Shards of Light

One of my big challenges is how to get (and stay) Unstuck. I’ll have a little breakthrough, and think I’m finally able to make substantive changes in my life, to break free from old habits, old (and failed) approaches to problems, old ways of seeing things. But after a brief taste of freedom, there I am, doing the same old things in the same old ways, and I feel Stuck once again.

Yesterday my brilliant acupuncturist and fellow shaman, Jennie, came over to work on some computer stuff, and we started talking about what makes us want to run away. shards.gifWhen we want to avoid responsibility for something, when we are experiencing fear or mental paralysis, what’s really going on there? And why don’t we feel it all the time? Why, when she treats a patient, is it always easy? Why don’t I ever have that block when I do shamanic work with someone? Why isn’t it that smooth and easy when I do my client work?

We concluded it was all about expectations. When I am doing a job for someone, my expectation (and theirs) is that I will complete the project in a timely manner, with results that are up to my rather high standards. It’s all about the outcome. But when I shamanize, I have no such attachment to the results. My job is to show up, to sense the movement of spirit, to journey, to report what I see, to counsel, to heal. And even this last is without expectations: I don’t expect someone to be healed; I only do whatever I can to effect healing, and then we see how things work out.

Jennie reports the same thing. Her job is to show up at the appointment, and be present to whatever needs to take place. Patients arrive, she diagnoses them through talking with them extensively, taking their pulses, and looking at their tongue, then senses what needs to happen. Usually it’s acupuncture, sometimes it’s herbs, sometimes it’s energy work, sometimes it’s just talking and listening. Some of the greatest healing I’ve had in her office didn’t involve a single needle. She doesn’t need to control the outcome; her job is not to Heal the Patient. Her job is to respond in any healing way she can, and trust the rest to the patient and the universe.

If I can get to the place where I look at work, or other areas of my life, in that same way—if I can say, “My job is to show up, to be present to the challenges before me, to sit with them and respond in whatever way the Spirit moves me to do, without expectation of any particular outcome, without controlling the results”—then I think the rest of my world will flow as smoothly and easily as it does when I shamanize.


I’m no Kabbalist. In fact, show me a diagram of the Tree of Life—the Sephirot—and my eyes glaze over. But I bow to the genius of a sixteenth-century rabbi named Isaac Luria, a scholar and mystic and one of the great lights of Kabbalah. (His nickname of sorts was Ari, an acronym for “our Rabbi Isaac” in Hebrew.)

One of Ari’s most intriguing ideas starts with the opening words of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Except in Hebrew, it’s literally

in-beginning • he-created • Elohim • the-heavens • and-the-earth

The passage immediately presents difficulties. Does “in-beginning” mean “in the Beginning,” in a time before Creation? Does it mean “at the beginning of God’s creative activity”—not a time, but a process?

Then we have the noun-verb agreement problem. The verb “he created” is a singular, but Elohim (“God”) is a plural. It’s the plural for Eloah (the same word in Arabic is Allah), and it’s literally “gods.” Some scholars say the plural indicates an abstraction meaning “divine majesty.” Christians tend to see it as evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity. But to other scholars—heterodox Christian and Jewish theologians—the word’s plurality reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue it originally meant “the gods,” or the “sons of El,” the name of the supreme being throughout the Semitic world.

Some claim the word may have been treated as a singular by later monotheist priests who sought to replace worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon with their own singular patron god YHWH alone. Others see this collective noun as an early usage, the gods forming a heavenly assembly where they act as one, like the English word headquarters (another plural that governs a singular verb).

While verbs most often preceed nouns in Hebrew, one idea posited by Isaac Luria was that the opening words in Genesis might not mean “God created” but rather “______ created God”: a Someone behind God, a Something from which all creativity emanates. He called it the Ein Sof (literally, “without end”): boundlessness or nothingness, the Implicate Order that physicist David Bohm has described.

Ari taught that originally, there was only the Ein Sof, the Infinite, because all of reality was God. But in order for the universe to exist, God had to withdraw from some part of that reality. This metaphorical withdrawal or “contraction” left a part of reality devoid of God’s presence, where the cosmos could come into being.

God, says Ari, did not abandon this empty space, but projected a beam of light from which all levels of reality came into existence. God then created “vessels” (representing facets of God’s activity and essential nature) to hold that divine light. But some of the vessels were not strong enough to contain it, and they shattered. This explosion made the tohu va-bohu, the formless void of the universe, the desolation and emptiness before the Creation. This was, in essence, the Big Bang.

The vessels fell and became the material world. Some of the divine light adhered to the shards of the shattered vessels, the way oil remains on an earthen vessel even after it is poured out. So there are sparks of God’s light trapped in every piece of reality, separated from God, from the limitless. And thus God himself became limited, fragmented, no longer whole, separated from himself.

