Tuesday, January 16, 2018
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book, DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum, now available at Amazon, in paperback print and Kindle versions. It is easily found by searching my name, or by searching the full title and subtitle.
What a great way to start the New Year, cozying up to a fire, real or imagined, and reading a new spiritually inspiring book, sure to become a classic!
DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum
Grounded in the traditions of Torah and Veda, Steven J. Gold takes us on an oceanic tour of the depth and breadth of spiritual consciousness. Sharing personal stories and insights into various traditional scriptures as examples, he urges us to adopt a spiritual worldview, to “ponder infinity, awake and arise,” to “find your inspiration and follow it.”
“The chapters…are records of what happens when Steve’s right mind, and heart, are given full freedom to wander where they wish. As discoveries and correlations are made, his well-trained left mind and sharp wit give his observations shape and form…” – Brother Shankara, Resident Minister, Vedanta Center of Atlanta
“Universal Ice Cream: Dive deep into Steve’s wonderful book to help find your favorite flavor on the Spiritual Spectrum.” – Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Spiritual Leader, Congregation Shalom B’Harim, Dahlonega, GA
“Steven J. Gold’s Dimensions is an exploration of spirituality from the inside out. If you are looking for a guide through the pathless land of truth, read this book.” – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The World Wisdom Bible-->
Thursday, September 28, 2017
Saturday, September 16, 2017
Thoughts for the Days of Awe
[Note: As part of my cyberspace presence, I am occasionally contacted by people from around the world. One such person is a swami who is American by birth and has a Jewish mother. He apparently spends most of his time in India, and has his own website dedicated to Interfaith understanding. Around the time of The Days of Awe last year, I received an email from him having to do with various matters concerning sin and repentance. He asked me to comment, and for The Days of Awe this year, I am sharing my response here.]
My Dear Swami Sadasivananda,
I have found the relatively brief article you asked me to comment on to be a stew chock full of heavy ingredients not easily digested. Words/concepts like perfection, ultimate goal, soul, wisdom, living soul, speaking spirit, perfect speech, sin, repentance, punishment, asking forgiveness, transforming charitable and prayerful words, acts of forgiveness, visionaries, shortcomings, mitzvah, judgement day. Wow!
I have found it a great challenge to organize my thoughts around what you asked me to read and comment upon. I will begin with an extensive quote from my master, Swami Rama. This is an excerpt from a book that I read many years ago, but always remembered as one of his best (a viewpoint shared by other gurubhais and people who have read it). I recently ran into somebody I had recommended it to many years ago, and they told me that reading it resulted in a profound transformative event in their lives, marking the beginning to an entirely new and spiritually productive direction. This inspired me to read the book again for the first time in many years, and it has been a great inspiration all over again. It touches on some of the subjects in the piece you asked me to comment on.
A [productive] quality is the ability to make mistakes without condemning yourself! Determine that no matter what happens, no matter how many times you stumble, it does not matter. If you have not crawled, you cannot walk; if you have not stumbled, you cannot stand…So do not be afraid of stumbling. You will stumble many times in life. You will commit many mistakes. Don’t create a complex in your heart and mind by thinking that you are nothing. Don’t start condemning yourself, and suffering. Stumbling and committing mistakes are not sins. On the path of wisdom, there is no such thing as sin.
A sin is any act that affects your mind in a negative way. Then, if you remain in a state of negativity for some time, you become passive and helpless. A passive mind is very dangerous. A negative mind can be improved; but a passive mind leads to sickness…
Never identify yourself with negativity, with a passive mood or with weakness. You are not that. You have many weaknesses, yet you, yourself, are not weak. You commit many mistakes, yet you are not weak. You have committed many so-called sins, yet you are not a sinner…
When you commit mistakes, the real repentance is in not repeating them. If you are helpless, practice. If you stumble, practice again. Help will come to you; grace will be there. Do not give up with your human endeavors! Whether you consciously or unconsciously commit a mistake, just do not do it again, but do not believe in sin.
Usually…you care only for trivial or mundane things of the external world. Your eyes flow with tears for petty things but your heart should cry for something higher. If you constantly cry for worldly things, your body will become ill, but if you cry for God, you will move toward Samadhi, ecstasy. At present, you have great zeal to attain worldly things – you have too much feeling for the things of the world.
Your main problem is that you are hung up on the things of the world: you are afraid you will not gain what you want, and you are always afraid of losing what you have. You have never worked with the totality of your mind. This anxiety is all the result of your mind, because nothing happens to the body, and nothing happens to God. Whatever happens, it occurs only in your mind. The Upanishads say that atman is the fastest entity, and yet at the same time, that it has no movement. Teachers often say that the mind is the fastest, faster even than sound or light. But there is one thing faster than the mind – your individual soul, the atman. It is the fastest because wherever the mind travels, the soul is already there, no matter where the mind goes. So if there is anything that can correct and help your mind, it is not worldly wealth or objects, it is nothing external, but only that which is the innermost center of your being.
