By David Levy
At the June 1992 retreat at Plum Village, I experienced something new and important. On the first day, Thay told us: "The most important thing about this retreat is community." And what an extraordinary group we were! Over the weeks, I had a growing sense of being held in the arms of an unconditionally loving and accepting community, a truly safe place to be. Initially, I'd felt a bit awkward; after all, a practicing Jew going to a Buddhist retreat? But I quickly discovered that my Jewishness was not only accepted, but celebrated. This gave me a taste of a deep respect for diversity and a commitment by the community to the wellbeing of all its members.
In Plum Village we practiced mindfulness all the time. Silence as a form of prayer or meditation also has biblical roots. "Commune with your hearts . . . and be still" (Psalm 4) "To Thee silence is praise" (Psalm 65) And as for the importance of the breath, in Genesis we're told that "God formed Adam of the dust of the earth and breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living soul." Here the connection between body and soul is the divine breath. This insight is made the basis of a breathing meditation in the morning prayer, Elohai n'shamah: "My God, the soul You have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me; You keep body and soul together...."
In the Hebrew, many of the verbs end in pronounced (as opposed to silent) h's. The intent was to focus our attention on our breathing as we thank God for the breath that binds body and soul together. I think of the breath as my own Jacob's ladder, connecting heaven and earth, uniting soul and body, angels ascending and descending on the rising and falling breath. The Patriarchs say again and again when God calls to them, Hineini, "Here I am."
The prayer immediately following the Elohai n'shamah is also a call to mindfulness. The Bircot haShahar is a series of blessings, thanking God for the ability to distinguish between day and night, for making us in God's image, and so on. Looking at this prayer's source in the Talmud, the call to mindfulness is even clearer. "When he hears the cock crowing he should say, 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who has given the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night.' When he opens his eyes he should say, 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who opens the eyes of the blind.' When he stretches himself and sits up . . . When he dresses..."
We are thus instructed to perform each act on awakening with awareness. In fact, it would seem that whole system of prescribed blessings, is aimed at fostering mindfulness. Not to mention Shabbat, our special day of mindful rest. With mindfulness, all acts are raised to the level of prayer, and isn't this the aim of our Jewish lives?
The Jewish tradition gives us a set of practices for quieting down, for attending to our breath and to all that is happening in the present moment. And what do we experience when we are quiet and attentive? Here too the Prayer Book gives us an answer: "We are thankful to you . . . for your miracles which daily attend us." What do we experience when we are quiet and attentive? This prayer reminds us to be aware of, and thankful for, the miracles all around us. Our tradition is rich with reminders, but I feel the precious teachings on mindfulness have gotten lost. And I'd like to find ways to bring mindfulness practice back into the life of our community and explore its place in our Jewish lives.
At Plum Village, I learned that community is crucial to the general well-being and the spiritual development of its members. I came to understand that for the deepening and maturing of my own religious practice, I need the love and support, the help, of others. We all know that community is crucial for us to live Jewish lives. Shabbat observance and the Jewish dietary laws are difficult, if not impossible, to maintain without the support of like-minded practitioners. If one wants to live more mindfully without withdrawing from our fragmented, frantic modern world, the support of like-minded practitioners is essential.
Time will tell exactly what form our mindfulness efforts take. What matters is that we plant a seed in the community, a seed of mindful living, and that we water it through our practice, believing that the fruits of this practice will benefit the entire community, in fact the entire world.
David Levy lives in Palo Alto, California.