One of the great frustrations of growing up is that in the process of learning how the world works we often lose our sense of curiosity in and surprise at how it works.
Remember the thrill — mixed with surprise and fear of loss, and perhaps even danger — when you released a balloon filled with air and chased it around the room, delighting in its amusing sound? That same thrill might have deepened when you learned about the existence of air pressure, the power of the extended rubber to both contain and power the air inside the balloon. You may have applied this knowledge in creating an air-powered car or some other machine. But, eventually, balloons no longer were thrilling, instead becoming mere decorations. Your curiosity and delight in the moment became dull, hidden.
Mindfulness is a spiritual practice that aims to support us in awakening our awareness to each moment. Just as our understanding of the nature of physics wears away our wonder at the flight of a balloon, so, too, our experiences tend to wear down our sense of the wonder and uniqueness of each moment of our lives. We learn very early the pain that comes with the end of pleasure. We learn very early the pleasure of the end of pain. We turn much of our lives into seeking the pleasurable — and the means to prevent its end — and running from the painful. As a consequence we tend to limit our interest, our desire — and even our capacity — to see the moment clearly for what it is except as it extends pleasure or avoids what is unpleasant.
What would it mean to wake up in the moment? We might come to see clearly how much we shape our lives in pursuing the pleasant and resisting the unpleasant. We might experience how much we suffer in the moment — sometimes mightily, often in small ways, with a twinge, a grimace, a snarling retort, a startled exclamation. This suffering does not rise to the level of conscious awareness, most of the time, but cumulatively it exacts a dramatic toll. It shapes our lives, warps our relationships, limits our vision, closes our hearts.
Prayer was the original mindfulness practice. “I am afraid and I need help.” “There is nothing that would be better in this moment.” “I am embarrassed that I have hurt someone I love.” “My pride in you knows no bounds.” Each of these is a prayer, expressing a deep awareness of the nature of the moment. They are complete, true and need no elaboration. Prayer in its simplest form is the acknowledgment of the truth.
The problem is that each moment is fleeting. However much we are afraid it will never end, it does. However much we are afraid it will end, it does. Whatever it is that we express as true in the moment, we are challenged to pay attention and to sense what is true now and then bring it to expression. This impulse is the origin of liturgy — the formulation of the expression of gratitude, the acknowledgement of the need for help, the desire to make amends, the awareness of a full heart. These verbal expressions are meant to point us to deep awareness of the truth of our lives and to invite us to pay attention to what is true right now.
Many people find liturgy to be difficult, even off-putting. They suspect that it either precludes their own expression of awareness or that it allows for only one sentiment, one response to life. Somehow, their own life experience is wrong. What is wrong, if anything, is the perception that when we come together for worship we are all meant to be “on the same page” and to pray “in unison.” But, when we come together with others to pray, we can only do so with our whole beings, unique and in the moment. Somewhere in the prayerbook, somewhere in the liturgy, our life experience and our personal prayer can find expression. It might be that only one moment, one word will speak to our life story, but it is that one moment or word that we can pray fully, truly, wholeheartedly.
After the eighth plague in Egypt, Pharaoh continued to try to negotiate his way out of his troubles. He acceded to Moses’ previous demand that not only the menfolk but women and children go out to worship God, yet balked at letting the Israelites take their flocks as well. To this Moses replied that they will not leave without their flocks, “for we must select from it for the worship of the Lord our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there” (Exodus 10:26).
All of the words of the liturgy must be there when we join together in worship. We must arrive with an open curiosity to investigate what is true in the moment for us if we are to truly bring our whole selves to pray. Mindfulness practice is a tool to help us to wake up to the fullness of our lives, so that in this very moment we might speak the truth.
Rabbi Jonathan Slater will be appearing Jan. 13, 7 p.m., at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8644.
Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater is the author of “Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice” (Aviv Press, 2004).