The First Experience of a Jewish Mindfulness Retreat

I could finally participate in a Jewish mindfulness retreat for the first time last week. Since I've been practicing mindfulness, mainly in the form of daily meditation, for more than two years, I didn't expect a big surprise from the two types of mindfulness practices we did during this two-day retreat - repetitions of a 40-minute-long sitting meditation practice and a 20-minute-long walking practice - though I couldn't have practiced so intensively from morning until evening alone.

My greatest expectation from this retreat was to share time and space with like-minded people. In addition to the teacher whose eight-session course I had already taken twice in the past and myself, four other frum Jewish men participated in this retreat. I was surprised when we were asked at the beginning of the retreat to commit to social silence for two days until its end. In spite of my initial worries, this has turned out to be a most precious opportunity for me to reexamine my automatic "translation" of thought to speech in my daily life. Every time some thought came to my mind and I felt like "translating" it into speech, I asked myself whether this "translation" was really worthwhile if I hadn't committed to this social silence. To my surprise, I found more than 90% of my thoughts not worth being "translated" into speech, which means that I was simply "contaminating" the air with unnecessary and sometimes even harmful spoken words until then.

This realization has inevitably lead me to think about the use of social media. In this "remarriage" of mine with Facebook I tried to be very careful to use it mindfully. I might have been more successful in its active use than its consupmtion. Having realized that I had wasted too much time checking posts in Facebook as well as online news, I've decided to check them only three times after the three meals on weekdays. I extended my online information diet until after the end of Sabbath to maximize the benefit of this social silence. When I broke the fast and cheched Facebook as well as my favorite online news websites, they looked far less appealing to me. This reminds me somehow of the feeling I had when I stopped drinking completely a little more than a year ago.

Before this retreat I used to think a lot about our mind (with language as its main tool) and the prison made by it where many of us are trapped (and some aren't even aware of this). This retreat has sharpened my mindfulness and made me realize the severity of the mind-made prison. Upon breaking my social silence I noticed the trap of mental tagging among many of the people I resumed communicating with. They can't simply perceive people and things as they are in the present moment without categorizing them first with their mind, thus limiting themselves. And unfortunately, none of them seems to be aware that they are actually nothing but prisoners of their own mind.

This mental tagging isn't restricted to others. Many people are also trapped in mental self-tagging, especially in the form of this-worldly identities made by their egoic mind, and seem totally identified with these egoic illusions.

My intensified mindfulness after experiencing this retreat has also made me realize the very limitations of mindfulness itself. I'm more aware now that mindfulness as the use of our mind to be aware of our own thoughts, feelings and sensentions non-judgementally in the present moment still remains at the level of the mind. It should be a stepping stone to reach something that transcends our rational mind and is our essense - consciousness also known as the soul. So mindfulness isn't an end in itself but a way to facilinate transition to what Stephan Bodian calls "awakened awareness" in his new book Beyond Mindfulness.

During this retreat we were asked to define who we are. The other participants were so sure of their conventional identities. I refused to answer this question by using such egoic illusions as they are fragmented pieces of an inseparable whole being. I'm more convinced now that each one of us is a divine being, and our ego and the illusions it makes are like clounds covering the sun, but even when it's convered by clouds, the sun never stops shining. All we have to do is to recall that each of us is such a sun.


Preparing for a Jewish Mindfulness Retreat

Having been practicing mindfulness, mainly in the form of twice daily meditation on weekdays for a little more than two years, and having recently started investigating Jewish mindfulness, I'm finally participating in a Jewish mindfulness retreat for the first time! It will take place from this Wednesday noon until this Friday morning in a moshav near Rosh Pina in Israel, and will be fascilitated by an experienced (Jewish) mindfulness practitioner whose eight-session course I took twice in the past two years in Jerusalem.

From the timetable I've received from him I understand that we participants will be maditating all day from morning until evening except when we eat and daven. Before going to bed we are supposed to journal our thoughts and feelings for ourselves and also share them with each other.

Though I meditate regularly, I only do so for 10 and 20 minutes after getting up and before going to bed respectively. So I can't even imagine how I'll feel during and after this retreat in which I'll meditate all day long for hours. We are also supposed to practice mindful eating in silence.

I've been finally feeling enormous benefits of mindfulness and meditation in the past few months especially in that I can be aware now of my own thoughts and feelings more than half of the time when I'm awake and have been able to prevent many of my immediate egoic reactions in speech and action to those who say and/or do something mindlessly from their egoic mind.

This week I've been reading a fascinating collection of experiences by many well-known and experienced practioners of meditation - Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World edited by Ed Shapiro & Deb Shapiro. I've been nodding yes to almost all the benefits of meditation they share with us readers.

In preparation for this retreat I've also read a new book on (theoretical aspects of) Jewish mindfulness - Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide to Everyday Life by Benjamin Epstein. I'm not so sure yet what is Jewish in Jewish mindfulness, so I'm very curious to hear an answer or answers from our teacher in this forthcoming retreat and learn how it's translated into practice.

