Tag Archives: meditation

Meditation Lab

One of the interesting people I met in Oslo was Harold D. Roth, professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. As many of the experts of the Eastern Traditions, he was of Jewish background who turned to the east becuase “One of the problems I wrestled with as a young Jewish person growing up was how the Holocaust could be justifiable in light of the theology I’d been taught.”

Roth offers a meditation lab to compliment his lecture course.

TOM: The Religious Studies courses you teach at Brown are supplemented by lab courses where you invite students to engage in what you call “critical first-person investigation” of the material. Would you tell us more about this?

ROTH: There are two courses that I teach that involve first-person labs right now. These are advanced seminars for people who already have had some courses in Buddhism. In them we have our weekly three-hour seminar in which we discuss the texts we are reading, and then from 9am to 10am, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we try out meditation techniques that are derived from these texts. I encourage people to investigate things empirically, to try out different techniques, for example, following the breath, or counting breaths, or paying attention to different parts of one’s body, the diaphragm, the sensation of the breath coming in and out the nose. These are all practices that would be used in the “Insight Meditation” tradition that is at the heart of Theravada or “Southern” Buddhism. Very often I’m able to coordinate the actual reading with the techniques in the lab. For example, when we study Theravada Buddhism we get two sutras that are devoted to breathing meditations: “Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing” (Anapanasati sutta) and “Sutra on The Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana sutta). And in the lab we use techniques from those particular texts. I call this approach critical because I never ask anyone to accept what they are reading as true. I just ask them to read the texts with an open mind, and to practice a particular technique with an open mind. And then we talk about how the text relates to the techniques and the experiences in the meditation lab.

Direct experiential questioning is important for a complete investigation of religious phenomena. However, … academics in Religious Studies are very uncomfortable with engaging in religious practices as part of their pedagogy and their research. It is odd, because there are a lot of other academic disciplines that encourage first-person practices, such as laboratory science, public speaking, and anthropology, to name a few.
This kind of direct experiential questioning is important for a complete investigation of religious phenomena. However, conventional academic study in the field of Religious Studies has completely banned it, for a variety of reasons.

It is odd, because there are a lot of other academic disciplines that encourage first-person practices, such as laboratory science, public speaking, and anthropology, to name a few. All these disciplines give you techniques to critically examine the data you get from first-person investigation

First, religions in which empirical experience is central de-emphasize the need to believe. This is the case in all the world’s great mystical traditions.

Second, the whole idea that any of us can be completely objective denies the important role that our own subjective experience plays in our intellectual investigation and reasoning. Instead of banning and attempting to deny our own experience as a valid investigative tool, why not develop methods that engage it in a critical, reasoned way? That is what is behind my courses that combine traditional third-person academic study and “critical first-person” investigation. So I, for one, would be happy to engage in first-person investigation in Christian prayer or meditation, or Islamic practices, or Hindu practices, even though I don’t consider myself a believer in any of those traditions. I think first-person investigation is part of a serious examination of religion. The field is cutting off its foundations in not finding that acceptable.
The very fact that anybody does any kind of sitting or moving meditation practice … already gives them a leg up in interpreting texts that might have involved meditative or mystical practices.

ROTH: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m alluding to. For example, there are Taoist texts and Buddhist texts produced by specific groups of practitioners. If you don’t understand what the practicing context is, and if you haven’t had any related experience, you’re just going to miss the allusions to the practice and can not appreciate when this technical language is being used. Very often, especially in the early Taoist tradition, things are described metaphorically. Or Chinese characters may be used that have a range of meanings. They may have particular meanings in a political context but in a meditation text they might mean something very specific and concrete. So that’s part of what one needs to be sensitized to.
To read more from a good interview- here.

Any thoughts on labs for Kabbalah or mahshevet yisrael courses?

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Meditation Conference

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.]

Cordovero on the nature of Prayer

For those following the more pietistic discussion on Ramak’s prayer, here is some more for discussion. The first text is on devekut. The second text is on the inability of prayer to rise without ascending level by level through the known levels. One cannot prayer directly to the Eyn Sof. Any reactions or insights? I am delivering a conference paper next week on the topic, so all observations are helpful. Any insights to the meditation process?

