The Noah Story as a Model for Mindfulness

Parashat Noach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נֹחַ
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week I looked at the story of Noah with fresh eyes, and I saw it for the first time as a model for mindfulness. Maybe that is because I’m in a six-week introduction to mindfulness meditation and I’m seeing everything as either a model or a catalyst for mindfulness. Be that as it may, let me share the lesson about mindfulness that I see in this week’s Torah portion.

First, it must be said, Noah is, on one hand, the quintessential children’s bible story. It features a great big boat, lots of animals, and a nice man doing what God tells him to do. But, on the other hand, once you get past the great big boat, the animals and the nice man, you’re left with an R-rated drama depicting the total destruction of humanity and the entire natural world. Throughout the story, Noah remains silent, never arguing with God to ease up on humankind. To cap it all off, shortly after the flood waters dissipate and the land dries, Noah’s son Ham walks into his father’s tent and finds his father naked and asleep, an unfortunate incident for which Ham would forever be cursed.

I’d like us to see Noah as something other than either a cute children’s story, on one end of the narrative spectrum, or on the other end of the spectrum, a profoundly disturbing and tragic attempt by God to create a more perfect world populated with blameless human beings.

In the mindfulness course I am taking, I am learning to practice a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques, all of which seem to have two things in common. All these practices seem to have two things in common: breath and presence. In essence, mindfulness is about quieting the mind and achieving release and relief from life’s stressors. Breathing, so elemental to sustaining our lives, is constant, always with us, and yet we can have some control over it. Our breath is something that we can focus on as we strive to be fully present in any given moment. By taking breaks during our everyday lives to simply breath and be present, we allow ourselves to then re-engage the world with peacefulness and, often, new insight.

The story of Noah takes place in a mythic period of human existence but it takes place in this world, not middle earth or outer space. Noah’s world is our world — a world filled with chaos and pain and darkness but also semblances of order, joy and light. Noah’s world was, for God, beyond repair. God saw no order, no joy, no light and so God decided to start all over again. God saw in Noah and his family the best chance to replant humanity in newly tilled soil.

I think we can all relate to the need to replant ourselves every now and then, to pull ourselves out of the soil and set ourselves down in more hospitable ground. Or, like Noah, to find refuge in an ark until the storm passes over. We all live with stress and tension — in our places of work, in our homes, in our heads. I would argue that we should each find our own ark where we can regroup and face the world with renewed energy and clearer vision.

There are some obvious challenges using the story of Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness, but we can learn from the ways in which the story doesn’t conform to an ideal state of mindfulness. For one, once he emerges from the safety of the ark, the world as he knew it had been obliterated, with the exception of his family and the animals who were on the ark with him, and with the exception, apparently, of vegetation and the very ground upon which he had walked before the flood. So some things were the same, but the conditions for life had been drastically altered. 

When we emerge from a meditative state, we can expect that not much will have changed outside of ourselves. We are not Noah, and for that we should be grateful! Part of being mindful is accepting the world as it is, knowing that we are called to engage in tikkun olam, to do our part to improve it. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just will the world around us out of existence, though I must admit that sounds very tempting. We can, however, strive to be present in it and do what we can to increase the order, joy and light.

Another challenge is that Noah is most certainly not in a quiet, serene setting. He’s not secluded in a dark room with only a scented candle. Nor is he sitting in the lotus position on a hill with a view of Mt. Monadnock on a beautiful day. No. Around Noah is noise and stench and confusion. Who of us would choose to take refuge under such conditions?

For us to be fully present and mindful in the world, we need to learn to breathe deeply even under trying circumstances. Even with the noise, stench and confusion of life, we must remember to breathe. Just three breaths in and three breaths out, consciously inhale and exhale. Quiet the mind while you breathe. Maybe close your eyes if you’re not driving or on a Zoom call with your boss or client. The noise, stench and confusion won’t go away, but you can reorient yourself in a way that makes it all more bearable. In this sense, maybe we are all like Noah. We’re on a busy, bustling ark at the same time that we’re taking refuge from the world around us. 

I am no expert in mindfulness. I have much to learn. In fact, I am interested in the ways others might see the story of a Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness. What lessons can you find in the story to help you live a more peaceful life? How can the story help you be more present in the here and now? I suspect if you join me in reframing the story of Noah as something other than a children’s story or a horror story, you will find your own riches that will bring order, joy and light to your life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thank God for the Ark

Parashat Noach / פרשת נח
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open.
Genesis: 7:11

This past Memorial Day my family’s apartment in Houston got flooded. Four months later and well-settled into a second floor apartment in the same complex, rain water started to come into our house from the ceiling! In May, “the fountains of the great deep” had burst apart, causing water to rise in our home from the floor up. In September, “the floodgates of the sky broke open,” and the waters came in from on high. Oy!

The analogy of our misfortune to Noah’s flood is, I admit, imperfect. There can be no comparing our loss of property to the destruction of all humanity, save one family. To equate the two would be crass. Rather, I am struck simply by the idea that in both the Noah story and in our experience, destruction seemed to come from both above and below: what an appropriate metaphor for those times when so much seems to go wrong.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t on occasion had to face more hardship than one person should have to handle. Thus, the old saying: “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” That saying may feel true for most people, but to victims of the Shoah or the Inquisition or the Crusades or severe depression or terminal illness, nothing could be further from the truth. For many, catastrophe in extreme measure is too much to bear, and the suggestion that God causes such suffering is obscene.

Theological issues and unbearable suffering aside, however, there is much we can learn from the Noah story about dealing with life’s painful contingencies.

God gave Noah notice that God would send a flood that would wipe out all of creation. With that notice, God also instructed Noah to build an ark so that he and his family and the remnants of the animal kingdom that accompanied them on board could survive and repopulate the world once the waters subsided. In the end, Noah was well-equipped to survive the deluge.

It’s important to note that it was Noah who built the ark, not God. Noah was commanded by God, or perhaps, inspired by God, to build the ark. But it was Noah who created the means for his own survival. That is a crucial point.

Many times in our lives, we are Noah. We are faced with misery akin to 40 days of rain and over 300 days cooped up in an ark with loud, smelly livestock, birds, and other creatures. We just want to the misery to end, but we are blessed to have the means to ride out the storm.

We all have our own arks. They are the networks of friends and family that support us. They are the diversions that take our mind off our concerns. They are the inner reserves we’ve cultivated to take what life doles out without breaking under the weight. If we’re smart, we’ve spent a lifetime building our arks before the crises hit, not knowing, of course, when they will hit.

True, not everyone has a support network or diversions or even the inner reserves. To them, we offer our prayers. At the very least, they can take solace knowing they live in a world where someone remembers that people suffer immensely, who don’t have an ark to shelter them. Let’s not forget them. Let’s be their ark.

As we read about the tragedy that befalls early humankind, as we imagine flood waters rising from below and rain falling ceaselessly from the heavens, we imagine ourselves aboard the ark, an ark that we built with our own hands. Let us take pride in our craftsmanship and be grateful to God for all the resources at our disposal — people and things and our own internal gifts – that make up the ark, in which we weather life’s storms.