February 26, 2019

Silent Heart and Peaceful Mind

“Meditation is a silent heart, a peaceful mind 
which can make life more lovable, more livable.” 

My mind has been racing for most of my life. Influenced by stresses around me, I soar and dive, thoughts spinning inside my personal roller coaster. And with smartphone WhatsApp beeps, text bings and a pulsating newsfeed, my mind has become splintered and fractured.

As for my body, it never rests. From the moment I wake up until the time I fall into bed, I rush around at high speed. When I exercise, I run - and when I do errands, I speed walk.  And to cross more items off my check list, I have become adept at multi-tasking. I wash dishes while talking on the phone, walk my dog while sending emails and listen to podcasts while cooking. 

Yet I have come to realize that this roller coaster mind of mine gets me nowhere; it chugs back to the starting point and jerks to a stop, leaving me blinking and bewildered. Not only does it get me nowhere, it creates stress, fear and anxiety. 

When I decided to pull the hand break on my rollercoaster, I signed up for a four-day Jewish silent meditation retreat. It was high time I banish my overstimulated mind and learn how to relax my body.

I had trepidations about going. Maybe I was in denial, but I but did not prepare at all. So when I arrived at the retreat center on a kibbutz in northern Israel, I went into shock.

We were instructed not to speak with one another and not to make any eye contact with each other. No computers or cell phones were allowed. No pens and paper. No books. Questions could be asked by writing notes. We were beseeched to open and close doors with no more than a hush and to avoid scraping chairs on the floor. We had entered a world of silence.

A group of about 50 people squatted on pillows and sat upright in chairs. They were of all ages and from across the religious spectrum. They stared ahead. And as a bell donged, they closed their eyes. Silence.

I sat still. I breathed in slowly, then released my breath. When I did this a second time, my mind flipped out. “Hey, are you serious?” I breathed in and then out. My thoughts did somersaults. “Don’t forget about us,” they giggled. I breathed in and out, ignoring them. “You seriously think you can do this?” they scoffed. While I focused on the breath, they raced around trying to distract me.

With the ding of the Tibetan bowl, the first meditation was over. I was exhausted, torn asunder by the sound and light show of my unremitting thoughts.

We were told it was time to go outside and walk. My leg muscles perked up like an eager puppy poking out the car window.  I can do that.

But no. This was a walking meditation. ‘Focus on your feet kissing the ground,’ we were instructed. Move SLOWLY.  Be in the moment.

The group spread out and the garden soon looked like the scene of a zombie invasion. I moved my leg up and forward. I heard my sole crunch the ground below. I did it again. My muscles twinged and my thoughts ridiculed me. “Are you serious?’ they taunted. I persevered. But I was not even near the Bodhi tree.

By the third day, my thoughts realized they were on vacation and peace settled in. During the walking meditations outside, my gaze softened and my eyes opened to minute magical details in the buds and on shimmering leaves. 

For the first time ever, I did not run for cover when the rains came; instead I stood still under an olive tree listening to the drops, watching them pool on the leaves and be absorbed by the earth.

As a group, we became accustomed to being quiet. We tiptoed around in slippers. We hovered across the dining room like ghosts and sat in silence with our plates of food.  We were alone yet we were alone together.

We were all from different parts of Israel, with divergent stories, distinct backgrounds and varying ways of religious observance. These contrasts are what makes Israel clash, yet here, it was unbelievable; we were unified, respectful, hushed.

So when Shabbat arrived, everyone was invited to observe the Sabbath in their own way. The room was divided into three: the left side had a mechitzah for women who wanted to pray separately, the center was for mixed prayer and the right side for men.  

When we did Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, the group sang in unison and songs soon erupted into dance. There were dance circles for everyone and the dancing was spirited. 

We then ate dinner in silence yet sang nigunim (ancient tunes that are hummed) after the meal. People clapped, banged on the tables, hummed and wailed. As one tune morphed into another, we were transported back in time from Shabbat tables in Polish shtetls and German towns to communities in Iraq and Tunisia.

It was beautiful and refreshing to see such a revival in Jewish spirituality. Come Shabbat morning, each participant had a place to connect: one could pray in an Orthodox minyan, sit and meditate, go to an alternative prayer lab or walk outside.

It was as if everyone had parked their attitudes, rifts, frictions and preconceived notions at the entrance of the kibbutz.  And this resulted in one of the most powerful Shabbats I have ever experienced. When our minds open, our hearts expand.

As Voltaire so beautifully said, “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.”

As a nation, Israelis may not have found their Bodhi tree, but come Shabbat we are able to feel finitude merge into infinity. And with our meditation practice, we hope to re-enter life that is more lovable and more livable.