Developing a Practice in Times of Pandemic

Developing a Practice in Times of Pandemic May 14, 2020

The pandemic is overwhelming and disorienting.  There are certain things you can do– wash your hands, follow guidelines for social distancing, cough into the crook of your elbow.  Still, the enormity of the problem and the dramatic changes it has wrought in our lives has left many of us feeling out of control.

To cope with the crisis, some binge-watch Netflix or eat pints of ice cream.  Others check their phone’s news feed 17 times a day or buy toilet paper.   Instead of reacting in potentially unhealthy ways, there is something else you can do. Develop a practice.

You might think of a practice as doing something over and over again to learn a skill, like practicing a piece of music or practicing your ABC’s.   What is important to realize is that the act of repetition, especially if done daily, is itself beneficial.

Traditional Jewish religious observance is a clear example of a practice.  The well-known aspects of this life–defined times to say various prayers, proscriptions of thrice daily communal prayer, various dietary restrictions, and the wearing of specific types of clothing–are aspects of a tradition-rich in practice.  These practices provide a structure, a grounding, that is particularly beneficial in chaotic times, like our current circumstances.

Yet, you do not have to adopt an orthodox Jewish lifestyle in order to reap these benefits.  Some daily practice is better than none. The exact nature of this practice does not much matter. It could be something you are doing now such as washing the dishes or walking the dog.  Or it could be something from the spiritual or mindfulness traditions like prayer or meditation. There are many ways to develop a practice. The key is to do it in a way that a practice can develop within you.

How to Start

First, perform the practice daily, preferably at approximately the same time each day.   You will know that a practice is established within you, when, if you miss a day, you feel out-of-sorts.

Second, perform the practice mindfully, with intention.  While performing the practice, you are in the moment. Your mind is not wandering.  You are not thinking about the next thing you need to do, or the argument you had with your friend, or what you are going to eat for lunch.   You are attending to the task at hand. Of course, easier said than done. But there are a couple of techniques that help.

Slow down.  Whatever you are doing as part of your practice, breathing, walking, praying, writing, washing the dishes; do it at a pace that is significantly slower than normal.   Slowing the pace focuses your attention and makes the act more deliberate. Then, pay attention to the small, often overlooked details of what you are doing. If you are lighting a candle, observe the sound of the match as it is struck and the way the light glints off your finger nails.  If you take a daily walk, observe the sequence by which your foot comes in contact with the pavement, the swing of your arms, how you position your head. By observing, in such minute detail, you concentrate your mind and stay in the moment.

If you want to consider a distinctly Jewish practice, here are three possibilities.

Hitbodedut- Talking to God

Traditional Jewish prayer is stylized and ritualized and is in someone else’s words.   But, what if praying to God was more like you were talking to a close personal friend or the best therapist in the world.  What would that be like? This intimate conversational way of relating to God is common among Evangelicals and I think helps account for their strong devotional commitment.

This form of prayer is also found in Judaism. It is called Hitbodedut and it was popularized by the Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov more than 200 years ago.  The goals of this technique are to establish a close and personal relationship with God with the ultimate goal of achieving a state of transcendence.   The technique is simple. In its most common form, practitioners just pour out their thoughts and feelings to God in their own language. There is no ritual to perform, no special language or prayer to learn.  It is just a straight unvarnished expression of what is on your mind. It need not have cosmic significance, the profane is considered as legitimate as the profound. Even an inability to think of something to say is considered legitimate content for Hitbodedut.

Hitbodedut is done silently, usually alone in a secluded place. A frequent recommendation is to perform it out in nature.   A key aspect to this prayer is its duration. Multiple sources recommend an hour every day. This agrees with general recommendations related to meditation which suggests a practice between 30 minutes to an hour each day.  But this is after you have meditated for a while. At the start, try 10 minutes a day.

If your concept of God is that of one who can actually hear prayers, then you may find this practice to be compelling.

A Candle Meditation

Typically, meditation involves one or more objects of focus.   It might be something internal like your concept of God or love, or some aspect of your physiology like your breath or heartbeat.   Alternatively, it can be something external, like a natural vista or an image or icon. This particular meditation uses a lighted candle.   We are all aware of the frequent presence of lit candles during various Jewish ceremonies. They are lit at the beginning and end of Shabbat.  They are lit during Hanukkah and prior to major Jewish holidays. They are lit by families to mark the yahrzeit of a loved one. They also have a mystical significance.  They are thought of as a reminder of God’s presence and are considered representative of the human soul. The following meditation makes these kinds of mystical connections.

Darken the room and light the two candles.   Allow your gaze to rest on the candles in front of you and breathe deeply using counts to four to regulate your breathing.  Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four, and rest for a count of four.  As you breathe in this controlled manner, try to be aware of the colors in the flame, the white, the yellow, and the red. Then let your gaze fall on the blackness surrounding the flame. As you meditate, you may see a sky-blue field around the darkness.   The blackness may extend for a certain distance around the candle but around this will be an experience of pure sky-blue. The Zohar says that the blue that one sees around the flame represents the Divine Presence, Shekinah in Hebrew. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that the blue represents the spiritual essence of the light radiating from the candle.   Rabbi Kaplan also suggests that it is possible to see visions in this blue field.    Let me suggest one to you now based on a mediation created by Rabbi Marcia Prager.

“Visualize Abraham and Sarah standing before you.  They can be seen as two radiant light sources. Extend from them two rays of interwoven light. The light forms a chain that comes down through the generations into you.   Allow the light to grow up around you, following your spine until it comes to rest on the crown of your head. Spiral it down until you are enclosed in this light. The light is your protection, your helping, saving, and protecting power.

Baruch atah adonay mageyn Avraham v’ezrat Sarah. You are a fountain of blessing, Holy one, protector of Abraham and Sarah.

Feeling Gratitude in Dark Times

Have you ever had feelings of gratitude during dark moments?   It can be hard, if not near impossible to find the divine light in a terrible or tragic situation.    In the throes of a significant crisis, a dying loved one, a family member who is addicted, a significant financial loss, or the current pandemic, looking for gratitude is difficult. Feelings of depression or anxiety can be very strong in such situations and they can overwhelm you.  Psychologists often suggest “self-soothing” strategies that you can use when an emotional crisis occurs. This includes exercising, walking in the woods, taking a soothing bath, and of course meditation.   A gratefulness practice can also be in your repertoire of self-soothing strategies.

An emotionally charged crisis is not usually an undifferentiated block of horror.   There can be emotional reprieves in the midst of crisis, someone’s kind words, temporary relief in suffering, a diagnosis which is not as bad as you once feared.   These moments of grace in the midst of crisis are opportunities to express gratefulness.    Expressing gratefulness calls your attention to the thing you are experiencing.   It highlights it; it intensifies it.  During an emotional crisis, when something good occurs, it is important to pay attention to it.  Rather than rehashing the terrible thing in your mind or playing out “what if” scenarios, it is helpful to dwell on the good that occurs even in the midst of bad.

The following gratefulness meditation has its origins in the morning ritual that many orthodox Jews follow when first waking up, the Nisim B’chol Yom.  The idea is that every moment of the day is an opportunity to express gratitude. Kristi Nelson describes this as radical gratitude. This is different from the normal expressions of gratitude we may feel when something good happens.  The latter, what Nelson calls transactional gratitude, although entirely appropriate, is fleeting. What Nelson has in mind is infusing, if only for a short time, every moment with gratitude. It involves paying attention to the micro-moments in our lives and finding something to be grateful for in that moment.  Then moving onto the next moment, finding something new to be grateful for. The tradition of the Nisim B’chol Yom is an example of this:

  1. You hear a rooster crow which wakes you up and you say: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given the rooster understanding to discern between day and night.
  2. You open your eyes and you pray:  Blessed. . Who opens the eyes of the blind.
  3. You straighten your body and sit up, and you pray Blessed . . .Who releases those who are bound.
  4. You rise and you pray: Blessed. . Who raises up those who are stooped over.
  5. You touch the ground, and you pray Blessed. .Who stretches out the earth upon the waters.
  6. You get dressed and you pray: Blessed. .Who clothes the naked.
  7. You fasten your belt, and you pray: Blessed. .Who girds Israel with might.
  8. You put on your shoes, and you pray, Blessed . . . Who has provided for my every need.

You can perform this kind of intense expression of gratitude anytime. And it does not need to take the form of a ritualized prayer.   It can be a personal prayer or just the words “thank you” followed by what you are thankful for. To engage in this practice, start by setting aside ten uninterrupted minutes.  Take a walk outside or around your house, taking note of anything that catches your eye and for which you are thankful. Then take note, feel free to use all your senses (assuming the something is not a person).  Listen to it, smell it, touch it and of course see it. Offer a small prayer of gratitude (or simply say thank you for X (whatever, X is) and move on. The idea of this meditation is to be mindful of the small things in your vicinity that give you joy, even if it is a small joy, even if it is a joy you normally do not notice and express gratitude for it. Try to stay focused on the idea of gratitude. If your mind starts to wander or if you feel a little self-conscious, just gently set those thoughts and feelings aside and continue with your wandering.

If you do one of these practices daily, or one of your own choosing, you will find, over time, that an island of stability will emerge in your daily life amidst the roiling emotions you may be experiencing.   And you will be better for it. Stay safe, stay healthy, and practice!

About Elliott Familant
Elliott is the Ritual Committee Co-Chair, and longtime member at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ. As a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and a lifelong student of religion, Elliott regularly leads groups that synthesize these two perspectives through discussion, meditation, and group exercises. You can read more about the author here.

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