In 1977 the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a campaign to make available effective forms of meditation that are consistent with Torah values, as an antidote to stress and anxiety. In Part One of this series we explored the physiological, emotional and spiritual benefits of achieving mindfulness and tranquility. In Part Two we expanded upon the Torah approach to mindfulness and described a few tried-and-true practices embodied in traditional teachings.
Here, in Part Three, we enumerate a variety of practical and readily accessible methods, beginning with simple relaxation techniques. These thirteen suggestions are among those introductory practices the authors have found to be most meaningful and helpful, gleaned from the study of chassidic philosophy, and based on nearly four decades of experience in Jewish education, clinical healthcare, personal development workshops and counseling.
We live in challenging times. We are anxious over economic uncertainty, dismayed by disappearing social mores, stunned by soaring divorce rates. School tuitions are through the roof, yet we still feel the pressure of mundane materialism. That cutting-edge electronic device or that new Louis Vuitton purse calls to us, while we’re struggling to cover the basics. We want to look like 20 when we’re 60, be buff when we’re hard-pressed to find time for a workout. Even time itself has become a despot, measured by digital clocks that make us accountable by the minute, managed by smart phones that have made office hours obsolete and keep us constantly on call. It wasn’t long ago that we’d find a handful of letters in the daily mailbox challenging enough to deal with; today e-mails arrive by the hundreds. Not to mention the ever more disconcerting news of the day—a polarized society, global tensions, a world trembling on the brink of . . . what?
To cultivate equanimity and focus in our lives, to establish a calmer spirit and effectively face the challenges of external environment, we need a toolbox full of tension tamers. Here is a sample set of thirteen methods. Some are simple, some more sophisticated. Some begin from the physical body; others are more focused on our emotions or intellect. While some of these exercises have more advanced forms that require some training, we’ve tried to keep it simple and easily accessible here. Each of these techniques, in its own way, leverages the ability of the human mind to let go of distracting, disturbing or distressing thinking patterns and the negative feelings they generate.
Where, then, is the opportunity for calm composure, for achieving peace of mind?
The story is told of a woodcutter, hacking away ineffectually at a very large pile of wood with a dull, blunt-edged axe. A well-meaning stranger comes along, notices the situation, and suggests that he sharpen his blade. “I haven’t got time!” exclaims the woodcutter impatiently. “Can’t you see all the work I have ahead of me?” Silly woodcutter! Obviously he’d be far more successful if he were to take the time to sharpen his axe. But we often deceive ourselves the same way. We barrel through our days burdened with unnecessary tension. An unrelenting sense of urgency interferes with our good mood, clouds our judgment and impedes our efficiency, convincing us that we haven’t got the time to slow down, calm down and focus. We would be wise to sharpen our axe.
At the root of our delusion lies the assumption that we can’t control what we think. The mind is an unceasing torrent, and the stream tends to flow in well-worn ruts. We think somewhere between 60,000 and 75,000 thoughts a day, neurologists estimate, and it is the quality of those thoughts that establishes the tone in our nervous systems. Positive, optimistic thoughts set us up for success; a habitual pattern of negative thinking perpetuates failure. Although most of us are willing, in theory, to accept responsibility for the results we get in life, in practice we often resign ourselves to the predictable pathways of our old attitudes and expectations.
In fact, we can choose our thoughts like we choose tomatoes: this one is too green; this one is too soft; this one is just right! We can weed out thoughts that are toxic and counterproductive—like the harsh self-accusations of our inner critic, or the blame and condemnations heaped upon others, or the energy-draining worry over events that are beyond our control. We can replace a negative thought with a better one, one that brightens the way we see the world. Ultimately, who we are and what we accomplish is determined by our perception and where it takes us. The eminent 20th-century psychologist Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Although breathing is one of those bodily functions that happens automatically, shallow breathing or erratic breathing in response to stress is all too common. Exercises that focus our attention more intently on our breathing are an especially helpful method of managing stress, because we can do them anywhere, anytime—and they work quickly to calm and focus our minds. The simplest approach is deep breathing, an easy stress reliever that also has numerous benefits for the body, including oxygenating the blood, which in turn “wakes up” the brain and relaxes the muscles. A key to deep breathing is using the abdominal muscles. As you inhale, allow the belly to expand, which will help the diaphragm to more fully descend and make room for the lungs to be completely filled with air. Don’t force it; take your time until deeper breathing becomes easy and natural.
More subtle forms of breathing exercise involve simply paying attention to the breath, or “following” the breath as you inhale and exhale. You can listen to the breath, or, if you are more of a visually oriented person, you might “see” the breath in your mind’s eye gathering in your abdomen on each inhalation, and exiting from there on the exhalation. Again, relax with it, take it easy. As this becomes comfortable for you, you can imagine that you are breathing out all the stress and negativity on each exhalation, and breathing in a sense of warmth and wellbeing on the inhalation. See the good air entering as a healing, golden light, and the exiting negativity as dark or gray.
The culminating verse of the Book of Psalms says, “Let each soul praise G‑d, praise the L‑rd.” The word for the soul, neshamah, is spelled the same as neshimah, breath. Breathing connects our soul to its divine source, and at the same time grounds us in our bodies. As better breathing becomes second nature, you may find it rewarding to couple these exercises with the thought that when we are connected, there is no test facing us in life that we can’t handle.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
We’re often unaware of how much tension we hold onto in our bodies, and how that exacerbates stress. By first intentionally tensing and then relaxing all the muscle groups in your body, you can learn to alleviate stress and feel much more relaxed in minutes, with no special training or equipment. Begin by tensing all the muscles in your face. Hold a tight grimace for ten seconds, then let go and completely relax your face for ten seconds. Repeat this with your neck, followed by your shoulders, legs, feet, etc. You can do this even on the subway (try not to scare anyone with your grimace!) or while waiting in the carpool line. As you practice, you will find you can relax more quickly and easily, reducing tension as quickly as it starts. Before long you’ll discover that this skill enhances your ability to let go not just of muscular tension, but of emotional and mental stress as well.
The great 12th-century Torah scholar and physician Maimonides—the Rambam—wrote that “exercise repairs the damage done by most of man’s bad habits.” Many people exercise to manage weight or improve their physical condition, but exercise is also closely linked with stress reduction. Exercise provides a diversion from stressful situations, relieves frustration, and gives us a lift via mood-enhancing brain chemicals called endorphins. Committing to exercise at a particular time each day, preferably early in the morning, makes it easier to maintain a program. The Rambam suggests that “one should not eat until one takes a walk or exerts oneself in some other way, to the point where the body begins to warm up (the face turns red).” He associates this with a verse in Genesis: “Man shall eat by the sweat of his brow.”
For some, exercise classes or walking groups are a way to connect with others in the midst of an isolating day. If you happen to be one of those who subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy of rigorous athletics and calisthenics, don’t neglect the more contemplative, easygoing forms of exercise. Leisurely walking and simple stretching are also beneficial to both body and soul. Keep the program simple, practical and sustainable. You may find it helpful to do something you enjoy, like listening to your favorite music or thinking into a stimulating subject you’ve studied, while you work out. This adds to the positive cognitive and emotional benefits.
Neurological studies have demonstrated that in certain forms of mindfulness or meditation practices the brain enters a deeply restful state similar to sleep, but with additional medical and psychological benefits that sleep or other states of conscious activity cannot provide. Meditation builds on the sort of skills acquired in simple breathing and relaxation exercises, and takes them a step further, into the dynamics of the mind. In his groundbreaking book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and Harvard Medical School states that it is optimal to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes each time. For many of us, it may be possible to learn how to induce this “relaxation response” more spontaneously, simply by becoming aware of a heightened state of stress and taking that moment to stop and meditate.
Here’s a simple introduction to the practice:
Choose a small, familiar word or syllable as the focus of your meditation. (Benson suggested the word “one.” In Hebrew that would be “echad.”)
- Find a reasonably quiet place and sit comfortably upright in a chair, relaxing but not slouching.
- Close your eyes.
- Release any obvious tension you may feel in your muscles.
- Focus your attention for a moment on your breathing, simply observing the in-and-out breath without trying to change anything.
- In your mind, silently say the chosen word or sound to yourself. Pause, and repeat.
- Continue doing this for 10–20 minutes. (You can open your eyes to check the time.) If you find that your mind has wandered, simply turn your attention back to the chosen word or sound and allow it to keep repeating. You may find after a while that the sound changes somewhat. It may speed up or slow down, shift into a similar sound, or even disappear. Or your breathing may change a bit. That’s okay, don’t be disturbed, just continue. Do not worry about how “successfully” you are meditating.
- After finishing, sit quietly for a minute or so with eyes closed. Breathe deeply; stretch.
- Open the eyes.
- Practice this once or twice a day over a period of time. You may feel benefits almost immediately, or it may take a week or two. Early morning and early evening are especially suitable times. It’s not advisable to practice on a full stomach.
This is a generic form of meditation, with no particular cultural or religious content, and it’s a good place for many to begin—especially those seeking to alleviate stress or anxiety and acquire a more peaceful demeanor. In Jewish tradition there are a number of specifically Jewish approaches to meditation, including the deeply contemplative chassidic practice of hisbonenus, as well as the traditional rite of prayer, known as “the service of the heart.” These various practices and the distinctions between them are beyond the scope of this brief article; however, those interested can find numerous examples of Jewish approaches to meditation on Chabad.org, as well as on our own website.
Some may find this next method easier to practice than meditation, because it is more concrete. Guided imagery is a great way to leave your stress behind for a while and achieve lasting relaxation. It’s sort of like daydreaming, but more directed and intentional; it calls for engaging the vivid power of imagination, to experience a virtual vacation and gain access to inner resources you may not have known you own.
Sit comfortably, breathe deeply and close your eyes, focusing on breathing in peace and breathing out stress. You may want to play a recording of natural sounds in the background, such as the sound of ocean waves, to facilitate a fuller experience. Once you get to a relaxed state, begin to envision yourself in the midst of the most tranquil and beautiful environment you can imagine. You might see yourself basking in the sun, or floating in the cool, clear waters of a remote tropical island. Or you might prefer to imagine yourself sitting by a fire in a secluded cabin, deep in the snowy woods, wrapped in a down comforter, sipping piping-hot herbal tea and reading a good book.
As you imagine your scene, try to involve all of your senses. What does it look like? How does it smell? How does it feel? How does it sound? Do you hear the rustle of leaves underfoot, the rhythmic breaking of waves, or the songs of a bird? Make your vision so rich, so authentic that you can even taste it!
Stay there for a while and enjoy your “surroundings.” Allow yourself to drift far away from whatever causes you worries or distress. When you’re ready to come back to reality, slowly count backwards from twenty, and tell yourself that when you arrive at “one,” you will feel peaceful and alert and take great pleasure in the rest of your day. When you return, you’ll feel more calm and refreshed, as though you’ve just returned from a mini-vacation . . . and you didn’t even have to pay the airline for your luggage!
Building on the power of imagination employed in guided imagery, creative visualization is a more purposeful, goal-oriented method of releasing inner obstacles and setting the stage for success. The key to understanding how this works is to realize that the subconscious mind does not distinguish between the real and the imaginary. Visualizing yourself succeeding in the tasks you’re trying to master and achieving your goals, you establish a mindset, an emotional tone, and a confident, optimistic pattern of thought that almost automatically translates into more effective action. You can imagine yourself becoming healthier and more relaxed, building your dream business, finishing your bestseller, or perhaps handling conflict more effectively in any and all of your relationships. As in guided imagery, it is most important that you render the visualization as richly, in as much detail and with as many senses as you can. Make all images large and bright in your mind’s eye, and as you see yourself winning, celebrate! The more vivid your vision, the more your performance will improve.
Friendship and Community
Psychologists place a great deal of importance on developing self-esteem, and it’s a basic tenet of Torah that self-esteem is inextricably entwined with generosity of spirit toward others: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Depressed? Stressed? Self-absorbed? Reach out and do a favor for someone, and you’re virtually guaranteed to feel better fast.
Camaraderie among good friends and a well-developed social network serve as effective tools for managing stress—or even bypassing stress altogether. Friendship buffers the hardships of life’s transitions. It can also lower blood pressure, boost immunity and promote healing. Recent research strongly suggests that trust, empathy, human bonding and social attachments are associated with the hormone oxytocin, an internal elixir of health and wellbeing. This is particularly true for women, in whom the predominance of estrogen increases oxytocin’s effects. Men, too, experience the benefits of oxytocin, though since males generally tend by nature to be less social, the effects are not as pronounced. Interestingly, the male obligation to pray daily with a minyan facilitates becoming a part of a group and developing social bonds. For several thousand years, our sages have been teaching that daily synagogue attendance is a means to attaining long life—not to mention quality of life.
Effective social networking might include developing a relationship with a mentor/coach, spending quality time with a good friend, attending Sabbath services, participating in Torah classes, or developing a phone partner for learning. (A moderate indulgence in Facebook might even be part of the picture, but be careful—it can be a time bandit.) Yehoshua ben Perachyah, a Torah sage of the first century BCE, said, “Provide yourself with a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” And King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs tells us, “If there be anxiety in a man’s heart, let him articulate it to others; a good word will turn it into joy.”
Personal Care and Affection
What is it about a mother’s touch that cures all ills? Why, when she kisses the boo-boo, is it suddenly all better? Nothing heals quite as effectively as loving care. Sadly, many people become markedly less affectionate when their stress levels are high. This is exactly the opposite of what works! And it works both ways. Giving is at least as healing as receiving love. Maybe more.
Researchers have discovered that as infants mature, touch is a critically important component of communication—so much so that its absence can actually retard their growth. More than 50 studies conducted at Harvard, Duke, and the University of Miami have shown that massage has powerful effects on a long list of adverse conditions, including migraines, asthma, colic and hyperactivity in children, pain among burn victims, even diabetes. Massage is medicine. The benefits of nurturing touch are associated, again, with endorphins, the body’s own homegrown pain relievers.
Within the family, physical touch can be an essential aspect in the ways we care for one another. When appropriate boundaries preclude physical touching, we can still “touch” one another emotionally and spiritually with heartfelt concern and caring words, spoken from the heart, to the heart. Metaphorical massage can be just as powerful a balm to a troubled soul as its physical analogue.
Music and music therapy have been shown to offer numerous health benefits for people suffering from a wide range of medical and emotional problems, from mild stress to severe life-threatening illness. When dealing with stress, the right music lowers blood pressure, relaxes the body and calms the mind. Music can be particularly beneficial when you are engaged in activities that you know to be stressful, such as paying the bills or driving on the freeway in rush-hour traffic. And, needless to say, be discriminating with the type of music you choose. Be conscious of the message in the words of songs—or for that matter, the character of the musicians—to ensure that they are consistent with your life values. Otherwise, the music you listen to may actually trigger emotional resistance or internal conflict, and achieve the opposite of the desired effect.
The ability to articulate our thoughts and communicate with language is the single most significant feature that distinguishes human beings from the beasts. As creatures of speech, our frame of mind—and therefore our experience—is heavily influenced by the words we choose. Saying “I have a killer headache” is a sure way to feel worse. Labeling people as “stupid” or “losers” is no way to help them learn or succeed. Using temperamental, exaggerated language like “you always” do this, or “you never” do that, sends messages to our spouse’s or child’s limbic system—the primitive, reactive part of the brain—that rigidify negative emotion and wreak far greater damage than we realize.
Make a decision to be conscious of your words for a week. Replace “this is killing me” with “this is mildly uncomfortable”; instead of telling yourself “I can’t stand this,” try saying “I’d prefer it if . . .” If you feel that you need to criticize or correct someone, don’t say “you always” get it wrong; try “sometimes” or “occasionally.” Listen for the negative phrases and try to replace them with more constructive ones, and see how you feel. Be conscious of the toxins you unwittingly introduce into your emotional atmosphere, and try to make life a little better each day with your words.
Tracht Gut (Think Well)
Although, as mentioned above, on an average day we think about 75,000 thoughts, in fact we can only think one thought at a time. Therefore, if we intentionally cultivate constructive, encouraging, uplifting thoughts, there will be no room for negative thinking—even if negativity has until now been a habit. You can’t choose your initial response to a situation. Critical or pessimistic or fearful thoughts will arise from time to time. But you can choose whether or not to continue dancing with the negativity. So practice being more discriminating with the thoughts you choose to entertain. If your thought is discouraging—“I can’t do this!”—turn it around and replace it with an affirmation, preferably in the present tense: “I am getting this done, with Hashem’s help!” You will be happier, less stressed, and you’ll discover how much more you are capable of than you had imagined. This is the gateway to the development and internalization of bitachon—unwavering trust in the power of divine benevolence. The practice of bitachon deserves an article or a book of its own, but for now, begin with the basics: stay in the present—avoid gloomy prognostications of the future or negative recriminations over the past. Choose empowering and encouraging thoughts. Don’t torment yourself with worst-case-scenario thinking; whatever is happening now, you can handle now!
One of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s most persistent and powerful affirmations is “tracht gut, vet zein gut”—think well, and all will go well. It’s not just a slogan. It’s a way of life.
Journaling, and Keeping a Gratitude Notebook
The practice of making a daily entry in a private, personal journal is a very effective way to keep the mind open and flowing, and to break up stagnant, repetitive thought patterns. Don’t worry about the style or quality of the writing; in fact, for this purpose it’s best not even to look over what you’ve written, and certainly not to show it to anyone else. This assures that you’ll be able to come unstuck and simply let it all out, without that self-conscious inner critic getting in the way.
Here’s a somewhat different approach to journaling: our personal number-one favorite antidote to negativity and depression is to keep a gratitude notebook. Jot down two or three things each day for which you are grateful. Read the list to yourself at the end of the week, and if it doesn’t come spontaneously, make an effort to open up your heart to the feeling of gratitude. If you want to take it a step further, write down one act of self-control you have performed each day as well. Because of that old habitual routine of accentuating the negative, we need to go out of our way to highlight the positive moments. When things are going well, the autonomic nervous system tends to say… “boring!” The magic juices of flight-or-fight aren’t pumping when life is simply okay. To free ourselves from the addiction to stress, it is vital that we register and reinforce those less thrilling, perhaps, but more life-supporting experiences in life.
Take time to articulate your thanks to others as well. Write a letter to your mom, your baby sister, your best friend or your favorite teacher from high school, telling them how much you value them. In a recent study, people who wrote letters of appreciation were found to be more at ease, more energized and more in harmony with their surroundings for a full month after writing their thanks.
Learning Daily and Attending Torah Classes
This may appear to be the most difficult task on the list, but it is unquestionably one of the most rewarding. Nourishing ourselves with wholesome, elevating ideas and inspiring stories is as healthy for the mind and soul as wholesome, well-balanced food is for the body. Even a few moments set aside at a specific time each day will eventually result in acquiring a great deal of knowledge. If you can’t find the time to go to a class, read a Torah book; or, as you are no doubt aware, the Internet is replete with wonderful articles, source materials, and audio or video classes.
Nearly two millennia ago there was a certain middle-aged shepherd who was unsure of the practicality of beginning to study Torah in midlife. As he walked and wondered, he noticed a gentle waterfall that had carved its mark into the rocks in its path. He understood that this is the way of Torah: though it may be subtle and slow, daily learning will sculpt our souls. That shepherd was the famous Rabbi Akiva, who became one of the greatest sages of all time. The choice to cultivate your soul is yours.
Perhaps you don’t have the desire or the patience to pursue any of these methods. Fine—there’s a time and a place for everything. We’ll just recommend that for the time being you simply hold on to this one thought: G‑d, who is all good, who is the very essence of benevolence, causes each leaf to fall, synchronizes the courses of the planets and the galaxies, and guides everyone’s every step. He loves you like an only child. He keeps your picture on the door of His cosmic refrigerator. So relax!