There are no coincidences in life, and it was surely prescient that Jewish Action editor Nechama Carmel asked me on the cusp of the corona outbreak to review two books on Jewish mindfulness. I began writing this in March, a few days before Rosh Chodesh Nissan (my wedding anniversary), and finished it in late April. I don’t know what will have changed by the time Jewish Action goes to press.
The two books—Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide for Everyday Life, by Dr. Benjamin Epstein, and Mindfulness: A Jewish Approach, by Dr. Jonathan Feiner—are helping me through the crisis. I hope they will help you too, no matter what is happening to you in life.
I mention my anniversary because on the first Friday night that my husband and I were told we could not leave our homes, even for shul, I asked him to sing Lecha Dodi out loud with me. We’ve been married forty-four years and never did we sing Lecha Dodi together. How would we? He was always in shul, and if I was also, I was in the ezrat nashim. Yet, rather than think, what a shame that we’re not in shul, I appreciated the moment.
When I sit in my living room on Shabbat evening, I feel like I am in a womb. The holiness, the light of the candles; the chance to be in the silence, to think and to connect with God and with myself, undisturbed by phone calls or WhatsApp pings. Multiply that feeling exponentially and that is what many of us are feeling now, day by day, electronic devices and Zoom meetings notwithstanding.
And that is what I believe Drs. Epstein and Feiner are referring to when they speak about being in the quiet and being in the present.
What, in fact, is Jewish mindfulness? Dr. Epstein, an experienced psychologist who uses traditional Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), calls it yishuv hada’at. He writes: “A basic purpose of this book is to introduce you to who you are as God made you, and to the gift God has placed within you . . . Every single moment is a broken piece of time in which God has placed you so that you may fix it with the resources you have at hand at precisely that time.” We are all part of the tikkun.
There are moments during the day when I sense panic coming on. I went through almost a year of breast cancer and treatments and never really feared that I would die. Perhaps it was cognitive dissonance. But now that I am at higher risk due to age and medical background, I have to acknowledge that I could be in a life-threatening situation. When those moments come, I do what both authors suggest—I observe my thoughts calmly from the outside and breathe.
Dr. Epstein describes a meditative technique. “Stand still! Habituate yourself to step back and simply observe your thoughts . . . When you view your thoughts and feelings as an outside observer, there is no longer any self-involvement that demands their removal. . . First you have to let God in . . .”
He offers a breathing exercise derived from Likutim Yikarim, in which we contemplate Hashem’s name as we breathe in, allowing our breath “to serve as a vehicle to help you identify all of the powers in the world with their Source.”
I go into my yard to do this exercise, where, from our home in Efrat, I can look at the hills of Judea and feel blessed that I am living in Eretz Yisrael. Everywhere I turn, I see God’s paintbrush. Focusing on nature is an idea which Dr. Feiner, who studied at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and is the clinical director of a psychology practice group specializing in mood and anxiety disorders, discusses in one of his “Try” sections that appear at the end of each chapter. The sections provide exercises to help one achieve a state of Jewish mindfulness. “The next time you walk outside, pay attention to the beauty around you”; he tells the reader to notice the light reflecting on the tree, the sound of the wind, the complexity of the world around us. “Remind yourself of the artist who created these beautiful masterpieces.”
He notes Ramban’s recommendation to enjoy nature as an antidote to melancholy. In the midst of the corona lockdown, my husband loves to go into the forest (with no people around) and take a walk. And every day of our lockdown, I walk up and down our pastoral neighborhood pathway, breathing in the beauty.
But what about our fears? Dr. Epstein says there is no such thing as a bad emotion. For example, if you encounter a bear, fear is a good thing. (How much more so, a global plague!) “Each emotion has its source and root in a Divine realm such as loving-kindness or strength . . .” But emotions should be used constructively, properly channeled and elevated, an element in the journey to yishuv hada’at.
Is Mindfulness Jewish?
What turns two Orthodox Jewish psychologists to the study and practice of a discipline that some would associate with spirituality from the non-Jewish East?
Dr. Epstein, who has semichah from Yeshiva University, contends that mindfulness is unequivocally part of Jewish culture. “Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l, wrote that there is a strong tradition of meditation and mysticism in mainstream Judaism, and until Jews become aware of the spiritual richness of their own tradition, it is understandable that they will search in other pastures. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, echoed this statement.”
Dr. Feiner was drawn to mindfulness in graduate school. He told Jewish Action, “The closest thing to an ‘Aha!’ moment for me came after a professor encouraged us to be mindful about something with which we were struggling. Upon concluding the exercise, I noticed how I related to the pain in a very different way. It was still there, but it was easier to manage. That was the turning point for me.” Since then, he began using mindfulness as a therapeutic technique; today he leads workshops on Judaism, psychology and mindfulness.
My own “Aha!” moment, deeply influenced by these two books, came on a Shabbat afternoon (pre-quarantine) when I was playing an alphabet game with my granddaughters, aged three and four. It did not demand the level of concentration needed when I play chess against my eleven-year-old grandson (he always wins), and I felt my mind begin to wander. Suddenly, the idea, “This is where you are meant to be now,” kicked in, and I was there, fully present with them, feeling their joy and excitement as they matched up the treasured letters of the Aleph Bet.
Being in the present is at the core of Jewish mindfulness, and this reminded me of what Dr. Epstein writes about patience: “[w]hat is happening right now is exactly what is supposed to be happening. Not what you think should be happening and not something you can force to occur.”
With so much time for soul-searching during the corona lockdown, we naturally turn to teshuvah, a theme that comes up in both books. Dr. Epstein writes that all change is possible, that we are constantly evolving, a thought reflected in the poetry and social media posts that appear during the pandemic.
Dr. Feiner describes the process of “returning—again and again,” and, as always, breathing and noticing our breath as we think about areas in life that we want to improve. One must encourage apologies, he writes. I wonder how many burnt bridges or flawed relationships were repaired during lockdown (though, unfortunately, things can also go the other way).
Both authors emphasize the concepts of prayer and meditation. “If we pray properly, the day is different. And if today is different, life is different,” writes Dr. Feiner.
But when Dr. Feiner speaks of prayer, he is not only referring to formal prayer; he sees great value in speaking to God through informal prayer. “Judaism has a tradition of spontaneous prayer,” he writes, referring to the concept of “misboded.” He notes how “Breslover Chassidim often go into the forest to do this.”
When I got married, I discovered that there is only one short blessing for candle lighting (not including the “Yehi ratzon” and other additions). I asked my mother, who would stand there for twenty minutes with her eyes closed and her hands clasped to her chest, why it took her so long. “I’m talking to God,” she replied.
Quoting from Pirkei Avot, Dr. Feiner extols the virtues of silence. “I spent all my days among the wise, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence.” He advises us to become better listeners. When we have a conversation, we should listen to what the other person is saying, rather than focusing on what we can share, as “insight and wisdom are more likely to be obtained in listening than in talking.” Indeed, his chapter on silence is invaluable for anyone who is an introvert or wants to understand introverts.
“The midrash teaches that when God gave the Torah and there was total silence, the sound came forth, ‘I am Hashem, your God’” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9) and that “most of the earlier tzaddikim . . . were shepherds because of the benefits of solitude” (Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda on Shemot 3:1).
So what is mindfulness? When you are able to be in the quiet and find tranquility and empathy.
What is Jewish mindfulness? When in that quiet, you find God.
Toby Klein Greenwald, a regular contributor to Jewish Action, is a journalist, playwright, poet, teacher and the artistic director of a number of theater companies. She is the recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Atara-The Association for Torah and the Arts for her “dedication and contributions in creative education, journalism, theatre and the performing arts worldwide.”