THE MIKVEH AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
No person, even if completely clean, could enter the Temple Court without immersing [in a mikveh]. The high priest underwent five immersions and ten sanctifications on the day of Yom Kippur. Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 30a)
One of the oldest known spiritual practices is to symbolically bathe and cleanse our bodies, not to rid ourselves of physical impurities, but to attain to spiritual purification. A common practice in traditional Judaism is to spiritually purify by immersing in a mikveh, which is any gathering of "living water" in which one can submerge completely. As long as there is enough water to completely engulf the body, any natural body of water-rivers, ponds, lakes, streams, even the ocean-can be used for spiritual purification.
Water gatherings that are not part of nature qualify as mikvehs only if they meet rabbinic criteria. Water separated from the earth by placing it in a vessel, such as a pipe used in normal plumbing, is no longer considered "living water." Therefore, technically, a regular bathtub or swimming pool does not qualify as a mikveh.
Nonetheless, the primary principle of spiritual purification is based upon our intentions. The famous twelfthcentury Jewish philosopher Maimonides said, "One who has the intention in one's own heart to purify the soul from the defilement of wrongful thoughts and false beliefs ... will bring his/her soul into the waters of perfect knowing, as it says: 'And I will sprinkle upon you pure water, and purify you from all your uncleanliness"' (Mishna Torah, Mikveot 11:12)
.If you happen to be near a body of "living water" or near an established mikveh, a wonderful way to begin the day is with an immersion. Many traditional Jewish men go to the mikveh daily to cleanse themselves and to prepare for morning prayers. A large percentage attend the mikveh the day before the Sabbath or the day before the holy days that occur throughout the year.
Traditional Jewish women always use the mikveh at the time of month when Jewish law requires spiritual purification in preparation for the act of procreation. Thus, use of the mikveh is a major spiritual practice in traditional Judaism. In any case, if you have the ability to use a "kosher" mikveh, please take your time in the process and try to develop deep inner awareness. (Cultivating inner awareness--kavvanah, or intention--is discussed later.)
Even if you are unable to use an official mikveh that meets all rabbinic requirements, you may still engage in the practice of doing spiritual ablutions with water that comes directly out of the tap. Here is one way of experiencing this purifying practice:
1. One of our first acts in the morning normally is to relieve our bladders. Right after this, using a cup or glass, pour water over your right hand from the wrist down, then over your left hand from the wrist down. While pouring the water, imagine that any negative energy that may be lingering from this night's sleep-perhaps a heavy dream or an otherwise agitated night-is passing out of your fingertips and down the drain. Repeat this three times. This is our first act of purification of the day. It should be noted that traditional Jews actually do this every day of their lives.
2. Now, with only a wet washcloth (no soap), taking your time and frequently rinsing the cloth, wash your forehead and then dry it. It may be useful for you to be seated while doing these purifications, either on a chair or on the floor, using a bowl as your source of water. Wash your eyes and then dry them. Follow the same procedure with your nose, ears, mouth, cheeks, jaw, and neck. In each area, as you are washing it or drying it, let your imagination carry you anywhere it will, and allow yourself to create affirmations that are spiritually oriented, using ideas such as the following:"I am cleansing my forehead, and all that it represents, so that I can be free from critical and judgmental thoughts whether they are thoughts about myself or about others."
"I am cleansing my eyes so that I will be able to see things as they really are in order to develop deep compassion for life."
"I am cleansing my nose so that I will be able to smell the fragrance of mystical delight and can dwell in the beauty of nature."
"I am cleansing my ears so that I will be able to hear the deeper truths of all that I encounter, and not be corrupted by gossip and unskillful speech."
"I am purifying around my mouth so that I can be more aware of the words that I speak, and will be careful not to cause harm by speaking unskillfully."
"I am cleansing my cheeks so that I will be able to smile with radiance and appreciate all the gifts that I have been given."
"I am cleansing my jaw so that I will be able to relax and be present at all times."
"I am washing my neck so that I will be flexible and able to understand the viewpoints of others."
These quotes are only suggestions to help you acclimate to the process. Once you are flowing freely with your own thoughts and imagination, allow yourself to reach deeply within so that you can pull forth your most profound affirmations.
3. When you have completed ablutions from the neck upward, continue with the rest of the body, working your way down: shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, each finger, upper back, lower back, upper chest, breasts, center chest, abdomen, genital area, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, and feet, including each toe-all the while being sure with every part of the body to find an affirmation.
Some people find themselves crying when engaged in the process of ablutions. The water outside raises the tears within. Feel free to burst if this is what you need at this time. The idea here is to begin the process of spiritual purification, whatever it takes. Moreover, if you find that you need more than an hour for this practice, by all means take more time.
This marvelous practice can be used each morning no matter how much time you give it. It is exceptionally useful the morning of a retreat to set the tone of the first day (see retreats described later). Notice that the process is simply with plain water and a washcloth; it is not supposed to take the place of normal bathing, in which scrubbing with soap is the norm. Soap is for cleaning the body, whereas this process is for freeing the soul.