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Why I Finally Joined a Mindfulness Coaching Group

The first in a series on Jewish Mindfulness.
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July 6, 2023
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These days, you never know when you’ll confront a person on the knife-edge. Road rage is alarmingly common, but uncorked anger behind the wheel isn’t the only manifestation of bottled-up tension. Intolerance and its close cousin, rampant and outrageous rudeness, tears at the fabric of society. Something elemental has shaken loose. Increasingly, people don’t seem to care about how they behave, perhaps because there are rarely consequences. 

Consequences matter. A story in The Wall Street Journal reported that the grocery delivery service Instacart sent warnings to customers whose abusive behavior to their hired shoppers had become intolerable. Faced with the threat of being dropped by Instacart, most of the customers who made the naughty list got the message and began to behave in a more civilized manner. 

I’m not sure why, but anger in and around supermarkets seems to be a big problem. For example, I was driving in the alley behind a kosher market  — circling yet again to find an elusive parking spot — when a man delivering fresh pita breads was pushing his oversized delivery cart toward me in the same narrow alley. One of us had to move aside for the other. I figured that I had the right of way and carefully inched forward, assuming he would move aside for me to pass. Instead, he yanked his cart backward as if cocking a gun, then rammed my car with the cart with all his might.  

Shocked and distraught, I managed to pull away. While I had once been the victim of road rage (over having the “wrong” political bumper sticker), this was my first time as the victim of “pita rage.” After parking a few blocks away, I went into the store and reported the incident to the manager. Till that moment, I had resisted the temptation to feel frustrated about not finding parking, and I refused to berate myself for not having ordered online. I meant to maintain perspective about how minimal this inconvenience was in the larger scope of things. But my cultivated calm vanished when that man bashed my car. Though minor, it was still a violent act and I remained shaken for the rest of the day.

When our own stress levels are very high, we may only be one small upsetting exchange away from losing it ourselves.   

In these times of high anxiety, most of us can tell our own versions of this story.  Carrying the stress of our own accumulated conflicts, added to the drumbeat of learning about endless others, drains the energy we need to deal with the rest of life: being there for our family and friends; managing our careers; carrying out plans for the future. We are perpetually braced for the next jarring incident, going into public with as much psychological armor as we can muster. When our own stress levels are very high, we may only be one small upsetting exchange away from losing it ourselves.   

From childhood, I had to learn to carry a lot of emotional stress without complaint. My older brother died in a car accident when he was 17 and I was nine, and we all numbly carried on, without the benefit of any counseling. Taking after my mother, I seemed built for emotional strength, and I ably carried my load –which grew as my responsibilities grew–for many, many years. But of course it came at a cost that inevitably caught up with me. Recently, I understood that I now have less emotional capacity to withstand many of life’s pressures than I used to. With more unpredictable and upsetting behavior all around us, I was not holding up as well.  

Nothing has shaken my rock-solid belief that God is in charge, that everything that happens is part of a Divine plan and will eventually be for the good even when I can’t see the good at the time. But I also recognized that I needed more than my faith, prayer and the rusting tools in my psychological toolkit to deal with life today.

A few weeks ago, when I could not shake a feeling of anger over a certain situation, I knew the problem was me more than the situation. And so I joined an eight-week Jewish mindfulness coaching practice.

For many years my husband, Jeff, had incorporated mindfulness practices in his life, including meditation, deep breathing, journaling, and reading books and articles on mindfulness. He gently encouraged me to join him, but I didn’t think I “needed” it. A few weeks ago, when I could not shake a feeling of anger over a certain situation, I knew the problem was me more than the situation. And so I joined an eight-week Jewish mindfulness coaching practice that Jeff had just signed up for called Living in Tune, led by Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen (litmindfulness.org). 

Appropriately, Dov Ber has a very reassuring, warm, and relaxed vibe in his Zoom classes and the short audio and videos he sends the participants through our WhatsApp group. In classic Jewish style, the man formerly known as Bradley Cohen spent years exploring Buddhism and other eastern spiritual practices, seeking the path to mindful tranquility. He volunteered for long stints in orphanages in India and China, and became a Kung Fu master. Also in classic Jewish style, he now lives in Jerusalem, teaching mindfulness from its original Torah sources. Our inner souls are tranquil, he says, and his goal is to teach us to quiet our minds and adopt nurturing practices. These include nourishing the senses: looking up at a beautiful clear sky, sitting with a cup of calming tea, smelling soothing scents such as lavender oil, having a warm bath, or enjoying a special piece of chocolate. This is the kind of prescription for life I can heartily embrace, especially the part about the chocolate.    

It’s early days in the program, and so far I’m focusing on Dov Ber’s foundational ideas: hashkata, trying to quiet the mind by focusing on our breath; and habata, stopping to notice our thoughts without judgment, and learning to let them go when they don’t serve us. In my next few columns I’ll report on my progress. I already feel calmer for having joined the group, traveling this path with many others also seeking greater inner peace.


Judy Gruen is the author of several books, including “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.” Her next book, “Bylines and Blessings,” will be published in February 2024.

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