The ideal place for a spot of mindfulness - the succah

The perennial message of the upcoming festival can help us towards a wiser view of life


Impermanence and fragility — two of life’s givens that we so often try to ignore, deny or fight against. And then along comes Succot, our community’s celebration and acknowledgment of the spiritual potency of impermanence. 

On Succot, our wisdom tradition invites us to leave our permanent homes and to live — as much as we are able to — in a succah. The succah, our Torah relates, is the temporary hut that the ancient Israelites lived in while wandering through the desert for forty years on their journey from oppression to liberation. 

The deep spiritual teaching of the succah is to remind us of the impermanence and fragility of our material possessions, our relationships and even our own bodies and lives. It is why we read my favourite book of the Hebrew Bible on Succot, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Its leitmotif is the word hevel (used 38 times in the book) which is best translated as “impermanence” and has nothing at all to do with “vanity”.

At Hamakom, the organisation I co-founded, we invite people to experience impermanence as a deep insight and not merely as an intellectual concept. Our main tools for enabling this experience is the practice of what has come to be called in English “mindfulness meditation”. This practice and other meditative and contemplative practices are universalistic, meaning they are found in all the major religions and spiritual traditions, including the Jewish path. 

It is unlikely that you were taught meditation as a Jewish spiritual practice as a child at cheder or in synagogue. Tragically, the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jewish spiritual teachers were killed in the Holocaust, taking with them thousands of years of oral spiritual and mystical teachings and leaving so many of us born in the West as spiritual orphans. 

Hence the fact that so many Jews have found meaningful spiritual connection, practices and wisdom in Buddhism, Vedanta, yoga and other Eastern spiritual paths.

At our Jewish mindfulness meditation retreats we create a sacred container that allows and enables people to experience their minds beginning to quieten and to slow down. Our invitation to people is to take time to explore in detail, with exquisite care and compassion, the experience of living as embodied human beings with minds and bodies. 

We are not talking about cultivating special states of consciousness — just the ordinary experience of using our attention and awareness to observe the ongoing and ever-changing processes taking place in our minds, hearts and bodies.

This type of practice leads us along the path to the liberating and empowering insight into the nature of impermanence. How so? Much of our suffering in life is caused by pinning our happiness on things that cannot and do not last: health, relationships, appearance, wealth, family, success at work. 

The problem is that these things are not eternal. As Kohelet says in the verse 1:2,  “everything is impermanent” (hakol hevel). We are setting ourselves up for disappointment if we make these impermanent things the cornerstone of our happiness and we solely look to them for providing meaning and purpose in our lives.

As our meditation practice deepens, we begin to experience a deeper level of equanimity, and even joy, in relation to impermanence. We learn to perceive our lives as continuously flowing movement. Thoughts arise in our mind and then pass away. Emotions arise in our consciousness and, if we don’t grasp on to them, they too will pass away. 

Physical sensations arise in our bodies, both painful and pleasurable, they too will pass away. We learn to observe our own conditioned reactions to thoughts, emotions and physical sensations with calmness and clarity. Once we become skilled in observing with equanimity and compassion the rising and falling away, the impermanence, of all human experience, there is a complete paradigm shift in our perceptual mechanism and we achieve the joy of liberation from our obsessive thinking and our habitual patterns of acting and reacting in the world. 

Through the practice of mindfulness meditation and paying close attention to the ever-changing flow of life, we begin to notice the gaps between our experience of stimulus and our response to stimulus. When we see those gaps clearly, we have more power to choose our responses. 

In this way we can develop the ability to choose to respond to events with deeper and deeper levels of wisdom and compassion. Herein lies the potential for our growth and development, as well as our freedom.

Our spiritual ancestors attained their freedom in the Promised Land after experiencing the impermanence of living in succot. In our day, the festival of Succot has the power to remind us to practice the spiritual technology of meditation in order to observe the impermanence of all aspects of our experience and thus to enjoy the fruits of liberation that this insight brings.

Rabbi Newman is the founding partner of HaMakom: The Place for Wellbeing, Wisdom and Awakening

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