December 5, 2011
Awesome (Kosher Sutra)
Last week a Kentucky man made big news. He went shopping, packed his three children and groceries into the car and then drove away before realising he’d left something in the shopping cart: his six-month old baby.
It is easily done. Not abandoning babies, but forgetting to be mindful. We are easily distracted by a myriad of, well, distractions. Our thoughts are in the past, in the future, on a phonecall and anywhere but the present. The breakthrough of Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction techniques were that they taught people how to reduce stress through being mindful. Simple? Only if we actually do it.
Our Kosher Sutra recounts a flash of mindfulness. The patriarch Jacob sleeps, has a dream about a ladder connecting earth and heaven upon which there are angels ascending and descending, and he notices God standing over him. As the Californian natives would put it; ‘awesome’. We then read how Jacob awakes, realises that Divinity is present, becomes frightened and says ‘How awesome this place is! This is none other than the home of God and the gate of the heavens’ (Gen 28:17). Awesome indeed.
When are able to keep our minds in the present moment we can tune in to a completely different reality. There is no past, no future, no stress, no worry, no pain, and no problem, but only the moment. We’ve all heard this a million times, so why can’t we realise it? Have you ever done the equivalent of forgetting the baby – whether it’s walking around the house looking for sunglasses that were on your head (ok, I confess), or forgetting something important.
Of course, psychoanalysts and writers would have something else to say about the topic. In Confessions of an Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey wrote “There is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind” (2:67) and it was Sigmund Freud who introduced the idea of memory suppression, or ‘motivated suppression’, where we forget things because we want to. This could be an abuse victim suppressing a traumatic memory or a husband forgetting to buy something for his wife because he feels that he can’t afford it. Who knows? Maybe he didn’t want the fourth baby in the first place. Either way, suppressed memory or not, there was a lack of conscious thought matching the unconscious action.
Perhaps there are some answers in the 15th-Century Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady. When the breath is steady, the mind is steady and the yogi becomes steady. Therefore one should restrain the breath’ (2:2). The breath ‘restraining’ can involve various pranayama (yogic breathing) practices, whether it is inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils or holding the breath for short periods of time. Either way the aim is to steady our thoughts and increase our level of consciousness.
Back to the Kosher Sutra with Jacob, who merely laid down for a sleep and had a sudden flash of consciousness through his dream. Rashi (11th Century) explains that the comment ‘How awesome is this place’ was like a level of understanding. Jacob suddenly saw through the physical veil of his surroundings and was able to connect with the deeper spirituality around him. The word for awesome was given an Aramaic translation (through Onkelos) that was a similar word to ‘understanding’. No doubt Dr Freud would have something to say to his great-great-great ancestor Jacob about reaching a deeper level of understanding through the dream state.
I sometimes moan about the over-use of the word in California but also wonder if there’s a positive aspect to it, with people genuinely finding awe in every day events. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but if we could really breathe in every moment and understand the magnitude of what’s around us, maybe we’d all be seeing-the-awe every few minutes. Right now, try counting your blessings. How many fingers and toes do you have? How much food is in your fridge? How many relatives do you have who love you? How many friends do you have (both real and Facebook)? Awesome.
This week’s homework suggestion is to try some mindful breathing (e.g. watch your breathing when you are sitting, walking and running). Don’t get put off if you find it difficult, try not to suppress your opportunities to give it a good shot, and if it is a real struggle then just do whatever you can, and don’t throw out the baby with the babywater.