At 6 a.m., my teacher strikes the singing bowl. The tone spirals out, becomes hollow. At the center of a room emptied of sound, we sit cross-legged, facing a brick wall. Slowly the mind quiets, the breath deepens; the sounds from outside seep through the bricks—a jogger, two kids laughing and arguing their way to the bus stop, an ambulance, a helicopter.
Right now there is no text, no prayer, no millennia of continuity, no God inspecting my deeds. There is my teacher and there is me, sinking below the turbulence in which I had swum for four decades. When my teacher strikes the bowl again, it jars me back to the surface. As the sound once again spools out—my lungs are open, my head is clear, and my knees ache. With silence and stillness, another day begins.
That was a decade ago. My story is not unique. Raised with little knowledge of or connection to Judaism yet seeking a spiritual path, I found Buddhism. A swift but deep journey into Buddhist practice led me, eventually, back to a Jewish practice informed by study and meditation. Something like this has happened to thousands of Buddhists in the West. Some Jews return to Judaism, some fully embrace Buddhism, but most find Judaism compatible with the contemplative practices they learn in the meditation hall. As writer Ellen Frankel has pointed out, alienated Jews seek a religious path that is open to them but not laden with antiquated dogma—a path that does not require conversion, yet engages the spirit. It’s hard to know exactly how many Jews practice in American sanghas, but it is undeniable that they make up a significant portion of the community. Indeed, Jay Michaelson, a contributing editor to The Jewish Daily Forward, claims that the Western practice of Buddhism is itself an invention of disaffected Jews. One imaginative ayatollah goes as far as to suggest that Jews, eager to escape universal loathing, created Buddhism as a cover.
Buddhism helped me through a time of intense spiritual dislocation. Seated in meditation or in study with my teacher, I began to apprehend an internal narrative depicting myself as a helpless victim of stronger wills rather than an active cocreator of my circumstances. In the zendo, I learned how to sit still with and gradually overcome that story. And doing so has transformed the connection to God that I experience in the synagogue. Now, the interplay between synagogue and zendo is helping me through an even more difficult period.
Less than a month ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. When the call came, we were standing outside a frozen yogurt shop with our eldest daughter and her boyfriend. Our daughter immediately dissolved into tears—the mothers of two close friends had lost battles with cancer in the past couple years. Our daughter’s tears caused my wife to immediately begin sobbing; the boyfriend and I placed our arms around our loves and cast our helpless gazes to the ground.
So much has been written about the choices available to Western Jews as they go about customizing a spiritual life. But what becomes of your spiritual life when it’s confined to the single, unglamorous task of caretaking? When your reservoir of compassion repeatedly runs dry, and when you suffer everyday in seeing your partner suffer—what then?
In my early days of Buddhist study, when my teacher asked me to carry a journal and to hold the thought “Not Two” in my mind for a week, I wasn’t certain what she meant, or what I should or shouldn’t be thinking. One autumn day, I visited my parents in the Chicago community in which I’d grown up. I parked my car in the shade of a maple tree. When I returned to my car, I saw that one side of the tree’s canopy of leaves had turned red and gold while the other remained green. In that moment, I had a flash of perception about the helpful illusion of dualism. It was fall and not-fall; the tree was one and not one; and I was one and not-one with the tree, and with each and all of its leaves.
This lesson reverberates each time I accompany my wife to her doctors’ appointments and chemotherapy sessions. For her, these visits are equal parts anxiety, boredom and physical pain. She receives questionnaires with seemingly endless, vague questions and she scours educational materials. I take notes. In all of this, we are alone and not alone.
Each morning, prior to meditating, I pause to reflect on the Not-Two-ness of my wife and I, the pain and the waiting, the healthy cells and the cancer.
But prayer, too, is helpful. It is said that we pray not to change God’s mind but to change our own disposition toward the world, and indeed all of creation. Jewish prayer, which in its traditional form is an intricately choreographed series of words and actions, has always sustained my wife. Praying with her in community, before the Ark that holds the Torah, it is possible to feel the Not-Two-ness of the entire community—its yearnings for peace and wholeness.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in The Lonely Man of Faith, noted that there are two stories about God’s creation of Adam in the book of Genesis. The first (Gen. 1:26–29) says only that God made Adam in His image; the second (Gen. 2:7), meanwhile, says that Adam formed from the dust of the Earth and God breathed life into his nostrils. The first Adam, says Soloveitchik, is a creator: restless and driven, eager to harness the abundant resources at his disposal. He asks not “Why?” but “How?” The second Adam, on the other hand, is seized by curiosity and wonder. He is a receptor and explorer of the abundance in which he finds himself. The first Adam builds and works through community; the second Adam reflects on his aloneness and seeks to understand.
This is the Not-Two-ness of Judaism.
Each morning during these past turbulent weeks, I have risen before my wife, quietly making my way downstairs to meditate. Even as I sink below the surface of my roiled mind, I stay alert for her footfall. As soon as I hear those first steps—even when in the midst of meditation—I bound up the stairs to check on her. I continue to pray that the forces of healing will vanquish her cancer. And I continue to sit in silence each morning, breathing, thinking and not-thinking, becoming aware of all that arises and falls away, within and without.