The organizers of the meditation conference assumed meditation was a means of sitting and saying a verbal focus which would lead to calm, well-being, and better health. They wanted to find out how this truth of meditation plays itself out in the religions and cultures of the world. Instead, they found themselves with over fifty experts on meditation techniques in Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism saying that this definition of meditation is not found in the traditional texts or traditional meditation communities. There was a feeling that Western people, in America and Europe, have an idea of meditation and speak of meditation as a know entity that was unknown to the academics in the field.
We felt that we could have used a panel session on where this idea of mediation came from and how in the last 35 years in has become part of Western religion and spirituality. In short, we pieced together that the theosophists and translators of the sacred books of the east created a version of mediation as psychology. In the 1970’s when TM and Zen became popular as well as reading the older works, then we get a flurry of books on “what is meditation.” By the 1980’s we can speak of the “meditation of poetry”, the “meditation of surfing” the “meditation of yoga” or the “meditation of Chabad fabrengen” A rightful possession of American spirituality that Americans wont let experts take away from them. Herbert Benson created the relaxation response and formulated meditation as a form of calm and healthy wellbeing. But this definition is not a traditional one. This was further removed from any tradition by psycho neurology that used its own definitions not accepted by any known religion- except contemporary spirituality. Even frum jews love to use the word when it does not correspond to anything in traditional texts.
So the conference ran as follows:
The calmness of meditation is claimed to be based on the Indic concept of Samadhi, but Samadhi is not calmness, rather a secession of emotions, desires, thoughts, and brain functions so one can transcend the world. Indian and Buddhism meditation is not about calmness and wellness- it is about pain and suffering and rubbing your nose in the inevitability of suffering. Zen is not very calm and includes sweat inducing koans, being hit by the Roshi, unquestioning tasks, and pain. Jewish texts on hitbddedut and kavvanah are about coming closer to God sometimes via ecstasy and emotional upheaval.
The modern definition takes out the purpose of meditation in India or China which is to either escape the world or seek enlightenment. And it has little to do with the Jewish and Islamic themes of God in the heart, or the Tibetan and Daoist alchemical techniques for longevity. After the presentation on vipassana, any vestiges of the opening premises were gone. Vipassana was originally the national ideal of Burma for a educated well cultivated approached to stoically wait for the British colonialists to leave. It was then modernized in the Vietnam War, but still little to do with the current practice of that name. There was little respect for the Dalai Lama at the conference with his promising this-worldly happiness and well being for those who meditate, when his own Tibetan traditions do not teach that.
There was a general consensus that most current practices performed in the west were recent. They were either from the term of the 20th century and involved modernization and Westernization. We find Buddhists reading William James and rediscovering new techniques in manuscript. Then there are new versions of the 1960’s. Finally, there was consensus that anyone claiming tradition and authority in the US teaching “meditation” in the modern sense was either a charlatan or a student of one. Trust those who either acknowledge they are doing something modern or those who don’t promise calm and well being. Everyone saw a decrease in interest in traditional forms of meditation since the 1990’s becuase everyone now knows that they want this new Western meditation – but they want it with a Yoga, Hasidic, or QiGong veneer.
From a Jewish point of view, this means that Ramak, Ari”zl, Chabad, and Rav Nahman all have versions of hitbodedut, hitbonenut, kavvanah, and yihud but there is nothing gained conceptually or linguistically by calling them meditation and they have little to do with any clinical calming technique. (it might have briefly made sense in the 1970’s when stolid religion was breaking down and the BT world was aiming in this realm.) The reliance of the Piesetzna and Menachem Eckstein on modern psychology is par for the course-as is Aryeh Kaplan’s reading of the Dover Publishing Co. books from the early 20th century on Tibetan and Chinese meditation. And sitting for mindfulness before davening is not Buddhist, not Jewish, not Indian but it is American new age spiritual. Sitting before davening has little to do with the Ramak or Ari”zl.
By the end we concluded that there is use for term like visualization, body techniques, or mental apophasis.
One can speak of a Jewish kavvanah of the Ramak as a form of visualization. But it does not share the formal aspects of sitting of the Zen tradition and it lacks the ending of mental facilities like Samadhi and it lack to goal to escape the world of most Buddhist practices. It does not have the mental requirements of Jnana. Yet, there is more to the analogy than just visions since it does take one to a place above the “pain of this world” creating some very weak similarity to Jnana and Samadhi. But the goal of daat and berakhah are very unYogic. One can also find close similarities to Sufis and certain out of context Daoist similarities.
Now what? We shall see if they get funding for follow-up conferences.
[Natan – I know that your approach disagrees. I have read your material so you don’t have to send it to me again as comments.]