The Jewish roots of Mindfulness Meditation     BS"D 
By Yaakov Grossman      

(Acknowledgements: this post owes a great deal of gratitude to my teacher, Professor David Pelcovitz, an expert on the topic and Clinical Psychologist who taught ee the Jewish roots of Mindfulness meditation (see )

What comes to your mind when you hear the word "mindfulness"? How about "meditation" or "Mindful"? For my part, they conjure up images of shaven-head monks staring at blank walls. . 
Have you ever had an experience violently shake your conscious reality, uncovering a dearly held assumption? Opening it up to being questioned? The human brain is constantly overwhelmed by stimuli from our five senses. However, we do not consciously experience more than a slender fraction of a percent of this information. If we did, it would be impossible to function. Instead, our brain drives most of its processes, assumptions, and raw data into our unconscious. 

Mindfulness means retraining our minds to undo what cell phones, television, and the multiple tabbing feature pioneered by Mozilla firefox have done. In other words, being truly and completely in the moment. Its the opposite of multitasking, of setting our television or itunes to provide background noise, for example. 

This is a truly momentous concept, that has the potential to transform our lives. It made me reflect, that maybe the key to concentrating my mental forces and achieving my potential was to learn to focus. 

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe Z"L used to tell people, when you do something, just do that thing. Don't think about the next thing that needs doing. Somewhat paradoxically, ignoring that task will make us more efficient. One thing that people who met the Rebbe often reported was his intense level of focus. You got the impression that this great man, who knew many world leaders, had set aside everything to talk to you. That the only thing that existed for him were your struggles, problems, and potential. 
They also said this about Sigmund Freud- I wonder how much of his success in psychoanalyzing people was due to his tremendous listening ability. For sure, there have been many times when I have thought that I was listening, but did not know what true listening means. I was in reality still caught up in my inner monologue, wondering what witty or compelling thing I could think of to say next. This is the opposite of empathatic listening.  

The unifying theme of previous posts was learning to truly empathize with others by escaping ourselves. When we  listen mindfully, then we can experience others' inner worlds. One of the Lubavitcher Rebbes several generations ago used to sweat profusely when he met to counsel one of his followers. When he was asked why, he replied that giving advice meant first being able to escape his identity as the great Rabbi, and enter that of the person with the problem. Then, he had to return to himself, in order to know what the Rabbi would have to say about the problem. This process repeated itself enough times in the course of a single session, that he was utterly exhausted from the experience, and sweated from the immense amount of effort involved. As it says in Pirkei Avot 2:5 , we should not judge our fellow until we have entered their "place."* 

Similarly, let's all try to deal with one thing at a time, and bring all of our abilities to task. This is the reason behind the custom to meditate before prayer. The idea is to prepare us to be conscious of what we are doing from the beginning of the service. We can imagine that we are going before a powerful person, in order to be conscious of proper conduct when going before the King of Kings. Or, we can reflect on the infinite gap between ourselves and Hashem, in order to be aware of the Love aspect of our relationship- that despite our infinite lowness, he still pours kindness upon us. This which will lead us to pray or do a mitzva with joy, as it we were doing a favor for a dear friend. The goal here is to be aware of the relationship. 
In general, let's remember the mindblowing statement of the Tanya- כי המוח שליט על הלב כמו שכתוב ברעיא מהימנא פרשת פנחס בתולדתו וטבע יצירתו" 

because the brain rules over the heart (as it is written in Ra‘aya Mehemna, Parshat Pinchas2) by virtue of its innately created nature.**"

Our emotions can be shaped and created by our minds- conceived this way, meditation is an extremely Jewish practice. If we are entering a new social interaction that makes us anxious, then we can devise a meditation to calm down. If we experience difficulties, then we can meditate on the fact that G-d runs the world, and we are bound to encounter things that we don't understand. But He is good, and only does good to his creations- there are just different levels. There is a lower level of good, small enough that we can identify it as such. And there is a far greater level, which outstrips our ability to understand why it is in fact good. In other words, its all in our heads- happiness and depression, success and failure, egocentrism and empathy. Whatever our goal, never forget that the structure of creation(see the quote from Tanya above) is such that we are in control of our perception. That's pretty much the only thing we truly have dominion over. We were given it to learn to refine ourselves, to strive to always remain positive, and to learn to focus on the needs of others. Have a great Shabbat!!!!!

* see ** Lessons in Tanya translation complied by R' Wineberg



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    Yaakov Grossman is a Jewish educator, author, private tutor/child care professional, and student in the Metro New York area. Professional inquiries should be addressed to

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    September 2011
    August 2011


    Modern Orthodoxy