Be. Here. Now. An introduction to Jewish mindfulness

Psychological research has demonstrated that the need to live in the present is as strong and beneficial as the need to engage in basic physiological functions such as breathing, eating and sleeping.

‘THE TORAH, with its myriad laws and directives, never once explicitly requires a person to be tranquil.’ (photo credit: TNS)
‘THE TORAH, with its myriad laws and directives, never once explicitly requires a person to be tranquil.’
(photo credit: TNS)
No longer confined to yoga classrooms and meditation retreats, mindfulness has entered the mainstream – from the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies to the chambers of the United States Congress.
But what does it have to offer the Jewish spiritual seeker? Without sounding too hyperbolic, the answer is everything.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness-practice teacher and developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique, defines mindfulness as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Yet for the Jewish spiritual practitioner, mindfulness can best be understood in the context of a traditional Jewish sine qua non – yishuv hada’at.
The term yishuv hada’at appears often in Jewish ethical works, yet is seldom defined. It is commonly understood to mean peace of mind, tranquility and composure. It evokes the image of a wise elder proffering sage advice. However, it is possible to understand yishuv hada’at on a much deeper level.
The Torah, with its myriad laws and directives, never once explicitly requires a person to be tranquil. As there is no explicit command in the Torah to cultivate yishuv hada’at, it is therefore viewed as merely something that, while extremely desirable for its beneficial effects, is not fundamentally required in Judaism. (In fact, the Torah, unlike the prophets, rarely, if ever, even mentions the need to cultivate one’s character traits. Moses is said to be modest; Abraham is shown to be generous; we are directed to behave in certain ways toward the less fortunate. But there is no set of commandments on character traits. While this omission is dealt with at length by the rabbinic commentaries, few if any would suggest that “peace of mind” takes primacy over any other trait.)
But it would be a dreadful error to view yishuv hada’at merely as another level to achieve in your progress toward character refinement. This miscalculation begins with the grave error of translating yishuv hada’at as mere tranquility or peace of mind. By comprehending and internalizing the true meaning and intention of yishuv hada’at, one may understand that this character trait is not merely desirable but indispensable for one’s entire spiritual life.
ANYONE WHO knows me will probably not be at all surprised that this topic is something that fascinates me, because it is so elusive. Serenity is simply counterintuitive to my nature, and therefore holds an inordinate appeal for me. I tend to be pretty excitable (some might even say over-excitable), and while this ability to be passionate is sometimes a gift, I felt that I frequently let my emotions and thoughts get ahead of me. (Feel free to peruse my teachers’ comments from my childhood report cards for further corroboration.)
I would often wistfully look at the more even-keeled individuals who embodied what I erroneously believed to be yishuv hada’at and bemoan the fact that I wasn’t born with a more stable, consistent personality. This was usually after my impetuosity had gotten me into trouble. This regret or, in extreme circumstances, shame would be followed by a resolution to become more reserved or even withdrawn in an attempt to disengage from life enough to reach a greater level of composure. This commitment usually lasted for a few days, and then I was right back to doing the same thing as before.
Eventually, I concluded that I wasn’t blessed with the persona I so greatly admired, and I resigned myself to accepting my character as it was.
However, after study, thought and clinical experience, I learned that looking at yishuv hada’at in such a binary fashion is actually the source of the problem. If one approaches yishuv hada’at as an immutable character trait or temperament that one is either born with or not, a person whose emotions are in a constant state of fluctuation like myself (and the majority of the people I encounter) will inevitably become completely sapped of any resolve to achieve and strive for any modicum of what he takes to be yishuv hada’at.
As I delved more deeply into the practice and study of yishuv hada’at, I discovered that it isn’t merely another character trait for which those who possess it could be lauded and looked upon with approval; rather, it is a fundamental necessity for basic human functioning and a critical component of Jewish spiritual practice.
JEWISH MYSTICISM teaches that the Hebrew language isn’t merely a mode of communication and expression commonly agreed upon as a social convention; rather, it should be viewed as the building blocks of the entire cosmos. The Hebrew language is unique in that it not only serves to describe an object but also conveys the essence of what is being transmitted. The word yishuv means “settlement,” and da’at may be translated as “knowledge” or “awareness” – thus, “a settled awareness” which connotes the tranquility most people have come to associate with this term. But at its root the word da’at has a more profound meaning.
The mystics explain that the Torah’s first usage of a word serves as its archetype in the light of which all of its subsequent usages should be viewed. The first time that da’at is used in the Torah is in the verse, “Adam knew his wife, Eve” (Genesis 4:1). Adam knew his wife not merely cognitively but in the most intimate sense. Da’at thus indicates fusion, connection and unification. All other terms used to translate da’at are derivations of this original meaning. The only way to know the essence of something is to unite and fully connect with it.
Thus, yishuv hada’at has a much more profound meaning than “peace of mind.” It means “settling into (unifying with) present moment awareness.” Using that definition, yishuv hada’at becomes not only the description of a state of mind but the means to cultivate a state of being. The key to being fully alive and at peace is to be settled in, and connected to, whatever is happening in one’s life, both internally and externally. Peace of mind can come only from a settled mind that is attached to, and attuned to, whatever is happening here and now, not merely cerebrally but viscerally.
Psychological research has demonstrated that the need to live in the present is as strong and beneficial as the need to engage in basic physiological functions such as breathing, eating and sleeping. Despite numerous studies that have demonstrated the deleterious effects on a person’s mind and body of regret over the past and anxiety about the future, this idea still seems to evade a vast majority of the general populace. In short, if we are constantly living somewhere other than the present, we cannot survive emotionally.
For a Jew this is not just a psychological or physical detail, because Judaism takes this concept one critical step forward. Aside from the negative physical and psychological effects of not living in the present, as important as those results are, I believe that Jews have a fundamental spiritual need to cultivate and develop yishuv hada’at – that is, to achieve unity within the present moment and with present conditions.
Even if a person drifts only slightly away from his present reality, he ultimately suffers as severely as a person completely fixated on his past or future. Put simply, they both are not where they are supposed to be. As opposed to one who is consumed by anxiety or in the grips of a depressive episode, the affected soul might not immediately discern the harmful effects of such minor slippages, but as these dissonances accumulate, he or she inevitably will experience strain and numbness, which can eventually be overwhelming.
WHAT EMERGES from this is that yishuv hada’at isn’t limited in its scope – it is not, for instance, “just” a praiseworthy or essential character trait. Rather, it is a fundamental way of being that is indispensable for our most basic spiritual functioning and growth.
The misapprehension that yishuv hada’at is a state of being that can be attained only by a rare spiritual elite is erroneous and untenable. Yishuv hada’at is something that anyone – even a person who feels that he was created with a nervous or anxious (or excitable or overly excitable) disposition – can achieve. It takes practice, commitment and dedication, but it is within our reach.
This leaves us with the question: how do I go about attaining yishuv hada’at? The Almighty does not set tasks for us that we cannot achieve. Future columns will provide guidance and practical suggestions.
The writer is an experienced psychologist, author and speaker who blends mindfulness-based practices with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance techniques. He works in private practice and is located in Rehavia and is the director for staff development and clinical research at Camp HASC. His first book, Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide for Everyday Life, is to be published in 2019 by Urim Publications.