Meditation as the Foundation for Prayer

Rabbi Shefa Gold, Photo by Janice Rubin Photo by Janice Rubin

Rabbi Shefa Gold, photo © Janice Rubin

My meditation practice was born out of a desire to turn my life itself into a prayer. Prayer for me is the flow of connection between the finite and the infinite. My work in meditation is aimed at keeping that channel of connection open by cultivating a constant awareness of Divine Presence. That awareness then becomes the foundation of my prayer-life, the place from which I can connect with and interpenetrate the Divine.

The object of my practice is to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence. This is my foundational practice and part of the way I refine it is through teaching it. I call this constant awareness a devotional practice because it is fueled by my love and longing and intuition of wholeness. It is a practice of Intention, the pure and simple intention of just being, which means being in God’s Presence. Though it begins as the simplest of practices, I find that so much is required of me, and so much is revealed as my spiritual work is given to me layer by layer.

The deepest layer I call D’vekut, “cleaving”. Here in the absence of content, essence is revealed. Boundaries of self dissolve; the mind becomes spacious and the heart expands. Over time a foundation of Presence is laid beneath my life. This foundation of Presence is what makes Prayer work. When that foundation of Presence is established, then every word of prayer breaks through to the infinite, and every word I speak becomes God’s own words to me.

The Functions of Consciousness

In order to know the purity of just being, I have found that four distinct functions of consciousness must be cultivated. They are:

  1. The ability to focus attention
  2. Korban – The art of letting go of content
  3. T’shuvah – The art of returning (to the intention to be in God’s Presence)
  4. M’sirat Nefesh – surrendering of the small self to that transforming Presence

And so my practice becomes the building of these functions. The first function, the ability to focus attention, I have found to be a prerequisite or complement to letting go. Though the practice of simply sitting in God’s Presence itself is not a “focus” meditation, if I have not learned to focus, then I also cannot let go of focus and “just be.” This ability or “muscle of the mind” must be methodically conditioned and strengthened. Most meditation techniques work with this function, and perhaps in building a practice-life, this is where we must begin.

When I examine the 2nd function, the art of letting go of content, I find that certain qualities are needed in order to let go in a way that will bring me to the level of D’vekut, cleaving. I call it an “art”, because it matters HOW I let go of a thought. If I push that thought away with annoyance, if I indulge it too long, identify with it or disdain it, that thought will be given the power to keep me from my depths. In the Art of letting go, I see that I must cultivate a certain gentleness, self-compassion, as well as an awakened relaxed alertness to the workings of my mind. These then are the midot (attributes) that I must have access to in order to be an artist of letting go. I find that I can access these attributes through working with sacred phrases, using the words of our liturgy to unlock the particular quality, taste it, strengthen it and face the obstacles that block my way.

The third function T’shuva — The Art of Return — serves to strengthen my intention. After the moment of letting go of a thought, there is a gesture of Return … return to the intention of “just being in God’s presence.” HOW that return happens, and what fuels it matters. As I examine and build this function within me I find that the qualities of wholeheartedness, persistence, patience, and rigor are required. As I explore each of those qualities, I begin to identify my obstacles and challenges. If I am to have access to those qualities when I sit with the intention of just being in God’s presence, then each of those obstacles must be attended to, understood and dissolved in the light of my awareness and love. When I can understand the source of those difficulties and complexities, I can direct my prayer with compassion towards their resolution.

When I sit with the intention to just be in God’s presence, each thought that I sacrifice sends me deeper into presence, and when I wander, each return strengthens my intention which fuels the fires of sacrifice.

The first function — the ability to focus — prepares me to enter the holy space. The second and third — Korban and T’shuvah — describes the moment to moment process of dealing with thoughts in a way that opens the door to Presence.

The fourth function — M’sirat Nefesh — describes the over-all process of surrender. It is an awareness of the effects of these practices and the extent to which they constitute consent to God’s Presence. It is this consent to Presence which transforms our hearts.

The third layer of practice, the cultivation of midot, can be described as ecstatic practice. It employs heart opening techniques of breath-work, melody, rhythm, movement, inner-journeying, imagery and the building and refining of energy. This ecstatic energy is then used in the cultivation of the four functions of consciousness, and those functions are accessed as we simply enter the silence to “just be”. My prayer life has become the field of practice in this third layer, for every word of praise for God awakens that quality in me. Every halleluya waters the seed of God within me.

I find that each moment of silent meditation is a microcosm of my life. I must deal with physical pain, mental distraction, conflicting voices. And as the stillness in me rises, as my heart opens to the pervading Presence, I experience both the fullness of my incarnation, and receive glimpses through to the vastness beyond. Moment by moment, I am given the opportunities to enter into that spaciousness. The qualities that I must cultivate in order to step through that doorway in meditation are the same qualities I need in order to live a life in which the fullness of my love is realized. As I practice each day, I am growing that love.  And from that watered garden each fragrant breath calls out an invitation. “Blow upon my garden that its perfume may waft out. Let my Beloved come into his garden, and eat its precious fruits.” (Song of Songs 4:16)

  • Rabbi Gold will be offering a Silent Meditation Retreat in NM, August 10-16. Learn more at
  • The Eighth Cohort of Kol Zimra: Chant Leader’s Professional Development begins at the end of this month:
C-DEEP: Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice
A project of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal