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Judaism and Focusing Technique

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By Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Focusing synergizes beautifully with many forms of Jewish spiritual practice. This paper cites some of the traditional texts and teachers that seem to have a felt-sense in their spiritual practice and teaching and also offers several examples of how one can apply Focusing within Judaism. I’ll conclude with news about a project to bring Focusing into synagogues.

The prophet Elijah could and did benefit from a Focusing-like experience. This is described in the book of Kings where G*d is said to ask him: "Why are you here, Elijah?" Elijah answers: "I am moved by zeal — the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life."

What a challenging life situation — fear and anger, the dangerous energy of the zealot. What does G*d do in this tale? G*d sends Elijah out on a vision quest via a process that teaches him a truth we learn in Focusing –that there is a deeper, more subtle level under the strong emotions and down under the dark confusion:

[Note that I will translate the unpronounceable tetragrammaton, the Hebrew letters YHVH (yud hey vav hey) which are a composite of all forms of the verb "to be" as based on the burning bush episode where G*d says G*d's name is: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh — "I am becoming what I am becoming."]

G*d: "Go out, and stand on the mountain in the face of That Which is Becoming."

That Which is Becoming passed by
and a great and strong wind tore the mountains
and broke in pieces the rocks
In the face of That Which is Becoming.
But G*d/That Which is Becoming
was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake;
but G*d/That Which is Becoming
was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire;
but G*d/That Which is Becoming
was not in the fire;
and after the fire
a subtle (some translate "small") still voice."
I Kings 19:11-13

There it is — create a safe space, clear your mind of old knowledge, thoughts and emotions and ---after the wind, after the earthquake and after the fire let the felt sense come and speak to you with the subtle small still voice from underneath it all, the message we get when we wait and allow it to emerge.

The Hassidic text Etz Hazman comments on this experience in a piece called:
In the Subtle Voice — In Stillness.

“Subtly, in a moment, in stillness, and in contemplation, we are able to hear the echo (bat kol) of "that which I command you this day." (From underneath can come the little steps to say what and how I am to do today, just now.) Being that the "sound" of the "Bat Kol' comes in the subtle stillness, tenderly, it is more difficult to hear it if there is a denser stronger kol (voice) which is overcoming and forcing it aside; polluting it.” [Voices of self attacking, anger, fear, guilt, shame and bitterness constrict us, very loud voices! Then we hide from those voices and hear nothing inside. Therefore tenderness is needed and a few minutes of safe welcoming. “Where am I just now, under all that?” Then we hear from deeper down, where the soul is always praying and struggling to live forward in some good way.]

Rav Kook, [19th century chief Rabbi of Israel before founding of the modern state] taught that the soul is always active, communicating, we just aren't listening to it. He explained the soul as our inner voice, our uniqueness, containing knowledge of our mission in life. He wrote that if one doesn't listen to her inner voice she will become depressed, enervation will wither; there will be a lack of passion, personal confusion. In the prayer book he edited, Olat Ra-aya, he also describes a felt-sense phenomenon:

"The perpetual prayer of the soul continually tries to emerge from its latent state to become revealed and actualized, to permeate every fiber of the life of the entire universe...Sudden spiritual clarity comes about as a result of a certain spiritual lightning bolt that enters the soul...[ A clarity can also come right now in very small steps from the small voice under it all] when many days or years have passed without listening to this inner voice, toxic stones gather around one's heart, and one feels, because of them, a certain heaviness of spirit. The primary role of spiritual clarity is for the person to return to him/herself, to the root of one's soul."

Practical Applications of Focusing in Judaism

For several years the author of this article has been developing new methods of bar/bat mitzvah preparation, many appear in Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Guide to a Meaningful Rite of Passage (Jossey-Bass). [Available at]. Finding and expressing the prayer of your heart is an essential step in human development. Too often in Hebrew school we were taught formulas for prayer, but not how to find and express the prayer of one's heart. I hope this bar/bat mitzvah guide book will stimulate a tikkun, a sacred repair, in Jewish education by utilizing Focusing technique as a root to that magnificent experience — true prayer. Here is an excerpt from that section:

“When seeking the prayer of your heart, it can help to first clear a space, noticing your breath and following it. Put your attention in your heart, your chest, the whole middle of your body. Sit comfortably with eyes softly focused, asking: "How am I?" Anything that comes up, honor it by gently imagining putting it out on a table, and then see if there's more that wants to come. Don't investigate each thing; just let a full inner inventory happen.

“Happy or challenging items may come up. If the feeling is about something difficult, beware of senses or voices within that carry guilt, shame or say "should" and "if only." Without giving these voices extra weight, let them take their place on the shelf along with the stiller, softer voices. Ezekiel says the voice of G*d is not in the whirlwind, the fire or an earthquake, it is in the stillness, where you can hear a small, soft/subtle voice.

“When you feel empty of life matters to be placed on the counter of your life during this exercise, sit quietly, be with yourself. Your body will speak to you, maybe via a glow of happiness, or you could feel like dancing or purring, or sense a tugging, hurt or turmoil somewhere inside. Pick one sense, it might be murky, unclear right now, and rather than thinking about it, feel its affect on your body and spirit. Gently sit with the sensation and where it is within you. Now gradually become curious about it.

“Is there one word, sense or image that comes up about this matter? What quality helps this place to be better described? Go back and forth between it and the word or sense you have about it until you have a way to describe it. You may want to do this a number of times so that a larger unfolding within is possible than with just one inquiry.

“When you have a good sense of what “this whole thing” is you can ask this feeling what it needs. Perhaps it's a good feeling that will come out as a prayer of gratitude for life. Or a trouble, ask it what should happen? Ask it what it wants from you? Ask what if it became OK and what's in the way of that happening? Welcome with patience this prayer your body is helping you formulate.

