April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Mindfulness: How to Activate Your Free Will

Are you the master of your mind or its slave? What do you choose to think about and how does that affect your actions? Are you even choosing your thoughts or do you let them choose you?

In the weeks that followed the tragic attacks on the World Trade Centers, I found myself with the challenging task of relieving young children of anxieties and depression. Instead of treating acting-out teenagers, my main patient population became 5-7 year olds who did not themselves directly experience the traumatizing events of 9/11, yet still presented with legitimate psychological symptoms. I dubbed this phenomenon “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) By Proxy.”

After multiple sessions with these children, I began to realize a common thread: they were no longer living in the moment. Their minds were stuck in the past constantly reviewing in their mind’s eye the horrific crash of the airplanes into the towers, so that their body’s eyes were incapable of seeing what was right in front of their little noses.

In an attempt to rectify this disconnect, I utilized their concrete-thinking minds by having them practice envisioning the past as a box into which anything that was not happening right now could be placed. Slowly, these children began to recognize that the past was separate from the present, and with that recognition came freedom — freedom to exist now without fear of what had already happened.

Over the following years, I found this tool of “living in the moment” to be very useful in assisting many of my patients. It empowered them, returning to them their ability to choose their actions freely without being led involuntarily by fears, anxieties, or impulses.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the study of Mindfulness which seemed to echo many of the same ideas that the “living in the moment” tool was teaching me and my patients. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world renowned teacher of Mindfulness and the individual responsible for bringing this line of teaching to the West, defines “Mindfulness” in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. When a person lives mindfully, they are regaining control of their thoughts and their actions, and showing their brain who really is the boss.

As I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words, I thought about Judaism and the concept of Bechirah Chafshi (Free Will). We read several weeks ago from Parshat Bechukotai. (Chapter 22: 13) “If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments…,” the Torah describes the notion of schar va’onesh (Reward and Punishment). Bechirah Chafshi (Free Will) can be understood as the instrument that operates Reward and Punishment. But what instrument operates Free Will?

About a year ago, I began working with a ten year old boy in my private practice. His behavior reflected his difficulty controlling his anger. His parents reached out to me for help when this young boy allowed his anger to control his actions to such an extent that he nearly threw his younger sister down the stairs after she had said something that upset him. I decided to utilize Mindfulness to help this boy regain control of his behavior.

During my sessions with him, I would observe how he played various games in order to go about this process of incorporating Mindfulness into his daily life. One of these games was a computer game called Snood. The object of the game is to launch circular characters at a wall of characters in order to make matches and groups of them so that they disappear before the descending wall crushes the launching device. The first time he played the game, he impulsively took shots, not showing much care or thought to where they would land. Needless to say, his score was nothing to write home about. While the “GAME OVER” screen lit up the monitor, I discussed with him the strategies he used and new ones to consider. We decided that he would try the game again, this time before he launched a character, he and I would discuss if he was choosing the best possible shot. Sure enough, his score and his confidence soared to new heights.

After the game we examined the different strategies. I asked him to consider what implementing this new strategy in his daily life might look like. What would happen if instead of behaving impulsively, and acting out his anger, he stopped and thought and chose a better decision, “by recalibrating?”

About a month later, I heard a knock on my office door. I was surprised to find his mother standing before me — typically his father brought him to our Friday afternoon sessions.

“Hello Rabbi. I had to come by to see you, personally,” she said as she entered and sat down next to her son.

I waited in suspense.

“The other day, I was sitting in the den reading, when I overheard my daughter say to my son the exact same statement that a couple months ago had provoked him to nearly throw her down the stairs. Immediately, I slammed down my book and ran in fear to her rescue. Before I reached my children, I halted in my tracks. I watched in amazement as my son stopped, he took two steps back, sat down, and thought for about a minute. Then, he rose, whispered something calmly to her, and headed to his room.”

Practicing Mindfulness allowed this young man to regain focus and control of his thoughts and thereby his actions. It empowered him and taught him how to feel and address his emotions in a voluntary way. He regained his free will and so too his freedom.

I will illustrate Mindful thinking by utilizing 2 difference pieces of technology. In our modern technological era, we no longer must navigate the winding roads of our cities guided only by flimsy paper maps. Today, we have the GPS! My first GPS was the “Tom-Tom.” It was incredible how this little gadget allowed me to maneuver the roads with such effortless wit. But on one long drive to Cleveland, Ohio via Route 80, Tom-Tom’s weakness was revealed to me.

There was an accident a few exits ahead, and the traffic became bumper-to-bumper. I got off at the next exit and anticipated advice from my small metal genius. “Rabbi, get back on the highway,” it said in its cold robotic voice. Tom-Tom’s vision was tunneled, only able to navigate based on pre-programmed data. It was not free to “recalibrate” and choose a better route.

However, a few technological generations later, I upgraded to “Waze”, an ingenious GPS developed in Israel, which operated differently. Waze was able to adjust to changes in the traffic. Waze was able to “recalibrate” and adapt more fluidly. Waze was able to stop, integrate new knowledge from my surroundings at every moment, and suggest the best advice for that moment. Waze was “living in the moment” and able to react mindfully.

When we are mindful, we choose to allow the stimuli of our present moments to feed our senses so that we can step forward into the next moment awakened and enlightened, instead of letting stale thoughts and knowledge to cloud our perspectives. Mindfulness is the tool that reacquaints us with our Free Will. It flicks the switch that takes us from the autopilot setting to the manual one.

In our busy daily lives, there are so many forces over which we have no control. Mindlessness can easily become our default setting, convincing us that we are powerless to the world around us. However, when we utilize the practice of Mindfulness, we again take hold of the reigns. When we choose to become the masters of our minds, we become the owners of the key to our own personal freedoms.

Rabbi Sam Frankel, edited by Rebecca Frankel

Rabbi Sam Frankel, LCSW, is a rabbi and former dean of students at Yavneh Academy. He has a private practice specializing in individual and family therapy.
Rebecca Frankel is his daughter.



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