Take a beat


We all have that memory living rent free inside of our mind where, instead of thinking things through, we totally lost it. Maybe it was with a family member, a frustrating classmate, or maybe it was at… a Philharmonic concert in Jerusalem? Join Rabbi Josh Feigleson as he explores the importance of taking a beat, resting our minds, and embracing moments of mindfulness.

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I’m going to tell you a story that I’ve never told in public before. And I’ll admit I’m a little afraid to share it, because it’s embarrassing. So I hope you’ll be understanding when you hear it.

It happened years ago when I was just out of college. I was living in Israel at the time and, music nerd that I was, slash am, I got a subscription to the Israel Philharmonic concerts in Jerusalem. 

Shabbat candles, kiddish cup and challah (Photo: Olaf Herfurth/Wikipedia Commons)

There was one concert I was especially looking forward to that year. It was being led by legendary guest conductor Lorin Maazel and was going to feature not one, but two symphonies by the great Austrian Jewish composer, Gustav Mahler. I was seriously psyched for this.

My friend Elli and I went to the concert together and, upon arriving, we were already disappointed: Two Mahler symphonies are hard to pull off on one concert.

So instead of the two pieces I thought I was getting, they now had one Mahler symphony on the second half of the program.

On the first half, the orchestra was going to play two pieces for violin and orchestra by none other than the conductor, Lorin Maazel. 

Maazel had been a child prodigy on violin, but that was many decades before. I guess later in life he got the idea that he would start playing again, and composing his own pieces.

Okay, I thought, whatever — we’ll give this a try. How bad could it be?

Turns out, really bad. Like, awful. Old Lorin Maazel was not the player he was as a kid. Honestly, it was painful.

The vibe was just kind of like, “Dude, this is seriously self-indulgent and you’re inflicting this on us. Get it over with already.”

But again, whatever — I had the Mahler to look forward to. I waited patiently, if uncomfortably.

When Maazel was done playing the second piece, I was relieved. Thank God — it’ll be intermission and then we’ll get the real music. Whew.

But then something happened, and seriously I will never live down this moment. Rather than head off the stage for intermission, Maazel picked up his violin to play an encore.

And, you know me, I’m all Mr. Mindfulness, right? Well, at that moment, not so much. As Maazel lifted up his instrument, something seriously came over me.

It was like I was possessed. And from the back of the concert hall, in this room full of two thousand cultured people, I yelled out at the top of my lungs, “No!!!” 

There was a gasp. You know that dream where you’re naked in front of a room? It felt like I was living that dream.

Such a thing is simply not done in the polite company of a symphony orchestra concert. Eyes turned toward me.

My face went red. I bolted from the room out into the hallway and waited for the intermission to come. 

I soon realized that very few people would be able to tell who exactly shouted out that loud objection. So I began to calm down.

My friend came out to sit with me. And after intermission we went back in to hear the Mahler symphony — the thing I had come for in the first place.

I went home from the concert and life went on. But as you can imagine, it’s a moment I will never forget — and, until this moment, it’s a story I’ve never shared in public. 

I’ve thought about this story many times in the years since it occurred. I’ve tried to figure out what exactly happened — because it’s so unusual.

I’m normally a very put-together person, in control of my behavior. So how was it possible that I lost control of myself so completely?

How did my internal filter — the thing all of us have that keeps us from saying outrageous things — how did it just collapse?

And, even though this kind of thing is an exceptionally rare event in my life (don’t worry, I haven’t shouted out at a concert since), how can I try to make sure that, when I feel similar sensations arising in me, my filter is able to work the way I want it to?

This is a Jewish mindfulness podcast, so you’ve probably already guessed that my answer is going to be, “Mindfulness practice.” Good guess! You get a gold star.

Mindfulness meditation has certainly been a big help for me. Through my practice, I’ve found that I’m able to feel when that volcano inside might be starting to rumble.

