Avraham ben Yaakov
Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth
The Art of Sitting
Yishuv Ha-Da'at * Bilbul Ha-Da'at * Quiet Sitting * Learning the Technique * Progressive Relaxation * Physical Relaxation, Mental Attention * Applications * The Art of the Pause
The Wise Man took off all his clothes, and sat down under the table...
“The only reason why people are far from God and don't come closer to Him is because they don't have yishuv ha-da'at, calm and clarity, and they don't sit and think. The main thing is to try to sit calmly and think carefully where all the bodily desires, psychological cravings and material involvements of this world ultimately lead to, and then one will certainly come back to God.”
Likutey Moharan II:10
The Wise Man went under the table, and the very first thing he did – his first lesson – was just to sit there. You might have thought he would have been anxious to get started and take the first steps in his plan to cure the Prince. In fact, sitting was the first step.
Indeed, if you think about the story as a whole, you notice that most of the time the Wise Man took to cure the Prince was spent just sitting with him (interspersed with pulling at crumbs and bones, yelping like a turkey, chatting etc.) The action – putting on the shirts and trousers, and eating the royal food – accounted for only a small part of the total time needed for the cure.
If you want to think clearly, you have to be able to sit. To find lasting happiness, you must take time to think. You need to sit down and calmly work out exactly how you want to live. You have to think about who you are and what you want, and what your real goals should be. Then you have to examine the various things you are actually doing in your life, and ask whether they are leading you toward your goals or in fact keeping you back from them. You have to work out practical programs for attaining your goals and ambitions. It takes time to think about all this. This is not something you can do in one session. You should invest in regular, undisturbed, private sessions with yourself in order to do it properly. This could be the single most important thing you do in order to fulfill yourself in life and find HaShem.
“It is a gift,” says Rebbe Nachman, “if one is able to sit calmly for a time each day to survey one's life and work through any feelings of regret, etc. Not everyone manages to attain a state of calm contemplation for a time each day: the days pass and are gone, and one is too busy to sit down and settle one's mind even once in one's entire life.
“You must make a determined effort to set aside special times to reflect carefully on everything you are involved with in your life. Examine yourself and your behavior, and ask yourself if the various things you are doing are in fact in your own best long-term interests.
“It is because people do not give themselves time to settle themselves that they go through life mindlessly. Even when one attains some clarity and insight, they tend to be very short-lived, passing quickly. Even the little clarity and insight one does have are not strong and incisive. This is the reason why people don't understand the madness of this material world. If one had clear, strong insight, one would understand that everything is madness and vanity” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #47).
To think calmly, you must be able to sit calmly. But try it! Find somewhere private, have a watch or a clock handy to check the time, and sit yourself down in a chair for twenty minutes. Now see what happens.
How did it go? Were you able to think? Did you have a clear idea how you wanted to spend the twenty minutes? Or did you sit there not knowing what you were supposed to be doing? Did you get bored and restless? Did you want to get up and do something? Did you want to turn on the radio, play some music, read something, eat a snack, make a phone call, get back to work...?
Thought is in the mind and heart. To be able to think clearly, you must not be distracted. The reason for going somewhere private is obviously to minimize outside distractions. But even when you find somewhere that you can be alone, the most lively and active source of distractions in your life comes with you: your body. The body expresses itself in its own language: feeling uncomfortable, shifting, trying to get comfortable, becoming restless, etc. In addition, the body also talks loud and clear in the mind and the heart, competing with our efforts to think, understand, and follow our chains of thought and feeling through to the end. Bang in the middle: “I'm hungry!” “I'm sleepy!” “I have to run an errand... make a call...” etc. etc. etc.
In fact the body and its faithful ambassador, the Animal Soul, are so active and powerful in most people's lives that we may not be able to discipline ourselves to make the time to sit down and think at all. We tend to plan things only partially (if we even plan), and jump into action on impulse. Often we are divided over what we really want: the Prince wants one thing, the
In order to cure the mad Turkey-Prince, the Wise Man started with sitting, because the ability to sit calmly is one of the most important prerequisites of clear-headedness. To be able to think clearly and work things out, the body has to be comfortable and quiet. The Hebrew term for a calm, settled state of mind, yishuv ha-da'at, is thus bound up with the concept of sitting. Da'at, often translated as knowledge, refers to awareness or consciousness, whether intellectual, emotional, meditative, intuitive or some combination. The word yishuv is a noun from the Hebrew root yashav, meaning to sit, rest or dwell.
The verb yashav also has a transitive form, le-yashev, which means to cause someone or something to sit or dwell. (A good English equivalent would be the word “settle,” which can be used both intransitively – “one settles in a place”– and transitively – “to settle someone somewhere.”) Le-yashev et ha-da'at thus means to settle the mind – to prepare the mind to receive da'at. A yishuv is a settlement, and yishuv ha-da'at means the settlement of consciousness – the settled frame of mind.
