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The Israel Moment: Reclaiming uncertainty as a spiritual value

Old Person

By Dr. Marc Gafni
Edited, prepared and with introduction by Dr. Heather Fester

Uncertainty is ethically and spiritually essential, Marc Gafni writes here, because it allows us to reach higher certainty, avoid the seduction of false certainty, and reach spiritual authenticity. In this excerpt from Chapter One of his volume Uncertainty, Marc introduces the core “Ullai Stories” or “Maybe Stories” of the Old Testament, explaining the role of Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, as a major character in these stories.

The Israel Moment: Reclaiming Uncertainty as a Spiritual Value

Much of religious tradition can be understood as culture’s attempt to fully triumph over uncertainty. Indeed one of the most important modern Biblical commentaries argues that divine revelation is the gift of a loving God who wants to spare the world the pain of uncertainty.  Many voices in the religious world have declared unilateral victory, arguing that all of life’s doubts can be defeated through faith, religious observance, and logic.1

I believe our life experiences give lie to absolute religious and spiritual claims to certainty. Sometimes the way religious tradition critiques itself and conveys its more subtle and even radical ideas is through the seemingly innocent story. It is in this light that I understand the following wonderful story:

Yankele used to go to the market every week to buy the basic necessities for the Sabbath. Every Friday, he would buy Sabbath candles for one ruble, bread for one ruble, and Kiddush2 wine for another ruble: three rubles were all he and his wife could spare for the Sabbath meal. One day, Yankele arrives at the market with the three coins jingling in his pocket, and he comes across an elderly gentleman that he has never seen before. The old man looks at him deep in the eyes and says softly, “Excuse me, young man, but I am terribly thirsty. Could you please buy me a cup of tea?”

Now a cup of tea cost one ruble. To buy this man a cup of tea means that Yankele would have only two rubles left, which would make one of his Sabbath purchases impossible. Yankele is not sure what to do. But he looks into the eyes of the stranger, and for some reason, has a feeling this man is truly thirsty.  And, as something of a scholar, Yankele knows that one can make Kiddush over bread even without  wine, and so he decides to do without the wine this week and buy this enchanting stranger a cup of tea. Together they sit down in the tea-shop, the old man picks up his tea cup, makes a blessing and drinks the tea, closing his eyes in pleasure as the refreshing liquid pours down his throat. It is a few minutes before he opens glistening eyes and thanks Yankele with a very slight bow of the head.

Just as Yankele stands up to leave, the old man says, “Excuse me, could you wait a moment? You have been extremely generous to me. But you see, I am very, very thirsty. Perhaps you could buy me one more cup of tea?” Yankele looks at this old thirsty man and knows he has a problem. What to do? On the one hand, he likes this strange old man. On the other hand, his wife will not like him too much if he comes home with no way to celebrate the Sabbath.

……But then, on the other hand, Yankele remembers that one legal authority,  R. Akiva Eger, taught that lacking bread and wine, one can just say “Shabbat Shalom” to bring in the Sabbath.  In the end, Yankele takes the plunge. He sits back down and orders the man another cup of tea.

Again, the old man makes the blessing and drinks deep with eyes closed. Again, the man thanks Yankele with glistening eyes. But this time, as soon as the man bows his head, Yankele stands up quickly in the hope of escaping the words he knows are about to come: “Excuse me, sir,” says the old man before Yankele has reached the exit, “I am still very, very thirsty. Please could you buy me just one more cup of tea?” Again, Yankele is full of uncertainty. A crowd of Halachic variables rush around his head, but this time he can find no legal justification for forfeiting the last ruble which he needs for the Sabbath candles. “I’m sorry,” he says, “But I can’t buy you another cup of tea.” The old man smiles a sad smile, and bows his head. “Before you leave, let me bless you,” the old man says. “I bless you with great wealth, health, and a good long life.” Yankele thanks the man for his blessing and hurries off to prepare for Sabbath.

Sure enough, Yankele becomes a very wealthy man. He is able to look after his wife and all his children in luxury and style. He lives the epitome of a good, long life. But he is now nearing the end of his days, and he has only one desire left in the world and that is to thank the old man from that fateful encounter in the tea-shop. And so he goes and sits in the tea-shop every Friday in hopes of finding him again. Finally, one Friday before the setting sun, Yankele looks up from his tea and sees…the old man. It’s the old man—and although Yankele has grown older, the old man seems to look exactly the same.

