Yom Kippur: Mindfulness and self-compassion on the Day of Atonement

Science and Health

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day that we ask for forgiveness for all our wrongdoings.

It is the day on which we can get closest to God and also to ourselves, by self-reflection, a mindful practice that involves being present with ourselves and intentionally focusing our attention inward to examine our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and motivations. When we stop to reflect, we try to understand why we think and act the way we do. We contemplate our values and who we are.

Thinking about our strengths and weaknesses and what we did right or wrong, can help us identify areas for growth and improvement. Without self-reflection, we would continue to act as we always have, and may continue to get caught up in a loop and repeat  the same mistakes over and over again.

When the prophet Isaiah tells the Jewish people to repent for their sins, he says, “Seek God when He may be found; call Him when He is close.” Opening up to someone and being close to them necessitates that we first open up to ourselves, or as the ancient Greek philosophers said, “Know thyself.” Plato explained this as “know your faults.”

IT SOUNDS daunting to recall our misdeeds from the past year. And yet Yom Kippur is primarily a day of forgiveness, and considered by the Mishna to be a joyous day because we are given the opportunity to correct our wrongdoings.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

Where do we begin?

First, by acknowledging that we aren’t perfect. We are human and have shortcomings.

Most of us probably don’t wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “I hope to mess up today.”

We don’t intend to sin: We don’t intend to lose our patience with our spouse; we don’t intend to lose track of time and arrive late when meeting a friend; and we don’t intend to eat that box of cookies or those tempting desserts after a stressful day.

So are most of our misdeeds unintentional? If we want to judge others and ourselves favorably, then we would say we don’t want to sin intentionally.

Our sages make a distinction between a doubtful sin and an intentional sin. A doubtful sin is when we aren’t certain whether we have actually sinned, but both types of sin require accepting responsibility for our actions and trying to change our behavior.

The implication here is that if we paid more attention, we would make less mistakes.

How can we pay more attention, so that we sin less? Paying attention is like a muscle, and the more we work on it, the stronger it gets and with it, our attention sharpens.  

Mindfulness practice trains us to pay attention and notice what we are doing in the present moment as we are doing it.

HERE ARE some ways that mindfulness can help us pay attention more: We can stop and notice the thoughts, sensations, and feelings that arise, as we are about to act or react,  or after we make a mistake, and then notice and observe; and answer the following questions.

Where in your body are sensations arising? Is your chest tightening or your stomach churning? Does your face feel flushed?

What stories are we telling ourselves about our behavior? Are we sure our stories are accurate, or even true? Or are they stories that we automatically repeat to ourselves?

Does this feel familiar? Does it happen in other situations?

What can we learn about ourselves from this situation?

We can take a moment before we move on to the next thing that we want to do, and ask ourselves how we want to proceed. How do we want to react the next time that we are in this situation?

Paying attention to the physical sensations in the body can have a calming effect and help us to react in more healthy ways.  Noticing our thoughts in a non-judgmental way can help us gain insight and possibly react differently the next time we are in the same situation. Don’t shy away from understanding your mistakes. Instead, try to be curious about what went wrong.

HERE ARE some ways mindfulness can enable us to approach our mistakes with kindness and self-compassion.  We can say the following to ourselves: “Mistakes are natural and human. I’m not alone.”

“I don’t have to be hard on myself for this mistake, and I can try to do better next time.”

“What would I say to a friend who made a mistake?”

“Noticing my own imperfections can help me to be kind to others when I notice that they are also not perfect.”

“I care, and want to do better.”

Self-compassion is essential in mending our ways. When we become entangled in feelings of guilt and self-criticism, the task of altering our behavior can seem overwhelming, often leading us to repeat and strengthen the same patterns of behavior – and experience feelings of stagnation and frustration.

When we notice and pay attention to our mistakes in a kinder way, they can become opportunities to learn about ourselves, and this can lead to greater Emotional Intelligence, improved communication skills and relationships, and healthier decision-making.

What shortcoming would you like to work on this year?

Remember that this is a process. Begin with small manageable steps that you can envision yourself successfully taking.

It’s challenging. Be patient and kind to yourself. Practicing patience and kindness toward oneself can often lead to being more patient and kind to others as well.

Have a mindful Yom Kippur! 

Susie Keinon is a psychotherapist and certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher. She offers mindfulness courses and workshops in Israel. The next course starts in Jerusalem in October.  mindfulnesswithsusie.com