Devekut

“Through these mysteries, a man is able to cleave to his master with will…”
A person can cleave to Him through directing his will to the mystery of the sefirot, the Tetragrammaton, and the [other] Divine names. One who does not know the mystery of how to cleave to Him will not have the ability to grasp (beit ahizah), because His place of grasping is through His sefirot, His precious names and holy Tetragrammaton.
“In directing the heart to know the wisdom of His dominance in the highest mystery.” The dominance of hokhmah is a wondrous mystery. The first way to reach a state of cleaving to the Divine (devekut) is through the study of the mysteries of the Torah and the understanding of the hidden secrets in the Torah.
The second is “when he worships his Master in prayer,” that is, the mystery of prayer and the way of cleaving to Him.
“He will cleave like a flame in a coal”—for man’s will and soul that ascend from the walls of his heart will certainly be bound to the supernal palaces. Thus, man should first meditate on repairing malkhut, Her repairs are the mystery of the palaces, which bind and cleave together with malkhut like a flame bound in a coal, while his soul and meditation are a flame from the coal that is malkhut. Similarly, the palaces that spread out from and cleave to Her are like a flame spreading out from amidst the coal, yet cleaving to it. Because of this, the [palaces] return to their source and are swallowed up in Her through his soul that returns and is swallowed in its source. With the soul’s ascent, the [palaces] are raised as well, since only through the soul can they spread out below. Now this is the mystery of man’s intention and breath of his mouth created from the vapor of his mouth and the soul (neshamah) arising through breath (neshimah), that they cleave and return to their source. If it happens that the palaces, and further, the hizonim, spread out from there, he should meditate on binding and unifying her specifically from the palace of paved sapphire (livnat hasappir) and higher. There is the beginning of holy cleaving, binding themselves in unification.

Ascent of prayers

When the Shekhinah is completely filled with prayers, then the prayers rise and ascend to a place where there is no pain and no lack.
The purpose of ascent into worship of God is so the prayer should reach this place. Some people meditate in times of need, as it is written, “Israel are wise in that they know how to pray in times of need.” However, better and more meritorious is he who raises all of his prayers there [even not in a time of need].
This form of worship is more desirable because it does not come out of pain or need, but rather from cleaving through worship to the true Object of worship.
The masses think that the intention reaches there by itself; they are completely outside the palace, so that when they call the king from afar, the king does not answer them.
Rather, it is necessary to call to the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper takes them in his hand and brings them into the control of the princes, from prince to prince of each palace, until they are brought to the king in his chamber, where they will find Him and bring their needs before Him.
For those who pray or cleave to Ein Sof by itself, their goal remains far from them. He is only close to the one who knows His palaces and gatekeepers.
Indeed, for those who speak to the gatekeeper which is the attribute of malkhut, the attribute will bring them to the higher attributes higher, level after level through all the levels.
These people will certainly enter to the King, Ein Sof, the Root of all roots, in His room, a wondrous place, and speak with Him, in the mystery of the ascent of prayer. Immediately, it will be powerful.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Menachem Ekstein Visions of a Compassionate World — A Post-Hasid?

I was recently recommended to read the volume Menachem Ekstein, Visions of a Compassionate World : Guided Imagery for Spiritual Growth and Social Transformation (Urim 2001) (Hebrew- Netzah 1960) based on the original Tennai Hanefesh leHasagat HaHasidut (Vienna, 1921).

I was told the book is an essential part of modern Hasidism along with the Piesetzna Rebbe. (In a recent PHD on the latter, there is a chapter on Ekstein.)

The book is a 1920’s volume of guided imagery – image the sun, the entire planet, the animal kingdom, see all the fish in the sea. Then see your place on earth. Open yourself up to growth and infinite potential, see the potential for change and overcoming one’s limits. Avoid negative thoughts and images that hold you back. The goal is to wake up the senses and this is defined as Hasidism. As I was reading it, I realized that I read these visualizations before. They are from Jean Huston’s The Possible Human: A Course in Extending Your Physical, Mental, and Creative Abilities (1982). Jean Huston is a 1980’s hero of New Thought incorporating many 1920’s classic visualizations in her work. There are similar elements in Alice Baily Shakti Gwain, and Warren Kenton. A quick google search of any of the visualizations yielded dozens of new age sites with the same visualizations. I do not know which works Menachem Eckstein actually read in 1920’s Germany, I could not find a list of German New Thought books online (I already tried Wiki in German.)

I have been told from other sources that the book is very popular in the neo-hasidic national- religious Habakuk crowd, especially the hilltop youth. There is even a CD to listen to the visualizations. This book offers a traditional Hasidic version of new age. It authenticates their individualistic spiritual quests.

It is hard to see it as a Hasidic work, even if the author is a son of a Galitzianer Hasid because the book is printed in Vienna using modern Hebrew and the last chapter is a vision of a restored state of Israel after the Balfour Declaration.

