I'm so grateful to have sat down with Miriam Eisenberger, our Director of Mindfulness and Meditation, over warm bowls of Udon noodles, to discuss meditation. Like many members of this community, I have been interested in the practice of meditation - experiencing a great need for something centering in such a chaotic city (and world) - but hadn't found an entry way into this practice in a way that felt sincere or attainable, until I experienced Miriam's guidance.
Please enjoy excerpts from our conversation describing Miriam's path to Jewish Meditation, moving the mind towards greater clarity, kindness, and calm. (And for anyone interested in experiencing more, join me for Miriam's next six-week course: Finding Space in Crowded Places: Introductory to Mindfulness Training, starting next week!)
When did you start meditating, what was your initial introduction?
My very first introduction to meditation was through my mom who exposed it to me; she was learning meditation in a Buddhist discipline. I was in high school - and she started bringing Buddha statues into our home. At the time I was going to an Orthodox Hebrew day school and I was like What are these idols doing in our home? That was my initial exposure. Her next gesture was taking me to Rabbi Alan Lew’s class. He was a Jewish guy who got into Zen practice and through doing that realized he had to come back into Jewish practice. He became a rabbi and began introducing meditation into the Jewish world. He had a congregation in San Francisco and I took a class there. It didn’t quite land for me at the time. But in retrospect, I was really honored to have had the opportunity to sit with Rabbi Lew. Though it didn’t quite take off then, as the years progressed, I saw the effect of meditation on my mother: she was calmer, with a better perspective happier…She had gone through breast cancer, had a mastectomy and then came to practice. It was very helpful to her; she wasn’t pushing it, but I saw the change in her in a positive way.
When did you start back with it in earnest?
In college, I took a Buddhist Psychology class. In beginning of each class, we’d meditate for five minutes. Initially it was just notice your breath: notice when it drifts, then come back to your breath. The next level of instruction was follow your breath and when your mind drifts away note what you thinking about: judging planning remembering - catastrophizing, criticizing, whatever it was. So five minutes in, I’m sitting there, following my breath and I realized my mind wandered, and I thought Ok what am I going label this? And the next thing that happened, which was habitual for me was: Miriam, I can’t believe you can’t even think of a label for your own thought! I was berating myself and then I suddenly realized Oh that’s another thought, and that’s a berating thought and that it was a thought instead of being me, I could see it instead of being it. And suddenly it came and it went and it wasn’t who I was. It wasn’t stuck in me and it wasn’t my truth. I was around 20 at the time. And it was a huge moment; I am not my thoughts. Every thought I have is not the truth of who I am and the situation.
Wow, that seems like an amazing gift to be exposed to at that age.
It was. It was a moment of space within an internal pattern of self deprecating thinking. Such an insight: I can become aware of my thoughts and have space from them instead of avalanching. So I got really hooked after that. I got into a practice, going on retreats, had my first week-long retreat.
Was this Buddhist meditation?
Yes; I had left Judaism at the time. My experience in high school had left me sort of jaded, it became very dogmatic at my school and became a negative experience around something that had been very meaningful to me — it hit really hard. So I left Judaism behind and found meditation through Buddhist ideas and philosophy - But as I progressed on that path, the perspective that came out of that practice started highlighting Jewish texts and ideas, just seeing them in a different way and no longer was it top down: You should do this — Instead it was Oh there’s deep meaning in this - you naturally want to be kind, see the stranger as yourself. There was sort of natural movement to Judaism that became alive for me.
I began seeing Judaism in a way I hadn’t before…It took a number of years to pull these two philosophies together in a way that felt natural.
A turning point was finding Rabbi David Cooper’s books. God is a Verb was one of first books where I found teachers speaking to what I was seeing, feeling and finding. I could learn from someone else instead of trying to navigate myself.
Is that when the Jewish piece started to play?
I had been trying to educate myself because I just didn't know where to find teachers and then - out of nowhere I got this email from a Jewish Mediation group that was starting up in Brooklyn - Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn - and I went to their first sit and that was one of the first times I found a group of people who were interested in the same things and began to weave these two practices together and hold it in a way that made sense.
When you practiced, was it everyday?
I’ve gone through different stages. When I first got into it did it everyday for 30 - 40 mins, really dove into it, when I first moved to NYC fell out of practice there was just so much going on here.
What did that feel like? Can you feel the difference in your life?
Oh yeah, Totally.
I compare meditation to exercise, the longer you do it the stronger you get, the easier it gets, the more adept at it you feel. And you can also, say if you're a runner, it takes a while to build up at a certain pace, and if you stop running, you'll still be strong and healthy for a while but it will slowly de-condition. That happens with practice as well, you get de-conditioned, being attentive and aware of things happening in the present moment. When I moved here, I came from a steady practice, and steady calm.
When I stopped practicing I could feel, over time, losing that ability to be more open, more present and being swayed in ways that felt like waves of the ocean knocking me down instead of being able to surf.
It must be powerful to teach something that impacts peoples lives in such a profound way.
Yes, and it took me a long time to be a able to hear it. That’s a big part of practice — Seeing filters we’re experiencing our life through. There’s the emotional filter: I might be thinking about sad things now is different than everything’s sad or recognizing a certain thought pattern that's influencing our lives. For me when someone gave me a compliment I had always dismissed it. But with my practice and training - I could see it and once you can see it you can work with it: Thank you narrative I see it and now it can pass. That was so meaningful for me., Every time, I finish a class, talk or offering, I feel so blessed - It’s not even me - I’m being a conduit for that lesson teaching understanding, through my experience just being able to share this perspective: We can pause, We can be in this moment and try to see it for what it is and not for the way we want it to be and struggle for it to be. And there something restful in that, connected in that.