In 1977 the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a campaign to make available effective forms of meditation that are consistent with Torah values, as an antidote to stress and anxiety. In Part One of this series we explored the physiological, emotional and spiritual benefits of achieving mindfulness and tranquility. Here, in Part Two, we describe a few tried-and-true approaches.
Though this brief article cannot do justice to the wide variety of methods for cultivating mindfulness, I’ll offer here a taste of one particularly Jewish approach to meditation that is very accessible, yet mostly overlooked.
Savor the ability to become suddenly aware of a truth that had been previously hidden from viewOne meditative technique involves reading passages from a sacred text, and then allowing its meaning—or, more subtly, its vibratory quality—to permeate our consciousness. Now, this can take anywhere from a brief moment—a “pause that refreshes”—to a full twenty minutes or more of advanced concentration, perhaps even with eyes closed and controlled breathing. Here, let’s keep it simple. For those of us who pray regularly (or even occasionally) with a traditional prayerbook, how often do we take the time to consider the implications of, say, the morning blessings? For example:
“Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe . . .”
“. . . who gives the rooster (the heart) understanding to distinguish between day (positivity) and night (negativity).”
Pause for a moment and become aware of your innate ability to discern between right and wrong, between happy and sad, between helpful and harmful. Connect with it, appreciate it, own it. And resolve to use it throughout the day.
“. . . who opens the eyes of the blind.”
Savor the ability to become suddenly aware of a truth that had been previously hidden from view. Would that happen more often if you were open to it, expecting it? “Wow! Why didn’t I see that before?”
“. . . who releases the bound.”
Is there some aspect of your own behavior in which you don’t feel free of compulsion? “If I could only stop drinking, smoking, speaking badly, overeating . . .” This blessing says yes, you can.
“. . . who directs the steps of man.”
How would your life be different if you could genuinely see how every experience we go through is guided by Divine benevolence?
In a similar vein, cultivating mindfulness can also aid us in understanding the vast significance of our seemingly small actions. For example, take the time to imagine the ripple effect of some small act of kindness you did today. Perhaps you offered your spouse a few sincere words of appreciation and encouragement as you walked out the door. Your spouse, feeling empowered and expansive, arrived at work and in turn acknowledged the creative power of a colleague . . . who, resonating with joy and self-confidence, came up with a master business plan that will affect the productivity and well-being of hundreds of workers . . . resulting in a better product, a more democratic workplace, and a higher profit margin . . . which will in turn will cause the competition to search for ways to improve the lot of their employees and their products . . . which will improve the environment and the economy . . . ad infinitum. This sort of visualization is a more worldly version of such spiritual practices as imagining your words of prayer ascending a ladder on wings, or envisioning the coin you placed in a tzedakah box glowing with a heavenly fire . . .
Mindfulness naturally enhances a person’s sense of being present in the moment, rather than anxious about the future or stuck in the unhappy past. Even a brief beginner’s experience of “being in the now” is uplifting and refreshing; when we are able to string such moments together and become more mindful over a sustained period of time, a remarkable transformation of consciousness begins to emerge. We begin to become aware of what the Kabbalists and Chassidic masters refer to as “continuous creation”—how G‑d, in His benevolence, creates the universe anew each moment. This in turn empowers us to recognize our own newness from moment to moment, so that we are not only disencumbered from whatever negativity we may have experienced before, but we are free to collaborate, so to speak, with the power of Divine creativity in manifesting a new and improved world. In the past hundred years or so, quantum physicists have begun to discover and explore the deep conceptual basis of this liberating perspective; more recently, New Age gurus have learned how to capitalize on the idea. From a Torah perspective, this has been known for many centuries as the art of cultivating bitachon, trust.
we are not only disencumbered from whatever negativity we may have experienced before, but we are free to collaborate, so to speak, with the power of Divine creativity in manifesting a new and improved worldIn a powerful affirmation that we quote in daily prayers as well as in the Grace After Meals, the Prophet Jeremiah tells us that trust spawns certainty, and certainty breeds success: Baruch hagever asher yivtach baHashem v’hayah Hashem mivtacho—Blessed is the man who trusts in G‑d; G‑d will be his security.” Cultivating such trust is a lifelong project. It calls for making room in our awareness for a Higher Power, relying on G‑d as the source of all challenges and blessings. It means acknowledging this Source regularly, learning about G‑d and communicating with Him on a regular basis, keeping His number on speed dial on our metaphorical cell phones. This can be achieved through meditation and prayer.
Rabbinic tradition prescribes praying three times a day, and making gratitude our first thought in the morning and last thought before sleep. Established times for prayer were introduced for the well-being of the individual—certainly not because G‑d needs them. For prayer to genuinely augment our trust and calm our souls, it must be mindful. Who is G‑d? Why am I connecting to Him in this way? How can I enhance my awareness of His dynamic presence in the details of my daily life? Such a practice cultivates trust—and one who truly trusts in G‑d’s benevolent guidance will not be riddled with problems, nor with the gnawing feeling that something is lacking. Of course this doesn’t mean life will be without challenges—as 3,800 years of Jewish history will readily attest! But our ability to cope with problems and follow through with effective solutions increases in direct proportion to the calm certainty that comes with knowing G‑d is our caring and capable partner.
In addition to prayer, meditation, and nurturing our minds with trusting, positive thoughts, we need to attend to more down-to-earth aspects of mindfulness: a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, regular exercise. “A small hole in the body causes a large hole in the soul,” says the Maggid of Mezeritch. Because the spiritual and the physical are inextricably intertwined, taking better care of your body makes your inner environment more conducive to a sense of wholeness and holiness. The flow of endorphins and the friendly neurotransmitters induced by exercise and a diet rich in whole grains and fresh vegetables will also strengthen immunity and resilience, enabling you to fight off the latest “bug” (or bugaboo!) that is being passed around.
Attention to the small details is also a characteristic of mindfulness. A calm soul is reflected in a balanced and orderly outer environment. Thinking peacefully and being in the moment help us pay greater attention to the small things—and vice versa. Keep your home, your car, and your office uncluttered; become more proficient at saying no to requests that aren’t in line with your priorities. Staying organized and balanced will help you keep from overtaxing yourself, and can help reduce the level of stress you experience in your life. Torah literature describes a well-ordered environment as a balm to the soul.
Taking better care of your body makes your inner environment more conducive to a sense of wholeness and holinessOur forefathers had the opportunity to calmly meditate in green pastures as they tended their flocks, while we BBM and Twitter and carpool and careen from one stressful situation to the next. It is my hope that in sharing some of my experience, I can help infuse a bit of that pastoral consciousness into our demanding, fast-paced, hyperactive world. Mindfulness and calm are core Torah values that enable us to travel through life with equanimity, and guide us toward making sound choices. Our tradition is replete with aphorisms proclaiming that everything is in G‑d’s hands, and that G‑d is good. By cultivating connection and trust we will become wiser and more composed—and these ideas will become not just comforting slogans, but a truly internalized perspective. A peaceful soul allows us to experience life at its best.