What do I believe about human nature and the nature of reality that makes a mindfulness practice desirable and effective? I believe it is possible to train the mind, and I believe it is possible to learn to love, and I believe it is possible to reduce suffering. Working to reduce our own reactivity and the suffering it brings allows us to relieve suffering in the world around us. We live in a world surrounded by the failure to love, which is fundamentally a spiritual problem. Love is the aim of spiritual practice and religious life. It is a source of renewal and one of the primary ways God becomes manifest in our lives. It is the emotional, personal process that takes place in the hearts of rabbis and congregants, adults and children, at conventions and in communities. It is about becoming ever more visible to ourselves and each other.
I was drawn to Reconstructionism for several reasons that still prevail. It made sense. It was honest. It spoke to my desire to be a better person and to make a better world, and articulate the indivisibility between these two goals. It also honored my love of being a Jew and my identity with the story of the Jewish people.
My understanding of spirituality is, as the Kotzker Rebbe defined Hasidism, arbeit auf zich, “work on oneself.” It is the work of growing awareness. Its purpose is to reveal the unseen and hidden fears, desires, obstacles and barriers to living lives of gratitude, generosity and service. Since we live in relationship with others in all dimensions of time and space, our human development is nurtured by others and nurtures them. We aim to establish conditions in our families, synagogues, communities and nations to foster awareness, wise choices and loving relationships in the service of our sacred values: peace, justice and love. We know these values because we are in relationship with something greater than our fragmented selves, greater than our limitations. We call that greatness “God.”
Permeating everything that Mordecai Kaplan wrote and taught is a fearless willingness to tell the truth. He was the one to say, “Let’s face it, this is what we really believe, so let’s start admitting it to each other.” His notion of spirituality was an articulation of values and a creation of conditions both internally and externally to integrate those values into our personal and collective lives.
For many years, I have practiced and taught mindfulness to Jews as part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I have endeavored to integrate that mindfulness with Jewish values, texts and prayer. Mindfulness is most of all about telling the truth to ourselves again and again. The formal practice (which is a big part of what I teach) may involve eliminating other distractions in order to pay attention to a simple and unified focus. It might be the breath as it rises and falls or the sounds that are filling the room or the sensation of a step on the bottom of one’s foot. We practice knowing what we feel in our bodies as a way of getting closer to the truth of our experience. Very soon, mental proliferation begins. Wild stories and thoughts float through the mind. When we notice them, we see that they have only passing substance. Space opens up around the thinking process itself. Thoughts loosen their grip upon us. In time, we mostly see the truth of how temporary all experience is. We also see the infinity of awareness itself and the interconnection between this and that—this sound and this thought, this thought and this desire and this story. We see how inseparable we are from each other and from all life, which holds and sustains us moment to moment.
The ability to know what is true takes effort and practice. We become scientists of our own experience and learn how things work, what choices we have, how we suffer and cause harm, and how we become free. We learn about what separates us and what brings us closer. It’s not theoretical; it is practical, based on our own experience. We learn what is of abiding significance and what is a chimera, a habit or a confused idea. Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness of our experience without judgment. It is learning to be with what is and relaxing in that awareness before we set out to strategize, fix, change and save.
The capacity to be present in a mindful way is a spiritual practice in itself and the base line for all other practices. Without this fundamental and experiential honesty, we are in the realm of the supernatural—a realm of conjecture, fantasy or magic. Kaplan writes:
Religion...which aims to improve human nature and the conditions of human living...has to focus its attention on that aspect of man’s nature which is in need of being fully humanized, on what the human being ought to become, if he [sic] is to reflect the image of God (Judaism Without Supernaturalism, p. 26).
It makes sense to me that the purpose of religion is to humanize humanity. This is an extension of expanding our capacity to act in wholesome ways. Homo sapiens are, after all, animals. We are conditioned for survival. Our complex brains have the more primitive centers that operate from a flight, fight or freeze modality. Our higher centers include the possibility of seeing clearly and making responses to our environment that serve others and ourselves in the long run, not clouded by habit or instinct. This is the ongoing work of liberation, the freedom from the slavery of Egypt.
