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Mochin d'Gadlut: Expanded Consciousness

Stopping the Inner War

In Parshat Behaalotecha (Numbers 8:1 - 12:16), we touched on an important idea in our second aliyah (from chapter 11), the scene in which the "complainers" cried out to Moses that, despite the many blessing they enjoyed, they didn't like the food in the wilderness and wanted to go back to Egypt: "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." The Torah says, "the people cried out to Moses and Moses prayed to the Lord."

How many times have we, despite the many blessings that fill our lives, focused only on what was broken, missing or deficient? The portion Shelach Lecha one commentary says that the spies lied to keep the people from entering the land Israel because life in the desert was actually spiritually perfect: every physical need was supplied by God through nature, so that all we had to focus on was spiritual work! So why,despite the fact that desert was perhaps a place of pure spiritual practice, did the people cry out? And how is that Moses, whose frustration with this people must surely have been at an ebb, manage to take the energy of complaining and transform into a prayer- offering?

In these brief sentences we are introduced to an important idea from Jewish mysticism and Jewish meditative practice. If we look closely at the language of the Torah, which is always hinting and winking at deeper things, we see that the people "cried out" but that Moses in turn did not "cry out" but instead "prayed". He was not simply a conduit for the complaints and cries. He took them in and transformed them, and then lifted them up as a prayer offering. How might we learn to experience what is difficult or negative and then transform into something higher and holier?

The language used to describe the peoples' cry is the Hebrew verb tzachak, which can mean "laugh" (like the name Isaac) but here clearly means something different. Looking more deeply at the etymology, the word tzachak also means to "react energetically to opposing forces". In other words the peoples' response to perceived discomfort was to react against it, to resist it, to turn circumstance into an enemy force.

I sometimes react to circumstances and events as if they are my personal enemies, creating little wars in my daily life. The other day I was walking up the stairs carrying something heavy and banged my knee. "Damn it!" I shouted it, like the entire universe had conspired in that moment to cause me harm: a little war of me against circumstance. My anger flared and I am sure that if I had been able to slow my thoughts, they would have been something like, "Ouch! That hurt. That's not fair! Why do bad things happen? WHY ME??!!!" This entire war occurred in less than 2 seconds but it was fierce. Rebbe Nachman reads the wars and battles King David described in the Pslams in just this way: as symbols of such inner constant struggle.

Every time we automatically react to adversity large or small with such immediate negativity and opposite force, we are in the energy of tzachak, like the people who had been liberated, saw miracles at the sea, were completely cared for with no effort required in their part, and still could only react with, "Gevalt, the food was better in Egypt and it was free." They could not see the big picture, only the present moment of their suffering and war against the present moment. So often we are at war, in conflict, in resistance to life, to what is going on in our lives.

This level of consciousness is called Mochin D'Katnut (or sometimes just Katnut), small or Constricted Consciousness: we cannot see a big picture, a broader context, a fuller vision, and so we react from a place of smallness, powerlessness, a sense of inadequacy at the hands of the cruel fates, without perspective and a bigger picture. Our Buddhist cousins call this "small mind". We can only see the suffering and difficulty in front our noses.

Moses on the other hand is able to hold a big picture, and he takes the tzachak and transforms into prayer, the word used for his prayer to God is from the root "palal" (where we get the word tefillah, prayer). Palal means several things, including "integrating disparate elements". In other words, the transformative meditation of prayer allows us to see the small stories of our lives in a bigger picture, a broader context: the inconvenience or suffering of this moment is not all-consuming but rather is a thread in a larger design. As in pointillist painting, the small "dots" of our moments take on meaning and find their context only when we can step back and see a bigger picture.

Moses' ability to see how the disparate elements -- this moment and that moment, this difficulty and this blessing - find their context in a bigger picture is called Mochin d"Gadlut (or just Gadlut): the big mind, Expanded Consciousness. Here the contemplative mind is able to hold the whole, see the bigger picture.

The moment I banged my knee was not the story of my life, but because of my immediate reaction to physical pain and the story I assigned it (the great injustice of life!!!), I lost the big picture which was: how blessed am I to be able to walk up a flight stairs, how blessed am I to have to a large, beautiful home, how blessed am I to have a healthy body that can feel. It's only as I sit here now writing this that I am in touch with how that moment held these blessings.

Judaism does not expect that we never get reactive, but Jewish spiritual practice demands that we do the homework so that the time lag between event and Mochin d'Gadlut gets shorter. Mochin d'Gadlut does not mean we emotionally disengage from life, but that we work toward being less selectively engaged and more toward the ability to hold the whole. When things go wrong, we are more quickly able to move to a place where we see the picture, discover the blessings and ultimately find something good that comes from our challenges: gam zu l'tova - this is also for the good.

Cultivating Mochin d'Gadlut, Expanded Consciousness, can be done in a number of ways. I'll briefly list five of them here:

1) Reciting brachot which cause us to pause and connect with the bigger picture, "transcendental amazement" as Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld writes in "The Art of Amazement". Read more here:

One blessing that is particularly interesting is the one for hearing bad news, which ends with "dayan ha-emet" (G-d is the true judge). It is a way of saying that there may be a bigger picture, which I cannot see right at this moment, but I hold myself open to the possibility. The cognate meaning of din (dayan is judge, din is judgment) is "complete", and the word "emet" is made up of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So perhaps the blessing might be read as "it will be possible that there is a more complete picture [than my present suffering] when this event is seen in the context of the whole [perhaps years from now]."

2) Daily Prayer. As said above, Moses' capacity was to "integrate disparate elements", the heart of prayer.

3) Marking sacred time, especially Shabbes. Making such a sacred pause for more than the length of a bracha helps us to infuse those briefer bracha moments more powerfully when they occur. Shabbat is a day of expanded consciousness and mindfulness.

4) Formal meditation practice which teaches us about the workings of our own minds and how we construct our ongoing narratives.

5) Sacred study through which, when we allow our minds to guide us through sacred words, expanded ideas, associations and intertextuality, brings us to the sense that every letter is a "channel of creative consciousness" and every word, idea leads to the whole universe when studied with broader consciousness.

Obviously each of these techniques bears deeper scrutiny than I can offer here.

Mochin d'Gadlut is a not a permanent state of being for most of us, but Jewish practice invites us to continuously grow our expanded consciousness so that life feels more comfortable, more blessed and more whole. When we live in mochin dígadlut, it is not only more beneficial for ourselves, but also for the world. The energy of ìsmall mindî makes wars both internally and externally. Mochin dí gadlut places us in a broader context, a more harmonious whole, where the well being of the whole is integrally interwoven with our own well being. Mochin dígadlut is a necessary practice for creating both inner and out peace.

Please visit Makom Shalom, where this teaching was offered, to learn more.

For Further Learning

Pema Chodron, Practicing Peace in Times of War.

Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah.

Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine.

Alexander Seinfeld, The Art of Amazement: Judaism's Forgotten Spirituality.