Quieting the mind to open it to God


This week’s Torah reading is Bereshit, Genesis 1:1–6:8.

“After eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Chava’s eyes are opened and they perceived that they were naked …”
The birth of self-consciousness.

“And Elohim called out to the man and said to him, ‘Ayeka,’ where are you? … and they hid among the trees of the garden.”

And it has been so ever since that we have hidden ourselves from God’s presence. Ayeka could have been the title of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book “God in Search of Man.” Post-Holocaust, the question was “Where was God?” But today the ultimate question is “Where are we?”


Many of us confront this question from the beginning of Elul through Yamim Noraim, when we practice the process of self-examination. But the High Holiday season is not the only time to take personal inventory.

My teacher Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi reminded us that we should engage in cheshbon hanefesh, self-examination, every day, when we lie down reciting the bedtime Shema, and when we rise up, with Modeh Ani on our lips, and then ask, “God, how would you like to use us today?”

These traditional practices resonate for some, but not for all.

Seeking refuge from life’s constant soundtrack and hectic pace has led many to the practice of mindfulness, which may be described as the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment.

In his book “Derech Hamelech,” Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (1889-1943), described a practice he calls hashkatah, or quieting the mind.

He pointed to the teaching that “a dream is 1/60 of prophecy” (BT Berachot 57b). It is in the dream state that our mind and thoughts are quieted, when we are more open to heavenly influence.

When we are awake, the ego, like a clogged pipe, blocks our sense of the divine. In sleep, however, without personal desires getting in the way, our ego is abnegated, creating a clear channel to the divine.

Quieting the mind recreates this dream state, opening us to eternal presence, to what is here and now. This is an awakened state of pure perception. The practice of quieting the mind is akin to the chasidic idea that the goal of prayer is to erase the self, that prayer is a meditation on self-forgetfulness — to stop thinking.

Thought is not a negative thing — we need thought to engage in life. But the treadmill of thoughts and the stories that we tell ourselves block our avenues to heightened awareness and access to the divine. Quieting the mind liberates us so we are no longer trapped by our own self-limiting thoughts. According to the Piacetzna, this practice has the effect of “bringing in a divine influx.”

Through this practice we return to pre-Tree of Knowledge consciousness, the state of non-duality that is imbedded within our Jewish mantra, God is One. Where we once were lost in the illusion of separateness, we are found in the reality of interconnectedness. Hashkatah is one path to get ourselves, as Joni Mitchell sings, back to the garden, the place of stillness, the place of mystery, the place of the divine now.

It is from this place that we can answer the call of the divine, “Ayeka?” or “Where are you?” We can answer this way: “Right here with you my God, right here within you.”

Rabbi Mark Novak co-leads Mindful Mosh: Mindfulness thru a Jewish Lens, with Klia Bassing, mindful games leader.

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