QUIET SITTING AS A JEWISH MEDITATION PRACTICE
The ancient pious ones used to meditate for an hour before prayer to build concentration on the heavenly realms. Even if greeted by a king, they did not answer him; even if a snake encircled their feet, they did not break their concentration. Babylonian Talmud: Berachot 30b
Every tradition has spiritual practices to quiet the mind by some form of meditative technique. The most basic of these techniques is to learn how to sit still and do nothing. Although sitting still may sound quite simple, it is a challenging experience for even the most skilled meditator.
Learning how to sit still deepens our willpower and concentration. As we become more accomplished, we gain insight into the workings of our minds. This experience in itself is so powerful that a large number of traditions focus entirely on refining the ability to sit meditatively.
Many people erroneously equate the discipline of sitting still with Eastern practitioners. Indeed, Westerners who first experience profound states of awareness through quieting the mind often associate this altered consciousness with Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, or some other Eastern spiritual tradition. But attaining deepened awareness by meditative sitting is a universal practice, common in Western as well as Eastern traditions, and is readily found in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Here are instructions for becoming accomplished in the fundamental practice of sitting still.
Find a comfortable place on the floor or on a chair so that you can sit with your back held fairly straight. This is usually accomplished by placing a cushion or pillow beneath the buttocks. It is better not to lean against a wall or a chair, which may increase your tendency to slump or to become drowsy.
Do Not Move When Meditating
If sitting in a chair, place a cushion under your feet. If seated on the floor, cross your legs in a comfortable way, using padding if necessary under your knees or ankles. Your hands can be placed in any position, resting on your thighs or knees or in your lap, as long as the shoulders remain relaxed. The idea is to be positioned comfortably, relatively straight, so that you are able to sit for the entire period of this meditation without voluntarily moving at all. (Of course, there are always subtle movements connected with one's breathing.)
Do Not Look at the Time
When meditating alone, you will need a beepertimer available in many inexpensive watches. Although beginning meditators usually sit for about 30 minutes, you will discover that a more complete experience can be gained at 45 minutes. There is no need to sit any longer than this, but some experienced meditators prefer 1hour periods. In any case, set your timer when you begin your sit and never again look at the time until you hear the beep.
Focus Attention on the Breath
Although the primary meditative discipline is to sit very still, the torso will continue to expand and contract around each breath. Bring your awareness to these involuntary body movements, trying all along not to control the breath but to breathe normally.
This is where we begin to build concentration. The idea is to notice the body movements of every single breath. You may wish to focus on the stomach or the chest as it rises and falls with the breath, or on the total body experience from the tip of the nostrils to the base of the abdomen.
The key to building concentration is to bring interest into the practice. Try to be aware of all the different qualities of each breath, and how each differs from every other. Try to be aware precisely when each expansion begins and ends, precisely when each contraction begins and ends, and what happens in between.
Notice the Mind
When you are completely aware of the detailed body movements around the breath, you are present in the moment. You will soon realize, however, that the mind will continuously capture your attention and carry you away into thought. The thinking process often blankets our awareness of the breath. As soon as you notice that you are thinking, quickly and gently-without selfcriticism or recriminations-bring your awareness back to the body movement around the breath. You will do this over and over and over again, dozens or hundreds of times in every sitting meditation. This constant call on one's attention to stay with the experience of the breath is the crucial meditative act that slowly but surely quiets the mind and leads to profound insights.
Stay with the Practice
Habituated to perpetual activity, our minds do not easily accept the bridle of constant awareness. The more we assert control by focusing our attention on a primary object of observation-such as the breath-the more the mind will try to divert our concentration. It has an amazing arsenal and is extraordinarily devious in the tactics that it uses. Some of its most powerful weapons are doubt, anger, frustration, desire, aversion, sleepiness, boredom, despair, concern, jealousy, and of course the two biggest: pain and fear.
Although the meditation practice is simply to sit quietly observing the experience of the breath rising and falling, we come under the attack of our own minds trying to take back control. This is a battle that all meditators experience. Sometimes the mind wins and we move our arms, legs, head, or neck, or we terminate our practice before the period is up. But as long as we come back again to the meditative posture and awareness of the breath, sooner or later we gain the upper hand. It is then that we experience enormous insight into the workings of our minds and achieve a profound sense of liberation. However, if in the early stages of meditation we allow the mind to convince us to quit altogether, to let go of our practice in building awareness, we never learn the truth that we are not our minds.
LongTerm Benefits of Quieting the Mind
The baseline practice of sitting still and doing nothing can be used as your primary meditation practice. Some people prefer doing this to all other meditative techniques. The deeper we go into the experience of slowing down our busy minds, the more sensitive and aware we become of our surroundings. We begin to see hidden gems in everything we observe, and we discover new levels of appreciation in our daily lives. When we achieve more refined plateaus of awareness through quieting the mind, the result is an ever deepening spiritual consciousness that opens the heart and renews the soul.
Meditative sitting is the baseline practice of most spiritual retreats. While on retreat, sitting is usually done a number of times each day at the very least. On some retreats, the entire schedule is focused on silent sitting and walking practice, often including an accumulation of 8 hours or more of sitting each day of the retreat. This can be an extraordinarily powerful experience, especially when continued for many days in a row as we do on week-long Jewish meditation retreats.
Please consider for yourself a daily experience of 30 to 60 minutes of sitting practice, following the advice mentioned above: sit in a comfortable position, do not move, bring your awareness to the movement of the torso around the breath, try to bring interest to the variations of the breath, notice your thoughts, and gently, constantly come back to the physical experience of the breath. That's all you need to do for this practice, and you will discover that as simple as it sounds, it is exceedingly difficult to be quiet for long without getting caught in the web of thought. After a while you can become proficient in this spiritual exercise, and then the calmness and balance you experience will deepen your understanding of why there are so many practitioners of sitting meditation. It is why the Talmud teaches:
"All my life I have lived among wise teachers, yet I have found nothing better for oneself than silence. Rather than study, practice is the main teacher."
Pirke Avot 1:17