Entering the Unknown through the Silence of Dmama

a sample chapter from Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiriatual Direction

Chapter 2
by Estelle Frankel

“Stop the words now. Open the window in the center of your chest and let the spirits fly in and out.”—Rumi

 “There is a time to speak and a time to be silent”Ecclesiastes

“For You, Silence is praise.”—Psalms 65:2

“Be still (and) silent before YHVH and wait patiently….”………..

Psalms 37:7

Estelle Frankel is a practicing psychotherapist and spiritual advisor (mashpi’ah-maggidah) who blends the wisdom and healing practices of Kabbalah with insights from depth psychology. She is a seasoned teacher of Jewish mysticism who has taught innovative programs in Israel and throughout the U.S. for over 30 years, and is currently on the teaching faculty of Chochmat HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality in Berkeley, CA. Estelle has written numerous essays on Jewish spirituality and healing, and is the author of Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (Shambhala 2004).   BUY NOW

One of the great challenges every spiritual companion faces is knowing when to speak and when to be silent. Words offered prematurely (wise and insightful though they may be) can get in the way and even feel downright trite. It’s not just our spoken words, but also “wordy thoughts.” This is particularly true in those moments when deep feelings are surfacing or when an inchoate question or thought is incubating in the directee’s heart. At these times prayerful silence is what makes it possible to listen for the subtle intimations of God’s presence. And though it is not always easy to quiet our own minds and let go of our thoughts and our desire to be helpful, it is the quality of silence we offer that makes room for the unknown and the unexpected. By not hurrying to name or define what is going on, we allow the truth of the moment to be revealed in all its mystery. And in the pregnant pause of silence, new insights and possibilities are born. But in order to create this sacred container of silence, we ourselves need to develop a particular skill — namely, the ability to rest comfortably in the uncertainty of “not knowing” and “not thinking.” In this essay I would like to share some teachings from the Zen Buddhist and Jewish traditions that may help us grow comfortable with “not-knowing” and relieve our anxiety in those moments when we are called upon to do nothing, say nothing, and know nothing.

I want to open with a teaching from Zen Buddhism, where “not-knowing” is the central focus of spiritual practice. In Zen, “not-knowing” is considered to be our original nature. It is present in the effortless open-sky-like state of mind that we return to, moment by moment, as we let go of thoughts and thinking and rest in the pre-reflective moment—the moment before thoughts emerge. Paradoxically, it is a state of mind we must never cease trying to reach, yet it is not something we can achieve through our efforts but only as we let go of all striving. Norman Fisher, a Jewish-Buddhist monk, describes how not-knowing allows us to see clearly what is right in front of us, free of the prejudice and distortion that ideas and past experiences can impose on the present moment:

When we know something and rest in that knowing we limit our vision. We will only see what our knowing will allow us to see. In this way our experience can be our enemy. True, our experience has shown us something about ourselves and about life. But this moment, this situation that faces us right now- this patient, this person, this family, this illness, this task, this pain or beauty- we have never seen it before. What is it? How do we respond? I don't know. I bow before the beauty and uniqueness of what I am facing. Not knowing, I am ready to be surprised, ready to listen and understand, ready to respond as needed, ready to let others respond, ready to do nothing at all, if that is what is called for. I can be informed by my past experience but it is much better if I am ready and able to let that go, and just be present, just listen, just not know. Experience, knowledge, wisdom - these are good, but when I examine things closely I can see that they remove me from what's in front of me. When I know, I bring myself forward, imposing myself and my experience on this moment. When I don't know, I let experience come forward and reveal itself. When I can let go of my experience, knowledge, and wisdom I can be humble in the face of what is, and when I am humble I am ready to be truly fearless and intimate. I can enter into this moment, which is always a new relationship, always fresh. I can be moved by what happens, fully engaged and open to what the situation will show me.[1]

Not-knowing, as described by Fischer, is the state of mind that allows us to get close to what is in front of us, to our actual experience, not our idea about what we are experiencing. This seems particular relevant to spiritual direction, where holy listening requires an openness and attunement to the immediate presence of the divine. In order to hear what is being revealed in any given moment, we must let go of what we already know. Our thoughts and our thinking are already old news. We receive the gifts of spirit only when we come to the table with empty hands. 

