Chassidic Mindfulness: A Purposeful Tranquility

Dan Lewin, Dallas, Texas
Essays 2019 / Personal Growth


These days, the struggle to arouse motivation and concentrate is compounded by constant distractions: at every turn we have electronic enticements. Paradoxically, along with enhanced quality of life and technological advances, people unknowingly add to their stress levels by absorbing huge amounts of information from the outside world and take on more and more commitments.

Thus, we seem to be constantly interrupted, needing to refocus, which can be tiring as well as frustrating, as the flow of mental energy and willpower is being stopped and redirected. Whether internal distractions—like reminiscing about the past and worrying about the future— or external stimuli like texts and emails, something is usually pulling our minds away from the task at hand. As a result, it is harder than ever to be fully present in what we’re doing. And even when we aren’t distracted and manage to be fully present, taking pleasure in the activity presents another challenge.

To combat increased levels of stress, mindfulness practices have become popular in helping people learn to pay attention and embrace their challenges with less pain and resistance. In this essay, we will discuss the concept of menucha, as explained in Chassidus, which will introduce an additional layer into the picture of mindfulness— to help achieve, not only calmness and inner peace, but a more complete fulfillment. (This understanding will also address a common challenge with time management, bringing in a new angle to the internal resistance we feel with competing priorities.)

Background on Mindfulness Practices:

Mindfulness practices were discovered and refined long ago in India and have been advanced most intensively in Buddhist cultures (where we have thousands of years of a written record of people performing these practices intensively and discussing variations of them. They’ve been kept alive and refined further by multiple traditions and exist in some form in virtually every culture[1].

Borrowing from Eastern cultures, neurobiologists, clinical researchers, and mental health professionals are now employing mindfulness “techniques[2]” to deal with everyday emotional distress—whether anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or relationship conflicts.

What is mindfulness? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-based stress reduction), the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society: mindfulness involves cultivating attention in a particular way, more specifically defined as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment—non-judgmentally.”

Goals and Benefits:

The goal is to achieve a certain state of mind—remembering to be aware and pay attention in each moment of the day. Staying in the present moment, cultivate a calm and stress free inner environment and consequently a healthier lifestyle.

Mindfulness practice train a person to embrace the negative experience instead of avoiding it, to accept change instead of fighting it. Over time the person becomes less focused on the self—such as not always comparing ourselves to others—and learns to live in the present, which reduces stress.

Background Concept in Chassidus: Tranquility within Creation

In the scriptural verses we traditionally recite in order to sanctify the day—making Kiddush—recounting the original weekly cycle, the seventh day signifies the end of the original creative process: “Now the heavens and the earth were completed…And God completed on the seventh day…” Here, the commentaries provide a meaningful insight: “What was the world lacking? Menuchah. When the Sabbath arrived, so did “menuchah.[3]”

The premise behind this rich snippet is that although the seventh day spelled the cessation of inventive activity (unlike the preceding six days, no physical innovations occurred,) there was, however, a new quality introduced into the universe—menuchah. This Hebrew word appears throughout our Shabbat prayers. Roughly translated, menucha is peacefulness or tranquility; the opposite is turmoil or tension.

While “shalom,” connotes the absence of tension or conflict (whether internally/psychologically, between people, or globally,)[4] the quality of menucha is distinctly bound up with a pleasurable peace—awareness of an ultimate purpose (kavanah elyona)—and a sense of fulfillment deriving from the appreciation of how things mesh.

The Rebbe explains[5] that since the seventh day introduced the feeling of menucha, there must be an essential connection between the content of Shabbat and the unique feature it introduced: During the preceding six days, as each stage of creation unfolded, distinct elements—light, darkness, water, land, plants, animals, etc.—came into being. At the same time, there was no perceptible purpose driving the grand design; each new existence appeared to be a separate and unrelated accomplishment.

Nature involves constant movement and development, the very opposite of a state of stillness and menucha. Being alive involves a continual state of flux. These changes apply to the movement of time—past, present and future—as well as to all creatures, which are constantly evolving according to their specific composition. Our bodies change. So too does our perspective of the world, as we growth and learn. Meanwhile, the external environment is also continuously fluctuating. Nothing is completely stable. Even inanimate material—mountains, stones, seashores, and stars— changes over time.  

But “when Shabbat came, so did a unique peacefulness.” Not only was there a cessation of activity, but within this withdrawal and sweet quietness, the intention behind all previous activity could suddenly be sensed—how the multitude of movement and changes came from a single creator, with one purpose that penetrated all the details of the universe. In other words, within this world characterized by continual flux, oneness was detected, an eternal force beyond any change or limitation of time and space. And this awareness automatically injected a special tranquility (menucha) into the entire spectrum of creation. It is this same feeling that we target every Shabbat[6].

The Reservoir:

Every week, the original theme of creation reoccurs as “all the days of the week are blessed by Shabbat.” During the six weekdays, we are busy dealing with an ever-changing world. Our focus is pointing downwards, conquering all the material demands. Shabbat, we shift focus—directing our attention above.  It’s an elevation where we reunite with our overarching purpose.

As the sun sets, all internal and external chaos comes to a halt and a restful spirit begins to settle in. Entering the door of our homes, glancing at those transcendent flames flickering over a clean white table cloth and absorbing the blend of pleasant aromas, brings comfort. Then, when a person utilizes the day to reconnect to and internalize their general purpose, they can transfer this peace of mind into the following week, so that all its details are filled with more menuchah.

[This is one meaning of the Talmud’ s statement that “Shabbat blesses the rest of the week,” which is not only a day filled with holiness having some mysterious spiritual influence; the ability to psychologically plug into this unique sense of peacefulness permeates everything you do once you shift back into the weekday mode.]

Without getting in tune with this underlying state of menucha— whether for only five minutes, or the entire day—the primary opportunity, the positive aspect of Shabbat, is not yet realized.

Life Application:

This description of menucha, sensing the underlying purpose and unity within multiplicity, has its parallel within the miniature world—the human soul (psyche):

In the abovementioned sicha, the Rebbe states a principle[7]: “In the nature of things, when someone does not feel the intent and purpose in his life—’I was created to serve my maker[8]’—it is impossible to experience true inner peace and calmness. For the constant change in time and place and the multitude of details in one’s life—the moving external factors— cause a state of continual unrest.  Only when a person feels the underlying intent and purpose that is concealed within all the details, will this bring to an experience of true menuchah, something above all movement and change of the details in life. This automatically leads to the completion of the person, as seen that a person is in a state of completion when has peace (has fulfillment), both in soul and body.”

Conversely, person who is unable to connect the fragments in his or her life, failing to get in touch with the overall mission, cannot experience true peace of mind and inner tranquility.

We are immersed in the sea of change, which naturally creates inner tension. But unlike other living things, we can recognize the inevitability of change, think about the changes we experience. The ability to perceive the ultimate goal driving all the details—something above the many movements and changes in life—leads to a harmony within the soul, which then manifests in mental and physical calmness.

Consequently, the person can focus more, actions are met with success and the external effect is more potent. As the Rebbe continues to explain, “The awareness of purpose brings peace not only within the person, but also transfers that energy into his or her external environment— a sense of tranquility within the world”

Practical Steps:

The first step is identifying one’s purpose. The more universal conception— living a productive and meaningful life— may simply entail a personal mission statement, defining one’s talents and priorities, then staying loyal to them every day by “being the best version of yourself.” The more spiritual definition given here entails sensitivity to an ongoing relationship with G-d, identifying what you were put on earth to accomplish— “I was created to serve my Maker.”

The next step, after pinpointing purpose, is staying aware of the big picture each moment. Maintaining this consciousness is challenging due to constant change—the need to juggle and balance competing priorities, shifting between daily demands. For example, we simultaneously aim to take good care of ourselves, give to our spouses, be the best role models for our children, attain career goals, and fulfill the soul’s pursuits. With limited time and resources, it may appear impossible to advance smoothly and successfully in any of these vital areas without sacrificing accomplishment in another.

But if we stay aware of how each act is contributing to the overall purpose—this is what G-d wants me to do—and, in the picture, interacts with and can enhance all other areas of life—then will experience less internal resistance when needing to pull away from something we find pleasurable and engage in something that we consider obligatory, but tedious. In the context of Chassidus, increased consciousness of purpose can also awaken more pleasure[9].

What does this teaching in Chassidus add to other techniques?

The basis of successful time management is considering all the priorities calling for your attention, knowing what to do in any given instant, then getting things done with maximum efficiency[10]. The basis of mindfulness is intentionally paying greater attention from one moment to the next no matter what you are doing. Eating mindfully, driving mindfully, Mindfulness helps to deal with the constant internal and external changes and storms we encounter, to introduce simplicity into one’s life, to be aware of what’s going on inside[11] us and accept it, without judgment, and find more peace and hope.

But even when we achieve the desired result, to be present in all our waking moments, performing all our ordinary activities with more awareness and relaxation—eating mindfully, walking mindfully—there is no active connection or tachlis (ultimate intent) going on within the practice[12]. The “attending” is more important that what you’re paying attention to or thinking about[13].

Because its beyond their scope, neither time and life management techniques, nor mindfulness practices, incorporate the additional spiritual elements mentioned above in Chassidus—1. to bring one’s ongoing relationship with G-d into the moment 2. Defining and connecting to a specific overall purpose in this world 3. being cognizant, in the moment, of how the current act is contributing to that overall purpose.

While mindfulness meditation speaks of relating to life as moments, one moment after another, Chassidus speaks of cultivating an awareness of how G-d is continuously creating the world anew, ex nihilo, each moment. The notion of G-d being within everything helps on to accept the challenge or pain within the present moment—because there is an awareness of divine presence and intent, even if it’s not immediately palpable. This personal attachment to G-d, within each moment, is an additional layer to the general peace and hope, the ability to transcend fear and pain, that comes through mindfulness practices[14].

Traditional time management techniques speak of primary outcomes and productivity, or how activities must reflect your core values, but the notion of an overarching (spiritual) purpose detected within each action is absent from the decisions. Being cognizant, in the moment, of how the current act is contributing to that overall purpose provides an additional sense of fulfillment, the spiritual component to complement the practical organizational techniques and increased efficiency.

Maximizing Moments:

According to the principle laid out by the Rebbe, to have true peace of mind and calmness—menuchah—each task must be mentally linked to its ultimate end. Sometimes the link may be more direct; other times there may be a few links to arrive at the eventual purpose. For example, the intention while exercising is improved health and increased energy, which allows you to perform better and contribute more to all areas of life, as the body is the soul’s instrument to fulfill its purpose in this world[15].

[There may be many levels of motivation mixed into the moment, but the importance here is mentally connecting the act, at the time of the act, to its place in the grand scheme of your miniature world— rather than allowing the more natural immediate intent, of improving your body for improved appearance or wanting to feeling good, to dominate. And in addition to the mindfulness practice of staying aware of the sensations you feel in the body, there is an awareness of a more spiritual accomplishment within the physical exercise.]

Likewise, being aware, at the time of eating, that this act is to nourish the body, not simply to please the palate. During the heat of chasing career goals, one to be aware that all this toil is only a keli (channel for blessing), a means to aid in building a Jewish home, provide for the family, to give more to others— rather than for self-definition and to acquiring some long-awaited luxuries. And all these various components are part of one spiritual goal as explained in Chassidus: to shine light into and uplift your surroundings your allotted “section of the world” and making a dira betachtonim.

The practice mindfulness meditation—such as setting aside a time during the day for relaxation and quiet, focusing on the body’s sensations, on breathing, and the movements of thoughts in the mind— with all the benefits it provides to mental and physical health, can itself be linked to a higher purpose: being in a better state to serve G-d. In other words, the results of practicing mindfulness should not be an end in itself, a means to be free from stress, or a personal ascent or accomplishment with no particular attachment to a the big picture purpose.

So while mindfulness quells the tension, menucha adds intention[16]. For example, when eating, the practice of mindfulness may allow one to focus solely on the physical sensation of food, without the mind wandering into the past or future. Chassidus would go a step further and bring into that moment an awareness of why you’re eating.

Intent, our “Chassidic mindfulness” in linking it to its role in our mission, turns a mundane act into a spiritual act. For by doing so, G-d is introduced into every act of one’s life, the basis of “in all your ways you shall know Him.[17]”Furthermore, detecting how each activity contributes to a higher goal, the general purpose, allows you to be more present and to focus even more energy into that act.

[1] See Ronald D. Seigel, the Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems (The Guilford Press 2010) Chapter 2.

[2] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (Random House Publishing Group 2013) p. 603 makes a point to say that mindfulness is a way of being and “If prospective MBSR teachers think that mindfulness is just another cognitive-behavioral “technique” developed within the intellectual framework of Western clinical psychology, they would be sorely mistaken. That would be a profound misunderstanding of the origins of mindfulness and of MBSR, and the depth of its healing and transformative potential.”

[3] Commentary of Rashi Bereishis, 2:2, Breishis Rabah 10:9

[4] See Sefer Maamarim, vol. 3, Padah Beshalom, p. 25-26, Hadran al Hashaas p. 415-16, and many places in Chasidus

[5] Toras Menachem, Shabbos Bamidbar 5751 p.266

[6] The Rebbe explains how the completion of menucha occurred at the time of the giving of the Torah, the actualization of the purpose for creation, but for the sake of this essay the focus is restricted to Shabbos which occurs each week.

[7] Toras Menachem, Shabbos Bamidbar 5751 p.268

[8] Mishna and Braisa end of Tractate Kiddushin

[9] Understanding the basic soul structure aids self-knowledge and spiritual breakthrough. If you don’t know how the soul is built and how it operates through the body, you experience results without understanding the cause. You may figure out rules to success—such as-establishing productive habits for quality living— but the deeper struggle will remain a blur. The higher faculties, the “crown” of the soul, are pleasure and willpower. These are termed transcendent powers because are not as conscious. Yet every process within the soul begins with these two categories of experience. They are the deeper driving force, the first movement towards the world, and will exert a definite influence on consciousness. Willpower involves immediate experience. It is the thrust of the entire soul, not a specific function (see Sefer Hamamarim 5715 p.309). At any given moment, this level of the soul is either alive inside you, moving forward towards a goal, or its reverted back to its subconscious source. When you want something badly, and the will remains focused— nothing can block it. The only problem is that willpower comes and goes. It’s easy to begin and then get derailed.

As discussed, these days, the battle to arouse willpower is compounded by constant distractions as the energy is split in different directions and pointed willpower becomes harder to maintain. Pleasure and willpower, being deeper power within, can infuse all the other powers with an extra energy. Thinking about the subject becomes easier—you naturally “put your head in it” instead of needing discipline to stay focused—and you get excited about it. When will is absent, the lower powers still function and move toward a goal. But everything inside is slower and heavier because the local powers are working independent of the transcendent powers. There is an even deeper layer than the transcendent powers of pleasure and willpower—it’s the divine soul’s influence. When pleasure and willpower are connected to purpose, then everything becomes united. Ideally, what you desire and what you commit to, should follow to your awareness of purpose. The result of this formula is that instead of being a vehicle for indulgent or destructive behaviors, the powers are applied to living a meaningful life.

[10] To be sure, there are many approaches to successful time management with the aim (and promise) of obtaining inner peace and productivity. The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management by Hyrum W. Smith (pp. 65-70), for example, focuses on making sure that your activities reflect your deepest core values, while Getting Things Done by David Allen (see pp.7-9) teaches new organizational methods and a system to address a world with new demands, where work no longer has clear boundaries, and traditional models of time-management, once useful, are incapable of solving the increased number of commitments we contend with.

[11] See Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (Random House Publishing Group 2013) p. 17, where he writes. “We learn to be aware of our fears and our pain, yet at the same time stabilized and empowered by a connection to something deeper within ourselves, a discerning wisdom that helps penetrate and transcend the fear and pain, and to discover some hope within the situation as it is.”

[12] See Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, p.17

[13] Likewise, non-Jewish meditation (e.g. Zen) speak about a state of “no-thought” where the mind is not occupied with any thought or emotion, or focused on anything particular— and, as such, is open to everything.

[14] As taught in Tanya and throughout Chassidic writings, one’s spiritual state, when powerful, also works through and influences the animal soul and the body. When the light if the soul is active, when a person feels connected to Hashem, it also causes peace of mind on a psychological level, helping to keep a person from being prisoner to his or her emotions or irrational fears, or in the language of Tanya, shining light/spilling love into the left side of heart.

[15] Awareness of observing the mitzvah of “guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deuteronomy 4:9)

[16] Understanding the above concepts and principles through the lens of Chassidus can also help a Jew to relate better to Shabbos and address a common problem: Each week as sunset approaches, there is a mental transition required, which does not always go smoothly. As the mundane week closes, frenetic thoughts of work left undone or running last minute errands, may flood our mind as we subconsciously resist entering the period of rest, Shabbat.

A common identification with the theme of Shabbat is “unplugging.” A time for quiet reflection and disengagement has become especially relevant in the current digital era, an existence centered around entertainment and constant engagement with social media. Pulling away has never been harder.

But to appreciate the precise nature of the day, it’s not enough to simply disengage, to relax or seek refuge from the stress of material concerns. One must also experience an additional, more active, pursuit of “plugging in” to the mood and sanctity in the air. Understanding that Shabbos is the reservoir for menucah, the pervading theme of the day—what we’re trying to target in our lives—can change our mindset and approach to Shabbos, and help bring this quality into the rest of the week in all our activities.

[17] Mishlei 3:6. See Likutei Sichos vol. 10 pp. 104