by Steven J. Gold, Torah-Veda
Jewish Meditation Basics – Condensed Version
"Do not exalt any path above God. There are many paths that lead to God.
So people are capable of finding and following the ways that suit them,
provided they do not stand still." Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Spiritual Teaching from the Jewish Tradition
There are many different meditation techniques and variations to those techniques. For the sake of brevity, I am limiting these descriptions to one primary practice and slight variations to that practice that I have learned through my yoga tradition and experimented with over the years. This practice is generally categorized as a silent, internal, receptive practice, as distinct from many other meditation and contemplation practices that involve other elements, such as using external aids, chanting, guided visualizations, etc. I believe this practice provides an excellent foundation that can serve as a springboard for other practices, and can be utilized with internal visualizations or mantras in various languages and from various spiritual traditions. If sounds, colors or images come forward of their own accord during a meditation session, they may be worthwhile tools for focusing one’s inner attention.
Why meditate? People who desire to learn how to meditate often want to learn to relax, de-stress, quiet down their noisy minds. Meditation will do all of that and more. It will help you address an inner call/yearning to connect with the spiritual essence that resides within us all. When that inner essence is contacted and magnified, the other benefits will follow, including becoming a more productive participant in everyday life.
Posture. “Head, neck and trunk in a straight line”. My spiritual father, Swami Rama, never tired of saying this. There are a variety of seated positions that accomplish this. The most important point is to get the body in a position with this basic alignment that is comfortable, so that bodily discomfort is not creating a distraction. In this form of meditation, the primary concern is to leave bodily awareness and external sensation behind, which can only be accomplished if the body is comfortable and not a cause for distraction. (Zen meditation is quite different, where bodily and external sensory awareness is heightened. In contrast, the traditional yoga meditation involves withdrawing awareness from external sensation, freeing up this energy to focus within). It is also emphasized in this traditional yoga practice that the aligned head, neck and trunk need to be perpendicular to the ground in a seated position, and not lying down.
If sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor is not comfortable, then sitting in a firm chair is the next best choice. A second important aspect is to sit in a manner in which the posture itself supports the back, without the back leaning on anything else, like the back of the chair. So, if utilizing a chair, sit forward, away from the back, and find a comfortable posture with the head, neck and truck aligned. It is helpful for the feet to be comfortably touching the ground with the soles planted on the ground, for the thighs to be roughly parallel to the ground and the lower legs to be roughly perpendicular to the ground. For short people whose feet dangle from a normal chair, use cushions under the feet. For tall people whose height prevents the thighs from being parallel to the ground and the lower legs from being perpendicular to the ground at the same time, stretch the legs out in front until the thighs are parallel to the ground and cross the legs at the ankles, right ankle over left. If for any reason it is not comfortable to sit without external support to the back, then use whatever support for the back that will make you comfortable.
Sense withdrawal. As discussed above, this meditation technique is designed to aid in withdrawing the expenditure/dissipation of energy through the external senses, and redirect this energy within, to aid in the unfoldment of inner dimensions. The eyes are gently closed, thus easily eliminating the sensory expenditure involved with sight. Concerning the distraction of external hearing, meditate in a quiet space. It is also easy enough to select a space not prone to strong odors, minimizing exposure to stimulating smells; and it is recommended that you meditate on an empty stomach for many reasons, including that by doing so, there is little chance of any lingering tastes in the mouth that may provide a distraction. Concerning touch, positioning of the body in a still, comfortable posture as addressed above minimizes the sensations of touch.
It is worth noting that for every external sensation, there is a corresponding internal sensation that may be experienced during meditation and may help provide a point of inner focus. For sight, there is inner light, colors, images, visions; for hearing, there is inner sound and music; for taste, there is inner flavor such as a taste of nectar/ambrosia; for smell, there is inner fragrance; and inner touch usually takes the form of a sensation of inner heat, although other inner touch sensations are possible. While these inner sensations may be pleasant and assist with inner focus, they are not to be considered the goal of meditation, but only guideposts and tools along the way.
