Why I Meditate

Getty/Nazar Rybak

Rabbi Rami contemplates his discussion with artist Fariha Róisín and uncovers the root of his meditative practice.

I have meditated almost every day for the last half century.

The methods I use have changed over time and now include a variety of Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist practices reflecting my own eclectic spirituality, but my dedication to practice has not waned. This is why, I suspect, I was captivated by a simple question Fariha Róisín poses in her new book, Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind: “Why do I meditate?”

In my youth, I would have said I meditate for enlightenment: the realization that all life is the happening of nondual Aliveness (Chiut in Hebrew) accompanied by an effortless engagement with life steeped in wisdom, justice, and compassion. The hubris of thinking I know what enlightenment is and how to get it has, thankfully, long left me, and I now leave enlightenment to the grace of the Divine Mother.

In this I follow the guidance of Taitetsu Unno, my Buddhist teacher and a Pure Land Priest. After a decade of sitting zazen (Zen meditation) I visited him to complain of my lack of awakening. Why, I wanted to know, after all these hours on the cushion, I was not awake? His answer was simple: “Meditation doesn’t work.”

Awakening is a gift that comes when one is ready to receive it. As long as I yearned for it, I was unworthy of receiving it.

During my middle years as a management consultant, I often heard from business leaders who took up meditation to make themselves more efficient and effective leaders rather than enlightened and who urged their employees to meditate to reduce stress and become more proficient and productive workers. This is what Fariha Róisín calls McMindfulness and what I call Dzogchen for Dollars: harnessing contemplative practices to capitalist ends.

Today (and for many years) my answer to Ms. Róisín’s question—“Why do I meditate?— is this: I meditate because I enjoy it. The practice is its own reward. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. In this way, I have abandoned all sense of spiritual discipline in favor of spiritual play. Joy is the standard by which I measure my practice: It explains why I do what I do and why I don’t do what I don’t do.

For example, I spend almost every Shabbat walking, chanting, and studying sacred texts, Jewish and otherwise. Why? Because I enjoy doing these things. On the other hand, I rarely spend Shabbat praying in synagogue. Why? Because I don’t enjoy it. Setting aside Shabbat for joy seems much richer to me than setting aside Shabbat to meet religious obligations that no longer speak to me. While I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home defined by hundreds of Jewish laws, I have tossed the entire legal system over for the ecstasy of joy.

I’m not suggesting you do the same, but I am suggesting you take Fariha Róisín’s question seriously: Why do you meditate, pray, or worship? Are you seeking to earn some physical or spiritual reward? Or are you enjoying the practice itself?

Listen to Rabbi Rami's discussion with Fariha here.

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Why I Meditate

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