Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Rabbi David Cooper. Rabbi Cooper has been called one of today’s leading teachers of Jewish meditation. He’s an active student of the world’s great spiritual traditions and is the author of many books, including God Is a Verb, Entering the Sacred Mountain, A Heart of Stillness and Renewing Your Soul. With Sounds True, Rabbi Cooper has created an audio program on Kabbalah Meditation and a six-session learning series, Seeing Through the Eyes of God, [which is] a complete audio course on the original path to enlightenment from the Jewish mystical tradition.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rabbi Cooper and I spoke about the power of the Sabbath to restore our soul and how to work with powerful Hebrew phrases that we can use in meditation, like a mantra. We also spoke about what David calls a “God-ing process” as well as how we can look at angels as energy bundles. David also led us through a guided meditation that we can use at any point in our life when we need to receive help and support. Here’s my very thoughtful and loving conversation with Rabbi David Cooper.
I want to begin by talking about retreat practice. I know you have just gotten back from leading a week-long retreat, and in your bio it states, on your website, that you’re a “dedicated retreatant.” And I have a couple of questions about retreat practice. My first is that I was talking to somebody—a young person, a person in their late 20s—and he was saying to me, “You know, the people of my generation aren’t really interested in retreat practice. That seems like something the previous generation really dedicated themselves to. We’re interested in really bringing our spirituality into our everyday life, and we can go deep into meditation and deep into spiritual inquiry simply by practicing one day a week in the midst of our everyday life. You know, having an evening gathering or something like that. And that this whole emphasis of retreat is perhaps outdated.” I’m curious what you think about that.
David Cooper: I think it’s a wonderful question. I did just come back from a retreat on the East coast, and for a number of years, it’s been difficult getting people in their 20s and 30s to join us on retreat. It just so happens that in the last retreat we did, we had about 20 to 30 young folks who were comfortable with the retreat idea. But for most young people, just the price, the cost, of being on a retreat is pretty high.
However, from our experience it’s generally true that as we get drawn more to electronics and iPods and iPads and computers and so forth, the younger generation is doing a lot of different things that was impossible for them to do in the earlier days. And coming on retreat these days is initially scary for younger folks because they’re used to being on their iPads doing social connecting and all of that. And so initially, the folks were a little concerned about keeping the silence all week.
It turned out that they became very strongly attached to the idea of silence as we got deeper into retreat. The idea of doing retreat scared everybody, but the actual experience of doing it turned out to be great, especially for the young folks. As an example, at the end of the retreat we had people come up and speak to the rest of the retreatants—we had 75 people all together—and out of the folks who came up, most of the young folks said how much this had affected their lives and how important it was for them.
At one point during the retreat, I remember asking the entire group, “How many people here feel addicted to their computer?” Virtually everybody raised their hands—the young people and the older people alike, and let’s not forget the middle-aged folks. On the spectrum of everything, it was amazing that everybody raised their hand as being concerned about the fact that they were addicted to their computers and didn’t have enough time just to simply be connected with what’s going on in nature, and what’s going on around them.
So I guess the bottom line is the younger generation is going to be heavily influenced by the modern possibilities of communication. And more and more, I find, in just the most recent days, that there has been an increasing interest among younger folks about what [it is] we do, and what it achieves, and what it’s all about. So I’m hopeful for the younger generation, but I have to admit that what we lead with—this idea that younger folks are not attracted—it’s fundamentally true. It’s just a matter of getting people to experience it. In my own case, I’m not addicted [to technology], but I’ve lived a life full of retreats because it has given me the depth that I look for in the spiritual path. So I’m a committed retreatant, that’s for sure.
TS: Tell me a little bit about what you think can happen in retreat that otherwise for you wouldn’t happen in your life. Why you’re a dedicated retreatant.
DC: It’s my understanding that most of the teachings in the spiritual world are a translation of feelings. [In the Jewish world] we read the Torah together, and we try to glean the teachings that come through there, plus a lot of other works written by the mystics and so forth. Turns out that mystics in general have more of a retreat consciousness, so to speak, that they find that there’s something about quieting down and using the metaphor of going into the cave. We can do that without going into a cave, by simply going on retreat. And what happens is, rather than translational—trying to explain things—the experience of being on retreat is transformational. That is to say, we don’t come out of a seven-day silent experience the same being as the one who went in.
What attracted me to retreats early on was this: One of my earliest experiences on retreat was at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, where Ram Dass had written Be Here Now. I remember going up the mountain and sitting in a cabin for a week, not really knowing what I was doing, just being quiet for a week. And as I came off the mountain top and came down, there was somebody who had been deeply involved in a spiritual practice on the land. We kind of met each other on the road and looked into each other’s eyes, and I realized that this person—who was a spiritual devotee, who had just been practicing a lot with a group of other people—and I—who had done nothing for the week and just basically stared into space and did some mantras that I had been taught—we were exactly on the same plane. We were exactly in the same space.
