious contemplative practice and who are also grounded in other religious traditions, we seem to be talking about something you can’t talk about, ultimately. But we seem to be pointing to this similar if not identical kind of experience.
So I get what people are saying when they say, “Different practices take you to a specific place and they’re not all the same,” but I think that something happens when practice is ultimately exhausted—when you’ve taken the road you’re following to the very end, but then there’s one more step. And that’s off the road, off the path, off the system. So you’re standing in the wildness, Rumi’s field beyond concepts of good and evil, that ineffable realm that I think we open up to when we dare to go one step farther than our path allows.
And that, I think, takes us to the same thing. The problem is the thing it takes us to is, like I said, ineffable. So I talk about my experience, and I said “in quotes” because really, I’m not there anymore to experience it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but an experience requires an experiencer, but there is that moment where Rami disappears, and I can’t talk about that moment. There’s no language for it. As soon as I talk about it, it becomes an object and there really is nothing in it that allows that to happen.
It’s more of a pure sense of what Ramana Maharshi calls the I-I, or the Atman. I can throw words at it, but none of them really speak to the experience itself. And even the experience itself doesn’t really do us any good. You have to have it, and then you go, “Oh.” And then you come back.
TS: I’m curious, because I always love to talk to people really from their direct knowing. And so in one of your books, I was reading that you had a very formative experience, or you could say a very dissolving experience, when you were a young man, at the age of 16, of what you called the nonduality of God. I’m wondering if you can share with us what happened at that age.
RS: Yes. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish environment. I went through, I became bar mitzvah at 13. But nothing spoke to me. I was looking for something else. And I did what I had to do to maintain my status in my family and the community, but I started to study Zen on my own, which is, of course, absurd, but I did. Especially [with] a book called Zen Comes West, by Christmas Humphreys. Humphreys used to be the head of the Buddhist group in England, I forgot what they called it. And he told you how to sit zazen, so, OK, I did it.
I was visiting a friend in Cape Cod. He worked during the day, I had the day free. While I was visiting, I went to sit on the shore, and I practiced whatever I read in that book. And I dissolved. That’s what we’re going to say. So I disappeared, and I was no longer conscious and I was no longer conscious of not being conscious. I was just gone. And what I would say is [it was] like the mantra of the heart: “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha,” “gone, gone, all the way gone, beyond gone.” And then I would translate svaha as “wow.”
So that’s what happened. And when I came back, I came back—I was going to say hysterical, but I mean that in the funny way, not like hysterical crazy. Just laughing hysterically, with this tremendous sense that the universe is a single, living entity, and we are all part of it, and it was something that I couldn’t argue with. I knew it was true the way I know I’m hungry when I’m hungry. It was just—that’s the reality.
And I spent a lot of time trying to recreate that experience as a system. “Oh, it must be Zen, there must be something that I can do to have this again.” I became sort of addicted, trying to have that experience again. But I’ve since overcome that addiction [laughs]. I’m guess I’m in Enlightenment Anonymous or something. I don’t really care about that anymore.
But the truth of the experience, the [truth] that was left, never left me. And it really shapes everything that I do, everything that I think about reality.
TS: And I’m curious to know that as your path progressed, and you started training within the Jewish tradition, how you made sense of certain Jewish prayers and approaches that seem to come more from a sense of the person and God as being separate. What kind of way have you found into those prayers so that they work for you?
RS: I didn’t. I found two things: I found, first, the Kabbalistic notion that God is the “I,” the only I. Where it says in the liturgy, “I am the Lord”—that is what it would say in the translation, but that is not the actual Hebrew. The Hebrew is a form of the verb “to be,” the first person imperfect future. So it’s like, “I, the is-ing, is all there is.” And I took that as my motto. In the Hassidic tradition, in the Kabbalistic tradition, this kind of theology is a given. And then, somehow, you’re supposed to reinterpret the prayers as you do them with that in mind.
I personally could never do that. I understood the theology. I experienced the theology, I think, and can affirm it. But I could never take the liturgy—I would spend too much time trying to make the liturgy over in that image, if you like. And I would never get to the point of surrendering to the actual practice of prayer.
So the first thing I discovered is there is [a] theological, nondual position in Judaism, and the second thing I discovered when I became a rabbi is I can rewrite the liturgy. Which is basically what I did. The English, anyway. I left the Hebrew the way it was because I knew that Hebrew could become sort of a mantra, that you didn’t need to focus on every word, though knowing Hebrew, even then I would get choked up. But the English was what I was working with primarily, with my English-speaking congregation. And I just simply rewrote all the translations so that they all sounded Kabbalistic, nondualistic, and I did that for maybe half of my rabbinic career.
