Questions abound in our teaching and learning. Questions abound in our effort to establish and clarify a vocabulary that we can use to communicate with each other and to commune with the resources of the past. What is meditation? What is mindfulness? What is spiritual practice? What is prayer? What are mitzvoth? What is authentically Jewish and what is not? And, of course, what is the relationship between any of these things and the others.
There are two fundamental ways to approach these questions. The first is “What do we do?” and the second is “Why do we do it?” I find the “what” question a question that opens into multiplicity and the “why” question one that leads to unity. In other words, there are multiple forms of meditation, prayer and spiritual practice but ultimately they tend toward the same or similar aims. We may use different language to describe these aims, but I would suggest that they are different ways to speak about the same thing.
What are we speaking about? What do we hope will be accomplished by spiritual practice? Here is a list of aims or intentions that may be all pointing at the same center.
- Establishing and expanding our relationship with God
- Expanding our awareness, becoming more awake in our lives
- Expanding into a higher consciousness, perspective, understanding
- Living with Divine qualities of openheartedness, compassion, patience, tolerance, loving kindness, generosity, humility, trust, reverence, gratitude, etc. (middot)
- Expanding our ability to receive and give love from Divine and human sources – Ahavah Rabah through V’ahavta
- Experiencing and acting from integration, unity, wholeness- of body, mind, emotions, spirit, of inner and outer, of different dimensions of existence, of the seeker and the sought.
- Understanding the relationship between acting wholesomely and a sense of being part of the Whole.
- Living with more ability to make choices that conform with our intentions
- Being more responsive in relation to oneself and others, rather than acting out of habit and reactivity
- Being more peaceful not because one is withdrawn or indifferent but because one has an understanding of what contributes to aggression and violence and what alleviates it
- Having a perspective that is more able to include the different dimensions of existence including the unpleasant, the different, the weak, the uncertain, the fleeting.
- Understanding the relationship between suffering and the self that is craving a thing, an experience or a state of being
- The ability to live with joy and praise
- The transformation from being a slave of Pharaoh, controlled by unconscious inner and outer forces and a servant of God, one who is able to be in relationship with the Eternal unfolding of existence from moment to moment.
- Being less self centered and more other centered, not in order to manipulate others but out of a true identification and sense of commonality
- All of the above is to the end of being part of a holy community and a redeemed world
Saying that spiritual practices train our minds, shape our consciousness and mold our character can sum this up. We undertake spiritual practice in order to change in some way, even if it is only a change of perspective. In more traditional language we undertake spiritual practices because they bring us closer to God’s will.
How does this work?
Spiritual practices including meditation (whether the object of attention is set at the breath, bodily sensations, a visualization, a mantra, a prayer or at floating open attention), and mitzvoth like Shabbat, Kashrut, and Torah study, and conscious non-harming speech share a similar technology.
One commits to a particular action as the focus of one’s energy, attention, time, and behavior. One articulates this intention. Then one waits. Soon, the obstacles appear. In a sitting meditation practice we may intend to follow each in breath and each out breath. No sooner do we begin then thoughts rush in or we find ourselves nodding sleepily or in a state of anxiety regarding the pain in our knee or lower back. Or we have decided to observe the Sabbath and an invitation comes our way that is irresistible. Or we promise ourselves to observe kashruth and a strong desire arises to taste the forbidden. Often rationalizing thoughts obscuring the clarity of the original intention surround these temptations.
The training occurs in the next step, the step of renunciation or returning. We see the temptation. We acknowledge it in a non-judgmental and non-personal way realizing that we are seeing forgetfulness in the human mind. As we bring attention to the temptation we see that it has no substance. Each time we do this, the ability to choose is strengthened. Each time we return from distraction or obstacle, the power of habit and unconsciousness is weakened. In this process we begin to see the nature of our minds and the nature of reality itself. We increase our ability to pay attention. And what do we begin to notice? We observe the arising and passing away of thoughts, sensations, sounds, desires, feelings, and moods just as daylight passes and evening comes. We see the consequences of various forms of contraction in the mind or body like fear, desire, suppression, judgment, anger, and aggression. We see the consequences of various forms of expansion like, trust, ease, relaxation, acceptance, generosity and gratitude.
The kinds of spiritual practices we can undertake are limitless. However, ultimately the form is less important than these factors: the commitment to practice, the ability to keep returning to the intention, the attitude one brings to the uncontrollable and the ability to transfer the benefits of the practice into how we live our lives, how we relate to ourselves and others, how free we become to embody the values and ideals we embrace in our minds, how we deal with temptations of all sorts. In other words we practice to live with the wisdom and compassion, which we already possess. We practice to actualize the pure soul, which God has planted with us.