Meditation and Materialism

So we’ve determined that meditation is not just a nice thing, but crucial for every human being with functional grey matter. It’s something that was always considered core to the tefillah experience, at least by those who were into that experience. For some, it meant the mind’s contemplation of the vast beauty of G‑d’s creation that their eyes beheld, gazing upon the stars and the wonders of nature. For others, it was the reverie of the worlds of the angels, who stand in constant praise and song. Still others focused upon G‑d’s compassion and love for His creatures, and all His kindnesses to us.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

So now you’re asking: If meditation is so vital to Jewish observance, and if it is such an embedded tradition, why don’t I see it happening anywhere?

Firstly, there are still those who practice Jewish meditation. There are communities where the practice was never lost. There were times when it was easier to find, times when it was harder, but it has never disappeared. It was never the practice of the masses, but of those whose hearts stirred them to reach higher in their souls. We’ll get to that later.

Nonetheless, truth be told, the age of materialism has taken its toll on the meditative approach. For one thing, everything has been quantified, even time. Naftali Loewenthal describes the zeitgeist that turned the tide:

Well before the 20th century, as the opportunities for turning time into money increased, so there grew an economic pressure against contemplative prayer. Indeed, there was economic pressure against normative Torah study as well, as is evidenced by the growth of the Enlightenment movement. However, at this period Torah study as such could be seen as a route to status and power within Jewish society: it would assure the student of a good match with the daughter of a wealthy man. This was not necessarily so in the case of contemplation and enthusiastic prayer. Even the traditionalists who fiercely opposed the advance of the Haskalah might well regard a Chasidic contemplative as a luftmensch, a dreamer who will get nowhere. The Yiddish word tachlis—a goal—expresses the sense of a need for purpose in traditional East European society. It has strong economic overtones. In the eyes of the traditionalist community, did contemplative prayer have a tachlis?

—Dr. Naftali Loewenthal, Contemplative Prayer in 20th Century Chabad

Add to this the sensory overload and utter confusion of modern life. A Jew living in a small village in Eastern Europe or North Africa saw the same people every day; change was a mostly-predictable cycle of seasons and the menu was much the same each day. Our generation, on the other hand, is probably the first to be addicted to newness. We expect daily contact with new faces, new gadgets, new and startling events, stimuli and distractions. It’s inconceivable that our thought patterns are not deeply affected. Achieving stillness of mind amidst such tempestuous waters is a challenge of heroic proportions.

How often do we actually use our own brain?

I’ll add another critical element into the mix: How often does modern man proactively direct his own brain? The current wave of media addiction has reached the absolute roof—meaning that the average 8 to 18 year old is spending “practically every waking minute—except for time in school” consuming media according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. And in school—if it’s anything like my experience—there’s probably even less proactive braining.

Being wired doesn’t have to mean someone else is using your brain, but it’s unlikely that it teaches you how to use it yourself. Unplug those earbuds, rip those eyes away from that screen and see if you can direct your mind down a straight path for two minutes. My guess is that medieval man would win hands down against any of us on this task.

Yet, the deeper human life descends into the stuffy cave of materialism, the more vital the fresh air of meditation becomes—especially for anyone trying to live a life of Torah observance. Homo Materialus, whether he thinks about it or not, lives in a world predicated upon the impersonal dominion of matter, energy, chance and necessity, business as normal and the whims of the market place. Rationalizing Torah and its mitzvot within such a context demands some extreme intellectual acrobatics. The native context of Torah is within the awe and wonder of the mystery of existence in its multitude of forms. By slipping into that mode of wondrousness each morning, even for a few moments, your perception of the world can be enlightened throughout the day.

Clearing the Air

If you ever hire an architect to design a synagogue, you will need to inform him of the two-door rule: The worshipper must first enter into a vestibule that precedes the sanctuary before walking through the doors of the sanctuary itself, as verse in Proverbs goes, “Fortunate is the man who listens to me to watch by my doors day by day, to watch the doorposts of my entrances.”1

The first door, explains Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch in his “Booklet on Tefillah,”2 is the door in from the street. You first need to leave the confusion of the world outside and empty your mind of all worldly concerns, power down your cellphone, spend a few moments to gain calm and focus. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would say (Avot 1:17), “All my life, I grew up among the sages and I did not find anything better for a person than quietness.” That is the point of that first door, something particularly necessary in our modern, cacophonous world: You want your mind to settle down, like a bubbling brook might settle into a still pond. There, reflected in that still water, it may be possible to behold a clearer image of the universe.

Not, however, to get stuck in the hallway. Despite the common misconception, that’s not the goal of meditation. It’s not a path to placid bliss, transcendentally oblivious to the temporal world. Serenity is not a goal in itself. Calmness and stillness provide a healthy frame of mind from which to begin meditating, praying, struggling to grow and change—to enter door #2. But not to simply bathe and soak in. As Adin Steinsaltz once put it bluntly: serenity is death, life is struggle.

You need a hallway. Just don’t get stuck there.

After all, the sanctuary you are to enter is not one that denies any significance to our corporeal reality as some sort of hapless delusion. On the contrary, it charges you to go out and work with that world, to change it, remold it, repair it—and with a fiery passion aflame in your heart. The only delusion is that of the ego, which, ripped out of its daydream of exclusive rights on reality, is now reframed within an enlightened context and put to good use.

And here’s another caveat: Note that we’re talking about a still mind—but not an empty one. In general, it is not healthy to have an empty mind—and there are serious hazards involved in such a practice. Yes, there is the exception, one whose mind is more like the Pulaski Skyway than a bubbling brook. Such a person may find it necessary to learn to clear the mind altogether. For this purpose, the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, wrote to numerous professional therapists asking them to develop a form of mind-clearing meditation that would be both safe and free of religious content.

For many of us, however, deep breathing, release of muscle tension, prolonged stillness, focus on sounds, objects, forms, letters—these are powerful strategies to achieve that relaxation, serenity and open your mind. They are good preparations to meditation—and in our maniacal, frenzied, multitasking, multiconnecting world, for some they may well be dire prerequisites. Even the very simple act of just sitting still for a few minutes can be an empowering experience—especially when you are resisting the urge to get up and do something.

That should provide you a quick and easy solution to questions 1 and 2 on last installment’s questionnaire: Relaxation, serenity and higher consciousness—wonderful qualities to achieve. Just not your ultimate goal. They are valuable tools for achieving that goal. They will probably help you live longer and healthier, too. But the ultimate goal is the inspired living that comes through the cognitive restructuring of your mind and heart.

So how do we do it? Where’s the instruction manual for proactive use of the modern mind?

Hang in there. In the meantime, here’s a useful chart:

Practice Goal Notes
Deep breathing, release of muscle tension, prolonged stillness Relaxation Hard to think straight when you’re all stressed out.
Clearing the mind Serenity Good idea to wipe the chalkboard clean before writing on it.
Focus on sounds, objects, forms, letters Shifted consciousness Used by some kabbalists. Hazardous without proper guidance.
Mindfulness of thought, speech and action Inspired living Called kavana. Applies to all activities and not just tefillah: “In all your ways, know Him.” (Proverbs 3:6)
Deep contemplation of inner dynamics of the cosmos and one’s self Restructuring of cognitive perception and response May be done at any time, but especially before tefillah.