Waking up, and waking again
February 05, 2017
One of the pieces of my work at Congregation Beth Israel for which I am most grateful is our Friday morning meditation minyan. We call it a "minyan" in recognition of the fact that the term can mean both the time of prayer ("I'm going to morning minyan") and the group that prays (a minyan is the quorum of ten adult Jews required by tradition for communal prayer that involves a call-and-response), but it's not a formalized group and there is no formalized prayer -- just sitting in meditation.
The fact of this standing Friday morning meditation group is one of the things that drew me to CBI, back when my dear friend Reb Jeff was the rabbi and I was just beginning to contemplate whether I might be ready for rabbinical school. I figured, if this were a synagogue where people meditate and are interested in Jewish contemplative practice, it might be a good home for me. (Turns out I was right about that!) I've kept the minyan going since I began to serve the community as its rabbi in 2011.
Our practice is simple. We begin in silence. After about fifteen minutes I offer a very short teaching, or guided meditation, or practice. (Most recently our practice had to do with cultivating compassion for ourselves and others. Often I offer a meditation designed to help us release the week in preparation for Shabbat.) After another fifteen minutes, we close with a three-breath practice from Thich Nhat Hanh that I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle, and with a niggun.
I love sitting in companionable silence in our beautiful sanctuary. Sometimes sunlight streams in through the big windows; sometimes snow falls outside. Sometimes we hear the rooster crow next door. And at the end of our practice time, I love opening my eyes and seeing the dear souls who have joined in over the course of the morning. Emerging from contemplative practice can feel like opening my eyes in the morning -- leaving what is almost a dream-state, waking up to a new reality.
And immersing myself in prayer or contemplative practice can feel like a repeated opportunity to wake up. In my experience, spiritual life is characterized by a kind of ebb and flow between wakefulness and sleep. I wake up (to the realities of the world around me, or to my own inner life, or both) and then I fall asleep again, and then I notice that I'm asleep and wake up. Rinse, lather, repeat. Spiritual life is a perennial process of noticing where I have been asleep, and waking up again. And again.
There's a story about the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l (of blessed memory) -- actually, it's about one of his children. His daughter asked him, "Abba [Father], when we're asleep we can wake up. When we're awake, can we wake up even more?" (His answer, of course, was yes -- as is mine. We can always wake up even more. Our daily liturgy blesses God Who wipes the sleep from our eyes, and I understand that as a truth both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm.)
Waking up even from our ostensible wakefulness is part of what spiritual practice is for. Prayer and meditation can help to wake us up -- even if we think we're already awake, we can always wake to deeper truths, to higher levels of reality, to the work we are here to do in the world. (Spiritual direction can also be a tool that helps us wake up to who we are called to be.) I'm grateful to my Friday morning meditation group for their willingness to return and return again to the work of waking up together.
- A Short History of Jewish Meditation, 2014
- and the posts in the "contemplative practice" tag here, from various years