And then I had a different experience. Then I had the experience of just the opposite, in a sense, of what I’d experienced at 16. I had the experience that God is Other, is—I don’t know if I want to say “person” exactly, but a personal experience of God as a being with whom I could dialogue.
And when that happened to me, and it happened over and over and over again, and still actually happens, I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do, because it violated my earlier experience, and then it violated everything I’d been writing in the synagogue and all the liturgy I’d created since. And now it was saying stuff that I felt wasn’t the whole truth. It wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t the whole. So I had to go in search of a way of integrating these very different experiences that I was having, which I’m happy to talk about if you want, but I don’t want to—
TS: Well, yes. So this is very interesting to me. Yes, how did you integrate the non-dual with God as Other?
RS: Well, what was happening to me was I was experiencing God as Mother. And I write about this in my book The Divine Feminine. And I started seeing images of Mary and other goddess figures eventually. It was just really throwing me, and it’s very bad for a rabbinic career if you’re going to say, “Oh, I see images of the Virgin Mary.”
So I needed help. And you don’t go to a therapist for this, so I went to some of my teachers outside the Jewish world. I went to Sister Jose Hobday, who is a priest now but was a wonderful Catholic nun and Native American medicine woman, and I went to Andrew Harvey. And I shared with both of them what was going on. And Sister Jose just sort of laughed and said, “I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen, you’re going to have to find this out for yourself,” and didn’t help me do the integral work.
But Andrew Harvey actually sat me down and said—in a much more flamboyant way than I’m going to say it now—but he basically said, “If God is everything, God is also Other. To say that nondual is the opposite of dual is to fall into the same dualistic trap. So you can experience God in a variety of ways and it’s all part of the manifestation of that singular reality.” So when he’s telling me that, all my resistance melted, and I found that that was absolutely true.
And then when I went back to look at the Jewish theory of consciousness, and there’s five different levels of consciousness, the fifth level is that pure nondual awareness. It’s just called yechida, nondual consciousness. But it’s just below that one is what’s called chaya consciousness—not “higher” with an “h,” but chaya with a “ch.” And that means life consciousness, and that’s when you realize, at that level, [that] you can have this I, Thou relationship with the divine as a part of the greater nondual reality.
So it sort of clicked in place, and I began to mix, in my liturgical writing, the two experiences so that people could see what I’m going through, and maybe it would reflect what they’re also going through. But today I have the same thing. When I do my chanting practice, when I do my waking practice, I oftentimes end up in conversation with the divine as if she were Other. And then that usually leads to a silent sitting practice, normally, then she fades, I fade and whatever we were talking about before, that has no name, that, I think, is what’s left.
TS: Yes, I heard a woman named Cynthia Bourgeault—maybe you know her work. She once defined nonduality in way that I really liked. Not two, not one, both one and two. And that definition really helped me, and I think often people hear the word “nonduality” and they think of it as somehow a transcendent denial of the two. And I think you’re saying that, in your own life, you maybe started there, and then discovered something very different.
RS: Yes. Exactly. I think Cynthia’s definition is right on, and that is my experience. We tend to think of nondual as monism. There’s just oneness, and that’s all there is. But it’s not that way at all. It’s not even unity versus diversity. It’s whatever holds unity and diversity in a greater oneness, nonduality. That’s the ultimate thing.
But that allows you to experience—we’re sort of mixing languages here—but the yin and the yang within the t’ai chi circle. So these opposites are fine, and they allow us to come back from that evaporation experience and rest in the fragrance of whatever that was. And in that place, [we] experience God as Other, and then [we] manifest godliness in our own actions, which, ultimately, is probably the more valuable thing.
The experience, or non-experience, or whatever we’re going to call that, translates into behavior when you come back, when the ego reemerges. If it’s happening the way I hope it’s happening, the ego comes back more loving, more just, more compassionate each time it happens. And that’s how you tell—like Jesus says, “By your fruits, you shall know them.”
So that’s how you tell. If you’re becoming more loving, the practice is doing what I think it’s supposed to do, or stepping beyond the practice is doing what that should do. And if it isn’t, then something’s wrong.
TS: I’m wondering how you would track that in your own life, this process, as you say, of becoming more loving. Are there actual markers? You could say, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh”?
RS: I think so. I mean, the person to ask would be people who know me. It’s hard [assessing] on your own, I suppose. But there were things in the past that would make me anxious that no longer make me anxious. Maybe it’s because I’m in my sixties, and I just don’t care [laughs] as much about some of this stuff anymore.
