Today I had the privilege of teaching a workshop at a Nehirim camp at Easton Mountain. It consisted mostly on meditation and chanting exercises from the perspective of Jewish mysticism. We were talking about how Kabbalists envision the use of music as a tool to help them connect with the spiritual world and with the Divine.
At the end of the workshop, we were checking in and evaluating what role do music and chanting play in our spirituality and specifically in our meditation practice (although not all the participants had a regular practice or were particularly adept to meditation). I felt very enriched by the insides of the workshop attendance. We listed the many ways music and chanting play a role in meditation. Firstly, somebody pointed out that music helps him “fill space” when he meditates. This may seem controversial for some meditation schools and practices but I have the biggest respect for every person’s “tricks:” if something works for you, why should I question it? More often than not I find myself meditating with background music. To me, it can’t be music with words or with very clear, symmetric, predictable structures. I often choose Indian ragas or Native American solo flutes, that is, “songs” whose next pattern I can’t predict so easily.
Secondly, chanting helps quiet the chattering in our minds, which is one of the main objectives of every meditation practice. All of us struggle with the same problem: how to turn off the continuous noise in our head so we can pay attention to important things like enjoying our present and seizing the moment. Otherwise, we go around like zombies on automatic pilot. We become slaves to our memories and to our worries for the future, continuously playing in our head the movie of what wee have just done or what we’re about to do. Instead, just sit back and smell the roses.
Thirdly, music and chanting have clear benefits for our well-being. Our whole body vibrates to particular frequencies. Our heart beats to the rhythm. Music therapists have been writing about these properties for a long time. Additionally, I believe that music has another dimension, one of the spiritual kind. It is deeply connected to our feelings and helps create memories that eventually reinforce our identity, in particular our Jewish identity. Depending on your beliefs, music can connect you to spiritual realms and even to the mind of the Divine (metaphorically or not).
It is not coincidental that mysticism of all religious traditions has placed chanting (drumming, music) in a central role of its practice. Some chant mantras, others repeat rosaries, others practice whirling dances accompanied by music. Not surprisingly, often mainstream religion has frowned at these practices. Now, in what ways meditation and chanting can be claimed as genuinely Jewish? Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature are full of nigunim, different kinds of tikkun practices, alphabet permutations, and fahrbrengen full of ecstatic chanting. They are powerful tools to help Even our text study has its musical mode, the Lehrner steiger. And yet, for many Jews meditation and chanting seem to be a “New Age thing,” identified with very particular groups. Some frown at them as being merely a strategy to attract BuJews, or an unwanted osmosis from Eastern religions.
I think it is time that we acknowledge and embrace this part of our tradition, just like Rosh Chodesh or the mikvah enjoyed their well-deserved revival in our days. Meditation and chanting are also for us, the more traditionally-observant Jews. (Yes, you wouldn’t say I am that traditional; I do believe in acting kosher and thinking treif, but that’s material for another post). Although modern Hebrew prefers the word meditatsiya, our liturgy often talks about hegion ha-lev, meaning the contemplation, the reason, or even the logic of the heart. Many siddurim translate this expression as “the meditation of the heart,” like at the end of the amidah, when we pray that the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart (הגיון לבי) be acceptable before Hashem. Next time you read these words, pause, breath and check your kavanah. That’s Jewish meditation too.