“Jewish concerns about Mindfulness Meditation: Some context from a mental health perspective”
Yaacov Lefcoe, Ph.D
Some recent discussions with friends and acquaintances in Chabad about current forms of psychological treatment derived from Eastern meditation practices have prompted me to record these thoughts, which I hope will be of service to the Jewish community and its leadership in its consideration of the place of these practices in Jewish life.
I will confine my comments to the form of meditation that is most commonly utilized today in the fields of medicine and mental health, namely Mindfulness Meditation.
First, terminology: Mindfulness Meditation is a term that, for our purposes, is currently used in three ways: 1) It is applied to a self-management skill that is used in an entirely secular, non-ideological manner for therapeutic purposes; 2) It is used as a rough translation of a practice utilized in traditional Buddhist settings, and 3) It is used in situations that are nominally secular and yet may incorporate elements of Buddhist ideology to varying degrees (at times in ways that raise questions of professional ethics, besides any possible halachic issues, but that is another subject).
The therapeutic effectiveness of this practice for treating a variety of general medical and psychological conditions is now well established in the relevant professional literatures, and is no longer subject to serious debate. It has been used to treat conditions ranging from essential hypertension to chronic pain; from psycho-somatic complaints, to anxiety conditions, and mild to moderate depression, among others. It is also being used with non-clinical populations for the enhancement of mental functioning, such as improved concentration, emotional self-control, and general self-management.
The core of this practice that is relevant to its healthful benefits is learning to enter a very simple, natural, yet (to many people) unfamiliar state that combines low nervous arousal with high alertness and wakefulness. To understand the significance of this we must realize that usually nervous system arousal and level of wakeful alertness vary together. The more aroused and activated the nervous system–i.e., the more “keyed up” or “nervous” the person is–the more alert and awake that person will be as well. At an extreme, think of how nervous and awake/aware you would be if a lion jumped out at you, and your sympathetic nervous system leapt into action, ready to “fight, flight or freeze.” Conversely: When you relax in the evening in bed, and become more and more calm and relaxed, you also become progressively less alert, until the point at which you enter the unconscious state of sleep. So these two functions usually vary up and down together.
Mindfulness Meditation is a technique that enables people to de-link nervous arousal from level of wakeful awareness, lowering the former while heightening the latter. One learns to relax into a state of deep restfulness–sleep-like restfulness–while remaining highly awake and aware. Elevated alertness allows for a deep internalization of relaxation, and brings about a kind of ‘reset’ of the nervous system and linked bodily systems. The full range of these changes, on a physiological level, continue to be explored scientifically, but it is clear that there is a restoration of ‘balance’–homeostasis–that has measurable positive effects on human health and wellbeing.
The technique of Mindfulness Meditation is quite simple. It involves learning to centre one’s attention on one’s breath, and to gently and gradually ‘let go’ of active engagement with other thoughts, feelings and external stimuli that present themselves to consciousness. Over time and with practice–which is difficult for many people at first–the receding of mental contents that stimulate and unsettle the nervous system leads to a state of wakeful rest that is the essence of the “mindful” state.
Once one masters entering and maintaining this state for a time daily (usually a period ranging from 20-45 minutes), the individual gradually becomes better able to remain both calmer and more alert throughout the day in the face of the challenges and stressors of life. Cultivated to high levels, this and related practices can enable a person to remain both very calm and highly focused in even extreme circumstances, of the sort that would normally lead to panic (which is why they were cultivated in martial arts traditions, for example).
As the practice matures what is often observed psychologically is the expansion of a sense of internal ‘space’, together with a felt ‘slowing down’ of time, both of which enable a person to respond to life in less automatic and reflexive, and more deliberate and conscious ways. This is the quality that is called “being mindful.” I would venture to say that the inborn capacity of the human being to exercise what in Chabad is referred to as “mo-ach shalit al ha-lev” “the mind rules over the heart,” is directly enhanced by the practice of Mindfulness Meditation.
Take note that I have just described the essential elements of Mindfulness Meditation–the technique itself as well as it’s basic mental and physiological effects–without any reference whatsoever to any type of ‘foreign worship’ (unless the basic nature of the human nervous system, or the modern medical and psychological sciences which describe and treat it, are themselves to be considered ‘foreign worship,’ which of course they are not). What we are discussing here is an innate human capacity that is well developed in many people all over the world–though more deliberately so in Eastern cultures–and underdeveloped in others.
This capacity is in fact heightened regularly to varying degrees by people who never think of themselves as ‘meditating’ at all, who merely learn in one way or another, perhaps by accident, to become very deeply relaxed and highly aware simultaneously. This could occur while sitting quietly in a natural setting, for example while watching the ocean’s waves, or perhaps in a restful wakefulness following intense physical activity.
It is also to be found–in a more fully and deliberately developed form–in people engaged in a wide variety of meditative practices around the world, including as a by-product of the Chabad-style hisbonenus meditation (but that is a subject for a separate article). However, the Mindfulness technique of anchoring awareness in the breath seems to be the simplest, most direct route yet discovered to arrive at the specifically therapeutic changes: the deeply restful and restorative state desired in clinical applications. For this reason it has been favoured by interested researchers and clinicians over more elaborate, intellectualist contemplative practices such as hisbonenus.
It is safe to assume that Mindfulness Meditation is here to stay, in the sense that it is well on its way to becoming an integral, ubiquitous part of contemporary Western culture, almost derech eretz if you will. It is practiced in all manner of medical and mental health settings, as well as in workplaces, schools, community centres etc etc. It is utilized more in non-medical settings, for general wellbeing and the enhancement of mental functioning, than it is for the treatment of specific disorders, although the clinical applications continue to be expanded and developed.
Although Mindfulness Meditation may readily be stripped of all elements of ‘foreign worship,’ many, perhaps most, of the leading researchers who led the way to the ‘secularization’ of the practice have some level or another of personal involvement with Buddhist philosophy and practice. This may tend at times to influence the way in which they interpret the meaning of the practice, especially at more advanced levels. Furthermore, as Mindfulness Meditation has become more and more accepted as a mainstream clinical technique, there has recently arisen a reaction against its secularization within parts of the professional community, such that there are (minority) calls for the re-integration of Mindfulness practice with other aspects of Buddhist ideology and practice.
In secular contexts this usually will not mean the incorporation of things like statues and incense–although it could. It is more likely to involve a re-embedding of the practice, and the experiences that may arise from within the practice (especially at intermediate to advanced levels) in a certain constellation of Buddhist ideas about life, morality, and spiritual practice.
Therefore: In today’s environment, in the absence of a clear commitment of the practitioner to ideological neutrality, an absence of elements of ‘foreign worship’ or ‘limud basifreihem’ (‘study of their books’) cannot be simply assumed, even in explicitly secular, medical contexts where Mindfulness Meditation is being taught as a form of treatment. I find this most regrettable, and it’s a ‘kvetch’ of mine within the mental health field, namely: that ethical provisions about ideological neutrality are not always being respected to the level they should be.
At the same time, in my opinion it would be a terrible shame if this problem prevented observant Jews or others who could otherwise benefit from learning this technique from doing so. It is possible to clarify that the practitioner involved is in fact committed to the religious/ideological neutrality–as is required by the relevant codes of professional ethics. This, as a matter of course, would exclude religious rites, customs, or the basing of the practice upon the central organizing concepts of a religious tradition.
In sum: I have found, in keeping with the research, that the practice of Mindfulness Meditation can be an effective psychotherapeutic technique in the treatment of mild to moderate depressive and anxious disorders, as well as an effective self-management tool for general counselling clients. I hope that this brief overview can provide useful points of reference for people who are considering using in this technique, as well as for communal leadership.
Dr. Yaacov Lefcoe, C. Psych (Supervised Practice) is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology at York University, and has worked in clinical and educational settings in Canada and Israel. His doctoral research concerns the psychology of meditation as seen through an integration of Chabad mysticism and contemporary psychology. Yaacov also authored award-winning research on the psychology of the contemporary teshuvah (“Return”) phenomenon. Prior to his training in psychology Yaacov spent five years in yeshiva and colel study in Israel, mainly at Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai at the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem under the direction of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. Yaacov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
. The ethical codes of the various healthcare professions include requirements that the caregiver relationship not to be used for any manner of ideological–such as political or religious–influence or indoctrination, excepting certain circumstances where this type of ideological framework is made part of an explicit therapeutic contract from the beginning of care. For this reason, the incorporation of Buddhist ideology in secular treatment contexts may not only present halachic issues, but also issues of professional ethics.
. . See Salmon, P., Sephton, S., Weissbecker, I., Hoover, K., Ulmer, C., Studts, J. L. (2004). Mindfulness meditation in clinical practice. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 11(4), 434-446. Also: Ivanovski, B., & Malhi, G.S. (2007). The psychological and neuropsychological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 19, 76-91.
. It was recently publicized that the American Football team, the Seattle Seahawks, had included a program of Mindfulness Meditation as part of their training regime. This team later went on to a crushing 43-8 victory in the 2014 Superbowl!
. Some might be reminded here of the story of the Chassid of the Alter Rebbe who remained utterly calm, keeping his heart rate normal, when Napoleon suddenly placed his hand on his chest and accused him of being a spy–a life-or death situation that would normally trigger a sharp spike in nervous arousal including a rapid elevation of heart rate.
. Something worth noting in this context is research, as well as clinical experience, that would suggest that when people advance in meditational practices they often have experiences they find new and puzzling, and that this may prompt them to seek out some system of ideas or another to help them comprehend and interpret their experience. It is appropriate to consider this before hand when applying this and related techniques (Hood, R. W., Ghorbani, N., Watson, P. J., Ghramaleki, A. F., Bing, M. N., Davison, H. K., Morris, R. J., Williamson, W. P. . Dimensions of the Mysticism Scale: Confirming the three-factor structure in the United States and Iran. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 691-705.)