But a lot of the egoic grasping that would define my life, and that would excuse actions whereby I might engage people as means to my ends, I think those have—I’m certainly not going to say they’re gone. That would be a very dangerous thing to say. But they’re certainly a lot fewer than they were before, a lot less compelling, or the excuses that I might have made in the past no longer work anymore. I can see through those tricks of the egoic mind.
So yes, I could see myself being closer—I want to be the person my dog thinks I am, sort of always there, always loving, always staying, always feeding you if you need food. And I think I’m getting closer to that than [when] I was younger. But again, I would credit that to spiritual work, practice. It could just be, partly, getting older.
TS: Yes. Well, the process of maturity.
RS: Yes, right. And that may happen—and I wouldn’t want to say that spiritual work or spiritual practice is all you need to mature. I think you need time, you need age, you need experience. But you also need, probably, therapy. I think that there’s a tendency among some of the people that I find myself talking with when I lecture around the country, that they think, “Well, I don’t need therapy, I need to get beyond the ego. I don’t need to have the ego—I don’t need to do the egoic work.”
And given in the Jewish understanding, there’s these five levels of consciousness—body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit—and that mind level is where so much B.S. happens, and some of the gravest errors that we make are made at that egoic level. I don’t mean ‘mind’ intellectually, I mean ‘mind’ as in your personal, egoic sense of self.
And that’s something that I prefer to go to therapy and have someone really call me on the stuff that’s there than meditate because I think I can’t just paper over those things with my spiritual practice. I think you need some physical work, you need emotional work, you need ego work, shadow work, dealing with the darker side of your personality, as well as spiritual practice.
TS: I really love talking to a rabbi who’s not only encouraging people that therapy can be very positive, but clearly it’s something that has been important in your own life, yes?
RS: Yes. Personally, just going to therapists, I think, really helps. And a rabbi would be dumb to dump on therapy when probably most of your congregation is made up of therapists. [Laughs] I don’t have a congregation anymore, but when I did, boy, if you’d dumped on therapy or MSWs, then you’re in big trouble because everyone goes, “Wait a minute, that’s my career!” But I think, on a more serious note, that it’s absolutely part of an integral spiritual practice.
TS: Some idea that people might have, I guess, that a rabbi doesn’t need therapy because they’ve got it together and that, here they are, they’re wearing the cloak, they have this special dispensation or something like that—a projection from people onto a rabbi.
RS: Well, I think most Jews know better than that. But let me just say, categorically and globally, every clergyperson needs therapy. Being a clergyperson is one of the most dangerous jobs there is. Well, probably dangerous for the person who’s doing the job, but also dangerous in the people you’re working with, that you could be a danger to them if you don’t do that shadow work, if you don’t understand the nature of projection and transference and counter-transference —all those things that go on in therapy also go on in pastoral counseling sessions, and those kinds of things.
And the power that is invested in a clergyperson can absolutely distort the person’s sense of reality and who they are and what they’re entitled to. And therapy is necessary for that. It’s not enough to confess your egoic sins and just move on. I think you have to really work with that dark stuff all the time.
And if I can just take it one step further, I think that when you read the Bible, for example, because that’s the book that I’m most familiar with both academically and in my rabbinic work, there are parts of the Hebrew Bible that are so violent and so dark. It’s the shadow side of God, if you like, but the shadow side of the Jewish psyche, for sure. And when you read those portions, the genocidal pieces, the misogynist pieces, those are opportunities to stop and say, “Look, here’s the shadow of our culture. Let’s deal with that,” instead of saying, “This is divinely sanctioned, this genocide is divinely sanctioned. This destruction is what God wants and this second class status is God’s will.”
No, these are all opportunities for us to say, “Wait, this is the shadow side of my people, my tribe, my culture, my religion, and I’ve got to do therapeutic work with that to take back the projection and not use it to excuse all kinds of horrendous things that religion—and in this case, Judaism in particular—excuses.” So that kind of psychological work happens on lots of levels, individual and cultural.
TS: Rami, I wanted to change the subject a little bit and talk with you about what you’ll be offering at Sounds True’s Wake Up Festival. When I was talking with you on the phone, and asking you, as we were planning your participation in the festival, what you might like to offer, you said something like, “Well, I’d love to do a workshop on practicing dying. What do you think of that?” And I said, “Perfect.” Tell us what you mean, practicing dying?
RS: Well, a couple of things. One we can draw from the Sufi proverb, “Die before you die,” learning to die before you die, in other words, cultivating practices that take you to the edge and then stepping over that edge and dying, to that egoic self, at least, for a bit. So that’s part of what I have in mind. I think that there are tools that humanity has developed over the centuries, millennia, to bring us to that point where you can cross that line. And that’s a kind of guide.
