A Spiritual Dynamics Approach to Spiritual Education

A Spiritual Dynamics Approach to Spiritual Education

©CCAR Journal
Spring, 2014

by Mike Comins

Lawrence Kushner laid down the gauntlet in Honey From the Fire when he wrote of an experience with a class at his congregation.1 When he asked, "Do you believe in God?" all replied in the negative. When he asked about moments of connection to God, the students had much to say.

The lesson for Jewish educators: focus on God-moments rather than God-ideas. Take students to tour Israel, to lobby in Washington D.C., to study Torah with their peers, to re-build homes after a hurricane, to pray at camp, to hike in a national park.

This approach is hardly novel. The most influential Jewish thinkers of our time focus on the spiritual dynamics of transcendent moments. Martin Buber’s I-Thou, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical amazement, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s lonely man of faith eschew theological speculation. Rather, they describe their connection to God from a personal, subjective, emotional and ethical viewpoint. Like them, Jewish educators should explore the characteristics of God-moments for themselves. In the words of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Theology is the afterthought of the believer. You never have someone coming up with a good theology if he or she didn’t first have an experience."2

There has been great progress in recent years, but I believe that there is still a long way to go. Prayer is a prime example. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, I find that when Reform Jews talk about prayer, the conversation revolves around whether God exists and answers prayer. When I look at the books and the curricular materials on Jewish prayer, they center on the history and ideas of the siddur, returning us again to theological speculation.

In a spiritual dynamics approach, we ask: what do good pray-ers do when they pray? What goes into a transcendent moment and how do I make that happen more often? We explore topics such as putting heart into words, or connecting to our deepest yearnings, or we ask: what does the latest brain science teach us about teshuvah and self-change? God-ideas are not critical: we let God-ideas arise when our experience makes them relevant. Instead, we concentrate on what is critical: the skills of spiritual practice that produce God-moments.

Like many in my generation, I experienced the power of spiritual practice in non- Jewish contexts, particularly Yoga, Buddhist meditation and practices in nature inspired by Daoists and Native Americans. Not concerned with deities, the teachers were practical and the context was psychological. How does this work, what skills must I learn to do it, how does it change me and how does this practice change the world? Applying this same strategy to Judaism has transformed my spiritual life, connecting me to God and enlivening my Jewish practice.

For some time now I have worked with a spiritual dynamics approach in my work as an outdoor educator and teacher of prayer. In this article, I would like to present the main elements that inform this strategy for spiritual education.

Embracing the Right Brain

When transcendent moments occur—characterized by emotion, intuition, empathy, artistry, openness, connection and ethical relationship—more neurons are firing on the right side of the brain. Recognizing this fact does not necessitate an anti- intellectual stance, downplay the critical role of left-brain thinking in spiritual life, or deny that left-brain activity, particularly Torah study, often leads to transcendent, right-brain moments.

But most God-moments, such as the transcendent moments described by Buber and Heschel, are right-brain dominant. It is widely recognized that successful prayer in public settings, the main, spiritual activity in our communities, is facilitated by music, poetry and silence. A third-person analysis of theological concepts or historical events rarely works in liturgical prayer, where we are rehearsing words spoken many times before rather than learning new, left-brain stimulating content. Instead, we employ the reflexive, dialogical kind of speaking demanded by poetry. It is when we forsake the role of analytic observer and speak the words of our sacred drama as sacred actors, mostly phrased in the first and second person, that Jewish liturgy inspires. So, too, with most ritual.

We would be wise, then, to understand the dynamics of right-brain states. If we know what transcendent moments feel like, and if we know what gets us there, we have solid guidance as to what our spiritual practice should look like, and the skills we need to make it work.


I want to pray in a direction that leads to a direct experience of the Divine. The only place that can happen is in the present moment...It’s not a sufficient condition; you could be aware of the present moment and hate it, but it’s a precondition.
Rabbi Jeff Roth3

A simple definition of mindfulness: The state of consciousness when awareness is tethered to the present. In mindfulness, we are not fretting over what has been or planning what will be. We are not anxious about what might be.

Nor are we in third-person analytic mode, dispassionately comparing the alternatives in I-It fashion. In I-Thou moments, when we are mindful of the Other and enjoy the dialogue that comes from empathetic communion, the thou fills our vision. Firmly in the present moment, hearing and seeing the thou as they are without judgment, we transcend our own dramas. We are open to new experience and new insights. We connect to the Holy One, Who, Buber teaches, is present in every genuine moment of dialogue.

Mindfulness is not a sufficient condition of I-Thou, and by extension, of other kinds of transcendent moments, such as the devekut described by Chasidim that inspired and overlaps with I-Thou, or moments of pure mystical union with the Divine. We might be focused on the present and consumed with anger, for instance. But mindfulness is a necessary condition for most moments of transcendence.

The Body Matters

Unfortunately, we cannot simply think the thought, "I’ll stop my left-brain, thinking mind now and become intuitive, emotional and artistic." If only that were possible! Rather, we must shift our attention elsewhere in order to change our state of consciousness. The athlete concentrates on the game, the artist focuses on the model and the canvas, the meditator on the breath, the dancer on the dance, the doctor on the patient, the parent on the child, the writer on the idea—and they listen. They overcome their own preoccupations and preconceptions to "empty out." They listen closely to the other, or they open their hearts to the world in general, including their own hearts, to receive feedback or inspiration or wisdom to apply to their task.

Two threads are common to this experience. We are in the present, and we are in our bodies. The best, most readily available option to escape our thinking minds is to put awareness on sensual experience by focusing attention on what we are seeing, touching, hearing, and smelling.

As an outdoor educator, I wondered why people apathetic to synagogue services loved the very same ritual under a redwood tree. Now it is obvious to me. Our bodies are intimately connected to our emotions and intuition. What do you trust when you are gauging the attitude of another person, their words, or their facial expressions and body "language?" Research shows that patients with a view from the hospital room heal quicker, and workers are more productive in the corner office than in a cubicle. The list of examples demonstrating the mind/body/heart connection is long.4 When I take people on a hike, they are already in their senses. They are already in their right brains and focused on something outside of themselves. They are already in a mental state where connection to others and to God is much more likely.

Why is music so critical to synagogue services? When I enter a sanctuary, I immediately activate the left side of my brain by reading. Fortunately, music quickly changes my brain state by requiring my sensual participation. While my analytic mind continues to decode symbols, my right brain processes the awareness placed on my hearing and the felt vibrations of my body. My body is engaged; my heart has a fighting chance.

Judaism as a Practice

Another area of concern to the spiritual, Jewish educator is the overall approach to mitzvot. Many Jews practice Yoga. Almost none of them do so because Yoga is expected of them as heirs to a three thousand year-old spiritual tradition. Rather, they try Yoga because they hear there are benefits, they have a rough idea of what it will take to get them, they are willing to make an effort, and they pay attention to whether or not it is working.

It is nearly impossible to unleash the power of Jewish ritual, particularly prayer, without similar expectations and goals, but most liberal Jews show up to the occasional service and High Holidays the way they attend a movie or a concert: waiting to be entertained. If the movie makers or the musicians perform well, a highly moving, spiritual experience is possible. It depends on the artists. Similarly, I can have a great experience in services...if the rabbi and cantor, the choir and the prayer book, move me. And if I’m not moved? The implicit mind-set, which all too often we clergy have internalized, is that there is something wrong with how we lead services. Satisfying prayer depends on the prayer book or the choir or the rabbi, anything but the person praying. What an absurd statement, yet we act as if it is true!

