Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Transformation Through Self-Expression

Sefirat Ha'omer, Part VII

By Shimona Tzukernik
The African image that most captured my imagination in school was the repeated theme of a body with a head at either end of the torso. It's really a sculpture of a woman giving birth as the baby's head emerges. In some ways, the two-headed torso is the exact opposite of the more Eastern image of a snake eating its tail. The latter prompts one to think about disappearing. The former is all about self-expression.
 Whilst we all desire self-actualization and the ability or forum to express ourselves, on the whole we humans resist being the crowning infant. We want to be the top head, to come in first, have our name up in lights. Our sages advise us, "Better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox." But seriously, how many people can you think of who pick up on that?
The "bottom end" of life is something we shun in our search for fame and importance. Our leaders position themselves as heads but are by far and wide the rattled ends not of a lion's, but a fox's tail. That aside, let's not project. We needn't look outward. We need just look at ourselves to find testimony to the predilection to take the lead no matter what, and at all costs. Whether in a personal relationship where we want to be the one dictating the rules, at work or at play, we're consistently aiming to be the top head of the sculpture.
That's sad. I don't say it in a judgmental or abstractly philosophical way. I mean it for real. The orientation prevents us from becoming who we're really meant to be. It also prevents us from fulfilling our true purpose in the word because, as we will see, it is precisely in the bottom head that our ultimate raison d'ĂȘtre and power lie.
The crowing head of an emerging infant epitomizes the last of the soul's inner powers. In Hebrew, that ability of the soul is called Malchut which literally means "sovereignty." It is the place that we first begin to reveal our inner selves to the world. Through giving expression to our self, we gain the opportunity to be a shining light. We can become leaders the moment we put ourselves out there. That's why the sphere of Malchut is also associated with royalty and dignity. It connotes all the wonder that comes with the expression of our truest self.
 Kabbalistically this soul power is associated with the bottom of the body, the very "crown" of the reproductive organs – the corona in the male and the labia in the female – and with the appearance of the head of the child.
 In this light Malchut, or self-expression, embodies a contradiction. It is the lowest of the soul powers yet the birth point of an entirely new reality. This is only possible because its root is higher than any of the previous six core emotions or three minds. Its origin is the highest, most abstract dimension of the soul, our spiritual unconscious. That's why the emergence of the baby's head is called crowning. The top of its head breaking through the bottom of the mother's body reflects her crown both in terms of the physical fontanel and so too the point where her consciousness is so high it ceases to function in the way we generally associate with regular awareness.
 That's the contradiction.
 The newness that is born of self-expression is entirely dependent on what's come before it. Self-expression brings us to the front door of why we're here but cannot exist without all the other abilities that inform it. And although it manifests last, it precedes all the other abilities in terms of its spiritual source.
 It is for this reason that our sages tell us that the soul power of royalty "has nothing of her own." Like
the moon who receives from the sun and illuminates the night, your ability to manifest in the world must first absorb the totality of who you. Only then can it shine outwards. Before you can be in the world in a powerful, dignified way, you'll have to choose to open yourself to all of who you are, from the crown of your supra-conscious, through mindfulness and love and respect, all the way down to your ability to bond with another. You can reveal who you are to the world only by virtue of absorbing into yourself the other nine powers of your soul.
 These nine powers need Malchut, self-expression, because they are essentially each only a part of a bigger whole. When you manage to communicate them to the world, you are synthesizing them and bringing them to actualization. In the process, you become whole and actualized because your true self is built from each of the previous abilities.
The soul powers associated with the left side of the tree of life – analysis, restraint or respect, and humility – flow downwards, guiding you to manifest and lead first and foremost on the basis of fear of heaven. In order to become the influencer and leader you are capable of being, you must first be open to receiving from the Supreme Leader, Gd. Only then, from a place of humility, is leadership of the sort that people will accept. Leadership that is built upon self-abnegation becomes powerful. It is by virtue of putting aside your ego and being willing to be the "bottom head" that your soul can ascend to its highest source.
Next comes the right axis of the tree – creative brainstorming or conceptualizing, love and ambition. They bring to self-actualization the expansive and embracing love that leadership needs in order to flourish. Without these embracing, inclusive and celebrating components, you cannot facilitate growth for others. So first comes awe, then love. When you are open to incorporating these qualities without an agenda as to "being first" or doing things one way or another then you become the kind of person others love to be around. You manifest as a leader with dignity who can inspire true renewal for others.
Finally comes the highest synthesis of all, that within the third and central column of the mystical map of the soul – the Tree of Life. It is an axis of which self-expression is itself a part. The abilities on this central branch are our supra-conscious, our ability to deeply internalize and intimately know things, our heart-empathic center and our ability to bond. Each of these needs the Malchut in order to become whole. And with the marriage of the upper and lower dimensions of your being, you are able to fully manifest who you are in potential.
