How I Met the Buddha on a Jewish Meditation Retreat

וַיְמַ֣ן יְהוָֽה־אֱ֠לֹהִים קִיקָי֞וֹן וַיַּ֣עַל ׀ מֵעַ֣ל לְיוֹנָ֗ה לִֽהְי֥וֹת צֵל֙ עַל־רֹאשׁ֔וֹ לְהַצִּ֥יל ל֖וֹ מֵרָֽעָת֑וֹ וַיִּשְׂמַ֥ח יוֹנָ֛ה עַל־הַקִּֽיקָי֖וֹן שִׂמְחָ֥ה גְדוֹלָֽה׃ וַיְמַ֤ן הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ תּוֹלַ֔עַת בַּעֲל֥וֹת הַשַּׁ֖חַר לַֽמָּחֳרָ֑ת וַתַּ֥ךְ אֶת־הַקִּֽיקָי֖וֹן וַיִּיבָֽשׁ׃ וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כִּזְרֹ֣חַ הַשֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ וַיְמַ֨ן אֱלֹהִ֜ים ר֤וּחַ קָדִים֙ חֲרִישִׁ֔ית וַתַּ֥ךְ הַשֶּׁ֛מֶשׁ עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ יוֹנָ֖ה וַיִּתְעַלָּ֑ף וַיִּשְׁאַ֤ל אֶת־נַפְשׁוֹ֙ לָמ֔וּת וַיֹּ֕אמֶר ט֥וֹב מוֹתִ֖י מֵחַיָּֽי׃ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־יוֹנָ֔ה הַהֵיטֵ֥ב חָרָֽה־לְךָ֖ עַל־הַקִּֽיקָי֑וֹן וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הֵיטֵ֥ב חָֽרָה־לִ֖י עַד־מָֽוֶת׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אַתָּ֥ה חַ֙סְתָּ֙ עַל־הַקִּ֣יקָי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָמַ֥לְתָּ בּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א גִדַּלְתּ֑וֹ שֶׁבִּן־לַ֥יְלָה הָיָ֖ה וּבִן־לַ֥יְלָה אָבָֽד׃

יונה ד:ו–י  —

The LORD God provided a ricinus plant, which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant. But the next day at dawn God provided a worm, which attacked the plant so that it withered. And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, ‘I would rather die than live.’ Then God said to Jonah, ‘Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘so deeply that I want to die.’ Then the LORD said: ‘You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.’
— Yonah 4:6–10

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As any reader of this blog knows well by now, when it comes to spirituality, I tend to get really into something for a while, then it wanes slowly, and then suddenly I’m disgusted with myself for ever having attempted something that is obviously so empty and boring. Then I get really into whatever the exact opposite of that thing is, and the process repeats itself. So it has been in my life with Buddhism and Judaism. I’ve experienced them as polar opposites, and I’ve swung wildly between those poles since high school like some kind of confused magnet.

Lately, as my wife’s career as an almost-rabbi has started to get serious, the meditation has fallen by the wayside. I’ve been meditating for a long time, but it might be more accurate to say I’ve gone long stretches without meditating. As into it as I’ve been in the Buddhist periods, I’ve been totally against it in my more strident Jewish periods. This summer, I started to miss it — not the Buddhist religious stuff, really, just the meditation itself. I could tell I was letting an important skill I’d developed for half my life languish, and with turning points in careers and a baby on the way and stuff like that starting to mount, it was starting to seem like a good time for some mindfulness.

In order to get that, though, I would have to reckon with the whole Buddhism vs. Judaism thing. Luckily, I found just the retreat to help me sort that out. An organization called Or HaLev runs an annual seven-day silent meditation retreat here in California. This year’s retreat landed at the perfect time in my summer. It was led by three teachers to whom I was already connected: Rav James Jacbson Maisels had taught us during our year in Israel for Ariel’s middle year of rabbinical school. Rabbi Ruth Sohn leads a Shabbat morning meditation at the shul where Ariel works right down the street. And Rabbi Ariel Sholklapper — there are lots of Rabbi Ariels — was just a few years ahead of Ariel in school. It was, as we say, beshert. So I signed up.

I got way more than I signed up for, though. Let me tell you the story of how I met the Buddha — like, in person — on a Jewish meditation retreat. And lest I get the organizers in trouble, I should preface by saying, this was a thoroughly Jewish retreat. I don’t think anyone invited the Buddha necessarily. He just showed up.