Yankele jumps up, grasps the old man’s hands and blurts out all the gratitude that has built up inside him all those years. But the old man does not return his embrace, does not respond to his thanks. Yankele sees that the old man has bowed his head in order to hide a silent tear running down his face. “What is the matter?” asks Yankele, “Did I say something, did I do something wrong?” And the old man says, in a quiet, infinitely understanding voice—a voice which resounds throughout the heavens—he says, “If only, if only you had poured me one more cup of tea…”

The story,3 speaks to the experience of us all. We have all of us faced situations where we have needed to risk buying a cup of tea for a stranger, where we have to decide whether to take a leap in the dark. Likewise, we have all come across situations where we wish we had risked more, where with the benefit of hindsight we regret our caution. I have drawn on a story from within the Jewish tradition to point out that this universal experience of the uncertainties in life happens to us all. Yankele is a religious man, an observant, knowledgeable Jew with a deep faith in God, and yet this faith does not save him from uncertainty. Yankele acted according to the certainties provided to him by the law. The stranger makes the radical suggestion that there are times when we need to move beyond the soothing certainties of law or even common sense. This is the symbol of the third cup of tea. There is a point in our lives where, in order to reach authenticity, we need to buy the third cup of tea. Indeed in this story, sometimes only through entering uncertainty can the highest treasures be attained.

And yet Safek, which we have translated as uncertainty or perhaps more correctly, ambiguity, is the greatest producer of anxiety, tension, and existential malaise. There is no joy like the resolution of doubt. But how do we know how to resolve and when to resolve? Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hamlet wavered for us all.” His “to be or not to be” soliloquy is Shakespeare’s song of uncertainty which resonates in the melodies of all of our lives. How, if at all, can certainty be achieved? How are such decisions made? When to buy the tea and when not to buy the tea? When do we need to be safe and clear; when is risk irresponsible and immoral; and when is risk courageous, audacious, and even the highest expression of our humanity?

Biblical theology’s unique understanding is that living the sacred life requires a dialectical relationship between paradise and paradox, between core certainties and the existence of uncertainty. Both certainty and uncertainty are vital—each has its moment. Healthy religion, as well as healthy living, flow from simultaneously maintaining certainty and uncertainty.

In order to live in the world in a way that is both grounded and passionate, I need first to be certain about myself. If I do not doubt myself, then I have the inner strength to be able to encounter the many areas of my life where uncertainty is inherent and inescapable. Moreover, healthy acceptance of uncertainty will enable me to avoid both the paralysis of indecision and the recklessness of an extremism which craves the certainty of over-simplification. If I am anchored and motivated by some sense of inner certainty, then I can act courageously in uncertainty. If I hold no inner certainties, then acting from uncertainty is almost invariably a far too dangerous proposition.

In our book on Certainty, we understood that in order to reach sippuk—fulfillment—I need to resolve my inner safek—uncertainty. My failure to resolve that inner safek will prevent me from ever reaching true sippuk—satisfaction and will cause me almost pathologically to seek sippuk in places which are not of myself. Such a spiral will eventually lead to Amalek—the embodiment of evil—which the Zohar explains is the mystical equivalent of safek.4

In the first book of this study entitled Certainty, the Judah Moment framework was introduced, associated with the biblical story of Judah, in order to unpack the experience of core certainty. There is, however, a second moment in biblical consciousness where precisely the opposite holds true: where, rather than being enemies, safek-uncertainty and sippuk-satisfaction are inseparable allies. In this way of thinking, I can never reach deep sippuk without holding, choosing, or grappling with safek. Satisfaction is not attainable without uncertainty. In this second mode of Jewish thought, it follows that if I am unable to countenance safek in my life, I will always rush to grasp at a false certainty in order to escape the tension of uncertainty. This false certainty will never lead me to true sippuk.