My body, mind, and emotions are more attuned to each other. So when I get some sensation of anxiety or anger starting to flare, I’m more aware of it early on — and that gives my mind more time to say to my mouth and the rest of me, “Hold on a second here — how do you really want to show up right now?”

I’d like to think that if I had had this kind of practice at the time of the orchestra concert, I might have behaved differently.

That basic move, of creating more space and time between stimulus and response, that’s a core lesson we talk about frequently on this show.

And, as I also frequently stress, it’s the basic teaching of the crown jewel of Jewish life, Shabbat. Because Shabbat isn’t only a special time that happens every seven days.

It’s a state of mind — and it’s available to us every seven minutes, even every seven seconds.

Shabbat mind is what helps us create that pause before we just react. It’s what helps us remind ourselves that we have a choice in our behavior — we don’t just have to react. We have a filter, and we can use it.

The Torah portion of Behar is all about Shabbat. Not the Shabbat that happens on Friday night and Saturday, but Shabbat that happens on a much larger time scale.

Every seven years, the Torah says, the Israelites are supposed to have a year-long Shabbat: No farming, all debts and loans forgiven, a total reset.

It’s like a complete surrender of human control, a way of saying, “Yep — whatever illusions we had that we were in charge of things, we’re going to remember through this that we’re part of something much, much larger. And we’re going to practice trusting that.”

If practicing Shabbat mind every seven seconds is a way of micro — dosing Shabbat, this Sabbatical year is like a giant, society-wide, macro-dose. It’s intended to help us, as a whole community, pause and take a giant, deep breath together.

So here is a meditation practice you can use to try to cultivate more of this Shabbat mind. Before you begin, make sure you’re in a quiet place where you can sit or lie down and close your eyes (so if you’re driving, do this later!). 

Begin by assuming a meditation posture that’s good for you, a posture that allows air to flow freely. As I say often, if you’re sitting, imagine embodying Jacob’s ladder: Rooted in the ground, your head ascending up towards heaven.

If it’s comfortable for you, soften your gaze or close your eyes. 

And now bring your attention to your breath. Take a good, deep breath and hold it for a beat. And then, on the outbreath, try to make your exhalation a little longer than the inhale was. See if you can bring a little mindful, loving attention to your breath.

Continue doing that for a few cycles, and notice what’s happening in your body as you do. Hopefully you’re getting a little more relaxed, a little calmer. 

See if you can bring a little more relaxation, a little more expansiveness, to the experience of breathing. What does it feel like to have a little more room — in your chest, in your heart, in your mind? Maybe there’s a little more space now — a little bit of Shabbat.

And set an intention to stay present with the breath. In and out. In and out.

Eventually, what’s likely to happen is that your mind will wander. It could be your to-do list, or what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, or something at work or school.  

When you become aware that your mind has wandered, you have this beautiful moment of choice: What do you want to do now? Do you want to stay with the to-do list, or do you want to bring your attention back to your breath? It’s your choice. 

And you might also notice some feelings of frustration arising: Why couldn’t I keep my attention on the breath? And again, you have a choice: Do you want to act on those feelings? Or do you want to set them aside and, with love and compassion for yourself, come back to your intention? It’s your meditation, your Shabbat. You get to decide.

Presuming you want to come back to the breath, see if you can allow that thought and the emotion that accompanies it to fade away. Almost like a cloud that passes through a blue sky. Maybe say to yourself, “Thanks for being here, thought and feeling. But I’m going to choose to come back to the breath now.” 

And breathe again. In and out. In and out. 

Take three more cycles of breath. When you’re ready, if your eyes have been closed, open them up and look around.

Notice how you feel. Hopefully a little calmer, a little more expansive, a little more like your filter is working. This is a core, basic practice you can come back to again and again — wherever you are: standing in the grocery store checkout line, driving to work, staring at your Instagram feed. And even in a concert hall in Jerusalem. 

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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