Pt. 1: How My Legs Stopped Hurting

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It all started with my legs hurting. It was the thing I anticipated most vividly about the retreat from the moment I signed up. My first meditation teacher had learned for many years in India and Japan, and consequently, he was quite a stickler for traditional postures. I thought that’s how it had to be done.

For 10 years, I had been forcing myself to sit in as close an approximation of the half lotus position as my legs could manage (it was closer to a third than a half). I had grown accustomed to intense discomfort towards the end of a 30-minute sit, as well as a prolonged and excruciating period of trying to unfold and wake up my legs afterwards. I don’t think I was aware of it, but this — understandably, I’d say — created an aversion to meditation practice I had to overcome every single time, and surely it increased my frequency of saying, “Screw it.”

To mitigate anxiety about the pain I would feel on the retreat, I tried to stretch out my legs in the weeks beforehand by sitting in that posture as long as I could each day — that’s totally how bodies work, right? Well, it didn’t help. By lunchtime on the first day, I was completely preoccupied with the pain in my legs and dreading each sit. In my first interview with Rav James, I told him pain in my legs was preventing me from concentrating.

At first, he probed with questions, testing whether I was just having trouble sitting with discomfort. I had thought of that, and I was “sitting with the pain” as long as I could stand it, but it was becoming overwhelming every sit.

Once satisfied that I was at least trying to deal with the discomfort, he asked if I had ever tried Burmese posture, which he called “simple lotus.” He understood that I was not willing to compromise the comfort, dignity and stability of a three-pointed posture with the knees down on the mat.

In “simple lotus” — a name I have not found in other sources but will gladly adopt — the knees still go down, but rather than folding one or both legs up onto the opposite thigh, one leg is bent only slightly, with the lower leg running parallel to the front edge of the mat, and the other is bent inward, running diagonally back towards the body. There’s still some tension on the knee of the inside leg, so it’s best to alternate legs between sits, but placing the lower legs all the way flat on the cushion dramatically reduces the rest of the discomfort.

The thing is, I had tried this posture, but only as an emergency measure when I couldn’t bear the half-ish lotus anymore. “I thought it was cheating,” I told Rav James.

“Oh, no, I sit that way,” Rav James replied.

He had been sitting in a chair this retreat because of an injury. Usually, this great teacher sits in a posture I had just described as “cheating.”

We laughed together, which felt great after 24 hours of silence. I suddenly felt totally free to sit that way, and marveled at how much I deferred to the authority of teachers on the “right” way to sit. With Rav James’s blessing, I returned to the meditation hall, sat down in simple lotus, and had my best sit in years.

Without overwhelming discomfort to distract me, a panoply of other phenomena became available to my awareness. My legs did still get tired after a while, but when it got to be too much, I realized I could just switch which leg was inside and which was in front, and this would completely reset the tension and clear the discomfort. The first time I did this, I felt this beautiful surge of gratitude in my heart — gratitude to Rav James, but more importantly, gratitude to myself! I had moved from a posture of severity to a posture of mercy, and my heart was thanking me.

Of course, without intense pain to occupy my awareness, other sensations arose to challenge me. The next, much harder to avoid, was sound.

Over the next two days, I became sensitized to the frequent, quite loud sighs of two other participants, one sitting next to me, the other behind me. The one next to me was worse and more frequent — it was a very yummy sigh, a vocalized “Aaaaahhhhhhhh…” and I’m not exaggerating when I say it happened every minute or two. The other was more like a sound of exertion mixed with a yawn, a big, long blowout that did not involve the vocal cords but did move a lot of air — and the frequency was only slightly lower.

The first few (dozen) times this happened, I was merely incredulous. How could two meditators not be aware they were making such loud sounds so often? How could they be unaware of the effect they were having on the people sitting around them? I spent a good amount of the next few sitting periods in silent judgment of these two people.

As it began to set in that this was just going to be part of the environment for this week, it became less personal. But what was left was simple, grating annoyance at the sensation of hearing these sounds every single time they happened.

In my second interview, this time with Rabbi Ariel, I told him how much this was bothering me. “Why don’t you move?”, he asked. I had no idea this was possible. Again, I was deferring completely to the authority of the teachers, and they had told us our spot was our spot. But here Rabbi Ariel was, giving me explicit permission to move my cushion across the room. So in the next break, I did just that. The next time I heard the sighs, it was… well, it was bearable. Still, that was so much better than before that the same glorious wave of gratitude came over me that I had felt when I changed my posture. I was so grateful — to myself! — for taking care of myself.

As I absorbed that feeling, it began to crystallize into a realization about myself: I’m super sensitive! As long as I can remember, I have been easily overwhelmed by sensation. A little sensation is awesome — that’s why I love food and music and other nice feelings so much. But sensation that’s too intense or irritating starts to overload my circuitry.

I began to see all kinds of defense mechanisms I had built up my whole life to defend against this sensitivity — the severe discipline of just dealing with it, the strict judgment of the people creating the offending sensations — and I recognized the little boy version of me who first had to confront this scary feeling. My heart overflowed with compassion! I reassured the little boy it was okay now, grown-up-him was here to take care of him and find healthy, sustainable ways to manage sensation.

This felt like a big breakthrough, and it gave me a clear, bright purpose for my meditation as the retreat went on. In the parlance of such retreats, I would be “sitting with” sensations, my intense perceptions of them and reactions to them.

Pt. 2: Moshe’s Meditation Instructions

From the beginning of the retreat, I had been taking full advantage of the time allowances for all three Jewish prayer services. This retreat held by the standard rules of silence on meditation retreats, meaning no talking outside of interview time, and no reading. But since it was a Jewish retreat, prayer was an exempt category, since it’s sort of reading and talking as a mindfulness practice (and it can be done silently). Being pretty into daily prayer — and missing reading pretty badly, if I’m being honest — I took full advantage of this opportunity every day, and the words of the siddur were like a long, powerful mantra for me.

Everything was beautifully harmonized for a few days, while my spirits were high. But one morning — the fourth of July, in fact — I woke up, prayed, and sat in the first meditation session, and the energy just wasn’t there anymore. Not only was I less motivated, everyone else seemed spent, too — yawning and slumping more, walking with less purpose, acting a little less patient in the breakfast line. I started to brood on all this. We were falling apart! The wheels were coming off! Were we going to make it?

Before I even finished eating, I had begun to feel downright sad. After breakfast, even though it was already too hot outside, I went down into the garden and sat on a bench in the dwindling shade. I looked up at the waning moon and felt a sympathetic waning of inner light. I prayed aloud, “Ribbono shel Olam, help us! Deliver us! Bring us through this!”

It was too hot, so I trudged back inside with a few minutes to spare before the bell rang. I felt low. I could have curled up and gone to sleep right then and there. Actually… hang on a second. Was that feeling I had been feeling for the past hour actual sadness… or was I merely tired? I did feel sad, but I was definitely super tired. In fact, I was definitely going to pass out during the next sit if I didn’t do something about it.

Now, it should be said that I had not had a single sip of caffeine for four days of unusually low-energy activity and early wake-up times. I had been off daily coffee drinking for a couple months, but I was still at least drinking green tea most mornings, and coffee occasionally. When the retreat started, though, I decided to eliminate that artificial influence on my mind and energy level and experience only my body’s own workings. But there was plentiful coffee and tea in the dining room. I had a decision to make: Should I go into this sit and try to sit with tiredness? Explore it? Try to gain insight into what it’s like? Or, since that would obviously result in immediate unconsciousness, should I have some caffeine now?

Well, that was all the caffeine addict in my mental parliament needed to hear. How about half a cup of coffee? That’ll get me sitting up straight again.

I went to the urn, filled a cup halfway, sat back down in front of the window, said the blessing, and took a sip. After two or three sips, I was flooded with gratitude again. I had done exactly what the teachers were instructing us to do: I felt a negative emotion and experienced negative thoughts, I looked for where they were arising in the body, and I found that they were rooted in tiredness. Seeing the true nature of the negative thoughts and feelings, I took care of myself by getting coffee, and the mood lifted immediately. It was just like the leg pain and the annoying sounds — I was compassionately caring for myself, and I was so grateful to myself that I almost teared up!

This is after three sips of coffee, mind you.

By the time the bell rang, I was tripping the balls electric. I was completely euphoric. The fuzzy darkness behind my eyelids from the first sit had been illuminated by five-megaton indigo fireworks viewed through a kaleidoscope. Suffice it to say, I was also wide awake.

Fortunately, I’m somewhat familiar with these sorts of unusual states of consciousness, so I was absolutely stoked to sit down and meditate some more. The mission was clear: keep working with sensation. I was so intensely aware of my sensorium that I decided to use the noting practice we’d been given in earlier instructions; when a sensation would come into awareness, I would consciously note it with a word — “sensation.” This creates just the right amount of detachment, so the mind doesn’t get carried away into the sensation, and it’s easier to watch dispassionately as the sensation arises, exists, and recedes.

