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Former Winnipegger Aaron Cohen spoke at Limmud about his internal journey and his path away from and back into Judaism and how meditation played a key role

by Rhonda Spivak, March 5, 2019

[Editor's note: Former Winnipegger Aaron Cohen, will be at Limmud Winnipeg. I interviewed Aaron by email about his two Limmud sessions below. Aaron studied Bio-Energy and Reflexology and and then studied Contemplative Psychotherapy at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He lives in Flagstaff Arizona. ]
Interview with Aaron Cohen

1.Regarding Your Session #1 (Title: My Story - Diving in and Dissolving Away - Discussion of my internal journey - why it was necessary to explore and even more important to let go.) Can you tell me  more about your internal journey ?


When my sister Lisa died I was 20 years old. Losing her in the way we did - she ended her own life - sent me spinning. At first the spin took me further into smoking pot and the occasional binge drinking as I had very few skills in dealing with pain of this sort. In hindsight though her death freed me. I didn’t care about the standard Jewish path expected of me anymore and because my parents were so scared of anything else happening I had more freedom. I dropped out of school and moved to San Francisco.


In San Francisco I continued self-medicating and expanded this self-medication to hallucinatory substances. Where I was lucky is that the escapist tendency was eventually overrun by my need to understand what went on in my family and what goes on in my psyche and therefore the experiences I had really helped me open up and see things in a different way. Slowly I understood that the substances merely opened a door and let me glance in. To really go deeper into understanding I had to find a way to daily, consistently, unmedicated-ly explore. That is how I was led to meditation and writing. I dabbled in meditation at this point but I started to write quite a bit while I was in San Francisco, a practice I continue to this day. Writing about my internal process, what I understand about my self and the dynamics of growing up in my family of origin has been vital to my growth.


2.  Can you tell me about your exploration of your own family of origin system ? What did you learn, and how did it shape you?


My family of origin is fascinating like all families are. In brief, we were an outward picture of perfection while internally we had our stuff - just like everyone else. The perfection piece is the killer, literally, in our family as perfection is a no win situation. To be perfect is to be perfect in the eyes of everyone and this of course is impossible. There is no way to make everyone happy - to satisfy everyone’s needs - so the impulse to do so is untenable. But having that impulse, learned and driven by the structure in my family, we were forced to deny self for other. If I need to be perfect and make sure others are ok then I must deny my impulses because they will undoubtedly trigger someone else. My needs and desires and the direction I am drawn to go must be put aside to take care of other. The longer I do that the farther away from self I become until I lose touch completely with who I am and why I am here and what I want to do with my life.


I witnessed Lisa struggle to find who she is until that struggle ended. I saw Eli do the same thing in his own way until finally, happily coming out the other end. As for me my life’s work to this point has been trying to peel off that belief system and find out who I am. Truly this exploration has been the defining thing in my life and has led me to help others do this work also.


3. Are you now working as a Psychotherapist and if so where ? If you are not working in that field can you tell me where you are working now?


I am working with people of all ages in Flagstaff and online as a Guide. I use the skills I have accrued as a psychotherapist and a meditator but have left the field of psychology behind. I found psychology to be too limiting, focused on the pathologizing of behavior as opposed to the interest, curiosity and exploration of behavior as a unique expression of the individual. My work focuses on the exploration of the story, the beliefs that one has developed and feeds and the power of choice in doing things differently. We focus on the story to let go of the story. Seeing the story for the fabrication that it is, we can free ourselves from the constant repetition of the past and projection into the future.



3. Regarding your Session #2:( Title: Meditation - Jewish and Otherwise). My question is: In general how does Jewish meditation compare with other types of meditation?


There are so many types of meditation - both Jewish and otherwise. In my experience, the meditation I have practiced that is not Jewish has been very body and sensation oriented. Its focus is on bringing self back, over and over, to the feelings one is experiencing in this moment. By doing so one learns to be ever more present to the experience of the moment.


The Jewish meditation I practice is more of a visualization. There is the picturing and placing of the name of God within the body, connection to the Ner Tamid, Etz Chaim and Sulam Ya’acov all within the body. It is taking of these passages and ideas from the Torah and embodying them through the repetition of the practice. It has been profound for me to practice and feel these things within me, connecting me more deeply to my Judaism.


As an aside - the Pineal gland is often called the connection center to God within the body. It sits in the area of the brain behind what many traditions call the 3rd eye (a center of higher vision), in the middle of the forehead. Jacob wrestled with the angel at Pinuel - which means “the face of God”. Meditation is our inroad to wrestling and connecting with God.


4. Can you tell me about  your path away from and back into Judaism and how meditation played a key role ?.


I never renounced Judaism but I did not feel connected to it as I moved out into the world. After San Francisco I ended up for a long period in Jerusalem. There I got into studying alternative forms of healing and going deeper into meditation. I always found it interesting that I went into the teachings of the Buddha and meditation while I lived in Israel.  As I spent time drinking beers on the Midrachov I came across religious Jews who somehow ended up sitting at my table. As we spoke I shared what I was learning in these studies and in meditation and they would invariably say that what I was learning is fascinating and all of it is in Judaism. I was shocked and disbelieving at first. I wanted a direct experience of the divine and the Judaism I knew didn’t have that. That’s what led me to meditation. And of course the fact that I was in Israel, going deeper into meditation and esoteric studies, led me to people who could guide me back to a Judaism I could connect with. That was the beginning of my return.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.