They say that we teach what we need to learn. The truth of this saying was on display for me in the most recent class on Jewish meditation that I’m teaching at Tifereth Israel. In this class we focused on Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s teachings, which are, perhaps, the most rich and explicit Jewish source on meditation in our tradition.
As we began reading outloud the quotes from his Outpouring of the Soul, we observed just how contemporary and entirely relevant his teachings were to a contemporary meditator. They included this recommendation to designate a quiet spot as a special sacred space to meditate:
It is very good to have a special room set aside for Torah study and prayer. Such a room is especially beneficial for meditation and conversation with God.
It is very good to just sit in such a special room. Even if you just sit there and do nothing, the atmosphere itself is beneficial. If you do not have a special room, you can still meditate and converse with God.
You can create your own special room under your tallit. Just drape your tallit over your eyes and converse with God as you desire.
It included advice to meditate in the fields and in nature. And I loved his advice on using Psalms as a vehicle for meditative awareness:
The Divine Breath is still in the words of the Psalms. Therefore, when a person recites the Psalms, his own breath awakens the Divine Breath in the world. When one recites the Psalms, it is therefore as if King David himself were chanting them.
But perhaps the most illuminating moment of the class came when one of the participants in the class commented on Reb Nachman’s fluid movement between references to meditation, formal prayer, and free-flowing, personal conversation with God. It was clear that in his view the boundary between the three is only notional.
“So then we could really say that there is meditation in the Bible,” the participant said. “Because all our ancestors prayed.”
That is something I’ve been increasingly realizing in my own practice, and it’s a point I’m starting to make in my classes.
For some time now I’ve been coming to a realization that meditation as many of us have come to learn it today – a quiet sitting on a cushion in a cross-legged position focusing on the breathing and observing our thoughts and emotions – is but one way of doing it.
Trying to get everyone to meditate in this way is like trying to offer everyone the same dish and expect them to enjoy it or feel satiated in the same way.
The truth is, the concept of meditation is as broad, and the techniques are as many as there are meditators and worshippers.
If meditation at its core is an opportunity to transcend our normal state of consciousness and enter one that offers a greater sense of the sacred and awareness of the Divine, then Judaism is bursting to the brim with opportunities and techniques to do it.
Every prayer is an opportunity to meditate. The entire Shabbat morning service – the entire Shabbat, really – is an invitation to enter into a meditative space. Every time we say a blessing, we have an opportunity to enter a different mental and emotional state, to quiet our mind, to open our heart, to remember that we are made in the image of God, and try to live in that awareness for just a few moments.
One of my favorite pieces of teaching about Judaism is about why we have so many mitzvoth to perform. Doesn’t having so many obligations make life more difficult? How can anyone perform all of them? The response is that if we had only one mitzvah and failed to perform it, we would be in real trouble. With 613, our chances at success increase exponentially.
It is the same with meditation. Whether our knowledge of formal prayer is so good that we run through it barely thinking about the words, or whether we choose to stick with just one phrase and let it turn over in our mind slowly and intentionally, both can take us into sacred space.
Whether we do Kabbalistic breath exercises and visualizations or focus on paying attention to how we prepare our food as part of our Kashrut observance, we have a chance to enter a sacred consciousness that brings us closer to God.
Whether we pray like Hannah who forgot where she was, so deeply engrossed she was in her prayer, or whether we, like Elijah, get to a place where we can distinguish the still small voice of God speaking to us – we are in a meditative place.
That is why, perhaps, we have to do what Aryeh Kaplan calls “verbal archeology” in order to distinguish references to meditation in our sacred texts. Meditative consciousness was the intended objective of such a large part of Jewish practice that mentioning specifically as a separate technique or intention, quite possibly, almost didn’t make sense.
So what is the upshot of all of it? There isn’t a single concept of meditation, and there isn’t a single “right” technique. Like everything on a spiritual journey, meditation is something to be experimented with, played with, tried, and enjoyed – and it is something to be persistent with.
I wish you many more moments of discovery on this journey – and look forward to sharing more conversations with you about our respective sacred journeys. Shabbat Shalom.