I did that for a while, but I was having way too much fun to keep using a boring word like “sensation.” Thinking of my mantras from the Jewish prayerbook, I decided to replace it with “sh’ma.” The plain meaning of this word is “hear,” but it’s used in the Torah as an exhortation to pay attention with every fiber of one’s being — most notably by Moses (whom I will henceforth call Moshe, because that is his Hebrew name). So as I sat there, I noted “sh’ma” every time a sensation arose — Pain in my leg, “sh’ma!” Loud Sighing Guy 1 sighs, “sh’ma!” My stomach rumbles, “sh’ma!”

I completely lost track of time as I sat there noting, “Sh’ma! Sh’ma! Sh’ma!” Then, without warning, the voice noting “sh’ma” was no longer mine. It was Moshe Rabbeinu himself, and he kept going:

”Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai eḥad. Ve’ahavtah et Adonai Elohekha, b’khol le’vavkha, uv’khol, nafshekha, uv’khol me’odekha…”

All three paragraphs of the excerpt of Torah known as the Sh’ma unfurled in my mind, as they had every morning and every evening in the prayer service. The first sentence is sort of the core mantra of Judaism: “Hear (sh’ma), O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is one.” The rest relates instructions about how, specifically, to “love [God] with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” — namely by keeping those core words “upon your heart” in all your comings and goings, when you lie down and when you get up, and so on. That fourth of July morning on my meditation cushion, tripping balls on caffeine, I was overcome with emotion to realize that these are meditation instructions. It even says to do it “while you’re sitting in your home!”

Now, this had occurred to me before on an intellectual level. Even the “sitting” part had occurred to me, and I had found it cute. This was different, though — and not just because caffeine is a psychedelic drug! This time, I realized it “with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might,” because I had been opening my heart as wide as it goes for four days straight. The very name of the retreat was “Opening the Heart,” and I clearly had. It might have been the first time I had the heart capacity to fulfill the commandments in the Sh’ma, and meditation was what got me there.

In that sit, I experienced a beautiful healing and reconciliation. I was fully released from any sense of conflict I had ever felt between my Judaism and my meditation practice. I began to understand this very practice not just as a Jewish spiritual practice, but perhaps as the most important one, directly imparted to the people Israel in Moshe’s concluding remarks. The rest of the Jewish daily ritual cycle of prayer and blessing had clearly facilitated this realization — and even provided the words of it — so it was no longer an either/or proposition. It was, as the Sh’ma itself declares, all One.

After lunch, I said the grace after meals and thanked God for all that had just transpired. Then it hit me: The retreat was only halfway over!

Pt. 3: How Chuck Turned Into the Buddha and Back

For achievement-oriented Westerners such as myself, one of the most frustrating things about the long game of meditation practice is how quickly the searing brightness and lurid colors seen in moments of insight fade into the sepia-toned uniformity of memory. It’s that damned impermanence thing again. By the morning after my Moshe moment, it was just a cool thing I remembered. Sure, towering sand castles of anxiety about which religion I was had melted into the sea, but all my anxieties had loosened up by that point in the retreat, so it was just another thing not to worry about.

The day came when we were instructed to practice mettā, which Or HaLev — quite fittingly, I think — calls the bracha practice, meaning blessing. Instead of quietly abiding and watching what arises, mettā meditation requires one to conjure up images of people and generate positive emotions to send to them. Back in college, I had walked out of the second day of a two-day mettā retreat because all the make-believe and screwing with my emotions made me physically nauseous, so I was loath to try it again. Still, these teachers I trusted were asking us to try, and at least it was reframed in light of the intimately familiar Jewish practice of giving blessings, so I could draw support from that. I gave it a shot.

For the first few exercises, it went predictably okay-ish. We were first instructed to visualize ourselves as we repeated a formula of blessings. I don’t remember the exact wording because I was really not into this, but it was something like, “May I be blessed with love. May I be blessed with joy. May I be blessed with peace. May I be blessed with compassion.”

I didn’t get nauseous, but I did get pretty bored. It felt like there was all this great arising and passing going on back in my real mind, but I couldn’t watch, because I was stuck in the corner writing phrases my teacher told me to write over and over again on my mental chalkboard. I’ll admit it, though — after a while, feelings started to move. That sensitive young boy version of myself appeared in the place of whatever vague specter of my current self I was forcing myself to imagine, and the intense self-love I had felt earlier in the retreat started to return.

