HowAbra­ham­found­edthe bib­li­cal school of mind­ful­ness

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI SA­MUEL LAN­DAU

THE WORLD of psy­chol­ogy has fallen in love with mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. Mind­ful­ness is the in­ten­tional fo­cus­ing of one’s at­ten­tion on the emo­tions, thoughts and sen­sa­tions oc­cur­ring in the present mo­ment, with ac­cep­tance and com­pas­sion. What does Ju­daism have to say about this form of med­i­ta­tion? Do we have any­thing sim­i­lar in our tra­di­tions? How do we re­late to prac­tices whose ori­gins are in re­li­gions or philoso­phies for­eign to our own? As a case study, I of­fer my­self — and my Yom Kip­pur. I stand mo­tion­less, im­ages whirling through my mind’s eye. I see the events of the eve of Yom Kip­pur and feel the waves of stress and de­spair again. The morn­ing starts pro­duc­tively as I wear my com­mu­nal rabbi hat and put the fi­nal touches to my ser­mons. In a zeal­ous bid to start the new year on a healthy note, I de­cide to cy­cle the few miles to Wim­ble­don to visit the rit­ual bath.

A mile away from my des­ti­na­tion dis­as­ter strikes as the punc­ture-re­sis­tant tyre punc­tures. This is not a good time to test my skills at chang­ing an in­ner tube. The fi­nal meal is get­ting cold and our daugh­ter is wait­ing for the af­ter­noon ren­di­tion of Elmer, while I am scrab­bling in the dirt at the side of the road. Hardly an aus­pi­cious way to usher in the holi­est day of the year.

I open my eyes from this un­pleas­ant reverie to the sight of my mach­zor in front of me. It is Kol Nidre and rather than fo­cus­ing on the evening’s prayers, I am think­ing about the dis­as­trous af­ter­noon. I be­gin to be­rate my­self; the lost op­por­tu­nity of Kol Nidre, the im­por­tance of Yom Kip­pur and, with typ­i­cal Jewish guilt, if only my con­gre­gants knew what I was re­ally think­ing as they watch me wrapped in a tal­lit and seem­ing de­vo­tion at the front of the shul. I take a deep breath. I de­cide to re­late to my thoughts dif­fer­ently and, remembering mind­ful­ness ex­er­cises, I breathe again.

I ex­pe­ri­ence the air as it moves in through my mouth and down into my lungs and body. The present mo­ment be­comes more full and rich as at­ten­tion is drawn be­yond my ru­mi­na­tion and anx­i­eties. I fo­cus on the sen­sa­tion of the breath, ac­cept­ing the rac­ing thoughts that have ac­com­pa­nied me here. I ground my­self in the ex­pe­ri­ence of the here and now and re­turn to the text with self-com­pas­sion, with­out judg­ment, with mind­ful­ness.

As a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in train­ing, I of­ten use simi- lar med­i­ta­tions with my pa­tients and am in­ves­ti­gat­ing mind­ful­ness for my doc­toral the­sis. Mind­ful­ness orig­i­nated as a Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tive prac­tice but was sec­u­larised and ap­plied in the West by Jon Ka­bat-Zinn (a Jew, of Fo­cus­ing on the mo­ment: rabbi and psy­chol­o­gist Sa­muel Lan­dau course). Mind­ful­ness has be­come ubiq­ui­tous; help­ing peo­ple live with the dis­tress of both phys­i­cal and men­tal health con­di­tions, deal with stress in the work­place, man­age chal­lenges at school, and more. It al­most seems that wher­ever one seeks an an­swer to life’s dif­fi­cul­ties, mind­ful­ness is pre­sented as a pos­si­ble an­swer. Does Ju­daism have an ana­logue?

Re­turn­ing to the theme of the High Holy Days, per­haps the most dra­matic To­rah read­ing of this pe­riod is that of the Akedah, the Bind­ing of Isaac. In this episode a word is used, a word that ap­pears in the en­tire To­rah only a hand­ful of times; “Hineini”, “Here I am”. In Ge­n­e­sis 22, God calls to Abra­ham, a call that would her­ald Abra­ham’s fi­nal and most dif­fi­cult test: “Sac­ri­fice your son to Me.” Abra­ham re­sponds humbly and with readi­ness: “Hineini.”

Abra­ham does not sim­ply grunt in as­sent or ac­knowl­edge the Caller. Rather, he seems to un­der­stand that this in­ter­ac­tion with the Di­vine will re­quire a cer­tain mode of be­ing, a mind­ful mode. Abra­ham must ac­cept that all the yearn­ing of long, child­less years along with the laugh­ing joy of Isaac’s birth must ac­com­pany him on this test. All the anx­i­eties of dashed hopes for a monothe­is­tic suc­ces­sor would climb the moun­tain with him. And yet if he were lost in these thoughts, he would not com­plete the test. And so Abra­ham an­swers “Hineini” — Here I am, in my to­tal­ity, in the present mo­ment, non­judg­men­tally ac­cept­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence, my test, feel­ing the climb.

The Akedah pas­sage may sug­gest that a mind­ful or Hineini ap­proach is part of the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence; a way to en­gage one’s essence mean­ing­fully with the tri­als and tribu­la­tions that God presents us.

Yet how do we square our Jewish sen­si­tiv­i­ties with a prac­tice that is built on Bud­dhism, even in its Ka­batZinn in­car­na­tion? Can we still use it to achieve the heights of Hineini? To my mind, the an­swer has to do with our ap­proach; if we con­sider mind­ful­ness to be an end in it­self, a state of be­ing that is sim­ply more ben­e­fi­cial for well­be­ing, we may have missed an op­por­tu­nity. Af­ter all, Ju­daism has a strong fo­cus on do­ing rather than just be­ing. Rather, mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion should serve as a means to an end, the end be­ing a deeper en­gage­ment with our Jewish jour­ney, mak­ing mind­ful­ness a welcome ad­di­tion to a Jewish life’s tool­box.

It cer­tainly helped a frayed rabbi fo­cus his mind for Kol Nidre. Sa­muel Lan­dau is rabbi of Kingston, Sur­biton and Dis­trict (United) Syn­a­gogue

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