Sufi Story in Breslov: Transmigration of a Mystical Story

Here is a guest post, using his pseudonym Eiver LaNahar. He is a renowned Haredi teacher of Breslov Chassidus. Here he lets his hair down and starts with a trans-personal psychology quotation from the 1975 classic of Charles Tart. From my historical approach this dates his approach to a pre-new age, pre-spirituality era- when it was still countercultural and transpersonal. The goal is to awaken to the richness of experience despite our 1960’s culture having no ability to discuss these experiences. (Courtney Bender’s New Metaphysics don’t have these problems). Our blog post is willing to let down his hair and note a similarity to a Sufi story, quote Aryeh Kaplan on LSD imagery in Hasidic texts, and explain Breslov as offering non-dual states of perception.

I (AB) have a worksheet where I show how a single line of Breslov gets interpreted in the last 20 years as transpersonal psych, as 12 step, as primal emotions of depression, and as postmodernism. The story is indeed sufi, but that is a topic for another post.

Transmigration of a Mystical Story by Eiver LaNahar

Transpersonal psychologist Charles T. Tart observes:
“…[A]ttention/awareness energy is constantly flowing back and forth, around and around in familiar, habitual paths. This means that much of the variety and richness of life is filtered out. An actual event, triggering off a certain category of experience, activating a certain structure, is rapidly lost as the internal processes connected with that structure and its associated structures and prepotent needs take over the energy of the system… (“States of Consciousness,” Chapter 19 (“Ordinary Consciousness as a State of Illusion,” pp. 269-270),
“ if your cultural conditioning has not given you any categories as part of the Input-Processing subsystem to recognize certain events, you may simply not perceive them… so the wheel of your life rolls over these events hardly noticing them, perhaps with only a moment of puzzlement before your more ‘important’ internal needs and preoccupations cause you to dismiss the unusual…
“If you experience such an event, though, the cultural pressures, both from others and from the enculturated structures built up within you, will probably force you to forget it, to explain away its significance. If you experience something everybody knows cannot happen, you must be crazy; but if you do not tell anyone and forget about it yourself, you will be okay.”

Tart goes on to cite a Sufi story from Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes (pp. 21-20), “When the Waters Were Changed,” to illustrate this idea:

Once upon a time Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world which had not been specially hoarded would disappear. It would then be renewed, with different water, which would drive men mad.
Only one man listened to the meaning of this advice. He collected water and went to a secure place where he stored it, and waited for the water to change its character.
On the appointed date the streams stopped running, the wells went dry, and the man who had listened, seeing this happening, went to his retreat and drank his preserved water.
When he saw, from his security, the waterfalls again beginning to flow, this man descended among the other sons of men. He found that they were thinking and talking in an entirely different way from before; yet they had no memory of what had happened, nor of having been warned. When he tried to talk to them, he realized that they thought he was mad, and they showed hostility or compassion, not understanding.
At first he drank none of the new water, but went back to his concealment, to draw on his supplies, every day. Finally, however, he took the decision to drink the new water because he could not bear the loneliness of living, behaving and thinking in a different way from everyone else. He drank the new water, and became like the rest. Then he forgot all about his own store of special water, and his fellows began to look upon him as a madman who had miraculously been restored to sanity.

On a brighter note, Tart concludes, “Fortunately we do make contact with reality at times. There are forces for real change in culture so the conservative forces do not always succeed. I have great faith in science as a unique force for constantly questioning the limits of consensus reality (at least in the long run) for deliberately looking for cracks in the cosmic egg that open onto vast new vistas. But, far more than we would like to admit, our lives can be mainly or completely tightly bounded wheels, rolling mechanically along the track of consensus reality.”

One of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s enigmatic parables is remarkably similar to this Sufi story. (I have no idea which came first, nor if the connection is causal or merely serendipitous; tzorekh iyyun.) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates it in his collection, “Rabbi Nachman’s Stories” (Breslov Research Institute, p. 481). Although the primary source isn’t given, I tracked it down to Ma’asiyos U-Meshalim (pp. 27-28), a group of stories discovered in the the notebook of Rabbi Naftali of Nemirov (and later, Uman), a member of Rabbi Nachman’s inner circle. These stories were later appended to Kokhvey Ohr, Breslov oral traditions compiled by Rabbi Avraham b’Reb Nachman [Chazan], and edited and published by Rabbi Shmuel Horowitz before the outbreak of World War II.