I've decided not to remain disconnected from the Internet from this Wednesday morning until this Saturday evening after the end of Sabbath in order to maximize the possible benefits of this retreat. I'm supposed to return home this Friday afternoon, but I won't get connected to the Internet until after the end of Sabbath so that I may not spoil the first "Jewish day of mindfulness" immediately after this retreat.

PS: I'll update this blog and write about my first experience of this retreat on Sunday, March 31 instead of Friday, March 29 (as if anyone cared).


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, and the Ego and the Soul

When I was still addicted to alcohol until about December 2017, I used to feel I had two personalities called "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide" - the former was active when I was sober, while the latter was awakened every time alcohol started to influence me - and wonder which of these personalities was my true self.

Since I started learning the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and Chabad Hasidism, which incidentally show amazing similarities and even commonalities, I got aquainted with the dichotony of the ego and the soul, which are equivalent to the animal soul (הנפש הבַּהֲמִית) and the divine (הנפש האלוקית) soul respectively in Chabad terminology and came to realize that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide actually stem from the same source, the ego though the former can descend even below the level of the ego and the latter can experience rare lights of the soul.

So the constant struggle between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide inside myself was nothing but a whirlwind in the illusory part of myself. The true constant struggle is between the ego and the soul. I gradually started to wake up and realize that my life was controlled by the ego even when I was sober and hijacked by it when I got drunk, causing sufferings to myself and people around me. But it seems that sufferings are here with us until they become unnecessary by serving their role as spiritual wake-up calls.

I still have a long way to go until I tame my ego, but I'm at least aware of its existence and its possible control of my life. The more I work on this new life-long project of taming my ego, the more frequently I can catch it and prevent it from hijacking my thoughts, emotions and actions and the more frequently I can identify people whose behaviors are controlled by their ego.

It's a torture if I have to seem them and their egoic behaviors on a regular basis. On the one hand, I feel compassion for them as I'm deeply concerned that this might eventually cause sufferings to themselves and people around them sooner or later. But on the other hand, I also feel helpless as I know from my own experience that I'll only worsen my relationship with them by telling this to them as an effort to let them become aware of it as a kind of time bomb that might explode at any moment, so I can do nothing but just watch them.


Academic Writing vs. Associative Writing

Writing articles (followed by publishing them in peer-reviewed journals) is considered the most important activity if one is to remain in academia. Of all the academic activities this is unfortunately the one I'm least good at and enjoy least. One of the greatest consolations I can draw from my decision to leave academia is to be able to be liberated from this "rat race" of academic writing.

Last July I started a new blog in Japanese for my future career of Jewish life coaching for speakers of Japanese. Both the type or style of writing and its contents are totally diffeent from academic writing. I write associatively on Jewish (and non-Jewish) spirituality.

When I have to write academic articles, I literally have to wrack my brain and squeeze words. But when I write associatively on spirituality, I feel as if ideas poured out automatically from somewhere else and I were just a scribe "translating" them into words.

Perhaps this blog is also a type of associative writing, and the more I focus on spirituality, the more automatically the words flow. I also keep a journal, putting down my thoughts and emotions as non-judgementally as possible every morning and evening on weekdays, that is, from Sunday through Thursday. This journaling, together with twice daily mindfulness meditation, has been very helpful in remaining aware of my ego and its "garments".


Coping with Native Hasidic Yiddish

It's two months since I joined an extracurricular practicum group in Yiddish as part of the requirements by the school where I've been studying Jewish life coaching since last July.

The other five groups the school offers are in English. Though my English must be better and lexically richer than my Yiddish, I feel more comfortable in Yiddish than in English because I've never lived in English, while in Yiddish I conducted a married life, though a short-lived one, using it all the time for every possible topic in daily life (as well as for discussions on linguistic research).

The supervisor of this Yiddish-speaking practicum group is a notable Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn and a native speaker of Hasidic Yiddish. In more than half of the sessions I have had in the past two months I was the only student. In the other sessions I had another former student, who is also a native speaker of Hasidic Yiddish living in Brooklyn.

So after using Yiddish for decades I suddenly find myself forced to cope with native Hasidic Yiddish for the first time! Now I suddenly realize that I've been using Yiddish mostly with those who have also studied Yiddish formally as I have, including my ex-wife.

What I still find it very difficult to get used to in this native Hasidic Yiddish is its pronunciation of vowels, which is different from that of standard Yiddish based on Lithuanian Yiddish phonetically, which is what is taught in formal settings unless otherwise specified.

Though I have had enough occasions to shmooze with quite a few Chabad emissaries outside Israel, spending whole shabosim with them in Lithuanian Yiddish, this is also the first time to have serious conversations with non-Chabad Hasidim.

What compensates for my difficulty of getting used to their pronunciation of Yiddish is that I can freely use all those concepts of Yiddishkayt, including Talmudic expressions of Aramaic origin that are also used in Modern Hebrew but are not so understood by many of its non-frum speakers, and feel fully understood by these native speakers of Hasidic Yiddish not only conceptually but also emotionally as they also live these concepts.