In conjunction with teaching the need for inner certainty, biblical thought also deeply affirms the benefit of doubt. Uncertainty is understood to be both a spiritual necessity, a requisite for reaching authenticity, and an indispensable tool in achieving the highest levels of certainty. I shall refer to this experience as the Israel Moment. This because the archetypal Biblical figure of Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, is the paradigm for the spiritual reclamation of uncertainty as a reality to be embraced and not resolved. First, however, let us acknowledge the common assumption that faith and uncertainty are inherent contradictions.

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A critique of Jeff Salzman’s view of Mitt Romney as having an Integral worldview

Mitt Romney

On the Daily Evolver, Boulder Integral co-founder and integral pundit Jeff Salzman takes a contrarian position on Mitt Romney’s philosophy, character, and worldview. Unlike many of his friends who regard the Republican candidate for U.S. president as a joke, Salzman thinks Romney has a “whipsmart mind” that presents a credible option for voters.

Salzman writes:

I argue that Romney has an Integral view of the world, even though my lefty friends will strongly object (as I am sure we will see in the reaction to this dialogue!) If you look at Romney’s life, you see a straight shooter. No big scandals (yet), doesn’t drink, and seems like a reasonable guy. His family is a strong presence in the progressive wing of the Mormon Church. He believes in rules and fairness in managing his employees, and has been highly successful in the modern financial market—even though you could argue that Bain Capital did not actually create jobs, but instead created lots of increased revenue for its owners. And Romney, at various points in his career, has supported progressive positions in health care, gay rights, and gun control from a moderate Republican position.

In my view Salzman makes some salient observations, but I think he misses a hugely important aspect in his analysis.

I agree with Salzman that Romney’s view of the world shows some markers of an integral consciousness: listening to many perspectives, taking positions that appear to be mid-way between left and right, and so forth. David Reardon and Jeff Salzman attribute different levels of development to aspects of Romney’s worldview — red, blue, orange, green — in a manner common to Integral Theory, which informs their thinking.

However, if we grant that Romney has an integral consciousness, it must still be acknowledged (I think) that he is tremendously flawed in many basic measures of social ethics: advocating tax policies which could wipe out the poor and middle class safety net in favor of millionaires and billionaires; doubting the reality of climate change; setting the gay rights movement back massively; appointing “strict constructionist” judges to the Supreme Court that could pave the way for the most radical re-making of America in a hundred years; deporting millions of undocumented workers, making havoc and destroying many thousands of Hispanic families; repealing health care reform; and so on, and so on… Who can doubt that Romney is seriously, dangerous flawed as a candidate?

If Mitt is a poster child for Integral, no wonder there are plenty of people who think there’s a shadow to Integral that is producing such deformities of political worldview. Marc Gafni has recently written eloquently on “A hidden danger of high states and structure stages: unkindness.” Could it be that Integral consciousness — call it yellow, teal, or turquoise, post-postmodern if you will — places so much value on cognitive complexity and flexible framing and positioning, that Integral’s own shadow comes to the fore in Romney’s character?

Consider if these are traits of an Integral worldview:

  • Janus-faced duplicity
  • Pandering, craven hypocrisy
  • Treating people as ends rather than means
  • An instrumental, machine-like ability to manipulate outcomes
  • Saying what you need to say to every audience, lacking a backbone
  • Forgetting core values such as love, kindness, and decency in favor of expediency and efficiency
  • Instead of owning his own path of development or evolution, Romney sometimes lies about it, claiming to have always had the same views
  • Willingness to throw people under the bus, sacrificing the dignity of individuals in favor of a collective spirit (see how Romney destroyed Newt Gingrich’s reputation)

Maybe Mitt Romney is an Integral poster boy. That strikes me as a scary possibility. There are certainly well-informed integralists who believe that he is, even if they say they will “probably end up voting for Obama.” And perhaps it is our own integral shadow that we project on Romney. But that ought to give people pause who think that an Integral Consciousness or Integral Revolution will transform the world in itself.

A World Politics based on Integral principles needs to be careful to be alert to these important shadows. I have no doubt that Mitt Romney is a good family man who wants a better world for his grandchildren; but with the extreme and backwards features of his worldview, is he really the best person to put in charge?

Love, compassion, justice … these are the principles upon which a World Politics ought to be based. Certainly the AQAL Integral Framework must inform our analyses, but not to the point where we are sanctioning craven politicians who will say anything to get elected and, once elected, re-write America’s laws in the most extreme regressive agenda of any candidate in recent history.

