Meditation isn’t Jewish; or Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Christian, either. Meditation is human, and human beings have been doing it for thousands of years. We label meditation by culture depending on its context, content, and aim.
When I studied Zen Buddhism, I was taught to sit, breathe, and count my breaths. My goal, despite my teacher’s admonitions to the contrary, was to achieve satori, the realization that all things are empty of permanence. When I studied Raja Yoga I was taught how to sit and breathe, and repeat a mantrum linked to my breathing. My goal was moksha, liberation from the illusion of separate self. When I practice Jewish meditation I sit and breathe, linking my breathing to a repetition of the Sh’ma. My aim is teshuvah and tikkun, returning to God and godliness.
There is nothing particularly Jewish or Buddhist about sitting and breathing, counting breaths, or repeating words. These are just things that humans do. Doing these things for long periods of time seems to alter human consciousness, bringing about a sense of awareness that embraces the dualism of I and Thou in a greater nonduality. Labeling these things according to culture, and calling this nonduality YHVH, Tao, God, Dharmakaya, Allah adds a certain gravitas, but in the end it is still just sitting and breathing.
My understanding of God is best articulated by Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a 16th century Safed kabbalist: “God is found in all things and all things are found in God, and there is nothing devoid of divinity... Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing beside God.”
A good analogy for understanding Cordovero’s teaching is the relationship between ocean and wave. A wave is not other than the ocean, nor is it the entire ocean. A wave is the ocean manifest in time and place. God is the ocean; the myriad forms of creation are the waves. Creation is God manifest in time and space. You are not other than God; and though you are in no sense all of God, God is, in fact, all of you.
The extent to which you are aware of your True Self as God manifest in space/time is the extent to which you are open to a deeper tranquility underlying the surface storms of everyday living. The extent to which you are unaware of your True Self is the extent to which you are needlessly anxious and fearful, mistaking the storms of living for Life itself.
To understand how meditation works you have to know a bit about the structure of reality. The Jewish mystics, starting in the 16th century with Isaac Luria, speak of five worlds or dimensions of reality, each with its own soul or consciousness. Think of these worlds and souls as a Russian nesting doll where smaller dolls fit into larger dolls. The five worlds are Assiyah/Body, Yetzirah/Heart, Beriah/Mind, Atzilut/Soul, and Adam Kadmon/Spirit. Their corresponding levels of consciousness are: Nefesh/Instinct, Ruach/Emotion, Neshamah/Ego, Chayya/Transpersonal, and Yechidah/Nondual.
All five worlds and levels of consciousness are present in each of us at all times. We tend to focus on the self conscious Neshamah, however, and filter everything through it: my body, my feelings, my thoughts, my soul, etc. This is necessary but insufficient if we are to understand our True Self. Meditation is a means for shifting attention from Neshamah to the more inclusive transpersonal realms of Chayya and Yechidah. Or to be a bit more poetic: meditation moves our awareness from the ego’s I to God’s I AM, revealing that God is the One Who manifests the many. The Jewish mystics articulate this teaching by an interesting Hebrew play on words.
The word for “I” in Hebrew is "ani"; the word for No-thingness (one of the Names of God) is "ain". Both words are made up the same three Hebrew letters: aleph, yud, and nun. They differ only in the order of these letters. When the yud (the "i") is on the end of the word you have ani, I. When the yud is in the middle of the word you have ain, God. The yud stands for "yadah", awareness. When awareness is focused outside of yourself it creates a sense of ani. When awareness is focused inside yourself the ani empties and ain is present. Meditation is a way of shifting focus from ani to ain.
I teach a variety of meditation practices. Here I shall focus on just one: the contemplative recitation of the Sh’ma: Hear, O Israel, that which we call God is Oneness Itself.
Find a quiet place to sit (either on cushions or in a chair), and settle into a comfortable upright position. Rest your hands on your lap or legs, place your tongue lightly on the roof of your mouth, relax your jaw, and close your eyes. If you tend to fall asleep, keep your eyes partially open, your gaze unfocused and directed at the floor about three feet in front of you.
Slowly recite the Sh’ma to yourself, linking each word to your breath: Breathe in "Sh’ma", breathe out "Yisrael"; breathe in "Adonai", breathe out "Eloheinu"; breathe in "Adonai", breathe out "Echad". Do this until you feel yourself slip into a deep quiet. Then stop the recitation and just sit. Allow sensations, thoughts, and feelings to pass without attending to them. In time Neshamah will open to Chayya; ani will melt into ain; “I” will surrender to I AM. This is what King David meant when he sang "kalta nafshi", my self is obliterated [Psalm 84:30]. This what our kabbalists called "bittul she-me’ever le-ta’am va-daat", the ending of thought.
Do not imagine that the end of thought is the end of the matter, however. To fully realize God you must bring your awareness of ain to bear on the world of ani. When the ain returns to the ani you come back to the world filled with "ahavah rabba", a greater compassion for all living things and a commitment to "tikkun haolam", healing the world through justice and love. We do this by recognizing the unity of all things in, with, and as God, and then acting accordingly.
For me the true value of Judaism arises at this point in my practice. Having tapped into the ain and returned with this powerful sense of ahavah rabbah, what do I do? Judaism is what to do: the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism are proven vehicles for translating the feeling of love into acts of love.
I grew up with the acts devoid of the feeling. I was taught to do them out of respect for the dead not to be of service of the living. I was taught a Judaism of the past not one alive to the Living Presence. My meditation practice revealed the true purpose of Judaism to me.
There are meditation traditions in every religion. I urge you to explore them.