In 2014 I entered a program sponsored by both the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, and the Awakened Heart Project, intended to provide guidance to participants who wish to bring together “mindfulness meditation” and Jewish practice. The program includes three retreats, and for the culminating retreat, we were encouraged to create a brief teaching to share. The substance of mine is below, bringing forward and summarizing many of my thoughts on best practices for engaging Jewishly. I actually edited my original presentation slightly below to send to Roger Kamenetz, author of the Jew in the Lotus. His work, along with that of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, will be celebrated in a July 4th 2015 weekend (next weekend) tribute hosted by the Renewal movement. Because of a planned for trip to Chicago, to recognize a 105th Family reunion, I’ll be out of pocket for that event.
On Jewish Mindfulness & Prayer
Text I did use to teach from at the retreat:
Headlines For retreat:
A – View
I – who’s kosher
II – Science validates Vajrayana
III – Treasure Under the bridge (http://www.hasidicstories.com/Stories/Nachman_of_Bratslav/yekel.html )
B – Path
I – My story
II – Meditation and Prayer as:
- Settling down
- Mind training
- Becoming a mensch
I – sitting meditation
II – developing compassion
III – working with visualization productively
C – Understanding
I – A Hypothesis
II – One I’ve not relinquished
III – Wishing this to be a possible working group to grapple especially with item III
C – Words used in my teaching at the JMMTT 3rd Cohort retreat
0 – Introduction
First, my intention is to talk about the relationship between meditation, and prayer…how they relate to each other. And further, I wish to consider what strategy we can take specifically with prayer.
Next, note that my intention is to share 10 ideas in 10 minutes, so this is going to be a little dense
Finally, note this talk will be in 3 parts: beginning with View, continuing with Path, and then with Understanding.
A – View
I – Who’s Kosher
This is a story.
I’m associated with a large family…that traces itself back now 105 years, with many members. We now meet every 5 years, though when I was growing up, we met every month. The last meeting…our 100th, my mother did drive out with us, and for a while, I didn’t think she would make this next one. More recently, when we got our registration papers for this next 105th reunion, I began to think maybe my mother could come with us after all. She has a helper…she’s African American from Guyana, and she agreed to come and help with the trip. Part of the registration info asked about meals. You had to choose whether it would be: “regular, vegetarian, or kosher.” I had the intent to get the papers turned in and off my desk, so I circled regular for everyone, and sent them in. Later, I asked Carol, from the 3 choices, which one she would prefer.
She selected kosher.
I e-mailed the folks in charge of registration, and asked them to change what I had submitted for Carol.
Sometimes you just never know what respect to give to Jewish traditions.
II – Science Validates Vajrayana
I’ve not made secret the fact that my own training, prior to coming to this program, was Buddhist, and from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, also sometime called Vajrayana.
Casually scanning MSN, I noticed an article featured about 10 months earlier, after I’d started this program, that talked about a comparison between Theravadin and Vajrayana approaches to meditation. If you look for it via google now, you can just enter: Theravadin vs Vajrayana meditation. Lots of articles were written on this study done at the National University of Singapore, and I’m linking to one of them below:
Cutting to the bottom line of this study, which actually looked at how each differently produced different arousal and relaxation responses, I read one of the summary research findings, which was as follows:
“Applications of the research findings
The findings from the study showed that Vajrayana meditation can lead to dramatic enhancement in cognitive performance, suggesting that Vajrayana meditation could be especially useful in situations where it is important to perform at one’s best, such as during competition or states of urgency. On the other hand, Theravada styles of meditation are an excellent way to decrease stress, release tension, and promote deep relaxation.”
One of the things we might want to reflect on is as follows… If we were running a children’s training program, religious school, and had the opportunity to feature for parents programming that either promoted students performing at their best, on the one hand, or…on the other hand, a program where their children would enhance their being able to release stress….one might wonder which the parent would be motivated to go for. Or not.
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves….the main point I am actually seeking to make here goes really less to comparing Vajrayana vs theravadin approaches to meditation…but more….considering how this understanding of how training in these two traditions very…can inform us on the strategies we might really want to use when we teach children how to engage in prayer (!).
III – Treasure Under the Bridge
This is a story that’s been told a number of times in our tradition. Actually, early when I came to the DC area, a person teaching at the Jewish Study Center offered a course with that very name. It’s also presented at the beginning of Lew’s (of blessed memory) Be Still and Get Going, assigned for our program. For a quick review, I found a version also on line. In brief, you had a situation where a Jew travelled from Prague to Vienna because he sought a treasure, and thought he needed to make that trip to unearth it, but later concluded, as the story tells:
“The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the fortune. Upon reflection he thought, the treasure was always in my possession. Yet, I had to travel to Vienna to know of its existence.”