The Jewish contemplative practice that brings us closest to Zen Buddhism’s “not-knowing” is ayin meditation. In Kabbalah, ayin describes the divine nothingness out of which the fullness of existence in all its many varied finite forms continually emerges. All things are continuously being created anew, yesh m’ayin, something out of nothing, and returned to their source in ayin, the divine womb of all being. The Maggid of Mezeritch and his disciples taught that in preparation for prayer, for communion with the divine, we must become ayin, allowing our separate sense of self to dissolve into the boundlessness of the divine. This practice seems particularly relevant to the inner work spiritual directors can do in preparation for holy listening. Ayin meditation allows us to be still (domem) and return to the ground of our being.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word for stillness/silence dumiah or dmamah-- shares two root letters with the Hebrew word adamah, ground. In the silent stillness of dmamah we offer those we companion access to ayin, the sacred ground of being from which new life and new insights are born.

When I am doing spiritual direction, ayin meditation helps me release my thoughts and thinking to make room for God’s presence to be felt. When I spend time in ayin meditation before a spiritual direction session, I notice it is easier to relax into uncertainty during silent pauses. Sometimes I still do get anxious during prolonged silences, especially on those days when I am too rushed to meditate before each session. At these times I notice that holding the space of silence can be more challenging, so I pay close attention to my body and my breath, releasing thoughts and thinking, noticing fantasies and images that arise, and trusting that,by waiting patiently, what is most helpful will be revealed.

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“Not-knowing” and “not-thinking” are themes found in the Zohar, where the highest rung on the Tree of Life (Keter of Atzilut) is called "the Unknowable Head―risha d’la ityada―the Head which neither knows nor is known. This implies that at its source divinity is neither conscious of its own inner being nor is known to any consciousness outside of itself. It is simple absolute unity. At this non-dual level, God becomes the absolute, unknowable Mystery, beyond words, beyond all dualities of thoughts and thinker. Suzie Yehudit Schneider describes how we reach this level on Purim through our intentional practice of inebriation, whereby we reach a state of “not-knowing” (lo yada). Through the principle of resonance, our not-knowing allows the unknowable head—risha d’la ityada—the highest aspect of the soul that is undifferentiated from divine oneness, to make itself known. 

The highest root of the soul, the point where it is hewn from the pure simple oneness of God… is calledrisha d’la ityada —is the source of pure, simple faith; knowing beyond mind, experiencing beyond awareness the truth of God, and the truth of God’s oneness, goodness, and love. On Purim the lights of this highest root of soul, the Unknowable Head, fill the world. We express this below by entering the state of consciousness defined by the Code of Law as “until you don’t know the difference between curse…or blessing…This state of ‘not knowing’ that is accessed on Purim through inebriation, is also accessed by the throwing of lots (purim).

Some questions are beyond the rational mind’s capacity to fathom all of their relevant factors. One solution is to throw lots, asking for God to make His will known through their outcome.  The person throwing lots admits that he doesn’t know which option is the right one. Ayin means literally, nothing. When a person cast lots he stands in a place of ‘not knowing,’ aware that he is ‘nothing’ before God. By the principle of resonance his ‘nothing’ invokes the Divine “Nothing,” the Unknowable Head, the innermost pure core of Divine Presence”[2]

Purim is the holiday when we go beyond “thinking” and enter the state of “lo yada” of “not-knowing.” We transcend the dualistic story line of the Purim plot where good and evil, heroes and villains do battle, and instead we reach beyond our “minds” for a level of faith where we experience in our kishkes (innards) that God is One, and that life, no matter how difficult at times, is an expression of divine love and goodness. In spiritual direction we can reach this same state of mind only through silence, the still silence of dmamah. As we surrender our “thoughts” and “thinking” and release all the old “stories” we tell ourselves about our lives, we can begin to construct a new narrative, one in which God’s presence is felt. When God’s presence is felt, we begin to discover a new set of questions to contemplate.

