What is Jewish Meditation?
I grew up in a very secular home. The most Judaism we had was lighting Hanukkah candles, though I had an annual dose of something deeper when we visited my cousins for Passover. I was enthralled by those Passover seders and I wanted more, but Judaism was a foreign language to me.
Later, when most of my friends were learning to chant Hebrew in preparation for their bar mitzvahs, I longed to be initiated as well. It didn’t matter that most of my friends hated Hebrew school– I wanted to be part of it. I don’t know why I was so drawn to Judaism, but I guess it represented everything I didn’t have– a strong bond with community, a common language of spirit, an ancient identity grounded in in devotion to the Eternal. In short, connection.
Of course, I wouldn’t have described it that way at the time, but I knew that something vital was missing from my life. I longed for something deeper – something that would heal the lack I felt. I sensed the light of those Hanukkah candles calling me – but calling me to what I didn’t know. So, I asked my parents if I could have a bar mitzvah too. They said no. They felt that I should wait until I was older to make decisions about religion.
But, I was determined– so I snuck Hebrew lessons from a nice old lady named Sarah Rosenberg who was supposed to be helping me with my homework.
Around that same time, I worked at my father’s medical clinic for extra money. My father, Dr. Michael Schachter, had originally founded the practice with his best friend, Dr. David Sheinkin, who had studied Kabbalah with the famous Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. At some point, Dr. Sheinkin had given a series of lectures on Kabbalah, which were recorded and transcribed. Part of my job at the medical clinic was to copy those transcripts. I stood there in the Xerox room, copying one page at a time for hours. (In those days, you couldn’t put a whole stack of papers in at one time.) At some point, I paused for a moment to look at what I was copying – and I couldn’t stop reading! I was hooked on Kabbalah.
As I got older, I was drawn to anything I could find on mysticism, both Jewish and not. It was the eighties, and many books on Kabbalah were just starting to come out. I devoured them. In addition, my father was impressed with the health benefits of “Transcendental Meditation,” so he paid for the whole family to learn it. I also practiced all kinds of other mystical techniques I learned from books, and whatever teachers I could find. More than once my parents were called into school to talk about my obsession with the occult! I had become a spiritual nerd.
Then, when I was eighteen, something happened that changed my life forever...
It was a hot August day in New York, the summer of 1987. I had just graduated from high school. I was talking heatedly with a friend in my cool basement bedroom about an ethical problem that was bothering me: a mutual friend was working at my father’s medical clinic, and she had stolen a test tube to use as a container for little items in her purse. The dilemma was this: the test tube was probably worth a few cents. No one would miss it, no one was hurt by her thievery. So, what was wrong with stealing it? On any other day, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But on that day, I became obsessed with the problem. If you steal something and no one is hurt or even notices, what’s wrong with that?
Clearly, there would be no negative outer consequences. But what about inner consequences? If you’re stealing something, what does that say about your motivation? Where does the act of stealing come from within yourself? What are you actually living for when you steal?
As we delved deeper and deeper into the problem, we were delving deeper and deeper into ourselves– what were we living for? That became the question. At some point, our conversation stumbled onto the story of Moses and the Burning Bush.
(Remember that story? Moses was shepherding sheep, when he noticed a bush that was on fire, yet it wasn’t getting burned. When he went to investigate, God spoke from the bush and told him to leave his pastoral life as a shepherd and lead his Israelite brethren to freedom.)
As we talked about Moses and the Burning Bush, the story seemed to pull us in and resonate with our question: What were we living for?
We reflected: first, Moses was just living a simple, pastoral life, basically concerned with his own life. Not in a bad way, but just in an ordinary way. Then, the Divine speaks to him from the fire and gives him a bigger mission– tell Pharaoh to “let My people go!”
This wasn’t really new information; he already knew that his people were enslaved and that maybe he should do something about it. But he was living for himself. Now that God was telling him to leave his comfortable life and fulfill his mission, he began to live for something bigger; he began to live for God.
As we came to this point in our conversation, something incredible happened to both of us at the same time. It was as if we had both accidentally caught fire from the Burning Bush itself.
“You’ve got to live for God!” we cried.
Something inside me broke open. That sense of incompleteness, of not being enough, of not fitting in, it all dropped away. In its place, there was light pouring through me, and everything seemed to glow with the same light. I was suddenly free– completely free– and I was on fire to simply “Live for God” alone. We called it, The Experience.