Breathing. Although there are techniques that promote exhaling through the mouth, this practice emphasizes breathing only through the nostrils on both inhalation and exhalation. So to accomplish nostril-only breathing, as described earlier, during this technique the lips should remain gently sealed. Breathing should be at a comfortable and natural pace, allowing the bodily intelligence and needs to set the rhythm. It should be done diaphragmatically, coordinating the movement of the abdomen and solar plexus area with the breath: the abdomen/solar plexus region gently expanding during inhalation and gently contracting during exhalation. This is deep but gentle breathing, utilizing the internal diaphragm muscle located in the lower rib cage/solar plexus region, as distinct from utilizing expansion of the chest. Only the lower portion of the rib cage should expand and contract just a little to assure optimum use of the diaphragm and minimum use of the chest. There should be no extended pauses between inhalation and exhalation, just a natural continuous flow with that split second of suspension as it transitions from inhalation to exhalation, like the waves of the ocean coming onto the beach, turning, receding out, then turning and flowing in again. The breath should be smooth through the duration of each inhalation and exhalation, without any halting or jerkiness. Visualize with each inhalation that your body is like an empty glass being filled with the breath, first pouring down to the bottom and filling it up as it goes. Likewise, with each exhalation, the glass is emptied first from the top (being pushed up and out from the bottom), with the last bit of exhalation coming from the bottom. A slight variation is to visualize/sense a circuit of energy flowing into the body and up the spine during inhalation, and flowing out and down the front of the body during exhalation, creating a circuit running up the spine and out through the nose and down the front of the body, then up the spine again, and so on. A further visualization is to imagine the release of stresses, toxins and obstructions with each exhalation, and replacing those with nurturance, healing and well-being with each inhalation.
Focal points for the journey within. Once you are settled into your seated posture and have closed your eyes, begin to focus on the breathing as described above. To assist with establishing a comfortable breathing rhythm, first focus attention on the gentle expansion and contraction of the abdomen/solar plexus region coordinated with the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. Once a steady, comfortable rhythm is established, move the focal point to the tip of the nose, and observe the sensation of the breath as it moves in and out through the nostrils. This process aids in relaxation and moving your awareness from bodily awareness to breath awareness and the more subtle awareness of the life force (“prana” in yoga, “ruach” in kabala) that rides with the breath.
Once the attention is steadied on the movement on the breath at the point at the tip of the nostrils, you may move your focus of attention from the tip of the nostrils to either the “third eye” point between and above the eyebrows (the center of the mind), or the region of the heart (the center of the emotions). Moving your focus of attention is similar to moving your sense of identity. The idea is to locate the higher quiet mind (as distinct from the lower chattering mind) or the higher quiet heart (as distinct from the lower emotive heart) and rest your attention/identity in one place or the other. The lower heart and lower mind are very noisy and chatty, creating a seemingly never-ending emotionally-charged inner soundtrack/dialogue. By locating and maintaining the focus on the quiet higher inner heart or quiet higher inner mind, the chattering starts to cease or at least recede into the background. The image I often use is that of a hurricane: the eye of the hurricane remains calm, even while the bustle surrounding it continues. Meditation is about locating and remaining with our inner eye of peace and serenity.
Eventually, if you keep at it long enough, this profound sense of inner peace attained through regular silent seated meditation stays with you, and you can take it with you into the external world of everyday activity. That is what is called “meditation in action”. You will become a more centered, peaceful, yet dynamic and productive participant and contributor to everyday life, and experience a deep sense of fulfillment and existential meaning and purpose. So now we have come full circle and have concluded with the answer to the question posed at the beginning, “Why meditate?”
A few last details. Recommended time: 20 to 30 minutes, twice a day, on an empty stomach; best first thing in the morning, and either late afternoon before supper, or before bed-time. Locate a quiet place in your residence for meditation sessions, and commit to doing your sessions regularly. Meditation practice has a cumulative effect if done regularly. If not done regularly, the effect is diminished. It is that simple. The above are optimal conditions, but meditation can be done in a variety of less than optimal settings, including on buses, trains, planes, airline terminals, etc. Bon voyage! Om Shalom.