But I also want to look at—when you talk about dying, immediately, the real issue, what comes up in people’s mind is, “So what happens after I die?” But what happens after you die is actually a reflection of what you think you are now, what you think happened before you were born. And when you begin to contemplate death, and—if there’s such a thing—an afterlife, what you’re really contemplating, what you’re really mirroring, is who you really think you are now.
So, for example, when we think about, “Oh, I’m really a soul, and my soul will live on after this body dies.” To me, that’s interesting, if you believe that, and it also leaves lots of questions. So if I’m a soul that survives my physical death, was I a soul before I had this physical life? And if either one of those is true—and usually both of them are true, in people’s minds—then is that soul me? Is that soul white? Is that soul in his sixties? Is that soul male? Is that soul Jewish?
You go through these things, and you realize the soul itself is unlabelled. It doesn’t have a gender, it doesn’t have an age. And if it has no characteristics, no labels whatsoever, is my soul different than your soul? Can there be two absolutely pure entities? Could you tell them apart?
Well, where I’m going with this is, ultimately, I think what you discover is—at least what I would try to [keep in] the conversation would be to the realization that there is no separate soul. There is no Rami that existed before Rami was born. And there’s no Rami that will survive when Rami dies. What there is is, I would say, God, but there’s lots of words you could use. And God manifests as Rami for as long as that manifestation lasts, and that disappears but God doesn’t.
So when we’re talking about preparing for our death, what I have in mind is trying to realize who we are now, and in my experience, I would say that what I really am is birthless and deathless. Those terms don’t really apply. So you could take the Hindu analogy of the wave and the ocean. So the ocean waves, but no wave is independent of the ocean. Each wave is unique and temporary. It’s a unique and temporary manifestation of the singular ocean.
So the extent to which I identify with the wave is the extent to which I worry about what happens to me after I die. Do I go to heaven? Do I go to hell? Is there reincarnation? All those ideas are predicated on the notion that there’s a me that could go to heaven or hell, that could be reincarnated. And I want to explore those things for the purpose of ultimately dropping them. I’m not unbiased in this stuff. I don’t insist that people agree with me, but I do insist about sharing all these options.
And one of the options is not simply that nothing happens because it’s all simply an immaterial existence, but that nothing happens because it’s all the ocean, it’s all the divine reality. It does what it does, and there’s nowhere to go, and it’s all one singular reality. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s challenging that whole egoic structure. And looking at death helps us do that. And then merging that with practices that prepare us for death, I’m hoping, make that all the more real.
In addition, there are things that come from different traditions—specifically Judaism—that are more egoic. So, what do I do with this temporary manifestation as I approach death? Are there things I should be doing to prepare for the end of this manifestation? And there are, in lots of traditions, certainly, but in Judaism as well.
And so I’d be teaching some of those as ways of preparing yourself for that dissolving, that moment of dissolution, what Judaism calls the kiss of God, where the breath that God breathes into us at birth, God kisses us and takes it back. And we simply go back to being what we were before we were this. And that’s the divine. All that stuff is going to be worked into this, and I’m hoping it’ll be an intellectually but also spiritually evocative experience for people.
TS: Can you tell me a little bit more about these practices for preparing for death? What are they?
RS: Yes, sure. One that I’m very fond of in Jewish tradition is called an ethical will. And I have my financial will that [says] this is what I own and this is what I’ve got and this is who I want it to go to and what I want to do with it, and whatever. So I’m trying to influence the material aspect of my life.
But there’s also what’s called in Judaism an ethical will, and that’s a statement of what I value. And the way I prefer to do it is not a list, it’s not a PowerPoint presentation of, “Well, I think it’s good to be nice and kind and just and patient.” That would be cliché, I think. So I think the best way to communicate things like this is story. So I have people begin to identify the key stories, the touchstone stories, transformative experiences that they’ve had in their life, positive or negative, and then retell those in short story form—very short, sort of like a [speaks Hebrew] story, five, 10 things, 50 words, 75 words—and use those as a way of communicating to children or grandchildren what it is we truly value.
So that’s one practice that I think is really a beautiful thing to do. So you ultimately put these stories in a book, and it’s a book that you write over the last years of your life. And leave them for your kids or your grandchildren or great-grandchildren as a statement of what really matters to you. But you do it as a series of life stories. So it’s not just, “OK, Grandma thinks it’s important that we have courage,” but she shows us where in her life she demonstrated that, or she learned that, maybe by having a lack of courage. I mean, the stories have to be honest.
