When Bilam went to curse klal Yisroel, one of the things he wanted to say was “kallem” which translates to “destroy them”. The Tosafos in Avodah Zarah 4b brings that the letters of this word are kof-lamed-mem, which represent kaved, lev, and then moach. The curse would have been that klal Yisroel should be led by their desires and emotion. Hashem turned it around and made it melech which is spelled mem-lamed-kof and represents moach, lev, and kaved. We are blessed to be a melech when our emotions and desires are led by our intellect. The Torah is telling us that in order to become tzadikim, we must rule over our emotions and desires with our minds. I would suggest that one effective way of accomplishing this feat is by practicing mindfulness.
If you take a moment to think about it, various examples come to mind of where Yiddishkeit asks us to be mindful. Shabbos is the day Hashem rested from creating the world, and each week we turn off from the external world and connect to family, community, and Hashem. Having kavana is something we work diligently on in our tefillos, and it is one important piece of every mitzvah that we do. Mindfulness practices often begin and end with the sounding of a mindfulness bell either one or three times to get us into the mode of attending. It reminds me of when we take three steps backward to “exit” the world we are in, and three steps forward to “enter” the world of shemoneh esrei, or why the Beis Hamikdash needs two doors to remind us to leave the outside world and enter the world of Hashem; a mindfulness bell grabs our attention, helping us to enter and exit our practice. The bell at the start becomes associated with bringing our minds to a quiet place, while the bell at the end becomes associated with transitioning back into the day, bringing our practice with us. We say a bracha before and after eating food, focusing on where it came from and feeling gratitude for the gift we have been given. It seems that practicing mindfulness can be an incredible tool in improving our shmiras hamitzvos.
Research in the social sciences has repeatedly found positive effects of engaging in mindfulness practice. Mindfulness has been shown to improve attention, emotion, and behavior regulation abilities. Those who receive mindfulness training are more likely to have compassion for others and for themselves. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, specifically distress associated with social situations. Mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, and depression; enhances neuroendocrine and immune system function; increases medication compliance; decreases need for medication; increases motivation for value-driven action; and promotes prosocial behavior.
In a 2014 review of the effects of mindfulness programs on psychological stress and well-being, positive effects of mindfulness were found across current research. The researchers found 47 randomized control trials, the gold-standard in clinical research. Mindfulness programs demonstrated moderate evidence in improving anxiety, depression, and pain, and some evidence to support improved stress and quality of life. A randomized control trial of a workplace sample demonstrated that an 8-week training in mindfulness improved immune function, reduced stress, enhanced sense of well-being, decreased brain activity in areas associated with negative emotion, and increased activity in areas associated with positive emotion. Greater reductions in mood fluctuations and stress have been shown to be associated with more time spent practicing mindfulness on one’s own.
Mindfulness practice has also shown neurological benefits. Correlations have been found between mindfulness training and increased thickness of cortical brain structures associated with working memory, processing sensory input, attention, executive function, empathy, self-reflection, and emotion regulation. In a study conducted at the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program of Massachusetts General Hospital, the effects of an 8-week MBSR training on areas of the brain connected with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress was investigated. Neuroimaging results showed increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, a key region in learning and memory, and in regions associated with compassion, self-awareness, and introspection. Self-reported reductions in stress were associated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, a region of the brain that regulates the stress response. Findings suggest that, due to neuroplasticity, mindfulness practitioners can actually change the structure of their brain to improve quality of life and increase brain health.
I worked with a young woman with social anxiety and taught her mindfulness skills in our work together. We would practice in sessions and two main themes came up: (1) her mind was running the “judgmental commentary” channel constantly, increasing her insecurities and destroying her relationships, and (2) conversations with her parents consisted of a live version of the “judgmental commentary” channel, and she would respond to them by passively agreeing. Together we worked to use mindfulness to identify nonjudgmental ways of thinking about herself, others, and situations. We then worked on mindful conversations, and practiced nonjudgmentally stating the facts in conversations with her parents. For example, her mother might say, “you’re really going to go out like that? Your makeup looks terrible!” and she would reply, “oh, you’re saying you think my makeup looks terrible. I put it on and like how it looks. I’ll see you later!” Her mother joined us for our last session together and tearfully shared that over the ~20 years of her daughter’s life she has tried to get help for her anxiety in various ways, and in our time working together, her daughter seems to be a different person.
Preliminary research suggests that mindfulness practices can benefit children and adolescents in many of the same ways that have already been found with adults. In a recent review looking at whether mindfulness practices reduce the core symptoms of ADHD and increase child well-being, one randomized control trial of mindfulness interventions for children with ADHD was found. Consistent mindfulness practice enhances students’ capacities for attention regulation through developing control of one’s attention by repeatedly and intentionally focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention. In a study of a mindfulness program with first through third graders, students practicing mindfulness demonstrated improvements on objective measures of selective attention, decreased test anxiety, and improved teacher-rated attention and social skills. Results of a study of a mindfulness program for children ages 11-13 were that children felt calmer, were less reactive, experienced an increased sense of well-being, felt more relaxed, and had improved sleep. Children ages 9-13 in a mindfulness program showed significant reductions in parent-rated attention, behavioral, and anger-management problems, and significant reductions in anxiety, compared with students who did not receive mindfulness. These benefits were maintained at 3-month follow-up. High-school girls participating in a mindfulness program showed overall decreases on self-report measures of pain, fatigue, and negative affect, and increases in relaxation, emotion regulation, and self-acceptance.
Interestingly, for my dissertation work, I analyzed the data from a pilot trial of a mindfulness program designed for frum students, grades K-8. Results showed that the program was feasible to implement and was acceptable to administration and teachers. Preliminary findings showed that mindfulness skills in students improved significantly from pre- to post-program and students with greater improvements in mindfulness skills were associated with greater improvements in self-confidence; abilities, enjoyment, and interest in school subjects; prosocial goals; social responsibility; and academic self-efficacy. The write-up of this data is in preparation. Once, one of the school’s secretaries approached me to share that she had seen the Pre-1A students prior to entering their end-of-year graduation. She shared that they had been feeling anxious about their performance, and so their teacher guided them in a mindful breathing exercise. She was pleasantly surprised to see 20 five-year-old students engaging in a mindfulness practice to help ground them in the moment and let go of their fears!
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