Contrast this to the experience of people who treat prayer as a practice. They approach praying as the art that it is. Pray-ers have a clear idea of the benefits (becoming a better person, connecting to God, living a life of service). They learn the best techniques and practices from their teachers. They develop their skills through study and repetition, applying their yearning and creativity. They evaluate if prayer is opening their hearts and cultivating their values and virtues, which enables them to tweak their practice over time to get more out of it. And as they get better at praying and see it work, they are motivated to pray more. They "own" their prayer lives, much the way musicians take responsibility for their music, or athletes approach their sport, or even the way a good parent works on their parenting or a doctor gets better at treating patients.

We clergy work on the bima and since that is under our control, we focus on it. Sermons, music, atmosphere, tempo, readings. But nothing done on the stage up front matches the transformative power of what the pray-ers—and only the pray- ers—can do for themselves when they listen deeply to their hearts, share their lives with God, and pray from the depths of their souls. That can’t happen when the rabbi is delivering a sermon, no matter how poignant. Music can aid; good music always carries the taste of transcendence with it. But when music truly shapes spiritual life, people go beyond the posture of attending a concert and learn an important prayer skill: harnessing music to turn inwards.

To keep the mitzvot from a posture of obedience or loyalty, I believe, is a valid ethnic and ethical path. But for Judaism to be a viable spiritual path, one that rests on connection with God and the experience of k’dushah, the practice of mitzvot must have an interior dimension. To "own" their Jewish religious practice, people need the theory and the skills to cultivate their inner lives. And to teach it, teachers of spirituality need to acquire it themselves. We need to learn skills, see what connects us to transcendence, and as spiritual educators, help others to find out what works for them.

Feel the Pull of Transcendence

When our loved ones are in pain, what they need becomes our command. Buber located I-Thou moments of transcendence, in which we are in dialogue with the world around us from a posture of communion and empathy, as the source of ethics. Eugene Borowitz realized the importance of this aspect of Buber’s thought. Grappling with how to put Buber’s dense philosophizing into a program we can adopt, Borowitz writes in Renewing the Covenant:

...the otherness of the Transcendent confronts us...with exalted quality...Much of what we have recognized as most worthwhile in ourselves we discover raised to a superlative level in the Transcendent; what remains fragmentary, conflicted, and unrealized in us, we intuit has complete integration in its oneness. Though this qualitative aspect of transcendence also exceeds our ability to plum or articulate it, it lures us via our qualitative likeness to realize our humanhood most fully by seeking to emulate its character. Thus its rightful authority arises not only from its transcendent power and status but also from a realized quality that, in itself, draws us toward it.5

Borowitz insightfully names a key element of I-Thou: the attraction to "quality." In my experience, this is a key to teshuvah. For most of my life, I thought about self- change, and didn’t change much. But spiritual practice, which has enabled me to harvest the power of transcendent moments, has helped a good deal.

My teacher Rabbi Shefa Gold writes about this dynamic.6 Most of the time we yearn for better. It would only be depressing and paralyzing if not for the fact that we actually do experience moments of I-Thou, of awe and wonder, of connection to God. These moments show us what is possible.

Properly engaged, Jewish spiritual practice creates such moments, and places them in the Jewish, religious context of eternity and service. Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, and in practice, gives us a glimpse of the kind of peace we can aspire to in the midst of our busy work lives. Acts of social justice connect us to our deepest ethical vision. Moments of deep listening, brought on by prayer and other ritual, allow us a visceral experience of the quality to which Borowitz refers. More effective than trying to push away bad habits, the attraction to divine Quality, to a better way of being in the world, is a powerful change-agent.

This is the difference between mainstream psychological method, which relies on left-brain, analytic assessment, and Jewish spirituality, which also asks for self analysis, but frames it in mysterious, intuitive, heart-opening moments of transcendence—moments that draw out our longing, hope and faith; moments that attract us to the right and the good.

Hit for Average

When I studied at an Orthodox yeshiva, I struggled with boredom while trying to pray three times a day. It was impossible not to rush through the prayers, which quickly became rote. I was proud to fulfill my halachic obligation, but I actually felt further and further from God.

Over and over, I was told a baseball analogy to help me overcome the difficulties. You won’t hit a home run every time, but you’ll never have any good moments of prayer if you don’t pray. You can’t hit a home run unless you step up to the plate.

