Almost everything can — and often does — disturb my quiet, my equilibrium, my place of rest (nochach), my comfort (nechamta).
The “everything” can be external — a noise, a sight, a touch — or it can be internal, such as a sensation, a perception, or, most usually, a thought.
When possible, I put these disturbing influences into categories. While praying, I try to recognize and label those things that intrude on my connections to my Creator.
External intrusions — sudden, unanticipated stimuli of any kind, especially ones that cause pain — are relatively easy to categorize.
Sensory-based internal intrusions are also fairly easy to categorize. Pain and discomfort, hunger and thirst, itchiness, heat and cold, tiredness, and excitement are some of the sense-based stimuli that cause me to lose my sense of equanimity.
At times, ignoring the stimuli can restore equanimity; I can change the ecology (e.g., shift my position, put in ear plugs) or I can incorporate the intrusion into the shalvah (equanimity) of awareness. At other times, these stimuli are given priority over equilibrium, because they signal potential injury or death to one’s self or someone else (fire alarms, sirens, explosions).
Our ancestors were very aware of these potential disruptors of the peaceful, and many talmudic discussions suggest ways to preserve one’s intention or attention, one’s kavannah. The Talmud also stipulates which prayers are to be prioritized and not interrupted — such that, even if a poisonous snake is wrapped around your heel during the Amidah (standing prayer), you remain standing in place.
But most often, my quiet is ruptured by an intrusive thought. When I am aware that my equipoise has been disturbed, I attempt to catalogue the thought, understand it, and bless it. I appreciate it — even in its disturbance — as the ultimate source of all thoughts and then let it return to Source. At times, I am successful, and I can return to a state of equilibrium. When I am not successful, I begin to ruminate on the thought. Sometimes, the rumination comes to an end and the thought is digested. Other times, the rumination simply takes over.
Most frequently, I’m interrupted by regrets, curiosity about friends and acquaintances, lusts, tasks to remember, and an array of emotions that I am experiencing. I am especially aware of these intrusive thoughts when I am davening, specifically during the Sh’ma and the Amidah. Davening is intended to bring me closest to God, but it is also a time that brings up the rebellious, impatient, and sceptical parts of me.
The intrusions used to disturb me; today, I try to understand them and refrain from magnifying them. I sense that they are trying, in their own way, to help me. Our biology sees almost everything in terms of survival, and, somehow, those things that disturb my equanimity are likely to be those things that in other circumstances would help me to survive.
When I look at this from a Jewish perspective, these intrusive thoughts are also gifts from the Creator. They are designed to call my attention to aspects of my life that need repair or to a general approach to life that detracts from integrating my desires with those of God. Thank God for that.