Requested Book Excerpt: The Mindful Meditation of Berkahot Blessings

Here is the much-requested excerpt from my book "God's Favorite Prayers"  ("The Meditator," pages 111-120) wherein I define just how the berakhot (blessings) of rabbinic Judaism constitute a complete system of mindful meditations.
Deborah sits in the synagogue visibly engaged in her prayers. She closes her eyes at times. She sways as she prays, rhythmically and persistently, but slowly, gently and with deliberation.You cannot tell just from these external cues that Deborah is a meditator. To know that, I need to probe and ask her about her innermost thoughts during her time in the synagogue and at many other times when she is out and about throughout the day. During her prayers, you need to know, is Deborah attentively introspective of her own needs and desires and those of her friends and loved ones? Does she see her dreams fulfilled? Is she accepting of her personal and spiritual shortcomings and failures? Is she aware of her own breathing and heartbeat and the air that swirls around her, the heft of her Siddur and the humming of her fellow daveners?Does Deborah recite one-hundred daily blessings with mindful recognition? Does she reach a state of compassion as she says the grace over her meals? 
I might describe the activity of meditation as “study or thinking intently and at length, as for spiritual purposes,” or as “contemplation of spiritual matters.”
But the ancient rabbis did not have a term to describe meditation, so they called the meditative dimension of prayer, “the service of the heart.” To them, that indicated an inner intellectual and emotional activity, which they located in the heart, since they could detect that as the organ which beats slower or faster depending on one’s state of mind. Ancient rabbis had no ideas of brain activity and surely had no devices to monitor it or methods to speak about it.
Today, there are indeed multiple ways that we use the term meditate to describe a person who practices meditation through a variety of activities that we may call meditative. It’s enough to make your head spin. Before I get to what goes on in and around the synagogue, consider for instance those meditators from the 1960s or 70s, who practiced a popular form of Transcendental Meditation (TM), Zen or other related types of meditation. Far outside of establishment places of worship—separate from synagogues and churches—they sought a regimen that would help them achieve a sensation that they could transcend or go beyond themselves. They sought to bend their consciousness by a variety of methods, such as by finding their mantra or via deliberation on gnomic Zen sayings, called koans.

The rapid spread in popularity of TM back then frightened organized religion. Some rabbis specifically declared it to be a forbidden form of idolatry. In 1978, the Lubavitcher Rebbe railed against the threats of meditative cults on the one hand, while on the other hand he called for Jewish doctors to develop a kosher form of therapeutic meditation. By that, he meant they should come up with an independent new course of meditative exercises within Jewish practice and based on Jewish principles or contents.
The rebbe’s suggestion about meditation has not much to do with what we are talking about. I have come here with you now—to the synagogue service—to present to you Deborah the meditator so you can get to know her. As I have learned in my own travels and quests, for Deborah, there is no reason to exit the synagogue or to abandon standard Jewish practices in order to discover ways to meditate. Deborah practices meaningful meditation at the core of her regular standard Jewish prayer and in her daily life through the ordinary texts and actions of her Jewish living.
Now, it is true that the rich meditative qualities of regular Jewish practice were not at all self-evident to me or to Deborah, at first. No Jewish teacher instructed her about them. She reached her understanding and practices through a journey of discovery, all her own and in several stages.
Deborah, at one time, went through a stressful period in her life. She sought ways and means to deal with her overwhelming, swirling anxieties that carried her through flights of manic euphoria to bouts of dark depression. She tried many techniques to take back control of her runaway consciousness. Fortunately, among them, Deborah trained in a course of mindfulness meditation, a derivative of Buddhist practices that seeks to foster clear awareness for an individual of the sensations of their present physical and mental state as it unfolds in the present moment.
As a mindful meditator, Deborah learned to observe more vividly the place she was in—the tones, shades, gradations and nuances of her present, her immediate exterior reality and the flowing progression of her inner thoughts and emotions.
She discovered, in the course of her training, one of the best-selling and most perceptive books on mindful meditation, a volume by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of its leading proponents in the U.S. That book was Wherever You Go, There You Are. Now, although Kabat-Zinn is a Jew, he has no identifiable connections to Judaism. His insights are derived in the main from Eastern religions and practices. Deborah had to make all the connections back to her practices of Judaism on her own.
Over time, wherever Deborah went, including the synagogue, she became an accomplished mindful meditator. Deborah was able to moderate her own thoughts; to stand outside of them and observe the flow of her consciousness going by, much like a naturalist might observe the currents of a river.
When she came into the synagogue after training as a mindful meditator, Deborah started to find analogues to that style of meditation in the existing practices of her established Jewish rituals.
Accordingly, let’s see how Deborah embodies them as our synagogue archetype—the meditator—the practitioner of mindful blessings and intercessions of compassion.
On entering the synagogue as a meditator, Deborah realized that she was a practitioner of the meditations that we call blessings or, in Hebrew, berakhot. Deborah breathtakingly discovered new dimensions of her old prayers.
She found that a blessing is more than a formula of Hebrew words that have simple knowable meanings. In the past, she had thought that the fixed opening phrase of a berakhah, “Blessed art thou O Lord, our God, King of the Universe,” semantically expressed the speaker’s intention to bestow good wishes upon God or to exalt God, who is referred to in the formula by three names. Deborah learned this formula when she was two or three years old and hardly pondered the theological meaning or even the simple semantics of this phrase each time she recited it as an older child or as an adult.
So what new purpose or function of the berakhah formula did Deborah discover when she came back to reexamine it as a mature meditator? She saw that these recitations served for her as the known cues for many instances of her daily, periodic, repetitive or occasional mini-mindful meditations. These provided for Deborah meaningful guidance to the rush of her thoughts and to the meanderings of the awareness of her waking life.
Deborah the meditator recited her individual blessings when she ate her foods, performed her bodily functions, witnessed meteorological events, saw flowers, or heard good and bad news. She also recited blessings when she suspended the routines that maintained her daily subsistence and when she broke off from the flow of her living in the external world, that is, when she went off into the synagogue to engage in her hours of prayer. 
Here is a tabular summary of a small sample of many of the actions and occasions for which Deborah recited her mini-meditations, the blessings in her daily activities:

