From Haredi Yeshiva to Insight Meditation

Background

My formative years were spent attending extremely religious schools that had an exclusively religious focus; that was part of being raised ultra-Orthodox Jewish in Jerusalem. The long days at the Haredi yeshivas consisted entirely of studying and memorizing ancient religious texts to the exclusion of all else. It was an environment ill-suited to my naturally inquisitive temperament.

Of my eight siblings, I was the first to challenge the validity of our religion. Following a period of intense questioning and re-evaluating Orthodox Judaism’s central tenets in my teens, I disavowed my faith and tentatively entered the foreign and inevitably intimidating secular world. I could no longer buy into the central premises of the belief system.

Losing my faith in God was an isolating and disorienting process. Absolutely everything I had believed about the world and the purpose of life turned out to be wrong; I was leaving it all behind. My parents did not take this turn of events lightly, resulting in intense strife at home. Longtime friends and community members shunned me, holding me up as a cautionary tale. In the ensuing period, I was forced to reorient myself socially, emotionally and philosophically, while having very little in the way of external support.

Not long after leaving the Orthodox world behind, I enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces for three years of compulsory service. This was my first proper encounter with secular Israelis, and it was eye-opening to encounter segments of Israeli society I was unfamiliar with. During this time, I began experimenting recreationally with psychedelic drugs. I regularly attended music festivals on weekends, which typically involved ingesting drugs.

Though I was dimly aware of it at the time, these experiences had a profound effect on me. I was introduced to vast landscapes of mind previously unknown to me — to the incredible fluidity and malleability of consciousness. William James’ observation  became eminently clear to me:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.[i]

These experiences awoke something deep in me, and I was left longing to revisit these beatific, meaning-drenched spaces following each psychedelic journey.

Towards the end of my military service, philosopher and author Sam Harris published Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I was a fan of his by then, having been influenced by his vehement critique of organized religion. Given my strictly religious background, I had been allergic to anything that smelled of woo-woo and irrational belief, and a term like “spirituality” would ordinarily set off my alarm bells.

My newfound openness due to psychedelics, however, and Sam’s credibility as a no-nonsense thinker had me eager to read his new book. His carefully argued case for the life-changing value of a contemplative practice devoid of metaphysical and theological baggage struck a deep chord in me. I began practicing Sam’s guided meditations daily and eagerly awaited the opportunity to delve more fully into the practice.

Practice History

In 2015, I attended my first 10-day intensive silent meditation retreat in India. The schedule had us sitting in meditation for the majority of the day, excluding meals and short breaks. We were encouraged to allow whatever is arising in the moment. I found myself deeply resonating with the Buddhist framework I was introduced to. It was remarkable to me how challenging it was to execute a seemingly simple instruction such as “follow the breath”. My mind and body apparently wanted to be anywhere but the present moment with the breath.

On day three of the retreat, I was confronted with what felt like a lifetime of stored trauma and emotional residue. Strong feelings started percolating into my awareness, and I began weeping uncontrollably. Once these floodgates were open, they were left permanently ajar. The outpouring of emotions continued unabated, and before long, I found myself devoting the remaining retreat days to shedding long-standing layers of grief and pain that I had never before allowed myself to confront.

It is difficult to overstate the cathartic relief that accompanied this emotional processing. Much to my astonishment, I uncovered an inherent capacity for healing that seemed to manifest itself as soon as the necessary conditions were established. Despite my inexperience with this unfamiliar terrain, I had an intuitive sense that these emotions had been “waiting” to be felt, so to speak. All it took was a brief pause, in order to cultivate a sense of presence and acceptance. Although it was challenging, the retreat proved to be profoundly transformative.

Over the years, I have dedicated a cumulative twelve months to immersive, silent retreats, each ranging from three days to three months.[ii] Much of this practice took place in India, Thailand and Myanmar, where I had the privilege of immersing myself in various forms of ancient wisdom traditions. Sayadaw U Tejaniya, an acclaimed teacher of  insight meditation based in Myanmar, has had a particularly strong influence on my practice. His approach is refreshingly open and fluid as he emphasizes how one is being aware over what one is being aware of. Given this emphasis, this style of practice translates quite naturally into daily life. I have also gleaned a lot from Sam Harris’s excellent meditation app, which has familiarized me with the Tibetan Dzogchen approach.[iii]

The Value of Practice: Conventional Benefits

Why spend so much time meditating? I’m often asked this question, and it’s not easy to give a concise answer. I will do my best to share some insights on the value of meditation.

It is worth distinguishing between two separate levels on which meditation operates. The first level is more conventional and includes benefits like stress-reduction, healing, non-reactivity, etc. — the promise of which is often what attracts people to the practice initially. A consistent meditation practice can truly enhance one’s presence in their life, decrease the likelihood of reactive states of mind and foster greater self-compassion.

