The Rabbis might call Cheshvan “Mar” Cheshvan, but I think it should be called “Thank goodness it’s Cheshvan!” or TGIC. I have HHF (High Holiday Fatigue) and am using Cheshvan to get myself back on track both physically and spiritually. On the physical side I’m back on my exercise routine. It was hard to exercise AND be in shul three mornings a week AND host people in our Sukkah AND work…you get the idea. Not that all of those things weren’t joyful, they were, but there are ONLY 24 hours in a day so something had to give.
Rabbis talk about the importance of routine for both children and adults. I must say that the one thing that didn’t give during the holiday season was my meditation practice, and for that I am grateful. Meditation might feel Eastern to you and not Jewish, but that happily is not true. I am also using the principles of meditation with a Jewish twist to regain my sense of Jewish spirituality, which also took a hit during the High Holidays. Counter-intuitive I know, but sometimes too much of a good thing can have the opposite effect.
According to Arye Kaplan who has written several books on Meditation and Judaism, meditation was, in his words “central to the prophetic experience.” Those who have studied the Torah philologically (the study of language of historical sources) believe there are meditative methods referred to in the text. Arye Kaplan also asserts that over a million Israelites were involved in meditation prior to 400 BCE.
According to the literature written about this period, there were regular schools of meditation that combined meditative practices with adherence to Torah and the commandments. There were also idolatrous schools of mysticism and meditation that didn’t require the Torah/commandments discipline. Aryeh Kaplan suggests that when the Talmud speaks of the “lust for idolatry” it could be speaking to such schools that gave you the sweetness and benefit of meditation without requiring the discipline of Judaism.
The ways Jews meditated in ancient times has been lost, but the idea that meditation was part of our relationship to G-d and each other is intriguing. Read also this post on the State of Israel in the period 1948-1990.
Some scholars believe that meditation as Jewish practice was deliberately shut down to make Judaism more accessible to all Jews, not just the strictly Torah observant. Meditation went underground, so to speak. Instead, it is believed the focus turned to the three times daily prayer, especially the Amidah. Some believe the Amidah can be considered a form of meditation but the Rabbis expanded the notion to include not just individual prayers, but prayers that were meant to unite people. I’m not sure I believe that the Amidah should be considered meditation but I can understand why some do.
During the Enlightenment, any connection to mysticism or meditation was essentially relegated to obscurity. As I grew up, the emphasis was on knowing the prayers, not understanding the prayers. Sadly what the Jewish Enlightenment brought us in Israel and Europe was a focus on the mind separated from the body. Today we are much more “enlightened” if you will, but our formal prayers are still a result of that time.
When I was in USY on the USY Israel Pilgrimage program, I remember being told that we prayed three times a day so that we would eventually “feel kavanah” – which was explained to me a closeness to G-d. Later I learned “kavanah” comes from the work kaven, meaning to aim. So praying with kavanah, or an aim at closeness to G-d was probably more what they meant. But that’s not what I understood. And since I never got that “feeling”, I quickly became disillusioned. I approach it differently now, but first let me talk about meditation.
I’m a big believer in meditation. Study after study shows that it supports increased immune systems and lower blood pressure. I know of police forces that use it because it has been found that officers that meditate have quicker reflexes and can read a situation faster and more correctly. It encourages happiness but not like in the Jewish Princess… I know for myself it has helped me be calmer, centered and focused when I need to be, with clients. Not that I wasn’t before, but it seems to have given me new depth I didn’t know was possible.
When I first started meditating, I thought of it as separate from my relationship to prayer. I actually didn’t even connect it to my Judaism, but in this past year both through studying Positive Psychology and learning about the roots of meditation in Judaism, I have changed my mind. I meditate every day and it includes expressing my connection to the universe and asking for the healing of friends and family – it is as much a Jewish experience as it is a secular meditative one. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to do so. If you think you don’t have time, start with ten minutes and work yourself up to 25 or 30. Meditate with a group or find yourself a coach. It will be worth it, I promise!