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Mindfulness Through a Torah Lens

Mindfulness seems to have become a buzzword these days, although myths abound about its definition, its benefits, its relevance to a Torah life, and what is and is not mindfulness. Mindfulness can be described as nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Sounds simple enough, no? It is about acknowledging the idea that we can choose what we attend to or what we give our awareness to. Mindfulness is about falling awake as opposed to falling asleep; falling into a natural state of wakefulness and presence and openness with every moment. The choice to fall awake opens up what is within your bechira. When living life asleep, on autopilot, perhaps missing out on life, we are unable to fully choose. “V’halachta b’drachav,” “Walk in His ways;” if Hashem does not will us into existence at every moment, we would cease to exist. Hashem stays mindful every moment, and we can aspire to emulate that presence of mind in all that we do, that intentionality in our actions.

A basic level of mindfulness is a prerequisite for many things in life. This is clear in the concept of kavana, which is a prerequisite for every mitzvah. Sadly, many psakim today are based on the assumption that we are not capable of proper kavana (e.g., if you do not have kavana during the first bracha of shemoneh esrei, even though you should go back, we assume you would not have kavana the second time around, and so the halacha is not to go back)! The fact that it is assumed that in our generation we cannot have the same levels of kavana achieved in earlier generations is confusing in the context of the fact that so many secular people today are dedicating their lives to the practice of controlling their awareness. My point is that it seems clear that if we want to improve in our avodas Hashem and shmiras hamitzvos, an important place to start is by learning about mindfulness. The Torah contains all the hadracha we need, as always, and, at the same time, we can benefit from utilizing the efforts of secular mindfulness experts who, like medical doctors, have invested their energies in studying this topic and making it accessible to us. Once, when I was teaching mindfulness to 5th grade students, explaining the concept of nonjudgmental awareness, one student said, “it’s like lashon hara in your mind!” I have since shared that language with others practicing mindfulness, the concept of not speaking lashon hara in our mind, and how powerful that can be.

So, is mindfulness just about focusing attention? There is more to it than that. Remember the other half of the definition provided earlier was about nonjudgmentalness. In mindfulness, all judgment is avoided because we are focusing on what is, not on opinions of what is. A judgment is merely anything that is not based in the observable; it is based on opinions, interpretations, or beliefs about the observable. It can therefore be positive or negative. In mindfulness, we attempt to avoid judgments completely, both positive and negative, acknowledging when we have them and returning our attention to the focus of our practice. Nonjudgmental describing is a way of describing a feeling, thought, urge, picture, smell, person, event, etc. purely based on what we can observe internally or with our five senses. “This picture is pretty” vs. “This picture has a flower in it.” “I feel sad when you say that” vs. “You are so mean.” The Torah teaches us that we should be dan l’kaf zechus because Hashem knows that as human beings, we automatically make judgments all the time. Differentiation between something that is dangerous or unsafe versus something that is bad or wrong is crucial here. It would be helpful to be able to discern if there is water in a pool before I jump in, right? So we have this very adaptive “discerner” who protects us, but who also begins helping us discern between things we didn’t really want to discern, to decide bad and good, stressful and hurtful. Imagine a world without judgments, where we could not discern whether a street is too busy to cross or if we would like to marry the person we are dating. Judgments and the ability to discern and evaluate are necessary for our survival, which is why our minds are so good at doing it so quickly. It is vital, however, to note that judgments, rather than describing the facts of a situation, often spike emotions when we view them as reality, an easy trip-up for any human mind! Practicing mindfulness involves an attitude of nonjudgmentalness, sticking with the facts of a situation. Practicing this skill helps us learn to describe only what we can observe, only the facts, leaving the interpretations of what we observe up to Hashem.

It is really impossible for a human being to be mindful 100% of the time. We hear stories of gedolim whose shemoneh esrei on Yom Kippur took three hours, and we are blown away. What impresses us? We are impressed by these stories because they imply that the gadol had complete kavannah on every word of his tefilla for all that time; he was completely mindful of the present moment. Since human minds, by nature, wander, the goal of mindfulness is to notice the wandering, notice where it wanders to, and learn to bring our attention back to the present moment, not if it wanders, but rather when it wanders. Mindfulness is like a muscle that requires exercise; the more one practices bringing attention back to the present moment, the less often the mind wanders, and the easier it becomes to bring our attention back.

After all of my describing thus far, I must acknowledge that mindfulness is not something that can really be understood through a definition. It is something to be experienced.

For a mindfulness practice, try to bring your attention to this moment, and all that is in it. You may choose to focus on external observations, such as the sound of the cars passing by outside, or the smells coming from the kitchen. You may choose to draw your attention inward, to your thoughts as they pass by, or any feelings that are rising up inside of you. You may notice the constancy of your breath, and observe it with newness, each breath a new encounter. Yes, your attention will wander, and when you notice that, bring it back to this moment. Each time it wanders, bring it back again, letting go of judgments and appreciating the noticing and bringing back as part of the practice itself. Can you notice the air whistling through your nostrils as it enters your body and fills you up as you inhale? What does it feel like as your lungs fully expand before you let the breath go? Can you sense the difference in temperature now, as the breath leaves you? How does it feel inside your nose, or on your tongue? Is it quick or slow? Does it have a rhythm? Does it make a sound? When you are ready, you can bring your attention back to wherever you are right now, bringing your mindful awareness with you into the rest of your day.

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