Meditation can be a powerful addition to services, and a growing number of congregations today are adding it to traditional liturgy. At my congregation, Shirat HaNefesh, we have for many years experimented with what works and what doesn’t in creating an authentic and meaningful meditation experience for our members. Today, meditation is an integral part of both our Shabbat morning services and our High Holy Day services. We’ve asked ourselves: What is the meaning of meditation in the Jewish context? Is there an authentically Jewish meditative tradition and, if so, how can we bring it to today’s Jewish worshiper in a meaningful way? Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
- Set the Context. There is a widespread view that meditation is alien to our tradition, which leads many to resist having it as part of the service. But nothing could be further from the truth. Already in the Torah, we read about about Isaac going out into the fields to meditate (Gen. 24:63), and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan investigated multiple sources that indicate that prophetic experience was meditative in its nature. (See his Meditation and the Bible.) There are references in the Talmud to our sages meditating for an hour before and after prayer. (That would add up to 6 hours of meditation every day!) Rabbi Nachman of Breslov developed a number of meditative techniques, including hitbodedut – secluding yourself for introspection and intimate conversation with God. And in today’s Tsfat, meditation is as much a part of life as is Halacha. If you plan on leading meditation at your congregation, it’s a good idea to offer your congregants some of this background. It will make people more comfortable with the idea of meditation at services and potentially entice them to learn more. One of the best overviews of Jewish meditation practices is Rabbi Kaplan’s “Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide” Another favorite of mine is Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi’s Gate to the Heart: A Manual of Contemplative Jewish Practice.
- Use Jewish Liturgy for Inspiration. Many times, when people do choose to introduce meditation at services, they suggest a breath-focused meditation. No doubt, breath meditation is fundamental. It is the most widely taught technique in Buddhist meditation and exists in all spiritual traditions. But why not help your fellow congregants connect meditation with something more explicitly and authentically Jewish? Our liturgy is filled with images and phrases that already permeate our consciousness, and our tradition has for millennia used them as a source of inspiration for mantra- and image-focused meditations. One of the most frequently-occurring images is that of light (Or chadash al Tsion tair). Another idea is to meditate on the Tetragrammaton, visualizing the letters as black fire on white fire. Or ask people to repeat a holy phrase in their mind for a certain period of time. (Sh’mah offers the easiest and most-familiar example.) This approach will likely resonate with your congregants and make them more open to trying the practice.
- Create an Experience. I can almost hear serious meditators scoffing at this. Create an experience? The whole point of meditation, they’d say, is to quiet the mind, be in the present moment, encounter yourself as you are – not “create” something new. But the people you may be leading in meditation are not necessarily experienced meditators. Some may never have tried meditation, others will tell you that they tried once and completely failed. Some may even resent being asked to sit through a meditation, no matter how brief. As any experienced meditator knows, there are times when even five minutes of quiet breathing may seem like an eternity. Your task in introducing meditation at services is not to get unprepared people to do serious meditative heavy-lifting. You’ll do best to orient yourself to the beginners and help them achieve a meaningful experience so that they’ll want to come back. (Experienced meditators in your group will take care of themselves.) What I found to work well in this regard is to lead a guided meditation. Numerous books exist on guided imagery specifically in the Jewish context. I, for one, have repeatedly drawn inspiration from The Handbook of Jewish Meditation Practices by Rabbi David A. Cooper.
- Make It Personal. Jewish communal worship is exactly that – communal worship. But without a personal kavvanah of each individual congregant, the communal worship will not be as inspired as it could be. A brief period of meditation allows each person to focus her attention on her personal reasons for prayer, her personal intention. No matter what kind of meditation I lead, I like to draw people’s attention to how they themselves feel in the moment and what they are experiencing. The deepening of our own, personal relationship with God is one of the fundamentals of ongoing religious practice. Without that relationship, one’s interest in spirituality will be hard to sustain. Leading a kind of meditation that will help people find personal meaning in their prayer will do much to support that process.
- Make It Embodied. Today’s Jewish practice all too often seems to favor a highly intellectual approach. Opportunities to express our spiritual connection in physical ways are few. In fact, the few practices that do engage our bodies – the mikveh (immersion), the laying of tefillin, the shuckling during davening – are often the province of the more observant worshipers, leaving members of liberal communities with few resources to express their spirituality physically. But the physical plays a critically important role in our spiritual experience. It’s through the body that we experience God’s presence in our lives. It is no accident that Jewish liturgy has numerous specific references to various parts of our bodies: from kol atzmotai tomarna (“all my bones shall praise you”) to references to God examining and knowing all our inner parts (kidneys are referenced some five times, e.g. in Psalm 26:2). At the beginning of the Amidah, we ask God to open our lips and let our mouths declare His praise; at the end we ask Him to keep our tongues from speaking evil and our lips from speaking deceit. We talk about lungs expanding with the praise of God (Psalm 34:1). Prayer is a very physical business. To help people connect to their bodies, I often lead a guided meditation that focuses their attention on a specific part of their body, e.g., the heart. Here, again, Jewish liturgy offers an endless source of inspiration. We are asked to love the Lord our God with all our heart; to purify our hearts so that we can serve Him; we are asked to walk before God and be wholehearted. I have found meditations that help people visualize opening, expanding and repairing their hearts have proven, in my experience, to be very meaningful for people.
- Jewish “Mindfulness”: Connecting the Dots with Our Own Tradition. I often see Jewish communities using the term “mindfulness” in tandem with meditation. I associate this term specifically with the Buddhist mindfulness approach to meditation. And while there is nothing wrong, per se, with borrowing from others, to me, it detracts from the richness of our own tradition. In fact, Judaism places extreme value on mindfulness and awareness – it just calls it something else. For example, we have the practice of saying multiple (some say, a hundred) blessings throughout the day. What is it, if not mindfulness? Just try being aware enough to remember to say all the required blessings! You’ll find it to be a highly rigorous, awareness-building practice. Observing the laws of kashrut will demand extreme attention to all matters related to food. The Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidim placed great emphasis on deveikut – the action of “clinging” to God – or keeping God in their thoughts – in every moment. To achieve that, they used an endless number of attention-focusing techniques, from repetition of holy phrases to paying keen attention to their thoughts and feelings. (If you want an exhaustive resource on this subject, I highly recommend the 757-page book by Rabbi Itzhak Buxbaum, “Jewish Spiritual Practices.”) The point here is not to suggest that you don’t borrow from other traditions: rather, if you find an approach that you like, why not investigate whether Judaism has it as well, just under a different name? Chances are, it does, and by connecting the dots, you’ll not only offer a meaningful experience for the people in your congregation, you’ll teach people something new about their own tradition.
I wish you Shana Tova, Gmar Chatima Tova, and hope that you have many meaningful experiences of meditation and prayer this holiday season and beyond.