Mindfulness

When reading philosophy, especially spiritual philosophy of various world religions, I’m always struck by how completely unknown any authentic Jewish wisdom is in the outer world. Of course, I take much of it for granted since it’s the dominant environment that I live in. But considering having grown up (in the 1950s US) in a “Judeo-Christian” culture, I was always shocked at just how little of the “Judeo” informs it.

In recent years, a common buzzword is mindfulness. Although it seems to begin with the Buddhism that characterizes much of the “New Age”, I now see it popping up in many current spiritual contexts. But it always seems focused and limited to being aware, mindful is you will, of how our actions impact the environment, society and other sensitive people. I’ll never hear that word coming from traditional (i.e. orthodox/chassidic) Jewish teachers who, rather, usually focus on the finer points of mitzva-observance. To be sure, in more modern, progressive denominations, each of which seem to stray ever farther from traditional emphases, especially mitzva-observance itself, you do hear that word, usually with a greater frequency the farther that denomination is from traditional study and observance. I tend to discount it as coming organically from Judaism itself or if it is a modern grafting, much like the over-used and usually misunderstood idea of tikkun olam, in order to make Judaism itself more palatable to folks whose tastes and values are more informed by contemporary western culture than by millennia of Jewish thought.

A related idea, however, which has long been central in the discussion of performing mitzvot, commandments, is  kavvana, intention. There is an age-old discussion as to whether to be valid a mitzva requires not only the actual performance, the act, but also the kavvana, the intention. This discussion develops into what me mean by kavvana–do we merely intend to perform the mitzva because we have been commanded to do so and want to fulfil our obligation or should be we aware of the deeper and more subtle, energetic effects of that mitzva and to then have the goal of that effect as our intention? Can we merely perform the action required since, obviously, whatever the Divinely Intended effect, it will be achieved, or will it? In other words, is the mental/emotional/spiritual effect the mitzva has on the person performing it the actual goal of the requirement or is there a more global, external, even if unobservable to human senses, goal?

All in all, this discussion begins to look a lot like one of “mindfulness”. But is our mindfulness the same mindfulness the Buddhist and the New Age crowd talk about? For one thing, Buddhism excludes the very idea of a deity, while the very foundation of Judaism is building, through Torah and the mitzvot, an intimate relationship with God. Perhaps the central kavvana in every mitzva and in every bracha, is awareness go God. When we say the most common kabbaistic kavvana, we declare our intention to unify the Holy Names which point to the universal masculine and feminine forces. We also explicitly mention that we intend to benefit the entire Jewish people (as well as to join out energy with all of them who also perform this mitzva).

The entire concept of Brachot, blessings, is based on acknowledging The Creator’s role in our lives. The requirement to say a bracha, either to give thanks, to sanctify/dedicate a mitzva/positive action, we’re about to undertake, as well as in general is the verse, Devarim 8,10, “V’Achalta v’savata u’verachta“, “You shall eat, be satisfied and then bless (The Lord your God and that good land)”. Literally every bracha in our liturgy, and, perhaps, the very concept of blessing, stems from this realization of God’s presence in even our most mundane, physical activities.

Mindfulness, indeed, is a central Jewish value, with the understanding that we aspire to be mindful, aware of and in gratitude to The Creator every moment of our lives. With the understanding (or the accumulated teachings) that the essential nature of God is beneficence, in other words, goodness. And this, in turn, requires us to be constantly aware, actively engaged, mindful of our obligations to His Creation, to the Heavens and the Earth, to all life forms, especially to our fellow humans and, even more centrally, to our fellow Jews (or, moving from the center outward, to our family, our community, our people, to all humanity, to all life, to the physical world and universe itself).

Rather than limiting ourselves and those we hope to influence with a superficial buzzword, may we, each day, increase our true mindfulness.

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2 Responses to Mindfulness

  1. Peter Margolis says:

    Harry,
    You raise a great point about the encounter of Jewish civilization with other cultures, and the process of “Judaizing” elements of those cultures. French haute cuisine not only enriches the palate, but becomes Jewish when prepared according to the laws of kashrut. More to the point, every ancient culture had its flood story, generally involving a struggle between rival gods. Our culture “Judaized” it by associating it with one supreme Creator. The holiday of Purim repurposed the Persian gods Marduk and Astarte, rolled them together with the spring equinox celebration, and turned them into a rollocking good tale of Jewish victory starring Mordechai and Esther. As you point out, that venerable process of filtering elements from other cultures through a Jewish lens works equally well with mindfulness.
    Shabbat Shalom,
    Peter

    • Good to hear from you, Peter. Hope to see you in Jerusalem again soon (written while I’m sitting in Seattle……)
      I’m not sure I’m talking about “Judaizing “ concepts in other traditions as finding the roots of those practices (at least the positive ones), unfortunately so unknown to most contemporary Jews, now matter their affiliation/denomination, to actually exist or pre-exist in Jewish tradition. At least if you expand your search from the clichés and narrowness that much of halachic Judaism has self-restricted itself to, and not even conceivable by those with contempt for tradition to be part of our authentic tradition.
      In this case, I’d say that “Mindfulness” is really the essence of Kavvana. But that we don’t short-circuit by being mindful only to the low-level, easy to perceive, but to the transcendent and immanent Creator.
      Shabbat Shalom

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