Blessed are You…
Who creates the fruit of the tree
Before eating a fruit
Mindful eating
Who creates the produce of the ground
Before eating a vegetable
Mindful eating
Who gives pleasant fragrance to fruits
Upon smelling fruits
Mindful sensing of nature
Who has withheld nothing from nature and has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for the enjoyment of human beings
Upon seeing flowering trees in their first seasonal bloom
Mindful sensing of the special beauty of nature
Who creates the fruit of the vine
Before drinking wine
Mindful drinking
Who brings forth bread from the earth
Before eating breada full meal
Mindful dining, for a full meal
Who commanded us to light the Sabbath/ holiday candles
After lighting the candles
Purposeful ritual, mindful of the passage of time
Who heals all flesh and performs wonders
After bathroom visits
Mindful of one’s body and health
Whose power and might fill the world
Upon witnessing thunder or a hurricane
Mindful of disruptive events of nature
Who is good and does good
For good news
Mindful of elevating emotions
Who is the true judge
For bad news
Mindful of  emotional trauma
Blessings in the synagogue
Opening or concluding paragraphs of liturgy

Mindful of the markers of the elements of prayer

There are three generally mentioned classical categories for sorting out all the blessings: (1) blessings of performance of a mitzvah (ritual acts), (2) blessings of bodily satisfaction (intake of foods, drinks, etc.) and (3) blessings of praise (liturgy).
As part of her mindful practice, these blessings functioned to demand of Deborah a meditative awareness of her person, her body and her immediate external world. For a simple example, she took the blessing she recites upon smelling fragrant fruit, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe who gives pleasant fragrance to fruits” (Koren Siddur, p. 1000) as a cue to be highly aware of her surroundings. She took another case, the formula she spoke before eating an apple, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe who creates the fruit of the tree,” as a cue to mindfully savor the taste and texture of her foods. In both cases, aspects of loving-kindness and compassion accompanied the awareness of the physical food.
These blessings served as triggers for Deborah. They told her to stop, to be mindful of her actions, to be thoughtful of what type of food she held  in her hand, how that food was to be regarded and classified, whether she was smelling it or eating it, and to recall what is “its correct berakhah.”
All forms of mindfulness heighten the practitioner’s moments of experience and elevate ordinary events from a background of awareness to a foreground of thinking. For Deborah, mindful occasions of blessings helped her savor her conscious awareness—the consistency and flavor, the origins and essences of her living.
Meir, a rabbi in the Talmud in the second century, spoke of his expectation for every Jew to experience each day one-hundred triggers of mindful meditation—a life punctuated daily by one-hundred blessings.
To be clear, this mindful meditation through berakhot that we have described is not identical to that which Kabat-Zinn and others taught Deborah. She had to adapt her mindfulness to apply it to her Jewish context. In fact, Deborah realized that, through her blessings, she engaged in mindfulness to the second power, to mindfulness squared, that is to a heightened relationship to her multiple worlds, both personal and cultural. Let me explain.
Deborah understood that, when she held an apple in her hand and recited the blessing for it, she had to know which proper berakhah to make. That meant she had to relate first to that content from her cultural world, Jewish tradition, law or halakhah. Still holding that apple in her hand, she moved through that relationship to look then at the fruit, to feel its heft and taste its tartness as she bit into it.
Because she was mindful, Deborah’s interaction with daily life was not defined just by the torrents of her rushing thoughts. Her thinking was formed in a duplex relationship to that combination of both the cultural and personal contents that she mindfully activated in her conscious mind, under her watchful control. She steered her relationship to her own thoughts and actions by meeting up with them, by making note of them, and then by becoming disentangled from those twisting currents of distractions gushing around her life.
Deborah’s blessing-meditations turned the rush of her daily living into a series of discrete moments of experience, each savored fully with thanksgiving, gratitude and, perhaps, with compassion.
I hedge regarding compassion because it’s likely that Deborah learned more, at first, about the practice of compassion outside of the Judaic framework. True, the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is a part of Judaism. However, embracing those who are distressed and feeling the pain of others is more of a core doctrine of Buddhism and, along with it, a prominent part of its meditative practices.
That said, as we discuss below, the grace after meals stands out as a prominent example of a prayer and meditation of compassion, and it is squarely within the practice of Judaism.