It was that moment of realization that I had gone through a transformation that connected me to life in an entirely different way—that it was going to be my spiritual path. And it has been my spiritual path all along. I felt very comfortable sitting with the Hindu world and the different levels of the Buddhist world. And in all of these experiences that I found, all of the mystics shared a common experience of discussing. The way I describe it usually is: if I experience a rose, and I want to share with you what this rose smells like, I can use all the words to describe the smell, but it’s not going to work. But if I hand you the rose, in one breath, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about, the fragrance of the rose. And that’s the metaphor of retreating for me. I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but I actually, when I have an experience that’s as deep as I have almost every time I go on retreat, it’s the smelling of the fragrance of the mystical world and it’s absolutely marvelous.
TS: You know, it’s interesting that you talked about people being addicted to their computers, because whether it’s our computers, or whether it’s just the activity of our life, I do think that for people who’ve never been on a solitary retreat or a silent retreat with a group, it can be a real interruption in the habitual pattern of our life. And I’m wondering if you can talk about that, just this idea of really creating a break from our habitual patterns.
DC: Well, creating a break is absolutely one of the greatest things. I remember sitting on retreat with a Tibetan teacher. It was a large retreat, and he was a very well-known teacher, and he was having a good time on stage, so to speak. And one of the problems that most of us face—and it’s brought to me frequently by a lot of my students—is that there seems to be an up experience, where we’re deeply engaged in something and it drops down. This up and down swing between getting high, so to speak (we don’t have the right words for it), and then being caught up in our busy days and our busy lives and then going off getting high again in some kind of experience and then coming down. There’s this very strong desire to somehow stabilize our practice at some level so we’re not doing these ups and downs all the time.
And this was a question put to the Rinpoche: What one could do in order to balance up their lives. He looked up and he just said to them, “Take one day off a week.” And it absolutely blew my mind, because he was basically describing the Jewish approach to living a contemplative life, which is, “Take the Sabbath day once a week.” We call it, in the Jewish world, a “time out of time,” where you’re not really keeping time, you’re just immersing in that day off. And we call it Shabbat, the day of the Sabbath.
Which is interestingly put into the Ten Commandments, no less—to take off one day a week. You have to ask yourself, “That’s the most amazing thing! In the Ten Commandments? We have to be told to take a day off a week?” It turns out that we get easily caught in the activities of life, which is wonderful those other six days of the week, or can be wonderful. They can be overwhelming for some people. But to be able to take a break and take some time off—so this is the one day a week idea that a Tibetan teacher, who isn’t actually talking to us about the Sabbath day, but in Western tradition we have a very strong emphasis on this idea. And he’s recommending taking one day off a week.
So I think it’s imperative, and to go a little bit further, I find that one day a week is a maintenance practice. It kind of keeps us in tune with who we are and what we’re doing here to some extent, to whatever degree we understand our purpose in life. But it’s something that doesn’t even have to go into those thoughts. The ideal modality for most contemplative folks in the mystical plane is to simply do nothing and go nowhere. And that’s a teaching we have when we go on retreat: we’re not going anywhere, we’re just sitting and contemplating.
So on that level, in addition to the one day a week, I like to encourage people to take off one or two weeks a year, because it’s that week—it’s that longer experience of simply being connected with what’s happened around us that is the transformative part. The balance for me is, do we transform when we go on retreat, and do we sustain and maintain ourselves when take that one day off a week? If we’re willing to do so—and actually, it’s interesting that it’s very difficult for people to actually take that day. Because there are so many things in our lives, and there’s so much multitasking going on. Taking a day off is not only not multitasking, it’s just completely staying focused on the one thing, which is, “What is happening in this moment, right now with me?” And we just keep repeating that over and over again and that is somehow incredibly transformative for all ages, for all people in all walks of life.
TS: Now, just to go a bit further into that, I can imagine someone listening who says, “You know, I’m really going to do this. I’m going to take one day a week. I need this time for the restorative of my soul.” But they’re not quite clear on what you’re saying—[they’re thinking], “What’s actually happening within me right now? How do I make the most of this one day a week, this day of Sabbath?”
DC: This “how do I make the most of the Sabbath” is simply determining what is our priority. And how we want to spend our time. In this case, it’s actually sometimes counter our intuition, [which usually says], “Oh, this is a day off, that means I can write the letters I want to write and read the books that I want to read and write people and make the connections and get on the web. Oh, it’s great, I’ve got a whole day, I can [make] all the connections in life that I’ve been wanting to do.” That would be—from the advice of somebody who’s done retreat—filling in your day with a lot of distraction of what is actually happening in this moment. So it is counterintuitive if somebody tries to take the time off without some kind of guidance.
There’s guidance in a lot of different languages and [at] a lot of different levels, but there does seem to be some way that it’s carried through the centuries. You can read back a thousand years ago or even two thousand years ago. You know, the shepherds that we get a lot of our traditions from, [they] were sitting in the field not doing very much but watching the sheep and making sure that they don’t wonder off. Can you imagine what the life of a shepherd is like, where a lot of the teachings have come through? Where there’s no dialing up and contacting people all around the world?
I don’t want to put the social networks down at all. I mean, I think that computers are probably the greatest gift that humanity has had for connecting with one another, and it has incredible potential. So I love my computers—and notice I say that in plural—and, you know, the capability we have. But to make the most out of a retreat moment, or a day of silence and contemplation, is to actually switch our lives around in such a way that we don’t fulfill all of the social needs that we have. We can do that for the other six days. But that we actually do something that nurtures what we call in Judaism the neshamah, one of the five souls that we have. We’re actually calming down three out of the five. And the way that we maximize the time is by giving ourselves this gift of liberation, to be free [and] to actually simply be here.
I do suggest to folks that they have something inspirational that they can read—[but] not to distract themselves. I usually suggest something that’s half a page long that [can inspire you] without [making you] reading a book. [It could be] something that you could play on a CD or a DVD for 15 or 20 minutes, and something that is nurturing the soul, so to speak. And then sit quietly or sit with the words of wisdom or sit with the feeling of love for a particular individual or teaching. That allowing, that relaxing and settling back and being almost committed to not being disturbed, not being distracted—that’s how we become whole.
So I guess the bottom line recommendation is it probably would be a good idea for those who are interested in it to learn meditation [from] somebody who’s got a lot of background—we’ll call it a meditation master. Learn it and sit with other people in a group on a fairly regular basis and take a retreat with some good guidance before you try to do solos. [Then] you can benefit by the experience of thousands of years of advice on how to do these practices and what to do when we don’t have anything on the agenda at that particular moment. So it’s wiping the board clean. Don’t try to accomplish anything, and that’s how you accomplish everything that you’re looking for.
TS: Now, David, sometimes you’re called a “Buddhist rabbi.” And my own experience, in terms of learning meditation, I went to the Buddhist tradition to be trained. And yet it seems to me, in your work, you’ve discovered a Jewish path of meditation. I’m wondering if you could talk some about that.
DC: We have to keep in mind as I’m responding to your question that I feel very comfortable in a lot of different traditions. In my early days I was a Sufi. I was initiated into the Sufi order of the West with Pir Vilayat Khan—he was one of the great meditation teachers—and it was [being] at a meditation retreat that actually made me want to become a Sufi. Then I explored a lot of Eastern traditions, and I’m pretty familiar with most of the different levels of Buddhism. Actually, when I decided I wanted to go deeper into my spiritual path, I had to decide: Should I be a Buddhist? Should I be a Hindu? Should I be a Christian? Should I be a Jew? Should I be a Sufi? That kind of thing.
I ended up with the little voice coming through saying, “Well, you were born Jewish, so if all paths lead to the One”—which is essentially a Sufi teaching, every path up the mountain has its own burdens and its own difficulties that one will encounter. But at the top of the mountain, the view is virtually the same no matter what tradition you use to climb that mountain, because we’re standing at the peak. So I decided to follow the Jewish path initially because it drew me on the level of family and tradition that, even though my family was not religious, I had a lot of experience with other Jewish folks. And so when I made this decision [on] what path to take, it was at that point just a pragmatic decision to follow Judaism.
My wife and I moved to Israel and lived in Israel off and on, coming home for summers, for about eight years. During the time that we were in Israel, I discovered that I needed to have more connection with whatever it was that was inviting me to live a spiritual life and a contemplative life. Somehow it just began to—I was attracted to the Hasidic teachings and the Kabbalistic teachings and the kinds of things that were more contemplative. And as I got deeper and deeper into it, I found that I could discover contemplatives in the Jewish world, but most of the mainstream Judaism I was encountering living in the old city of Jerusalem was a traditional approach. On its own, on the face of it, there’s a lot of language, there’s a lot of words, a lot of communication going on, and very little sitting quietly in a meditative form.
