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On Mindfulness and Jewish Meditation, Part II

On Mindfulness and Jewish Meditation, Part II

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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.

Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb is an educator, spiritual mentor and storyteller. This article is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book, co-authored with her husband Simcha Gottlieb, entitled Wholly, Wholly, Wholly. Fruma has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, and was featured in the runaway best-seller Small Miracles.
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Beth NJ July 31, 2016

my dumb question Love this article. But I do not understand why everything else is stated clearly in the prayers except for the bit about the rooster. Why doesn't it just say the heart, positivity and negativity? I ask because everything else in your article resonated with me, and i am sincerely trying to shift my consciousness. But when I read that metaphor, it seemed open to other interpretations.

I know my question seems petty, but I find myself sidetracked by these not-so-obvious assumptions and then it"s hard to believe that other interpretations are not equally simplistic or wrong. This undoubtedly bothers no one else so I do not expect you to take my question seriously. But oh, how I wish "stupid" questions had answers, too. Reply

Chuck Clifton April 4, 2016

Thanks for this. Didn't however the Rebbe reject jewish mediation [ not Chas v'shalom davening with kavana] ala Aryeh Kaplan A'H in favor of an entirely clinical and evidence based meditation? I think that is what what the Rebbe called for? Is that right? And does secular mindfulness meditation fit the requirements outlined by the Rebbe? Paying attention to the physical feeling of the breath from inside the body, tracing a breath from in to out, not changing the breath but letting the breath, when our mind wanders as it always will, gently coming back to the breath until the mind wanders again and then gently coming back to embodied awareness of the breath, and so on. For say, 15 minutes 4 days a week. Also sound, hearing the sounds from inside and outside the room with no particular attachment to the nature of the source of the sound, just hearing, being the hearing, and hear the sound of a car, airplane , birds , voices, air vents, other's breathing, your own, children's voices, but just hearing sounds , not thinking of the bird or car, not thinking at all, just hearing the sound as it arrives unbidden out of nothingness to the portal of your perception and just as quickly dissapaers, when the mind wanders, into anxiety, rumination, planning, rehearsing, work health and relatinal conceRns, wherever it goes, pleasant or not, gently returning to the sounds once you remember that you are alive and present. Feelings too arise unbidden and when not fed with their story , disappear like the sound , allowing the feelings as physical sensation in the body , often in the heart area, but not chasing them , just letting them pass through, without self judgment, without condemning of one's own feelings, disidentifying oneself as feeling but honoring the feelings, positive or negative, always coming back to this experienced physical moment. I'm not a rabbi and would not want to make a claim about what the Rebbe would say about secular mindfulness meditation. chas v'shalom Reply

Dovber Richmond, Va May 14, 2015

Thank you for this! A lot of mention is made of meditation in the Chasidic tradition, but one doesn't see it being taught or practiced much in Chabad circles today. More people are learning, spending more time as kollelim, and other learning programs proliferate. But davening just seems to go faster and faster, even in frum circles!!! So again, thank you for providing a practical antidote to the problem of hyper-velocity in general, and with respect to prayer in particular. Reply

ilana March 19, 2015

"Torah literature describes a well-ordered environment as a balm to the soul." I find this quote from the above article very interesting. Does anyone know which Torah sources are being referred to. Reply

Anonymous December 17, 2014

This article is definitely a game changer, just by reading I felt this sense of peace and connect to the source of peace and tranquility. Thank you for this article Frumma. Reply

Evalene Redmond, WA/USA March 15, 2012

Like the Rooster application. Living in Assisted Living facility is an arena where your recommendations would be most valuable. Practicing them would be difficult, but not impossible.
Meditation on Tehillim has been my source of calmness. Psalm 112 especially, being reminded that I'm not alone..
Appreciate every recommendation and b'ezrat HaShem will endeavor to practice.. Reply

Anonymous Cebu, Phils. August 12, 2011

Beautiful Uplifting thoughts that help calm the soul. Thank you. Reply

Amanda Pomona, NJ March 21, 2011

meditation This article is very nicely written, and uplifting to me. Thank you, Frumma! Reply

Mendel Volf Seidner miami, fl March 21, 2011

Permanent Redemption Sounds like great approaches to help
bring a permanent Redemption. Reply

Anonymous panama, panama March 21, 2011

hermoso... Reply

Mr. john smith March 21, 2011

not usually i never usually listen to woman but in this case you have some valid points and is mostly how i live and breathe everyday. good job! imagine if the other 6.9 billion inhabitants of the planet felt as you. good luck to you. Reply

Ms. Amanda Diehl March 21, 2011

Sharing Frumma, your insights are absolutely wonderful. This is just what I needed to start my Monday morning on the right foot.
I would love to be able to make a voice recording of this to make available to my friends and family, with all due recognition to you as the author of course.
warm regards,
Amanda Reply

Anonymous San Francisco, CA March 21, 2011

very relevant Very relevant. Very helpful advice. Reply