It is the hard work of introspection that is the antithesis of mainstream modern American culture. We are a nation of pleasure-mongers, and cheap thrills from Paris and Nicole administering enemas at fat camp on the "Simple Life" often win out over sitting in silence on a cushion.
In "Against the Stream," Buddhist teacher and practitioner Noah Levine refers to the hard work of seeking truth in a country that avoids pain. Based in Los Angeles and deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition, he offers an outlet for those in search of answers and an end to suffering.
Oddly rabbinical in his wording and diction, Levine sits perched cross-legged and coated in tattoos. The ones that stand out: "against the stream" is written across his neck, "wisdom" across his right wrist, and to top it off, knuckle tattoos that read "true love." If lucky, mid-Buddhist quip, one might catch a sparkling glimpse of his gold teeth.
The focus of this meditation session with the Rebel Saint Buddhist group at the Santa Monica Zen Center: death, dying and grief. "The Buddha wasn't big on denial," Levine posited. "He was big on reality."
After addressing the evening's theme, Levine opened the room to discussion. Chock-full of tattooed hipster meditators, many donning black Dharma Punx hoodies, the crowd fearlessly spoke of dead parents, friends, relatives and their coping mechanisms when it came to pain and grief.
"I've got news for you -- no one gets out of here alive," Levine joked. The point was to face death so you could appreciate life. It could even be fun, like Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), where a carnival-like atmosphere follows a celebration of deceased loved ones.
Death was no celebration in my conservative Jewish family. Death was gas chambers and dead babies. Death was a grief-stricken grandmother hysterically attempting to throw herself in her husband's newly dug grave.
Death was not to be resolved, not moved through, but held on to as indelible memory. "Always remember, never forget."
Perhaps this is the appeal of Buddhism to so many Jews. Yesterday is the past and today, the here and now, is all that matters. This is the ultimate prescription for dealing with a traditional obsession with remembering the biblical. Further, few Americans can boast a Conservative Jewish upbringing that featured meditation.
"Liberal Judaism is the child of German rationalism," wrote Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author and scholar in-residence at the Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. "Our liberal predecessors dismissed East European Jewish mysticism as unenlightened, irrational, and superstitious."
Rabbi Miles Krassen, former associate professor of religious studies at Naropa University and founder of Gishmey Brachah, or Rain of Blessings, a nonprofit organization for evolving Judaism, explained, "There is a big issue with how Judaism has been presented in modernity. Certain things have been represented as Judaism, that which is in the synagogue and in schools, while other parts of Judaism are kept on the back burner. So many elements are not put forth."
This was a big reason why, in the 1970s, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan came out with books on meditation and the Bible, Kabbalah, and Judaism. "He saw how many Jews were running elsewhere -- unaware that there was such a thing in Judaism, and wrote those books, translating Jewish mystical or Jewish contemplative texts," Krassen recalled. "This was the first effort to make these forms of meditation available to the public."
In fact, Krassen says, "many types of Jewish meditation exist with a long history going all the way back to the prophets in Israel."
There is the Lithuanian Orthodox tradition of mussar which "shines light on the causes of suffering and shows us how to realize our highest spiritual potential, including an everyday experience infused with happiness, trust, and love," wrote Alan Morinis in his book, "Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar."
There are Chasids, who meditate through melodies, and there was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who practiced a Chasidic meditation of speaking to God, opening his heart to every issue and every concern he had.
"Jewish seekers often get the impression that they would do better to search out the mysticism of Eastern religions than to bother looking in the temple library," Kushner wrote.
Chabadniks might practice hitbonnenut, in-depth meditation, or hitbodedut, experiencing the divine in solitude. This is a meditation practice of placing the mind in key cosmological and theological ideas like: God is that which fills all things and surrounds all things.
"The heart then gets an 'aha moment,'" Krassen explained. "The heart responds and you start feeling an infinite source of love in your heart that flows unending."
Sitting in Santa Monica at the Zen Center, after some tears and some laughing, Levine instructed the group to lie down. Earlier Levine suggested that everyone meditate with real cadavers, spend time in graveyards and sit with dead relatives before burying them.
I lay down and listened as I was asked to imagine my body dead, lifeless and decaying. I was to imagine standing above myself and looking down. I realized, lying there afraid of what I was imagining, that I was terrified of dying. "The terror is extra suffering," Levine said.
He mentioned how everywhere there is death. To the contrary, Judaism speaks of how everywhere there is life, and that is God.
Levine mentioned how everything that happened today had died already. "We are in a constant state of grieving," he explained.
So we lay there and watched ourselves die. We were to imagine our loved ones dying, our friends, our office mates, the people on the bus, all dead. Then we watched our skeletons emerge and then our bones decompose and scatter in the earth.
This was when I missed synagogue. I wanted hugging and songs, and I wanted food. When I felt completely empty I decided I was a Jew, not a Buddhist. According to Levine this is because "every other tradition brings comfort. Buddhism places the faith in the power of practice."Martin Buber practiced meditation. Initially he was interested in non-Jewish forms. "He understood religious meditation in terms of the different religious cookbooks that he was following," Krassen explained.
Later Buber came to the conclusion that he had never actually united with God, only with his own soul. This is the key difference between Buddhism and Judaism: Judaism is a theistic religion.
Levine gradually brought the group back to life and then explained how every moment is not only death, but also birth. "Pain is not our enemy. Pain is OK," he posited. Every moment is the breathing of newness. This was the Jewish chunk, the "Baruch Hashem, every moment is a blessing."
Among a number of meditations offered, jewishhealing.com suggests Bittul Ha Yesh, a meditation on nothingness. For this practice you close your eyes and gradually imagine life without any senses, any thought. Then you are to imagine your life without these things and gradually reach an understanding of "nothingness." Not so far from what the group did with Levine.
From my simulated death I realized that my own mortality was the shadow I was avoiding. This scary meditation was the hard work required when going "against the stream" of popular choices in consciousness and psychology. This is what my father quotes from the Torah about "working by the sweat of your brow." This is the hard work of facing a certain truth and enduring the subsequent pain.
"Buddhism is part of a greater trend," Krassen explained. "The bigger picture: evolving American spirituality that's going to be a smorgasbord of all these religious dishes." Krassen's goal: "to ensure that the delicacies of Judaism will be served at the table."
He suggests that Judaism promote a belief in God that does not conflict with rational thought. For an evolving nation, with modern ways and new knowledge, Judaism needs to grow. There is Judaism out there that can work for rationalists, Krassen said, positing a spiritual basis for everything that exists.
"The Jewish choice is not rationalism or mysticism, logic or spirituality, but both," Kushner added. "Mysticism is not escapism and madness, but an essential and vital ingredient of a mature and balanced Jewish worldview.... Just beyond the radar screens of our five senses, all being is one luminous organism."