Tuesday, January 11, 2011

All the World's a Stage

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. -William Shakespeare

Chassidic philosophy teaches that there are two different ways to attach to G-d.  Yechida tata’ah (lower level attachment) relates to G-d as Creator and Rule-giver.  We are aware and cognizant that there is a Source-of-all-existence Who has created the world with certain parameters, and in order to serve this Creator, we must operate within those rules.

In the physical realm objects fall to the ground, fire burns, water flows, cold freezes, etc.  In the emotional realm love heals and hate hurts, trust is built up slowly, uncertainty creates anxiety, etc.  In the intellectual realm the past comes before the future, two different objects cannot share the same space, contradictions are untenable, etc.  And in the spiritual realm only certain acts draw one close to G-d, some objects are holy while others profane, acts of kindness are preferred over acts of cruelty, etc.

Conversely, Yechida ilah’ah (higher level attachment) reveals that our world, filled with all its distinct rules and dimensions, is an illusion and that in actuality, everything is G-d and G-d is everything.  There is nothing closer or farther away from G-d, because everything is G-d.  All rules lose their meaning from this perspective.  Nothing has greater value than anything else because all are manifestations of the same G-d.  Plurality is shown to be false because all is one.  Our normal waking state is therefore called olam ha-sheker (a world of deceit) because we do not generally connect to G-d at this level and act as if the world of appearances is fundamentally true and all there is – thereby constantly living in a denial of the ultimate truth.  

Of course, attempting to live according to this higher perspective would lead to insanity or worse because, the fact is, you and that bus travelling 40 miles an hour are not actually one and if you step in front of it, then…  Real and undeniable consequences result from the choices we make.  We can’t say to someone we have just offended, “Don’t worry about it.  It’s all G-d.”  That would be mean – and absurd.  We are obligated to learn the rules of physics, etiquette, logic, and morality/ethics, because if we don’t we will constantly hurt ourselves or others.  

And yet, the higher level reality remains undeniably true:  everything is G-d and G-d is everything.  How do we resolve this paradox?

Reconciling these two perspectives – the lower and higher attachments to G-d – is vital to the development of a healthy and balanced psyche, because even if our minds are not aware of this philosophical schism, our souls are.  Our essential selves are constantly pulled in two different directions – toward active engagement in this world and toward absolute self-nullification in G-d.  This creates a fundamental split that demands resolution.  

The answer, according to Chassidic philosophy, is to live “as if” this world is real – but always remembering that it is not.  This is the stance of an actor who completely “gets into his part,” but then easily moves back into his real self when the play is over.  For reasons beyond our comprehension, G-d has cast us in a giant cosmic drama and we are expected to play the roles written for us to the best of our abilities.  We must “get into our parts” while never forgetting there is a bigger reality beyond the confines of the stage.  Something from my own personal experience can illustrate this point.

I used to act in community theater and once performed a Chekov play “in the round.”  This means that the audience encircled the stage, with the first row so close that they could prop their feet on the platform.  Everything was going well until the final act, which was the emotional climax of the play.  I was confronting my wife’s lover and concentrating intensely on my delivery of a complex soliloquy when suddenly an audience member from the first row had an epileptic seizure and collapsed onto the stage.  For what seemed like hours, we all just stared at the unfortunate person convulsing in front of us.  Both the audience and the actors were so engrossed in the play that it took a great effort to pull ourselves out of the story and realize that a very real situation had just landed in front of us.  This was the last play in which I ever performed because I felt so uncomfortable and disconcerted by my inability to move back into reality when I needed to.

Our psychic well-being depends on our ability to “get into” the roles written for our personal scripts (lower level attachment to G-d) while never losing sight of the fact that there is a greater reality just outside the confines of the stage (higher level attachment to G-d).  We need to take this world seriously, but  not so seriously that we delude ourselves into thinking that this is “all there is.”  Practicing moving back and forth easily between these two perspectives reconciles the soul’s duty to engage in this world with its simultaneous yearning to be subsumed back into its Source.  Hopelessness, anxiety, or anger lose their potency because we know that there is a higher reality just past the stage lights that we can tap into whenever we need to.  We gain perspective and, hopefully – peace of mind.

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