Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Tree of Life, the human body, and the skateboarder

'Let Us make Adam in our image and in our form'

The  above verse intimates that the human is created in the image of the Divine. In fact, every human body part corresponds to a particular spiritual energy or Sefirah:

The skull corresponds to Keter, subconscious will;
the right hemisphere of the brain relates to Chochmah, creative, spontaneous thought;
the left hemisphere relates to Binah, analysis and language;
the right arm parallels Chessed, loving-kindness;
the left arm, Gevurah, judgement, strength, and sternness;
the Torso corresponds to Tiferet, beauty and balance;
the right leg is associated with Netzach, dominance and victory;
the left leg, Hod, submission and surrender;
the genitals relate to Yesod, foundation and bonding;
and the mouth relates to Malchut, sovereignty and interface.

The first three qualities form the cognitive triad; the second three, the emotional triad, and the next three, the functional triad. In addition, the three qualities on the right side, all expansive and flowing in character, form the 'right pillar', while the three on the left, all limiting and rigid, make up the 'left pillar'. The four qualities in the middle balance the qualities on the right and left, constitute the 'middle pillar'.

The qualities are not isolated and independent but interactive and interpenetrating. And, though the number of connections and patterns are extremely complex and varied, there are four basic relations which I'd like to touch upon:

 1. the 'descent' of the cognitive triad to the functional triad;
 2. the 'ascent' of the functional to the cognitive;
 3. the inclusion of the right pillar within the left; and,
 4. the inclusion of the left pillar within the right.

1. When engaged in a practical activity such as washing the dishes or driving a car, the primary triad operating is the functional one. One bonds (Yesod) with the goal of the activity (having clean dishes), applies one's dish washing habits and skills to clean all the dishes as efficiently as possible (Netzach), and one is sensitive (Hod) to the fragility of the dishes so that one does not rough-handle and damage them. However, clearly, the cognitive faculties guide the functional so that they express themselves in the most effective ways.

2. On the other hand, when one is involved in an intellectual activity such as study, it's primarily one's cognitive triad that is engaged. Yet, one often uses his body to assist the thinking process, such as using the fingers to help count, to relate a teaching to another in order to clarify it within one's own mind, or, through experimentation and experience one's comprehension of a concept is profoundly enriched. The functional triad is thus included within the cognitive triad.

3. When one is engaged in helping another, it is the right pillar, the pillar of flowing kindness, that is prevalent. Still, one must employ judgement and self containment, the left pillar, to ensure that one doesn't squander resources or smother the recipient with generosity.

4. Conversely, when one expresses sternness, as when one must discipline children or employees, kindness must be included in order to temper the sternness so that it expresses itself politely, sympathetically, and hence, constructively. The right pillar is included within the left.              

The basic movements of the body in skateboarding can be viewed as depicting these fourfold connections between the Sefirot:

1. Crouching: the head is lowered toward the legs; the cognitive triad 'descends' toward the functional triad;

2. Jumping: the legs are raised closer to the head; the functional triad 'ascends' toward the cognitive triad;

3. Turning to the right: the left side of the body follows the right; the pillar of sternness is included within the pillar of Kindness;

4. Turning to the left: the right side of the body follows the left; the pillar of kindness is included in the pillar of sternness.  

In all the instances above, it is the torso, related to the quality of Tiferet -  beauty/balance/harmony - that allows the inter-inclusion and harmony of the qualities to occur...    

Sunday, January 22, 2012

From potential to actual: A skater is not an apple!

At the skate park I frequently hear the expression, 'He's a natural skater', and the like. Taken literally, such expressions make it appear as though the skater being described was born to blossom into a skateboarder,naturally, as part of his genetic makeup. But is this true? And furthermore, does this statement do justice to the skateboarder? After all, it sounds as though the skater is merely manifesting his inbuilt potential, without much input and effort on his own part.

In answer, let's dig into the mechanics of 'actualizating potential'. Firstly, in some cases, actualization occurs automatically, while in other cases conscious intervention is required. For instance, while an apple typically progresses from potential to actual - from bud to fruit - naturally, without any effort on its part, the actualization of human potential strongly depends on the efforts of the individual. It is well known that exercising muscles strengthens them, while failure to exercise them may result in them becoming weak and flabby. The same principle applies to the brain. Individuals that put effort into using their brain to think deeply and analytically tend to develop and refine their thinking abilities. In contrast, those that fail to do so leave their intellectual potential lying farrow. Furthermore, their brain is more prone to deteriorate with age. What is perhaps less often considered is that this same principle also applies to emotional traits. In exercising one's capacity to be honest and sincere one cultivates that quality, and by deliberately practicing kindness one develops that virtue.