One of the more interesting experiences—and when you’re a clergyperson, you have a lot of these—but one that sticks out: I had a friend who died very young in Miami when I was a rabbi there. And I kept urging him—he knew he was dying, it was a long, slow death at a very young age—and I said, “You’ve got to write your ethical will because your kids are very little and they’ll need this later. They can still hear from Dad.”
And he said, “Yes, yes, yes,” but he never did it. And then by the time he got around to wanting to do it, he was too weak to actually pick up a pencil or pen and actually write. But he was a broadcast journalist, so he had cameras set up on his desk and he told his stories. He did his ethical will that way, as best he could. And it was so moving to hear his voice, and I actually used it, that was the eulogy. He gave his own eulogy. We just played the tape, parts of it, and it was very, very powerful to hear him tell us what matters to him and why it matters, and some of his story.
That’s a practice that I would love to get people to engage with, and then take home and do. Just to give another example—because I could go on, I suppose—I think that chanting is also a way of dying. I’m talking about like a Kirtan chanting, a call and response, or a mantra kind of chanting. And every tradition has these. But to do them, to do that rhythmic breathwork through sound for extended periods of time—it’s not hours, but actually, according to what I understand the science to be, it’s about 18 to 20 minutes—it starts to happen at that point, where the egoic you starts to fade and something else begins to manifest. It just impacts the brain that way.
But I teach that kind of practice also so that you can use that—I would say you have to use these things now to get ready. But that would be something that you could use, as long as you’re conscious, as a way of preparing for death. That was just two different kinds of things that I have in mind.
TS: I’m curious, in terms of working with the energy in the body of fear, just the fear of the wave not being there anymore, and just being ocean without that individuality, to use your wave and ocean metaphor, a classic metaphor. How do you help people practice dying in terms of that fear, and they can feel it in their body? You know, “I’m afraid.”
RS: Right. What I would do is what I do do [to cover it]: one is, when you say you feel fear, there’s an actual restriction of the body, a contraction of the body. So you want to be able to feed the breath as best you can. When you’re healthy, it’s a good time to practice, but you never know what you’re like at the end.
But use the breath as a way of unlocking the constrictive nature of fear. And I think as the body opens, the fear dissipates. It’s almost like the body gets to hold the fear through the contraction. And by letting the contraction go, by loosening that contraction, the fear also goes.
At the same time, there’s the notion, the fear, that the wave is gone. I’m still alive, I’ve been close to death once, but not like a near-death experience. I don’t want to over-exaggerate on my own experience with this. But knowing—let me put it this way: I had blood clots to both lungs at one point, and I had to be rushed to the hospital. They didn’t know where the clots were coming from. They were going to my lungs but not my heart and not my brain, so I was lucky in that sense.
And I was in terrible pain. They laid me on this metal slab in the hospital here in Murphy’s Burrough, and they pumped me full of heprin, and the pain subsided enough that I could talk and I said to the doctor, “Can I go home now?” because I was feeling better. And the doctor says, “You can’t go home. You could die at any moment.” And then he left the room. So I’m all by myself in this sterile little cell, laying on this metal plank. And I’m thinking, “I could die any second?”
So first I thought it was funny. I just thought, “How odd that this is the reality here. I talk about this stuff all the time, but now I can actually do it.” And what happened to me was I felt no fear. And I’m not claiming anything for that, I’m just reporting. I felt no fear. First I thought it was odd, and then I just did the chanting work and the breath work. And I never had the experience of that constrictive thing going on.
Now, later on, when it was clear I wasn’t going to die, then I got annoyed. [Laughs] “Hey, wait a minute, if I’m coming that close, I want to have the tunnel, I want the light, I want to hear a voice. I want to be able to write a book about it.” But nothing happened. I was just in less pain, but continued pain for about a week.
So I think you have to work with the fear in two ways. One, you need the theology to work through these ideas, so you realize that to the extent to which you identify with the wave is the extent to which you can have that constrictive fear, and the extent to which you’re willing to rest in the oceanic nature of who we are is the extent to which you can work more effectively with the fear—it’s less, and it’s easier to work with.
So part of it is an intellectual thing. But part of it is just having practices—chanting, breathwork, maybe other things—that allow us to continually free the body from those contractions. I’m not sure how clear I am in articulating that, but that seems to be key. I think you always have to start with breath, whether it’s chanting meditation, walking meditation, all of it. Breath is key because breath is going to keep me from locking up. And when I don’t lock up, whatever happens happens more gracefully. It’s sort of what the Chinese call the wu wei, that non-coercive action. And you are surrendered to whatever’s happening.
