In a technologically-driven culture, we are inundated with demands, distractions, and distress. There is an urgent need to disconnect and detach from noisy notifications that fight for our attention and mental energy. As one solution, companies, particularly those in the tech sector, have created mindfulness meditation programs for their employees. The Marine Corps is testing Mind Fitness Training to help soldiers relax. Nike, General Mills, Target, and Aetna encourage employees to sit and do nothing, and offer classes that show them how.1 And why not? We are spiritual beings, in need of healing, wholeness, and meaning. The Jewish prophets understood this centuries ago when they called Jewish people to mindfully meditate on the One in whom meaning and wholeness can be found.
The history of mindfulness
Mindfulness is the loose translation of the Indian word sati, from the Pali dialect. Sati literally means memory or remembrance, a term describing awareness, attention, and alertness practiced in the Indian Buddhist discipline of meditation.2 Mindfulness meditation is a tool now used in psychotherapy to improve patient wellbeing, and in Judaism it can be used as a way to strengthen one’s spiritual connection. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality explains that mindfulness enhances “Jewish prayer, celebration, ritual and community.” It works toward improving the planet and helps participants find “deep sources of happiness in a world filled with... unsatisfying short-term fixes.”3
Mindfulness in the Jewish Scriptures
Mindfulness meditation as practiced today in Judaism, Buddhism, and in psychotherapy normally has as an end-goal of self-improvement. Participants practice mindfulness meditation to improve their emotional, physical, or spiritual well-being.
However, mindfulness meditation in the Jewish Scriptures refers to putting our attention on God, His Word, and His attributes. Meditation is a practice where we consider our relationship with the Divine One. It removes our attention from ourselves, life’s chaotic circumstances, and distractions. It turns our attention to a personal Creator and allows us to focus on the One who can heal our diseases, deliver us from harm, and is the source of life and blessing. Most importantly, meditation serves the purpose of building our relationship with God because it involves a personal encounter through prayer and of understanding His Word.
There are two Hebrew words in the Scriptures that translate to what we know as meditation: haggah and shiach. Haggah means to ponder, ruminate, meditate, mutter, or utter. The verb describes one murmuring almost inaudibly a thought or verse over and over.4 Haggah may be a form of onomatopoeia, that is, a word whose sound describes its action. The context of meditation is focusing one’s attention on God’s Word.
Joshua wrote, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8). The psalmist reported how meditating on God’s Word lifted his spirits and filled him with inexplicable joy: “Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). When King David was distressed by failure and foe, his spirits were lifted as he meditated upon God: “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).
Shiach is the verb to meditate, ponder, converse with oneself, utter, muse, pray, or babble. It is used in the Psalms to describe focusing one’s attention on God, His attributes, and His Word:
I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:12)
I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” (Psalm 119:15)
Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes.” (Psalm 119:23)
Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” (Psalm 119:27)
Meditation in the Jewish Scriptures does not focus on the self. It is not a therapeutic path toward self-improvement, self-discovery, or gaining an elevated metaphysical state. Counter to contemporary Western culture, where meditation is often a therapeutic exercise for self-improvement, in the Scriptures it is a path to encounter God by giving attention to His message. It involves conversation with God, including talking to Him and quietly listening to Him. According to the Jewish Scriptures, He is the true source of healing through whom we can find shalom – wholeness. Biblical meditation focuses one’s attention upon One who truly is able to touch the soul of the worshiper, heal the spirit, and renew life. It is truly mindful for it does not involve mindless ecstatic states that disconnect the conscious, but elevates the senses by making the worshiper aware of One greater than ourselves upon whom we entirely depend.
It’s so Jewish!
Mindfulness is indeed a Jewish discipline and was advocated by the writers of the Jewish Scriptures. The Scriptures admonish us to a mindful life, giving attention to the One who is mindful of us.
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently [mindfully] to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1–3)
1. David H. Hochman, “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention,” The New York Times, November 1, 2013, online edition, Fashion & Style, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/fashion/mindfulness-and-meditation-are-capturing-attention.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0.
2. Jeff Wilson, Mindful America: Meditation and the Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and American Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 15.
3. “Jewish Mindfulness Meditation,” Institute for Jewish Spirituality, ed. James Orr, accessed October 26, 2018, http://www.jewishspirituality.org/our-spiritual-practices/jewish-meditation/.
4. W. L. Walker, “Meditation,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub Company, 1939), https://www.internationalstandardbible.com/M/meditation.html.