iguazu falls
9th March
written by Ilana

When our meditation session finished at night, and we were sent off to sleep, all my thoughts came rushing back to me.  I wanted to talk about the experience with someone.  It was weird not to talk to Bloom, and it was even weirder not to talk to my roommate Ebony, someone I had only met briefly.  We had spoken before the silence began, and I really liked her, and I felt strange coming into our room and not even acknowledging her.  We just went to the bathroom and went into our beds.  I even felt like it was a bit rude not to talk to her, but I went along with the silence.

The next morning we had another round of meditation, and then silent breakfast.  I found our silent meals to be the most difficult part of the retreat.  This is the part that many people love, because they actually focus on their food instead of conversation, and they say how they were able to really savor their food.  Don’t get me wrong, I love savoring my food, but we were sitting at very small tables and I found it distracting that there were so many people around me.  I constantly watched what other people were doing.  How much food were they taking?  Did I take too much?  Did I take too little?  Am I supposed to get toast before we say the Buddhist brachas, or after?  Yes, there was Buddhist chanting before the meal, which reminded me of benching, but in Sanskrit.  I think silent eating would have been good if it wouldn’t have been so crowded, but in the end, it didn’t really work out so well for me, but I am definitely willing to try it again.

After breakfast we had our debriefing session.  We all went around the room and spoke about our experiences and then we asked the monk questions about meditation and Buddhism in general.  It was interesting to finally hear the voices and opinions of all our fellow meditators after just staring at them.  I spoke about my experience of trying not to imprison my thoughts, and I asked a question that was bothering me throughout the retreat, which the monk never really answered:    The monk repeatedly told us that Buddhism is all about mindfulness—the ultimate goal is to control your mind—but does controlling your mind really make you a better person?

The idea of right action leading to right thought is so ingrained in my Jewish self that I just could not reverse it.  Sure, I can see that meditating, and being mindful of your movements, your thoughts, and even your actions can make you a better person overall.  But what about the little things?  Does being mindful make you a more charitable person, for example?  In Judaism, you are supposed to give 10% of your earnings to charity, it doesn’t matter if you are mindful about it, you just do it, and then maybe eventually the act of giving will ultimately make you more mindful toward others perhaps.  Maybe I just don’t trust people to act in the world when it is not imposed upon them.  I just get the feeling that it’s too idealistic to assume that once someone is mindful s/he will act justly in the world in every way.

Don’t get me wrong, Jews do not act justly in the world in every way, ha, nowhere near that, BUT, Jewish law, I think ideally, is meant to create a system where Jews live their lives mindfully by acting in a specific way, not just by thinking in a specific way.

The problem with the Jewish way, is that often we are not mindful at all, we just do all these actions by rote.  Give charity, observe the Sabbath, bless God, observe kashrut laws, all without being mindful in the slightest.  This reminds me of what Heschel writes about Halacha and Agaddah (on a side note—everyone must read Heschel.  You must.)  It’s difficult to explain what this means in a travel blog post, but basically Halacha being the law itself, and agaddah being the meaning behind the law.

Actually, I must quote Heschel here, it’s just too awesome, he says:

By inwardness alone we do not come close to God. The purest intentions, the finest sense of devotion, the noblest spiritual aspirations are fatuous when not realized in action.

But he also says:

To reduce Judaism to law, to halakhah, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit…

…There is no halakhah without aggadah, and no aggadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is inner devotion, spon­taneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an in­spiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of aggadah.

Yes, I went there, I just googled Heschel and found this excerpt from “Between God and Man” and quoted it in this blog.  It was too relevant, I had to do it.  Now, let me explain why I felt this utter need to quote Heschel.  The thing that was bothering me about Buddhism was that there was not enough action, halacha, as Heschel would put it, and the thing that has bothered me about Judaism is that it seems so mechanical sometimes, it seems that no one actually cares about what they’re doing, that it’s all meaningless, which is probably one of the reasons why I felt the need to go on a meditation retreat in the first place.  What Heschel is saying is that Judaism needs to have both—the meaning and the action, and the language he uses to describe this need is beautiful and inspiring to me, and I hope it has been to you as well.  If all Jews were like Heschel, or if we read Heschel every day, maybe we could be as mindful as the Buddhists.

But, the sad thing about us Jews is that most of us are not like Heschel.  I know that I am definitely nowhere near Heschel, and I often don’t fuse halacha and agaddah, leaving me with existential angst and general religious frustration.  For example, I rarely pray, because I often find it frustrating.  I end up questioning the words, questioning the theological implications of the texts, of prayer itself, etc.  Rationally I know, as with meditation, that if you want to reach mindfulness, or ever experience meaningful prayer, you need to leave the frustrations and the angst aside and just practice.  Meditate every day, and your mind will not be such a feisty monkey.  Pray every day and maybe one of those days you will find meaning and comfort in the liturgy.

The problem for me, with Jewish prayer, is that unlike meditation, it does not quiet my mind, it only makes it louder.  My whole Jewish life has been about having a loud, tortured soul, and I’ve always felt that that was what it meant to be Jewish—being an angst ridden lunatic.  I had J.B Soloveichick backing me up.  If you want to know what I’m talking about find the book Halakhic Man, and read footnote 4.  I think I highlighted  that entire long footnote and felt that it validated my tortured religious identity, since he talks about religion as filled with tension and turmoil.  I think what this meditation retreat helped me realize (along with many years of studying Jewish texts outside of the traditional Modern Orthodox establishment) is that I can integrate some of the lessons of meditation and mindfulness into my Jewish practice, especially into prayer.

Throughout the retreat I felt uncomfortable with the Buddhist chanting segments of the schedule.  Other than my grandmother’s scorn, I kept thinking about the fact that I have my own religious tradition, so why am I practicing someone else’s?  My tradition is rich, and I should embrace it, but at the same time, I appreciated learning different Buddhist practices that can enrich my own Jewish rituals, and I hope that eventually I can finally get my act together, and discipline myself to start putting these new concepts into practice in my daily life.

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