Mindfulness and Torah

I went to my first 10-day silent retreat because I was attracted to the idea of sitting in silence and letting go of the wordiness of my rabbinic life. It was unbearably difficult.

I was bombarded by my own endless stream of words, complaints, demands, and desires. It was also life changing. Sitting for 10 days with my own mind and hearing the wisdom of teachers who had spent years looking at their minds made me realize that I was not my thoughts. In fact, I was not even sure I knew if there was an “I” there at all. Instead, there were experiences of connection to a clear quality of awareness that witnessed the arising and passing, moment to moment, of thoughts, moods, emotions, physical sensations, full-blown mind states and detailed narratives. Awareness (da’at) was emerging from exile in these moments, and offering this mind the possibility of a true liberation. I was waking up.

Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi tells this story: When his daughter Shalvi was three years old, she came into his room one morning and asked him, “Abba, you know when you are sleeping and then you wake up. Well, when you are awake, can you wake up even more?” 

As we go forth from the narrowness of constricted consciousness, we wake up to a more spacious place of clear seeing. On retreat, this Jewish language spoke to my immediate experience. I realized that it was possible to train the mind and heart to remember this, going forth all the days of my life, as a daily, immediate, life-affirming, and sustaining practice. This practice enables me to teach Torah through the lens of mindfulness and to teach mindfulness through the language of Torah.

One of the mindfulness teachings I encountered was the Buddhist “five hindrances” (greed, aversion, sloth, worry, doubt). It made sense when the teachers categorized a series of mind states in this way. I know these five intimately, both in meditation and in ordinary life. I see them so often, on and off the meditation cushion, that their existence is undeniable. What I do not always remember is that these five “friends” are an essential part of both practice and of life.  

These five energies keep awareness in exile, in a contracted and limited state. They keep me asleep. They are the walls that convince me I am separate and cannot change. Yet, it is not helpful to repress them, fight them, hate them, or pretend they are not there. Cultivating the capacity to meet each one, again and again, with wisdom and love, actually ends up expanding and freeing that very awareness. In other words, without the descent into Egypt, the narrow place, liberation does not occur. Without sleep, there is no awakening. 

Find out about upcoming programs with Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg.