Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Question & Answer With Yishai - "Life Force"

A Simple Jew asks:

One often sees references to "life force" and other similar concepts in Chassidic literature. How should we understand these references, and what role do such concepts play in your avodas Hashem?

Yishai answers:

I’m not an authority on this subject by any means, but I think it's fair to say that until a couple hundred years ago, the average Jew (and non-Jew) would have assumed as a basic fact about the natural world that living things are animated through a life-force. Since modern medicine (outside of China) doesn’t acknowledge this concept, many people probably think of it as a myth, and even some mystically-oriented Jews might read life force language in seforim as abstract metaphors for the Divine Presence.

But when Jews traditionally read such references they must have understood them literally, and I think they were very right to do so. For one thing, there is considerable evidence that life-energy actually does exist, and has a measurable healing effect. In China, hospitals devoted to alleviating illnesses by emitting life energy from the hands of medically-trained practitioners, and by teaching energy-cultivation exercises to patients, have achieved dramatic recovery rates. In the Jewish world, people such as the prominent Chabad kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and Rabbi Yitzhak Fanger are working on developing Torah-based forms of energy healing.

How can we relate to life-force in our daily practice? Many complex kabbalistic meditations, such as those of Rabbi Avraham Abulafia and the Ari, focus on energy. But we don’t have to be ready for such advanced material to incorporate life-force into our avodas Hashem, as we see in Rebbe Nachman’s teachings.

Rebbe Nachman says that struggling to make a living can cause "the vital spirit which pulsates in the body -- the very basis of life -- [to become] weakened." This weighs down the limbs and spirit, and "can actually bring a person to the point of death… But when a person sighs with longing for the holy, moaning out of yearning for G-d, it helps to rally his strength and revitalize the pulsating spirit within him, bringing new vigor and life. In the end he will attain profound understanding and hear words from Heaven itself."

I believe what Rebbe Nachman is saying here is that work-related anxiety and depression can sap our life energy, but that a deep-breathing meditation of yearning for G-d can make us both physically stronger and more spiritually awakened, by increasing both the lower and higher forms of life energy (which are often discussed in other Jewish works in terms of different levels of the soul or different sefiros.) Since the Rebbe wanted us to turn his teachings into prayers, we should pray that our deep breaths of love and longing for Hashem fill us with holy life energy and G-dly awareness.

Rebbe Nachman must have meant that we should actually try to feel holy life energy within our bodies during these meditations. As he writes in another context, "The main thing is that your faith must be so strong that it spreads to all your limbs." How can you know it is in your limbs unless you feel it there?

In its simplicity, this sighing meditation is similar to a practice advocated by the sixteenth-century Tsfat kabbalist Rabbi Ezkari. His Sefer Charedim describes, as paraphrased by Rabbi DovBer Pinson, "meditating on the divine energy of the Shechinah hovering overhead and imagining this all-encompassing, loving light pervading the immediate space until the meditator envisions himself dwelling in the heart of this light.” Such visualization would also seem to naturally result from following the Baal Shem Tov's instruction to constantly pray for the “light of the Divine Presence to dwell with me.” It’s even similar to the directions Rabbi Gutman Locks of Mystical Paths recently gave to a Kotel tourist for sending a blessing to his loved ones: “Try to see them bathed in sunlight.”

The Ari taught that each mitzvah, when performed, causes a certain type of vital energy to flow through a person, depending on which sefira (and thus which of the 10 types of pulse) the mitzvah is rooted in. Likewise, every transgression causes a weakening of the energy in the corresponding type of pulse. Keeping this teaching in mind, we can visualize holy energy filling our bodies and souls as we perform a mitzvah, just as some probably already do while holding their hands upward during netilas yadayim.

With practice, these simple techniques can allow you to actually feel the energy pouring on you or through your body and your limbs. I think this would have probably come naturally to many Jews living in a time where a belief in life energy was taken for granted. Personally, when I focus on feeling love and yearning for Hashem, I experience this as extending or reaching my own energy from my mind and heart upwards towards heaven (“To you, Hashem, I lift my soul” – Tehillim 25). Immediately afterward, often on the out-breath, I feel energy descending on me and flowing through my body and limbs. I find this very relaxing and conducive to the kind of joyful and meditative state of mind I strive to have while davening, practicing hisbodedus, or studying Torah. It is also nice to involve the whole body in serving Hashem, instead of confining spirituality inside my head.


At February 4, 2009 at 8:49:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where Can I find the refernce by R' Dovber Pinson? Thanks! I practice Tai chi and chi Gung and really enjoyed this article.

At February 4, 2009 at 9:56:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very nice!

At February 4, 2009 at 10:21:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous: if you google the quote from the Pinson book, it'll take you to selections of the book in Google Book Search.

At February 5, 2009 at 1:19:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks I found the reference.


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