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Why Mindfulness Is Not Passive

In this week’s Parsha, Behar, we learn about the Sabbatical year and letting the land lie fallow. We don’t plant or cultivate the land. Every seven years we observe the Sabbatical year. While my understanding of agriculture is limited, I have read that allowing the land to rest can save it from burnout and overuse and allow it to regenerate and flourish.

Industrial agriculture has depleted a lot of land around the world and this affects global warming. According to the Rodan Agricultural Institute, “the healthier the soil, the greater its holding capacity for carbon.“ The Sabbatical year could “complement other land conservation and carbon sequestration techniques by letting land rest and increasing soil fertility preserve carbon. “ Just as people rest on the seventh day (Shabbat), the land is personified and it rests on the seventh year. This also allows the farmer to focus on other things in that year, such as learning and spiritual pursuits.

In addition, it allows farmers to temporarily “release” ownership of their fields so poorer people can eat good quality produce: “And six years thou shalt sow thy land, but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the best of the field shall eat (Exodus 23:10).” Farming is a very intensive and active pursuit. Letting the land lie fallow, therefore, means that in the seventh year the ordinarily very active worker of the land suddenly has to become passive. That’s not easy!

Some think that mindful meditation, too, is a passive endeavor. But that is a misconception. It is much more than just sitting on the floor with legs crossed and emptying the mind. Mindfulness is an active practice, requiring us to keep noticing our thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions , watching them come and go from a distance. It’s a practice that requires training and discipline. Just as you wouldn’t expect to go to the gym and start lifting heavy weights, you have to train the muscle called paying attention or noticing.

Mindfulness is not about giving up or disengaging from the world around us. Some say that meditation allows you to clear your mind in order to be unaffected by the world and accept whatever comes. But that, too, is a myth. The core of mindfulness meditation is the exact opposite.
Mindful meditation practice is used to calm and teach our minds a different way of being in the world, allowing us to practice observing the stream of thoughts and emotions without the bias that pollutes our experience. While we are observing and contemplating, we find that our problems are often more complex or simpler than we imagined; that they are dependent on other situations; that they have their roots in something deeper, or are less difficult than we thought. In meditation, we step out of our automatic reactions and open up to seeing things more clearly. We connect with our deeper intentions. A commitment to the practice of mindfulness can give us more clarity and allow us to take important and healing action. There is a time to rest and a time to take action, but the two are not mutually exclusive. As the Sabbatical year teaches us, sometimes resting or pausing can give us the energy and ability to grow and flourish.

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