Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Lifeby Alan Lew
- Written in a warm, accessible, and intimate style, BE STILL AND GET GOING will touch those who are searching for an authentic spiritual practice that speaks to them in their own cultural language.- Lew's first book, "One God Clapping (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2/01), was a "San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and winner of the PEN Josephine Miles Award for
- Written in a warm, accessible, and intimate style, BE STILL AND GET GOING will touch those who are searching for an authentic spiritual practice that speaks to them in their own cultural language.- Lew's first book, "One God Clapping (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2/01), was a "San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and winner of the PEN Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. "Publishers Weekly hailed him as "a perceptive thinker" for his "refreshing and sometimes startling perspective" in his last book, "This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (Little, Brown and Company, 2003).- Lew is one of the most sought-after rabbis on the lecture circuit. He has had national media exposure for his dynamic fusion of Eastern insight and Bible study, having been the subject of stories on ABC News, the "McNeil Lehrer News Hour, and various NPR programs.- In the past five years there have been national conferences on Jewish meditation in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami where Lew has been a featured speaker.
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Be Still and Get Going
By Rabbi Alan Lew
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Alan Lew
All right reserved.
IntroductionThe Treasure in the Oven
Sometimes we can learn more from the misreading of a story than we can from the story itself. So it is with the ofttold Yiddish tale about Azyk, the son of Reb Yekl of Cracow. Azyk dreamed one night that he saw a great treasure hidden under the Praga side of the Warsaw bridge. So he woke up early the next morning and went to Warsaw. When he got to the bridge, he wanted to go to the spot where he had dreamed the treasure was hidden, but there was a watchman standing guard there. Azyk paced back and forth on the bridge all day long and into the night, but the watchman never budged. In fact he finally became aware of Azyk and his pacing, so he approached him and asked him what he was doing there. Azyk told him the truth. He had come to the Warsaw bridge because he had dreamed the night before that a treasure was hidden there. That's funny, the watchman said, I dreamed of a great treasure last night too, only this one was hidden in the oven of a house belonging to a man named Azyk, the son of Reb Yekl of Cracow. Astonished, Azyk turned right around and went home, and sure enough, when he opened his oven door, he found a great treasure there and became a very rich man.
It's true, of course, as this story suggests, that we often look far afield for the things we value most, when they are usually found close to home, but this story makes a number of other important points as well. Azyk has the courage to follow his dream, and the wisdom not to give up on it even when it seems to have carried him in the wrong direction. And he is open enough to learn from the dream of another, even when it comes from a different people and a different religious tradition, in this case the non-Jewish watchman.
But in recent years this story has been told - and more important, mistold - to make a very particular point. In all the versions of this story I have heard over the last twenty years, the treasure was hidden not in Azyk's oven, but rather beneath his house, and these versions of the story usually end with Azyk's digging up the buried treasure. There is a reason for this recasting of the story; it is usually told as an object lesson for the many Jews who have turned to other religions - to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and others - for spiritual gratification. The story is invoked to say to them, Look, you have a great treasure buried beneath your own house. You've followed your dream of spiritual riches far and wide - all the way to the Warsaw bridge - but the treasure has been hidden beneath your own house all this time. Why travel elsewhere? Why travel far and wide, when all you have to do is dig up the treasure that has been beneath your own house all the while?
Why the change in the ending of the story? I am convinced that it is because in this analogy the treasure buried beneath the house represents Kabala, the esoteric, mystical branch of Judaism, and the secret or buried teachings, the ones that have to be dug up. The people who tell this version of the story are saying, in effect, You don't need Buddhism, you don't need Yoga, you don't need meditation; you have Kabala, a treasure buried right in your own backyard!
But in the original version of the story, the treasure is not buried beneath the house. It is not a secret. It is hidden in the oven, in the kitchen, in the most frequently used room in the house. It is hidden in plain sight. It doesn't need to be dug up at all. All one has to do is go to the most obvious, least exotic place in the house and simply open the door. In my opinion this story reflects our spiritual reality much more precisely than the altered version.
There is an open secret embedded in the sacred literature of Judaism. This literature-the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, Midrash, Kabala, and the Teachings of the Hasidic Masters - is generally read as the wellspring of Jewish communal values and religious observance. But there is a much deeper and more universal message sitting right in plain view, on the surface of these texts - a message largely unseen for the three thousand years of their existence. If one knows what to look for, the classical sources of Judaism offer a trenchant guide to spiritual practice. The striking thing is that we find this guidebook not only in the esoteric teachings of Judaism, where we might expect to find them, but also right in front of our faces in some of Judaism's most familiar material - in the well-known stories and teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. In other words, we find these teachings not buried beneath the house, but right in the middle of it, right in the kitchen, in the most obvious place of all, where anyone could find them.
