Why go on a Jewish meditation retreat?

by Rabbi Jay Michaelson

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 | 18 Kislev 5778

In large part, the answers are the same as to why one would go on a meditation retreat in general: greater awareness of how we thrive and how we suffer, recharging the mind and heart so we can live more vividly and more compassionately, deep insights that lead to profound shifts in consciousness.

But there are plenty of meditation retreats – why a Jewish one? Here are a few answers.

First, there’s what some people call the “morphic field”: the community, the sense of connection, and the set of cultural practices, ways of being, and traditions of being Jewish. We’re not a traditionally religious retreat, but for our students, that’s not the point. Rather, they feel more comfortable with the Jewish ‘morphic field’ than with other forms, and feel a sense of connection, tribe, heart-opening, integration, or other positive emotions. It helps set the tone.

Second, while the core meditation practices we teach are not indigenously Jewish – more on that in a bit – there is a lot about the retreat that is very Jewish indeed. For one, if we believe that experiences of the sacred are valuable (as opposed to, you know, just more delusions), then we can deliver. We offer devotionalistic paths, not just contemplative ones. We encourage the cultivation of experiences that many Buddhists would consider delusory. And we teach how to have those experiences in familiar Jewish symbolic, mythic, linguistic frames (even if we are using their terms in entirely new ways). This has enables practitioners to re-experience such states in daily life: you have a powerful experience with the Shema on retreat, and you’ve got Shema the next week in shul.

Personally, I find that the humanistically-informed Western Theravadan Buddhism gains something substantive when inserted into Jewish cultural and religious matrices. It’s not merely, as Reb Zalman quipped, “vipassana with a tallis on.” It transforms, it grows, it integrates.

Third, in “Jewish meditation” today, there is considerable space given for personal story, psychological ‘stuff,’ cultivating temporary mind-state changes (in davening, in the modernist forms of metta, etc.), reification of spiritual experience into theological language, myth, awe, beauty, eros, and humanist spiritual values. These are all of possible benefit to practitioners. We can be openly life-affirming and not have to hesitate because Theravadan Buddhist monks are not. We can blend in spirituality and hopefully-not-harmful psychological material. There are times where Jewish values really help deepen, communicate, and articulate contemplative experiences. There is often different wisdom in the Jewish language and text that can offer additional perspectives.

Finally, as I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most interesting (to me) juncture of Jewish and Buddhist wisdom is in non-self/anatta/nonduality/panentheism. Seeing the dependent arising of all mental phenomena dislodges the notion that the yetzer hara is “me.” And if there’s no self, what is there? What’s left is the net of dependently originating empty phenomenon – the Ein Sof. This realization can be awesome in and of itself, and that can be cool, but more importantly, it can lead to more forgiveness, patience, clear-seeing, resilience, wisdom, and peace. Seems like a good idea.

One thing I like about how we teach is that we’re not presenting meditation as though it were some secret Jewish substrate, hovering just below the surface for 3000 years. No, the “Jewish Meditation” I’m interested in falls in the middle of the definitional spectrum between “any meditation done by Jews” and “meditation using only traditional Jewish forms.” Given that there are some forms of Jewish meditation that developed as long ago as the 13th century, it’s fair to ask why we don’t just do those. In other words, if I’ve just asked “Why Jewish?” one might also ask “Why Buddhist?”

The main reason I’m not super interested in ‘indigenous’ Jewish meditation practices is that they’re less systematic and less time-tested than Buddhist ones. Theravadan tradition has really, really helpful guides to overcoming obstacles, cultivating useful mental faculties, and how meditation fits into the path of liberation. Meditation has been central to that tradition for 2,500 years; it’s always been marginal in Judaism. That is reflected in the pre-contemporary material that’s out there. I’m not sure that I even trust hitbodedut as a method. Or mussar. There seems to be some good Hasidic depth psychology and good thinking about ecstatic states. But even there, the ecstatic prayer experience seems a little blunt compared with Buddhist meditative states, and it’s loaded with theological associations. It’s just not as refined, and seems like a lot of reification.

Second, many traditional practices require either prerequisites (like language) or beliefs – or must be so transformed as to make one wonder whether they are really ‘indigenous’ at all anymore. For example, Abulafian meditation as understood today is actually more a 20th century syncretic practice than what he himself taught. If we have to adapt, transform, simplify, strip away, and winnow down so much, what’s the point? I find it more relaxing, honest, and helpful to simply do practices that work, rather than find Jewish ways to express every practice and every idea. I am not interested in playing ‘Hide the Buddha.’ We are all Reconstructionist Jews today: historically conscious, post-particularistic, and hopefully suspicious of meta-narrative. I think our wisdom and compassion are deepened by a transparency of sources.

But the most important reason why I teach the way I do is that it’s transformed my life. I have gone on multi-month retreats in order to rewire the brain to cling less, and also to experience mind-states far more profound than anything I’ve found in Judaism. I do moment-to-moment Dzogchen practice, Samadhi and Vipassana, and a handful of other Dharma practices. I have just certified as a jhana teacher in a Theravadan tradition. And if I’m being honest, I think my own deeper work is all there. I still daven, observe Shabbat and kashrut, and ‘do Jewish’ a lot. I haven’t forgotten my Kabbalah. And I am a rabbi, after all. But I do want to be honest about which practices have been the most powerful to me.

Now, is it fair to blend Buddhism and Judaism in this way? I think so.

On the one hand, it’s not like mindfulness, as it’s taught today, is some kind of pristine Buddhist tradition from thousands of years ago. Simple, garden-variety mindfulness is an innovation of the 20th century. Kal V’Chomer Western Buddhist values like humanism. For example, when someone says “don’t cling so much,” they most likely don’t mean “give up on life” and do mean things like leaning back and enjoying life more, not less: more skillfully, more ethically, more joyfully. Western Buddhists are rarely going for detachment in the unreconstructed sense. We’re going for happiness, wisdom, compassion.

We’re also selective about how we interact with Jewish values. Biblical and even Talmudic Judaism seems to be largely about how we can get along with one another and be in some kind of relationship to “God,” whatever that means. Pre-modern normative Judaism is more about self-regulation than self-transformation. Similarly with more recent iterations of Judaism. Mainstream American Judaism is largely about tribe, community, identity, culture, and religion. Yet contemplative Judaism is largely about self-transformation, being ‘present,’ compassion/justice, and perhaps something about the numinous/sacred/divine. We choose to emphasize those aspects. Our goals are many, but generally cluster around seeing more clearly, being more ‘present’ with one’s life and relationships, experiencing the sacred, opening the heart, reducing stress, and generally appreciating life more. (Contrast these with obeying the will of God, extinguishing craving, supporting Israel, and so on.)

So we’re already hybridizing. Is it worth it?

To be honest, I’m a meditation zealot. I think it can change the world, and I think contemplative practice is one of the only ways to get inside the mysterious, often violent, often fearful black box of the human mind. If any of our teaching has a capacity to even slightly influence American Jewish life to be more about compassion, spiritual states, and gratitude and a little less about flag-waving, dogma, and ethnocentrism, that is a bonus both for Jewish continuity and the world.

But we don’t even have to do that much for this activity to be worthwhile. If this work can help reduce suffering, awaken a sense of the sacred, and hopefully inspire our relatively privileged students to help others who are less lucky, dayenu. I’m honored to help others find their own ways to live like it matters, to show up for life and see it as clearly as possible. To experience life as it is, in all its richness, beauty, ugliness, pain, and surprise. To experience and share love, and to help others suffer less and show up more. As Rabbi Henry David Thoreau said, “to live deliberately – not to find, when I came to die, that I had not lived.”

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