To a certain extent…many of us are like this Jew. Many of us have come to this program because of our interest, particularly in meditation. And yet, we could do well to come to a newer understanding of how prayer, as it’s found in the normative Jewish service, can by itself have transformative qualities.
Also, I wanted to reflect on what Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalom, also of blessed memory, has said of some of the approaches that have developed to help along a more contemplative approach to Jewish practice. What have developed are like a “Holiday Inn” approach to davvening…where special programs emerge, to satisfy this need. But, what is more desirable, in contrast, is to have….somehow…a more contemplative approach embedded within the more routine approach to the Jewish service.
That is the target I’d like to try to bring forward here…
B – Path
I – My story
So, I guess I sort of grew up in the 60s. I went to an orthodox shul, but because it was in the neighborhood, rather than because it was my family’s practice. And, for a time, my religious education concluded with my becoming a bar mitzvah.
Later, though I was interested in and studied Jewish mysticism in high school….as I was approaching and then during college, I became interested in eastern traditions, and did discover what is now called Shambhala, and was then called Dharmadhatu.
Chogyam Trungpa was the founder, and he developed a somewhat rigorous program of practice & study for his students. Although he’s passed away, and though I’ve lost some touch with how current students continue, through his son, such programming largely continues through the present time. Trungpa Rinpoche was really brilliant. He had his students come along and do a lot of sitting. In addition to weekends, in order to go to his advanced program, you’d need to do a dathun, or 30 days of sitting, and a solitary retreat probably, and a number of classes in preparation. And, then, after making application, you go to this 2 and ½ month training session called a seminary (they’re more condensed these days; they’re shorter in length), after which…after all of that sitting, you’re introduced to preparatory practices…called ngondro. After which, finally, you’re introduced to sadhana practice. Where you’re given a book…a text to work with, and this is then your advanced practice.
But, we as Jews start with this! The book we receive is not unlike our siddur. So…what should we possibly think about that?
Continuing my story…some years pass, I marry a woman who is neither Jewish nor Buddhist, and we choose to raise our children as Jews. We affiliate with a reform synagogue. I spend some time going to learners’ services, trying to find meaning in the text. And, while my son is in religious school, and I’m sitting in the parent’s lounge, a book as much as jumps into my lap (I actually read about it in a catalog, and then ordered it), called: Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System, written by Arnold Rosenberg. In it, I find a way to understand a strategy for working with the siddur that is not only meaningful, but….which embraces the same visualization strategies that I had been trained those many years earlier in Shambhala. And, in finding this text, I found a new doorway and really, a renewed paradigm for engaging in Jewish practice altogether.
II – Meditation & Prayer
So, now, bootstrapping what I had put together from both my earlier training, what Rosenberg writes about in his book, and further, now, what I am learning in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality program and its Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Program, I saw that the view for practice is 3 fold:
- Settling down
- Developing Compassion, and
- Becoming a mensch
And how is this actualized? This is actualized in the practices we’ve been engaging in, in this IJS program….
III – Namely:
- Sitting meditation
- Mind training – either or both with Blessings Practice, or Tonglen….which has its advantages with respect to the strategy for enhancing / training in visualization practice, and
- Working with visualization productively
Though I did not include in my talk at the retreat, I reflected on this omission, and will include now the simple example that proves the point.
Which…is, from our siddur… Mah Tovu. Mah Tovu is an example of what is meant by working with visualization productively. With Mah Tovu, using only completely normative strategies for engaging this prayer passage, what the pray-er might be well moved to do is in fact visualize the transformation of their prayer space into one of going from an ordinary space, to one that is holy, as is intended by the function of the included passage.
The idea that Rosenberg encourages is that the whole of the liturgy should be engaged in just this way. Though some parts of the text make this more obvious than others, including with the Amidah, where we step forwards and backwards, as we visualize approaching G-d, turn side to side as we reflect on our co-congregants as fellow angels, and raise up on our heels as we imagine that we ourselves are angels…in Rosenberg’s book, we have reminders and guidance to help us understand that the whole liturgy is similarly intended as a visualization text…whose purpose, as he says it, is to help us achieve devukkut, so that we can be motivated to effectively avoid untoward actions, and do good actions in the world.
In summary, then, what I come to is a vision of Jewish practice, which is coincident with the training I had learned over in Shambhala…and that, optimally…we have what’s also called a 3 Yana journey. With this view, you create a foundation, which is sitting meditation, you engage in mind training, which are our various compassion generating practices (blessings practice or tonglen), and then you move to practices known to be associated with “skillful means,” which, in our Jewish tradition, turns out to be the very ordinary practice of prayer, properly, with a siddur…engaging simultaneously with visualization practice as we davven. This is seen, not as an enhancement for engaging the practice, nor even as a reconstruction of practice, but rather, the view is that this is the original intent….when we moved away from Temple sacrifice….that we should engage in prayer, in just this way. And, of course, the aspect of our engaging in meditation prior to prayer is an old story….one that quite traditionally is told and suggested.