Meditation has been a powerful tool in my own life, allowing me to cultivate a deeper connection with my wounded heart and to provide the necessary space to shed layers of pain and protective shielding. Allowing myself to feel my pain allows it to gradually release from my body. Feeling my pain is the only way to let it go. It feels as though the energies stored in the body percolate up from below, being felt as they make their way out of my being. The cumulative impact of this release is immense; I feel palpably lighter in my body and spirit over time. Certain sensations that I have lived with for as long as can recall, like tightness in the chest, gradually lessen in intensity. In meditation, I have found a method of offering myself self-love and self-compassion, feelings of which I was starved growing up.

The capacity to identify thoughts as mere thoughts without getting caught up in them is a particularly powerful aspect of meditation practice. Insight meditation can reveal the extent to which our self-talk is often unnecessary, and even counterproductive, leading to unnecessary suffering. Happily, meditation also reveals that we need not take hold of — and believe — the content of our thoughts. We can learn to view these thought patterns as impermanent, habitual patterns, thus allowing them to “float by” and disappear naturally.

This can be life-changing. The difference between being caught in a negative emotion like anger for five minutes or five hours can be drastic. Instead of dwelling on the fact that my housemate has repeatedly ignored my requests to keep the noise down at night, for example, I notice the repetitive thoughts fueling my anger and allow them to pass on their own. If I can clearly be aware of the component parts of my cascading resentment towards my housemate — thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations — I can diffuse my anger. Mindfulness acts as a kind of “lubricant” that prevents the narrative of a particular thought loop from sticking too tenaciously. With mindfulness, I can observe the arising of anger without being consumed by it. This creates a space for me to choose a response that is more appropriate and effective, rather than acting impulsively out of anger. Mindfulness does not prevent me from taking action, but rather allows me to respond in a more skillful way. It can mean the difference between saying or doing something I later regret and successfully avoiding such action.

In fact, it is impossible to stay angry for more than mere moments at a time without continually manufacturing these feelings by thinking without knowing that we’re thinking. This is among the liberating insights on offer in insight meditation. Breaking the spell of thought, then, is a direct path to increased levels of psychological freedom and well-being. Sustained mindfulness practice can reduce the suffering born of changes in the content of our experience, thus rendering the mental spaces we occupy much healthier and happier places to be.

The Value of Practice: Non-Duality

The second level at which meditation operates involves fundamental insights into the nature of conscious experience that directly lead to profound psychological freedom. This element of practice is often left out of popular packaging of mindfulness meditation for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay. Yet, this is the heart of what deep contemplative practice is about.

The central insight on offer is that we are not who we take ourselves to be. By default, we strongly identify as selves in the world, inhabiting our experience from our heads. We feel as though we are here — with “here” being somewhere between our ears — and the world is out there. We don’t feel identical to experience and to our bodies; rather, we feel as though experience is something that happens to us and we have a body. Though we may not explicitly conceive of it in these terms, the internal logic of our experience entails there being some part of me that is really me, a little Mike in my head. After all, who is this all happening to if not me? Who is doing the thinking if not me?

Sometimes referred to as “common-sense dualism,” this mode of being mostly goes unquestioned, given how intuitive it seems to us. In Buddhist terminology, this is referred to as “delusion,” connoting a fundamental confusion about the nature of our experience. This sense of self is driven in large part by being continually identified with thought. Thinking without being aware that we are thinking reinforces the idea that there is a separate entity, a “thinker”, who is doing the thinking. And much of our thinking is self-referential, further solidifying the sense of self.

Indeed, the sense of self is often the root cause of psychological suffering. It is the thing that implicates us in experience, the thing to which experience refers. It is the mechanism by which we resist certain elements of our experience and cling to others. It is also the mechanism by which experience becomes personal; pain becomes my pain, anger becomes my anger. The natural flow of experience gets incessantly interfered with as a result of mistakenly placing a self at the center of it.

When we investigate our experience through insight meditation, we can come to realize that the self we thought we were is actually a constructed mental phenomenon, not a fixed or inherent entity. It cannot be found. It is a confection born of not paying close enough attention to our moment-to-moment experience. Paying close attention to experience reveals that consciousness — the knowing of experience — is essentially impersonal. Everything appears within consciousness, but consciousness itself is not implicated in its appearances. A commonly used metaphor is that of a mirror which reflects everything it encounters, while remaining unaffected by the reflections. All there is as a matter of experience is consciousness and its contents, and the feeling of self is yet more content. The feeling of self is no more you than a sound is you when you hear it. Appearances come and go in the space of consciousness, and some of these appearances take on the shape of a self.

To be clear, the “self” I am alluding to that turns out to be illusory is the feeling of being separate from experience, of being an entity in your head. Everything else remains unchanged; we can still conceive of ourselves as individuals in the world with distinct histories and bodies. But we no longer feel separate from experience. This is what the term non-dual points towards: it is not unity, since there is a multiplicity of things, but it is not duality either since everything is appearing in the seamless field of consciousness. What remains upon seeing through the sense of self is experience without a center. You no longer feel at the center of it all—everything simply appears in its own place. The illusory distance between subject and object collapses.

