Meditation and Trying to Calm my Mind

Vizsla Meditation

For about 18 months now I have tried to build a meditation practice. I was first introduced to meditation at the Rabbinic Training Institute, a yearly program for rabbis sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

For a long time, I thought that meditation was a bunch of yoga/granola/tree-hugging hooey…until I tried it and learned a little more.

Meditation is not the only way that I try to calm my mind. I have been a regular davener (Yiddish for pray-er, ie, a praying person) for over 30 years, every day, three times a day. I will admit that not every prayer experience is what I hope it to be. Sometimes it seems like a chore, or I just rush through it, or I am anything but mindful–letting my mind wander in a thousand directions. Other times–especially when I am with a minyan (a group of 10 Jews)–I do feel spiritually connected, and allow myself to calm and simply be. Whether it is successful or not, it is significant that I take time out of every day to stop and try to connect with something outside of myself.

My favorite way to calm my mind is Shabbat–the seventh day, the day of rest. I feel like practically my whole week is aimed at Shabbat, preparing for it, waiting for it, missing it…. As an observant Jew, I try to have all the preparations ready before sunset so that I do not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc. It is a gift that God gave to us, and a gift that I give to myself each week. It is the one time during the week when I feel most present for myself and those around me.

And then there is meditation. Why is this so difficult? Why during the week is it nearly impossible for me to get my mind to settle? I find that many times I cannot seem to turn off the thoughts that rush into my mind, and then my thoughts run down the rabbit hole wherever it leads. Other times, I simply fall asleep.

I join a weekly Jewish meditation group on-line for 15 minutes of Torah teaching followed by 30 minutes of meditation; we sit in silence all of us, with our screens in front of us. Like my davening, there are times when it is great, and others where I feel like I “accomplished” nothing. I guess that is why it is called a “practice:” it is never perfect just a continual rehearsal to try to get there.

Speaking of practice, that is the same word used for Yoga. In the past, I have done a lot more yoga than I have since I moved; I hope to remedy this. Almost every time I practice yoga I do feel like my mind is calmed and I am totally present. Perhaps it is because it is so tactile, rather than simply a mind practice. It could also be the group setting (see my minyan comment above). Maybe the influence of others around me doing the same thing helps me to flow in the right direction. Maybe that is why the on-line meditation is so challenging.

Of course, the big question is: why is it important to calm one’s mind? We live in a world that now more than ever bombards us with information, distractions and demands. We often end up on that hamster treadmill, running and running, and getting nowhere and tired real fast.

not a metaphor for your life

None of us wants to live our lives this way, on a treadmill, never examining who we are, what we do, what interests us, what makes us passionate. On a regular basis, we need to calm ourselves and reconnect with the Source of All and with ourselves.

Not everyone will do this in the same way. Doing so, however, has great benefit. Not only does it helps us to ground ourselves in this big world, but it also has many health benefits.

Am I perfect at this? Is my prayer, my yoga, my meditation, my Shabbat everything I want it to be every time? Not by a long-shot; sometimes I am just that metaphorical dog asleep on the couch. In the meantime, I will continue to practice calming my mind, calming myself, and reconnecting with what is truly important in my life.

If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you

Image result for spinning bike

This morning in spin class as we were pedaling through a particularly difficult “hill,” the instructor said “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” I think this was a nice way of telling us that if we did not have enough resistance on our bikes, we would not get the full benefit of the workout.

Of course, this has applications beyond spinning. As a personal trainer, it is up to me to work with my clients to safely push themselves beyond their comfort zones. Many people come to the gym “knowing” exactly what their capabilities are, i.e., “I can only do 30 pounds on the leg curl,” or “the most can walk around the track is one mile.” In truth, none of us knows what are true capabilities are. How many people do we know who, when faced with adversity, have who shown extraordinary grace and courage? How many times have we surprised ourselves by doing something we never thought possible? How many of us have crossed a finish line in a race marveling that we reached this goal?

Staying in our comforts zones does not allow us to grow or change. If we never look at issues from a different angle, try something new, or connect with people with whom we believe we have little in common, we will find it difficult to move beyond where we are and who we are in this moment.

Staying in our comforts zones is also not a Jewish value. Our tradition places little emphasis on being “comfortable.” The laws in the Torah, the words of the prophets and the teachings of the Sages were all meant to push us to be more than we think possible–as individuals and as a people. We were not meant to stay in Egypt; we were destined to head out into a wilderness, not really knowing what the future would hold. Even the names “Yisrael,” which means to struggle with God, is a hint that we should never feel like we know all the answers, that we have “arrived,” and have no need to change. Our tradition is filled with challenges and this makes us who we are as a people.

The next time we walk into the gym, or into the same drama with family members, or the same dead-end conversations with partners and spouses, we would be wise to remember that if it doesn’t challenge us, it won’t changes us.

Don’t run from the challenge. Embrace it. Change.

My Fitness Philosophy

Anyone who has ever flown on an airplane knows the schtick: “In the unlikely event of a sudden cabin depressurization, masks will fall from the compartments above your head. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally; although the bag may not inflate, the oxygen is flowing. If you are seated with someone who needs assistance, place your mask on first, then assist others around you.”

Of course, the reason we are told to do this is that if we are so busy helping others we may actually deprive ourselves of the oxygen we need and not only be unable to help others, but harm ourselves as well.

In Judaism, we are accustomed to helping others. Acts of Gemilut Chesed (lovingkindness) are one of the pillars on which the world stands. The most often repeated mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger since we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. We are used to giving ourselves. The problem arises when we are so focused on the other that we are unable to help ourselves; we get into a spiral in which we can run ourselves down so much that we cannot help others.

Some people feel that going to the gym or buying exercise equipment is a luxury. It is not. It is an investment. It is an investment in our own future and our ability to be of help to others. We do no one any good if we are sick, or weak, or immobilized.

Those of us who own cars know that we must maintain them. We must change the oil and filters. Check the fluids. Fill up the tank or plug in the battery. We must wash it. We cannot simply drive and drive and drive the car into the ground and expect to get where we want to be. The same is true with our bodies.

Taking care of yourself, working out, eating healthy or getting a massage are not selfish acts. These are acts of self-care that ultimately allow us to care for others. Believe that you deserve to be healthy and fit. Believe that you deserve to care for yourself just as you care for others. Believe that the stronger you are the more likely you are to do what it is that God has planned for you in this world.

Help others put on their masks for sure…but make sure yours is on first!