It made eminent sense, but it didn’t help much. Today, I think I understand the problem. For most of my friends, and certainly for me, it was either a home run or a strike out. The home run came on Shabbat, when we had time to pray slowly and the singing of the community opened a window to transcendence we lacked during the week. But my batting average overall was well under a hundred. If I were a baseball player, no manager would have put me in the game.

Most everyone I know can point to powerful moments where they have felt overwhelmed by what religious people call God. I think of them as Burning Bush moments, as they are dramatic and insightful, often paradigm-shifting and life- altering. While we certainly play a part in initiating them, they often surprise us, as Moses was surprised, and they usually take place outside of synagogue. We didn’t orchestrate them through ritual; most of the initiative, it feels, comes from God. And like home runs, they are rare.

There are also regular, everyday moments of transcendence. A parent’s wonder at their child, a moment of true communication with a partner or friend, the touch of a loved one after a frustrating day at work, the joy of smelling a flower or watching a sunset, and for the spiritual practitioner of prayer or meditation, the satisfaction of connecting to one’s heart, the humility born of consciously recognizing the gift of being alive and feeling the pain of injustice in an imperfect world, and the joy we feel bathing in a moment where nothing needs to be different.

Chasidic teachers understood "the God of small things" well. They extolled the virtues of devekut, of bringing awareness of the Divine into every activity. They recognized the difference between mochin d’katnut, ordinary consciousness, and mochin d’gadlut, expanded consciousness, that spacious state of being when we experience wonder and awe, or listen deeply to others in a state of openness and vulnerability. I think of it as the state of being of an I waiting for a thou, regardless of whether a thou appears.

If we study and learn what these moments feel like, and if we understand that certain skills and practices can bring us there—utilizing mindfulness, the senses and other building blocks of kavanah—we can shape and practice a life of ritual and prayer that regularly and reliably brings us into mochin d’gadlut. Through body awareness, this state of connection with God is quite tangible for me.

I do not know what the encounter with God will look like on any given day, but since I am the main actor, since I have developed my skills, and since the actions that lead to mochin d’gadlut are largely in my control, I can get a hit pretty much every time I apply myself through contemplative practice, especially prayer. It is usually a single, but in becoming an I who is ready to receive a thou, my chances of hitting a home run increase as well.

The critical point is this: hitting a single is more than enough. To be open, receptive and empathetic is to be in devekut, to be connected to God. I liken it to marriage. Falling in love is like hitting a home run, exciting and paradigm-shifting. And to stay together the next fifty years requires the occasional home run. But the key to long- term love is learning to hit a lot of singles, and to cherish them.

I had the great fortune of studying Jewish education with Dr. Michael Rosenak of Hebrew University. He taught that in order to succeed, educators need a theory of how the world works and a theory of how people learn. So we studied philosophy and cognitive psychology and many other fields beyond education per se. But it was never academic. Education takes place in the real world, and in teaching, our understanding of the world is constantly tested in real time. To practice education well, our thinking had to be practical, our goals realizable, our methods doable. I find that this lesson applies to spiritual practice and spiritual education as well.

If our theory and understanding of God-moments inform down-to-earth, regularly achievable ways of connecting to God, we have fruitful and realistic criteria to guide and measure our practice of mitzvot. If we figure out how to reach devekut and mochin d’gadlut, we know how to practice Judaism in ways that change us and change the world.

And that enables us to be effective spiritual educators.

Spiritual Educators as Role Models

As spiritual educators, we must first be committed to our path, not just to teach well, but to teach at all. Everyone, but teenagers in particular, can smell hypocrisy a mile away. A teacher who knows Maimonides' thought but does not do mitzvot is fine in the university, but counter-productive in our educational institutions. I once attended a session by a teacher who told a group of middle-schoolers: tell me what you believe about God and I’ll show you a Jewish thinker who agrees with you. No one raised their hand. A well-intentioned intellectual stood in a place where a passionate role model was needed.

