Meditation Jewish Style

by Dina Ripsman Eylon Published in the Iranian Jewish Chronicle / Chashm Andaaz March, 2005 With increased celebrities’ interest in Jewish Kabbalah and other modes of Jewish mysticism, the public has become aware of the significance of Jewish meditation. Jewish meditation classes are emerging in cities across the United States and Canada. Some offer a combination of Yoga and meditation, as the two are closely affiliated. Nan Fink Gefen, the founding publisher of Tikkun Magazine and the co-director of Chochmat HaLev, a center of Jewish meditation in the San Francisco area, publishes and lectures extensively on Jewish meditation. She writes in Tikkun Magazine that during one of her lectures a young woman approached her, saying that Judaism always seemed spiritually dead to her. Indeed, mainstream Judaism, as known today, is apprehensive of the practice. One reason for this attitude might be related to the potential confusion their members could exhibit in differentiating between some forms of Jewish prayer and meditation. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, the pioneer of modern Jewish meditation, notes that “many people express surprise that the Jewish tradition contains a formal meditative system that, at least in its outward manifestations, does resemble some of the Eastern systems. This resemblance was first noted in the Zohar, which recognized the merit of the Eastern systems, but warned against their use.” (Meditation and Kabbalah, 3.) Why then do people of all religious backgrounds meditate and what are the benefits of mediation? People who meditate are frequently looking for inner peace and wellness. Meditation seems to be a feasible answer to such a search. Neuroscientists concur that meditation shifts waves from the right frontal area of the brain to the left frontal area; thus making a person calmer and happier. Elizabeth Monk-Turner, of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, demonstrates that the college students, who participated in her clinical study of the benefits of meditation, experienced “fewer symptoms of aching muscles or joints as well as less use of drugs and tranquilizers.” (The Social Science Journal, 40 (2003), 465-470.) Additionally, studies by Dr. Jon KabatZinn, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, show that meditation can improve memory and alleviate chronic pain. In a similar way, by increasing serotonin production, meditation can decrease stress, depression, anxiety, moodiness, and irritability. All of which are associated with the modern western lifestyle. Meditation is also said to treat an array of physical aliments, such as hypertension, cardiac arhythmias, migraine headaches, and insomnia In his book, The History and Varieties of Jewish Meditation, Mark Verman, a notable Kabbalah scholar, asserts that “there is no one dominant form of traditional Jewish meditation. Rather, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of disparate techniques, ranging from visualizations of Divine Names to candle gazing and chanting.” (ibid., ix) But despite this multiplicity of practices, Gefen insists that “the breath is central in Jewish meditation.” (Discovering Jewish Meditation, 15) This is certainly no news to anyone meditating in the Buddhist and Zen traditions. The main difference though in the Jewish tradition is the meaning and variety of mantras. 1

Jewish meditation comprise of many forms of Hebrew mantras, which are incorporated into the breathing cycle. The following are examples of such rituals, inspired by Gefen’s book Discovering Jewish Meditation: Focused Meditation – Find a peaceful place in your home where you can meditate without interruptions and disturbances. [Don’t forget to switch off your phone’s ringer.] Get a comfortable chair that allows your feet to firmly touch the floor. Sit straight, erecting your spine and placing your hands loosely on your lap. Your hands may be facing up or down. Close you eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Let out a short sound when exhaling. Relax your body into the meditative state, and start breathing normally – constantly watching your breath as it inflates and deflated your diaphragm. When you feel relaxed, start meditating on the word – HINEINI, meaning Here I Am. You should focus on this word throughout the rest of the practice [for approximately thirty minutes]. If your mind wanders off, bring it back to your mantra. When the time is up, dedicate this meditation to a loved one or end with a positive affirmation. Breathe deeply a few times, open your eyes and get up slowly. Other mantras to be used in the same way are SHALOM (peace), CHESED (grace, loving-kindness), and Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe). Awareness Meditation – In this type of meditation, you are to let your mind wander off with thoughts. However, you have to be aware of each passing thought. Do not judge your thought. Just say to yourself – GAM ZEH KADOSH, meaning This is Also Holy. The aim of this practice is to help you get rid of your judgments toward yourself, your family and friends. The practice of Jewish meditation is presently growing in popularity. Besides the Chochmat HaLev Center in Berkeley, California, many synagogues feature weekly or monthly meditation sessions. The Siegal College in Cleveland, Ohio has a fullyaccredited Master’s Program in Jewish Spirituality [Ruach]. The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Makom: The Center for Mindfulness offer classes in Jewish meditation led by Alan Brill. Elat Chayyim is a retreat for contemplative Jewish practice, located in Accord, NY. This retreat, modeled after the Mindfulness Meditation retreats, includes daylong meditations with teaching sessions and periods of questions and answers. The owners proudly proclaim that “most people find the silence to be extremely profound experience despite any initial reservations. There is a strong bonding among the participants and an amazing sense of community develops.” One of the strongest proponents of Jewish meditation was the Hassidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), who according to Kaplan was also the “last master of Kabbalah meditation.” Rabbi Nachman’s instructions and the former meditative techniques are an excellent starting-point for the novice Jewish meditator: “The best time to meditate is at night. This is a time when the world is free from mundane concerns…Set aside an hour or more each day to meditate in the fields or in a room, pouring out your thoughts to God…The rest of the day can then be joyous.” (Meditation and Kabbalah, 309, 310).

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