However, an element is still lacking from the equation. If we observe the way our potential is actualized, generally, it is through a stimulus. For example, though the eye contains the potential for sight, it cannot be made to see on its own; light is required to carry images to the eye. Similarly, intellect may contain the potential to understand, but without ideas to contemplate, it remains passive. (Of course there is a difference between light and ideas. Light must stem from an external source whereas ideas can be generated internally.)

What this implies is that the actualization of potential is not merely a matter of exercising a specific faculty, for without an appropriate stimulus there's nothing to exercise the faculty with. And this doesn't only imply the lack of a stimulus, but also a wrong one. Hence, by attempting to stimulate the eye with sound (the stimulus for hearing) one will not effectively activate the eye's potential to see. Furthermore, a stimulus must match a faculty's current capacity. Thus, in exposing the eye to excessive light, its potential to see is not only untapped but impeded, as in the case of blindness caused by gazing directly at the sun. Similarly, if the mind is prematurely exposed to highly complex concepts, confusion may result.        

The actualization of potential is thus a result of exercising a given faculty by providing it with a correct stimulus and in the right amount.
This notion helps explain why in the biblical account of creation all creatures were created by God on His own - 'let their be light; let the waters teem with aquatic life, etc - whereas in the creation of Adam God employed a mysterious partner - 'Let us make Adam'. For while the potential in all creatures is actualized by God (that is, actualization is inbuilt into the creatures genetic program), the complete Adam is created by God only in potential, each individual must then actualise their potential through conscious effort and the right choices...we are thus God's partners in  our own creation!

Based on the above, a 'natural' skater may indeed be endowed with the potential to become an incredible skater. Nonetheless, for the potential to actualize, the skater must exert himself to train and practice, and to provide himself with the most effective 'stimuli' ( I.e. suitable challenges that serve to optimally tap his potential, as above).

A skater may be a 'natural', but he's no apple!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Know Him in all your ways

There are three ways of connecting to God:

Fulfilling mitzvot (commandments) such as observing Shabbat, visiting the sick, giving a tenth of one's income to charity, praying, etc. The word mitzvah, cognate with the word Tzavta - connection - indicates this.

Engaging in mundane activities for the sake of Heaven. For example, working in order to afford fulfilment of mitzvot or eating in order to provide oneself with the energy to study Torah and to serve God. In this instance the mundane activity is a means to serving God.

'Knowing God in all one's ways'. This involves perceiving, experiencing, and expressing the Divine in what is normally viewed as a mundane activity; when painting, shopping, or skateboarding...  

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On the difference between belief and trust

Regularly, thousands of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's followers would cram into his New York synagogue, the Chabad-lubavitch headquarters, in order to hear Rabbi Schneerson deliver esoteric discourses and speak about contemporary issues, to sing melodies together, and to receive 'Lechaims' and US dollar notes from their leader. On one such occasion a prominent Rabbi visited Rabbi Schneerson. The Rebbe handed him a dollar and excitedly pointed out how the note states 'In G-d we trust' as opposed to 'In G-d we believe'.

Why was the Rebbe so enthusiastic about the term trust? Indeed, what is the distinction between trust and belief?

Imagine a tightrope walker who has carried members of the audience on his back across the tightrope. He turns to the audience and asks, 'Who here believes that I can carry them across the rope on my back?" Considering that the audience has already witnessed him performing this feat, the majority of them, including you, raise their hands in the affirmative. He then points at you and says, "OK then, I'd like you to get on my shoulders and be the next to be carried across." Your heart suddenly erupts with fear and you diplomatically smile while declining with an emphatic, "No Way!"

If you believe that he's able to carry you across safely, why don't you allow him to? Herein lies the often enormous chasm between belief and trust. You believe him but cannot put your trust in him. Trust is the quality that enables one to overcome fear in practice, and in its complete form extinguishes fear altogether.

This explains the Rebbe's excitement about the statement, "In G-d we trust." Many people believe in G-d and even in His all pervading providence. Yet, when times are tough they are overcome with anxiety and depression. One who trusts in G-d, however, walks securely and confidently.

This difference between belief and trust is highlighted in skateboarding. When I arrive at a skate spot, I typically look around at the obstacles available and assess what I believe I can use and what is yet beyond me. Frequently, I believe I can easily perform a semi-dangerous trick such as jumping off a set of 5 or 6 stairs but as I ride up to the stairwell edge I'm prevented by fear. Based on my past skating experiences I authentically believe myself capable of easily landing this particular stunt; my lack of trust in my abilities, however, opens the doors wide for fear to engulf me in practice.

Belief relates to mind; trust relates to action.