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Defining Mindfulness Through Torah

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 our 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;” Hashem stays mindful every moment, so too we can aspire to emulate that presence of mind and intentionality of action in all that we do as well.

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.

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 nonjudgmental-ness. 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 with our five senses. “This picture is pretty” vs. “This picture has a flower in it.” “You are so mean” vs. “I feel sad when you say that.” 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 don’t want to be judging, 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 nonjudgmental-ness, 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.


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