By Doni Joszef
Mindfulness, the practice of settling our thoughts and stationing our attention in the here-and-now, is often associated with Zen masters, yogis, and monks. We hardly think of meditation and mindfulness in Jewish terms—after all, Jews don’t meditate! We eat bagels, buy real estate, and complain about Obamacare.
But I’m here to reclaim the rights to mindfulness from our Buddhist friends. Meditation is a very Jewish practice. And it is one with which I’ve come to better acquaint us . . .
“Three things settle a person’s mind, and they are: sound; sight; and scent. Three things stretch a person’s mind, and they are: an attractive house; an attractive woman; and attractive things.” (Berachos 57; translation based on the Maharsha, who understands the term “marchivim” to denote a negative effect on our psyches.)
At first glance, the Talmud seems to be foreshadowing the benefits of audio, visual, and aroma therapies and warning us about the pursuit of materialistic pleasures and the toll it takes on the mind. A simple understanding of the passage would read as a list of therapeutic do’s and don’ts.
But there are several problems with this approach.
Firstly, if pleasant visuals are deemed therapeutic, why do we then consider attractive houses, women, and things to be psychologically straining? Secondly, Jews value the material. We are not ascetics. Attraction, good taste, style—as long as we don’t deify the aesthetic, we are welcome to appreciate it.
So, again, why does the Talmud consider nice houses and attractive wives to be mentally destabilizing, when we ourselves value the blessings of beauty and design?
In the second volume of Rav Wolbe’s Aleh Shur, a distinction is drawn between our initial state of awareness and our ensuing state of assessment. We first perceive reality through the lens of our senses and then appraise reality through the lens of our cognitive labels.
Steven Hayes, the brains behind acceptance-commitment therapy, which integrates mindfulness with cognitive-behavioral therapies, explains how we can create a gap between our awareness and our appraisal of that awareness: “Instead of disputing negative thoughts, patients learn to watch them mindfully and at enough distance to realize, in a visceral and not just analytical way, that they’re just thoughts. . . . ACT and other mindfulness-based methods invite patients to step into the now and fundamentally change their relationship with their own experience. Instead of trying to manipulate and change their inner world into a more “desirable” form, these methods encourage patients to deepen and enrich their contact with a continuously unfolding present.”
In other words, our mental attachment to that which we deem “good” and avoidance from that which we deem “bad” is just that: a mental attachment. It is not who we are. It is a thought in our minds, which has us so gripped in its hysteria that we come to identify with it. Mindfulness is the practice of mental disengagement. Instead of judging things, people, situations, feelings, in-laws, and iPhone apps as “good” or bad,” we take five minutes to just become aware of our surroundings, our feelings, our thoughts, and our breathing (breathing is mandatory).
We don’t assign any judgment to the sounds we hear, the sights we see, the scents we smell. We just experience them, as they are. This has been scientifically proven to settle the mind when practiced persistently. And I think our own Talmudists may have been hinting to this therapeutic technique in the aforementioned cryptic little comment, “Three things settle a person’s mind.” v
Doni Joszef is a cognitive psychotherapist practicing with adolescents and young adults in Cedarhurst. He is a member of the DRS guidance department and writes for a wide range of publications. He is available by appointment. Contact Doni at 516-316-2246 or e‑mail DJoszef@Gmail.com. For more information, visit DeficitOfAttention.Com.