This post is part of the seriesScientific Naturalism and Rationality Meets Judaism“.

Mindfulness in Judaism

Before I got interested in Judaism, I knew about mindfulness as it comes from the Buddhist tradition and has been incorporated by phenomenologists and enactivists (and hippies) to western world. I read Sam Harris’ Waking Up – A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I listened to it – Sam Harris narrates the audiobook himself, I really recommend it to anyone interested in their own mind whether secular or not. In his book Sam blames atheists for not acknowledging religious wisdom (such as the benefits of meditation) and religious people for taking arbitrary fictitious dogmas for granted (I can’t say I disagree). He presents a middle way: be open minded and “pick” from religion useful things even if they were originally developed in the company of an elephant headed god.

I have a similar ambition now that I am staying in Yeshiva. I might be, however, not so sure whether it is always possible to separate the “wisdom” from the “arbitrary fictitious dogmas”.

I have meditated more or less regularly for years now and in the last 5 months I have been using Sam Harris’ Waking Up -app on a daily basis.

In his Waking Up -course, Sam Harris constantly emphasizes that meditation can be incorporated into day-to-day life. Walking in a park? Appreciate the beauty of the trees and be mindful of the sensory experience you have of the smells and sounds. Sitting in your car in a traffic? Observe the feelings that go through your body and mind. Got angry? How did this feeling originate? What was it like to transition from not angry to angry? Frustrated at work? How does this feeling manifest itself? Etc., etc.

Turns out, Judaism has a form of mindfulness too. Meditation in Judaism takes the form of reciting blessings and prayers which makes it reminiscent of transcendental meditation. I learned in the Yeshiva that regulated blessings and prayers in Judaism were designed by Rabbis around 350 BCE, i.e. much later than Torah and other fundamentals of Jewish religion were established. These blessings were designed so that people would be more mindful when going about their lives, as far as I can tell – in the same way as encouraged by Sam Harris. The blessings are quite short, they take between 3 and  30 seconds to say and they are designed to mark all the most common day-to-day activities thereby making you more mindful about engaging in them. Here is what I have learned so far:

  • Upon awakening one expresses gratitude for waking up. Technically the blessing says something like “Thank you for returning my soul into my body”. There is no name of God in this blessing unlike all others (I think), because when you have just awoken, you are not in “pure enough state” to say God’s name (gotta pee and wash first).
  • After going to the bathroom one thanks God for creating proper orifices and cavities in our body. That’s right.
  • Just before putting anything in one’s mouth, one has to say a blessing for that food. I believe there are 5 types of food each of which requires its own blessing and one blessing for all the rest foods. One does not have to repeat the blessing during the meal, however. I am not sure how are the exact rules here.

There are many others, but let’s discuss these. Having to say a short blessing in Hebrew just before eating a candy or a banana will make you more mindful about your habits and I notice that it in fact directs my attention towards the thing that I am about to put in my mouth in such a way that I become much more mindful of its taste and structure than I would otherwise be.

The one upon awakening has a beautiful effect too. Starting the day with gratitude must be a good idea and would most likely be supported by all the life-coaches such as Tony Robbins. Additionally it marks the moment when you realize that you have awoken. Now, that’s mindfulness! In some instructions it says that you should first sit down on your bed and then recite it, but if I was in charge, I’d say: say it as soon as you know that you have awoken. Marking that moment makes me also less likely to stay aimlessly in the bed and pretending that I might still sleep a little.

Disclaimer: All this is new to me. I don’t know what happens once you live a life like this for years. Do you get used to saying all these blessings so much so, that they no longer help you to be mindful? Do they become as automatic as lifting your arm towards a candy? There certainly are Jews with bad habits. I wonder if a Jew has to make a blessing before smoking a cigarette? I have much to learn. On the upside, saying such blessings over and over again must make them a source of comfort. I can say from experience that whatever you say regulary every morning will influence your brain and thinking. The words you say will become precious and full of meaning to you. This is (psychologically speaking) most likely the reason that all religions have regular prayers and that’s partially how they function. Say something every day at the same time and it will start having a divine feeling to it. Especially if you start at the age of – what? 3?

Summary. Judaism has its own form of practice of mindfulness in day-to-day activities such as eating, pooping and sleeping. This mindfulness is practiced in the form of blessings that are to be recited usually before the activity. I believe that the psychological significance of them is huge both as mindfulness and as something that one gets used to and starts taking as an integral part of their lives. These blessings are often in the form of gratitude which is known to enhance happiness in day-to-day life and is also something that people are not very good at practicing spontaneously. How many times were you grateful during the last week for having a functioning gut? But hey, once it stops working, you’ll notice it quick.

8 replies
  1. Veronika
    Veronika says:

    Last Summer I took a course called “Mindfulness and Creativity” at Haaga-Helia open uni. It was designed for managers, to become less stressed and more mindful at their work. What I was surprised to is that it was so hard. So extremely hard to change your habits. And although I felt it only requires self-discipline and time-management I must tell I failed to make practices a part of my daily routines after the 3 months course. Feel jealous to you. But I hope to give myself another chance.

    Very nice thought about repeating one thought daily and convincing yourself. That is another developing point for me. So far I struggle not to repeat negative thoughts and again I fail. Especially when having hard stressful moments, I easily start to fall into self-pity. Such a negative little bunny-rabbit I am. How do you fight this kind of situations?

    Reply
    • Vadim
      Vadim says:

      I found “Tim Ferriss bracelet challenge” useful. Rules:
      1. Wear a bracelet on your left hand.
      2. Whenever you notice that you complain or say something negative, switch the hand on which the bracelet is.
      3. You can “nullify” the effect of your complaint if you immediately come up with a potential solution to the problem.
      4. The goal is to keep the bracelet on one hand for 23 days.

      For example. If you say “It’s raining again, I hate it!”, then you have to change the hand on which the bracelet is. But if you add “But next time I will dress properly and it will be fine”, or “but through meditation I will learn to accept things that I can’t influence”, then you don’t have to change the hand.

      Reply
    • Anssi
      Anssi says:

      Hi Veronica.
      First, i too have tried many “tricks” to stop negative thinking like breathing, sense perceptions, posive thought, no toughts etc. They often work at least in some situation and for a while.

      I would like to add this “trick” though :):
      Sometimes with extremely negative thougts all the tricks may be useless or even seem to make things worse (since youre subcounsciously using them to deny the reality). Then you can try something quite opposite: see if you can just BE with negative thoughts and feelings. Try not even to think positive side of things. Give your mind, if you can, complete freedom to be as negative as possible. You can say to yourself “alright my dear mind (for five minutes) I will not try to fix you, i wish you to be free, hold nothing back, not even the darkest toughts”.

      Reply
      • Vadim
        Vadim says:

        Whooow, I tried this for ten seconds, there was SO much negativity in me 😃 I was like, I am going to smash this thing into the floor and I will… Oh shiit.

        Reply
  2. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    Oh how I find the bathroom prayers glorious…

    There was a time last year when i had to reserve half an hour for…umm, performing the ritual… with fullest unhurried reverence and concentration. It felt like reaching some kind of union with my bowels. Not entirely unlike an orgasm…lol.

    After that intense period the act has lost the ecstatic aspect but connectedness and inner union has remained at some level. So yeah, hallelujah to the bodily hollows.

    Reply
  3. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    Yesterday as i was walking down the street and manouvering between objects like lamp post, trees and other people, i was struck by a gratitude of another important cavity: the space itself! How lucku that there was space, instead of just objects ;). It would be rather crammed otherwise, like an esher painting where the complement of one object is occupied by another object. So nice to have the space, ah the freedom, the stillness behind all the fuss…thanks

    Reply

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