The insight into selflessness is a crucial aspect of insight meditation, and what is noteworthy is that it does not necessitate any special changes in the content of our experience to be able to see the absence of the self. Indeed, this objective truth about our subjective experience is in full view even in the most ordinary of moments. You can come to see the lack of self when feeling angry behind the wheel of a car just as clearly as during a profound spiritual experience, though it can take more experience and stability in practice to cut through ordinary moments. This insight often comes as glimpses, initially, brief instances of recognition that are facilitated by deliberate effort and which remain elusive. With time, the insight into selflessness can become immediately available and increasingly stable.

At this point in practice, a moment of mindfulness is synonymous with non-duality. Waking up from being lost in experience is, at the same time, waking up from being lost in the sense of self. One then seeks to gradually stabilize this style of awareness so that one can spend more and more time in this recognition. Retreat practice offers an opportunity to step into a simplified and silent space that is conducive to deep contemplation that can lead to greater stability in this way of seeing. The retreat experience can be conceived of as a training ground for bringing mindfulness and non-dual awareness to everyday life.

The Implications of No-Self

The psychological implications of discovering the absence of self are significant. This is where the conventional and more esoteric aspects of practice converge. The freedom available is independent of changes in our experience, and yet it leads to many desirable changes. Losing one’s sense of self — if only for moments at a time — allows for an entirely different way of being in the world, one devoid of much of the self-implicated neurotic concerns and preoccupations. This realization invites a natural sense of allowing whatever arises in our experience, with the understanding that we are not in control, and everything is simply unfolding as it is.

As we release the burden of self, we can more fully show up for the people we cherish in our lives. This way of being allows us to listen in a wholehearted way and cultivate natural compassion in response to suffering. The complementary aspect of recognizing the absence of self in oneself is the realization that others also lack a fixed, inherent self. This understanding can lead to a profound shift in how we relate to others, as we see them not as separate individuals, but as interconnected and inseparable from ourselves. This perspective can foster greater empathy and compassion as we recognize that others’ actions and experiences are shaped by conditions beyond their control, just as our own are. It can also dissolve feelings of isolation and separation, leading to a greater sense of interdependence and interconnectedness with all beings. The more we see through the illusion of a separate, isolated self in the world, the more we become aware of the suffering inherent in this way of being. It can be a clarifying, yet heartbreaking realization. Additionally, we can become more aware of the complex and subtle ways in which our past suffering and conditioning can lead us to harm others. We see how our own pain and reactivity can cause us to react unskillfully and perpetuate cycles of harm.

Let me try to describe the power of the experience of non-duality when in relationship with another — in having a conversation with a friend, for example, a moment of non-dual awareness. If only for a brief moment, I am no longer implicated in my friend’s gaze; she is not there, looking at me here. She simply is, in the open space of awareness that contains all of experience, including her body and my body. This is a beautiful way of paying attention to another human being, as it does away with much of the self-concern and neurotic tendencies typically associated with another’s gaze trained on me. For a moment, I can be fully attentive to my friend, witnessing her in her entirety with less reactivity than would typically arise from of my familiar sense of self in her presence. I can truly listen and respond in an uncontrived, authentic way. I can let go of previous moments in the interactions (e.g., “Why did I just say that?!”) and begin each moment in her presence anew. I can glimpse the unfathomable complexity and beauty of her being, interrupting my habitual pre-existing conception of who she is and how I expect her to show up.

As our hearts open through practice, we are naturally moved to ameliorate suffering when we encounter it. The protective shields of our separate sense of self and guarded hearts that keep us shielded from others, start to weaken, leading to a gradual dissolution of the barriers that keep us apart. Others’ suffering comes to seem like our own in a very real sense, and we begin to feel a sense of shared responsibility and urgency to respond. This is not a bleak outcome that has us cowering in the face of the overwhelming suffering in the world. Instead, it is a deeply compassionate stance that naturally leads to action in response to suffering and injustice. As reactive attitudes such as anger and blame are reduced, we are better equipped to consider a wise and effective course of action with a balanced mind. This can help us to avoid inadvertently causing more harm in response and instead, to respond with greater skillfulness and compassion.

Insight meditation is like a multifaceted jewel, with various facets and dimensions that can be explored and understood.  I hope I have given you a glimpse of the value of meditation practice, especially the importance of going beyond the surface-level benefits to discover deeper truths about our experiences. Fortunately, the path itself is immensely heart-opening and joyful, as one encounters the overwhelming beauty and utter mystery of consciousness. To me, few things are as meaningful as delving deeply into what it truly means to be a conscious being in this world.

[i] Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902/

[ii] In late May, I will begin my third three-month silent retreat at the Forest Refuge of the Insight Meditation Society. I also spent three months with Sawadaw U Tejaniya in Myanmar.

[iii] The Waking Up app can be found at https.//www.wakingup.com/

One Response

  1. “Waking up from being lost in experience is, at the same time, waking up from being lost in the sense of self.”

    This was a clearly written essay on a subject which it can be difficult to speak clearly about. I found it a pleasure to read.

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