A Jewish contemplative practice is, essentially, about serving God through consciousness and action. Too often, emphasizing the behaviors of Jewish practice — such as Shabbat and Holy Day observance, kashrut, or even tikkun olam, which become markers of Jewish identity — obscures the goals of transformation of consciousness and action. But a contemplative practice that supports and shapes traditional praxis can help return these goals to the fore, deepening and inspiring Jewish observance.
Contemplative practice, however, is often perceived as individualistic. And there is some truth to this assertion. After all, ultimately, the only consciousness any one of us can actually hope to transform is our own. We can only work to change the climate of our own hearts, to clarify the thoughts of our own minds, and to expand our own awareness. Yet the reason that we want to transform our consciousness is so that we can serve God more truthfully, love our fellows more completely, and do justice with greater humility.
My preferred model for contemplative practice is mindfulness meditation. In this practice, we learn to observe thoughts arising in the mind without having to “think” them. That is, we learn to distinguish between whatever arises in the heart and mind — thoughts, feelings, judgments — and what is actually happening in the moment. All too often, our immediate reaction to an event arises from habits of mind and heart: prejudice, preference, personal history, or social conditioning. When we allow our immediate reaction to dictate our response, without some insight into the various factors shaping our reaction, we risk making a mistake and creating greater harm. Early on, the Hasidic masters understood the intrapsychic
forces that worked to shape our responses. Contemplative practice — which offers us greater insight into the workings of our minds and hearts in order to behave with greater impeccability — shares that awareness and language. Through this practice, we seek to avoid harming others; moreover, we do so with greater freedom, insight, and transparency, all of which are spiritual qualities.
Sitting and observing the thoughts and feelings that arise in our hearts and minds give us insight into how we often judge ourselves harshly. Sometimes a memory floods our mind and we are filled with guilt and regret, leaving us feeling unacceptable and unworthy. Sometimes we judge ourselves harshly for something quite simple, as when our thoughts wander in meditation (or we notice we are comparing ourselves to others in a yoga pose). When we observe the rising of these thoughts — and that observation is itself without judg-ment — we can witness the pain associated with those thoughts without reacting. We know directly, and in a new manner, the pain of our own lives, and knowing that pain deeply, without a story or a judgment, allows us to feel compassion and to console our own hearts.
This may seem self-indulgent. We may ask: What is our suffering — particularly such internal pain over such inconsequential matters — compared to the concrete, material needs of others? Surely, nothing trumps others’ immediate needs. But our capacity to respond fully, freely, and skillfully is affected by the degree to which we have actually attended to our own inner life. Make no mistake: This subtle pain is no different from the greater pains of our lives: loss, defeat, or physical decline. When we ignore or deny our own suffering — no matter how insignificant it may seem — we risk resenting the call of others for our attention. Turning toward, meeting, and responding to our own suffering with compassion lay the groundwork for us to then turn, with great freedom and energy, toward the suffering of others.
Contemplative practice also offers us insight into our own inner blindness. Because our self-judgment is so painful, we tend to hide from or deny it. Lurking in the shadows of our hearts, it has a perverse opposite effect: We tend to assess ourselves to be better, more skillful, less prone to mistakes than we actually are. And, we tend to judge others more harshly in turn. Mindfulness practice trains us to meet any judgment of ourselves — and another — with a simple challenge: Are you sure? In asking this question, we invite ourselves to investigate the grounds for our judgment and to look in our own shadow to discern if our assessment is possibly a projection of our self-judgment. Diminishing our inner critique, we can become more open to others, curious about their differences, accepting of their foibles, and attentive to their suffering.
The focus of mindfulness practice on our inner lives is not solipsistic. We are paying attention to and honoring the spark of divinity implanted in us, our soul. Without judgment and more open to love, we are able to act for the sake of others with greater freedom, energy, and will.