A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend, “I see in the stars that whoever eats any grain that grows this year will go mad. What is your advice?”
The prime minister replied, “We must put aside enough grain so that we will not have to eat from this year’s harvest.”
The king objected, “But then we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad. Therefore, they will think that we are the mad ones. It is impossible for us to put aside enough grain for everyone. Therefore, we too must eat this year’s grain. But we will make a mark on our foreheads, so that at least we will know that we are mad. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine, and when we see this sign, we will know that we are both mad.”

In a footnote, Rabbi Kaplan observes that “there are fungi of the ergot family that attack grain and can cause hallucinations and other bizarre experiences when ingested. These fungi contain substances very similar to LSD.” However he doesn’t offer any key to unlock the secret of Rabbi Nachman’s story.

Perhaps Tart’s quasi-Buddhist explanation of the Sufi story may be applied to the Chasidic one. The “corrupted” consensually-conditioned consciousness of those who partake of the new grain corresponds to samsara, ordinary dualistic (i.e., relational) perception. However, the pristine consciousness of the king and his royal minister corresponds to the enlightened mind, which is the ability to see things in their simplicity and utter newness—which Rabbi Nachman calls “sanity.”

The bottom line of both stories is the necessity of forgoing enlightenment in order to participate in the world. But the difference between Rabbi Nachman’s parable and the Sufi one is that the king and his friend make a sign on each other’s forehead to remind them that they are mad.

Is this an allusion to Tefillin, “…they shall serve as a reminder between your eyes…” However, Chazal give us hope, too: “In the future world, the tzaddikim will sit and their crowns [i.e., nondual states of perception] will be in their heads (ve-atroseihem bi-rasheihem) [i.e., internalized]…” (Berakhos 17a; and cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 21:4)

What does this mean when our leadership is anything but non-dual states of perception? In the 1970’s once could think that leaving the Jewish middle class and entering the social imaginary of the frum world would be like the spiritual awakening in a Sufi tale, what do we do now when the community does not seem anything like a source of enlightenment? Forty years after the counter-culture’s critique of society have we learned anything that offers new insight to Eiver LaNahar’s tales? Has spirituality with its quest for wellness killed the crazy wisdom of awakening?

3 responses to “Sufi Story in Breslov: Transmigration of a Mystical Story

  1. The stories remind me of the 60’s guru and dreikop R.D. Laing.

    Perhaps someone can bring me up to snuff as to what “non-dual states of perception” refers. I understand the idea that consciousness, though a causal link in the chain that leads to actions, is an epiphenomenom. The real macher in each of us are our neural brain states. Our brains decide and let us know. My sense of what is being said here is that we see the world but miss interesting details, which is true but not so exciting.

  2. EJ- This period of transpersonals defined a peak experience as the cosmic consciousness of Whitman, Burke, and Blake. “To see a world in a grain of sand”
    Mysticism during this decade was defined as a heightened sensory state.-identified with simplicity and true reality.

  3. I would argue that we are always on a path to eventually consume the “crazy juice,” making us “the sane.” Often this is the case when the reality sets in that the exotic is not nearly as safe and welcoming as we anticipated. To focus on the question of 1970s Jewry, those who become frum to find spiritual awakening often become jaded when it is realized that the frum community in which they entered is not as interested in awakening as they are in rote action. For some, this leads to an eventual diminution of “frumkeit” because it wasn’t what was expected. For others, they find a niche that the mainstream of the community might feel is weird or strange, but they nevertheless accept, sometimes resulting from jealousy of not having the same emotional connection as the newbie has. The newbie eventually has to drink the water when it comes to the next generation, for the kids don’t have the same emotional connection the parent does because of the issue of choice.

    A second element would be that much of spirituality, having become synonymous with pop-psychology, considers awakening as something that is not right in one’s psyche as opposed to a goal. This seems to be similar to how the Mussar movement used medieval and early modern ethical works, such as Mesilat Yesharim. It was no longer about reaching ruach haqodesh but rather it became about defeating our Yetzer Hara by studying the first three parts of the path. The rest of the path is still a focus of Kabbalists.

    I think that these stories exemplify that the “craziness” gets watered down when faced with being outside the box. Yet, the Rebbe Nachman story leaves a glimmer of hope that we can conform and still pursue some form of spiritual awakening. We can read spiritual texts and work towards the higher goals. Perhaps the challenge then becomes doing it in such a way that we aren’t outwardly showing “craziness” while we have a sign to remind us we are differentiating ourselves from others.

    Additionally, I find that Eiver LeNahar’s piece seems to relate well to the piece by Jonathan Schorsch that you posted recently about how each generation always smashes the idols of the previous generation. New conformities arise and new ways of participating in life arise.

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