The Zohar describes how our “questions” change as we develop spiritually and are capable of contemplating higher levels of awareness. According to the Zohar, contemplation of the Sefirot below Binah (these Sefirot are involved in the operational dynamics of this world) stimulates questions of “What” (Mah), as in--What is the nature of this universe? In contrast, inquiry into the sefirah of Binah, (Understanding) the emanation closest to Hokhmah, the point of origin of the entire tree of life, can only be formulated with questions of “Who” (Mi), along the lines of Isaiah’s awestruck words: “Lift up your eyes to the heavens! Who created all these heavenly hosts.” [Isaiah 40:26]

(In spiritual direction it is interesting to notice when a directee’s questions begin to change. The shift from “what” to “who” often suggests a movement towards I-Thou communion, or greater spiritual intimacy. A midrash about Abraham suggests that his repeated inquiry into the question of “who?” was the master of the world brought about a revelation from God.[3])

But there is yet a higher level of inquiry, according to the Zohar, that reaches all way to Hokhmah and Keter, the very Source of Being.  Here, questions once more begin with the word “what” (Mah), but this is an entirely different kind of “what.” It is the “what” of “what do we really know? We really do not know anything!”[4] At this level, “not-knowing” is key. Here, silence is the only way to praise, as Rabbi Shimon instructs his son: “El’azar, my son, cease your words, so that the concealed mystery on high, unknown to any human, may be revealed.” Rabbi El’azar was silent.”[5]

Aryeh Lieb, a secular Israeli mystic, expands on this teaching from the Zohar, showing how the silence of “not-knowing” provides a passageway into higher levels of knowing, where new questions and new insights can arise:

An amazing spiral of gnosis (Daat) is born of the tension between “knowing” and “not-knowing.” There are fifty levels/gates of “Understanding” (Binah). The fiftieth level/gate is the gate of “not knowing,” along the lines of what the mystics meant when they said that “the endpoint of all knowledge is to know that we do not know!”[6] When a person reaches the outermost limits of his/her knowledge and arrives at the point where knowledge originates, a moment of stillness and absolute silence is reached. Everything has been said and all thoughts have been thought. Everything that one can know about that particular level has been understood. All remaining questions, articulated or non-articulated, can find no answers from the existing pool of knowledge. From this very silence, a new level of “knowing” is born that is connected to an entirely new level of understanding. It utilizes all the previous knowledge and questions as a vehicle (vessel) to attain a higher level of knowledge. And this new level of “knowing” has a ladder (comprised of fifty levels) with a boundary of its own. It too reaches a fiftieth gate with its own silence and openness to receive an entirely new level of awareness. In this fashion an infinite spiral is created….

The fiftieth gate requires special study, special preparation—inner silence and readiness to let go of the “known,” a special attention to a fresh perspective, a faith in the infinitude of wisdom, a depth within a deeper depth, a faith in oneself, a faith in the Godforce (Elohim) that graces humans with knowledge out of desire to share its (divine) wisdom and love. [7]

What I understand from this teaching is that our ability to know and understand things at different levels evolves throughout the life cycle. By allowing ourselves to “not-know,” we make it possible to learn something brand new. To evolve spiritually we must be willing, at times, to let go of all our prior knowledge and understanding. At these moments we may feel as though we are jumping off a high dive, free-falling into “space” as we wait for our “parachutes” to open—for the words to emerge that formulate the new question we must ask as we enter the next level of understanding. During that “free-fall” the role of the spiritual companion is to hold the space of dmamah, of stillness and silence—the silence of not-knowing.

This is perhaps one of the lessons that can be learned from the story about Aharon the High Priest, when he responded to the news of his sons’ deaths with silence, the still silence of dmamah.  It says in the Torah, “Vayidom Aharon”—Aharon was absolutely still and silent!” [Bamidbar 10:3] Rashi says that he had been weeping, but when he heard Moshe’s words, he was comforted and found a way to surrender and express his humble awe through dmamah.