At Makor Or, the meditation center I established in San Francisco at the turn of the millennium with my dear friend Norman Fischer, we have emphasized the considerable spiritual power of traditional, normative Jewish practice - prayer, Torah study, and a deep immersion in the Sabbath - and the equally impressive capacity of mindfulness meditation to open us to this power. The practice we have developed at Makor Or is not based on dubious re-creations of Kabalistic meditation practices that may or may not have ever existed, but rather on the rock-solid certainty of two intact traditions - mindfulness meditation and normative Judaism.
Most contemporary experiments in Jewish meditation or spirituality have relied heavily on Kabala. At Makor Or we have tended to shy away from Kabala for a number of reasons. First of all, almost all the Kabalistic texts that we have in our possession speak primarily about the fruits of Kabala. They describe the mystical states to which Kabala transports us in vivid detail, but for the most part the journey itself is missing. The nuts and bolts of Kabalistic practice are never found in these texts. These practices were rarely reduced to writing; rather they were handed down person to person by an unbroken chain of teachers. One of the overlooked consequences of the Holocaust is that this chain was largely broken. Most of the major teachers of Kabala still lived in Europe at the time of the Holocaust, and in far too many cases the techniques and practices they bore in their person perished when they did.
Contemporary teachers of Kabala have often engaged in speculative attempts to reinvent Kabalistic practices, or to give Kabalistic subtitles to meditative practices they learned elsewhere, particularly from Tibetan and Vipassana Buddhism. It has become increasingly clear over the past several decades that what is really essential in spiritual work is the daily, disciplined practice of spirituality - not the highs we might experience at a weekend retreat or a workshop or a hike at Yosemite, but the essential work of connecting ourselves to the transcendent every day of our lives.
What we have found at Makor Or is that we don't need to get fancy or exotic about spiritual practice. The particular moment of Jewish spiritual practice - prayer, study, and the observance of Shabbat - is sufficiently charged on its own. When we are opened to this moment by mindfulness meditation, we begin to see its full richness. And wherever we look in the normative tradition of Jewish sacred literature, we begin to see references to mindfulness practice. In fact we begin to see that right there in plain sight is a guide to an entire spiritual practice, a path that carries us inexorably toward ourselves and our mission in life.
I was a serious practitioner of Zen meditation for ten years. Then I became a Conservative rabbi and a seriously observant Jew for another fifteen years after that. Norman Fischer is a Zen master and the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and has been a devoted Jew all his life. As a boy he attended minyan every day and studied Talmud with his rabbi, with whom he has sustained an important spiritual connection. For the past ten years, first at workshops and retreats and then finally in our own meditation center, we have been practicing mindfulness meditation side by side with ordinary Jewish spiritual activities. The members of our formal practice period meditate together early in the morning and then go next door to my synagogue to attend daily minyan. They meditate on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and then go next door to attend Shabbat services. They meditate in the evenings before our weekly Torah study sessions. Over the years, in the course of these activities, we have used dozens of classical Jewish texts to support the integration of meditation into Jewish contexts. Laying these texts end to end, we began to see that taken as a whole they delineated a clear spiritual path of their own - a kind of soul within the body of Jewish ritual, a spiritual companion practice standing side by side with normative Judaism and supporting it, helping it to reach its full natural depth.
Be Still and Get Going presents these texts and the spiritual richness-the practice-that lies right on their surface. In doing so I hope to illuminate an indispensable resource both for Jews seeking to embrace their tradition in a deeper and more authentic way, and for anyone on the spiritual path seeking ancient wisdom for support.
Since in my work as a teacher I have consistently stressed the primacy of daily spiritual practice, I have derived specific practice points from each chapter of this book and placed them at the end of the chapter. In the early chapters, the practice points offer detailed instructions on meditation itself. Later there are briefer and more specific exercises designed to help us focus on the particular practice issues raised by the chapter in question. This book is not intended as an exercise in theoretical theology. It is very much about practice - specifically as embedded in normative Jewish texts. I hope the practice points will serve as a guide for readers who wish to try this practice out for themselves.
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Absolutely illuminating, cuts right to the core of everything I feel Jewish spirituality to be.