Hearing the shofar for the first time

In Lifestyle on October 2, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Sounding the Shofar by Elena Flerova

Wow!  What was that?!

I had the most remarkable experience.  During last week’s Rosh Hashanah service I heard the shofar for the very first time.  No, I did not simply hear the sound of the shofar…I heard the shofar.

I may never be the same.  This is a good, and a (very) bad, thing.

One of my favorite pastimes for nearly 35 years has been high-powered rifle competition.  It was a favored activity for a reason that I truly did not understand until a few years ago.

I told a friend, and fellow competitor, that I really felt alive when shooting from the line.

Everything seemed to be in clear focus.  I was acutely aware of my body position, my breathing, the wind, the flutter of the wind flags, the black circle of the distant target, the position of my front sight, the tension of the sling around my bicep, my own heartbeat, and even the normal mechanical sounds from the rifle as it fed the next round into battery.

My friend is a martial artist.  When he and I had a similar discussion several years back, he mailed me a copy of “Living the Martial Way” (Forrest Morgan, Major-USAF (Ret).

The book details the mindset of the traditional warrior and dives deeply into bushido-like concepts based on Far Eastern philosophies of Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism.  The book, designed for the classical martial artist, is a fast and easy read…

…or a deep and contemplative text for beginners new to Eastern thought.

“You enjoy shooting because it is meditative”, he explained.  “You go all mushin” (MOO-shin).  I would later learn that mushin is a state of “mind, no-mind” where the martial artist shuts down the ongoing chatter of the mind as he executes a hold, throw, kick, or jab.

Sort of a hyper-aware unawareness.

My friend is also a practitioner of Zen.

Now, I had always thought of meditation as a trance-like escape from the world where one contemplates things on the road to “enlightenment”.

Hippie stuff.

Then, about six months ago, I saw a PBS presentation about prison inmates and meditation…”The Dhamma Brothers”.  I mentioned the movie when my friend and I spoke about an upcoming competition.

He told me he was aware of the documentary, but that the meditation used was a much different type than Soto School Zen that he practiced.  He said I would look for an excellent beginner’s book titled, “Meditation: Now or Never”.

It is not what you think it is!

I could not wait and searched out a copy locally.  When I emailed him that I found a copy, he simply wrote back, “Now, enjoy!”

Like Major Morgan’s book, the author Steve Hagen, takes the beginner into the first steps of meditation.  The first thing learned is, “What meditation is NOT.”

Hagen speaks with authority; he is a Zen priest after beginning his own journey in 1969.

Since I am not qualified to relate what Hagen teaches, I urge readers to visit his online learning center at

I know, I know.  What is a Jew doing messing around with Buddhism?  What is next?  Shave off the beard, ditch the kipah, shave my head, buy a saffron robe, and hang around the airport passing out flowers?

My friend who introduced me to zazen is a devout Christian and a member of his church’s lay clergy.  He began meditating just after beginning his twenty-year career with the US Army.  His recommended Dharma Field Meditation Center welcomes everyone, regardless of their religion or culture.

Okay, what happened?

I began to “sit”.  Again, I am not qualified to pass along the method, but I can tell you that it takes a lot of sitting to turn down the chatter in our minds.  Sitting semi-lotus on cushions listening/feeling your breathing (sort of) initially seemed like a good nap, ruined.

After many weeks I began to experience flashes (literally) of silent awareness that felt eerily similar to what I felt on the firing line.  Then, the more I tried to regain the sensation, the harder it was to re-achieve it.

Until I gave up seeking it.

That…was the answer.  Just like Hagen said it would be.  The goal was to just have a thought and let it go “like bubbles in a glass of champagne”.


After a few weeks of not seeking, I began to re-experience brief flashes of calm attentiveness.  I would become aware of a thought or sound for a millisecond and then I would release it to wait (or not wait) for the next one.  They did not last long.  And, I struggled not to make these moments last by seeking to continue them by enjoying their shadow cast on my mind.  Most of the time, I failed.  It is truly a paradox!

Warming a synagogue seat for several hours gets you thinking about anything except sitting in a synagogue seat with hundreds of other, semi-bored worshipers.

At the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah service, I began to contemplate if it would be possible to have one of those aware moments as the shofar sounded.  I knew it was unlikely (and probably impossible), as there would be no way not to seek out what I desperately wanted.  It could not work.

What the heck…I would give it a go.

As the rabbi and cantor began to chant the introductory brachot (blessings) for the sounding of the shofar, I went into pre-meditative mode.

Several things vowed to make it impossible.

Normally “sitting” is sitting.  Now, I was standing.  At home, I was alone on my cushion.  Here, about two hundred others stood with me.  Except for a timed gong announcing the end of a meditative session, my home sitting was done in a very quiet room, in front of an unadorned white wall.  Now, congregants coughed, prayer books rustled, a baby whimpered.  Through my half-closed eyes I could see the ornate décor of the sanctuary.

“Crap!  This is not going to work.”

Then I thought, “Just meditate.  Just do the basic steps.  No matter what happens, bring yourself back to ‘the One Breath’.”  I began to hear individual sounds and sensations.  Then they would vanish.  I was aware of pressure on my feet and then I was unaware of it and aware of another sound or the pressure of my tallit on my neck.  The chatter in my head began to fade and I forced myself not to notice or get excited, as I knew just doing that would interfere and that I could not want anything or I would only be working to make the chatter louder.

Just breathe.  In, out, in, out.  Feel the breath.  Let it go.  Just come back to the breath when you get distracted.  “Just do what you do on the firing line or at home on your cushion.”  Over and over, in, out, in…

A thought, I forget what it was, came and went.  A breath.  A thought.  Out.  A cough somewhere.  In.  Out.  In.  Then, I heard it.  I do not recall hearing the rabbi announce the sequence to be sounded.  I just heard it.

It was the same sensation when the hammer of my rifle strikes the firing pin in a moment of expected, but unexpected surprise just before the target center temporarily flies out of the sight picture.

Then, it was gone.  The chatter resumed.

There was no mental imagery of standing at Sinai.  I felt no sensation of “ancestral connection”.  I simply heard the ancient ram’s horn.  I really heard it.

I could not wait for the Yom Tov to end so I could email my friend about my experience.  As soon as it was permitted, I was at the keyboard.  I hit “send” and waited for the response.  I laid my BlackBerry next to my bed, just in case my buddy replied and I was awake.

Two days passed.  Then…

“I’m sorry you had that experience.  It will make it harder for you not to strive for that same level of intensity.  Now, you will find yourself actively not seeking as you attempt to meditate.  Remember, ‘not doing something is the same as doing something’.  Keep not seeking and go back to the basics.”

No high fives.  No fist pumps from my older, wiser friend.  He did what a friend does.  He told the truth.

I looked at the screen and said, “Let it go.”

And, now I will do that.


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