I found myself being drawn more and more into the quiet sitting and looking for individuals in the tradition who actually recommending a contemplative approach. [I] found that there’s a pretty clear lineage that goes all the way back for a couple thousand years, and even in the Torah you can find references to what it was like. Again, the Torah, which some people call the Old Testament, is about a wondering life, about a life in the desert with a lot of silence and a lot of contemplative experience. So you can find a lot of potential in the tradition. Still, when I first got involved in my Jewish world, as it was not exactly the way people lived their lives, I started to lead folks in meditation.
Interestingly, I remember one year in Jerusalem, there were a number of folks who had a strong background in various traditions. We got together to prepare ourselves between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—these 10 days in between, they’re called the “days of awe.” And all of these folks were fairly well-disciplined in various aspects of their other traditions, but they were all now religious Jews. So we all practiced together, getting ready for Yom Kippur, and then the day before Yom Kippur everybody went their own way and went to their own synagogue and spent the day in prayer. Then we got together after Yom Kippur and, again, there was mutual agreement of everybody in that room saying that they could not understand how anybody could possibly experience Yom Kippur without having gone through and spent a week in silent practice preparing ourselves. And it actually kind of blew my mind. I think all of us were fascinated by that.
But it was that event that—my wife and I decided to bring the contemplative aspect in a Buddhist form initially to the West, to folks who were in the Jewish mold on one level or another. [We wanted] to offer a retreat that initially had a lot of Buddhist ideals, not the least of which is just sitting quietly and watching the breath. And we did that, and as things matured in the practice, more and more Jewish material was brought in. In the early days, oftentimes people would come and say, “What’s making this [practice] Jewish?” Nowadays there’s no question about the idea that we’re referring to certain teachings that have a Jewish flavor in them.
There’s nothing specifically Buddhist about sitting on a cushion and watching one’s breath. There are Buddhist teachings that I’ve very comfortable with, and there’s a lot of Jewish material that’s also very comfortable for us. So we mix it all together and we come up with a retreat that—in the Buddhist world, you’ll know that there’s a lot of folks who have a Jewish background, who are very comfortable with Buddhism. I wanted to make a Jewish kind of setting that was very comfortable for people who wanted to experience a Jewish format. And that’s how it’s worked out. We’re kind of measuring our success and reaching out to folks by how many non-Jews show up to the practice and find it wonderfully fulfilling for their Sufi experience, or their Christian experiences or what have you.
So it’s found its own way of building. One of the links that I use to the past are certain Kabbalistic teachings that nobody teaches except in our format, and it all feels pretty comfortable with some people who’ve just come in. They say, “Well, I don’t know if this is Buddhism or Judaism or Sufism or Hinduism. But it sure feels good being here.”
TS: You mentioned previously, in your own retreat life, working with a mantra. And I’m curious if within the Hebrew language there are any words that you might suggest to people that they could work with in a mantra-like prayer fashion.
DC: There are quite a few words. One of the ones that I like and actually taught at the last retreat is the word hineni, which means “here I am.” And it’s a very interesting word used in the text of the Torah, where [there is] this communion with that source of creation that some people like to call God—but I prefer calling it God-ing if I’m going to use the word God at all or put “God” into quotes, but perhaps we can speak on that later. In any case, there’s a connection between that source, whatever that is, and this here, that I think is me.
So the hineni appears when this God-ing process is calling to Abraham, and [it] usually appears in a double call, so it goes something like: “Abraham. Abraham!” So it’s a wake up. And the response, when you hear a double name like that, you say “hineni,” [but] it’s not in the simple terms that I’m sitting here speaking on the phone, [it’s] much deeper. There’s something in my neshamah, there’s something deep in my soul that’s being called forth to recognize itself and to recognize the holiness—whatever that means—in the situation. So it appears only a few times in the Torah with, “Abraham, Abraham,” “Jacob, Jacob,” “Moses, Moses,” and it each time, something special is about to happen, and there’s this appearance or this calling to that inner self and we want recognize that as it makes itself present in our lives. So that’s one.
The other thing that we can look at, also, is there’s a lot of mystery and mysticism in Judaism. So there’s a lot of things like angels, and every great angel—I would refer to it as an energetic force rather than an embodiment of an angelic thing that has wings and so forth. But every angel has a God name attached to it. So most of the time it’s “-hale,” [ph] “Mich-ha-ael,” Michael, or “Gab-re-hal,” [Gabriel,] and that means the power of God, or the messenger of God. All of these kinds of God-oriented ideas are pulling us into a different plane of reference.
So we [also] have in the Torah a whole series of God names that offer a different characteristic that’s coming for it. So you have Elohim, and you have El, and you have El Shaddie, and you have Yod Hey Vav Hey or Yah or Adonai [or Shalom]—a whole series of names that are attached to this idea that we’re connecting with the holiest parts of ourselves. Whereas Judaism makes a very clear and strong distinction between holy and profane, on a mystical level, it all kind of comes together in a very wonderful way.
