February 18, 2020

Relax, It’s Jewish Meditation!

You’re not going to believe this: There are actually full-grown, college-educated Jewish human beings who are completely unaware of the existence of something called Jewish meditation! I believe it, because I’m one of them. At least I was until recently, when I attended the Skirball Cultural Center’s “Jewish Meditation” presentation, as part of its Words and Ideas series.

The program offered attendees the opportunity to “find your center and quiet your mind.” It promised that the teacher would infuse meditation techniques with Jewish language, intentions, texts and understanding, and include instruction, short exercises, Q-and-A and discussion. It was time to remedy this void in my Jewish education and heritage. I was set on becoming one lean, mean, Judaic meditating machine. And if that involved quieting my mind, well, I could go it one better than that. After all, I’ve been referred to as mindless on more than one occasion. But I digress.

The teacher, Alison Laichter, immediately made us feel welcome with her warm, funny and relaxed manner. Formerly from Brooklyn and now living in Southern California, Laichter is founder of the Jewish Meditation Center in New York City. She now teaches meditation all over the world, including at schools, museums, retreat centers, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, hospitals, festivals and conferences, all with the intention and understanding that truly sustainable repair of the world happens from the inside out. She is also an urban planner and community organizer. So, she can plan and organize your city — and then relax everyone in it.

I was set on becoming one lean, mean, Judaic meditating machine.

Laichter started the session barefoot because it makes her feel grounded, connected to nature and life. She shared a bit of her background: how she became radicalized at a sleepaway camp, returning home as a vegan meditator. At Cooper Union, an institute for the advancement of science and art in New York, she was mentored by a Buddhist monk. Later, she found great value in an environmental trip to the Holy Land through Birthright Israel.

The mind, in its meditative state, according to Laichter, can be envisioned as one of those snow globes that you shake vigorously. The snowflakes that swirl around are your thoughts. When they settle at the bottom, peacefully at rest, that’s your mind, ideally, during meditation.

What makes Jewish meditation Jewish? For one thing, its heritage: thousands of years of Jewish meditation and mysticism techniques. There is evidence that Judaism has had meditative practices since the time of the patriarchs. For instance, in the Book of Genesis, the patriarch Isaac is described as going “lasuach” in the field — a term understood by many commentators as some type of meditative practice. Similarly, there are indications throughout the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) that Judaism always contained a central meditative tradition.

Laichter had us meditate for a few minutes during two sessions, after which we shared our experiences and asked questions. What appeals to her about meditation? “You get to work with your own mind, see what distracts you, listen to your inner narrative. You don’t have to look outside yourself for purpose, joy, love.”

Not to worry if you missed this program. The Skirball has extended Jewish Meditation for the next six months. The free, one-hour sessions will happen the third Tuesday of every month at 2 p.m. (Just reserve a place on Skirball’s webiste.) And it’s fine to pop in to any future session; you don’t have to have been there from the start as with, say, “Game of Thrones,” which from what I understand is not heavy on relaxation techniques.

In addition to her meditation classes, Laichter will host a special Open Shabbat program on Feb. 9 at the Skirball, featuring a vegetarian menu, a mix and mingle, and a live music concert.

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, and has written on numerous sitcom staffs.