The first preparation for this is to physically sit comfortably. The Rabbis bring out the connection between calm clarity of mind and sitting in their comment on the opening phrases of the Book of Esther: “And it was in the days of Achashverosh...when King Achashverosh was sitting on his royal throne... in the third year of his reign...” (Esther 1:1-3). “Why are we told that he was sitting?” ask the Rabbis. “It signifies that his mind was now settled“ (Megilah 21a).
Sitting in this sense not only signifies the physical act of seating the body quietly. It suggests the whole principle of taking a break from the active business of day to-day living in order to think and work things out. The Hebrew word for sitting, shevet, is thus connected with the idea of Shabbat, when we pause and sit back from our workaday activities in order to cultivate the spirit.
The opposite of yishuv ha-da'at is bilbul ha-da'at. Bilbul means confusion, turbulence and disorder: the state of bilbul ha-da'at, is one in which it is impossible to focus clearly on a single idea or follow through a train of thought. The mind darts around uncontrollably from one distraction to another. Compulsive thoughts, inner urges, impulses, fears and worries compete for attention with an endless succession of outside distractions. Or one may feel so weighed down with heaviness, sluggishness, depression and the like that one's entire consciousness seems somehow clouded.
Bilbul ha-da'at is the mental equivalent of bodily tension. In a state of bodily tension, muscles are contracted in excess of the needs of the action in hand. You may be trying to do one thing, while consciously or unconsciously your body is also busy with something else – something that puts it at odds with you. Similarly, in a state of bilbul ha-da'at you may be trying to direct your mind one way, only to find yourself repeatedly straying along other pathways of thought, feeling and desire. The Godly Soul is reaching out in one direction, but the Animal Soul keeps on interfering.
Not all tension is bad. Just as any bodily activity requires contraction of the appropriate muscles, similarly, effective mental activity requires at-tention and full involvement of the relevant faculties. Bad tension is tension in excess of, or contrary to, what is needed.
How can we free ourselves from the unnecessary tension and constriction that prevent us from thinking clearly and acting decisively in pursuit of our goals?
It is important to understand that bodily tensions and mental turbulence are often deeply rooted in one or more of a whole variety of physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental factors. The tensions generated by contemporary life and work conditions, and the various problems we encounter every day, often combine to reinforce whole ranges of powerful inner barriers that have been built up from earliest childhood and through the course of our upbringing, education and later experiences. In the long run, the only way to attain deep and lasting release is through an extended process of self-understanding and self-transformation.
Nevertheless, there is a simple, practical procedure that can help break the vicious cycle of tension and constriction, making it possible to confront the deeper roots of the problem. Simply sitting quietly in a chair in a relaxed state can free your mind and help you get in touch with your thoughts, feelings and creative powers. One by one, you let go of your tensions and they drop away, leaving you with a blessed feeling of profound calm, liberation, clarity, enhanced sensitivity and alertness. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings, all become more vivid. It becomes easier to think, understand, remember things and work out problems. New insights may result, together with a growing awareness of the spiritual dimension of life.
The benefits of relaxed sitting are so great that it is well worth devoting time to learn the art. At first you may have to concentrate more on the technique of bodily relaxation, but once you have mastered it you will be able to enter the relaxed state very rapidly and have full enjoyment of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual benefits it can bring.
Learning the Technique
Allow about twenty minutes for your initial sessions in order to give yourself time to experience deep relaxation. It is not a good idea to practice when you are in a hurry as this will inhibit you from fully relaxing. Don't practice soon after meals or when you are tired, as you are likely to fall asleep. Your sessions should be restful and will give you new energy, but if you try to use them solely as a form of rest when tired you will be unlikely to have the full experience of release and enhanced consciousness.
Choose a quiet place where you can be alone, preferably with subdued lighting, minimum distractions, and no background music. The room should have a comfortable temperature and be free of stuffiness, draughts and unpleasant associations. Arrange to have someone answer the telephone, or else disconnect it or use an answering machine. Wear comfortable clothing. Before you begin, relieve yourself if necessary, and if you like, freshen up by washing your hands and face. It may be helpful to do some gentle stretching and loosening movements before you start.
The sitting position is the most conducive to the mental alertness desired for clear thinking. Reclining positions may be appropriate for purely bodily relaxation. Rebbe Nachman mentions lying down with closed eyes for half an hour as an excellent form of rest (Avanehah Barzel #33). However lying on one's back is not an appropriate posture for spiritual work. One can easily become drowsy and fall asleep. (See also Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 23:3.)
Choose an upright chair with a flat, firm seat, or, if you prefer, an armchair which gives support to the back of your head. Your feet may either be flat on the floor about six inches apart, or crossed at the ankles if you prefer. Sit well back on the seat so that the pelvis and lower back are supported (if necessary, place a small cushion against the lower back). Sit erect but not stiffly: allow your body to lengthen and expand naturally.