TS: I think that’s very clear, Rami, and very helpful, thank you. Now, there’s one other topic I wanted to talk with you about, because when you and I had that initial conversation where I was inviting you to come to the Wake Up Festival, I said, “Well, you’re a rabbi, and you can probably teach on the topic of forgiveness. And we really need somebody at our annual festival that will help people with forgiveness work, because often that comes up for people during an intense five-day transformative experience of some kind, like the festival.”
And you said, “Well, do you know my take on forgiveness, Tami? It’s a little unusual.” And then you proceeded to describe it to me. It was very, very helpful to me, so I’d love it for you to share that with our listeners. What is Rabbi Rami’s take on forgiveness?
RS: Well, what I can tell you is I don’t know what I said to you then. I can tell you what I can tell you now.
RS: I’ve written a book on forgiveness. If I want to know what I think, I can always go back and reread it. So what I think at the moment—you know, Judaism is my root tradition, and in Judaism, our focus is not so much on me forgiving you, but rather on my humbling myself and asking you for forgiveness. That, to me, is the harder work. When I forgive you, it’s like a one-up kind of thing. It’s, “OK, so you were having a bad day, or you didn’t understand, or you did something and I’m bigger than you are, therefore I forgive you.”
That kind of forgiveness is egoic. I forgive for my own benefit so I don’t have to carry this stuff around. That also sounds egoic to me. The only way I know I’ve forgiven you is that I constantly remember what it is I’ve forgiven you for, and constantly reinforcing how big I am that I can let it go. You haven’t let it go at all.
The real work, it seems to me, of forgiveness, is realizing that whatever someone else has done to me, I’ve probably done at least the same to other people, if not that person. And maybe worse! And so in Judaism we have this practice—and it’s going to actually be a month-long practice which coincides with the Wake Up Festival—where you are encouraged, if not obligated, to go to everyone you know and to ask them for forgiveness. And it’s just horribly humbling, but horrible is the wrong word. [It’s an] exquisitely humbling experience.
It’s not that you go to the person and say, “Oh, remember when I ran over your dog? I’m really sorry about that.” It’s not like you confess. That’s a different thing. You have to think, “What have I done? How have I fallen short of interacting with this person the way I would prefer to have interacted?” And then [you] go to them with all of that baggage in [your] head, [don’t] dump it on them and say, “OK, now forgive me.” But whether the other person forgives or not, it’s my asking for forgiveness that is the humbling thing.
It’s like in the 12-step program where you make amends. It has a similar self-humbling aspect to it. But you do it for this month, and it’s a very intense month, but it’s the last month of the Hebrew year, the Jewish liturgical year, and you’re preparing for the new year.
And so you want to empty the self out of all its negativity, or as best you can, all the things you did wrong by just humbling yourself, asking for forgiveness. I don’t know another way of putting it. And then from that place of emptiness, [you] begin the new year afresh. So to the extent that we’ll have time to do that kind of work, that’s what I’ll teach, that’s what we’re going to be exploring.
TS: Can you give me some examples of how that actually worked in your own life, and the impact that it had on both yourself and other people too?
RS: Yes, sure. I don’t want to say something that will embarrass somebody else, so I have to be a bit vague, I guess. But let’s say my son, let’s pick on my son, who’s in his mid-30s now. When the new year [came] close, in that last month of the year, I’d become painfully aware of all the places I [felt] I’d let him down: things I could have said that would have been more supportive, things I could have done that would have been more helpful, things I did do that were really undermining of who he is and who he’s trying to be—all these kinds of things.
They’re normally not things that I’m aware of when I’m doing them. I have to go back and do a life review, in a sense, of the last 12 months and my connection with that person; in this case, my son. And then sitting down, making time—and we’re not talking about an hour or hours of encounter here, but sitting down for a few moments and, first, just being present to one another, and then allowing the “will you forgive me,” just the phrase, to arise out of the pain I feel and the suffering I know I’ve caused all within my own self.
I mean, this is an idyllic exercise in the sense that I’m not confessing, I’m simply tapping into that negativity or that shame and all that guilt, and then using the act of asking for forgiveness as a way of getting in touch with all of that and then putting it out there. I don’t know if this is making any sense, but that’s what you do. You sort of just put it out there without the specifics.
So you say something like, “I haven’t been the dad I wanted to be”—I don’t know how you’d actually word it, but I’ve had that encounter with him many times. Like I said, he’s in his 30s. So I’ve had that encounter with him, and it’s very hard to articulate, but sitting there, knowing what I know, and then asking from that knowing, there is a deep cracking of all the guilt and shame that I’ve been carrying. And theoretically, you want him to say something that’s healing and welcoming and affirming, and making room for me and all my brokenness in life—you know, whatever he says.
But according to the Jewish tradition, even if he says, “No, I don’t forgive you, I hate your guts,” you ask three times—different times, you can’t just say, “Oh, really? Please forgive me, please forgive me.” You have to go back and try again. But at the end of the three times, if he doesn’t forgive, the tradition says I’m forgiven regardless, because, again, it’s not him bestowing some magic healing balm on me. It’s me continuing to look at the hurt and the suffering I’ve caused and to let that break my egoic self, and in that brokenness, to present myself to him as this imperfect person. And somehow there’s a healing in that brokenness, a healing in that imperfection.
And I know with him there have been times when it’s been more tense than others, and by going to him, and going through that exercise, I drop the—actually, to use the same thing that we talked about [before]—I drop that constrictive sense of me. I drop the defensiveness. I drop the barriers that I’ve built to protect the mistakes that I’ve made from getting out or from being admitted or whatever it is.
And in that brokenness, without those barriers, there’s just a sense of what Martin Buber might call that I-Thou connection, where I see him as a manifestation of the divine and I know myself to be—not intellectually, but on a visceral level—know myself to be the manifestation of the divine, and there’s just love of God from God. There’s just a sense of compassion and forgiveness that just happens when you break that way. I don’t know if that’s as explicit as you were looking for, but maybe that helps.
TS: It does. I love the example. The example really helps me, it helps me understand the humbling nature of the process. So thank you. But now I want underscore one thing, because when you and I were talking previously, you actually, as you mentioned, might have approached forgiveness from a very different angle, and you did, which is fine. I know these are all different facets of teaching on forgiveness. But what you talked about was how, when you understand somebody is just the way they are, that it’s really nothing to do with you personally. It’s kind of like, that’s the kind of animal that person is or was acting in that moment. You can let it go. I wonder if you can speak to that, because what you said really helped me. So maybe you remember now what our conversation was about.
RS: OK. Well, I don’t remember anything, but I do, I can speak to that. So yes, I don’t want to say I’m a determinist, but I think what happens happens because at the moment it happens, nothing else could happen. And so if someone—I’ll make this concrete because this was awhile ago and I don’t think anyone would even remember it.
But when I was in rabbinical school, one of the things you have to do to get your ordination, your degree after five years is give a public talk that’s videotaped. You give it on a Saturday and it’s replayed on a Monday, and the entire student body and faculty is invited to watch it, and then they’re supposed to critique it. And they not only critique your delivery, but they critique content.
And I gave my thing, whatever it was. And the first person to respond—there were a couple of people who just said very nice things, it was just sort of Hallmark-y kind of statements. But the first person to really take it seriously and to really respond was my best friend, who ripped it to shreds, who claimed that I didn’t believe a word I was saying. He just really did whatever—it seemed to me at the time, anyway—he did whatever he did to tear it down and to tear me down with it.
And there was, at the moment that was happening—and I was devastated, I mean, et tu Brute? That kind of thing. I really felt betrayed by the guy I was closest to. But subsequently, looking back at it, knowing him even more because we stayed friends all these years, it wasn’t a choice on his part. It was who he was then in a situation where he felt whatever he felt—I don’t know, competitive or threatened or whatever it was, I have no idea.
And his response was just a natural outpouring of the moment, and he really had no choice. If he could have responded differently, he would have responded differently, but he couldn’t. He did what he did because at the moment he did it, he really couldn’t do anything else.
And as soon as you realize that about others—and yourself, for that matter, but you have to be a little careful about that—but when you realize it about other people, what’s there to forgive? You’re not the target, and don’t take it personally. I don’t mean on an egoic level, but don’t take anything personally. Nothing is aimed at me. Stuff just happens and I happen to be there. His response to what I did really had nothing to do with what I did, but something that he needed at that moment, and that’s how it came out.
I think recognizing that—again, I don’t like the word “determinate,” like it’s destined or predestined, but that lack of choice, recognizing that lack of choice is freeing. “Well, that’s what he had to do, so that’s what he did.” My response to it at the moment was exactly what had to happen at that moment. But going back and looking at it, I’m freer from that moment because it’s in the past. Now it’s way in the past, but even shortly thereafter, you start to look at it and you’re more free from it. And then recognizing that it isn’t personal just allows you to go, “All right, what’s next?” Not to forgive, not to forget, just to move on.
