The subject of meditation came up in conversation recently with one of my loved ones. They asked whether meditation is difficult, whether it's something one needs to go to a class in order to learn how to do. Or, they quipped, can one learn it on the internet?
What I said -- or at least, what I think I said; what I meant to say -- was no, meditation is not difficult (not in any technical sense, anyway), and classes are not necessary. Of course, I added, there are many different kinds of meditation. But here is the kind I try to practice:
Sit still. Take a few breaths. Try to focus on your breath as it rises and falls, as it comes and goes. Try to notice each breath: now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out. Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out.
The mind will wander. That's what minds do. My mind wanders all the time. Whenever I notice it wandering off somewhere -- worrying about something that hasn't happened yet, or rehashing something that is already over -- I gently bring it back to this moment right now, this breath. In and out. And in. And out.
I try to be attentive to what arises in me as I sit and breathe. This is a very good way for me to figure out what I'm anxious about, or why I'm feeling wound-up, or what emotions exactly are roiling in me -- joy, pride, sadness, fear, whatever the case may be. Meditation isn't about tamping down my inner clamor, per se; it's more a practice of noticing.
Often there is some anxiety or worry or sadness tickling my consciousness somewhere. As I sit, eventually I notice it. I mentally say to it: I see you. I hear you. I recognize you. You've done your job. You can go now. And then I exhale and try to let it go. Whatever it is, I try to name it and let it go.
Sometimes I sit with a mantra, a word or phrase which I repeat in my mind and heart. Sometimes it's "Right here, right now," which I learned from Lorianne years ago. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. A reminder to be in the moment, this very moment. Resist the temptation to return to yesterday or anticipate tomorrow.
Sometimes I use "Heart, open." Breathing in, I say to my heart, heart? And breathing out, I ask it to open. With each breath, I try to open up: to myself, to whatever is arising in me, to whatever I am feeling and experiencing. To whatever comes my way today. The first two words of the shema work well in this way, too. Shema, Yisrael. "Listen, O Israel." Listen up, self. Listen and remember the unity of all things. And now, again, listen. And now. And now.
Sometimes, before I stop, I spend a few moments setting the conscious intention of being kind and compassionate. I envision compassion and kindness as a kind of soft light, and I imagine enveloping in that light first myself, then the people around me, then people further away. To people I love, and then to people who push my buttons. I see how far I can imagine extending that sphere.
And then I return to my day.
It's not difficult in the sense of having an elaborate process or lingo one needs to master. One needn't be able to sit in any particular position. What's difficult, often, is making the time to do it. Reminding myself that this is important and that I am calmer and more awake when I manage to do it regularly. And being compassionate toward myself even when I don't manage to do it as often as I would like.
There's no way to "fail" at meditation except not to do it. I do feel honor-bound to mention that if this kind of practice leads to enlightenment, I have yet to "get there" myself; this is not a practice which will turn you into someone who is instantly wise and serene! But I do find that this practice makes me more attentive. Sometimes it gives me a sense of perspective. And I think both of these help me get closer to being the person I most want to be.
I lead a weekly meditation group at my shul on Friday mornings at 8:15am. If this interests you, and you live nearby, all are welcome; no previous experience with meditation required.
Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, a book by R' Alan Lew (of blessed memory)
- Meditation: Catch and Release by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
One minute of video: the Dalai Lama answering the question "Why meditate?"
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