Book Review: Here I Am: Using Jewish Spiritual Wisdom to Become More Present, Centered, and Available for Life
I always feel warmly about self-help books that suggest things I’m tempted to try. Leonard Felder’s simple, engaging book on using Jewish spiritual techniques for stress relief falls into that category for me.
“Mindfulness meditation” has been popular since the physician Jon Kabat-Zinn brought it into mainstream medicine in the early 1980s; its practices relied on mainly Zen Buddhist teachings adapted for secular Westerners. Felder, a practicing psychologist in Los Angeles, proposes a meditation practice that utilizes Jewish teachings for stress reduction: his remedy for the stress overload of daily life is to take a few breaths (of course) and focus on a phrase—a prayer, blessing, or concept from the Jewish tradition—that we can use to calm and center ourselves over the course of a busy day.
The phrases he proposes do not function like mantras, to block distracting thoughts; rather, they serve to focus our attention on concepts that counteract common emotional snares. For example, the biblical phrase hineni, “Here I am,” brings to mind the unspoken question, “Where are you?” and becomes a way of slowing down. Felder makes use of spiritual ideas with therapeutic value such as tzimtzum, the kabbalistic idea that God, the Eternal Source of Energy, “contracted” in order to leave room for a created universe; likewise, he suggests, we have to recognize when we are being too intense or overbearing and use a phrase to help us do a kind of tzimtzum: “Relax, pull back, open up some space.”
The following blessing, traditionally said after using the bathroom, can be said anytime to remind us of our commitment to our own health: “Blessed are You, Eternal Source of Creation…who has fashioned the human being with wisdom and created within each person many openings and many cavities…but if one of them were ruptured or were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You.” At overwhelmed moments when we feel insecure, we can inspire greater compassion for ourselves by reciting: “My God, the soul that You have placed within me is a pure one!” Repeating the words of the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach a new season, can help us see new challenges, even stressful ones, as moments of opportunity and potential growth.As a self-help book on stress management for Jews and non-Jews, Felder encourages readers to fill in whatever terms they wish for “God” and “soul” and provides lots of alternatives; but for Jews who are comfortable with these terms, this book offers a double reward—both as a mindful therapeutic practice and as a way of reconnecting to Jewish prayer.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.