Spiritual education, like most education, is apprenticeship learning. I can learn a great deal from a doctor who has read the latest research and teaches human physiology well. But if he has never operated on a patient, I do not want to learn surgery from him. I can learn a great deal about the history and theology of the siddur from a learned rabbi, cantor or educator. But I can only learn to pray from a person who really prays.

We learn spiritual practice the way athletes, musicians, painters, businessmen, teachers and others learn, through exposure to people who have successfully walked down the path before us. Not because we will end up practicing the practice just like them, but because values and attitudes are more important than information, and practical skills are best learned through demonstration and imitation. 7

This is the bad news of teaching Jewish spirituality. We present ourselves as spiritual practitioners who, by virtue of the practice of Judaism, should be becoming more virtuous, more caring, more resilient, and more effective in the world. We are judged by others, and worse, by our own high expectations of ourselves. We inevitably fall short.

But there is good news, too. It is our job (whether our bosses realize it or not) to pray, to study, to engage in contemplative practice for the purpose of teshuvah, and to act to change the world. It is our job to do the things that lead to genuine happiness. We live our values with an eye to eternity. How many people can say that about their work?

Students appreciate a religious leader who struggles but keeps on the path to a teacher who has not explored the spiritual, interior dimensions of Jewish practice. And students appreciate a teacher who shares his or her struggles with spiritual practice, to a teacher who purports to be on the path of Jewish spirituality, but isn’t on the path at all.


It disturbs me that I discovered the power of a spiritual dynamics approach to spiritual life outside of Judaism. After all, I read Buber and Heschel early on. Why didn’t they affect my practice of mitzvot until my forties, well after ordination?

Looking back, I realize that while Buber, through I-Thou, and Heschel, through radical amazement, articulated my experience of the Divine, my transcendent moments were largely outside the synagogue and organized Jewish life. I felt awe and wonder all the time when hiking, rarely when doing a mitzvah. I-Thou had only tangential connection to Jewish ritual.

To be fair, Heschel waxes eloquent about the transcendent experience of traditional prayer, but when I did it three times a day, unskilled and unaware of the dynamics of connecting to God, I felt further from the Divine. While my theological differences with Heschel played a part, it was clearly the lack of transcendence in daily prayer compared with Shabbat services at Kehilat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem and praying by myself in nature, and the spiritual moments of life in general, that caused my frustration with regular, liturgical prayer. At one point, I despaired of Jewish ritual across the board.

Though no one said it out loud, it seems that there was a perverse logic at work. Buber and Heschel show you that you can connect to transcendence. Now that God’s existence is not a question, you can do your duty to God by performing mitzvot and enjoy the gift of ethnic belonging and ethical community, even if you go elsewhere to experience the Divine moments that make a difference in your heart.

Without realizing it till recently, I see that my life as a Jewish, spiritual educator, like Borowitz, Gold, Kushner and so many others, has been a search for a response. How can "doing Jewish" bring on moments of awe and wonder and I-Thou, rather than the other way around? How can prayer and the practice of mitzvot directly lead to moments of transcendence? And how can "non-Jewish" moments of transcendence, both immediately as well as indirectly, lead to a more spiritually vibrant, Jewish community and to a practice of mitzvot that deepens our connection to God? It seems to me that the more we concentrate on these questions—the spiritual dynamics of transcendent moments—the more we will find for ourselves, and role model for our communities, a God-centered, Jewish life.

1 Kushner, Lawrence, Honey From the Rock (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1977), p. 16.
2 Quoted in Comins, Mike, Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1977), p. 90.
3 Ibid, p. 80.
4 Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods (Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 2008), Part II, p. 39ff.
5 Borowitz, Eugene B., Renewing the Covenant (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 101.
6 “Longing: Fuel for Spiritual Practice” in Comins, Mike, Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1977), p. 52ff.
7 And repetition. No one can improvise a saxophone solo if they haven’t learned how to play the instrument and practiced their scales.