TS: Rami, I want to ask you one final question, which really ties our conversation back to the beginning, which is, here we are in a new time in our evolution, our evolution spiritually as a Western culture where people are exploring, now, in so many different traditions. You teach as a rabbi—what do you see as the future of how a tradition like Judaism will live on in the midst of what some people are calling an interspiritual age, a time when people are really moving away from traditional religions and finding that commonality and not necessarily investing in being part of any tradition? What do you see is the future here?
RS: And that’s how we’re going to end? We should have started with that and it would take five hours! [Laughs] But OK, let me see what I can do. Let me just question the premise for a second, and then answer the question.
So I wonder if we’re, in fact, in a new stage of spiritual evolution. Some people are. I would imagine most people aren’t. So with that in mind, most Jews are going to do exactly what—in the next 50 years, most Jews will do exactly what they’re doing now, and that means 10 percent of them will be very observant and 90 percent of them will be very nonobservant, and it won’t have any impact whatsoever.
Those people who are what I call the “spiritually independent,” essentially like the spiritual version of the politically independent person—they like some of the Democrat ideas, they like some of the Green ideas, they like some of the Republican ideas, but they’re not willing to align with any one party. So the spiritually independent person finds truth in a lot of different religions.
Those people are the ones that really interest me. And I find myself in that camp. What’s going to happen to those people I think will depend upon the degree to which they realize, or we realize, that practice trumps talk. If we just talk about interspirituality, if we go to conferences—which, I have a big conference coming up this weekend, I call it the “Big I” here in Nashville—if we just talk about this stuff, it’s just an entertainment. So we have to actually do something, whether its mediation or contemplation or Centering Prayer or chanting or whatever it is, we have to engage in spiritual practices that actually take us into a different mindset, this interspiritual mindset.
I don’t know how much time we have, but let me just try to put this in a context that may make sense. I look at religion as the way I look at language. No language is true, no language is false. Each language comes out of a specific cultural, historical milieu. It has strengths and weaknesses. English is better at science than it is at love poetry. Persian is better at love poetry and mystical poetry than English is, I think. Each have their own strengths and each have their own weaknesses.
And truly—we said this in the beginning, being multilingual—what has to happen is the more languages I know, the more nuanced my experience of reality is. The more religions I know, the more spiritual practices I know, the more nuanced my experience of reality with a capital “R” as well as a lowercase “r” is.
The future of the spiritual independence—or what I call seekers without borders—the future of this small group—right now, according to the Pew Forum poll, it’s 20 percent of the American population. I bet a fraction of those are the people we’re really talking about. So it’s millions, but it’s not the dominant group.
But that group of people, those who are the true seekers without borders, the truly spiritually independent, I think what’s going to happen is they’re going to find two things. One, they’ll probably find themselves more comfortable in one language than another. So for me, that language is Judaism. Either because they were raised in it, or because for some reason they gravitate toward a certain language: Buddhist language or Hindu language or Sufi language, whatever it is. Or one of the different kinds of Christian languages.
So they might find themselves with a mother tongue, if you like: a language which is their everyday language. But they’ll realize that no language is sufficient onto itself and that you need to learn the others. So they’ll begin to say, “OK, I’m building on my Jewish language, but I’m adding to it insights from Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism, etc.” And those people will maintain a dialogue where the languages become more and more interchangeable, interconnected, where the dialogue can happen at a very high level where we’re using these words as fingers pointing to this reality beyond which that can’t be named.
And that, to me, is the most exciting thing. I don’t know what’s going to happen. What I don’t want to happen is a spiritual Esperanto. We shouldn’t have one language. But what will probably happen, what I’m hoping will happen, is that as we get more adept at using language, we ultimately learn to drop it. And then we learn to sit together in silence and see what happens, as opposed to [framing] it in some linguistic way first.
What happens to Judaism itself? Probably not much. What happens to some Jews? Probably very revolutionary. What happens to Christianity? Probably not much. What happens to some Christians, like Cynthia Bourgeault and others? Something very revolutionary. So I don’t know if that really answers your question, but I don’t think there’s a definitive way of saying, “OK, this is what’s going to happen, we’re all moving in this direction.” I don’t think we are. Some of us are at one level, some at another, and they each have their own destiny.
TS: Very good. I thought you did a great job of answering my question in about five minutes instead of five hours, and so I really appreciate that.
TS: And I appreciate our whole conversation!
RS: If I had five hours, I just would have repeated it more.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, and Rami will be a featured presenter at Sounds True’s annual Wake Up Festival, which takes August 14 through the 18 of 2013 in Estes Park, Colorado. And if you’re interested in more information on the Wake Up Festival, that’s available at WakeUpFestival.com. Rami, thank you so much!
RS: Tami, thank you. This is a pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.