Friday, 13 March 2009

Mindfulness, Meditation, Paradox and Purim

When engaging in woodworking, the mind tends to wander, to philosophise about the actions being undertaken and how they reflect the more obscure ideas reflected upon in the library. Rousseau said something to the effect of, "Put a young man in a workshop, his hands will work to the benefit of his brain, and he will become a philosopher while thinking himself only a craftsman." Roy Underhill's meditation on woodworking (Episode 7--'The Spirit of Woodcraft') is an interesting (and humorous--excellent Python reference in there) example of how immersing one's self in the physicality of these abstract ideas provides another angle.

Paradox abounds in the workshop--coming to understand it is the learning process and the 'journey' every student must take. After being frustrated, you learn that in order to tighten the plane iron cap, you must loosen it; in order to saw harder, you must loosen your grip. You must live or experience the paradox in order to figure it out. But it stays with you in a way that is very different from the fleeting grasping of paradox which exists in, say, Metaphysical poetry. John Donne understood the importance of the mundane, and filled his poetry with what many people would call not-so-romantic, or perhaps even nerdy imagery. His famous poem 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' is his meditation on spiritual love that endures despite the physical separation of the lovers and...a compass. Huh? There's no way this guy did well with the ladies if he compared them to school supplies (obviously Donne would've done well with this lady--i think this is the most romantic poem EVER. Plus, romantic poetry and hand tools? I don't think it gets any better than that! But i digress.) Donne's immersion in the physical, and his meditation on disparate things drove Samuel Johnson up the wall, and he wrote the following about Donne's poetry: 'The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.'

It has been noted that Donne's most romantic poems are spiritual, whilst his most spiritual poems are sexual. Donne's mixing of registers and his love for paradoxical conceits makes him a joy (albeit challenging) to read.

This brings me back to Underhill. One thing that struck me was his commentary on sharpening. Underhill notes that sharpening is a very Zen-like activity because its aim is nothingness. Instead of aiming for a gleaming microbevel, when sharpening chisels and planes, what you really want to see is nothing. When you see nothing, you have something. But if you see something (gleaming edge), you have nothing.

The mysterious paradox of sharpening, the meditative qualities associated with it, and the goal of bringing two 'faces' together evoke, for me, the idea of מצוות--mitzvot as actions for Jews to realise or physically meditate on God's unity, in the way that sharpening or Japanese tea ceremonies achieve that end. This may be a bit silly and have no grammatical basis whatsoever, but i was wondering if the words חד (chad )-sharp and אחד (echad )--one are connected. Not to digress to much, but the idea of God's unity is an appropriate abridgment of Judaism. Our main prayer שמע ישראל ה" אלוקינו ה" אחד: 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One' is recited several times daily, and is also the preparatory prayer for death.

A point of contention between Christians and Jews are the mitzvot. The Jews' immersion in the mundane was scoffed at by Christian polemicists. Indeed, a recurring theme in the polemics is that the Jews represent the physical foreshadowing of the more spiritual Christianity. Jeremy Taylor's sermon on spiritual zeal is one of many early modern examples.

The Divinely mandated immersion in the physical is perhaps a mitzvah of imitateo dei. In straddling the physical and spiritual worlds, we are emulating God; this is an alternative to the approach that being like God requires shunning our physicality. Donne's grappling with the physical and spiritual in pursuing his relationship with God is illustrated by the presence of paradox which pervades his Holy Sonnet XIV .

As Underhill reminds us, the great mind is capable of seeing the simplicity behind the confusion, of understanding the paradox. Purim is certainly a paradoxical holiday. Nothing in the narrative is what it seems. Everything is hidden, and it is Esther’s ability to see God’s hand at work and to act in an almost equally hidden way that is celebrated. This day of indulging in earthly pleasures, proceeded by a day of fasting is often compared to what appears to be its deepest opposite--Yom Kippur, a day of refraining from earthly pleasures, proceeded by a feast in preparation of the fast. We are commanded to get so drunk that we can’t distinguish between Haman the villain and Mordechai, the hero. Yet, our sages explain that a degree of mindfulness can come out of getting to a place in which we really don’t seem to be using our minds. All of the mitzvot on Purim seem to have the same goal in mind—unity. The Seuda (festive meal), or breaking bread, is one of the oldest sociological means of bonding. The public reading of the megilla unites us in witnessing the Purim narrative. Mishloach Manot (exchanging gifts of food) makes us feel closer to one another. Additionally, the tradition of sending two types of foods (necessitating two blessings) is a reminder that we recognise God’s varying capacities as Creator, and assemble it in one package. Matanot Laevyonim (giving charity) is an act which seeks to redress the economic differences between members of society.

Perhaps Purim is a day in which (with the help of that great social lubricant, alcohol) we can be like the angel in Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ who stirs the well, mingling the boundaries between sacred and profane, attaining unity in paradox, through joyfulness, which, like sharpening-bringing two faces together (rectifying hester panim)-and unity comes from a root which sounds similar-- חדד. Well, it's a bit of a stretch, but still, one day out of the year, we get to walk in that no-man's land, to experience a Divine unity, to find the centre, or our centre (as our senseis tell us)...and hopefully not have an equally powerful hangover...


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