Thursday, July 25, 2013

On TM and Jewish Meditation

Our old friend Reb Gutman Locks (once the guru of Central Park, now a dynamic denizen of the Western Wall in Jerusalem) recently wrote a blog post about meditation that put a bug in my brain.  His post is here; my response is below.  There is much more to be written about this... 

I respectfully beg to differ with both the premises and the conclusions of your blog post on TM and Jewish meditation.

First of all let me stipulate that you are correct in saying that the teaching of TM as presented by the guru to whom you refer (and with whom I studied extensively more than 40 years ago) was rooted in Hindu/Vedic idolatrous philosophy, and that he was somewhat disingenuous in characterizing the mantras as meaningless. However it's important to draw a distinction between the methodology itself and those teachings. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (with whom I studied in subsequent years, and whose public statements, private letters, and personal guidance inform my perspective on this topic) did precisely that in encouraging medical and mental health professionals to train people in "kosher" forms of meditation, some of which were based on that same methodology. It is a method most clearly explained in Dr. Herbert Benson's seminal book, "The Relaxation Response." A certain prominent Rav and mentor in the Chabad community, when asked for a halachic ruling as to whether this form of meditation was permissible (inasmuch as it had been derived from TM) researched the matter and concluded that for a person in whom the method might evoke an attraction or temptation toward the idolatrous philosophies associated with TM it is forbidden; but for one who either has no such associations or who has demonstrably broken free of such associations, the technique itself is permissible.

Now to the technique itself, its value, and its relationship with Jewish meditation. I think the categorization of this form of "mantra" meditation as entirely passive, as opposed to the ideal of active Jewish meditation, is erroneous and misleading (with due respect to my old friend and colleague Schneur Zalman Stern, whose article of some years ago first suggested this distinction.)  

(The original Chassidic text of the Alter Rebbe that S.Z. Stern cites in that article does not use the terms "passive" and "active."  I don't agree that those terms do justice to the Alter Rebbe's intent.   This is not the place for an in-depth discussion of that original text - and I am traveling at the moment and don't have access to my copy - but I do hope to find the time to write more about this before too long.)  

Suffice it to say here that just as there are passive and active aspects of Jewish meditation - and in particular the specific form of Chassidic meditation known as "hisbonenus" (or "hitbonenut") - there are also passive and active aspects of the far simpler meditation technique that was taught as TM, or mantra meditation, or the relaxation response technique. I will try to explain what I mean, by stepping back to gain a broader perspective on the dynamics of the mind.

Conscious thought emerges in our cognitive experience from a latent, "supra-conscious" source of thought deep within the soul. Some of the Chassidic literature explains this idea through a metaphor: the mind is like a river, or "stream of consciousness," whose rushing waters have their source in hidden wellsprings deep beneath the surface. The purpose of meditation is to open the conscious mind to the connection between the still, calm, powerful source of thought (i.e. the well, the deep) and the actual thoughts we experience (downstream, as it were) in our efforts to perceive and understand the truth and communicate effectively with the world at large.

Albert Einstein famously said that problems can never be solved on the same level of understanding within which they arise. To solve the problems we face, we have to get to a higher level of awareness, and then bring that deeper insight and clarity to bear in addressing the issues at hand. 

For example, suppose you are stuck in a negative emotional state - say, anger, or anxiety. (It happens to all of us. Or at least most of us.) Emotions tend to have a life and a will of their own; they are resistant to change, and especially resistant to other people's efforts to talk us out of feeling what we're feeling.  So how do we change negative emotion to positive feelings?

Applying Einstein's rule of thumb, we'll need to call upon a higher, more flexible, less stubborn part of ourselves. Intellect would seem a likely candidate; after all, our intellectual faculties are more reasonable. The mind is generally more willing to see things from an alternative point of view than the heart, the liver, and the nervous system, and therefore more open to change.  So why not use our intellect to reason with our feelings, and thereby feel better?  In other words, solve the problem from a higher level than where the problem arose.  Does it work?  Sometimes. It depends on two things: first, whether the heart is willing to listen to that higher wisdom. And then, whether the mind is really wise enough to be able to offer the right perspective to the heart, and say it with enough empathy and patience for the heart to hear. The first part is about letting go of the old stuckness and stubbornness, the negativity that doesn't want to quit.  The second part is embracing the positive - knowing where to go, what to do, and how to do it once we've come unstuck.  The first is passive: letting go.  The second is active: getting going.

That's where meditation comes in, in both its passive and active roles. The passive aspect of meditation consists in training the mind and heart to let go of the way they've been thinking and feeling until now, and let in illumination from a higher source.  The active aspect of meditation is about developing that higher light, cultivating an idea, using the rational mind to grasp and understand a higher truth in all its details and ramifications so that we can put it to work out there in the world. The passive part is the art of detachment - not a forsaking of the world, but rather, a release from the bondage of an attitude and mindset that are no longer working. Its purpose is to free us up and empower our active engagement in transforming the world into a better place.

And here's an important key: so-called "passive" techniques also involve our active intentionality; and "active" meditation practices also require that we be adept in the passive art of detachment. 

In the TM-like meditation method of the relaxation response - generally characterized as a passive technique - the meditator is actually, rather paradoxically, exerting an effort to discover his or her inner effortlessness.  One is in a sense exercising one's letting-go muscles, learning how to do without overdoing, try without trying. This skill in turn enables a person to pursue any and all activities (whether they are meditative practices or actual, productive, creative work) freed from the egotistical delusion that "I am" the one who is getting it done. Knowing how to let go to the inner empowerment from a higher power, we become better able to serve as agents of the Al-mighty in all our tasks and challenges.

Optimally, this double-edged art of passive release and active engagement is integrated into all our pursuits - especially prayer (tefilah), Torah study, and the acts of kindness by which we change the world - so that meditation becomes something that we don't have to self-consciously "do," but rather, the way we live.