Your head should ride on the top of your neck in light alignment with the neck and torso, as if an invisible straight line extends downwards from the center of the skull through the spinal column. This way the head will be well supported on the neck, and will not fall forwards or backwards as you relax more and more deeply. The hands may be cupped in the lap or rest on the thighs, with the fingers loose.
There are two solvents that remove tension from muscles: awareness and trust. You shine your awareness like a flashlight on each part of your body in turn. First you focus your attention on what you are feeling there. Then you relax – by trusting HaShem. Relaxation is essentially simple. It comes through non-doing. You just let go of tension. Instead of trying to hold your muscles tight, trust in HaShem and hand the control over to Him, limb by limb. He will take care of you and fill your body with new energy.
When first learning relaxation, it is best to begin by tensing each group of muscles in turn and becoming conscious of how they feel when tense. Then release them and hand them back to HaShem, experiencing how they feel when relaxed. Later on, when you have learned the technique, you will no longer need to tense your muscles first: you will have the sensitivity to know when muscles are tense, and will get into the habit of handing them over to HaShem.
Close your eyes and slowly take a couple of deep breaths. Focus your attention on how your breathing feels. Your breathing will soon settle into a steady rhythm. After a few moments, make a tight fist with your right hand, hold for about five seconds and focus your mind on the feeling of tension. Unclinch and let the tension flow out, noting how different it feels.
Now do the same with your left hand (left-handed people may want to start with this hand). Then do the same with the muscles in your right upper arm (biceps) and shoulder, and then with your left upper arm and shoulder. Now move your beam of attention to your feet. Start with your right foot (or left if you prefer) and curl your toes. Then relax. Do the same with your other foot. Now contract the calf muscle at the rear of the lower right leg (if it begins to cramp, stop at once and rest for a minute, then try again less strongly). Then contract the calf of the left leg. Then relax. Now work on each of your thighs and buttocks in turn.
It is important to learn to relax the abdomen as it is an area that we often unconsciously tense in response to fear and anxiety, etc. Empty the lungs of air, pull the abdominal muscles back towards the spine, and release. Become aware of tensions in your lower back by arching your spine while keeping your pelvis and shoulders down, then lower your backbone to its resting position. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to tense the upper back, then release. Now take your shoulders forward, round your back and narrow your chest. And release. Shrug your shoulders, then allow them to drop down so that your arms seem to dangle from them.
The neck is another part of the body which reflects inner tensions. Tense your neck muscles and release. Finally, move your attention to your face. The facial muscles directly reflect your feelings, and may be the hardest to relax. Tighten your jaw muscles by clenching your teeth. And relax. Press your lips together, and release. Curl up your tongue and press it up and back against the roof of your mouth, and release. Keeping your eyes closed, swing your eyes as far as you can to the right, the left, up and down. And relax. Now bring your eyebrows hard down and squeeze your eyes tightly shut. And release. Finally, frown as hard as you can, and release the muscles of the forehead and scalp.
Physical Relaxation, Mental Attention
Next, take a few slow breaths, inhaling deeply and then allowing the air to drain slowly out of the lungs until you reach the natural end of the exhalation. Your body will automatically begin the next inhalation. Now hand your breathing over to Hashem. With each breath, allow all the air to drain out of the lungs, letting the exhalation come to an end by itself. Then let the inhalation take place by itself. Let your body breathe completely naturally, without interfering.
For the next few moments leave everything as it is. Enjoy the feeling of complete relaxation and bodily passivity. For the moment, do not try to direct your mind. Simply notice that you can be completely relaxed physically while mentally aware and attentive. At first the sensation may be strange. However, as you get used to it you will find that in these precious moments, time seems to stand still. If you choose, you can learn to direct your mind in virtually any way you wish. With experience, you will find that you can have some of your clearest understanding, creative thinking and inspiration in this state.
Finally, as you feel you would like to get up, think how you have enjoyed the peace and tranquility of your session. Thank HaShem for the experience. Express your gratitude in your heart, or whisper some words of thanks. Now take four or five deep breaths. Start moving your fingers and toes gently, then your arms and legs, and, when you feel ready, get up.
Do not be surprised if you do not attain complete or lasting relaxation, clarity and insight during your first sessions. Even at the best of times, states of clarity and insight come and go. Spiritual awakening and insight are by nature spontaneous, and cannot be forced. You can make all the necessary preparations for a good relaxation session, only to find that you are as tightly locked in your tensions, worries, nagging thoughts and emotions as ever – perhaps more so, because now you know how tense you are!
Relaxation alone will not alleviate the underlying causes of mental constriction. However it can help to ease our tensions and other inhibiting factors sufficiently to put us into the right frame of mind for going deep into ourselves, working on the root causes, and making the far-reaching changes in habits and lifestyle that may be necessary if we really want to attain our true spiritual potential.