In order to become free, people need to work on themselves. We need to tell the truth. We need to set conscious intentions. We need to confront our distractions, our fears and the places where we cause and endure suffering. We need to learn to live with constant change, and still make wise and loving choices. Practice in community is the path to develop human qualities that we identify as Divine because they lead to happiness, equanimity, fulfillment, aliveness and wisdom. These are wholesome qualities like generosity, gratitude, patience and joy. We learn to see the factors that lead to suffering and harm such as greed, hatred, delusion, disconnection, resentment and blame. We experience what invites freedom and release from the old patterns of hurt that manifest as self-centered fear. We need time and space for this. That is why we have dedicated periods in the life of a Jew to practice, to perform mitzvot.
Kaplan understood that spirituality is cultivated through practices that we share with our people in time and space. He recognized that for many Jews today, the idea of a supernatural God who commands obedience is not a realistic motivator. Yet, he understood that religion without practice is disembodied, theoretical and abstract.
Mindfulness practice is a path to spiritual practice for liberal Jews. In the simplicity of making a commitment to pay attention to each in-breath and each out-breath, we have a rubric for many other practices. Whether it is Sabbath observance, kashrut, shmirat halashon (right speech), tzedakah or lulav (one of the four species on Sukkot), we must set an intention. As soon as we do that, we are faced with distraction and resistance. We then need to be very clear why we are practicing and how to work with the resistance. We find support in sustaining our practice in community with others who share a common motivation, experience and language.
What kind of community nourishes the Divine within? In most situations in life, we are ranked and compared and judged on a multitude of external measuring sticks. The inner light, the soul, spirit, still point of consciousness shirks back from these pressures. It needs other conditions. It needs quiet, acceptance, safety, support and inspiration. This is the task of religious community. If we set up conditions where we can truly feel safe—not judged, but accepted—the power of love can allow what is hidden to come forth. As it emerges it can be seen, known and held without struggle. We join hesed to emet, “love” to “truth.”
It is the nature of all things to change, and this is also true of our fears as long as they are not pushed away, not judged, not argued with. This is the power of love. Pure love. We practice total acceptance as we rest in empty, open knowing of what is. We know the unpleasant as unpleasant without pushing it away or running from it. We know the pleasant just as it is, without demanding more and more.
I believe that our future depends upon creating communities of deep honesty and trust, places where people can be safe enough to tap their potential as human beings created in the Divine image, and name the places of common concern and action. I think this is what we all crave. We are repelled by the false promises of the marketplace and the White House. We yearn for the satisfaction of simplicity, stillness, sincerity and spaciousness. Leaders and teachers can only do so, of course, if they take the time to bring compassion to their hurting places and renew their sense of purpose, their awe, their inner light.
Kaplan taught the inseparability of tikkun hanefesh (repair of the soul) and tikkun olam (repair of the world). He wrote:
The salvation that the modern man seeks in this world...has a personal and social significance...Selfish salvation is an impossibility...There can be no personal salvation so long as injustice and strife exist in the social order; there can be no social salvation so long as the greed for gain and the lust or domination are permitted to inhibit the hunger for human fellowship and sympathy in the hearts of men (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p.53f).
I understand this to be the enduring mandate of Reconstructionism and the crying necessity of this hour in history. We live bombarded by messages that safety—salvation—is found in more guns and more money. Our message is the opposite. Safety—salvation—is found in being present, in relationships, in working to improve the structures that sustain basic human needs, in opportunities for creativity and connection.