“Now you might imagine whispering your prayer of what is needed and wanted to happen into the ear of the Cosmos, or you might take out your B-Mitzvah journal and write a memo to G*d explaining what you've noticed and what you hope will happen. For example, Sarah shared with us a piece that she wrote at summer camp: "Dear G*d, I wish I could go home today." "Dear G*d, please help the other kids to like me." "Dear G*d, please give me the courage to sit next to Karen. I think she'd be a cool friend." And Ben, at the same camp wrote, "Thank you G*d for the fun I had today, I feel so happy and full of life!"

“When doing this at home or synagogue, you might want to put on a tallit, a prayer shawl. Sometimes you'll see a person place her tallit over her head at services or when praying at home; this is to create your own private sacred space….

Now for a high holiday application of focusing that arose while teaching a workshop on teshuvah. Teshuvah is the practice realigning/healing a problematic relationship, a Jewish spiritual practice that intensifies around High Holiday time. In Focusing, we begin with clearing a space so that we are ready to hear from a deeper level. To help make a space in which to hear deeply, we might create a "line of focus," termed kavannah in Hebrew; that is, a contemplative theme or intention. We can each review a list of personal qualities that appear in Heshbon HaNefesh by Reb Mendel of Satanov (1812 C.E.). You can find these in Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat (Jewish Lights Publishing) available from all booksellers and also at Here is an example of Focusing and the quality of ”deliberation.”

“As I read about the qualities encouraged by Reb Mendel, I noticed that my body responded with a sinking feeling in my stomach to the passages on a kavannah for “deliberation.” In the Talmud there is a passage: tzarikh sheh adam mamtin ba-din, “it’s essential for a person to be deliberative.” My body response told me that there was something important there for me today. While visiting this felt sense of that whole thing about deliberation in my body, a memory arose full-blown, as if it had happened only yesterday. It was a family gathering over a decade ago when I hurt my sister's feelings deeply by describing a best friend as being like a sister to me. While I didn't intend to hurt, apparently my sister thought I was implying that my friend was able to ‘sister better’ than she. I could have anticipated that and done better. Soon after, she stopped talking to me, and still won’t though now she has a brain tumor and may never be available to reconcile.

Hmm. Such a loud, judgmental voice “could have anticipated.” How well I know this old, bitter, sad, guilty, fearful, frustrated place in my gut. Do I really want to look into this any further? What is my desire with regard to this old situation that has surfaced? OK. OK. You have come up for a reason, so I’ll sit quietly with this question until a variety of possibilities arise. [Like with Elijah’s experience of the Subtle Voice, Focusing reveals that while the first thought may feel very strong and true, it is valuable look under it for softer voices. A greater truth usually lies beneath the loudest voices we hear inside.]

Stuckish. Maybe a prayer-type thingy is needed here, I’m going to invite strength and support from the great dynamic flow of all possibilities in creation for my intention to live this quality more deeply.” “Oh. That’s nice. Something different has come. . . . .. What a surprise, this isn’t about my sister, it’s about me. Something hopeful…a message to remember this slowish place where new knowings are born…in the future speak from here…come here first …can this be what it is to be mamtin, “deliberative?” Is that right? It feels like the very particles of creation are dancing joyfully at this discovery – Goldie, you can be mamtin, now that you see how - you can!”

This Focusing is such a powerful life moment. Mamtin, “deliberation” isn’t what I thought, it’s not calculated action or manipulation, Can it be that mamtin truly is meant to be dialoguing with a felt sense and the holy feeling of living from What Comes In There?

In Conclusion

The renaissance of spirituality within many branches of Judaism is a remarkable example of the healing that comes after mourning. We needed a period of distancing from relationship with G*d and spirituality, to go to the bottom of the pool, to descend, in the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in order to spiritually ascend, reborn to our tradition. It has taken 50 years for our paradigms and perspectives to shift to embrace a more mystical, scientifically valid and healing understanding of G*d and spirituality.

During those 50 years many Jews studied and visited other religious paths — Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Wicca, Native American religions, Quakerism, Unitarianism. In these settings, away from the near death state of Judaism, we experienced the power of ritual, meditation, prayer and religious discipline. But as many priests, shamans and even the Dalai Lama told our seekers — look into your own roots, what you ultimately need is there.

Focusing amplifies and eases the way into many Jewish practices and as set out at the beginning of this article, Focusing seems to appear within the very principles of some of our earliest sacred texts. Synagogue services could become far more effective if those attending were given Focusing as a tool to facilitate spiritual awakening.

For example, in the morning blessings, we read a blessing of gratitude for “freeing those who are bound.” Focusing can help open up this prayer by asking within “Where am I currently ‘bound?’” The prayer implies that I could be free -- ah ... there is my longing to be free - what would it be like to be free? Can I “taste” it? It would be right for me to be free -- it says here that the Universe (or whatever All That should be called .....) could free me -- Without any particular shape or answer I am relating to this promise of no longer being so bound --( in that way I know myself to be bound, that I felt at the start). This illustrates the personal connection one can make to a statement in the service through Focusing.

The Talmud tells us that the sages would meditate one hour before and after services. Even five minutes of Focusing before services as a silent way of connecting the experience to our needs and longings can make a great difference. Visit the Spirituality Link at to learn more about the synagogue project. And to share your take on “all this” you can join the Judaism and Focusing list-serve posted on that same page.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram is founder and director of the research and training programs and web site at She travels internationally as a teacher of Jewish spiritual practice.


For a further exploration of Judaism and Focusing please see the discussion group.