Romney, for all his beautiful wonderful individuality and sacred dignity, is (I think) not an authentic character. I haven’t met him so I can’t speak from personal experience, but pundits all describe him as “plastic” and “phony.” That his “authenticity problem” does not appear high on the radar screen of Jeff Salzman and David Reardon should be a telling sign that they may not have fully absorbed the importance of Marc Gafni’s Unique Self teaching for World Politics.

Authenticity — a deep centered presence in the True Self, manifested in ways that people instinctually feel are genuine and love-based, is the key to understanding how many voters approach the ballot box. The Integral worldview without authenticity can get stuck in its own ugly shadow.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Nick Georgiou’s art, inspired by the death of the printed word

Our Names writ, writ in Kosmic scroll,
Our cosmic names turn and turn,
Books they are written in, burn and burn,
Ever Our Names are writ, rewritten.

— Joe Perez

Nick Georgiou:

My art is inspired by the death of the printed word. Books and newspapers are becoming artifacts of the 21st century. As a society we’re shifting away from print consumption and heading straight towards full digital lives. My sculptures are products of their environment — both literally and figuratively. As often as I can, I use local newspapers to add authenticity, and the form the sculpture takes is a reflection of the personal connection I feel to that particular city. From a day-to-day standpoint, I’m heavily influenced by my surroundings. These days, I draw inspiration from America’s South West, and in particular Tucson, AZ — where I’ve lived and worked for almost four years. Going from NY to the desert is a pretty dramatic shift. Your concept of space expands when it’s not obstructed by buildings. You pay closer attention to nature because you’re always in it—and you do what you can to preserve it.

Georgiou’s blog.

Photo Credit: Nick Georgiou

Olivia Fox Cabane: mindfulness is a key to being more charismatic

Olivia Fox Cabane

By Joe Perez

In “How To Reverse Your Hard Wiring For Distraction,” Olivia Fox Cabane says that personal presence is one of the three keys to cultivating charisma. She excerpts from her book, The Charisma Myth:

Charismatic behavior can be broken down into three core elements: presence, power, and warmth. These elements depend both on our conscious behaviors and on factors we don’t consciously control. People pick up on messages we often don’t even realize we’re sending through small changes in our body language.

In order to be charismatic, we need to choose mental states that make our body language, words, and behaviors flow together and express the three core elements of charisma. And presence is the foundation for everything else.

Have you ever felt, in the middle of a conversation, as if only half of your mind were present while the other half was busy doing something else? Do you think the other person noticed? If you’re not fully present in an interaction, there’s a good chance that your eyes will glaze over or that your facial reactions will be a split-second delayed. Since the mind can read facial expressions in as little as 17 milliseconds, the person you’re speaking with will likely notice even the tiniest delays in your reactions.

We may think that we can fake presence. We may think that we can fake listening. But we’re wrong. When we’re not fully present in an interaction, people will see it. Our body language sends a clear message that other people read and react to, at least on a subconscious level.

Not only can the lack of presence be visible, it can also be perceived as inauthentic, which has even worse consequences. When you’re perceived as disingenuous, it’s virtually impossible to generate trust, rapport, or loyalty. And it’s impossible to be charismatic.

Luckily, presence is a learnable skill that can be improved with practice and patience. Being present means simply having a moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening. It means paying attention to what’s going on rather than being caught up in your own thoughts.

Fox Cabane’s prescriptions for increasing moment-to-moment awareness are sound and easy to understand. For example, she advises starting with a one-minute mindfulness meditation to cultivate moment-to-moment awareness. Then, in the flow of our life, we simply bring ourselves back to presence with a moment of awareness to our breath, the sensations in our stomach, or our toes.

Olivia stresses that presence is a learnable skill. Presence, we say, is not only an option for all people, but an obligation. A world of suffering commands us to show up whole, giving everything we have with passion.

When we bring more of our presence into our everyday life, we not only cultivate charisma, we also encounter our True Self, that Ultimate Identity which is connected to the ground of Being itself. That’s why straying from our True Self creates the perception of inauthenticity, and why stepping more fully into our Unique Self may create more magnetism.