Judaism’s Many, Many Meditative Paths

Makhtesh-Ramon

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.

 

Day 35: Feeling the Presence of Shekhina in Our Emotions

Photo May 28, 12 27 47 PM

On the 35th day of Omer, when we are asked to consider our ability to experience God’s presence within our emotions (one way of thinking of Malkhut she b’Hod), I visited my aunt, who now lives with her husband in Mizpe  Ramon, a tiny settlement at the edge of the breathtaking Makhtesh Ramon. We spent a lot of time reminiscing about our extended family – the people I knew before our tiny 4-person branch of the family left Russia for the United States 26 years ago. She also spent a lot of time updating me on the lives of the new generations – my cousins and their children.

A lot of things have happened to the family that stayed in Russia in these 26 years that normally would to any family: loves, marriages, childbirths, illnesses, deaths. A lot of the joys and tragedies that make up a life of a family had passed me by as I was recreating, “re-birthing” myself in the radically different environment of my new country. A growing number of adults in this larger family who had known and loved me as a child is passing on – nearly everyone from my grandparents’ generation is no longer with us. Neither is my closest aunt.

My aunt in Mitzpe Ramon is one of the very few channels I have left into my childhood: the part of my life when everyone from those two generations was still alive, vibrant, and full of energy.  When I think about that part of my  life now, all I can think of is the love that flowed from all of them to me and all the other children in the family – love that was plentiful, freely given and unconditional.

This love was physical, with lots of hugging and kissing. My grandmother and her two sisters enveloped all of us with that love. They made no separation among us grandchildren: to them, all of us were theirs. It was like having three grandmothers on one side of the family alone. Their husbands – my three grandfathers on that side – did the same thing, albeit in a way that was more appropriate for the men of that country and that generation: with less effusiveness, perhaps, but with unwavering support that was just as assuredly ours as our grandmothers’ hugs and kisses. Their children – my aunts, uncles, and their spouses – acted in the same way: we were all their beloved kids.

I now understand the incredible blessing and power of that love. The people who bestowed it on us may no longer be here physically, but their love is just as present. Along with my parents’ love, it is the single most important force that forms the energetic foundation of my life. In life’s darkest moments, I can pull out my magic key and open the door that leads into the secret chamber where that love is stored. This love shields and protects me, and because it’s boundless, it is always there for me – the biggest, most important and most inexhaustible resource of my life.

I now know that not everyone in the world has had that blessing, and I now know that that love was a gift from God. I now know that the Shekhina was present in that abundant love.

My aunt and I also talked about conflicts that at different times permeated and even split the family. We talked about jealousies, feelings of rivalry, feelings of anger and resentment, and the separations that resulted from them. We talked about how in the midst of that abundant love, it was still possible to feel as if you were not loved enough. How even though all the children were everybody’s children, it was still possible to feel as though others were wanted more than you were.

I remember those feelings well too, and in the memory chamber of my heart I try to re-experience them, too, as a gift from God. I am certain, just as I’m certain that God is present everywhere, that in those feelings, the Shekhina was also present – just as She is present in my feelings of grief at all the missed opportunities, all the times I wasn’t there to give back the love that I’d been so generously given.

Why would Shekhina be present there, in those difficult emotions? For what purpose? Perhaps to show that an honest expression of feeling must still be honored, whether as a message, as a lesson, or as a path to redemption. After all, if we know how the human being in front of us feels, we can reach out and create more love where until a moment ago there  may not have been any.

Perhaps the Shekhina is there, in those more difficult emotions, in order to teach us that, in the end, the negative conclusions that we draw from our “negative” feelings are just our own illusions. After all, love is still there, available to us in its purest, most unadulterated form. All we need to do is choose to notice it and choose to draw different conclusions. When She isn’t there to help us experience pure love and joy, She is there to teach us to find our path to it anyway.

The love of those generations continues. One of my younger cousins, who was with us at Mitzpe Ramon, has a Down syndrome. This young woman is the purest expression of love I’ve ever encountered. She has no fences around her heart, no walls to keep either her inner self away from others or others away from her inner self. She declared her love for me the moment she first met me two years ago. She continued throughout that visit to remind me of how much she loved me. And she wanted to know whether I loved her too.

Two years later, she is still that way. She hugs me, kisses me, holds my hand, and asks me to stay a little longer. She tells me she loves me, and she revels in my telling her that I love her too. She declares openly to the world that she loves and wants to be loved back.

The Shekhina is there, in that young woman’s love. When I am around her, I am reminded of how simple love really is. All it requires is for one human being to be able and willing to say to another with an open heart: “I love you. Do you love me too?” – and for another human being to answer in the affirmative. In that love, there is the presence of God. And that, to me, is the essence of Malkhut she b’Hod.

