Shabbat and Meditation: Just Be It

How Mindfulness Can Deepen Your Shabbat Experience...and Vice Versa


Shabbat is a day of being, not doing. As interpreted by the rabbis, the day’s multitude of do’s and don’ts are essentially about not making anything, not destroying anything, and simply taking the world as we find it–for one day. The rest of the week, we Jews are exhorted to improve the world, better ourselves, and provide for our extended families in whatever roles in which we find ourselves. But this day: just be. Serve God not in changing the world, but in relaxing into what’s already there. 

Waking Up

In a deep sense, this is the practice of meditation as well. There are many forms of meditative practice, but their essence is to see clearly into the truth of what is — like Shabbat, it’s not about not making or changing anything, or feeling a special way, but just waking up, in a focused way, to what’s already here. Most classical Jewish meditations do this by contemplating a particular object — a phrase, a sense-perception, even an idea–and focusing thought so resolutely that distractions drop away. In other traditions, attention is drawn to the barest perceptions of breath, or movement–not so much for the purpose of contemplation, but simply to slow down the motion of discursive thoughts. In both approaches, what one finds when distractions and thoughts are slowed down is that an important illusion is released: that the world matters only to the extent that it pleases me, my ego, and my desires.

Suppose a bit of food isn’t to your liking, or a sound is harsh, or grating. If you’re like me, your immediate reaction is to want to push it away–in other words, to change the momentary conditions of your life, in order to make them better. Meditation slowly trains the mind to be a little less centered on what in Jewish tradition is called the yetzer hara, the evil, or selfish inclination. As with Shabbat, the practice is simply to let it be. It’s not that the food will get tastier, or the sound will shift in quality, but your relationship to it can change.

All this may seem a bit irrelevant when talking about foods and sounds, but it’s not so irrelevant when working with sickness, or suffering, or people with whom it’s hard to get along. What it would be like to bring a little Shabbat–a little “let it be”–into such difficult places?

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