Silence, Mindfulness and Recovering from Election Obsession

by Brian on April 20, 2015

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel,Reviews

Meditation retreat pictureAfter months of election obsession, rapaciously reading everything I could, poring over polls and talking with anyone and everyone I could for the better part of the winter, I did the only thing left to do.

I shut up. Literally.

Just a few days after the votes were tallied, my wife and drove up to Kibbutz Ein Dor for a silent Jewish meditation retreat organized by Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of Or HaLev – the Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation in Israel, and Rabbi James Roth, head of the U.S.-based Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism.

For six days, from 5:30 am every morning, we did nothing but sit and walk and eat mindfully, meditating on mats in the communal hall, deliberately stepping slowly through the trees and foliage of the kibbutz’s campus quad-like retreat center, punctuated only by teachings and instructions by the retreat leaders, group Q&A and short one-on-one sessions. I turned off my phone and disconnected from the Internet. No email, no updates interrupted my silence.

When we emerged nearly a week later, Israel hadn’t bombed Iran, no UN declarations had been made calling for a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu had not yet formed a coalition. Nothing much seemed different on the outside. But inside, for me, everything had changed.

Mindfulness meditation, whether given a Jewish spin or taught entirely secular as with the research-based MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) system of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in a nutshell, posits that nearly all of our suffering is caused by our thoughts and if we can become aware of those thoughts as they are coming up and not go chasing after them willy-nilly, reacting blindly according to our habitual and too often unhealthy patterns, we can regain our equilibrium and perhaps even find peace and equanimity.

Family therapist and meditation blogger Roger Nolan describes it like this: “Imagine that you are sitting at a railroad crossing in your car while a long, slow-moving freight train is passing through. Every freight car represents a thought arising in consciousness. If you keep looking straight ahead with your gaze soft, you can watch the thought cars pass by. Sometimes, however, a pretty freight car catches your eye, and you continue to follow it with your gaze, thus succumbing to the ‘train of thought.’”

At the retreat, Rabbi Jeff Roth quoted an old Buddhist adage: “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” The meaning: pain (both emotional and physical) is part and parcel of the human condition. You can’t avoid it. But when your thoughts cause you suffering, that’s unnecessary. And a mindfulness practice can help you do something about it.

Here’s an example that happened to me during the retreat. We were sitting down for Shabbat dinner. No one was talking – other than saying Amen to Kiddush, it was a silent meal. I positioned myself across from my wife Jody – even though we weren’t even making eye contact (another retreat recommendation), it’s a nice way of quietly connecting. (And no, we didn’t speak even in our shared room.)

But when Jody got up to wash before bread, a latecomer entered the room and took her seat. Now, he surely had no idea that Jody was sitting there, but I couldn’t talk to tell him. And my thoughts started going crazy. “He did that deliberately. He doesn’t care about other people. What chutzpah! Who does he think he is?”

Now it happens that this guy was a “smiley” type – he always had a grin on his face even when he was in silence. And as I looked at him, I started to grin, too, and then a little laugh – no more than a barely audible giggle – emerged from somewhere inside of me. Were any of my thoughts true? No. But look at how much suffering I’d called up. For what?

Jacobson-Maisels related a similar Shabbat dinner story. The food on the retreat was “elegant vegetarian” – wholesome and surprising in its simplicity. All week, there’d been no dessert except for a few packages of waffelim. But on Friday night, at the end of the buffet line, there was what looked like chocolate cake. “Oh boy,” Jacobson-Maisels thought to himself. “This is going to be great.” But as he got closer to the “cake,” there was a sign: Chocolate covered polenta. “Yuck,” Jacobson-Maisels griped. “I don’t want that. That’s going to taste terrible!” He tried it anyway. And it was good. But the thought – a dashed expectation of real chocolate cake – had created unwarranted anguish.

None of this was new to me. I’ve participated in two silent retreats run by Jacobson-Maisels and one with the Tovana organization, which has been running Vipassana style retreats in Israel for nearly 20 years. I attend a weekly meditation group in Jerusalem. I understand the logic and theory of the connection between thoughts and suffering. But this time, something clicked. Somewhere between the sweet polenta and the luscious trees of Ein Dor, a penny fell and there was someone there to hear it – me.

It was due in large part to Sam Harris.

Harris wasn’t at the retreat, of course. He is best known as one of the most outspoken of the New Atheists. Along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris has mercilessly skewered religion in best selling books such as “The End of Faith” and “The Moral Landscape.” He is also, surprisingly, a serious student of mindfulness, which is the subject of his 2014 book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

“There is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose,” he writes in “Waking Up.” Harris then spends much of the book’s 256 pages trying to dispel the concept of the self. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion,” he writes. “There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.”

This turns out to be critically important, because if there is no “I” in there directing my thoughts, it’s much easier to not be attached to those thoughts or to believe that they say something integral about who I truly am as a person rather than being random and – as I’d come to realize in the case of the Shabbat dinner incident – frequently ridiculous.

Harris takes a staunchly secular approach. But this was a Jewish mindfulness retreat and retreat leader Jeff Roth was saying pretty much the same thing – with a Jewish twist.

Roth linked the sense of self (or lack thereof) to the story of the Garden of Eden. The opening of the book of Genesis, explained Roth, is not about the creation of the universe but really a parable about the emergence of human language.

Language is by definition dualistic. In order for there to be the concept of a “tree,” everything else has to be “not a tree.” And since the sense that one has a self is tied into thinking, which cannot be separated from language, the self is inherently dualistic too. It’s heady stuff, but we see it everywhere in the real world. There is “me” and “you,” “enemy” and “friend,” “human” and “God.”

When we first meet Adam in the Garden, he was pre-language. As Roth sees it, eating from the tree of good and evil – another dualistic symbol – ushers in the advent of language. But it’s ultimately a trap, a mode of thinking out of sync with both science and later strains of Jewish theology, which stress the oneness of everything

At the end of six days, I was far from “enlightened,” but I’d developed at least a few new skills and, yes, even some insights that have stayed with me so far. My wife and I stopped at a restaurant on the drive back to Jerusalem and ate so mindfully that I was compelled to explain to the waitress why we were slow in finishing our meal. “I noticed,” she nodded. Normally, I’d be terribly embarrassed. But I let that thought go.

The next day, while parking my car in a garage, another driver cut me off, nearly causing an accident. I began to honk my horn and flash my lights. “What a jerk!” I stewed. Then came that little laugh, a reminder of Shabbat dinner on the retreat. Did I really need to suffer over this thought?

It took me a full 24 hours to have the desire – or maybe the courage – to open the Internet. The politicians were still quibbling, relations between Obama and Netanyahu were growing chillier still, and social media was all abuzz over whether Jon Stewart’s replacement was anti-Semitic. Would that they all could spend just a weekend on a silent meditation retreat.

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