Life at Its Highest

Ted Falcon

Then I received my rabbinic training in the mid-1960s, I had never heard of such a thing as "Jewish meditation." Whether any of my teachers at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, all products of the Enlightenment, were familiar with this practice, I do not know, but I am certain they would have dismissed it as irrational. Rationality, they repeatedly explained to us, held the promise of peace and justice; irrationality was to be feared. It would take me ten years to discover that one such expression of "irrationality"--meditation--was greatly valued in Judaism, and had been part of Jewish practice since ancient times.

In large part, it was the writing of the great twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who described a way of meeting the Divine through the I-thou of relationship, that led me to rabbinical school. But it wasn't until after my ordination that I began to find ways of pursuing the deeper dimensions of relationship about which Buber spoke. At UCLA I trained to be a facilitator of encounter groups, then studied Gestalt psychology and meditation at Esalen Institute at Big Sur. There I began practicing Zen Buddhist and Hindu meditative techniques, focusing on mantras (words and phrases usually in Sanskrit) as well as learning mindfulness practices involving the breath. An entire world opened to me. Meditation, I discovered, was essential for a fuller exploration of the human experience.

I made the connection between the practice of meditation and Judaism in a most unexpected way. In the mid-1970s, I had developed the habit of opening a traditional prayerbook to a random page for the purpose of contemplation. (I would later learn that Jewish mystics used this kind of process, which they called hitbon'nut, as a meditative path to "self understanding.") One day I opened the prayerbook to the Sh'ma, and as I read the next paragraph, which is referred to by its first word, v'ahavta, "and you shall love," I started to reflect on the line: "And these words, which I command you today, shall be upon your heart." In biblical times, the "heart" was believed to be the locus of thought, not feeling. Thus, the words of the Sh'ma were to be upon one's mind. The text continues: "And you shall speak them when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way, when you lie down, and when you rise up." Had these words appeared in a Hindu text, I thought to myself, I would have known immediately that they were a prescription for meditative practice. Why, I wondered, had our sages put the deepest and most significant spiritual teachings right in front of us--where we would be least likely to find them?

Then I remembered a creation story from another tradition. The gods wished to conceal from humans the deepest wisdom, which they hoped to keep for themselves. After some discussion, they rejected hiding this wisdom on a mountaintop or at the bottom of the sea, as men and women would surely search in those places. They decided to conceal the wisdom within human beings themselves, where they would be the least likely to look.

Reading the Sh'ma that day, I realized that its deeper spiritual meaning was not concealed in some esoteric text, as I had always imagined; it was "hidden" in plain sight. The words I read in the V'ahavta told me to repeat the Sh'ma as I lay down, as I rose up, as I walked on my way--in other words, to carry the Sh'ma with me always. At that moment I understood the Sh'ma was not only the "watchword of our faith," but a focus of Jewish meditation.

So I began meditating on the Sh'ma, allowing those six words to repeat in my mind as the V'ahavta instructed. Over time, my experiences with the sacred Jewish text began to change. Passages I had read many times before were now infused with fuller meaning. I began to experience the Sh'ma from the inside-out, as if there were a spark within me which resonated with the Oneness the Sh'ma proclaimed. The Sh'ma became a path, leading me into an awareness of a far greater sense of self beyond my individual identity.

A meditative study of our texts can allow us to decrease the separation between the sacred words on the page and ourselves. Unlike cognitive understanding, which assumes that the object to be understood is separate from the person engaged in the understanding, meditation supports a kind of knowing that sees the object and the person as one. While this might not make much sense to our logical minds, Jewish mystics teach that this deeper approach to knowing can provide doorways into a more profound appreciation of the words of Torah.

The first word of the Sh'ma prayer, the word sh'ma, says "listen." We are called to stop talking, to stop moving, to stop trying, and to simply listen.

If you look at the Sh'ma in any Torah scroll, you will find that the last letter of the first word (sh'ma), an ayin, and the last letter of the last word (echad), a dalet, are enlarged. This is the only verse in which such a pattern occurs. The rabbinic commentators note that together the ayin and the dalet form the word ayd, which means "witness." It is not enough to simply repeat the Sh'ma; one is to witness it through action ("it shall be a sign upon your hand") as well as through thought ("it shall be as frontlets between your eyes"). Our homes and our communities are to reflect the central teaching of the Sh'ma: "You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates." Meditating on the Sh'ma can provide us with an avenue to a deep kind of witnessing from which consciousness flows. And, ideally, that consciousness will help us open our hearts as we act in the world.

Yisrael, the second word of the Sh'ma, was not initially the name of a people or a country, but of an individual. It was earned by our patriarch Jacob when he wouldn't release the adversary with whom he wrestled until that being had blessed him. His blessing came in the form of a new name, Yisrael, which, we are told, means "one who wrestles with God." It can also mean "one who persists for God," or "one who stands for God."

Yisrael is Jacob's spiritual name. He is no longer just Ya'akov the "usurper" who tried to acquire what was not rightfully his. He is Yisrael, the one who stands firm, who understands there is blessing awaiting him as he confronts life's greatest challenges. The story encourages each of us to wonder if there are hidden blessings in the conflicts we experience in our lives. The deeper identity within each of us is Yisrael, and it is this deeper identity to which the Sh'ma calls.

Adonai, the third word of the Sh'ma, brings us to what we are asked to hear with that deeper part of ourselves, the more inclusive reality which the self alone is unable to comprehend. We are presented here with a non-word, a non-name. The Hebrew letters yod-hay-vav-hay form the four-letter name of God which, according to tradition, has not been pronounced since the days of the Second Temple. For hundreds of years, upon encountering yod-hay-vav-hay, we have voiced the word Adonai (literally "my Lord").

Yod-hay-vav-hay refers to the absolute wholeness or absolutely transcendent aspect of Whom we are each a part. A good translation would be "the Eternal," since it implies "being" (the Hebrew root of the word means "to be") without limitation of either time or space. By quieting the questing mind and creating an openness, a receptivity for meditation, one can approach this transcendent aspect of being.

Eloheinu is the first-person plural possessive form of the Hebrew noun Elohim, which is translated "God" but literally means "our God." Yet strangely, this plural noun is virtually always translated as a singular. Our mystics understood this to be the One manifesting as the many.

Once we understand that the One in Whom all else exists is the very same One Who awakens within each of us, then what follows is Adonai Echad, "the Eternal Being is One." Rashi, the great commentator of the eleventh century, translated the Sh'ma: "Listen, Israel, when yod-hay-vav-hay is truly our God, then yod-hay-vav-hay is One." This realization of the state of Oneness, which arises through contemplation and meditation, is common to mystics of all traditions. In expressing the unique Jewish path toward that Universal, the Sh'ma can be seen not only as a defining statement of our religion, but also as an authentic spiritual realization.

A Basic Sh'ma Meditation

In Jewish tradition, the word most often used for the meditation process is hitbod'dut, from the verb which means "to be alone," literally "to be alone with oneself." As this definition suggests, meditation can be best experienced not through language, but from the inside out. So I invite you to engage in the experience of authentic Jewish meditation.

A meditation can begin with a single breath, one taken with full awareness. Becoming more aware does not require changing anything except the focus of your attention. Take a moment now and just breathe.

You may have noticed that you were easily distracted, that it was not so easy to focus solely on a breath. We learn a great deal about how our minds work when we begin to move toward a more meditative state of awareness.

Taking several "awareness breaths" can help us move more fully into the present moment. Once you are able to follow a breath, become aware of the six words of the Sh'ma:

Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.

As you inhale, silently say the word Sh'ma. As you exhale, hear Yisrael. Inhale: Adonai. Exhale: Eloheinu. Inhale: Adonai. Exhale: Echad.

That will give you an idea of how long you can focus on each word.

