The exact Jewish texts and chapters that encourage what modern psychology calls "mindfulness" (as discussed below) are:
- Shaar Habechina/Gate of Understanding in Chovot Levavot/Duties of the Heart
- Zehirut/Watchfulness in Mesilat Yesharim/Path of the Just
- In Pele Yoetz, you can browse through several chapters that encourage "mindfulness" (i.e., Thought, Protective Devices/Gederim, Clinging to God/Deveikut, Carefulness/Zehirut, Inclination/Yetzer, among many others).
And when applied correctly, it can be very helpful...to a point.
What do I mean?
A "Mindful" State of Mind
And if you've never come across these concepts before, they're thrilling and effective...to a point.
Let's take his latest: "5 Ways to Overcome Anger." A worthy endeavor, indeed!
He starts off with a keyword fashionable among today's self-improvement enthusiasts:
Mindfulness basically means to make yourself aware of something, then take a step back to observe it objectively. And it is truly a great development in the right direction.
The thing is, if you've been doing any kind of regular hitbodedut ("regular" doesn't have to mean a full hour a every single day; it could mean 20 minutes a day, or an hour every other day, or even just once a week), then you'll likely already have started practicing "mindfulness" on your own, without realizing you're doing it or what it's called.
"Mindfulness" is a kind of awakening, which is exactly what connecting to Hashem on a deeper level does for you. You awaken to the real consequences of an act and whether the autopilot-attempt at feeling good (via copious carb-and-fat ingestion, drugs, a bottle of rum, watching way too many funny cat videos, or yelling at someone, etc.) leads you to actually feel good. (Ultimately, it doesn't.)
In fact, both Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto's Path of the Just and Rabbi Ibn Paquda's Duties of the Heart (among other beautiful books) dedicate entire chapters to "mindfulness" -- they call it "zehirut" (watchfulness) or "bechina" (examination).
It's a type of emotional/spiritual awareness and maturity. So if you've been truly working on yourself and asking Hashem for help, then you've already started practicing it.
But getting back to the secular science of self-improvement what are some of the mind-science recommendations for overcoming anger?
Self-Awareness and Self-Discipline
Again, this is something you'll automatically do if you are regularly speaking to Hashem about your feelings and life events, and doing a regular cheshbon hanefesh (examining your deeds and motivations).
Because you're talking regularly to Hashem as your One True Close Friend, you anyway turn to Him when you feel angry, resentful, envious, or low, and then thresh it all out.
2) Avoid triggers.
He gives nice tips for avoiding triggers, but some of it ultimately makes me think of that cognitive dissonance in which atheists need to engage in order to survive. And it's ALLLL over the self-help world.
Not that he's an atheist. I don't know his beliefs. I'm referring to an atheistic way of thinking.
It just doesn't work for the long term unless you drift into some sort of state of disassociation and cognitive dissonance (which is the opposite of what mindfulness means to do).
For example, his research advises you to get creative with distraction and minimization. (Again, these are good ideas, but just not practical for many people over the long term.)
Therefore, the research recommends against reading or listening to things that drive you nuts. Again, if you're engaged in spiritual growth via hitbodedut, you'll start avoiding that stuff on your own. Speaking from personal experience, emotionally unhealthy stuff starts to feel obviously bad.
But when he addresses dealing with triggering people you can't avoid, like co-workers, he advises you to do things like find a way to politely leave a board meeting until you calm down.
But what if you can't calm down (whether because your co-workers are truly so bad or whether because you are so messed up)?
What if it has just been too much? What if this board meeting happens to be the last straw?
What if it's a situation you simply can't leave? Or it's ongoing relationships, like with family or neighbors or fellow congregants?
(Most self-help relies on the fantasy that you have superior control over most aspects of your life, including how much you can sleep, etc.)
THIS is where psychology falls short. Without Hashem, without the emuna that even painful or aggravating events are truly beneficial somehow and using difficult people as loving messages for what you need to fix in yourself, and without prayer...these triggers just aren't manageable.
In my experience, you can use these methods to handle an ongoing trigger like a pro for around two weeks, max. Then you'll either explode or get depressed or break down in some other way...unless you either become repressed, disassociated (neither is good for mental or spiritual health) or have naturally thick skin that allows stuff to roll of off it.
(A lot of consistently calm & laid-back people are actually disassociated, if their calm is not coming from emuna.)
To prevent this post from being even longer than it already is, I'm skipping the next 3 tips. Again, they're good advice but more of the same (train your mind, break the mental loop, ride the wave) and are things you automatically do when you've been engaged in honest hitbodedut.
Working on Yourself at the Real Core
For example, if despite hitbodedut, you're still checking into Facebook several times a day, even though it makes you feel increasingly depressed, then reading the above can add impetus to stop yourself, due to Tip #2: "Avoid triggers."
But the above aren't the full answer. (Even though their well-meaning proponents portray them as being the key to what you really need.)
Mindfulness, self-compassion, and many other concepts popping up today are indeed helpful. But they're much more limited than their proponents realize. (It's legitimately very exciting and inspiring when you first discover them. But then life happens...)
And yes, even with regular hitbodedut and mussar (cheshbon hanfeseh, praising and thanking Hashem, changing behavior, prayer, etc.), you can still have anger issues. BUT the big difference is that hitbodedut and mussar move you forward for real.
Using hitbodedut and mussar, you will genuinely progress from inside your deepest self.
Some stuff goes shockingly fast while some improves erratically and slowly. It depends where you're holding and what issues God gave you.
Accessing the Treasure in Your Own Backyard
The original mussar speaks to your soul and on a certain level, slices through any intellectual and religious limitations.
And yes, the big resistance learning original mussar is the feeling "But they don't tell you HOW to do it!"
I definitely understand this because I used to say this too.
The thing is, they do tell you, but they mostly don't spoonfeed it into you, which is what our generation (me included) really needs. After I read Garden of Emuna, it was like a key that opened up all these other mussar books.
But the truth is, had I quieted my mind for a moment to ponder the ideas in these books and put their advice into action even before fully understanding it, they would have really helped me even without reading Garden of Emuna.
In hindsight, I needed to make a serious mental effort to understand what they were trying to tell me and to force myself to act, but I just didn't. (Actually, they helped me anyway on some level simply because it's Truth and Wisdom, and it still seeps through all your mental muck to illuminate your mind at least a little.)
It doesn't matter which ones you read; go where your soul takes you.
Some of the books easier to get through are:
Garden of Emuna by Rav Shalom Arush
Words of Faith by Rav Levi Yitchak Bender
Strive for Truth by Rav Eliyahu Dessler
(I'm probably missing some, but this is a good start.)
Chassidic works written by the original tzaddikim are very good and have inspired people from all walks of life, particularly the works of Breslov and Chabad.
But the golden old classics like, Ways of the Righteous, Path of the Just, Duties of the Heart, Way of God, etc., are still very worth reading to get whatever you can out of them. And you will get something you wouldn't have had otherwise.
I want to note that Chassidic works, plus the first 3 books listed, were written by great people who also studied the golden old classics in great depth, so reading Chassidic works by the original tzaddikim will also get you the classic works by osmosis, so to speak. (I am not Chassidic, by the way.)
I can't stress how important it is to read the original works, even if it's a translation and even if the language is initially so obtuse that you can only commit to a paragraph a day.
The research-based advances in psychology are helpful.
Classes or modern books based on classic mussar sources given by regular rabbis or rebbetzins are helpful.
But I can't help noticing that ultimately, nothing comes close to the original works written by the true Sages.
The Infinite Puzzle of the Universe