After WWI, many Hasidim entirely left the tradition to become Zionists, Bundists, secular educated or just left to enter the modern world.
But there were also those, especially in Poland’s cities like Warsaw that remained somewhat Hasidic as they entered modern life. There were Hasidic journalists and authors, or least aspiring authors, and there was even a Hasidic boxing columnist . Some continued the traditional garb but living modern lives and other changed their garb but remained loyal in their hearts. The modern city makes all this possible. We could use a good study of interwar Warsaw. Hasidic story writers infused new vitality into Hasidic stories by using Rumi, the Golden Legend, and 1001 Arabian nights. Others advocated Kibbutz Hadati Torah veAvodah as a Kotzker holy rebellion against the establishment. This era rejected the stolid Hasidism of their parents 1880-1920, but still were sociologically part of the Hasidic world. Menachem Ekstein seems part of this world. He took the Western European NEW THOUGHT and metaphysical visualizations and cast it as the way of Hasidism.

If anyone knows more about him, then please let me know. I have just been informed that there is a someone working on him for an MA.

But should we call this inter-bellum period the post-hasidic?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Teaching Meditation

The cartoon seeks to make fun, but I find it quite serious. Is there any other way to teach meditation than in the language of those you are teaching. If one teaches a kavvanah from Rabbi Isaac the blind or Rabbi Moses Cordovero does one teach medieval cosmology and medieval science to explain it? What if it is a once a week meditation class and one wants to get down to practice. Should one use the language of bittul or of “clear your cache and history? Should one imagine light at the bottom of emanation or a blank web page? Is this modernizing into new age like neo-hasidism or the only way to do things?

Rabbi Morgenstern and Meditation

When someone mentions Jewish meditation to me the first thing I think of are the Haredi Kabbalitic mediators. I think of Y.M Erlanger who in his Sheva Eynayim and in classes in Heimishe Yeshivos is teaching Hasidut combined with Abulafia and I think of Yitzhak Meir Moregenstern who is reorganizing early Kabbalah, Ramak, Ari, and Abulafia as Hasidut. Erlanger’s starts with the statements in Sefer Habesht al Hatorah and introduces ever more esoteric material and at the end of the last volume, he introduces Abulafia with a warning that the material that he is about to teach is not for everyone, and not everyone should enter the Pardes, and even if you do enter this may not be for you. In contrast, Rabbi Morgenstern called Rav Itchie Mayer Morgenstern starts everyone on the real stuff.

R. Morgenstern is a Haredi descendant of the Kotzker and lived most of his life in England and has moved to Jerusalem and set up a Beit Midrash. You can find videos of him teaching and singing with Anglos on the web. See here, here and here.
He has attached a real following. He gives weekly public shiurim in kavvanot, in Komarno, and Ramhal. He has an email list serve for his Torah, his kabbalah, and for assorted teachings (Hebrew, English, and Yiddish). Send an email here to subscribe tc7@neto.bezeqint.net

He seems to have read some generic books on “How to Meditate” or “Meditation for Everyone” and in his work Derekh Yihud he reorganizes traditional kabbalistic practices into an order that reflects the general mediation world. The topics are sitting, breathing, visualizing, creating an avir in front of one, colors, and a unified vision. He freely takes pieces of Abulafia, Ramak, and early kabbalah to create a Jewish meditation manual in line with the non-Jewish ones. The work Derekh Yihud opens up a new path of reorganizing the older materials based on modern principles.

I see him as potentially the future. Rav Ashlag wrote in the 1930’s and took the meditation, medieval worldview and fantasy out of the Kabbalah and replaced it was science, communism, Schopenhauer, and a closed system. Now everything from the Kabbalah Centre to Bnai Baruch to Michael Leitman are his spiritual descendents. Rabbi Morgensten is teaching the young grandchildren of the Rebbes and many in Kolel and he also accepts the varied pneumatics of Jerusalem as his students. When all those students take their positions as Rebbes, Ramim, and teachers then the meditation format of breathing and visualization will be the tradition. If the trend continues, in 2050 this will be mainstream Kabbalah.

I had originally planned this post before my computer crash when I received the following two weeks ago. It offers a concise taste of Derekh Yihud. Morgenstern advises to close the eyes and see the hidden lights in order to achieve bliss. One turns from this world to the airspace and achieves a vision of the Throne. Lights, then hidden mind, and finally the source of the soul and the Throne.

When a Jew spends time in hisbodedus before his Creator, he closes his eyes so as not to be enticed by the illusory pleasures of this world because he doesn’t want to be connected to them.
When he closes his eyes in this way, he is able to see the brilliant hues that are rooted in the “hidden mind” of Mocha Sesima’ah, and he begins to derive pleasure from spiritual reality, from the fact that Hashem is revealed through a myriad of shades and hues of dveikus. He starts to feel Hashem’s light and glory within himself, and how all of the pleasures of this world are null and void, are like a mere sliver of light, compared with the delight of dveikus that is a composite of all possible forms of bliss.