Now let your attention on the breath go. Close your eyes and simply be with the Sh'ma. For a few minutes, repeat the six words silently and slowly, focusing on them without associating them with your breathing. You can do this gentle repetition with your eyes closed or open. Simply repeating the six words of the Sh'ma slowly and silently can be an entire meditative technique.

Remember that we learn most about meditation by meditating. That's part of the reason it's referred to as a "practice." Meditation is not a "trying," but an "allowing," encouraging increased relaxation of body and mind and the natural awakening to our greater self.

An Expanding Meditation

Begin with a few minutes of conscious breathing. Allow some "centering time" to notice what is going on in your body and in your mind. Without trying to change anything, become aware of any tension in your body. Without getting caught up in your thoughts, notice how they arise in your mind.

Then, silently, start repeating the six words of the Sh'ma. Focus on each word in your mind as long as you can before going on to the next. Without worrying about the "translation," simply repeat the Hebrew words. When you find that other thoughts have claimed your attention and you have lost your focus, return to the first word.

After a few minutes of silently repeating the six words, shift your attention to the central two words of the Sh'ma--Adonai Eloheinu. Repeat these seven syllables very slowly. When your attention wanders and you realize you've lost your focus, return to the entire six words of the Sh'ma, and then gradually approach Adonai Eloheinu again. These two words form the heart of this meditation, so spend about twice as much time on them as you do on the six words with which you began. Since you will be returning briefly to the six words whenever you lose your focus, you will become more aware of how restless or how quiet your mind is during your meditation.

As you practice, you may become aware of more subtle shifts in your awareness. A kind of "inner invitation" may encourage you to enter more deeply into the center of the Sh'ma meditation, to focus on those two words alone, and you may then sense when it is time to return to the six words. With practice, there is less and less to remember, and the steps will proceed as natural stages in a single meditative process. You may discover that, even when you are not actually sitting and meditating, the Sh'ma is repeating somewhere in your awareness. You may also find that you are able to handle stressful situations in your life with greater ease, and that you generally experience greater clarity. Studies have consistently demonstrated the physical, emotional, and mental benefits of a meditative practice. And as your meditative experience progresses, you will understand more deeply within yourself why meditation is such an important element of Jewish spiritual life.

Return your focus to the six words for a few minutes. When you are ready to conclude your meditation, release your focus on the words and end the process just as you began, by noticing the breath and how your body feels. Take a deep breath, and slowly open your eyes. Take a few moments to gently stretch your arms and legs.

How long should you meditate? A regular daily practice of even five or ten minutes is preferable to no meditation at all. When you are able, dedicate twenty minutes to a half-hour to your daily practice. Remember that you are doing it "right" even when you experience many distracting thoughts. Meditation is not a competition; it is a learning process and a practice--you will learn more about how your mind works, and you will experience the quiet spaces behind your thoughts. You will find the meaning in the doing.

The Goal of Jewish Meditation

For the non-meditator, meditation is often seen as a withdrawal from the world, and is sometimes perceived as dangerous. For the meditator, the practice leads to a far deeper awareness of connection than can be experienced through the senses. Those who engage in Jewish meditation will find it helps spiritualize our Jewish experience and expand our Jewish identity, enabling us to participate in tikkun olam (repairing the world) from the inside out. For us, this practice does not lead away from the world; meditation supports our actions within it. Through this path, we become ever cognizant of the truths of Oneness and of the interconnectedness of all life. And we become naturally inclined to treat ourselves and each other with greater tenderness and compassion.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of Palestine, spoke of this meditative awareness: "It is the holiness of existence as seen in its wholeness, in which the individual transcends his own particularity, and lives life in its universality, in the life of all being. He is not withdrawn from the world. He is immersed in life and his life is the holy of the holy; it is life at its highest."

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., HUC-JIR class of 1968, is spiritual leader of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle, Washington, author of A Journey of Awakening: Kabbalistic Meditations on the Tree of Life, and co-author of Judaism For Dummies.