So all of these names of the Divine—which are revealing characteristics that we all have within us—show up in the Torah, and unfortunately, when you read the Torah just in English, then what you’re going to see is all of these names kind of get squeezed down into “God” or “Lord.” And we lose a lot of the feel and touch of what’s being communicated here. So when you go off and you start studying some of the words—and you don’t have to be a Hebrew scholar to do this, you just begin to recognize the words and what’s attracting us [to] them. Each of them invites us into a contemplative relationship with what we have around us.
A lot of the wonderful stories in the Hasidut or a lot of the examples are put forth—it’s well-known in Judaism that there’s this idea that there’s an angel floating over every growing things: every blade of grass; every weed, in certain cases; every flower, in others. And this angel, so to speak, is saying, “Grow! Grow!” [Laughs] We begin to look at the world that starts to shimmer when you bring this contemplative ideal into the everyday sense of presence. The shimmer is the divine sparks [that] are just vibrating there, in everything that we see and experience. And you can imagine what life would feel like, whether before or after a retreat, that you actually open up to this ideal of presence.
I’m now just describing something that’s common to all the different traditions, with slightly different words, but in Judaism it just kind of has its own flavor and its own connectivity. And in the end, we come up with this very powerful Hasidic idea that everything is God, everything is vibrating. It’s not something we have to try to discover. We know it, we just have to pull aside the veils that are blocking that wisdom. And that sounds like a Hindu teaching or a Buddhist teaching. Of course, in the Buddhist world they’re not talking about souls and God. In the Buddhist world they’re just talking about Buddha mind. It’s all the same, though. In the end, we’re still approaching the top of the mountain here with these ideas.
TS: Now, there are several things I want to try to pull out from what you’ve been saying. One is that you mentioned that instead of using the word “God,” you like the word “God-ing,” you prefer that. Can you explain that?
DC: Yes. This is one of the most important things that one can learn from a contemplative approach to Judaism. There’s a living rabbi, his name is Arthur Green, and two years ago [he] published a book called Radical Judaism. Radical Judaism is this understanding that God is not a noun. It’s not a thing. It’s not an old guy in the sky with a beard. It’s not running a show.
There does seem to be some kind of unfolding force of life that, in essence, does what we’re talking about, where it says, “Breathe,” so to speak. It’s the force of life. In that force of life, the kind of belief system that comes out of this understanding is more of a generalized post-denominational radical ideal that doesn’t have this overseer who is the creator and is running the world and is setting things up for things to happen and it’s all God’s will.
So the radical approach to this understanding—and it’s actually seeping through a good part of the West, very specifically in the Jewish world, where you have this idea that the unfolding moment, as we experience it, is the God-ing process. It’s not something that precedes or it’s not something that’s planning a future for this idea of a creation. It is constantly unfolding as the spirit of life. And when we begin to approach it in that context, we switch from a dualistic notion—which most of the prayers are set up on, and most of the Torah is written—there is a dualistic relationship between creator and creation.
I try to shape in such a way, when I say “God-ing,” I invite people to take their name—“Tami-ing,” “David-ing,”—and when we say that to ourselves and repeat it to ourselves, we begin to realize that this David-ing that I thought was the same thing, because I see it in the same mirror every time I look, this is in motion, constantly changing, constantly moving, impermanent. In a Buddhist context, we come to connect with the question of what is the self? What is the individual? What is the “I”? And we discover [it] doesn’t exist. It’s the same in Judaism. [It’s] very clearly noted in the Buddhist world, there’s nothing here that I can identify as me. So this organism is unfolding, and it is expressing the diving just as everything it encounters.
So these sparks of the divine—this is Isaac Luria, takes us back to the 15th, 16th centuries, the Hasidut of Hasidism. His basic cosmology is that the creation happens, something happened that left behind a whole series of sparks that, in his terminology, that a tekun, a fixing, has to be made to make things whole again because it’s all diverse. So [it’s] this idea of fixing, of recognizing the sparks in everything that exists as the unfolding moment rises. And we end up with a very different notion of what the God-ing process is all about. It just becomes a moving, opening process without necessarily any specific direction. We want it to ask ourselves about the purpose of life.
What the Ari Isaac Luria comes up with is, basically, finding the sparks that need to be raised up and in that context, raising them up and making things whole again so that we will have a different level of consciousness at some point in the future that the Kabbalists like to work the details around. The bottom line is to bring consciousness to an ever-higher and higher and more complete level until we live in an entirely different kind of setting than we are experiencing today.
TS: Now what does that mean, David, “raising the sparks”? What does that mean?
