A few years ago I participated in a small retreat. Although it was advertised to Londoners it was actually quite a way from London so there were only seven of us in total including the teachers, but it was still a very precious time. It was on that retreat that I remember we reflected on the word retreat, that it has a defeatist ring to it and that instead of calling it a retreat we should call it an advance. And I think that’s just the point, in order to advance we must first retreat.
There is section from the Sefer Yetzirah that brings this into light: “when the mouth runs to speak and the heart to think, return to the place. As is said “and the Living Beings running and returning.” It calls the process Running and Returning. Running and Returning is more than a meditation instruction, it is a fundamental Truth about reality. In the wider sense, running is a synonym for worldly activity, the stuff of life. The Sefer Yetzirah gives this an audible quality: running means noise. The noise outside as well as the noise inside our minds. And conversely returning means, silence, stillness and rest. The word for return is shuv and this is the same word as Shabbat. So therefore Shabbat means return to the place, return to yourself. That is why on Shabbat, we turn off the things of the world, past worries and future concerns, and we focus instead on the moment. So, Shabbat is meditation. And you can think of meditation as Shabbat also. If you meditate for 20 minutes, for an hour, that’s 20 minutes, an hour, of Shabbat.
So, Shabbat is meditation. And you can think of meditation as Shabbat also. If you meditate for 20 minutes, for an hour, that’s 20 minutes, an hour, of Shabbat.
But then, after Shabbat comes Sunday, it is just the way it is. I used to always get depressed around Mincha time of Shabbat, because I used to find weekday incursions always used to show up then, especially if I had work the next day. And the same used to happen on retreat, on the last day some fear would arise, “now I have to go back into the world, what’s going to happen?” But the Sefer Yetzirah is telling us a fundamental Truth about reality, that is why it talks about a covenant. It says covenant here in the sense of a fundamental law of nature. So even though I want it to be Shabbat forever, it cannot be: after Shabbat is always going to be Sunday. This is part of a continuous cycle. It is like the breath, we cannot only inhale, after we inhale we have to exhale. And this works in the other direction also. It is not that I only want it to be Shabbat, sometimes I find myself unable to switch off. Keeping myself up at night worried about work and family, and the state of the world. Some people are very skilled at keeping this up endlessly, but even then, they cannot keep it up forever. At some point they need to rest and if they do not, at some point they will burn out. In Chinese medicine this duality is connected to yin and yang, yin is the energy which relates to the parasympathetic nervous system, Rest and Digest: this is shabbat and returning. Yang is the energy which relates to the sympathetic nervous system, Fight or Flight: this is the work week and running. I remember reading in a book on Chinese medicine that illness is the body’s way of saying we need more yin. Because illness forces us to rest.
So like this. Once we realise this duality we can start to look at the world differently. The Kabbalists teach us we must become fluent in running and fluent in returning. This means that we must gain clarity over our movements, our runnings and returnings.
There is a verse in the book of Daniel regarding the end of days: “many that ‘sleep in the dust’ will awaken and the enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky”. Our minds are often so clouded that we don’t see what is there. Mindfulness and meditation help us rise above muck, help us to wake up, so to speak, from the dust in minds and see things as they are: coming to the recognition that we are engaged, whether we like it or not in a continuous cycle of coming and going. Then we can stop fighting the way it is and learn how to function in the world most effectively. A Zen master used to instruct his students “to shine one corner of the world. That is enough. Not the whole world. Just make it clear where you are.”
A Zen master used to instruct his students “to shine one corner of the world. That is enough. Not the whole world. Just make it clear where you are.”
This is what this verse in Daniel is telling us. It predicts a time where each of us takes the time “to shine our corner of the world… make it clear where we are”. Not only that, it tells us how to do it. The word for radiance in the verse also means to be careful. The Baal Shem Tov said that when we are careful in our actions, speech and thought, we automatically “shine like the radiance of the sky”. In Hebrew the word is Zehirus, or how my mum says it, Zehirut. This was a word I heard a lot growing up. “B’zehirut,” I would hear as I was carrying hot tea to the living room. It meant be careful, watch out. The best way I see to define it is compassionate awareness. The image I have is like holding a new-born baby. They are floppy and delicate, and you are afraid to drop or hurt them. But the fear comes on account of your love for them. Just as my mum for me.
This is a fundamental orientation we can take in our engagement with the world. As we get stuck in the thinking mind and busy life, even as we try to better the world and ourselves, we can do so with compassionate awareness. I find this to be a profound teaching and a profound practice we can take and apply to anything we are doing, or when we are not doing anything in particular. And it applies equally to ourselves as to others. When we do it right, we see that this arises naturally from the ground of stillness. Automatically. Slowly. We start to see the radiance.
The verse uses the image of the sky to illustrate what it means to live from the place of zehirus. There is a story from the Talmud which says that since the destruction of the temple the sky has never been seen in its purity. In other words, for the Rabbis the pain of the exile has meant there is always a cloud somewhere, a haze in the sky. But we must remember, and this is what the Sefer Yetzirah is saying, that above the clouds the sky has never been tainted by cloud. There is a great scene from The Matrix Revolutions, the last of the trilogy, when Neo and Trinity are on their way to the machine city they are forced to go above the clouds. In the movie, no human had seen the sky in centuries, and when they penetrate the clouds they get a glimpse for a few seconds of the sky in its purity. Neo is blind at this point but Trinity is awestruck by what she sees and exclaims under her breath “beautiful.” The mind is like the sky. My meditation teacher often says that “we don’t meditate in order to become calm, because we are already calm”. When you first hear it you think “what the heck does that mean?” But what he means to say is that when we understand the nature of mind we realise that above the clouds it is always clear skies. In other words, behind our thoughts and feelings, is our natural radiance.
When we understand the nature of mind we realise that above the clouds it is always clear skies, behind our thoughts and feelings, is our natural radiance.
Zehirus is a way to see that*. We approach the things of our lives with compassionate awareness instead of impatient reactivity. And when we do that we see a break in the clouds. We see ourselves open up just a little. And we give ourselves freedom to choose the next step, whatever that might be. It’s not that we never need to fight, like I’ve already said, the six days of action ceaseless and inevitably follow the day of rest, it’s just that when we bring that day of rest into the six days of work, when we carry Shabbat through the week, our actions become wiser and conversely our rest becomes deeper. Zehirus bridges the gap between running and returning, between monkey mind and wisdom mind, between small self and big self. It shows us that whatever comes, nothing can stain our natural purity, when it rains, it will be a blessing and not a curse.
* In the Raavad’s commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah he calls it “Radiant Consciousness” (Sechel Mazhir). It emerges after “Wonderous Consciousness” (Sechel Muflah) which is completely beyond appearances, i.e. in this consciousness there is no sense of outside, it is an entirely introverted experience which cannot be communicated in any way and bears no relationship with external reality. Radiant Consciousness on the other hand is the beginning of differentiation and has the sense of “peering through the lattice” (Song of Songs 2:9) catching a glimpse of the other and conversely being noticed by the other.
This post was the final script for a talk on a retreat which took place on the 1st August 2021. The title of the retreat was Like the Radiance of the Sky: Enlightened Living.