Zehirut (Watchfulness) and DBT Mindfulness

In the second chapter of his Mesilat Yesharim, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzatto (1707-1746) argues that if we do not pay careful attention to our actions and life choices we will be unable to decide whether they are good or bad. In fact, he argues that the technique the evil inclination uses to keep us in its grasp, is to keep us so busy that we do not have time or energy to stop and consider the nature of our actions (See chapter one; chapter 5:2).

Clearly, DBT mindfulness, like “watchfulness,” advises us to step out of the rat race for a moment to “pay attention” and to, ultimately, make effective changes. If so, it is worth asking whether the two practices are complementary.

In terms of “paying attention on purpose in the moment,” Luzatto recommends paying attention both “in the moment” and “not in the moment” (chapter three). In fact, for Luzatto introspection and retrospection are key elements in determining how we are acting and how we should act. Classical mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat Zinn, keeps us in the moment (as it changes “moment to moment”). However, DBT, which uses mindfulness to increase interpersonal effectiveness and emotion management, does introduce retrospective chain and behavioral analysis and even suggests proactive “cope aheads.” So DBT mindfulness and watchfulness share the introspective and the retrospective in common.

A more critical difference between watchfulness and DBT mindfulness arises from the religious orientations of the two disciplines: in DBT, a mindful, secular individual strives to be effective, while in Luzatto’s world a watchful, religious individual strives to do that which is good. At the end of his third chapter, Luzatto even advises his readers to first determine the nature of good and evil before investigating their own individual actions.

Most notably, within a religious framework, Luzatto notes the difficulty in accomplishing this necessary contemplation and introspection and promises that those who do choose to be mindful will receive God’s help—for God help’s those who help themselves (end of chapter one). Of course, mindfulness does not promise divine intervention (or posit an evil inclination as preventing such a path). However, mitigating this difference between the two somewhat, both Luzatto and mindfulness do appeal to wise men (compare Luzatto’s parable of the labyrinth in chapter 3 and Jon Kabat Zinn leading mindfulness exercises) or a wise tradition in guiding us on this thorny path to change. Taken as another name for “willfulness”–the stubborn refusal to take the most effective path–the evil inclination also compares favorably with mindfulness.

Ultimately, perhaps, the crucial note of tension between the two is the tenor or language of the practice: mindfulness stresses “nonjudgment and (self) compassion” to accomplish its goals (stress reduction in MBSR and “a life worth living” in DBT), while “watchfulness,” ultimately, asks us to judge our actions as good or bad and expects us (if we are wise) to change them to fit in with Divine probity— either out of a desire for perfection, a desire to uphold our public image, or out of the very utilitarian fear of punishment and desire for reward (see, Luzatto’s chapter 4). While these changes do fit in with the paradigm of effectiveness in DBT mindfulness, they clash with the notion of nonjudgmentalness. Whether such a judgmental tenor is inherent to Judaism or not, it certainly seems to be inherent to Luzatto’s work, which inspired much of the later Eastern European Musar movement’s hyper-vigilance and hyper-self-criticism. Perhaps, a gentler Hasidic call to repentance would be more in tune with the nonjudgmentalness of mindfulness.