DC: Well, I like to understand it as enlightened action. And I have this sense that when you talk to people who are working very hard to become enlightened, you find out that becoming enlightened is a little bit slippery. In fact, I’ve gone around and talked to most of the teachers in the West who work in different disciplines. I essentially ask them, “Do you know, in the West, anybody who’s truly enlightened?” And I haven’t found anybody mentioning very many names. In terms of the East, it’s a whole different story and it’s a different language, and enlightenment has different context.
So when I’m talking about “raising the sparks”—and “sparks” have this kind of sense of enlightening, so to speak—I pick up on Suzuki Roshi’s idea. He said—and this is a fundamental Zen idea—he says it very simply, “There are no enlightened people. There is only enlightened activity.” And so I like that idea very much, in the sense that my own experience, after many years of meditation and talking to a lot of different teachers and studying under many different teachers, the sense of—if you say, “Well, what do you think an enlightened person would do? What would indicate their enlightenment?” Usually you come back with, “Well, I would expect them to be more peaceful, more loving, more kind, more careful, more this and more that.”
Then the questioner rises, if they ask the goal of becoming enlightened, how about if we [work] half-and-half on our own process to become better beings as much as possible, but also find the opportunities, as they present themselves, of enlightened activities, where we go and do the kinds of things as if we were enlightened beings fulfilling our roles. So it’s a win-win situation if you can divide our spiritual lives into partially sitting quietly and developing ourselves deeply and becoming kinder, so to speak, and actually doing wonderful deeds in the world where we help other beings and we tend the world and we try not to pollute it and we go through the normal kinds of things, dealing with the problems of the world, where we engage.
So there’s a tendency to either be engaged or to be disengaged. I’m either going to be throwing myself completely into the process of fixing the world or I’m going to be disengaged and go completely into the process of living in a cave. What suggests itself to me—whether it’s in the sparks or however we want to approach it—is a balanced approach, where we take the time to nurture ourselves on the one side and then recognize that we’re active players in the world on the other. And we balance one against the other. That way we don’t burn out on the one and don’t get completely isolated into nihilism on the other. So it’s a balanced approach, and again, it’s a very Jewish way to approach, but it’s also very Buddhist in its way, and other traditions as well.
TS: Now, previously, David, you were talking about angelic forces and the Hebrew names of different angels, and you talked about angels as being these energy bundles. And what I’m curious about is if we’re approaching life as a verb, then how do we work with something like angels as if they’re not separate from us? And I’m asking this question because I know with Sounds True you’ve created a program called Invoking Angels, where we actually learn different practices for working with angelic energies. So I’d love to understand more about how you see working with these angelic forces.
DC: I think that there’s a way of dealing with the idea of angels that touches us in some deep place. It’s almost “touched by an angel”—you kind of imagine what that would feel like. It has a kind of a vibrancy connected with it. And on a rational basis, we might argue that there’s no such thing as angels, we’ve made that up. Yet throughout the whole Torah, which is an interesting catalog of stories, there’s this idea of psychic phenomena that are unusual and are hard to explain.
Now, we run out of words at a certain point here, because every word is something to trip over. It’s like putting something in front of a blind person, so to speak. There are words that have a certain meaning behind them, and I’ll try to use them in a careful way here as much as possible. So there’s unusual circumstances. Some could try to explain them away, like the splitting of the Red Sea, for example. You have this idea of a miracle, and then somebody comes along and says, “Well, a meteor passed by very close to the world and that was the end of a certain form of life and we call it the splitting of the Red Sea.” But [others] come along and say, “Don’t think about it in rational terms. Let’s just think in these terms of the idea that Jacob had a dream, for example, and there were angels running up and down a ladder that reached from earth to heaven.” There are all kinds of metaphoric interpretations of such an idea.
And there are times—imagine ourselves, we all have had experiences where we’ve gone into an altered consciousness on some level or another and experienced something that’s just extraordinary. It could be a difficult experience or it could be a gorgeous experience. The Kabbalah tries not to make a distinction between good and evil per se, or with good and bad as we make that kind of dichotomy. It all comes back and just suggests [that] things just happen in the ways they’re going to happen.
So each of the so-called angels, whether they’re arch angels—which means they’re really big and they make up a whole universe, so to speak—or they’re angels that fall into various categories of angels that humans relate to. There’s a certain consciousness that we have. And then [there are] other things that take on different kinds of consciousness, like there’s a prince of the earth that’s considered to be an angel. In modern terms we’d call it Gaia because it’s got an earth consciousness. In some of the tales, the angels are individual. You can relate to your angel: your good angel or your not-so-good angel.
