Is your Rabbi a mindfulness master?

In Judaism there is something called the yetzer hara, which all boys and girls in Orthodox schools learn about at an early age. In some ways analogous to the concept of Original Sin found in Christianity, the yetzer hara can be thought of as the human inclination to commit evil. This is in contrast to the yetzer hatov, which is the human inclination to do good.

According to Judaism, every human being is born with both of these inclinations, which act as opposing motivational forces in our daily lives. While the yetzer hara is often referred to as a malicious agent that spends its free time tempting humans to commit sinful acts, it is not quite an evil character akin to Satan (who, in Orthodox Judaism, is not a literal figure, but rather a metaphor for the yetzer hara).

Rather, the yetzer hara as an agent is more personal: it’s not some devilish creature that hangs out in the depths of hell, which you pray you’ll never run into, but an intimate, subtle force within you, which takes advantage of the mechanics of your mind and your weaknesses in order to trip you up. In other words, the yetzer hara is a part of your very nature, a manifestation of your own mind.

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Come to think of it, maybe I’d actually take that devilish creature from the depths of hell over this stupid thing.

Growing up as I did, as a Hasidic Jew attending an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish school, the Rebbes (teachers) would often preach at you to ignore your yetzer hara (as opposed to the yetzer hara). So, for example, when you think about committing a sin — say, biting into a cheeseburger — that’s your yetzer hara talking, and you best not listen to him. Your yetzer hatov, on the other hand, is the voice in your head that tells you to do good, and you should definitely listen to that guy.

Of course, both of these voices — the one tempting you to do good and the one tempting you to do evil — sound exactly the same; the thought that says “Boy, a cheeseburger sounds pretty great right now!” is speaking in your own voice, as is the one that says “I should go pray now”. This is what it is to have an internal dialogue. To be a good Jew, then, you have to learn to ignore your yetzer hara and only listen to your yetzer hatov.

A Lesson From Rabbi Buddha

What would being a Jewish saint —  a person who is exceptionally skilled at ignoring his yetzer hara and listening to his yetzer hatov — look like? How would they go about their daily life?

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Presumably they would look something like this.

You might say that being a Jewish saint, they would probably go about their daily life in accordance with the Torah, or Old Testament (and perhaps the Talmud, or canon of Rabbinical law). That is, they would go about their daily life doing the sorts of things that these books consider to be good deeds in the eyes of God while refraining from the sorts of things that are listed in these books as being sinful. And that’s true.

But it’s only half the story.

The description above tells us what a Jewish saint would look like behaviorally. However, it doesn’t tell us much about what being a Jewish saint would look like, from the perspective of said saint.

Imagine if, for some odd reason, you were to approach a Jewish saint, and ask for precise instructions on how to be just like him — how not to fall for your yetzer hora and listen more to your yetzer hatov. Most likely, his answer would be “never commit any averot (sins) and only perform mitzvahs (good deeds)”.

Accurate, again, though not really that helpful of a guide. Every Jew knows this already.

But if this saint were to really understand your question and give you an actual precise answer, based on what he actually do to earn their sainthood moment by moment, you would expect him to say something like this (though he might say it in Yiddish):

“First learn the texts and know what are sins and what are good deeds. Then, throughout every moment of every day, pay careful attention to the flow of your experience. If a thought or temptation arises, don’t immediately run with it, but check: Is this the voice of the yetzer hara talking, perhaps trying to tempt me to commit a sin? Or is this the yetzer hatov, trying to encourage me to do a good deed? By paying attention in this way without distraction, you will no longer be beholden to every temptation that arises, for you will know how to take a step back and loosen the grip of the yetzer hara’s shenanigans, and be able to relate to him from a distance.”

In other words, being a Jewish saint takes a drek-load of hard work; not only must you study and memorize all the intricacies and nuances of Jewish law, you also have to constantly be on mental guard, making sure that you don’t take for granted any thoughts or feelings and remain vigilant in examining whether any are been sneaked into your consciousness by your yetzer hara.

In other other words, you have to be constantly paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. You have to be “mindful”.

So you’re telling me my Rabbi is enlightened?

Probably not. Maybe. I don’t know.

It depends whether you think enlightenment exists, and what your definition of enlightenment is.

This question (or at least the answer to it) is not really relevant for our purposes. Well, it’s a little relevant, but it’s beyond the scope of this article for two reasons.

For one, it is a well-documented truth that there is no better way to lose the thread of any discussion than by raising the concept of enlightenment before — and for that matter even after — attempting to calmly and agreeably define it.

More importantly, this article is not about enlightenment. It’s about mindfulness as popularly defined in Buddhist literature, and how this phenomenon is actually much more universal than many people realize. But don’t worry! I’m not here to make any sort of New Age Perennialist arguments about how all religions are really the same and why don’t we all just to take an eighth of mushrooms and build a shower-free commune made of reinforced love energy, man?

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“Hello, we’re here to talk to you about Perrenialist Philosophy!” “Ugh, can you talk to me about Jesus instead?”

