Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks had been interested in spirituality in an experiential way from a very young age. Raised in a home with no formal religion, Brian would get brief snippets of Judaism while visiting his uncle’s house for Passover and Shabbat.
Then when he was 12, his father paid for the whole family to learn transcendental meditation. “I practiced that for many years, and I was also starting to learn about Kabbalah and Jewish meditation through Aryeh Kaplan’s books,” says Brian.
When Brian was 18, he had a profound spiritual experience that he didn’t understand at the time. “It was an opening into a completely different way of being, which I described to myself at the time as ‘living for God,’ ” he explains. “It was a sense of living totally from love and service, as opposed to my ordinary, ego-oriented way of being.”
But the feeling from this transformational experience didn’t last. “It only lasted for a few weeks and then it kind of faded,” Brian says. “It was almost like a little explosion and then the dust just settled, and everything went back to normal. I was a seeker before that, but after that, I was even more of a seeker because I had tasted ‘It’ and I wanted ‘It’ back.”
Brian continued his spiritual exploration in college, studying music in school, and Judaism with a Chabad rabbi. After college, he moved to Berkeley, CA, and was teaching music and playing in a band, but his search was always in the background.
Then on Oct. 6, 1998, he felt like he came to the end of his search. “I had been searching through practicing and thinking about it very intensely,” he explains. “I was trying to think my way back to what that experience was, and at a certain point I realized that my thinking mind could never get me back there.”
He explained that trying to force your mind back to a spiritual awakening is akin to, “trying to taste the food off of a menu. No matter how deep you get into the menu – it’s always the menu.” He gave up on trying to think is way back into “awakening,” and instead began turning his attention toward whatever was actually present. He calls this simple yet challenging practice, “Presence.”
“I became present in a very simple way, and something changed inside me that was more of a permanent shift than the previous experience I had when I was eighteen, which had faded,” says Brian. “Not that I am in this blissful, heightened spiritual state constantly, but more like an inner door opened and I can go through that door at any point, in the midst of whatever is going on in life.”
At first, Brian gave up all Jewish practices, thinking that there was no need for them anymore. But he soon realized that he needed these practices to help him integrate his new heightened spiritual awareness into daily life.
“I felt so open and vulnerable without some kind of container for it. I discovered that the regular, normative Jewish practices of saying prayers every day, observing Shabbat and eating certain foods – just having a set of regular practices was very helpful to me,” says Brian. “Over time, I realized that this is what I wanted to share with people – how they could access this real, spiritual transformation within a Jewish context, and through Jewish practices.”
That is how Torah of Awakening, The Jewish Path of Presence began. He started teaching at a synagogue in Berkeley and then started providing online videos in February 2016 to reach more people.
In the middle of 2016 Brian, his wife, Lisa (she is director of operations at the Jewish History Museum in Tucson), and their two children moved to Tucson to be closer to his mother and disabled sister. He began teaching weekly classes at Congregation Bet Shalom and live streaming these sessions. After class, he edits the video, adds some text and sends them out to his subscribers. “My members get weekly teachings on the Torah portion, different Jewish prayers, Hebrew chants and so on,” he explains, “all toward the aim of cultivating an awakened life.”
His teachings also include what he calls Integral Jewish Meditation. “There are many different types of Jewish meditation that I practice and have practiced. It became obvious to me over time that it would be really good to have something accessible and foundational to teach people that anyone could learn,” says Brian. “I call it Integral Jewish Meditation because it integrates different modalities that are already present in traditional Jewish practices but are often not necessarily used in a meditative or transformational kind of way.”
Since moving to Arizona, Brian has been traveling around the state teaching workshops. He also returns to the Bay Area several times a year to lead High Holiday services and Friday night musical Shabbat services. “I want to be the teacher for other people that I wish I had,” he says.
For more information, visit TorahOfAwakening.com. Brian has also just released a CD of original Shabbat music with his band BRIAH entitled “Ayn Od,” available on CD Baby and Amazon.