On a more rational or psychological basis, it could be the way the mind turns, and what one is drawn to. If it’s a kind of an energy, not an entity, not an angel that necessarily speaks to us on television, but an energetic that is pulling us in one way, and there’s another energetic that comes along and pulls in another way. I’ve heard this wonderful teaching recently where when you’re feeling pulled and you’re trying to make a decision and you’re feeling this way and that way, before you make your decision stop and consider which has more love connected to it. And instead of thinking of all the circumstances and the details that are pragmatic, just go to the heart space and say, “[Which] of these two ways that I can turn has the most love? [Which] will touch the most people?” That [is what] we’re going to culminate, and we allow ourselves to be pulled in that direction. And in the context of this mystical idea that was an angel, that [energy] was pulling us in a certain kind of direction.
So in this context, it’s much more [about] the inner search when we’re dealing individually with the idea of demonic forces and angelic forces. It’s the [idea of] looking at it [and saying,] “Which of these ideas is pulling me into my heart space, is opening up the greatest potential of love and lovingkindness?” that this being can emanate. In the terms that we go deeper into the Torah, through Kabbalah, there’s angels for individuals, there’s angels for communities, there’s angels for, you know, that little business about asking all the plants to grow, there’s angels for the earth and all of the stars and planets out there, there’s angels for the solar system, there’s angels for the whole universe.
And as we go on, those of us who are interested in the things like modern physics, one could say instead—we don’t talk about the universe so much anymore, we talk about the multiverse, and there’s untold numbers because it’s infinite, the number of uni- or multiverses that are happening out there. Kabbalah would come along and say, “Of course, we know about all that stuff. Every one of them is a different angel!” [Laughs] So we take the energetics, or the ideas—as sophisticated as they could be, in talking about multiverses—and say, “Sure, no problem, everything is an angel. Everything has its own angel connected with it, its own forces.” I don’t know if that makes any sense.
TS: It does, it does, I think it’s beautiful. The thing I’m curious about is, let’s say somebody’s listening and they need some kind of help in their life. It could be, who knows in what area, but in some sense of wanting to call out and have a sense of receiving some type of support from something that we could call a type of energetic bundle, like an angel. What could you recommend? Is there a practice they could do, something they could invoke?
DC: There was a practice that I’ve been using for many many years, and I found myself coming back to it again at this last retreat, just a week ago. It’s a wonderful practice, and I can share it with you. We can do it together.
DC: It’s called, in Hebrew, “Elohai neshama shenata’ta bi t’hora hi”—“My God, the soul that you’ve put in me here.” This is neshamah, it’s one level of the soul; “she,” because the souls are usually connected to the divine feminine. “She” is very pure. So the practice is very wonderful, you simply—as I’m speaking, I’ll just talk through it. As we’re sitting here, if someone is sitting in a chair, you notice your self, where the body’s touching the chair and notice how, if you just gently sweep through the body, you can sweep from the head through the face through the neck and shoulders and through the chest and through the hips and down through the legs. And you can just notice that that’s very simple and easy to do.
Now using [your] imagination, imagine that somewhere in the area of the solar plexus, somewhere in the chest, there’s literally a light. It can have a color or it can be a clear light from any color on the spectrum. You can fill yourself with this light, starting in the solar plexus or somewhere in the chest or abdomen. See if you can feel something like that—just a light, and it’s glowing. Allow it to just sit in whatever form in whatever size. Can you experience that?
DC: OK. So let’s say that you can experience that. And that’s a pure light. A pure light that’s connected with the neshamah. It’s actually connected with the breath, with one of the souls—neshamah is the word for breath. So as you breathe in, let it fill the light with more light, and as you breathe out, let the light expand. And if you feel this light, it’s a pure light that can never be corrupted at any point along your life. It’s always going to be a pure light that shines within. So if there’s anything troubling us, any difficulties we have, anything we regret, there comes this light and let it just purify and go through that thought process.
Image that there’s somebody that you just encounter. Just imagine a recent encounter you had with an individual. Imagine that that individual also has a light. And that light is growing in their body, and that’s their pure light. That’s the part of them that’s connected with Source. So notice that your light, the one that you’ve developed, and the light in this other being is this same light, it has the same source. So that no matter what’s going on with what that human being is presenting, they have this light and it shines whenever we recognize that.
OK, so that’s our practice, so just come back to yourself for now. Were you able to manifest that light?
DC: Where you able to see it somebody else?
DC: OK. So this practice—now, we can make that an angel light. It doesn’t have to be, it just [has] this purity. And a lot of people have these ideas about themselves that are self-defeating, [like] “I’m no good, I should be better, I could have done this better,” and so forth and so on. If we come to the light in ourselves, it’s a reassurance because it’s connected with the breath.