Do not concern yourself with the rewards of meditation. There is a scientific law that every action has a reaction: it is not possible for an action to not have benefits. Even if you do not see conscious benefits, there are unconscious benefits. At the very least, you will develop muscle relaxation, rid yourself of tension and stress, and learn to use the mind for spirituality.
--Swami Rama, Path of Fire and Light, Volume II, pages 96-99
In accord with what my master has said, I find it difficult to relate to terms such as “repentance” and “sin”, for they feel so heavy and carry so much baggage. Images of self-righteous apocalyptic bible-thumping preachers in the public square immediately come to my mind when I hear such terms. In your footnote, you discuss the origins of the word “sin” to “missing the mark.” As my master has indicated, we are fallible, we will make mistakes repeatedly, but let’s not get too heavy with ideas about “sin.” Let’s just call it “making mistakes” and endeavor to do better next time. As he exhorts, if you miss the mark, so what. Don’t condemn yourself, keep practicing, keep trying! It is the continued effort, the striving, the earnest aspiration to improve that is important. I like his definition of real repentance as attaining a state where you don’t repeat the same mistake. I have always put that definition in the context of what is real learning: when you stop repeating the same mistake. He indicates it is much worse and self-defeating to condemn yourself than it is to make a mistake, to miss the mark.
You speak of the need to define the mark, so we know what we are aiming for in order to gain a sense of how close we get (the optimist “glass half full” viewpoint) or how far we have missed (the pessimist “glass half empty” viewpoint). You define the mark as Perfection, and more specifically as the soul manifesting itself in perfect speech, with its highest form being sincere repentance. Perfection in any respect is quite a goal. I believe it may be helpful to hold Perfection as an aspirational quality, but also to accept life largely as an ongoing, never-ending process without viewing it as having some kind of end-point goal. I don’t believe there is an end-point, only on-going process. Whatever may be viewed as a goal, as an end-point, will likely only end up as being another beginning point. You seem to acknowledge this in your observation that Rosh Hashanah, which comes yearly, is about “a new beginning toward perfection,” indicative of an ongoing process, and acknowledging that maybe we never get there, but we can continue to move towards it. Perhaps it is like a carrot on a stick, which keeps us moving, although it remains elusive. After all, the Vedic tradition teaches us of never-ending cosmic cycles.
There are all kinds of Jewish sources that contain all kinds of things and make all kinds of statements and claims. You indicate that Torah claims that sincere repentance is the highest mitzvah, but you don’t cite the source for that claim. There are contrary sources that say the mitzvot should not be assessed higher or lower priorities, or more or less importance, that even what may appear to be a lowly, simple, or unimportant mitzvah is just as significant as any others. You end your piece with a quote about judgment day as if it is a definitive standard without citing the source. Jewish sources are replete with conflicting and contradictory claims to definitive standards. And is this the judgment day that comes once a year, or some end-time judgment day? The term “judgment day” carries a connotation of a one-time only event, for all the marbles. I don’t buy that.
As far as quoting a source that summarizes standards for a purifying path and way of life, I prefer the three things cited by the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, 6:8. These three activities describe the three pillars on the Tree of Life: Justice on the left, Mercy on the right, and the central pillar of balance and ascendance in the middle, staying connected with integrated Divine energy. These correspond with ida, pingala and sushumna in the yoga system.
You seem to be connecting repentance and forgiveness, referring at one point to “acts of forgiveness.” I’m having trouble following this, and perhaps your wording or my mind is a little muddled, maybe both! I thought the common notion is that a person who has recognized their own hurtful speech or actions “repents” by seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness is then bestowed by whomever has been hurt, whether another being, or even God. For a simple example, one person can apologize to another person, and the other person can accept the apology. The terms “apologizing” and “accepting an apology” seem much simpler, with a lot less heavy baggage, than the terms “repentance” and “forgiveness.” This is a common strain in traditional Jewish thought that conflicts with Christian, particularly Catholic, thought. A person who has done wrong to another person cannot be and should not be forgiven by the other person until the person who has done wrong asks for forgiveness. In the semantics of apology, there can be no acceptance of an apology until an apology has been made/offered. The semantics of forgiveness do not necessarily require repentance prior to granting of forgiveness. The Pope who was shot (John-Paul?) forgave the person who shot him without that person asking for forgiveness or the Pope seeking an apology. Many Jewish thinkers disagreed with the Pope’s view on this, maintaining that forgiveness is not possible if not requested. From the Catholic point of view, this is reflected in Jesus’ quote, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Inherent in that is the idea that if there is not even recognition that they have done wrong, there can be no acknowledgement or repentance, yet there can still be forgiveness. And then there is an additional layer in the apology scenario: what if an apology is made but is not accepted?