What more do we understand about the meditation of the recitation of a blessing? By convention, because a blessing invokes three names of a divine entity (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe…”), classical Judaism says that it accomplishes something we conventionally describe as the sanctification of the acts that the meditator performs after each blessing. By her actions of reciting a blessing and then eating, for instance, Deborah fulfilled a commandment. Deborah knows and observes this added explanation of her practice. This is part of the external cultural baggage that she brings to bear on the other essential elements of her mindful actions.
Deborah’s Jewish application of mindful meditation stands somewhat apart from the mindfulness that derives from Buddhist sources and has wended its way into our American cultural setting. Let’s look at an illustration to clarify better how it differs.
Deborah has a friend Tara who practices mindful meditation anchored in a Buddhist tradition. For this demonstration, let’s imagine that both meditators pick up a raisin to eat, to demonstrate their ways of meditation.
This mindful raisin-eating exercise is actually practiced to instruct beginners in the goals and modes of Kabat-Zinn’s style of mindfulness. In the Kabat-Zinn mindful exercise, the leader hands each beginner a single raisin and asks the person to eat it. Most ordinary people will pop the raisin in their mouths, chew a few times and swallow it, largely unconsciously.
But Tara, the meditative eater, wants to perform a mindful raisin-eating. She begins by looking closely at the raisin, considering its shape, weight, color and texture. Next, she places the raisin in her mouth and focuses on how it feels on her tongue and how her mouth responds with salivation.
Then our mindful raisin-eater chews the raisin slowly and thoroughly, focusing on its taste and disintegration. Finally, she swallows the raisin and feels it (or imagines it) as it goes down her alimentary canal and into her stomach.
While eating, Tara may find her thoughts wander to picture the red Sun-Maid raisin box that she knows held the food, or to the supermarket where she last bought a box of raisins, or perhaps to the time she found an old box of dried raisins in the bottom of her purse. But, in each case, she let her thoughts come into her mind and allowed herself to make note of them and let them go, returning her focus to eating that single, present piece of food.
Now, let’s turn by comparison to consider our meditator Deborah, acting as our mindful berakhah raisin-eater. There’s no actual single meditative exercise that Deborah knows of in Judaism comparable to what we described for the mindful raisin-eater. When children learn about reciting blessings for foods, they learn to associate the blessing that applies to each food category and to each specific food.
Let us imagine, then, this example of the way that Deborah, the meditator, would practice a berakhah raisin-eating mindful exercise.
Deborah first takes the raisin and looks at its size. She wants to make sure that it big enough—more than the minimum quantity—to merit that she, the eater, recites a blessing. But she knows that she must recite a blessing before eating any quantity, according to most accepted practices. Still, she needs to think ahead about how much she must eat before she is obliged to recite a blessing after eating, the blessings of the grace after a meal.
Deborah the meditator also has to decide what species of food this is—where it came from, what category it falls into—and thereby to determine the proper berakhah to recite before putting it into her mouth and eating it. A raisin comes from a grape and a grape grows on a vine. She may think then that the blessing should be, “who creates the fruit of the vine,” but that blessing is reserved for wine, the ultimate and finest product of the grapevine.
A grape itself is the fruit of a tree—by its conventional classification. So, she concludes that its blessing is, “who creates the fruit of the tree.” Deborah reflects that this food is processed from grapes. It is dried, not fresh; does that affect its blessing? She ponders, does that change it and downgrade the blessing to the most generic formula, “for all was created at his word?”
You can see that Deborah, in the Jewish context, must supply more than Tara’s simple and present consideration of the physical nature of the food to her mindful-berakhah-raisin-eating simulation. It’s not just that she must be mindful, but it becomes clear that she needs to become mindful to a greater degree, to a mathematically higher power, to be culturally analytical, almost botanical or culinary or scientific, religiously cognizant—all before she recites the blessing and puts the raisin in her mouth.
During this exercise, Deborah may also consider the times she forgot to recite the blessing, the confusion she felt when she did not know a blessing for a food. She may think about whether the red Sun-Maid box has a kosher certification on it, whether foods of this sort need to be certified. But, as a mindful-berakhah meditator, she has to bring her consciousness back to the act of eating and the heightened mode of awareness that she brings to add to that biological ingestion.
For Deborah the meditator, this deep interaction between cultural mindfulness and personal physical mindfulness defines the dynamics of her berakhah meditations...

(The chapter next explains the more advanced meditations of compassion in the birkat hamazon, the grace after eating.)

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