The following article appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Inquiring Mind

by Yael Shy

I started meditating in college. I was a sophomore at NYU and 9/11 had just happened. President Bush was launching the war in Afghanistan, my parents were recently divorced, I had just ended a relationship of my own, and it felt like the world was crumbling around me. I could no longer trust my parents or my government to take care of me. The final authority figure to come toppling down was God.

As a child, I related to God as an imaginary best friend with superpowers. Late at night, under my blankets, I often had lengthy conversations with God about my hopes and dreams, my family and the person I wanted to be. I loved the Jewish holidays, I loved the traditions, but what I loved most about Judaism was this personal relationship with God.

As my struggles increased in those college years, my conception of an imaginary-friend God started to feel childish and ridiculous. When I thought of my family, my country and the world in general, a bitter voice thundered in my head: There is nobody in charge! I felt miserable and lost.

During this period, my mother gave me a flyer for a seven-day silent Jewish meditation retreat. I thought it sounded nice—like a relaxing spa vacation. Of course, it was nothing like a spa. It was seven days of complete silence. We could ask questions of the teachers, but otherwise even eye contact was discouraged. We did sitting and walking meditation all day long. In the evening, the teachers gave talks on the intersection of mindfulness and Judaism.

I cried my way through the first two days. All of the painstakingly repressed trauma of the past two years was rising to the surface. By day three I was having panic attacks. On the fifth day, unable to outrun my anxiety, and with nothing at my disposal to repress it, I finally surrendered. Crouched in a corner of the meditation room, overrun with terror, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I prayed. “God,” I said, “help me.”

Suddenly, a great wave of emotion from the pit of my stomach came surging through my body. I cried intensely for hours. In the process, I started to touch something soft and still that was witnessing and holding the pain. In the midst of overwhelming grief, I felt connected to a deep and vast present moment. For the first time in ages I felt that everything, while still terrible, was also somehow okay.

In the middle of this process, I finally understood what the retreat teachers were getting at. The great stillness—the silent “emptiness” full of everything—that was what Judaism meant when it talked about God. Not a white-bearded judge in the sky or a figment of our collective imagination, God was this present-ness of all things, continually unfolding in each new moment. God was the container that held all the pain and brokenness of the world. And yet, God was also in the pain and brokenness. God was not something to be “believed in.” God was something to be experienced, and God-nature was always being experienced, whether I knew it or not. Meditation was the process by which I woke up to this fact.

This conception of God blew my mind. It felt as though a door to the faith I had loved so much as a child slowly started to open again. The more I looked at Judaism through this lens of an experiential God, a God that mirrors emptiness and interconnection at the heart of existence, the more I felt it to be true in the rituals and prayers at the heart of the religion.

For example, I grew up observing the Sabbath, which meant no television, no shopping, no work from Friday night to Saturday night. To my friends, it was a punishing day of prohibition and boredom. Within my family, however, the Sabbath was the sweetest day of the week. We ate delicious meals. We went for walks to the park. We played board games. It was a day for being, not doing. Like meditation, observing the Sabbath meant stopping labor and consumption, and instead, committing to being present. In that space, everything came alive. The food tasted better, the trees looked greener, the conversation seemed deeper. Observing the Sabbath was my first training ground for living mindfully.

And then there is the Shema. Like many observant Jews, I was taught to say the Shema when I woke up, when I went to sleep, when I entered a room (by kissing the mezuzah on the door) and when I exited it. The practice is meant to encircle all aspects of one’s life. The heart of the prayer is one simple sentence: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. The common translation is: Hear O Israel, The Lord Your God, The Lord Is One.

As I deepened my Jewish meditation practice, I discovered a different yet just as accurate translation: Listen, you-who-wrestle-with-the-Divine (the direct translation of “Israel”)! Being-ness, your God, Being-ness is one.

Suddenly, the prayer opened up for me. Each repetition was not just an assertion of one God but an urgent call to see the unity and interdependence that is existence. Listen! the prayer called out, Pay attention! It is a matter of life and death! Read this way, the Shema started to remind me of the words often written on the han, the wooden board Zen communities strike to call people to meditation. “Life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes by swiftly and opportunity is lost. Wake up! Wake up! Do not waste this life!”

Nearly twelve years after that first retreat, the conversation between Buddhism and Judaism in my life remains alive. I am still passionate about Judaism—I attend several Jewish meditation retreats each year, observe the Sabbath, and am certified as a Jewish Mindfulness Teacher. In 2008, I also began meditating regularly at the Brooklyn Zen Center, a few blocks from my house. I came to love the Zen rituals and deeply appreciated the way Buddhism directly lays out the science of the mind and the path to living an awakened life. The more I practiced in a Zen context, the more I felt its absence when I moved in primarily Jewish circles. Where was the stillness and the careful attention to each moment? The inverse happened when I stayed in Zen community for too long without touching in with my Jewish sangha. Where was the singing and dancing? The holidays that were the rhythm of my life? These two traditions support and deepen each other in my life, like two important food groups necessary for a complete diet.

In 2011, I became codirector of the NYU Center for Spiritual Life, where I have encountered world-renowned Buddhist and Jewish mindfulness teachers, and I am able to share their teachings with others from a wide range of faith backgrounds. This summer, I will be studying the Buddhist ethical precepts and taking a class on forgiveness in Jewish texts. Splitting my attention between both Jewish and Buddhist communities, I often ask myself, “Is it possible to engage, in a non-superficial way, in two rich spiritual traditions?” So far, the answer is a resounding yes! For as Rumi wrote, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Yael Shy is director of external relations at the New York University Center for Spiritual Life and the Of Many Institute for Multi-faith Leadership at NYU. She is also founder and director of the Mindfulness Project at NYU—one of the first and largest campus-wide meditation initiatives in the country. Shy also teaches at Shivti, Congregation Romemu’s Jewish meditation program in New York City. She is a graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Jewish Meditation Teacher Training Program and board co-chair of the Brooklyn Zen Center.

© 2013 Inquiring Mind