My intention here is to de-couple mindfulness from its traditional Buddhist context to make the case that religious traditions — be they enlightenment/mysticism traditions or theistic religions — are not all the same, but that they do have one very important instrument and underlying cognitive mechanism in common. That instrument is a  heightened capacity to control, sustain, and sharpen attention, a.k.a. “mindfulness” as taught by Buddhist meditation teachers.

The modest premise I’m asserting is that mindfulness is the most versatile and broadly useful cognitive instrument human beings possess. What all religions have in common is that they tend to take full advantage of the power of this instrument (for better or worse!). What they do with it, however, varies wildly.

Let’s unpack that by re-iterating the first problem with the question above, which is that the answer to it depends on your definition of enlightenment.

If you hold, say, a Theravadan-Buddhist model of enlightenment, then in order to get enlightened one must cycle through the sixteen stages of insight (as described in detail in the Theravada tradition) by practicing Vipassana, or insight, meditation.

One of the necessary requirements for a successful Vipassana practice— perhaps the most necessary requirement — is mindfulness. During Vipassana practice, you use mindfulness to investigate your sensory experience, so that you can come to an understanding of their fundamental characteristics.

Mindfulness, however, is a skill on its own; it has no inherent monogamy with Vipassana meditation. In order to practice Vipassana, one uses the foundational skill of mindfulness in a very specific way, using a very specific ideological framing, which depends on the particular flavor of Vipassana one is practicing. In other words, you have to use mindfulness in order to practice Vipassana, but you’re not necessarily practicing Vipassana if you are using mindfulness. You can also use mindfulness in a different specific way — to do a simple concentration practice, for example, such as following your breath, which is useful for purposes other than those of Vipassana (improving your concentration, say, or calming yourself down in a stressful situation). You can also use mindfulness to do a self-inquiry practice, the purpose of which is to come to an understanding of the nature of the sense of self. And so on.

To make the pattern here explicit, consider this (hopefully obvious) fact: the character of your experience is dependent on where your attention is, and on the quality of that attention. When you’re watching a movie, your state of mind is very different depending on whether your attention is on your phone, on a thought about what you’ll have for dinner, or the movie itself (and, if your attention is on the movie, then your state of mind is further dependent on the film’s ability to capture your attention to a more or less immersive extent). If you have a stressful day, you may distract yourself by moving your attention away from the stressful stimuli and directing it toward a song, or a loved one.

What all religious systems — which, again, I’m defining broadly enough to include meditative traditions as well as the “classical” religions of the world —  have in common, is that they all instruct its adherents or practitioners to use mindfulness in a specific way. Religions act as guidance systems for how one should use one’s attention: they are normative, in that that they tell you what is worth paying attention to, and some (but not all) are also instructive — they give you specific methodologies for using your attention (these are usually what we call mysticism traditions). And there seems to be something about applying one’s attention intensely (what the attention is on is beside the point) that produces a seemingly interesting state of mind.

If this is true, then one important question that should be asked by anyone attempting to understand the religious or mystical experience is this: What exactly is this “interesting state of mind” that seems to be emergent of intense and immersive applications of attention?

I don’t have an answer to this question. It seems quite probable that it doesn’t have anything to do with “truth”, because of course, most religious systems are unforgivably contradictory in their claims about what the “truth” is (even many single religious systems are so!). This is why Perennialism is hard to take too seriously; it’s very hard to square the claim that all religions point to the same metaphysical truth when all religions vehemently argue for vastly different metaphysical truths.

It is, however, possible that there is some flavor of consciousness which seems to be common across systems, and that this has something to do with the effect of attention being extremely fixated on something. For the Rabbi, the one thing attention is good for is its use in making him (or her, if the Rabbi is one in a more progressive Jewish community) alert to his yetzer hara and yetzer hatov. This “attentional orientation” is guided by a host of beliefs centered around the worldview of Rabbinical Judaism and, as every observant Jew will tell you, the better they are about keeping their minds in line with this attentional orientation, the greater their sense of well-being. (And there is a fair amount of evidence that devoutly religious people tend to be happier than their non-religious counterparts overall.)

For the Vipassana meditator, the one thing attention is good for is its use in noticing the flow of his or her bodily sensations and, as most regular meditators will likely tell you, the more mindful they are of their bodily sensations (or on days when they meditate versus days that they don’t), the greater their sense of well-being.

The function of religious belief, then, can in part be seen as a motivator, reminder, and lamppost for the practitioner to bring their minds back in line with the system’s given attentional orientation. It also allows for a rich and intricate narrative that is immersive enough to be worth paying attention to.

Is Vipassana meditation unique, in this sense? If you don’t believe that Moses handed down the Ten Commandments to the Israelites directly from God, it’s unlikely that you would be able to successfully find a sense of well-being by following Judaism’s attentional orientation. It may be tempting to view Vipassana meditation as a way to use mindfulness that doesn’t require beliefs; in fact, this is usually how it is advertised.

I find this premise questionable. Indeed, there are a host of a priori assumptions that underly all formulations of Buddhist insight meditation. There must be—otherwise, where does the motivation to follow such a program originate? It should be an important part of any practice to investigate what those assumptions might be.

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