It’s precisely the same thing that happens to us when we experience trauma, whether emotional or physical: we fragment, we break into pieces that go missing, that get lost in the darkness. We lose parts of ourselves. It’s for this very condition that shamans do soul retrieval, finding those fragments of the self that have gotten separated from the whole, and finding ways to reintegrate them.

And humanity, it seems, is called to do soul retrieval on God.

Through prayer and action, one can liberate and raise these sparks and restore God’s unity. Ari called this idea tikkun ha-olam, “repairing the world.” Everything we do, every creative step, every act of justice, releases a shard of light, which then goes back to the One Light. (In the 1950s, the phrase was used to refer to social action work. Many people now talk about tikkun as the basis for social justice activism and progressive public policy, not to mention charitable giving.)


I think that if every act of love and creation and healing raises a spark that heals God, then every act of fear, every limiting thought, every destructive act, fragments God even further. And that everything we do is a step toward our own reunification or our own fragmentation as well. Everything.

This new lesson I’m learning, about the value of just Showing Up and responding to whatever presents itself, without expectation of any particular outcome, knowing that the universe will take care of the results in a better way than I ever could, is my daily tikkun. To work toward a specific goal, a specific outcome, and to worry about whether or not I have achieved it or even can achieve it, is to put a stranglehold on any shards of light I may have unearthed. I need to release them, raise the sparks, let them float up to God, to the Ein Sof, to the Unnameable.

I think Leonard Cohen put it best in his poem “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Join the conversation, and leave me a comment!

Categories: Judaism, Shamanism | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Shards of Light

  1. This is very much the way I like to teach. Start with a subject, see where it goes, what it becomes, and how it connects to other things, transforms itself, transmutes the lead of the student into gold. I don’t expect it to, no. I give up what I need, but, with the student’s help, the organic nature of the teaching and learning create just the right concept and connections student needs for their own change.

    What happens, however, is that in today’s education, we are goal based. It must be testable and measureable, have outcomes which can be set against a ruler. What the student needs does not matter. A show is made that it does, but thirty students—each needing their own “thing”—makes sure the only special treatment they get is, as best, a line at the bottom of the lesson plan reminding us to repeat for Johnny or to give Melinda extra time and a picture.

    Students now must start choosing their career racks in high school. nNo more exploring. They must have their majors set by the second semester of college, or financial aid will stop paying. Two years and you will have your AA and out to work, or on to your BA, but you can’t stay here.

    I spent Saturday with Matthew Fox. Much of the time was spent discussing the concept of one river but many wells. Some of the time in a movement for the reclaiming of education by the spirit. Called A.W.E., it stands for Ancestral Wisdom in Education, and recognizes that we are killing ourselves by teaching only that which is measurable.

    Nothing new, for sure. But I think it needs to be said again and again and again.

    Writing, too, is like this. We make students plan and map and, sometimes, this is good. But last week, we did a narrative, and student after student told me they had not done this since 4th grade. Four years ago. Four!

    When I write I must allow myself the space for the story to change, to allow my expectations to take their leave so the story can become what the world needs it to, so that which is buried in the back of my mind or throughout the collective unconscious can come out through the typing. My expectations can only stifle that.

    I wish I knew where my Kabbalist materials were. Many moons ago, on the order of a hundred, perhaps, I wrote much on that subject. Perhaps I can find some of it. Perhaps it is of some value now. One short paper was an examination on the creation of the physical universe and structural geometry through the Tree of Life, taking us from single points to lines to planes and then to solids and points of reference and then multiple solids and exernal points of reference. Simple stuff but fun.

    I probably threw it away.

  2. A friend sent me this:

    In a very real sense the work that shamans do is the work of tikkun, of repairing the world, of making of humans into fit vessels to contain the Divine, helping them reconnect with the Source and recognizing that they are of it. This is not a process that can be undertaken on a mass scale. It requires a recognition and appreciation of the beauty and power and uniqueness of each individual, while simultaneously recognizing each as but a fragment of the Divine Whole. It is not amenable to a posture of Us and Them, but only to one of I and Thou. It cannot be reduced to formulaic ritual, although it can certainly be empowered by the collective energy contained within ritual forms.

    The process of saving the world, of saving society, is not a systemic process. It is an individual process. There is no way to save us all collectively without saving us each individually. The process of transformation happens within the individual consciousness first, and then, when a critical mass of individuals has been transformed, the social structure they are part of, that they help create, responds to the shift, and we move in a different direction. This is never a painless process. It is rarely a rapid process. And it is never completed. There is never a point at which you can say that the world has been saved, once and for all. We are always in the process of saving it, of working to maintain the dynamic balance. There is no point at which we can retire and lay down our work because it has been completed. When can we say the last person been healed? When can we say the last poem been written? When can we say the last battle has been fought? When can we say the last dream has been dreamt? The best that we can hope for is that we have passed enough on that someone else can take up the work when we can no longer continue.

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