It is a merging akin to that of man and woman. Just as a woman receives from her husband thereby giving birth to the child, so too your ability to convey who you are to the world now gives birth to a new reality. Think of turning the sculpture upside down. The infant becomes the crown of the mother, herself birthing a new child. Counter-intuitively, self-expression happens through putting one's self aside. When you do that, you can give birth to a new reality both for your soul and for the world.
 What you give birth to are what Kabbalah calls the "garments of the soul," namely thought, speech and action. Now whereas we have relatively little control over our inner makeup, we have all the control in the world – and all the accountability – in mastering our "outsides." Each of us is expected to mentally focus only on those concepts that Gd approves of. Our speech is required to be refined and holy. So too our actions.
 You don't choose to be born a person who is innately gifted in love or awe. You're born expansive or contractive, more intellectually or emotionally inclined. Maybe you're a rationalist or a mystic. These orientations are a result of our inner soul structure. That's Gd given and each of us must utilize our gifts and attempt to minimize our weaknesses. But you don't really get to choose whether to be that way or not. Yes, it's possible to change your personality. But it's highly improbable.
 Where you do have the freedom of choice is in how you're going to put that all out there in the world. At any given moment you can decide to think one thing or another. You can say a kind or cutting word. You can act from ego or non-ego. Thought, speech and action are called "garments" for precisely that reason. You can take them off or put them on at will. Here, in the arena of your soul garments, your "outsides," get to exercise free choice.
 This is what Malchut gives birth to – the core, the essence of why we're here. It's not really our inner being that's the goal. We're here to help Gd out and bring redemption. That's done through refining the matter of the universe which is in turn accomplished through the commandments. We fulfill them through thought, speech and action. So it is in the garments of the soul and through self-expression that we accomplish our ultimate purpose.
 We're culturally trained to think otherwise: The "lowly commandments" are "petty details" that pale in comparison with being in the flow! But that's just not true. Living a meaningful life is not so much about self-actualization as it is about helping Gd out, on His terms. Mistakenly, we focus on the glory of being on top, being spiritual and enlightened. We dismiss being empty, receiving, doing small acts of kindness that change the world bottom-up.
 How mistaken.
 It's in the place we resist that we touch our purpose. Sure we want to be the first head and never the baby at the bottom. But right there, in the "lowest" dimension of the soul, we gain access to its highest point. More importantly, it's through this "lowest" of soul powers that we get done what we're here to do in the first place. Jews do not eschew the mundane. We celebrate matter and even – or rather particularly – the lowest dimensions of who we are.
 I got to thinking about this some years back when one of my soul sisters celebrated her daughter's bat mitzvah. She asked us to think about which woman in Jewish history we most admire and aspire to be like, or who had most influenced our course in life. I thought about it a lot.
 As I mentally scanned the women of the Bible and Talmud, I felt humbled by how far away I am from what they embody. I was searching for the person who on the one hand stood for something beyond me but on the other was someone I could relate to in an empirical kind of way. I came to the party still undecided. As I sat at the table with all the beautiful women and their breathtaking daughters, all of us sharing our hopes and points of reference with ancient women who called to us across time, I was struck by how wondrous the "ordinary" is. How many women throughout thousands of years had sat as we were, sharing and trying to come closer to what Gd wants of us? I felt such an affinity with them. And in that moment, I felt that my personal aspiration was to be like Bilhah and Zilpah, the two half-sisters of Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob.
 These two women are also mothers of our people but not generally referred to as such. I was taken by the sense of how much they were willing to put aside an agenda, to simply receive. Thereby they became the mothers of six tribes. They are tribes that are hidden until the coming of Mashiach. I think those tribes are like their mothers, silent and non-egotistic, willing to wait and receive before giving birth to a new age.
 Of course I want to be like Sarah and Esther and Miriam and Deborah and…the list goes on and on. It feels a little uncomfortable to admit it being that I'm so far from what they embody. But I'm certain that one of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I need to be more like Bilhah and Zilpah. I need to take in their lesson before I can approach something higher. The first step is to stop insisting on being at the forefront. I want to be willing to be the one given birth to. Then I'll become a mother.
This is the intent of the words of King David. He tells us, "This is the gate to Gd, the righteous shall enter through it."1 Self-expression is that gate. First comes the surrendering of ego, the willingness to simply receive, then comes the synthesizing of all the building blocks, and finally you get to cross the threshold of Gd's gate.
1. Pslam 118:20
 This article was originally posted on www.thejewishwoman.org