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Does Meditation Mean I’m Turning My Back On My Religion?

I have joined over 25 million Americans who practice meditation on a regular basis. These days I go to meditation class more regularly than I go to shul.

I have never been prone to praying; I remain a Jew without a temple. Growing up, I felt confused, unsure where I fit in. Strongly identifying as a Jew, I never joined a congregation.

My Polish grandmother was Orthodox, my mother Reform, my first-generation father a mathematician who described himself as “a fatalist.” He respected my grandmother by joining a Conservative temple a block away from our Brooklyn home just so Grandma could walk to shul. He didn’t believe girls needed to attend Hebrew School, so I never understood the services.

When my daughter was young I took her to children’s services open to the community on Rosh Hashanah, and we observed every Passover and Chanukah together. But now that she’s grown, my real sanctuary is MNDFL , a Greenwich Village meditation studio filled with plants, inspirational posters, tumeric tea and strangers who are friendlier and kinder to each other than most people we encounter in any given day.

Patiently they hold open doors for me and meet my gaze with a genuine smile as if delivering a compassionate gift. If I were a member of a temple, I imagine I’d feel this kind of kindness from other congregants. But in meditation class, absolute strangers who don’t share my heritage give of themselves purely just to give.

“I feel jealous, anxious, angry,” Yael Shy, Founder and Director of MindfulNYU, said during a recent session, letting us into her worries and concerns before guiding us into our 20 minutes of silence. Shy blends her background of Judaism, Buddhism and psychology.

“Think about the people you feel competitive with,” she intoned, her hypnotic voice wafting over a room of disciples sitting cross-legged on cushions. “Is there a way you can occupy the world together?”

These are certainly principles of Judaism, but they are not confined to any one religion. Yael grapples with issues with which I identify. During her first pregnancy she revealed her anxieties about her role as a new mother. She’s not a rabbi, but I look up to her like one—even though she’s half my age. She reads not from the Torah but from modern-day scribes. Today she started our meditation practice reciting lines from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

Darkness can turn into light.

Sometimes I feel skeptical about all the promises meditation practitioners claim: it reduces physical maladies, eliminates panic attacks, helps you find inner peace. Yet meditation makes me feel calmer, albeit temporarily. It gives me a needed break from my busy schedule and a brief respite from the chaos in our world.

Yael inspires me, how candidly she confesses to how it feels to be human: happiness juxtaposed with sadness, and a mix of emotions ranging from anxiety to jealousy and anger. She’s searching for answers, and prodding us to do the same. She shares fears about the complicated and stressful world we live in, collectively searching for coping mechanisms. She finds solace in contemplation, and invites all of us to take a special time for ourselves, focusing on our breath, allowing the thoughts that crowd our brains to rest for a little while. I have been yearning for, and finally found, spiritualism unconnected to a specific shul.

And yet I wonder if I’m turning my back on my own religion.

“Many people associate meditation with eastern religion but few associate it with a regular synagogue service,” says Rabbi Nissan Dubov, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in England. “Meditation is an essential ingredient of our religion and the base of all observance.”

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for meditation is hāgâ, which also means to sigh or murmur. I take comfort in the fact that my meditation practice is punctuated by sighs.

“Meditation has a long a pedigree in Judaism,” explains Simon Rocker, author of Eye to the Infinite: A Practical Guide to Jewish Meditation. “We were the original meditators. The earliest recorded account of meditating is of Isaac who the Torah says ‘went out to meditate in the field.’”

In synagogue services, I can’t always pronounce the Hebrew words. I enjoy the musicality of the prayers as if an observer from a distance, the way I might listen to opera. Meditation feels more natural to me than sitting in temple.

And I’ve discovered that the goals are the same: we reflect on ourselves, our actions and our emotions. We search our souls for ways to better live our lives.

It’s no accident that after trying out a dozen meditation practitioners over the past two years, I consistently gravitate toward Yael, author of What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond. She’s the connection I need between my Jewish heritage and my secular Jewish existence. We are both trying to figure it out. Call it meditation, contemplation, or praying—it’s all the same.

We share one world, one space, similar concerns. And once a week, young and old, different races and religions, we come together as a community.

Candy Schulman is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next Avenue, Purple Clover, Tablet and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is a creative writing professor at The New School in Greenwich Village.

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