For several days, that state of fiery freedom remained. But then, it began to fade. After all, we had stumbled into The Experience totally by accident, and I had no idea how to stay connected with it. And besides, unlike Moses, I didn’t have a mission; I just went back to my regular life. Within a few weeks, The Experience was totally gone.
I no longer knew how to “Live for God” or even what that meant. But I knew I wanted it back.
That was the first time I went to see Reb Zalman Schachter- Shalomi (may his memory be for a blessing). We sat in his living room and I explained to him everything that had happened. He was silent for a moment, and then he said:
“Ask me what you have come to ask me.”
“Well, I guess I want to know what I should do now,” I replied.
He paused, then answered, “Here’s what you should do: learn everything you can about traditional Judaism. Continue also with your meditation, only you should meditate with tallit and tefillin (Jewish ritual objects worn on the body during prayer and meditation.)
When you do, open yourself and allow them to teach you what they are about. You should also visit my friend who is Roshi (Head) of the Zen Center in Rochester (where I was in music school at the time.) He can help you as well.” He then gave me some books and sent me on my way.
Okay, I had a mission!
Back at college, away from my secular family, I began to really practice Judaism for the first time, learning mostly with the Chabad rabbi on campus. I also would visit the garden at the Zen Center, but I rarely sat with the other practitioners. Formal Zen just felt weird to me.
After college I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and taught piano for a living. For the next eleven years, I continued practicing and learning Judaism– eating kosher, keeping Shabbat, praying and so on– in an attempt to somehow reawaken that sense of freedom, that sense of “living for God.” Sometimes I had a little glimmer, but for the most part, it didn’t work. Something crucial was missing.
Then one Sunday afternoon on October 4th 1998, I came to the end of my rope. I had been trying for years to get back to “The Experience” through learning Torah and practicing Judaism, but I didn’t feel any closer.
What was it that Reb Zalman had said about Zen?
I immediately got up and went to the local bookstore (bookstores still existed back then). I thought maybe I should get a book by Ram Dass since he had written “Be Here
Now,” but instead a little book caught my eye called Buddhism Plain and Simple by Roshi Steve Hagen. I bought it, went home, sat in my room and read. I was ready. At some point, this sentence jumped out at me:
“You are already enlightened. All you’ve got to do is stop blocking yourself and get serious about attending to what’s going on.”
I asked myself, what is going on?
The movement of my breathing and feeling in my body ~ The chirp of a little bird outside the window ~ the sound of the grandmother next door speaking Cantonese and chopping vegetables for her family ~ the light and shadows playing around the room...
As I became present, my awareness seemed to glow with a simple inner brightness, and in that brightness the whole world seemed to glow with the same simple light. Could this be it? Could it be this simple? Was the problem that my thinking mind had made it into a problem, and all I had to do was stop thinking so much and pay attention?
Although I had been meditating for many years with many different techniques, I had never fully realized the power of Presence until that moment. For the first time, I understood why Reb Zalman had instructed me to learn Zen along with Judaism. All those years I had been trying to “get back” to The Experience, but now I saw that the approach of trying to “get back” could never ever work. The experience I longed for wasn’t about getting somewhere or getting anything for myself at all; it was about giving my attention to what was present.
Now, as I began to offer my awareness to what was actually happening in the present moment without trying to “get” anything out of it, my heart began to open spontaneously, and I was “living for God” once again. The burning bush was calling, and its message was simply this: “Pay attention!”
At this point in the story, you may be wondering if I am advocating mixing together Judaism and Zen Buddhism. Not at all. At that time in the eighties, there were really no institutions for exploring meditation in a Jewish context. Eastern teachers, on the other hand, had been importing and adjusting their teachings and practices for western audiences for nearly a hundred years. Reb Zalman knew that I couldn’t get the meditation piece from Judaism at that time, but that I could find it in Zen. I believe that when I told him my story and he saw how important meditation was for me, he saw an opportunity to further the cause of renewing meditation in Judaism, and that’s why he pointed me toward his Zen teacher friend whom he knew and trusted.
