Hi Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

Many of my friends are pushing me to take up meditation. They say it will help me overcome my fears, make me more relaxed and calm, and enhance my life spiritually. Some of them are practicing some form of Buddhist meditation. Others are doing Transcendental Meditation. But I’m Jewish. I don’t do much that’s Jewish, and I’m not really looking for that at this point in life. I just want to make sure—is there anything really not kosher about these things?


Hi Judy,

Transcendental Meditation—okay, I know what that is. When you say “Buddhist meditation”—there’s such a vast number of Buddhist sects, each with their own approach to meditation. And yes, many of these were adapted to the Western mind and lifestyle, and blended with techniques of hypnosis and other therapies, to soothe the mind and put you back in the driver’s seat.

So that sounds like a good deal. I mean, it’s my mind, right? And it’s a pretty powerful device. I can let it drive me nuts, or I can take control and use it for powerful self-transformation. Why not?

But like anything good, it’s never indiscriminately all good. And like anything very good, it could also end up real bad. So let me just give you three questions you should ask before committing to any program of meditation:

1. What is this meant to do to me?

2. Who’s teaching this to me and why?

3. What’s mixed in the bag?

Now let’s take those one by one:

1. What’s it meant to do to me?

You can meditate for 20 hours a day for 20 years and remain a creep. In fact, you can become a bigger creep than when you started. As in, “Who are you? I’ve been meditating 20 hours a day for 20 years!”

To paraphrase one long-time meditator, “Meditation alone doesn’t make you a moral person. You can meditate 22 hours a day, but in those two hours you have left, you’re a human being living in a body in a material world.” If you don’t do anything to connect those two worlds,Meditation works only when it’s part of a larger scheme. nothing changes, and all that meditation time would have been better spent playing Frisbee.

That’s why meditation has to be part of a larger, all-encompassing scheme to gradually lose bad habits, gain new good ones and change your perspective and attitude to life. Only then is it worth the investment.

In fact, look at the research and you’ll find there’s still nothing really conclusive demonstrating that meditation is any more useful a practice than, say, taking a hot shower. And that’s because the studies almost always look at meditation as a standalone. But as one who has practiced deep relaxation meditation fairly consistently since the age of fourteen, I can say this: It’s a useful tool. A wrench is also a useful tool. But only if you wrap it around a bolt and turn it in the right direction.

How do you connect your meditation to the hard, material stuff of daily reality and turn it the right way?

For one thing, before you even enter into that meditative state, you have in mind what you’re planning to take out of it. It’s not an escape. It’s the crouch down into yourself before you leap out into the world.

There’s a Jewish teaching along those lines. The Talmud tells of four great sages who “entered paradise.” That’s code language that means they meditated deeply until they entered an expanded state of consciousness.

One died. One went insane. One became a heretic. But one—Rabbi Akiva—“entered in peace and left in peace.”1

Meaning that he left in peace because he entered in peace.2

What does it mean to enter in peace? It means that your goal is not to abandon this reality for another reality, or abandon the body for the soul, or abandon the ego for total selflessness. It means your goal is to make peace between this reality and a higher one, between the body and the soul, between the ego and the purpose and meaning of that ego.

So, two things:Before you set flight into serene bliss, have in mind where you want to land. Before you set flight into serene bliss, have in mind where you want to land and what you’re going to do when you get there. How will you deal with stressful situations that’s any different from how you handle them now? How will you treat other people? Will you be more caring and sensitive? More prepared to put your own needs aside for the sake of others? Will you be more cheerful? Will you take greater enjoyment in all the little things of life?

And when you actually have landed on terra firma, find practices, activities and rituals that bring that higher state into action down here. Give more charity. Give someone a helping hand. Take out more time for the things in life that really matter—like family, friends, learning wisdom and celebrating life.

Those are all ways of applying this tool called a brain in such a way that it’s going to turn your life in the right direction. But really, there’s a step before that:

2. Who’s teaching this and why?

Hold on to your seat, because this might come as a shock: Like I said, harnessing your brain is a really good idea. But it’s not without itsHarnessing your brain is a really good idea. But it’s not without its hazards. hazards.

Albert Ellis was once rated as the second most influential psychotherapist in history, especially for having laid the groundwork for CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).3 In the 1970s, he was already experimenting with meditation as a form of therapy. But in 1984 he wrote that “like tranquilizers, it may have both good and bad effects—especially, the harmful result of encouraging people to look away from some of their central problems, and to refrain from actually disputing and surrendering their disturbance-creating beliefs.”4

Arnold Lazarus was a prominent psychotherapist who wrote the first textbook on CBT. He was also an early adopter of meditative techniques. In a report in 1976, Lazarus reported that a few of his patients experienced serious disturbances after meditating. “One man’s meat,” he wrote, “is another man’s poison.”5

One of the most controversial studies was published in 1992 by David Shapiro, a professor at UC Irvine. Shapiro studied the effects of meditation retreats. After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 per cent of them had suffered at least one negative effect and seven per cent profoundly adverse effects.6

Shapiro’s study has been challenged—as has just about everything in the world of psychotherapy. But looking through the meditation blogs, reports of “the dark night” abound—”misery, despair, panic attacks . . . loneliness, auditory hallucinations, mild paranoia, treating my friends and family badly, long episodes of nostalgia and regret, obsessive thoughts (usually about death).”7 Some last only a few hours, others for months, while some persevere for years or a lifetime. There are even documented cases of severe psychosis brought on by meditation in persons with no previous history to account for such.