C – Understanding
I – A Hypothesis
The first point I might share…is what I’m presenting is still…a hypothesis.
I have seen Rosenberg’s book suggested and mentioned by others a number of times over the years….and at least once the source was me. But, not always. Alternately, neither the book…nor this particular approach that could be associated closely with visualization practice seems to be widely understood or even readily contemplated in general practice.
Further, I can mention two validating points of reservation:
- I’ve learned that, from the point of view of traditional practice, as witnessed by the hymn sometimes included in the morning service, Song of Glory….that there is caution to using visualization practice, maybe. Probably the application is narrow in this particular hymn, because the idea is that one might consequently anthropomorphize G-d, which you don’t want to do….or…from the point of view of wishing to embrace visualization practice as a strategy….the idea should be reflected on
- Also, note, the text and associated visualization practice I’ve trained in at Shambhala, I’ve recently been motivated to re-engage. Fact is, it is at least true that the embedded strategies for engaging the sadhana (Vajrayogini) in Buddhist practice are easier, or at least more well laid out….and I will say….stronger in their workability, or so it seems to me.
II – I’ve not (nearly) relinquished my efforts
At least the politically correct way to contemplate relating to prayer practice…is that we might consider doing so like Gardner taught about multiple intelligences. Different strokes for different folks, and some people will more readily “jive” with music and melody as a way “in.” So, it may be reasonable, at least, to consider that there are several reasonable strategies for practitioners to find meaning in their prayer practice. And, this is good, because in our current milieu, the idea of engaging the siddur via visualization certainly is not in the popular culture. And, of course, there are confounds, not the least of which include the fact that the normative practice is to read in Hebrew, which many of us don’t then simultaneously translate, so compensatory strategies will need to come forward to make a visualization strategy even workable.
What is somewhat and provisionally compelling for me, however…is the general notion that as a tradition, not only has Buddhism figured out a great deal, based on the flow of human resources over the millennia, about how the mind works, but also, the Buddhism of Tibet in particular has tweaked this understanding, bringing forward a sensitivity to the fact that of the senses available to us, the visual one is probably the most energetic, and available to us to “conjure” our faculties to a good purpose. My sympathies do go toward suspecting that in terms of the development of the senses, the visual sense is our strongest, and what has been done in Tibetan Buddhist practice, and further, understood by Rosenberg to have been also understood by our rabbis….is that visualization practice comes at the end of a set of developmental practices, designed to be used by us for the good purpose of optimized spiritual development. I don’t think the strategy of visualization is an arbitrary choice. And, I think that the Tibetan system of practice, whereby it’s understood that a student can wake up in kalpas (aeons) through sitting practice, but in one lifetime though engaging in the skillful means of like visualization practice with texts….is an approach that we would do well to take under close advisement.
III – Hoping this JMMTT group can be a working group
My hope, in putting this original sketch of ideas into a more fleshed out set of notes….is that the 3rd cohort of the JMMTT group might be a working group, interested in joining me in exploring some of these ideas, and particularly, this third idea of working strategically with prayer as part of our work. Of course, the idea of even using chants is an idea in and of itself, and I might do well to suggest it to my own Jewish community. However, and at the same time, using chants is a strategy whereby we need to modify the form of the existing service. One ready advantage of the “service as it is” approach, is self-explanatory. The idea here is that we can enhance our participation and meaning, and significantly, and we can do so by just understanding perhaps differently what we normatively do already.
Anyway, that’s the idea.
It’s not clear if there will be a context for such ideas to be expanded and shared further. But, hopefully, having fleshed this out, there will be an opportunity for sharing, which will allow us to interact with each other to a good purpose.
To conclude, I invited our group to practice together, using the method for practice I use and have trained in, that I believe is sometimes called: mixing mind with space.
First, assume good posture. I encouraged folks to actually have their eyes open, as I have been encouraged to do; this helps to keep one from less getting caught up in thoughts or imagination, as I’ve understood and experienced this, but keeping one’s eyes closed is ok, too,.
Then, the main practice is primarily relating to one’s out breath. As you breathe out, have a light sense of attention, and have a sense of identifying with the breath…going out with the breath as you breathe into the room. When you breathe in, just let that happen. And, then again, when you breathe out, go out into the room with your breath.
As you do this, if you find yourself lost in a thought, just say to yourself…thinking…and return to your awareness of the breath.
So…let’s do this together for the next 10 minutes.