Buddhism Meets Judaism: The Art of Meditation

October 2, 2012Robb Kushner

I’ve been interested in meditation since college. The attraction began with a notion that I could achieve “inner peace,” though I’ve since come to realize the key is to focus on increasing awareness of my experience in the present moment – with whatever thoughts and feelings may arise. When my concentration is right, I’ve been able to relax into what I’d call a “core of stillness” –  elusive, but at least I know it’s there.

A few questions and comments come up repeatedly during conversations about meditation:

“What kind of meditation do you do?”

For many years, I tried meditating in different ways, but nothing seemed to stick until 2006, when I discovered a very simple and straightforward tradition taught by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. More recently, I have started learning about the Jewish meditation tradition; both of these approaches work for me and, remarkably, can support and enhance each other.

Many Jews who practice meditation are referred to as Jewish Buddhists (or “Jubus”), though I’m not fully comfortable with that descriptor. I like to think of myself as a Jew with Buddhist seasoning! As a Jew with a belief in God as the guiding force within all life, I’m still hesitant to take anything on faith – so I like the approach taught by the Buddha, to test everything against one’s own experience. (It’s also worth mentioning that the Buddha is viewed as a man and a remarkable teacher, and not a deity.)

My involvement with meditation has helped me focus on developing a sense of compassion for all living things – especially for other people. There is a vow traditionally stated upon waking: “I vow to look upon all beings with eyes of compassion.” The core Jewish value of loving kindness is central to this experience.

“I can’t stop thinking. I can’t slow down enough to meditate.”

Perhaps the biggest misconception is that we are expected to stop thinking during meditation, but that’s not possible – thinking is what the mind was made to do! There is no spiritual emergency brake one can pull to stop thinking. Rather, the practice of meditation is to focus on your breath and, when you notice you are caught up thinking about something else, simply acknowledge it, without judgment, and return to focusing on your breath. Developing this kind of focused attention is like exercising a muscle. The more regularly you practice, the stronger and more dependable it becomes.

I’ve heard the word teshuvah (which literally means “return”) applied to the practice of re-focusing on the breath whenever thoughts or feelings arise. This act of returning to focus on my breath is fundamental to the practice – and each time I return, it’s a kind of blessing.

I work on paying attention from the very start of an inbreath all the way until there is a slight pause before the outbreath begins. Then I do the same for my outbreath, all the way until the pause at the end of my exhale.

There is no need to control the breath in any way. Just let it be whatever it wants to be, and trust that over time, it will slow down and smooth out. I like to keep in mind that, just like an athlete, there will be days when I feel more “in the zone” than others.

“Why do you sometimes meditate with a group?”

Despite the fact that meditation is an individual experience, it’s helpful to have a connection to a group to support one’s practice. As part of our time together, there’s a chance to share challenges as well as any insights from personal experience. We practice “deep listening” when others are speaking – focusing on what others say without the need to judge or offer advice. I find that sharing experiences with others in this way is helpful in building a sense of community.

Along with the term meditation, “mindfulness” is also often used to describe this approach of developing awareness, of “waking up” to the here and now. And, while sitting meditation is a core activity, we can also meditate while walking and as we go through each day.

“How does meditation help you?”

My meditation practice has helped me become more flexible and open to times when things go wrong (which is really just when things don’t go as I expect). I have also become better at working through feelings of anger. Being able to say to my wife, “I’m frustrated right now” –  instead of directing anger at her –  makes an enormous difference. This is a journey and an ongoing challenge, and I’m encouraged to feel some progress in this area.

If you’d like to learn more about meditation, visit the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn, or the Plum Village Meditation Center.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are, advises that whenever you find yourself talking about how helpful meditation is for you, it’s better to just stop talking and practice meditating. So, if you’ll excuse me...

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