Jay Michaelson
Thinking despite Doubt and Feeling despite Truth, p.4

Here is how it is supposed to work. The highest of Wilber's "levels" is the nondual, the tantric path in which the world is fully engaged with, yet simultaneously known to be a manifestation of the One. Now, Wilber doesn't engage much with the Jewish tradition's tantric path, because he probably doesn't see it as such. Neither do most Jews, who, if anything, associate tantra with exotic sexual practices. But halachic Judaism is integral -- it seeks to marry shamayim and aretz, to make in our finite world either a tabernacle for the holy (in the dualistic view) or an embodiment of it (in the nondualistic one). It is tantric because it engages with the stuff of the world, even while knowing that all the yesh is but a manifestation of the ayin. It is an embrace both of the fact that we are all ripples on the ocean and the beauty of the ripples.

How does this play out? Wilber says, in One Taste and other books, that he is as at home in pop culture, postmodernist theory, and political discourse as in the world of meditation. In fact, it is essential for his integral philosophy that he be so. Wilber wants you to meditate, but also listen to music, follow an athletic discipline of some kind, be in therapy or some other psychoanalytic work, and develop on "all quadrants, all levels." You can be culturally developed as a businessman or basket-maker, but be culturally developed; you can ride motorcycles or go to raves, but get your groove on somehow.

That's how it's supposed to work. But to me (as I've written about elsewhere in Zeek), it feels like a choice with consequences. First, the reorientation of mochin d'gadlut changes how I experience the finite world. Continuing the analogy to water, the unified 'wetness of all the waves' (Wilber's term) seems to eclipse their particular properties and beauties. The opera and the sound of a cricket are both heard as the voice of God. This is a beautiful truth to experience. But it tends to "flatten" the opera into no more than a more complex version of the cricket. More intricate, yes; a higher 'level' on the holarchy, yes; but that is all. At the end of the day, it's just one face of God or another. And when you have seen the face of God, as your own Original Face, how exciting can anything else really be?

Second, great art, great tragedy - all of these exist precisely because of the bounds of finitude. The world is beautiful precisely because we do not have the answers, because suffering is real and pain is part of life. The Buddha smiles at everything, but the Buddha's smile is condescending. By transcending suffering, we 'transcend' much of the vitality of human art. Meditation does enliven the experience of this moment, but I have also felt, in the last two years, a whole lot less invested in New Yorker culture, and even in my own personal trials and travails. Not as much feels at stake. Wilber himself analogizes it to being at the movies. "With meditation, you begin to relax in your seat and just watch the movie of life." Now, I know he includes working, caring, and loving in what he means by the "movie of life." But is this disengaged Witnessing really living?

For me, the tantric path only works by forgetting. I have to forget what I know to be true on retreat (where I will be as this article goes to press) in order to drink deep from Shakespeare - and I want to drink deep from Shakespeare! Maybe this forgetting is not unlike our forgetting during the suspension of disbelief while reading fiction. Or maybe it's not so different from feeling moved by poetry despite other manifest truths - that people are starving as you are reading, or that the Earth is being destroyed because of greed. Or this forgetting could just be an uninteresting question of balance: how much escapism do we need to keep going.

It's ironic that the twin challenges of an integral, Jewish, tantric life-in-finitude -- entering into the thinking, rational world despite the risk of doubt, and trying to feel finitude viscerally despite the truth that it is not ultimately real -- are addressed with opposite remedies: remembering, in the case of doubt; forgetting, in the case of feeling. When I am lost, I sit and it is not hard to remember. And when I feel an urge to become lost, it is easy to forget.

Admittedly, though, this all sits uncomfortably. Judaism is so much a practice of remembering -- in an active way, that makes real today that which is 'remembered' from the past. Is forgetting really a value? And on the complementary side, perhaps oscillation is the nature of my path, yet when I am angry and impatient in my constricted mind, I don't seem or feel very enlightened. Yet what other way is there? Since world-renunciation is not the path, how do you care authentically about the world of finitude -- not only out of compassion, but out of direct, personal involvement. And how do you do so without falling into traps of desire? And are you sure it's not just the inability to decide?

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Top: John Greer, Signs on pole
Bottom: John Greer, Pole on moving truck

January 2004

Harvard Death Fugue
On the Exploitation of Bruno Schulz
James Russell

The Jews of Istanbul
Sara Liss

The Truth about the Rosenbergs
Joel Stanley

Thinking despite Doubt, Feeling despite Truth
Jay Michaelson

Two Rituals
Joshua Bolton

Hepster Advice
Jennifer Blowdryer

Josh Goes to the Hospital
Josh Ring

Our 400 Back Pages

David Stromberg

Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:

Jay Michaelson

What is Burning Man?
Jay Michaelson

Reinventing the Wheel
Michael Shurkin