Safety or salvation is not found in the pursuit of perfection. It is found in embracing change. Reconstructionists are known as those who speak about God as a process and Judaism as an evolving civilization. The constant of change is the most profound truth of all. It is the nature of life itself. When we sit in stillness and in silence something amazing happens. We recognize that there is no stillness, and there is no silence. We are actually part of an infinite living organism. We live saturated with life, filled with life and immersed in life. We are part of God as God is part of us, as the Hasidim understood the meaning of the verse, Melo kol ha’aretz, kevodo. We are actually part of an infinite living organism. We live saturated with life, filled with life and immersed in life. We try to bring to our consciousness, in the words of Levi Yitzhak (Kedushat Levi, Rosh Hashanah (Inyan perishah lekohen gadol):
From moment to moment the blessed Creator, in love and mercy, instills in us new vital force; from moment to moment the Blessed Creator renews our very being.
When we cultivate our awareness, we develop a place to rest in the midst of all the change. It is a seat of safety. It is a point of connection. It is a place of freedom and unlimited possibility.
Awareness is eternal and ever-flowing, but it is only ours in the moment. This is true of all the Divine qualities. There is only this moment to know joy or patience or love. Living deeply on the inside, we can afford to live with less material stuff. We know a deeper satisfaction. Our fulfillment comes from working towards greater equality and justice.
Our work is to create in Kaplan’s very contemporary cadence, “the unreconciled heart” (The Future of the American Jew, pp. 284-88). I love that term. And what is the unreconciled heart telling us? Justice must prevail; never make peace with brute force; do not be overwhelmed by mere bigness or by fate or circumstances; do not make peace with fraud or violence, regardless of the success or prestige they seem to achieve.
The unreconciled heart works in tandem with the challenging mind. This is why we undertake spiritual practices. This is what the new science of the brain is teaching and researching. It is cutting-edge contemporary spirituality. Kaplan challenges us to free ourselves from the habits of mind—the beliefs, values and institutions that maintain themselves by their own momentum even after their original valid purpose has been outlived. Of course, habits are indispensable. They create the grooves in our brains, which allow us to function. However, freedom and human development require a commitment to see clearly how and when we get stuck in habits that cause suffering to ourselves and others. The neuroscientists see our greatest hope as a species in the discovery of neuroplasticity. We can change our brains through the effort of awareness, practice and resolve.
This is all connected to the work of love; the radical work of love, transformational love. It emerges in the teaching of the Torah portion, Ki Tissa, read on festivals and Yom Kippur. The people of Israel lose faith and create the golden calf right after their direct experience of God’s presence at Sinai.
After the shattering of the tablets, the near destruction of the people, the begging for forgiveness, Moses asks to see God’s face. He is directed to stand in the cleft of the rock. From there, he sees the world through God’s eyes, or through the back of Divine presence. What is the world made of? What is the Divine composed of? The words are clear—mercy, compassion, tenderness, loving kindness, patience ... this is how forgiveness is possible. This is the transformational power of love at the root of creation. We might call it the power of love to unify and to heal. This is the power we activate through awareness. As Kaplan reminds us:
It penetrates to the hidden springs of goodness beneath the...selfishness, pettiness and moral insensitiveness, and [through] forgiveness and kindness, brings that goodness to the surface. (The Future of the American Jew, p. 333).
This love is not of our making, but it exists. We know it is true. Kaplan’s calls this redemptive love. His writing is poetic and inspired. He urges us not to fall prey to cynicism and despair. He acknowledges that the cultivation of this quality of forgiveness, lovingkindness and compassion is the product of “rigorous self-discipline.” He understands that the human species hasn’t been around long enough to transmute itself into the higher being we genuinely wish to become. He knows love’s greatest impediment is self-hatred. He knows love is born of an honest but gentle confrontation with our limitations, as well as our strengths.
My practice and teaching of mindfulness in a Jewish context aims to be a beacon of light into an unfolding contemporary spirituality that is strong and honest, deep and open, wise and loving. In Kaplan’s words:
We are inclined to pooh-pooh both goodness and love, as the wishful thinking of impractical visionaries. Yet, they are the only foundation on which we can build the future of mankind. We are bound to fail, if we try to build human life on the assumption of self-interest as the dominant trait in man. That assumption always turns out to be aught but a foundation of sand (The Future of the American Jew, p. 333).