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What is Jewish Meditation?

"Truly, you are where your mind is,” taught the Baal Shem Tov.

What is Jewish meditation? How can it be practiced? And to what effect?

The Jewish meditation tradition goes back at least a few thousand years. The early literature points to a variety of techniques for permuting Hebrew letters in the mind’s eye, visualizing otherworldly celestial realms, and communing with the Deity. Medieval Kabbalah continued to build on these practices, providing a symbolic map of the divine realm as the terrain for visualization.

Enough of these texts have been translated into English that it’s possible to learn and practice many classical Jewish meditation techniques. Doing so might help cultivate a concentrated mind and lead to exotic, blissful states. But it won’t lead to wisdom — neither about the nature of consciousness and the mind, nor about how to cultivate a happy, peaceful, loving, contented, harmonious, generous, and awakened life.

To support the work of cultivating wisdom, I practice mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness was originally taught by the Nepali prince Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha (or “awakened one”) after his enlightenment, who used it as a tool for uncovering and extinguishing the roots of suffering in the mind. It was then adapted by Asian teachers over 2,500 years and eventually repackaged in a secular context over the last 30 years in America. In the past two decades, a number of teachers have been offering mindfulness meditation in a Jewish framework to forward decidedly Jewish goals — loving your neighbor, cultivating compassion, sensing God’s loving presence, directly experiencing the light of the soul, and experiencing our own personal exodus by finding a greater degree of inner spaciousness and freedom from habit.

What does mindfulness meditation do? It enables us to directly observe our mental habits with curiosity and discernment instead of getting swept up into them. As a serious practitioner of a variety of Jewish spiritual practices for over 20 years — including prayer, character refinement, Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and a variety of meditation techniques — I have found no practice more transformative than direct investigation and cultivation of the mind through the practice of mindfulness meditation.

Prayer might open my heart to wonder, gratitude, reverence, and humility. Character refinement practices might make me more generous, patient, and non-reactive. Study of sacred text might enable me to drink from a multigenerational font of Jewish counsel for good living. And normative Jewish observance might incline me toward greater attunement with a mysterious transcendent consciousness that calls me to holy living.

Yet none of this is possible without attention to the habits of mind that undermine my capacity to pay close attention, open my heart, show up in relationships as the person I wish to be, truly receive and embody the wisdom of our tradition, right-size my ego, and connect with a Presence much larger than myself. No matter how much I wish to be present, open-hearted, connected, loving, wise, and selfless, if I am mindless of my habits of perception and thought, I will keep tripping over my own mind.

“Truly, you are where your mind is,” taught the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. How many of us have had the experience of sitting with a loved one as they tell us about their day, only to realize that we didn’t take in what they said because we were thinking about an upcoming deadline or something that happened two days ago? Your body was present, but your mind was elsewhere. So where were you really?

Regular mindfulness meditation practice helps us to begin to see the hidden, subtle mental habits that inhibit our capacity to be present with ourselves and the people in our lives. One can then intentionally choose to relinquish those habits and strengthen others. Beyond that, it may be possible to discover an abiding refuge of contentment, peacefulness, love, and connection that flows from an inner wellspring of spacious, luminous awareness.

How does mindfulness meditation work? It’s simple, though not easy. Find a quiet space. Silence your phone. Let go of the to-do list and any worry about what happened or what may be. Sit still. Commit to remain present and bear witness to the contents of your own mind. Do this regularly, even daily, and you’ve got a practice.

Because our attention tends to be scattered and dull, I recommend commencing a session by paying attention to a single point of focus in the body — the current of the breath, say — and returning attention to it repeatedly when the mind wanders. This preliminary practice allows the mind to become more calm, focused, vivid, and serviceable. We can remain aware of our mental content, watching thoughts and perceptions arise and unfold as if from a watchtower without getting swept into them. In time, we begin to see which mental habits keep us small, contracted, fearful, anxious, and dull, and which support our capacity to be more expansive, calm, content, and awake to the grandeur of being.

Ultimately, though, mindfulness practice in a Jewish framework is an experiential venture that stands to open a gateway to the kinds of sacred experience that cannot adequately be conveyed in words. Check it out and see for yourself.

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