HowAbrahamfoundedthe biblical school of mindfulness
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