The first time that I encountered the concept of "mindfulness" was in a Jewish context at the JCC in Manhattan. When the new building was constructed, it came equipped with a room called “Makom: The Mindfulness Space,” which was a small, quiet room that occasionally offered meditation classes. At the time, I always found the name a little ironic because I assumed most people who sought to deepen their connections with Hamakom (the ever-present one, another name for God) did so by going to a house of worship. This was confirmed for me by the fact that when I usually passed by Makom over my years of working there it was usually empty.
However, today it seems that fewer people are seeking out these relationships with Hamakom by attending services in a synagogue or church. So it came as no surprise to me when I picked up the New York Times this past week and saw the front page of the Sunday Styles section depicting the practice of mindfulness as gaining traction on the American religious landscape. The Times article defines mindfulness training as "an array of attention-training practices," which range from improving one's focus through transcendental meditation to boosting emotional intelligence to learning how to put down one's technology and focus on their surroundings. According to the article, mindfulness seminars both online and in person seem to now be attracting thousands of followers, making mindfulness not only a state of being, but maybe the newest, fastest growing religious trend in America.
Is this rising trend of mindfulness syncretic with what we are trying to accomplish in a house of worship? At first glance, it seems that there is much that synagogues could gain from offering this type of mindfulness training, including opportunities to enhance one's own Jewish practice. Judaism is by nature a religion that encourages us to be mindful of what we do each day. When we eat, for example, and say a bracha (prayer), we are supposed to be mindful that the food we are eating is a gift and not something to be taken for granted.
Try walking into an American synagogue on Shabbat and you will immediately see how much the goals of mindfulness speak to so many of the challenges we face in contemporary American religious life. As a pulpit rabbi, I will be the first to do a mea culpa and admit that synagogues may fall short in creating inspirational prayer experiences. But what I have also found is that inspiration is a two way street, and to be inspired a person must be open and have the patience to be inspired. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to keep their attention for long periods of time, which proves challenging at a two-hour or even a half-hour worship service. My colleagues from all denominations speak about what a challenge creating sacred space has become in their synagogues, because people no longer know how to be mindful of their own spirit or the spirit of others. Too often, as the joke goes, “instead of coming to shul to talk to God, people come to shul to talk to the person sitting next to them."
Other aspects of mindfulness training are also appealing. Disconnecting from technology to focus on worship as the task at hand proves challenging for most contemporary Jews. Forget for a moment that using one’s cellphone on Shabbat is offensive in traditional synagogues. According to the tenants of mindfulness, it is also problematic because it demonstrates a person’s inability to focus on the task in front of them, because his or her attention is diverted into too many different directions. Mindfulness folks are calling this the challenge of “disconnecting to connect." You can’t be 100 percent focused on God if you are checking your email and also thinking about your grocery list for that day. After all, how can a person praise God bechol atzmotai, with all of their limbs, if they are using their fingers to text during minyan?
Too often when we are not mindful, Jewish practice becomes a rote action rather than a beautiful spiritual act that is meant to appreciate what we have in front of us. Whether the mindfulness movement is just a fad and whether it resonates with American society remains to be seen. But the challenge of our mindfulness and intentionality in Jewish life is one that synagogues should be “mindful” of going forward.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.