Day 34: Yesod within Hod

Photo May 23, 6 57 14 PM

Day 34 is about the life-giving force of Yesod within the emotional energy of Hod. Emotional energy is what adds fire to our projects, motivates us to continue even when the going gets tough. And Yesod is about creation and the fulfillment of our fundamental needs as we engage with the physical universe.

Emotions feed everything we do, give color to our lives, motivate us to create and are an inextricable part of our health and well-being. In that way, they nourish our lives on a deep physical level. My friend Eve Soldinger, author of Unexpected Gifts, who writes from the perspective of a Chinese Medicine practitioner, offers a great way to think about it in her post “Fire and Excitement“:

“There’s a natural excitement that we expect when we move into summer and experience that we refer to as the fire element. In our emotional lives, we rely on our relationships for warmth. We know our hearts as the place that responds to the temperature of our relationships… There is an undeniable excitement that we experience when we have the opportunity to have our heart be open and felt.

Sometimes the excitement we seek feels dangerous from the place of our own vulnerability, but many of us feel the intoxication of that special place where we allow ourselves the opportunity to become intimate and therefore warm and honest with another person. This is the definition of the fire element working for your health and well-being where you can assess the possibilities of creating your own source of fire and warmth in your life.”

As you continue to read Eve’s post, think about this: How does emotional energy feed into your fundamental ability to engage with life? How does it feed into your health and well-being? How does it feed into your ability to feel connected to all that is? Your answers to these questions are the essence of Yesod within Hod.

Lag B’Omer: Flames of Joy Reaching for the Heavens

Flame Tree - portrait

The first time I saw this tree was in Tel Aviv, and it stopped me in my tracks. I saw it at the beginning of Carmel Street, where it crosses Allenby and where the famous Shuk haCarmel – the Carmel market – starts its lengthy, narrow course. With its giant, bright red clusters of flowers, it seemed to be a symbol of bounty and unabashed sensuality. Nature here in Israel is like that: it doesn’t hold back. It takes joy in its own sensuousness, and it invites everybody else to do the same.

Then I saw it again – two of them, actually – in front of Tel Aviv’s Museum of Art, and they were even more textured, more bright, more voluptuous. A Facebook query to friends revealed that its name is a Flame Tree. Apparently, it grows in the U.S. – abundantly so. But to me, this tree will forever be associated with Israel – not in the least because I met and became besotted with it right on the eve of Lag B’Omer – the 33rd day of the counting of Omer, a Kabbalistic holiday which is celebrated around the flames of bonfires, with music and dancing. And for the particularly devout, the celebrations include pilgrimages to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, who is believed to have received and recorded Kabbalah’s most sacred text, the Zohar, and is buried on Mount Meron just outside of Tzfat.

In the many commentaries on Lag B’Omer that I’ve seen, almost no one mentions the special quality of this day that likely made Kabbalists celebrate it in the first day. This is the day of Hod she b’Hod. 

Danny Cohen, a Jerusalem-based meditation teacher, founder of The Living Heart and a founding director of Or HaLev, wrote in this weeks’ newsletter that “Hod is the release, the way fire releases the pent-up potential energy, so too may we get in touch with the fire in us and let go of what’s keeping us from being aflame with the aliveness of the Divine coursing through us, as us.”

In Dr. Jay McCrensky’s interpretation, the sefira of Hod refers to emotional energy that we need in order to pursue our purpose (Netzach), for without the fire of emotion, our motivation will quickly run dry.

In his understanding, the particular energetic focus of Hod is joy – the ultimate emotion associated with the Divine. Those who have traveled the path of mystery have come back to share with us that joy permeates every bit of creation – every molecule of being, every particle of our souls. That is why our liturgy is filled to the brim with those other words for joy – sasson and simcha.

And so Hod within Hod can be viewed as the essence of joy – an emotion that raises us above our mundane circumstances and causes us to reach higher. Just like the flames of the bonfires that we light on this day leap into the air toward the heavens, we get to experience the uplifting energy of joy that brings us ever closer to the ultimate revelation of Shavuot. It is no wonder that Kabbalists celebrated this day with music and that it is considered an auspicious day for weddings – the ultimate joyful occasions.

In excess, too much joy, just like uncontrolled fire, can burn, and those who have tried to reach the Divine too quickly, without the necessary preparation, have, in fact, burned themselves. But the beauty of the Kabbalistic system is that its ultimate expression is balance. When we reach for the Heaven while remaining fully grounded in the physical life here on earth, we fulfill the Kabbalistic vision of being the link between the two realms. But on this special day, we can allow ourselves to experience joy within joy: to feel the heat of the flame within us, to allow ourselves to shine brightly, and to be the purest of pure lights on to the world.