So when a person seals his vision against the illusory nature of this world, he rises to the place of the “airspace” and its “membrane,” which is really the source of the human soul and its throne of glory. In that place it can be said, “From my flesh, I see G-d.” One begins to enjoy a vision of the ultimate Kisei HaKavod upon which the “form of a person sat.”
The final three plagues parallel these three states of dveikus:
First, a person must meditate and be misboded on the expansive Binah light of Hashem.
Then he must ascend to the place of the “hidden mind” which is the counterpart of the holy darkness of turning aside from this-worldly concerns to receive “light in all his dwellings.” With this, he destroys the klippah of the impure firstborn and rises further to the place of the “membrane of the airspace” and the “airspace” itself which correlates to the level of the Da’as of Atik and which reveals to him the source of his neshamah that “sits upon the throne.”
“It is revealed and known before Your Kisei HaKavod…” Meaning, through coming to the level of the Kisei HaKavod, we are able to subdue all of the klippos and utterly “smite Egypt through their firstborns.”

This past week he sent out a special Tu beShevat essay. He opens the essay stating that was asked why Hayyim Vital did not mention TuBeshevat and answers in the name of R. Haayim Cohen that it is a hidden quality. And when pressed why does everyone do it today? He turns to R. Aharon Halevi of Strashelye explaining that since we are lesser today everyone learns Kabbalah since they do not grasp the real depth anyway. The essay is a running account of his Torah and the questions he received Tu Beshevat-Shabbat Shrah. There are many interesting points in it including -We are told of the joy from the recent publishing of Vital’s alchemy and magic.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Jewish Meditation 1995-2005

Here is an account from The Forward that parallels what I have seen in the field. In the early and mid nineties there was a great desire for the technical aspects of meditation and Jewish meditation. Then, after only 5 years it started broadening into all forms of spirituality especially musical forms and emotional healing. And finally right before our eyes, it all stops around 2005. People started coming to a class listed as Jewish meditation and assumed that it has something to do with guitars, bongos and chanting. In 1995, people wanted meditation and came with Zen or Vipasssana backgrounds and then flash it was gone by 2005, leaving revivalism in its wake.

Even the local Buddhist center here in NJ, gave daily and weekly meditation classes in 2000 and now only offers a once a month introduction to Happiness, saving any serious meditation instruction for biannual retreats.

Chochmat HaLev came to life in the 1990s… One of these teachers, Rabbi Avram Davis, proposed creating a Jewish meditation center that could be a community resource…. Chochmat HaLev was launched, first as a series of classes in 1992 to 1993, and then as a nonprofit organization in 1995… In focusing on Jewish meditation, Gefen and Davis were at the forefront of a wave of interest in training a generation of Jewish “spiritual leaders,” who could bring meditation to their own congregations and lead meditation retreats and workshops for nonaffiliated Jews. So in addition to holding its own retreats and workshops, Chochmat pioneered a year-long leadership program with an initial cohort of 40 students.

Something happened on the communal meditation cushion, however. Joined by their interest in Jewish spirituality, the initial group felt a desire to pray together — a development that took Gefen by surprise. Davis, however, had thought of offering services from the beginning, because for him, Jewish meditation could exist only as part of a larger practice.

From the start, Davis led Chochmat’s services, distinguished by the constant thrum of a six-piece band composed of guitar, bass, drum set, keyboards and vocalists, its musical direction owed in equal parts to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, American rock and Moroccan beats. During a typical service, continuing today, participants dance in the aisles, clap, stomp their feet and sway with hands in the air, in an atmosphere most reminiscent of evangelical rapture

From 2000 to 2005, Chochmat HaLev functioned much like a cross between an institute for Jewish spirituality and an independent minyan.  Holding these two very different organizations together was a tight-knit, supportive community.

The year 2005 marked a crisis for Chochmat. The meditation school had essentially vanished. Aside from one year-long distance-learning program, the school was not offering more classes than an active synagogue. And because of its regular religious services, Chochmat was no longer seen as a non-denominational resource center: Its original mission was gone.

In 2005, the Chochmat board decided to become a functioning synagogue, and Avram Davis chose to leave.

Full version

Now Jewish meditation is once again for the few.People still do visualizations – part motivational part Neo-hasidic as a way to get psyched or as a means of bringing a moment of silence or a visualization into a regular service.  People are very sympathetic, “lets do it for a few minutes or a mini-course” and then let’s move on.

More on the year 2000 from the same author.

The year 2000 would see the establishment of the New York-based Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a Jewish meditation center run by Rabbi Sheila Pelz Weinberg; Makor Or, a San Francisco-based center founded by Rabbi Alan Lew (z’’l) and Norman Fischer; as well as a new emphasis on meditation at Elat Chayyim under Rabbi Jeff Roth and a burst of books on the topic (among them books by Gefen and Davis).

Ten years ago there was a meditation moment.

UPDATE – see the detailed rundown by Len Moskowitz in the Comments section. The comment shows that there is no diminution.
Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved