The moon is still high in the sky, waning as the month of Elul draws to its end and the New Year approaches. There are many foxes about this dawn; I can vouch for that because the dog just woke me for the second time and I’ve decided there’s no point trying to get back to sleep. Besides, a thought is bothering me, as it happens, a thought about thought itself.
We learnt yesterday in my Talmud class that hirhur, just thinking thoughts, is not considered the same as speech; it’s certainly not the equivalent to an actual deed. We therefore don’t ‘thought police’, or legislate over what may flit through, or even dwell, in a person’s mind.
This makes every sense, legally. Yet at another level the nature of our thoughts, the flavour of our consciousness minute by minute, whether it’s sweet or sour, its taste within our skull, determines the quality of our life. The Baal Shem Tov, the guiding spirit of Hasidic mysticism, said: ‘Where one’s thoughts are, there one is’.
The quality of our consciousness doesn’t have the same practical significance as whether we have plentiful food and drink, or none, or whether our family are healthy or sick. But our consciousness is with us all our wakeful hours. We can’t evade it, and there may be times in our life when it’s virtually all we have for occupation, distraction and companionship.
I think of Terry Waite saying how he decided almost from the moment of his capture that there would be no self pity. I wonder how Gilad Shalit coped, all those isolated, terrifying years. But one needn’t travel so far; what about when we are ill, or old, and cannot spend our days running away from whatever it is that’s within ourselves? Or when we simply lie awake, preventing the sleep we seek, worrying about everything, unravelling our days and our ideas?
Can I clean my consciousness out? Can I put something in it to neutralise its fears? Can I filter out its angers? Can I fill it with more love? What makes it what it is? What’s there?
These questions go to the core of spiritual life. Maybe this, at least partly, is what prayer is for when it’s real: ‘I expose myself to you; flow into me, greater life; be with me, God’. One wants some mountain wind to blow away the mental boundaries created by ceaseless preoccupation with preoccupations, and bring the sweet scents of trees.
And then? Then, at best, there is wonder, compassion, fellowship with all the varied fates of living beings, a momentary feeling of the reality for which we come to feel a profound, inexpressible respect which has the power to humble us and purify our life.
What further can we do? We can set good memories, good thoughts of those who love of us and whom we love, thoughts of loving deeds we’ve witnessed, and ancient words, like healing patches against our minds in meditation: ‘God is my light’; ‘Be merciful, for God is merciful’. We can’t patrol, but we can guide, our mind.
Beyond that, can we not also trust? ‘The soul you have given me is pure’, say the early morning prayers. If we only allow it, won’t more of that purity, of all the goodness and love, of all the wisdom and beauty that exists in people and the world and so much of which we’ve been given, come to reside more deeply within us too?