Good mentors who are experienced in these issues are sensitive to these dangers. The Mayo Clinic, for example, has a relaxation video on its website that audibly warns you: “If you begin to experience anxiety or nervousness at any point, click the pause button on this video.” So do many of the better relaxation meditation videos online.

But very few gurus will do the same.If you begin to experience anxiety or nervousness at any point, click the pause button. After all, they have an investment in their teachings. They consider them to be truth, and truth must work for everyone. Sadly, the classic response when a disciple reports experiencing anxiety, fright, hallucinations or the like has been, “That’s the cleansing process working. Continue, and you’ll pass this important stage.”

And that response makes sense. The guru’s agenda, after all, is not your relaxation. Buddhism is about obliteration of your sense of self. Meditation is meant to achieve the stillness, detachment, emptying and cleansing of the mind that gets you there. If there’s a dark tunnel along the way, hey, that goes with the territory.

But is that your agenda? And even if it is, are you ready to surrender your own sense of judgment and psychological safety to someone promising this to you?

That’s a good reason to find a mentor who will take a purely secular and balanced approach, someone who can say, “This is not for you. Let’s try something else.”8

What’s that “something else”? For some, it means going for a regular walk. Or exercise. Or maybe, like many people, you don’t need to empty your mind. Maybe it’s okay as is, and you’re better off filling it and challenging it instead.

3. What’s mixed in the bag?

There’s another reason to avoid the guru route, especially if you’re Jewish: There often are hidden ingredients that aren’t on the label. This is from the writings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation:

For training the mind through sound we can take any word. Even the word “mike” can be taken. . . . For our practice, we select only the suitable mantras of personal gods. Such mantras fetch to us the grace of personal gods and make us happier in every walk of life.9

In practical terms, this means that when you walk into a typical TM ashram, you’re payingYou can pay $1500 for a mantra that’s actually praise of a Hindu deity, or you can get the same benefits with any word for free. $1500 to be given a “personal mantra” that is actually praise of a Hindu deity. And you can get all the same benefits just repeating the word “mike”—or any other word you choose.

The same goes with many initiation rites found in both Hindu and Buddhist practices. The same goes with any meditation or yoga studio that insists on placing buddhas and other figurines in every corner of its premises. A mentor may assure you that “there’s absolutely nothing religious about this practice.” And they may sincerely believe that. But when you look deeper, there’s usually an agenda someone is not telling you about.

You might say, “Well, I don’t really care whether it’s ‘mike’ or some Hindu god.” So consider the advice of Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. “In the West,” he said, “I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself.”10

For a Jew, praising Hindu deities means traveling far from home. And it’s not necessary. There are many great tools out there for relieving anxiety and learning to deal with stress. Just find someone who teaches how to use those tools without an agenda. Stay home. Just make it more comfortable inside yourself.

But what about my spirituality?

Talking about home, I can’t help but mention that there are many forms of meditation that have been taught by Jewish sages over our long and varied journey.

Today, the most actively practiced forms in the Jewish world are to be found in Chabad and Breslov. Breslov meditation is called hitbodedut, which means “aloneness.” The focus is to be alone with G‑d and speak with G‑d directly, from the heart.

Chabad meditation is called hitbonenut, which might translate as “re-understanding.” The focus is to ponder deeply the mysteries of the Creator, the creation and the soul until these ideas become real to you—real enough to affect your personality and behavior. More on that in Chabad Meditation.

Neither of these focus on relaxation—those are best achieved with the deep breathing, incremental relaxation, gazing, chanting, and mindfulness techniques that we were talking about above. Jewish forms of meditation take over where those leave off: Now that your mind is clear and still, let’s find some good stuff to fill it with.

Think of the Think of stillness as a way to open a door.stillness techniques as a way to open a door and leave the busy street. But there’s something beyond that door. There’s a quiet place where you can sit and contemplate. For example, you might contemplate how this entire world is generated out of the void at every moment by a Creator who cares for each of His creatures, and therefore, as long as you stay connected to your Creator, there is no reason for worry or anxiety.

That’s a meditation that can really make a difference in your attitude to life. It just needs to be expanded and developed. And it is, in many Jewish writings. You study those teachings, learn to visualize and experience them in your mind, and allow your mind time to dwell on them until they become real to you, engraved upon your heart.

You can also meditate on:

  1. The great love your Creator has for you.

  2. The preciousness of the soul that breathes within you, and its journey.

  3. The many miracles that have happened in your own life.

  4. The faces of all those you love and who love you.

  5. The good qualities of the people you live with and work with.

  6. A story of a tzaddik, or something deep and wondrous.

  7. The times of Moshiach, when everyone will see this world as a divine masterpiece, when G‑dliness will be apparent within each thing—and how you are going to start living as though it already is that way.

There are many such meditations. The best times for them are upon rising in the morning, before retiring at night, or anytime you can make to have some solitude in a conducive setting. But, like everything that’s worthwhile, they require study and practice. You might want to start by reading the material I’ve linked above, and watching some of the videos in our Jewish Meditation Series.

With these sort of meditations, you’ll never be “homeless inside yourself.” On the contrary, you’ll be coming home.

And thank you, Judy, for asking the question. It’s motivated me to create more of those videos with guided meditations for people such as you. Keep visiting the site, and I hope you’ll be seeing more of these soon.