Next we were instructed to do the same thing with someone neutral, like a cashier or someone on the subway or something like that. This was dimly interesting intellectually, as I tried to imagine what it would feel like to love every single random person, but I didn’t actually feel that emotion — just a hint of it, maybe.

Then we were instructed to do the blessing practice for a good friend — not a family member or someone too intimately close, just a trusty, loyal, faithful friend. Whereas I spent basically the entire neutral-person sit searching for an image of an actual person that felt real enough to sit with, this time my friend Chuck sprang immediately to mind. He was a perfect choice; a learned and observant Jewish friend who I think of as a spiritual mentor, who is just beginning to explore Buddhism and mindfulness, and yet he’s doing so with much more freedom and abandon than I had thus far been able to do. It felt like Chuck could help me integrate what was happening to me on this Buddhist-flavored Jewish retreat.

I sat there beaming at Chuck, and he beamed back at me. “Meditation is awesome, huh?” I asked him. He smiled and nodded vigorously. “And Judaism, too!” I said, just to try it on. He kept smiling and nodding. Two friends sitting together, beholding one another, seeing and being seen.

Suddenly, reality unzipped around Chuck like a really cool biker jacket he would wear, and there, sitting in Chuck’s place, was Gotama Buddha himself. How did I know it was the Buddha? Well, the crown of living jewels that were also all-seeing eyes swirling above his head was a good clue, but I think it was the golden skin that gave it away.

I could also feel God watching us. God wasn’t present — I wasn’t having a full-on prophetic revelation here — God was just watching me and the Buddha looking at each other. This told me it was okay; I wasn’t cavorting with some foreign god, I was in the presence of a teacher — a friend, just like the meditation instructions had called for — and God approved of this meeting. So that was nice.

Realizing that I owed all kinds of amazing experiences to this guy’s teachings, I said, “Thanks!” The Buddha smiled, his eyes crinkling (the ones in his face, not the millions of eyes swirling above his head), and said, “Oh, you are welcome!” Yes, he had an Indian accent. What can I say? I am a tourist in this tradition.

I didn’t have much else to say to the Buddha beyond “thanks,” so we just sat smiling at each other. There was still intense communication going on, though. I was grateful to him for teaching me to meditate. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Buddha’s meditation instructions are better than the ones I had just heard from Moshe Rabbeinu, but they’re certainly more detailed. They start at a more basic level. They’re accessible to everyone. I mean, based on what was happening at this retreat, I don’t think I could have learned to access my own tradition’s teachings without the Buddha’s help.

Sitting there with the actual Buddha, what came to mind was his Fire Sermon, probably the first religious text that ever mattered to me. Its refrain — “Everything is ablaze!” — became my motto, and I named my website and company after it. (Don’t even ask me about the whole Burning Man thing; it’s too obvious, and yet it’s a complete coincidence.) This was before I declared any particular allegiance to Buddhism or Judaism; I just liked what the sermon said. That’s actually what it’s about.

Basically, the Buddha’s staying overnight with a bunch of fire-worshipping monks. They’re hanging out around the fire — naturally — and the monks ask him to teach them something. He gets up and says, “Monks, everything is ablaze!” Not just fire; fire’s great, but everything’s on fire. Water’s on fire, air is on fire, money’s on fire, food’s on fire, sex is on fire, death is on fire, fire’s on fire, I’m on fire, you’re on fire. You’re on fire “with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Ablaze, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.” I get why you worship fire, but you’re burning up, and once you realize that, the fire goes out. The monks are like, “… Damn.” They’re instantly enlightened, because this is a Buddhist sutta, and that’s what happens. Instead of preaching his own shtick to these fire worshippers, the Buddha spoke to them in their language — the language of fire — and that’s how they arrived at the truth.

Now I’m looking at the Buddha, who has totally Fire Sermoned me. The truth of his teaching has come to me in the language of the truth of Jewish teachings, and they’re both true, and they’re the same truth. The Buddha just winks at me, and then he bursts into flames and disappears. Chuck is sitting there in his place. We’re both making “whoa” faces. I say to him the only thought in my mind:

“I guess you don’t have to be a Buddhist to be good at this shit.”

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My religious war with myself is over. I am a religious person, and I am a meditator, and there’s no challenge or risk in integrating those things. Your religion is what you do off the cushion. On the cushion, you’re you-ish. Or youddhist. Literally doesn’t matter. Sitting in meditation, beliefs are just mind-weather. Out in the world, it’s actions that matter, and whatever beliefs get you to the right actions in the right moment are the right beliefs.