Earlier in your piece, you put forth the proposition that people are not punished for the sin, but rather by the sin. But you also seem to put forth the proposition that in either situation, repentance is still necessary, that the punishment is not enough, and I’m not sure what the relationship is between punishment and repentance. From one point of view, a perpetrator can be punished by someone else, but never express remorse, but from another point of view, a perpetrator can go unpunished by someone else, but cannot avoid the punishment inherent in the act itself. However, a punished person who is not remorseful apparently has not learned from their transgression or their punishment. Perhaps a person who doesn’t ask for forgiveness, but is forgiven anyway, hasn’t learned anything from the event or the unrequested forgiveness. But maybe on a deeper karmic level, that bestowed forgiveness has some effect.
One repeating and significant theme throughout the Torah and other parts of Tanak, particularly the Prophets, is that of transgression, punishment and redemption; often in terms of horrific transgression, severe punishment, but with always the possibility of redemption, both temporary and ultimate. Redemption is conditioned upon not only suffering through the punishment, but of also recognizing and acknowledging the transgression and seeking forgiveness/repenting.
After reading your piece several times and attempting to not get sidetracked by too many tangents, I finally detected what I think is your main theme/message: a form of speech through prayer that encompasses earnest repentance attains purification and receives the guidance of grace.
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to define the mark/goal as not an end-point called “Perfection,” which perhaps can never be attained, but rather as an ongoing striving and aspiration for spiritual growth and transformation as part of a never-ending process with no ultimate “Judgment Day.” I did a little bit of research as part of my preparation to respond to you, and was surprised to discover that the term “Rosh Hashanah” (head of the year) is not contained in Jewish scripture, but was coined later, and there are certain minority segments who do not accept that designation for this holiday in the Fall. There were two biblical designations, “Yom Ha-Zikkaron” which means “day of remembrance” and “Yom Teruah” which means “day of blowing,” usually interpreted as the blowing of the shofar, which is a ram’s horn.
I detect in what you have presented the concept that the way to attain the purifying prayerful speech you advocate is through the process of connecting with the Divinity within. Then appropriate speech and action becomes second nature. Although you didn’t use the word “atonement,” certainly that is also a word encompassing repentance for this time of year. But “atonement” also literally means “at-one-ment,” connecting with the One. I submit to you that the concept of “day of remembrance” also encompasses this idea, of stopping to remember the Ultimate Source of our lives and of all, and that the “day of blowing” is a designated process to aid in that remembrance, evoking the inner sound of “ram” that brings us back to the origin of all sound.
The image of the arrow missing its target evokes the image of what I have termed “The Bullseye” chart, which I have attached as a file. Hitting the bullseye in the center is connecting to the Center, the Source. On a related note, the term used in Judaism designating all of the extensive laws and rules and regulations as further extrapolations off of the mitzvot, is “Halacha.” And the term usually translated and carrying the connotation of repentance is “teshuva,” which was included in the Hebrew quote you had at the end of your piece. But “Halacha” literally means “path,” similar to the term “dharma.” And “teshuva” literally means “return.” So missing the mark is like straying off of the path (the razor’s edge), and remembering is returning to the path.
So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Another thought: In addition to what I have presented to you, it came to me that a certain resistance to the terminology in your post regarding sin and repentance that drove my response concerns the notion of guilt. Although the word is never used, it is implicit in those kind of concepts, lurking in the background And although my master never used that word, it is implicit in his exhortation not to condemn yourself. Guilt is a driving force in so many Western approaches. I prefer an approach to spiritual teaching and standards for life engagement that employs motivations other than guilt and shame.
Meditation (Click your selection, scroll down to view it)
- Audio Link: A Foundation for a Fruitful Meditation Practice: Science of Breath/Pranayama/Relaxation - Theory and Practice
- Meditation Basics - Expanded Version
- Meditation Basics - Condensed Version
- Mantra Meditation Basics
- Nada Meditation - Anahata/The Unstruck Sound
- Jewish Yoga Meditation
- Hebrew Mantras
- Hebrew Mantras, Part Two
- Hebrew Mantras, Part Three
- Hebrew Mantras - Adonai Hineni
- Healing Meditation: Ruach El Shaddai/Breath of Balance
- Meditating, Eating and Sleeping
- Shortcuts to Spiritual Development?
- Audio Link: Guided Meditation - I Am and Empty Shell, Therefore I Am Full; A Meditation on Emptiness and Dark Luminescence Based on the Opening Lines of Genesis
- Guided Meditation: The Stage
- Guided Meditation: I Am an Empty Shell, Therefore I Am Full; A Meditation on Emptiness and Dark Luminescence Based on the Opening Lines of Genesis
- Guided Meditation: The Rod, The Staff, and The Star
- Torah-Veda Meditation Class Site
- Interspiritual Contemplative Group