Day 28: The Mystery of Our Purpose

Flowering Pink Tree - Meadowbrook parkThere is something blooming right now where I live that fills the air with indescribable fragrance. I noticed it last night on a long walk through the city. As I kept walking, the fragrance changed and shifted, making my head spin as I tried to identify it. Somewhere in that mix, there was the fragrance of peonies, which suddenly seemed to be blooming in every garden. There, too, was the smell of fresh vegetation empowered by the weeks of rain. But there was more than that to this heady brew of a late spring finally springing into force.

To me, it felt like an unexpected gift. I wondered if others noticed, and if they did, did they, too, find it as intriguing? But I seemed to be the only one periodically interrupting her walk to stick her nose into flowers in front of people’s houses or standing, dazed, in the middle of the sidewalk for minutes on end, trying to figure out the source of this subtle yet intoxicating fragrance. So I concluded that I was the only one.

And suddenly I had the thought that this was the Shekhina playing with me – the mystery of God’s presence here on Earth, God’s feminine counterpart. She was right here, teasing me, playing hide and seek with me, making me run after her, search for her, try to catch her. I could almost hear the playful laughter, and I laughed too. For who can catch God? We can only stand in wonder and be amazed at His and Her miracles.

On Day 28 we are contemplating the relationship of Malkhut (Shekhina) to Netzakh – the mystery of God’s manifestation in this plane of existence within the context of our soul purpose.  What do we make of this?

To me it suggests that as we go about fulfilling our purpose, we must acknowledge the mystery that accompanies its outcome. No matter how clear our vision, no matter our plans, hopes and expectations, not matter our careful execution, we cannot predict that outcome, and we don’t know what that outcome might lead to. Who will it touch? Which new processes will it set in motion? Who will it affect and inspire?

All that is completely out of our hands. We must learn to play in the mystery of the Shekhina as we release the outcome and trust that we have done our best to manifest our soul’s mission.  Sometimes we complete our mission only to find that it had much less impact than we had hoped (at least, in our estimate).  Sometimes the reward we may have hoped for didn’t arrive. Sometimes the outcome may not at all be what we had intended. But the truth is that the full dimensions of the outcome and its impact will never be known to us.

Moses – possibly the man with clearest expression of soul purpose in the Torah – surely must have felt disappointed when the people responded to him with a lack of understanding or even rebelled against him. And at the end of his life he surely felt a disappointment at not being able to enter the Promised Land. He had to learn to release the outcome and trust in the mystery of the process. It was his job to fulfill his mission. The rest was up to God.

In fact, trust in this mystery frames the entire process, from the moment in which our soul’s purpose is conceived in the unknown and transmitted to us to the moment of its final expression and manifestation in this world. The only thing we know for sure is that we are serving as a channel for the implementation of this purpose. The intended unintended consequences may be many and much more far-reaching than we’ll ever know.

Surely, the fragrance that was accompanying me on my walk had not been created just for me. The plants that produced it had other missions and purposes, each its own. And yet, one of the consequences of their living out their purpose was that the fragrance allowed me to become aware of Shekhina’s magical presence. It became a message, a love letter to me from the One, written in a language that I, a long-term lover of plant-based fragrances, could understand and appreciate. As I transmit this story through the medium of text, I contribute to creating another set of consequences.  Who knows how this message will impact on my readers?  Who knows what forms it might take in its next iteration, as others process it and make it their own? How will it continue to act upon the world beyond my knowledge and awareness?

None of us can calculate the full impact of that which we create as we fulfill our soul’s purpose. We must acknowledge the mystery of co-creation. And we must accept that its outcome will continue to be carried through the world like that fragrance that was brought to me on the playful waves of the Shekhina.

Day 27: Creativity in the Service of Our Soul Purpose

Day 27 - pond2On Day 27, we are contemplating Yesod within Netzach. The energy of Yesod helps us experience our needs so that we can go about fulfilling them. (Thanks to Jay McCrensky’s Receiving Holiness for this and other amazing insights about the sefirot!)

This is crucial – and not only for our survival: in many ways, it is through going about fulfilling our needs, in a balanced way, that we engage with and are able to express ourselves in the world.

When we fulfill our needs for food, we unknowingly yet directly participate in shaping the society we live in. If we buy organically-grown food, we support the ongoing flourishing of our planet. We also support either better health for all or a lack of it. And in that way, we also contribute to the shape of our medical and pharmaceutical industries. Depending on what we choose to eat today, we either support exploitation or social justice, environmental sustainability or continued destruction of the environment. On a spiritual level, by choosing what we eat, we either participate  in the promotion of suffering or in restoring well-being and equilibrium to the planet.

When we engage in fulfilling our sexual needs – a crucial energy of Yesod – we participate in the universal process of procreation, and through that, join in multiple social processes as well. What kind of educational systems does our society have? What moral and spiritual values do we inculcate in our children? What kind of material well-being  are we creating for future generations? What systems of justice do we want to bequeath them? Through engaging the energy of Yesod, we engage these crucial aspects of how our world operates.

Inherent in all these actions is our ability to co-create with God, and the energy of Yesod is directly connected to creativity. We can co-create a new life, or we can work in partnership with the Divine to give birth to a new company or a write a new book or produce a new work of art.

So what does it mean to consider creativity within our soul purpose, Yesod within Netzach, as we are asked to do on this day?  According to Kabbalists, we receive our purpose from God. But it is up to us to create specific ways to implement it. After all, there are many ways in which we can fulfill our missions. What will be our starting point? What is our plan? Where will we find partners and supporters? What will we create together in the process? These questions reflect the energy of Day 27. When we seek to answer them, we apply our creativity in order to fulfill our purpose.

Day 26: The Joy of Being on Purpose

Curly Statue - Italy - edited

Day 26 of Omer is Hod within Netzach, when we get to consider the emotional drive (Hod) that helps us fulfill our mission (Netzach).

It is hard to sustain any activity for a long time unless we feel an emotional connection that drives us to continue doing it.  What makes anything we do consistently motivating – makes us jump out of bed in the mornings with anticipation – is the emotional connection to the task at hand. And when what we do is connected to our purpose, we can tap into the ultimate source of energy and joy.

The key question for most of us though is what exactly constitutes our purpose.

I spent a lot of time in my life trying to figure it out. This need to identify my purpose , the never-ending quest to understand what it was that I was meant to do with my life had to do with the  fact that I just couldn’t feel excited about any job I  held. No matter what, each job ended up making me feel empty and unfulfilled.

I remember sitting one day many years ago in my office in Cambridge, MA, staring out into the dull gray of the Boston winter and realizing with sudden clarity: it just couldn’t be that I’d been put on this earth to sit in front of this computer to do meaningless tasks for some distant client companies which meant nothing to me. No matter how many people told me that a job is just a job – a way to make a living, not something to be enjoyed, they said – I refused to believe it. Deep down I knew that there was more than that to this business called work.

And so I embarked on a search. I traveled the gamut exploring my artistic gifts, professional skills, and interests. I went in search of my passion. I interned and volunteered. I studied psychological models in an attempt to understand myself.  I hired coaches. I became a coach myself. But no matter what, my self-identified gifts and interests were not aligning with jobs that were available to me.

One day, I heard a brilliant coach say that finding one’s purpose had nothing to do with a job or a career. It had to do with who we are in the world.

I didn’t understand what she meant, and I didn’t believe her. I thought it was a cop-out. I though that she just didn’t want to do the hard work of helping find the answer to my  long-persisting question.

It took me many years to realize the truth of what she said.

The truth is that we can connect to our purpose in multiple settings. Our job or specific occupation is unimportant. Because what would happen if our soul purpose – and that is really what we are talking about here, our soul purpose – were tied to a specific job and we lost that job? Would we lose our purpose or our ability to fulfill it? Of course not!

Our soul purpose is way deeper than that. It’s about who we are in the world. It’s about the unique energy that we bring into it to make it a better place.

What we need to do, once we identify our soul purpose, is to bring it into everything and anything we do.

If somebody asked me today what I believe my soul purpose is, I would say that it’s to help others realize the Divinity that is present in every moment. To a considerable extent it expresses itself in teaching. But does that mean that I have to go back to school, become a rabbi, look for a new job, turn my whole life around? Not at all.

I can live my purpose every day, in multiple ways – I just have to make that choice.

I have found ways to infuse any work I do with a sense of meaning where none may have been before. In some cases, it may mean figuring out which parts of my job naturally feel more meaningful and place more focus on them. In others, it may mean making an effort to perform my job in such a way as to remain in integrity with my soul purpose. It may mean intentionally bringing my sense of purpose into what I do and letting it shine, rather than holding it back. I can infuse any interaction, any piece of writing, any task with that at least to some extent.

The emotional satisfaction that I have from being on purpose energizes me on the daily basis. And that, in turn, motivates me further to continue tapping into my purpose and acting in integrity with it. It is the feeling of joy and satisfaction that we experience when we know we accomplished something that aligns with our soul purpose that is the essence of Day 26 of Omer.