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These teachings would eventually find their way into my work with Judith, a 52 year old woman who found her way to me after losing her twenty year old daughter in a tragic car accident. When I began seeing her, Judith was, understandably, deeply depressed.  She was haunted by regrets and ruminative thoughts.  She couldn’t stop her mind from asking over and over again the same questions of “What could she have done differently to prevent this from happening?  And —“How could God allow this terrible tragedy to happen?” She cycled, as many bereaved individuals do, between the emotions of anger and grief. Most of the time, her anger at herself was extended to her relationship with the divine, so Judith found it difficult to pray. The God she had believed in no longer seemed to exist, or at least was not accessible. She was too angry. Her life had changed irrevocably since her daughter’s death. She was no longer drawn to the activities, people, and interests that had given her prior life meaning. So we sat in silence through many difficult sessions of overwhelming grief. I did my best to offer my heart as a place to rest in these silences. Judith began to find comfort in our silent meditations. As she began to deepen in her meditation practice, I noticed that Judith’s questions began to change. Instead of “what” and “how” I noticed that she began asking questions of “who.” “Who am I really?” and “Who was my daughter?” She also had a new question about God:“Who is this God that creates a world in which love and grief, joy and sorrow exist side by side?”

As Judith was able to take comfort and refuge in deeper states of silence, the silence of dmamah, finding answers to her questions became less important than resting in an open-hearted state. Not-knowing was actually far more comforting than any vain attempt to know. Allowing herself to be lovingly held by the divine embrace in the midst of her sorrow and grief helped Judith begin to accept her loss and go on living, loving and experiencing moments of joy without feeling that she was being disloyal to the memory of her daughter. Judith took comfort in the Biblical tale about Aharon, because it inspired in her a sense of deep humility, faith, and surrender, which freed her from guilt and self-blame. 

The quintessential biblical tale of spiritual awakening, namely Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Padan Aram to Canaan, is essentially a journey into the “unknown.” God says to Abraham: “Lekh lekha…Go to your Self, to a land that I will show you.”[8] Abraham and Sarah answer the divine call by leaving everything familiar behind, their homeland, culture, community and family, to go to some faraway, unnamed, unknown land—a place that will be shown to them some time in the future.  No map, no itinerary. They will know they have arrived when they get there. The midrash quoted by Rashi suggests that God intentionally concealed the intended destination in order to give Abraham and Sarah reward for every single step they took on faith, as they journeyed into the unknown. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, author of the Sefat Emet reminds us that the journey to the holy land is also an inner journey which takes us from self-will, from what we understand with our own minds, to an alignment with the divine will, which is always beyond comprehension:

The simple meaning of this is that the land of Israel is the place where one surrenders one’s senses and desires (will) to God's will, as it is written (Gen. 12:11) ‘Go to your Self, from your land (artzekha may be understood here as a pun, ratzon shelkha--your will). All externals must be abandoned for the sake of seeing God's will. Only then is it revealed to a person. And the general rule is that we must listen in order to receive what we cannot possibly understand, namely knowledge of God's infinite nature. To this end we must continually surrender our knowledge…that which we understand with our minds.

Spiritual companionship, ultimately, involves accompanying others on this journey into the vast unknown terrain of the Divine Mind.

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[2]           A Still Small Voice—a correspondence course with Suzie Yehudit Schneider, http://www.astillsmallvoice.org.

[3]           A midrash (legend) from Genesis Raba says that Abraham saw a palace on fire and demanded to know who was the owner of the palace. Immediately, the owner peeked out and revealed Himself to Abraham. In this midrash the burning palace is a metaphor for this world which is a palace for the King of Kings. 

[4]           Zohar Pritzker Genesis Vol. 1, p. 6. ”Once a human being questions and searches, contemplating and knowing rung after rung to the very last rung—once one reaches there: What? What do you know? What have you contemplated?  For what have you searched?  All is concealed, as before."

[5]           Zohar Pritzker Genesis Vol. 1, p. 7.                   

[6]           Rabbi Yedaiah Bedersi, the 14th century ethicist wrote: “The ultimate purpose of knowing is to know that we don’t know.” (Bechinat Olam 13-45)    

[7]           Mibesari Ehezeh Eloha (In My Flesh I See God) p. 232 “ The Spiraling Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life,” translated from Hebrew by Estelle Frankel