One of the teachings I like to offer is that life wants this [idea] that I call “David-ing.” Life wants this to be alive. And if life didn’t want it to be alive, it wouldn’t last more than three minutes. Because the affirmation of life wanting us to be here and do what it is we’re doing is our very breath. That breath that comes in and goes out takes in this light and reveals it. So every time we have a self-defeating idea or self-hating moment, we can come to this idea that there is part of this being, this organism that is pure. It’s just an affirmation.
Then, once we’ve gotten clear with ourselves, we encounter other individuals who might be difficult for us, and they might be doing something that is really annoying or irritating. Fine. That’s the way we respond to them. But if we allow ourselves to see—shining through this other being, and every other being for that matter—this clear light and this sense of purity, it softens us. It allows us to engage difficult situations much differently than we normally engage it. It’s a wonderful practice that I’ve been using for years and years, and I found myself using it again a week ago because, for whatever reason, it just shifted the energy in the whole room when we were able to do that.
TS: Wonderful. Thank you.
DC: You’re welcome.
TS: So, David-ing, I have just one final question for you. You know, I know that you’ve now entered the eight decade of your life, and that you’ve also studied and written about Jewish mystical teachings that relate to death and the afterlife. And I’m curious, of those teachings, what’s really the most important for you, as a person, personally?
DC: The most important thing [that] immediately comes to mind is being kind. I think it was one of the Huxley folks—on his deathbed, [was asked,] “What would you offer?” kind of the same way you asked the question. And he said, “Being kinder.” Being kind is a clue. So [in] the aging process, I find that there’s a lot of challenges that come through that nobody told me. [Laughs] Nobody told me it’s going to be like this, you know? I want somebody to tell me what we’re facing here in life.
In the Talmud, there are a number of classical conversations between Havrutas, two friends that are learning together, and in the Talmud the person who is your learning partner is one of the most important partners you can have in life. So on a number of occasions, the partners would look at one another and one would often say to the other, who was getting older and in the process of dying, he’d say, “Well, I want you to come back what it’s like on the other side over there.” And they would make this agreement, and one of them would die and the other one would usually see his friend in a dream. In that dream, he would say, “So? What’s it like?” And the answer generally was, “Dying itself, actually going over, was easy. The getting into that process was difficult.” So the dying process is a challenge. Being dead is no problem at all. And another rabbi said, “It’s like taking one hair that grows on the head and plucking it out of a container of milk.” That’s how easy it was to go over into this other realm.
So they have many teachings around death, in the sense that the afterlife, or the next lifetime, is going to be great. What we’re doing in this lifetime is just a struggle, in some cases a tekun, a fixing. We’re only here to fix something. And in some cases that fixing happens almost at birth, and infants sometimes die because they just did one thing that needed to be done and now they’re gone.
There’s a lot to be said about the idea of death and dying, but I’m offering this one teaching that has turned out to be one of the most important experiences I’m having with my beloved Shoshanna. We’ve been together for many years and we came to this place of understanding that we have. In my own case, my own parents, and to some extent her situation as well, [we saw that] as people get older, they often get more ossified, and get more judgmental and get more frozen in their way. And I can feel some of those aspects pulling on me. But as we meet and encounter the challenge as a couple, what we’ve agreed to is being kinder to ourselves and to each other in this incredible process of growing older. There’s a beautiful, wonderful thing that comes out of that that’s very hopeful.
Just this last evening, I noticed something on television where a man was talking about working with elders. He said that when people reach an older wisdom in their 70s or 80s, it turns out that older people are happier than younger people. [Laughs] It’s been tested many many times, and I think a lot of it has to do with not trying to achieve the same kinds of things. You’re not pushing so hard on yourself. You’ve seen a lot, so you’ve seen—most everything that happens, you’ve seen it already. There’s a softness that comes with the eldering process. So between the wisdom and the happiness on the one hand, which balances out all that stuff on the other side—but the bottom line: Be kinder to your beloveds, your family and your friends. I think you’ll find that it works really well and softens up the whole process of getting older.
TS: Wonderful. Thank you so much for this beautiful conversation. I’ve been speaking with Rabbi David Cooper, who has created several programs with Sounds True: an audio learning course on Seeing Through the Eyes of God, a complete audio course on the original path to enlightenment from the Jewish mystical tradition, as well as an audio program on Kabbalah Meditation and two books that are integrated with a CD of guided practices: one on Invoking Angels, for blessings, protection, and healing; and a book/CD combination called Ecstatic Kabbalah. David, thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge.
DC: Tami, it’s been a delight. I hope we spend more time together soon.
TS: Likewise. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.