Rabbi Rami on addiction and liberation
April 16, 2008
Jewish spiritual growth is, in fact, a misnomer: there is no growth, if by growth we mean becoming something other than we are. There is only a growing awareness of who we already are. I am the likeness of God, I am holy; I am and you are and Life is. It is as if we had a mirror and dropped it in the mud. The mirror is still intact but it no longer reflects the world around it. We don't have to redesign the mirror, all we need to do is remove the mud.
That's from Rabbi Rami Shapiro's This is the Path: Twelve Step Programs in a Jewish Context, assigned reading for last night's Pastoral Counseling Intensive class. The book -- a scant 67 pages -- had my attention from the interior flyleaf page, which says simply "To all who risk the first step / and dare the next."
The passage about the mirror puts me in mind of a teaching about teshuvah which I like very much (and which I referenced in my Rosh Hashanah sermon several years ago): that the soul is like a pane of glass, and teshuvah -- turning-toward-God -- is a process of cleaning that glass so that we and God can fully shine through it. But I hadn't thought about the extent to which that notion would be consonant with the twelve steps.
What plagues us on a deeper level is not alcohol or narcotics, but a general sense of dis-ease, a spiritual malaise arising from our addiction to the mud of alienation and separateness that blinds us to the Divine Unity linking man, woman, nature and God. For the purposes of this essay, our addiction will be not to one substance or another, but to the illusion of separation that haunts our every waking moment.
Unconscious addiction to the illusion of separation: an uncomfortable idea, so probably worth paying attention to. I don't think Rabbi Rami is denying the reality of other addictions -- drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, work -- but rather making a kind of meta-point: that beneath and beyond any of those, there's a human tendency to become dependent on our familiar illusions of separation. And while we might all say we prefer connection to alienation, actually relinquishing the illusion of separation is hard work.
The idea that behind physical addictions lies a spiritual malaise reminds me of the teaching (which I've heard both from Reb Zalman and from Reb Arthur) about learning to discern our needs within a four worlds framework. Hunger in the world of assiyah (physicality) can be assuaged by eating. But if my hunger is for emotional connection (in the world of yetzirah) or intellectual satisfaction (briyah) or spiritual nourishment (atzilut), no meal can fill that need. Likewise if our hunger is for connection with each other and with God.
Toward the end of this small book, Rabbi Rami offers a teaching I find particularly poignant on the cusp of Pesach:
Freedom is choiceless awareness. When we awaken to Reality, when we see What Is Happening Now, we see what needs to be done. What needs to be done is never in opposition to Reality; it grows out of it. In this sense it is choiceless...
When we do awaken, when we do see, when we do surrender the "I," we discover that we are what is happening now, we are the environment, and that doing what must be done is the true act of freedom and liberation, growing as it does out of Reality rather than illusion. When we see clearly and know what it is to be done, we are beyond choice. Yes, we can willfully refrain from acting, but only if we shut our eyes to Reality. The only choice we have is between seeing and not seeing. And once we have seen, we cannot but do.
It's always possible to keep blinders on. To pretend that one doesn't see the reality which demands movement, risk, and change. To remain in Mitzrayim, the narrow place of constriction. To choose the familiar constraints of slavery over the uncomfortable open spaces of liberation.
But Pesach is almost upon us, calling us to take a leap into the unknown. The story of Pesach is a story about seeing the need for change, and en-acting that vision. What constrictions am I allowing to bind me, what outdated patterns are holding me in thrall? What would it take for me to have the courage to break free?
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