Thursday, November 5, 2009

Just Breathe: Jewish meditation, part 2.

Why do so many meditation practices, found in so many spiritual traditions, begin with the breath?  Something so simple as breathing in and breathing out?  Breathing is something we do every moment of our existence in this world.  So simple, and yet it teaches us so, so much.  In meditation practice we wish to bring our attention to this moment - to sense what it really is to exist in the present.  So simple?  Where else would we be?  Well, try it.  Close your eyes and just gently bring your attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.  Notice how the air comes in and, at a certain point, the air goes out again.  If you notice your mind wander, or you start to think of other things, as soon as you notice that that is what you are doing, gently bring your attention back to noticing your breathing - the air going in and going out.

Chances are, if you are like most of us, you'll notice certain things.  One of them might be, as you begin, 'am I doing this right?'  To that question, I answer with another question - 'what were you doing the moment before you closed your eyes and brought your attention to your breath?'  I'm guessing that you were probably breathing.  Were you worried then about whether you were doing it right?  So notice how quickly we move to judgment, even on something as basic as breathing.  Being present to this moment means just noticing what is arising right now.  As soon as we make a judgment about it - its nice, ugly, distracting, good, bad... that is something additional, and it removes us from just being fully present to what is.  Its completely natural and human, and so don't get annoyed with yourself when you notice judgment arising - that's another judgment!  Just notice, and let it pass by.

You'll also notice, if you are watching the breath, that there is a certain moment when the in-breath ceases and out-breath begins.  Don't try to control it - just notice as it comes in and out.  There is constant change in our universe - nothing stays the same, and most of it just happens, irrespective of our agency.  Fear of not being in control is something that many of us experience.  Extended meditation practice with this awareness can help us to find peace and acceptance with what is, and this is an ingredient of a profoundly spiritual, joyful life, even in the midst of great challenges and painful experiences.

Finally, for today's posting, when we meditate on our breath, most of us notice that it doesn't take more than a few breaths before our mind gets crowded with lots of other thoughts.  That doesn't mean we 'failed' meditation 101 (remember - no judgments!).  Each time we notice that our mind is busy and bring our attention back to this breath and this moment, we are doing precisely what we are meant to be doing in a moment of meditation. And when we begin to notice where our minds went right before we brought our attention back to the breath, we notice that we spend much of our time in either the past or the future, but very little of it being in the present.

So much spiritual wisdom in just one breath.  And this is just the beginning.  More blog postings will offer further reflection and teaching, particularly for those interested in learning about meditation, and some of the spiritual wisdom of Judaism on mindful meditation.  Please do feel free to offer your insights, experiences and questions via our 'comments' section (which you can do anonymously if you prefer).
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz


  1. A few years ago I took a meditation class with Sharon Salzberg. She is somewhat of a guru in teaching meditation and I wasn't "good" at it. Well, our first meditation was a walking one. We couldn't speak for 20 minutes as we walked around the room. It was a great way to start because it got my mouth to stop moving. The next day we went into a seated 30 minutes meditation. It sounded like an eternity to me. But 30 minutes later I felt invigorated. Who knows, I might have dosed off for a few minutes but she said that was fine. It takes time to train the mind. The Buddah compared the mind to an untrained elephant being led by a monkey! Going with your breath is always a great beginning. It happens naturally and we don't have to think about it! That is the key.
    The benefits of meditation are not only spiritual but also physical. There are studies that show it is a great way to reduce blood pressure, anxiety and grief. These take a tremendous toll on our body.

    Thank you Rachel for your thoughts on meditation. Be well:)

  2. I can share many restless meditation moments (including my first walking meditation where it took forty minutes before I finally surrendered to the catepillar line of walkers who prevented me from running "free"). But the meditation moment I prefer to share is a rare moment when the activities of my mind truly stopped to such a degree that I sat easily in an expansive space of presence to every sound, movement and sensation in my body and surroundings.

    Different than other mornings (I usual sit before the house wakes), I had already walked the dog and gotten the kids off to school. I sank into a low chair covered by a blanket and settled into my breath. My brain slowed readily that morning and I noticed my stomach rising and falling with each in and out breath. Then I noticed an itch on my head. I tried to follow the sensation as it traveled from my crown towards my right ear - all the while trying to resist the urge to scratch. "It will pass", I told my self and tried to follow its path.

    A few moments later, I noticed an "itch" on my abdomen. Again, I followed it. It traveled up slowly, crawling against my skin. And then it kept crawling and I was certain that in fact, it was something crawling. Slowly and deliberately I opened my eyes, removed the blanket and lifted the lower part of my shirt to find a deer tick (yes, a deer tick!) the size of a small freckle traveling up my body in search of just the right location to implant itself and feed for the day.

    Now, I'd like to say that daily "practice" was the reason for this fortunate discovery and perhaps my avoidance of contracting Lyme Disease (a reality here in CT where we live in the epicenter). But since it was a moment of complete attentiveness that I rarely recreate in spite of my mostly daily practice, I use it more as inspiration. These rare experiences, where my monkey mind settles into a space of focused awareness and my heart is patient and open, inspire me to keep practicing. The lack of alarm and the feeling of peace that pervaded me that morning is one I continue to pursue. Maybe it won't "save my life" or maybe it will. Either way I'm committed to the experience - monkey mind or tick detector.

    Thanks for inspiring my practice with your words and teachings.