In this fast-paced modern world, it's easy to miss simple pleasures. We're increasingly distracted, stressed out and unable to focus. That's why mindfulness, or focusing on the present, is now being taught in businesses, schools, and health clinics as a way to boost productivity, manage stress and create calm.
Nearly 20 years ago, I read a moving piece by Dr. Kenneth Prager in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about the ancient practice of "mindful elimination" in the Jewish religion. That's right — paying active attention to our pooping and peeing.
To this day, Dr. Prager's article remains seared into my brain. That's because it contains lessons about health and gratitude that are even more relevant today, no matter your religious beliefs.
So what was this ancient wisdom?
In the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, there’s a particular blessing that shows appreciation for the miracle of elimination:
“… when one comes out of a privy he should say: Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.”
The short verse, known as Asher Yatzar, initiated an ancient practice of elimination, washing hands (required before a blessing), and then reciting the verse after every trip to the toilet.
In fact, this blessing is still practiced by observant Jews and has been called an act of “radical consciousness” by a modern rabbinical author.
Why Is This Practice Important to Our Health?
Research shows that gratitude is crucial to our happiness. But while we're often encouraged to be thankful for our overall well-being, how often do we focus on our digestive health?
As Dr. Prager wrote in JAMA years ago, the simple miracle of urinating often goes unappreciated — until the kidneys, ureters, or bladder malfunction, as happened to his own son.
It’s rare that we actually pause and consider that the green juice you drank an hour ago has already been absorbed by your GI tract, entered your bloodstream, been filtered by your kidneys, traveled down your ureters to your bladder, and now passed freely into the toilet.
In a similar way, in heart health, my area of medical specialty, the fact that we take up oxygen-rich blood from the lungs, circulate it to the heart and other organs, and cycle the waste back for elimination is a true miracle that occurs every second of our lives. As was written centuries ago, it may truly be “impossible to survive” if the heart arteries are blocked.
I believe that focusing on that miracle can help us make smarter decisions about nutrition and what we feed our heart.
The point isn't that you necessarily have to recite the Asher Yatzar after every bathroom trip. But with a momentary consideration of what your body is doing every time you eliminate, you'll encourage a feeling of gratitude that propels you to make healthier lifestyle choices every day.