Religion & Beliefs

The Gods of Drowning

In the forms of meditation practiced by many Westerners, one central practice is simply "being with" everything that arises in the body, mind, heart, etc., neither holding onto anything nor pushing anything away. This is quite different from most Jewish … Read More

By / May 21, 2008

In the forms of meditation practiced by many Westerners, one central practice is simply "being with" everything that arises in the body, mind, heart, etc., neither holding onto anything nor pushing anything away. This is quite different from most Jewish and psychiatric practices, which often seek to change these states–from sadness into joy, for example, or restlessness into peace. And it is entirely different from our basic instinct, which, thanks to eons of evolution, is exactly to hold onto the good stuff and push away the rest. If we didn't do that, we'd never survive. Indeed, self-preservation is surely the purpose of registering stimuli as positive or negative in the first place. Happiness, too, is unnatural. Once again, if we were all perfectly happy with what we already have, we wouldn't strive for more. We wouldn't reproduce, wouldn't compete for scarce resources–and we'd be selected right out of the species. So it's human nature to be somewhat unhappy, and to work to address that unhappiness by taking action, building things, having children, nurturing them, and building cooperative communities of love. All these things feel so right because we've been bred for them.

So what the Dalai Lama has called "the art of happiness" is unnatural in its means and its ends. Its means are counter to basic human instinct, and its promised end of happiness is the opposite of our natural (naturally selected) disposition.

But given the choice between Buddhist-style being-with and Jewish-style fighting negative emotions, I'll take the Buddha, thanks. Nothing depresses me more than trying to be happy.

In my own practice, I've often experienced "being with" negative emotions in a visual way, seeing myself as someone nearly drowning in mud or excrement, but managing to be with it, to stay alive and breathe. For years, this extremely unhelpful image both encouraged and betrayed me. Encouraged, because it emboldened me to stay with it, like a dharma fighter on the cushion. Betrayed, because the whole image contains an inevitable aura of resistance–of fighting, enduring, persisting. Actually, it was more Jewish than Buddhist. After all, how many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? "None, dahling, I'm fine here in the dark." We stay, we complain, we endure.

But what I've learned over the last few months, in the wake of breakup, loneliness, heartbreak, and occasional rebirth, is the benefit of drowning. There's been so much pain for me in this period that I couldn't fight it if I tried (and I have tried). If I were really standing in a deep pile of mud, it would've covered me long ago. And so I've let it. And I found I can breathe underwater.

Instead of fighting to stay afloat in the indignity, anger, sadness, unpleasant physical sensations, I've just myself sink down, and down, and down… and sometimes, through. The lesson is: I thought I needed air, but I don't. I can breathe in the mud, and the act of surrendering to it is the relaxation and release.

What about the other times? The other times I do one of two things. Either I feed the negative emotion with stories, self-pity, and endless thoughts about what's wrong–or I fight the negative emotion with more stories, justifications, or accounts of why this happened or how I should act next. Either way, the effort is the problem. Sadness is like quicksand: moving in any direction makes it worse. But it's unlike quicksand in that the point is to sink in, be swallowed–and be fine.

Surrender and Supplication

This surrender, this willingness to be thoroughly taken and destroyed by sadness, is consonant with two quite different faces of God that I experience in my religious life.

The first of these faces is the nondual, which is essentially mental where the personal is emotional. This is the nondual truth that God is the yotzer or u'vorei choshech, the Former of light and Creator of darkness. This God offers a different kind of comfort; not the love of the Friend, but the simple truth of what is. This God is not necessarily nice; it's the God of cancer wards as well as summer pastures, of war as well as love. This is the God that asks us if we can handle the truth: that both evil and good are godly.

But then there is also the personal God, the emotional one, the one to whom I cry. The personal is the devotional, the place of faith and trust: hinei el yeshuati, eftach v'lo efchad. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not fear. This personal, devotional, anthropomorphic God is largely projection; it's a way of seeing more than a thing that is seen. But as projection, God is a precious Friend, a beloved, a companion.

My religious life oscillates between these poles. At times, I love to think of God in what are essentially human terms. This is the God to whom I pray–and of whom I say "whom." This is the God that is You. At other times, I love the clarity of the more atheistic, nondual God: What Is, YHVH. And of course, I've long understood that these "poles" are better expressed as two sides of a single coin, or two perspectives on the aperspectival.

But I've only recently understood how these two perspectives so deeply enrich one another. When I'm drowning in the shit of life, I say hinei el yeshuati precisely because God is the vorei choshech. I can trust that I can breathe in this mud because the mud is God. Not good–it's definitely not good in any ordinary sense of the word. But God. I can cry out because I can let myself be drowned.

For the Seal of God is Truth

If all these words were just words, just theological proposition, they wouldn't be worth much. What's more important-at least to me– is that I can experience the nondual God. After the surrender, during the drowning, the Presence is still there. That's what matters–not the premise but the proof.

I know, because I've heard from others, that the path of embracing light and darkness which I've sketched over these last few months is not for everyone, and is not necessarily the dominant strain in the Jewish religious tradition. I also know that it's difficult to tread, and difficult to share with others. No one really likes negative energy, even if, for me, it connects me to the parts of myself I like the most: the open, feeling, truthful, loving, and teaching parts. It's good at retreats, not so good at parties.

So given all of that, it's important to me to see that this idiosyncratic, difficult, and not-for-everybody religious path actually works. I assume that the more conventional one–fighting sadness with joy, accentuating the positive–works also, since I see so many people following it and seeming to have success. But I'm a truth addict. Anything that seems to be coloring or distorting what is feels uncomfortable, even insincere. Just to see that it is possible to breathe while drowning gives me the trust to do it more.

Just the release in my own heart is enough to make the effort/non-effort worthwhile. But there are three consequences I want to notice briefly before concluding.

First, as the "law of attraction" is increasingly popular these days, just a word about that. The main point is that "breathing while drowning" is not wallowing. Emitting negative energy, dwelling on it, turning it over, is even more counterproductive than trying to struggle over to the positive side. The point is total surrender, total release. Not judging anything as good or bad. Not feeding the fire (to switch elemental metaphors) or trying to squelch it. Just letting it happen, letting it burn–and letting it burn me up, only to discover that I am not consumed. In that fiery place, love is possible, as is positive intention. I continue to believe that the specific directionality of conscious manifestation is ineffective. But in my experience, there is power to a general setting of intention, and a general openness to abundance. These are enhanced, not compromised, by surrender.

Second, as I mentioned a moment ago, I'm at my most real when I'm most connected to my brokenness–and I'm at my most effective as well. Having just taught at two Nehirim retreats, I've seen firsthand that I am more effective and compassionate as a teacher when I'm not pretending to be okay. I don't know about you, but I can't stand these teachers who hold themselves out as never-suffering and so successful. I have met a few enlightened people, and it is indeed possible to end suffering. But only a small percentage of teachers who hold themselves out in this way actually are, and many are offering a kind of false consciousness. I don't trust them. In any case, even if all the authentic teachers were teaching the cheerleading approach, I'd stick with mine because it's true in my experience.

And speaking of my experience, I finally want to note that this doesn't work all the time–but it is available all the time. On a particularly lonely night recently, I just couldn't break free of the mental pattern of self-pity, blame, and regret. Even now, there are so many opportunities for it; just one evocation of one issue from my just-ended relationship, and I can get hooked into content and story and argumentation. It's almost irresistible. But unlike trying to swim, which gets more difficult the deeper you sink, drowning is always available. If I can't "make it work," I can surrender to having failed at making it work–and then it works. There is always a new opportunity to surrender more, even to the most inveterate of Buddhist sinners like me.

Ultimately, the method remains a simple one: releasing whatever is going on (but really), letting go, letting drown, letting expand, letting relax. Breathing while drowning, the attention naturally comes to the present, with nothing pulling it elsewhere. And then, with a breath, without hope, expectation, or object, a simple wish of love.


Art Credit: Sushanta Meh