Practising Self Restraint

My wife is a Buddhist. Don’t get me wrong – she’s also Jewish: a Jewish Buddhist. The official term, coined by Roger Kamenetz in his best-selling book, The Jew in the Lotus is a ‘Ju-Bu’ – although she’s a Jew-Bu: a Jew who incorporates Buddhist teaching and reflective practice into her Jewish life. Why, you may ask? I will come to that in a moment. First, let me elaborate:

Three times a week, my wife goes to the Buddhist Centre in Brighton to the shrine room, takes out the cushions and soft mat, arranges herself comfortably, wraps a prayer shawl round her shoulders and begins.

First, she says the blessing and a prayer for donning the tallit.

Then she reads in full five core Jewish prayers, in search of any random two words to focus on for that day – like, for example, ‘ahavah rabbah – deep love’: the first word held in the mind for the inhalation of breath, the second, for the exhalation. She feels the feeling: in-breath – ahavah; out-breath – rabbah. On the in-breath she imagines herself drawing in from the world to the depths of her being, ‘Love’; on the out-breath she imagines flooding out of her heart, ‘Deep’.

Then she picks up her Mala (prayer beads) and using the beads to count the prayers recites: on the receptive in-breath, ‘May I be well’ (‘If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?’); on the expressive out-breath, ‘May others be well’ (‘But, If I am only for myself, what am I?’). As she breathes, she holds in her mind people she knows, especially people she finds troubling, with the intention of creating spaciousness in herself around her negative feelings towards them, in order to dilute the power of those feelings.

She spends the next ten minutes sitting and breathing, while imaging on the in-breath, a wave in the sea as it arches on its journey towards the shore; on the out-breath, the wave crashing on to the beach.

What is the point of this Buddha-like sitting? My wife is a highly reactive, dynamic person, who is out there in the world getting involved, arguing, asserting her point of view … But as she learned more about Buddhist practice, she saw that very often she stretched herself out into the world like a leaping hare on occasions when she should have imitated the snail and withdrawn deeply into herself.

I think she was surprised that by using the breath and visualisations (classic Buddhist practices) as the vehicles taking her away from external conflict towards something deeper, more stable, and calmer, she discovered readily available resources within herself to manage life better.

By practicing, the habit of referring inwards has developed.

I have explained why my wife chooses to engage in Buddhist spiritual practice. But why have I chosen to tell you about it? On the one hand, what she is doing is very Jewish – Jews are, after all, commanded to pray three times a day. On the other hand, it’s very un-Jewish: the pursuit of self-restraint and calm – are you kidding?

I notice in communities of all kinds, but especially in the angst ridden, creative, dynamic, self-expressive, argumentative Jewish world, how quickly people lose self-restraint. I am famous for this too!

We love to be out there battling away, putting our feelings first – our indignation, our pain – as if the only thing that matters is that we get it all out. Do we think of the impact? We get so caught up in our emotions, we lose all sense of perspective, and what we really want to achieve. In the pouring out of our feelings, un-contained, we succeed in washing away good sense, compassion for others, the wisdom of listening and seeing things form other points of view. So, our communal interactions get overwhelmed by reactive and counter-reactive responses – leading to chaos and disharmony.

While my wife’s Buddhist circles are no better, they do come together with the intention of maintaining self-restraint in their interactions with one another.

Jews stand for the central Prayer (the Amidah) addressing a Sovereign; Buddhists sit, as the Buddha sits. The Buddha image provides a model for the practitioner of what she or he is aiming for: not calmness, but containment of inner chaos.

I am not suggesting that Jews should become Buddhists. And, anyway, perhaps Buddhists could learn a bit from us about lively engagement. On the other hand, perhaps we Jews could learn that self-containment and reflection are helpful precursors to self-expression?