The Mystery of Marriage: Cultivating Selflessness

In order for selflessness to be complete, it must be cultivated in all three areas of human interaction: with respect to G-d, with respect to others (one’s marital relationship being the most personal and intense form of this), and with respect to oneself.

With respect to G-d, selflessness means humble submission to His will; with respect to one’s spouse, it means finding in one’s spouse one’s predestined soul mate (bashert) and relating to him/her on this level; with respect to oneself, it means refining one’s character.

Our normative consciousness, according to Kabbalah and Chassidut, is only a small part of our soul’s consciousness, which comprises additional levels and modes of consciousness of which we are not generally aware. These additional levels are said to “surround” us, since it is not normally within our power to focus on them. In contrast, our regular consciousness is said to be “within” us, meaning that we are able to access and control it to a great degree. The surrounding levels are said to be “higher” or more “distant,” since they are generally beyond our grasp, while the inner levels are said to be “lower” or “closer” to our ken.

In general, the three aspects of spiritual effort required to cultivate true selflessness engage the three major divisions of consciousness: the “distant surrounding consciousness,” the “close surrounding consciousness,” and the “inner consciousness.”

<td “=”” valign=”top”>level of consciousness

sphere of rectification

devotion to G-d’s will

distant surrounding

recognizing one’s soul mate

close surrounding

refining one’s character

inner

In particular, we are taught that the soul comprises five levels of consciousness, two “surrounding” and three “within.” These, in descending order, are:

level of consciousness

level of the soul

Hebrew name

translation

distant surrounding

yechidah

“single one”

close surrounding

chayah

“living one”

inner

neshamah

“breath [of life]”

ruach

“spirit”

nefesh

“innate life force”

The source of the Jew’s commitment to fulfill G-d’s will is the absolute devotion to Him intrinsic to the highest of the soul’s five levels, the yechidah. The yechidah is the irreducible essence of consciousness, aware of nothing other than G-d’s absolute and all-encompassing reality.

In practice, one is only rarely conscious of this level of his soul; we usually function in the context of shorter-term desires and motives. But all one’s desires ultimately reduce to the will to exist (or to enhance or expand one’s existence). This will is in turn based on and permeated with the pleasure experienced (or assumed) in existing, which itself is based on the faith that existence is real. Inasmuch as the only true reality is G-d, the yechidah recognizes G-d as its sole source of pleasure and the objective of its will. This awareness underlies all conscious thought. Thus, the yechidah is said to always be present in the wings, “surrounding” and motivating one’s conscious cognition and influencing one’s decision-making process from afar.

The ability to recognize one’s true soul mate derives from the chayah, the second-highest of the soul’s five levels. The chayah is the level at which the soul’s innate wisdom (chochmah) is manifest. It, too, is normally outside the realm of awareness and is only occasionally revealed as Divinely inspired flashes of insight. Still, inasmuch as it penetrates the conscious mind more frequently than does the yechidah, it is described as surrounding one’s conscious thoughts more closely.

Although any flash of insight is an experience of one’s chayah, the quintessential insight is the awareness that one’s soul derives from a source common to all other souls, as it is said (Malachi 2:10): “Have we not all one Father?” The most personal case of this is the awareness of the soul-root one shares with his spouse.

The ongoing process of self-rectification and character refinement involves relating to others with genuine loving-kindness and altruism while doing one’s utmost to nullify all selfish or egocentric motives. This concentrated effort of the mind and heart engages the three inner, conscious levels of the soul, the neshamah, the ruach, and the nefesh.

In particular, the neshamah is the level of the mind (the active intelligence of the soul); the ruach is the level of the heart (the emotional attributes); and the nefesh is the level of action in general and of innate behavioral traits in particular.

Through concentrated spiritual effort, one may refine his ability to perceive reality in truth and in depth, sensitize his heart to react appropriately to the phenomena of life, and acquire a rectified “second nature” when it comes to action and behavior.

Now, it is a general principle that “the higher an entity, the lower it descends” (Likutei Torah 2:34c).” Thus, we are taught in Kabbalah and Chassidut that the highest level of the soul, the yechidah–the origin of one’s conscious commitment to fulfill G-d’s will–is most manifest at the lowest level, the nefesh, through an individual’s ever-increasing good deeds.

The second-highest level of the soul, the chayah–the insight that recognizes the essential unity of all Jewish souls–is manifest at the second-lowest level, the ruach, as one rectifies his emotions and learns to relate to others with loving-kindness.

This leaves the neshamah as the pivotal center of the soul. And, indeed, the primary focus of one’s spiritual effort vis-a-vis his soul is his neshamah, his mature intellect and power of perception with regard to apparently separate reality. Through concentrated meditation, one can train his mind to perceive reality correctly, both with regard to seeing G-d’s presence in the world (Divine providence) and in understanding other individuals and their interrelationships.

One’s refined perception of reality (neshamah) will then give rise to rectified emotions in the heart (ruach, inspired by the chayah), which will, in turn, motivate one to continuously increase his good deeds (nefesh, reflecting theyechidah).

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