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What Is Shiviti Meditation

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Shiviti Meditation is a mindfulness practice that can help us be present and become aware of- our surroundings.

Most importantly, Shiviti Meditation makes us aware of our potential to connect with the Divine Presence that is everywhere.

It can be used as a tool for awakening spiritual awareness in preparation for prayer and meditation.

The main purpose of this type of meditation is to bring us closer to God and to strengthen our connection with the Divine Presence.

Found in the biblical Book of Psalms, Shiviti is first mentioned as a technique in the Talmudic era (circa third century CE).

Practice of Shiviti Meditation has evolved over the past millennia, and has become popularized.

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The Origins of Shiviti

The term shiviti derives from Psalm 16:8, “Shiviti HaShem lenegdi tamid”, “שויתי ה׳ לנגדי תמיד”. Translated traditionally as: “I have set the Lord always before me”, the Shiviti states: “I am ever mindful of Y-H-W-H’s presence”.

The first example of a Shiviti meditative practice is mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 22a).

According to this tradition, Shiviti means that one should always be mindful of the Divine Presence (aka Shekhinah) that constantly surrounds us:

One who prays needs to see himself as if the Divine Presence is opposite him, as it is stated: “I have set the Lord always before me”.

In his monumental work Moreh Nevuhim (“The Guide for the Perplexed”) Moses Maimonides lays out an elaborate technique to achieve this state of consciousness.

Following its popularization, it became traditional to hang Shiviti parchments with the name of God in the shape of a menorah (a seven branched candelabra) in synagogues and homes, in order to help people stay mindful during the prayer.

Why Practice Shiviti

According to Maimonides, we can strengthen our bond with the Divine Presence by directing our awareness toward God.

Because God is incorporeal, and beyond our comprehension, we can’t talk (or even think) about God in human terms. Maimonides suggests we can only do so through logic.

By observing creation we can make deductions about the Creator. By creation, we mean everything material, such as plants, animals, and humans; but also non-material elements such as thoughts, emotions, dreams, and intuitions.

In other words, if we wish to think about God, to strengthen our bond with Him, and be with Him – all we need to do is bring awareness to the divinity of life. Very simple, but also equally challenging.

Maimonides’s Shiviti Meditation

Maimonides's Shiviti sprung up in a cultural context where Jewish life was necessarily religious. Jews were keeping the mitzvot (commandments) and performing many daily rituals.

Thus, these rituals served as natural starting points for Maimonides’ practice.

Because in Maimonides' time an average Jewish day was full of religious rituals, it enabled people to practice mindfulness almost regularly. Maimonides even suggests that this was the original purpose of the mitzvot: “We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business; for we are thus, as it were, in communication with God, and undisturbed by any other thing.” (“Guide for the Perplexed”, 3, 51)

The Maimonidean practice, therefore, comprises three main elements:

  • When performing religious acts, we need to empty our minds and direct our attention to our actions (what we read, what we do, etc.).

  • We are to limit worldly thoughts (work, logistics, relationships, etc.) to when we are engaged in worldly activities, such as when in the company of others, eating, drinking, bathing, etc.

  • We are to use the times when we are not with others, or following religious acts, to bring attention to Creation and its divinity in order to bring awareness to the Divine Presence everywhere.

The exact teachings of Maimonides regarding how to use the mitzvot as a tool for mindfulness can be found in Moreh Nevuhim (“Guide for the Perplexed”), in the note at the end of chapter 51 of Part Three.

Shiviti is the most explicit and elaborate meditative practice among Maimonides’s spiritual teachings, encouraging an advanced mindfulness practice.

It had a vast influence on later thinkers such as his son Abraham Maimonides; Rabbi Isaac of Acre; Rabbi Hayyim Vital; and the Baal Shem Tov, as well as on most of the Hasidic sages and teachers.

How to Practice Shiviti

We have attempted to adapt Maimonides’ technique to our day and age, both for people who self-define as “spiritual but not religious”, and for those who self-define as “religious” or “observant” to various degrees.

A core element in Shiviti is progressiveness. We need to gradually increase the time and opportunities for mindfulness practice.

As mentioned, Maimonides used the performance of mitzvot as a starting point for Shiviti Meditation. However, we propose a more inclusive starting point that allows us to choose our own moments as our framework for mindfulness.

We’ll go over three main steps:

  • Choose a couple of daily activities, and focus all of your attention as you perform them.

  • When you feel ready, add more activities during which you wish to apply your daily mindfulness practice.

  • Choose times to bring awareness to the creation and its divinity, while using the skills of mindfulness and concentration you’ve acquired.

I) Pick two or three daily activities

Choose daily activities such as brushing your teeth, preparing breakfast, doing the dishes, etc. Then set an intention to perform these activities mindfully.

The original instruction is:

“But when you are engaged in the performance of religious duties, have your mind exclusively directed to what you are doing.”

We will replace the “performance of religious duties” with whatever activity we have chosen. For example, making coffee:

When you are engaged in making coffee, have your mind exclusively directed to what you are doing.

II) Add more mindfulness activities

When you feel ready, add more activities to your mindfulness practice, anything from cleaning your home and buying groceries to cooking, or something you do at your workplace.

Remember, unrelated thoughts that pop up during the activity should be left where they are, as you return to your focus and to being entirely present.

III) Contemplate creation when you’re alone

When you feel ready, you may direct your awareness to the Divine Presence constantly surrounding you.

This is done when you are alone and performing activities that don’t require a specific focus, such as walking, or riding the bus.

Observe the grace of life at work through nature: the leaves of a tree; clouds passing in the sky; the miracle of life in the people around you as they breathe, talk, read, or smile.

Contemplate the complexity of creation, the DNA of a living creature; the way the rain brings life to the trees and plants; and how nature is perfectly orchestrated.

Hitbonenut – The Next Step After Shiviti

After we’ve nurtured our capacity for mindfulness and concentration, Maimonides invites us to get even closer to the Divine:

“It must be man's aim, after having acquired the knowledge of God, to deliver himself up to Him, and to have his heart constantly filled with longing after Him. He accomplishes this generally by seclusion and retirement”. (“Guide for the Perplexed”, 3, 51)

In order to fill our hearts with longing for God, Maimonides teaches a Hitbonenut meditation, another meditative practice that consists of deep concentration and visualization of creation, which is the closest encounter we can have with God.

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