Class IX: Hasidic Masters
We gathered in the warm interior, the cool December day bright in Dixon Place’s windows, to talk about the Hasids. Unlike other paths, we had all seen and perhaps even met Hasids – they were just across the bridge in Williamsburg, after all. We could have spent the class time walking over to them and shaking their hands. Well, not really – they don’t much traffic with non-Hasids. But we could have seen them, at least.
But Hasidism has changed greatly since it was founded by the Baal Shem Tov in 1740. Then, and for Now, it appears more of a repressive sect, a social organization meant to enclose, wall-off, shut down. Even though one participant noted that such a system – where people knew their roles and what they should and should not do – might free one to explore their spirituality more fully.
|Baal Shem Tov|
Our Hasids, though – the original Hasids – spoke of opening to God, to life and to others. As Rabbi Pinchas noted: “A prayer not spoken in the name of all humanity is no prayer at all.”
We dove right in. The Hasidic masters of yesteryear focus on the suffusion of God through all matter, seen and unseen. The Divine Spark can be found everywhere; we all share a single, universal soul. This idea manifests through a sanctification of every moment, of every person, of every object. “Put off the habitual which encloses your foot and you will recognize that the place on which you happen to be standing at this moment is holy ground.”
How to make this a part of one’s life? Of one’s daily awareness? How to view people you disagree with, you don’t like, you don’t know or are attracted to know? How to find the “holy” in the mess that we call New York City, our political disaster, our fraying social compact? How to switch from frustration, helpless and anger to a sense of appreciation, wonderment and joy?
We are to take it, this joy and appreciation. Much like Meister Eckhart, the Hasids say that you should not wait for “grace” to approach you, you must go forth and take it, steal it if necessary. But how do you “steal” grace? Our reading proposed three methods: break the lock, don’t pick it; operate in the dead of night and risk everything, even if you only make off with a little grace. For a little grace is a lot – and the need for more bleeds quickly into greed. How much grace do you really need?
Once again, the importance of personal pain emerged. How can one find radiance and joy in pain? The dark informs our experience of “light.” You cannot have one without the other. In fact, one must center their worship in breaking down the ego, the thought structures, the heart. The Hasids emplore us to “break your heart” for God. What does this mean? A diminution of the self? A sense of turning from the place of self-reliance? A pathway, not a goal – and most certainly not a trip to dejection and hopelessness.
The way forward is fraught with danger. As our Hasidic friends assure: “The way in this world is like a knife’s edge. On this side is the underworld, and on that side is the underworld, and the way of life lies between.”
We found more of a social compact within Hasidic thought – that the interaction, the social goal, the obligation between people (not just between an individual and God) came to the fore. Social behavior is an act of sanctification. Doing good in the world becomes prayer. This felt more approachable, as well as attractive, as we sat together not only as seekers, but as activists.
We discusses our spiritually desiccated era. Is our time more bereft of mysticism than others? I said that it was: capitalism has fomented an anarchic cult of the individual, based in acquisition of goods, which is directly contrary to mystical and spiritual appreciation. I said that I believed there was more respect for this path in other times (mystical poets were treated like rock stars in 8th-13th century Muslim lands, for instance). Even today, I felt there was more appreciation for this path within Eastern cultures, from India to South Asia. With the advent of globalization and the tidal wave of western values overtaking all, however, I feel that even this is on the wane.
One participant noted took exception with this, noting that it was self-defeating to claim that our culture didn’t support this form of exploration. After all, there we were, hosted by Dixon Place, with all participants having become aware of the class through social media. Whether more people came or less, the fact remained: our culture supported this search, and did not forbid or dissuade from it.
But if/when one meets a true mystic, how are they to even know it? There is in the Hasidic as well as Sufi tradition the idea of the “hidden” mystic, hidden sometimes even to themselves. I remembered the story from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, in which the author, in watching an aunt die with dignity, acceptance and love, realized that she had achieved a lofty height. Nothing in her manner of living had presaged this moment, at least that one could see from the outside. I also said that in my experience, the true mystic giggles a lot. It is the religious who pass through life with a frown on their face.
We must go through life with giggles on our face. And find in the mundane – either painful or joyful – the essence of what lies beneath. We must find miracles in the everyday, shucking off the wry, ironic all-knowing posture of our era and understanding that there, just beneath, rests the miracle of being, of every moment, of every scientific “truth” and banal interaction.
We talked again about death – and life. Like many of our previous readings, the Hasids assure that one must die to live, must die into life. What does this mean? Die from expectation and accept each moment as unique; die from dream and awake to the dream in which one lives; die from need and awake into acceptance; die from demand and awake into the fullness of what one has; die from the “I” and sink into the “thou” – the aspect of oneself which is part of the universal soul.
Easier said than done, am I right?
We cycled back to religion. Why does religion so seem to not on not support mystical thought, but be antithetical to it? Succinctly put, the difference between religion and mysticism is the difference between “you should” and “I should.” And mysticism involves no social control, no political aspect, no walling off of “us” v. “them.” In a word, it is completely subversive to the social structure and hierarchy. Which is why virtually all of the mystics we have read – including the Hasids – were considered “heretical” when they first began practicing and disseminating their paths.
Mysticism also places a question mark at the heart of being, while religion puts an exclamation point there.
We talked of the beautiful duality within the Hasidic path. It seemed to set off opposites or contradictory statements to reach a deeper plane. One participant noted the saying:
Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: “For my sake was the world created,” and in his left: “I am dust and ashes.”
The idea that we are nothing and yet the reason, this captures the meaning of Hasidism, of mysticism. As Mahatma Gandhi said (echoing our Hasidic friends): “Know that you are completely insignificant, and entirely necessary.” Other Hasidic dualities washed through us . . .
And so it was. Time had passed. The sky outside darkened. It is cold now, when we hit the street, and we bundled into our coats and scarves and gloves. We would emerge into the New York City dusk, and hopefully see things just the slightest bit differently than usual: with the faintest glow of the universal spirit shining from within everything.