This is a blog post that I thought I would never write for two main reasons. Firstly, I do not tend to get involved in religion, being an agnostic myself, and secondly, while mindfulness is often used in a secular context today, it originates from Buddhism. Yet here I am, discussing mindfulness in the context of a whole other religion. The reason for this is simply because I have just come back from a ten-day trip to Israel.
I travelled with a big group of people, visiting many important sites all over Israel, such as Jerusalem, the City of David, the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Museum), Mount Herzl, Tel Aviv, the Israel Museum, the Dead Sea, Mount Meron, Haifa, Tzfat and the art district, local markets, the desert (yet again!), a Kibbutz, the Masada, a spring, the Hall of Independence, and many more. Despite visiting so many historic and religious sites, this blog post is not dedicated to a description of the Jewish faith. I am hardly qualified to discuss this religion in any detail after a short ten-day trip! However, I was able to learn a lot, and found that mindfulness concepts can be found all around us, even in a religion that is seemingly very different from Buddhism, albeit only at a first glance. And these concepts can be found in three aspects that I now associate with Israel: the language, the people, and the spirit.
The Hebrew language has many influences (Yiddish, Arabic, etc.) and is therefore just as fascinating as the people who speak it. Words and phrases like סַבַּבָּה ([sababa]: meaning “cool”, “great” or “fine”) and יִהְיֶה בְּסֵדֶר ([yihiye beseder]: meaning “don’t worry, it will be alright”) only begin to capture the optimistic and relaxed atmosphere of Israel and the Jewish people. But it is one thing to study the language from abroad, and a whole other thing to hear it as people speak it in Israel. As our tour guide explained to us, Hebrew is not only influenced by other languages, but also by the Jewish identity, which is one of optimism, present moment awareness, and community.
There is beauty in Hebrew, there is beauty in Israel, and there is beauty in its inhabitants. It is a beauty that can be found everywhere, yet that is also unique to a particular place and time. The people live one day at a time, and the Sabbath (or Shabbat) is a wonderful example of the Jews coming together with their family every Friday and Saturday to abstain from all work activities, such as the use of cars, electricity and technology. The Sabbath is a day of appreciation, living in the moment, and living simply in a way that benefits the individual, the family, society as a whole, and the natural world.
But this tradition of observing “a day of rest” is not unique to Judaism at all. For instance, Christians have Sunday, rather than Saturday, as their “day of rest”. And, surprisingly, this concept can even be found in Buddhism through the observance of Uposatha (or Upavasatha). This day often occurs in accordance with the phases of the moon, and is a day of meditation and the contemplation and practice of Buddhist teachings.
Finally, it is impossible to talk about mindfulness and spirituality within Judaism without mentioning Kabbalah. While the Kabbalah school of thought is often linked to Judaism and has close ties to God and religion, it is not a religious practice in itself, and is often said to predate all religions. It is a completely new topic for me, but after listening to a wonderful Kabbalah artist in Tzfat, I realised that Kabbalah has several similarities with mindfulness and meditation practice. This is not to say that they are at all the same thing! However, there are two aspects of Kabbalah that I found very relevant to mindfulness, particularly as practiced within the Buddhist traditions.
First is the concept of becoming more “other-centric”, rather than “ego-centric”. Showing kindness and love to others through giving, to find happiness for oneself. This teaching appears often across various religious and spiritual practices. Second is the concept of returning to the “here and now”, trusting that the universe (or nature) will run its course, and accepting what comes and goes. These two concepts are central to mindfulness practice. Moreover, I would argue that it is in fact these two concepts that are key to the human search for happiness…
As I already mentioned, I don’t know much about the practice of Kabbalah, nor about Hebrew, Judaism, or the people of Israel. And most likely, this blog post is written from a novice mind and a very shallow understanding of concepts picked up on a short trip. But perhaps the best thing to take away from the things that I discovered while touring Israel is that at the core, we are all the same. We live in different places, we have different traditions, we practice different religions, and we speak different languages. But our goal is common: We want to be happy. We want to reduce our suffering. And the secret to happiness seems to exist in the present moment, in the “here and now”. Everything else flows and changes and varies.
The day of rest can fall on a Saturday, or a Sunday, or according to the phases of the moon. The place of prayer can be a church, a synagogue or a mosque. The place of contemplation can be a Holy place or a meditation cushion in the corner of a bedroom. Some of us believe in God, some of us don’t believe in God, and most of us don’t know what to believe. Some of us find God or Buddha within ourselves. Some of us worship an external entity. Some of us meditate to become enlightened and infinite, while most of us meditate to simply be, knowing that we already are.
Despite all these differences, there is also so much that we have in common. So it is important to accept and appreciate the differences that do exist. Because all religions and practices, at their core, teach the importance of kindness, compassion and love towards others before the self (or the ego) in order to achieve happiness. And this seems to be a pretty good lesson!