As you gain experience in the practice of quiet sitting, you should acquire a greater understanding of where your body tends to get the most tense and under what conditions. Knowing the likely locations of tension will enable you to relax much more quickly. Eventually the relaxation itself becomes less of an exercise, giving you greater flexibility in entering and using the relaxed state for the specific mental and spiritual work you want to do.
When you reach this stage, there is no longer any need to be rigorous about the length of your sessions, or maintaining a completely motionless position. Sometimes you may want a short relaxation period of just a few minutes. Other times you may want to sit for longer periods of contemplation. If, when sitting, you find you are getting restless but still want to continue, gently move around and stretch a bit, and then resume. If you find you are getting drowsy, take a few deep breaths and then continue with the work you want to do.
There are many ways of using this relaxation exercise to enhance your life and activities. A session of quiet sitting first thing in the morning can help you greet HaShem joyously and then face your day with greater calm and inner strength. After periods of intense activity, five to ten minutes of deep relaxation will enable you to recuperate your strength and continue with whatever you have to do next with greater poise and attention. At times when you are feeling particularly tense and nervous, a period of quiet sitting can help you unravel your thoughts and feelings, opening you to valuable insights about what lies at the root of the tension. If you have a particular problem or issue that needs working out, try thinking about it while sitting in the relaxed state.
The relaxation technique may serve as an invaluable preliminary to work tasks of various kinds, and especially to Hisbodidus – the regular meditation on one's life and activities that will be the subject of a full discussion later on (Chapter 6). Another important application would be as a preparation for Torah study and prayer. Thus we find that “the pious men of old would pause for a time before they prayed, in order to direct their hearts to their Father in Heaven” (Berachot 30b). Similarly, the sixteenth-century Kabbalistic master, Rabbi Chaim Vital, mentions a state of complete bodily relaxation as a precondition for deep meditation: “Close your eyes and strip your mind of all worldly thoughts, as if your soul has gone out of your body and you are devoid of all physical feelings” (Sha'arey Kedushah 3:8).
The Art of the Pause
After learning how to attain clarity and direction during periods of quiet sitting, the next stage is to cultivate this same state of mind in moment-to-moment living. The way to do this is by making a habit of taking short breaks and pauses of a minute or two, or at times even a few seconds, as you go through your daily activities.
Rhythms of activity and rest are an integral part of our make-up. We are awake, and then we go to sleep; bouts of activity, mental and physical, are followed by periods of rest and relaxation. Our moment-to-moment living is a subtle mesh in which activity and quiescence are constantly giving way to one another as successive thoughts and feelings, words, actions and movements come into being and pass away. Pausing is something we do quite naturally as we go about our lives.
We have the power to make conscious adjustments to our rhythms of activity so as to improve the quality of our performance. The tendency to delay or procrastinate over what we have to do is something we have to fight against if we want to succeed at anything. But creative breaks and pauses are far from being a lazy indulgence. They are a vital part of the process of achievement in all spheres.
Sometimes a few seconds may be all you need, sometimes a little more, perhaps a minute or two, and sometimes longer. How you use the time – whether for rapid relaxation, taking a few deep breaths, focusing on what you are doing, offering a prayer for help, etc. – depends on your special needs at each moment, whether before, during or after your various activities. Even when you're in a hurry, the best way to do things is not necessarily by rushing. With practice, even split-second pauses will be enough to release you from tension and prepare you for the next phase of the activity you are involved in, giving you a sense of calm and confidence even when working under great pressure.
Pausing is of special importance in all kinds of spiritual work. “When undertaking an act of spiritual devotion or a mitzvah, one should not enter into it suddenly and hurriedly, because the mind will not be settled and it will be impossible to reflect on what one is doing... One should take one's time preparing the heart, entering a state of contemplation in which one reflects on what one is going to do and before Whom. By concentrating in this way, it becomes easy to throw aside extraneous thoughts and motivations and focus one's heart on the correct and desired intention” (Mesilat Yesharim Ch.17, and see Chayey Adam, Laws of Prayers and Blessings 68:25.)
Before you recite a blessing or a prayer, pause briefly to focus your mind. When you are about to perform a mitzvah, stop for a moment and think about what you are going to do. The larger prayer books include various short meditations said before putting on the Tallit and Tefilin, entering the synagogue, reciting certain prayers, studying Torah, and fulfilling other mitzvot. (See Yesod ve-Shoresh Ha-Avodah, passim.) During hisbodidus, while saying your prayers, or during a study session, pause from time to time to relax and clear your mind. Remind yourself of your goals and refocus on what you are doing. When you finish your sessions and work tasks, etc., take a minute or two just to relax and let your mind range over what you have been doing, and thank HaShem for His goodness and wonders.
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