June 19, 2024
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Mindfulness: Karate for the Brain

One of my high school friends at Yeshiva High School of Queens was Lewis A. (a”h), who held a black belt in the Shotokan style of karate, which he tried to teach me. Although he referred to me as his “sparring partner,” I in effect served as his punching bag. By the time I reconnected with him again in college at Yeshiva University, he had added three additional black belts in various styles of martial arts. He was absolutely incredible to watch, breaking boards and cinder blocks with his bare hands and practicing “katas.” A kata is a coordinated dance routine of the various basic movements which, when practiced over and over, helps one to perfect and internalize the skills and moves.

I had seen Lewis practice these katas for many years, and watched him perfect them as he trained. Finally, at one point at the end of his kata I approached him and asked, “I don’t understand. You keep doing these same moves over and over. If you go outside on Amsterdam Avenue and you’re attacked by three different people, do you think that these coordinated moves that you’re doing are going to conveniently fit into their attacks?!” He looked at me with a little amazement, and he seemed somewhat disappointed. He said, “That’s not what this is all about. I’m learning these katas and practicing these movements so that when I go out onto Amsterdam Avenue and I’m confronted by three people, I don’t need to use them in the exact way that I’m learning them. I’ve already internalized these moves so well, that I’m free to be able to use them in any different sort of combination, in order to deal with whatever threat faces me at that moment.”

Now that I have been promoting the practice of mindfulness for many years, I see how profound Lewis’ response was. Mindfulness is karate for the brain. Just as the martial art of karate trains the body to respond to physical danger in the present moment, the meditative practice of mindfulness can train the brain to respond more effectively to emotional danger (feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, trauma etc.) in the present moment. In the same way that karate helps you protect and defend your body by internalizing various movements, mindfulness can enable you to clear your brain so that you may anticipate and prevent problems, make better choices and cope better when difficulties present themselves.

With practice and experience, mindfulness can become a brain-training program designed to exercise your brain to be present, to be able to stay in the moment, and to nurture clarity. The hope is that when struggles do come up, rather than react emotionally and impulsively, preventing you from making your best choice, mindfulness enables you to internalize the coping skills necessary to breathe, meditate and enhance your ability to think more clearly so that you are able to make a better choice in that moment. Because once you make that choice, the moment is gone! There’s no redoing it, undoing it or deleting it. Life lives only in the moment. In the real world there’s no undo. We can feel sorry, and even apologize, but what happened cannot be undone. Mindfulness is the mental martial art that trains us to respond effectively and choose our moves wisely in the present moment.

Rabbi Sam Frankel, LCSW, has been a psychotherapist for over 40 years and has had a teaching career at Yavneh Academy for over two decades. He has made numerous presentations on mindfulness and how it can impact your mental health and enhance your tefillah as well.

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