For the next few days, life went on as usual, only there was this brightness to everything– a kind of spiritual “light” that shone from within me and from everything around me. Everything I did flowed from a simple love and affinity for everyone and everything. All negativity simply dropped away. All my Judaism and meditation also dropped away. What need did I have for all that Jewish stuff when I’d already found what I was searching for? Life was bliss. But then came a challenge that knocked me out of the bliss completely…
I was driving along in my car, when suddenly another car came out of nowhere and cut me off. Instantly I was filled with rage. Of course, there’s nothing so unusual about road rage– it happens all the time. But from the state of Divine bliss I was in, there was nothing more painful. In an instant, I had become a demon. I wanted to get out of the car and kill the guy.
But then I realized: This is it! This is the test!
Somehow, I knew in that moment that if I couldn’t also be present with the rage I was feeling, then the whole thing meant nothing. Being present was suddenly no longer an option, it was an imperative. Now the burning bush was commanding.
I didn’t curse. I didn’t punch anyone. Instead, I brought my awareness deep into the feeling of the anger. It was extremely painful, but then something started to happen: the anger seemed to move like smoke up through my body and out the top of my head. It was like a dense cloud of darkness was leaving me.
As the last of it left my body, everything looked completely different; my perspective on the whole situation had completely shifted. I saw that the guy who cut me off was actually doing me a favor; he was actually helping me to get free. And more than that, I could see that everything I perceived was part of the awareness that was perceiving it. Everything that was happening– the caw of a crow soaring through the sky, the road glistening with moisture from a recent rain, the bustling traffic– all of it was arising within and not separate from my awareness. I realized: I am this awareness.
Over the next week, I felt as if all the elements of “me”– all my memories, hopes, desires, fears– were coming up out of my body and burning away in the fire of awareness. I had started on a path that I now couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to, because there was no longer any sense of “me” to want anything; there was just being present with this process that now had its own life.
It went on and on for several days. Sometimes it was extremely painful, and other times incredibly blissful. During some of the painful times I became completely non- functional, and friends had to help me do simple things.
The following Saturday evening, it suddenly all stopped– like turning off a fan and noticing the silence for the first time. It was like being reborn. It was a simple feeling, evoking the memory of being a small child – innocent, bright, and inherently good.
But, I soon realized that the “awakening,” as I called it, had come with a price. It had stripped so much of me away, that regular life left me often feeling fragile and raw.
One day, when I was feeling particularly beaten up, it occurred to me that maybe some davening (praying) might help. I flashed on Reb Zalman’s enigmatic advice he had given me eleven years earlier– that I should meditate with tallit and tefillin, be present with them, and allow them to teach me. At that moment I realized for the first time what he was talking about, because all of life had become like that, and everything had something to teach.
I got out my old tallit and tefillin, put them on and began to chant some Hebrew prayers. Like magic, my body was flooded with blissful, healing energy. I soon realized that I
had to pray and meditate every day– not to “reach enlightenment,” but to recover from it!
I called Reb Zalman and left him a message, thanking him for the advice he gave me fifteen years earlier, though I was sure he wouldn’t remember me. Later I found a message from him on my answering machine that filled me with gratitude:
“Brian Lebn- I am glad to hear your practice has come to fruit– you have reached the borderlands of our country.”
I had only reached the borderlands!
I was grateful for his message, for reminding me that the “awakening” wasn’t some big achievement or endpoint. He then urged me to continue my learning and he gave me names of specific people to connect with, which I did.
From that point on, I began to receive Judaism back into my life, but in a completely different way. The old me had died; I had found the Light I had sought, but I also discovered how Judaism was really a vessel for that Light, a channel through which the deeply transformative power of Presence could be safely integrated into ordinary life, bringing “heaven down to earth,” so to speak.
But, it wasn’t enough for me to just enjoy this discovery for myself – I wanted to share it with others. So, in 2003, I became certified as a Jewish meditation teacher through a program at a local synagogue, and in 2006, I was invited to take over the Monday night meditation gatherings at that synagogue when the previous teacher left. I started calling those Monday nights Torah of Awakening, and over the next ten years, those Torah of Awakening gatherings became the laboratory within which our core practice developed, which I now call Integral Jewish Meditation.
Today, there are many wonderful books, teachers and programs on Jewish spirituality and meditation, but many of them are somewhat academic rather than experiential and transformative. My hope is that these discoveries will help you move from pain to freedom, and also how to live from that freedom, connected to the fertile soil of the Jewish spiritual lineage.
This is nothing new; the journey of awakening has always been present within Judaism. For example, we can see it metaphorically in the journey of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, comes from the root which means narrow, or constricted – probably because Egypt is geographically narrow, constructed along the Nile river. But according to a Hassidic teaching, this hints that “freedom from Egypt” means freedom from a constricted, narrow state of being. In this book, we will explore many other ways that the journey of awakening is expressed in Jewish teaching.
And yet, Judaism is rarely taught that way. My hope is that you will find the Torah of Awakening teachings to be useful guides for waking up and getting free from whatever narrow, limiting thoughts and patterns are keeping you stuck. The key, in my experience, lies in the Three Portals of Presence I discovered. Let’s look again briefly at each of these Three Portals:
The first is the Portal of the Heart. That’s the sense of living for something bigger than yourself, what I had called “living for God.” When you’re motivated to serve something greater than yourself, you transcend yourself. Your personal problems and feelings lose their sting in the presence of devotion to something infinitely larger than the “me.” You don’t have to use the word “God” if that doesn’t work for you. The important part is that sense of reverence and devotion to That which is beyond yourself.
The second is the Portal of the Body. This is the practice of being present now, of drawing your awareness into whatever is actually going on. I call it the Portal of the Body because the easiest and most direct way to become present is to notice your own body– your breathing, your senses, and your feelings.
This is so important because without Presence in the body, any devotion to something bigger than yourself tends to solidify into a mere conceptual idea. It becomes part of your ego, and the idea of freedom becomes just another prison. “God” turns out to be just another version of “me.” The only way to truly go beyond yourself is to open to Reality as it is, and that means opening to your actual present moment experience, rather than be stuck in your thoughts about your experience.
The third is the Portal of Awareness Itself. This portal opens when you notice that everything you perceive– from sensory awareness, to emotions, to the coming and going of thoughts– lives within your own awareness. At this level, that basic sense of yourself being “inside your body looking out” opens into a vast and borderless spaciousness, an open field of awareness within which your body and everything else is perceived, and you are that vast field of awareness. Furthermore, even though you are awareness, it isn’t your awareness; rather, there is One Reality, One Existence, and It is conscious right now as you. This is the deepest level of Jewish spirituality, the understanding that Hashem Ekhad, that the Divine is the Oneness of All Being, manifesting as all that exists.
But, don’t take my word for it, try it yourself!
You can learn and practice Integral Kabbalah Meditation by joining Torah of Awakening, free for the first month, HERE.
I call this practice “integral” because it integrates the Three Portals through several different traditional modalities such as chanting, visualization, contemplation, movement and silence. These modalities actually all come from Jewish prayer.
For example, awakening the Three Portals in the body (heart, belly and head) correspond to the tzitzit and tefillin (ritual objects worn on the body during prayer) and the traditional practices associated them. The affirmation of Divine Oneness through chanting the Sh’ma corresponds to the Third Portal. These are just a few examples, and if you choose to tap into the teachings by joining, you will learn more and more every week about how Presence relates to the deepest teachings and practices within the tradition.
Unfortunately, it is rare for even practicing Jews to take full advantage of the incredible transformative potential within Judaism; more often, traditional Jewish practices are done in a superficial, mechanical way. My hope is that Torah of Awakening will help in the great work of curing this trend.
However, this is not at all just for practicing Jews. In fact, the purpose of Torah of Awakening and Integral Kabbalah Meditation is to make the transformative potential of Jewish prayer accessible to everyone, regardless of background. You don’t have to be
Jewish or even know much about Judaism or Hebrew before you begin, and you’ll even learn some Hebrew along the way. But, if you are already experienced with Judaism, Torah of Awakening will help you tap the great transformational power that lies within the practices you may already be doing.
Either way, I bless you that you should find what you seek! A vast depth of inner freedom awaits your discovery – begin your journey NOW.
Love and all blessings,
Reb Brian Yosef
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks is a Jewish spiritual teacher and musician. He has been teaching the practice of Presence (meditation, mindfulness) and Judaism since 2006, and founded the online Jewish Meditation community, Torah of Awakening, in 2016. He is the author of Kabbalah for Beginners, published by Rockridge Press, and Integral Jewish Meditation – Three Portals of Presence for Spiritual Awakening.