Mindfulness, but Jewish

By: Racheli Jian  |  May 10, 2023

By Racheli Jian, Layout Editor

I’ve always been a person who is go-go-go. I always looked for what else I could do, and when I was in college, this became difficult. Not only was I overloaded academically, but also socially. On top of all of that, it is general knowledge that college students are some of the most stressed-out people. According to the American Institute of Stress “Eight in 10 college students experience frequent bouts of stress.” With everything piling up, it was not long before my family came to realize just how much I needed a break, and my father gifted me a book titled Mindfulness: A Jewish Approach by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Feiner. In all honesty, I thought mindfulness just had to do with yoga and meditation, something only reserved for Buddhists and hippies. I do still think that some parts of mindfulness are for the more extreme, but there was a lot I learned about the intersection of Judaism and mindfulness.

First off, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is noticing that you’re reading these words. Now notice the way you’re breathing, the different sounds in the room. Mindfulness is about taking a second to acknowledge what is happening around you in that moment. But how does this connect to Judaism? Rabbi Feiner brings a mishna from Pirkei Avot to prove the connection. “He [Rabban Yohanan] said unto them: go forth and observe which is the right way to which a man should cleave?…Rabbi Shimon said, haro’eh et hanolad” (Avot 2:9). Rabbi Shimon’s words are translated literally as someone who sees what is being born. Nolad is something that is in the present, and according to the Rashbatz, what Rabbi Shimon means, is that we should focus our resources on the present, and what we cannot change, we should believe that Hashem has a greater plan. This doesn’t mean to completely give up and say it’s all up to G-d. We still can recognize the power we have to act in the moment and plan for the future based on the past. However, it is beneficial that we don’t plan for the future just to miss out on what’s going on in the present. 

Being present isn’t something new or foreign to Judaism; we just have a different name for it – kavanah. In Duties of the Heart it says, “One [who] prays with his tongue but his mind is distracted in a matter other than the prayer, his prayer will be like a body without a soul” (Sha’ar 8, 3:59). This shows just how much our thoughts can change how we view our relationship with Hashem. Even if one isn’t praying, just take a second to make a bracha and realize what you’re saying. The apple tastes 10x better when you focus on the ha’etz you made before. The intention when learning Torah is also not something revolutionary. Most of us have heard of learning Torah l’shma (for the sake of G-d), or not l’shma. It is, of course, difficult to guide our thoughts since the nature of the mind is to wander, but taking a second before doing something spiritual or anything else and focusing on your intent can change the whole experience.

Rabbi Feiner concludes the book by looking inward. Many of us, including myself, can barely sit a minute alone with our thoughts. We have all heard of the dangers of social media, yet the dangers of constant stimulation we get from our phones and laptops are not only a warning on a billboard. We have lost the ability to just be. We constantly feel as if we have to be productive. Something beautiful I read in this book is that “there is a part of us that is valuable for merely existing. The fact that we were created by G-d and created in His image makes us a diamond…still it is up to us what we do with the diamond” (Feiner, 45). We are inherently worthy by just existing, and the obsession with always being productive burns us out. The balance, though, is to make sure we are not only being but also doing. This balance is different for everyone, but both sides are beneficial.

The knowledge I gained taught me that there is value in taking a break. When done right, a break can be more productive than working 24/7. So, for all the college students that are feeling burnt out, or for anyone who’s still suspicious of this mindfulness thing, I recommend trying it out.