Do you think about your neshama, your soul? When you go about your daily work do you feel it? Does it talk to you? Does it want something more from you? Is there a real connection between you and G-d? Do you even really know yourself? Do you want to? Maybe, yes, sometimes, no, never…
When we made aliyah this past September, it was in part to find spirituality and greater meaning in our lives. Many young Israelis go to the Far East and join ashrams in their quest for greater life meaning; however, having read Meditation and the Bible by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan many years ago, as well as Inner Torah:Where Consciousness and Kedusha Meet, by Jerusalem clinician Miriam Millhauser, I knew that what I was looking for was in the Holy Land.
I took it as a sign when I came across a notice about a Jewish meditation retreat on the Nefesh B’Nefesh Yahoo group, given by a Dr. Natan Ophir of the Jewish Meditation Institute Jerusalem (JMIJ) about a month after we got here. ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘enhanced spirituality and meaning in our lives is what we came to Israel looking for. Let’s check it out.’ (Not knowing who Dr. Ophir was, I checked him out online first and discovered that he graduated from Yeshiva University, learned at Yeshiva Mercaz Harav Kook, received semicha (rabbinical ordination) from then Chief Rabbi of Israel R. Avraham Shapira, was campus rabbi at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from ’82-98, has an M.A. and Ph.d in Jewish philosophy, and has been teaching Jewish meditation since 1994. Okay, he’s frum (orthodox) and qualified.) We registered for the one day retreat.
It took place in Yerushalayim at the JMIJ Center, on the floor and cushions. Coffee and light refreshments were available beforehand which gave us an opportunity to meet the other participants as well. Some had previous experience with meditation, for others it was not their first retreat with Dr. Ophir, and some, like me, were hoping to experience it for the first time. Lunchtime saw us on the beautiful and blooming Sherover Promenade in the Peace Forest overlooking the Temple Mount where he introduced us to additional meditative practices.
Dr. Ophir started off by explaining the neuro-psychology of meditation – how to quiet the rational linguistic left side of the brain and focus on the intuitive creative inspirational right hemisphere to experience a place where thoughts are non-verbal. He explained what can make a meditation Jewish, such as a subtle meditative focusing on Biblical verses and short prayer formulas. One such example was Modeh Ani (I am filled with gratitude), the verse said upon rising in the morning. This was more than a gentle inner mental thinking of a particular word which made it Jewish; it was the meaning of what we are really thanking G-d for when we recite Modeh Ani – not just for returning our soul to our body – but for the Ani, that particular soul that makes us unique, with unique capabilities and purpose in this world. Hopefully, this deep contemplation will, over time, help one become more aware of their specific soul’s purpose and be able to better fulfill one’s unique mission in life. The eating meditation which Dr. Ophir led was a focused mindfulness – reflecting on the morsel that we are about to eat including the smell, feel of the food on our lips and tongue, the benefit of the particular food – as well as reflecting slowly on the meaning of each word of the blessing – Baruch –blessed – Atah – you (in the singular) A-do- nai – my G-d (specific to me), Elo- he-nu – Our G-d (which brings G-d closer to us as our King) Melech Haolam – King of the Universe – all encompassing, etc. As I had never thought about the blessings in these terms, I found it very enlightening and helpful in becoming closer to G-d. Are we thanking G-d so that we can eat the food or eating the food so that we can thank G-d?
Jewish meditation encompasses a variety of techniques that were practiced, surprisingly, by the Rambam (Miamonides), Rav Hayyim Vital, Rav Kook, and the Admor of Piasecsno. Each practice achieves different ends. We read descriptions of the Admor’s technique for quieting the mind and Rav Kook’s for listening to the song of the soul. Dr. Ophir tried to explain how each person can be taught to develop a tailor-made meditative practice best suited for his/her individual needs. Most important, however, was Dr. Ophir’s having us experience the actual meditative practices. As we went around the room discussing our experiences after each meditation, I found interesting the vastly different experiences of each participant.
Meditation, much to my dismay, is not easy. Meditation is an exercise of the mind; just like physical exercise, the benefit comes from your commitment to doing the same thing day after day even though some days are better and more productive than others. I’m still working on the commitment part, but I’m sure that once I get there, the rewards will be profound. Neshama, please hang in there!