On Thursday, August 3, the second Teaneck Orthodox Retiree’s Association (TORA) event took place at Beth Abraham. This was the first of the lunch and lecture series given by Rabbi Sam Frankel, a middle school teacher at Yavneh and a therapist, who frequently gives presentations on the topic of mindfulness. The event was titled “You are never too old to change.” Over 50 people attended the event, displaying the community interest in an organization catering specifically to retirees.
Event organizer Michael Karlin stressed the importance of such events, noting that there are few, if any, organizations which are geared to the retiree population and its unique needs, although there are numerous groups which cater to the specific needs of children and other age groups.
Rabbi Frankel spoke about how it is more difficult to integrate new information as people age. He presented mindfulness as an opportunity to use our brains differently to expand our horizons. Rabbi Frankel quoted Jon Kabat-Zinn, a guru on mindfulness, to define the practice: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Frankel stressed that mental health lives in the present, and if you can learn to keep your mind in the now you’ll become like a laser. Depression lives in mulling over the past, while anxiety and stress live in thinking about the future. Living in the moment, however, opens your mind. “The power of mindfulness lies in its practice and application,” he said. You must learn to train your brain to stay in the now. Mindfulness reduces stress, blood pressure and weight and it does not cost anything.
Rabbi Frankel explained that he started practicing mindfulness and encouraging his patients to do the same in the wake of the 9-11 terror attacks. Immediately after September 11, 2001, he treated small children, 5-7 years old, all suffering from some form of PTSD. These kids had been seeing planes crashing into buildings again and again on their television sets. This triggered panic attacks, anxiety and depression. He realized that the way to treat them was to help them disconnect between the past and the present. Through play and drawing, little by little all of the symptoms resolved themselves. He would sit with the children in his backyard while a plane was flying over them, and they would be playing as they watched the plane fly safely over their heads. Instead of drawing pictures of planes crashing into buildings, the children started to draw planes sailing smoothly into clouds.
Rabbi Frankel started integrating this into his practice. One of his patients, a 10-year-old boy with anger-management issues, had tried to throw his sister down the stairs in a moment of frustration. He helped the child see the advantage of staying in the present. He used computer games to communicate the importance of mindfulness. The child began playing a particular game and found it challenging. He learned to go through the game’s instructions before playing, and before taking a shot he explained why he had made that choice. Focusing on what he was doing allowed him to have a much better result. Rabbi Frankel taught the child to apply this to real life, and he was a different boy in three months. At the end of the three-month period a similar scenario transpired, where his sister called him names, but this time he responded by taking a minute to think about it instead of throwing her down the stairs.
During the last part of his lecture, Rabbi Frankel discussed how mindfulness benefits the elderly as they age. He recounted that a year and a half ago he decided to try this method on himself. He used mindfulness in his eating to try to lose weight. He lived in the moment and looked at the food before he ate and then took 15-20 chews before swallowing. Rabbi Frankel lost 30 pounds over the course of three months. His doctor explained to him that by using mindfulness he had successfully manipulated science to help him lose weight. When you chew your food that much your stomach can digest it faster, the enzymes in your mouth digest it more fully and your metabolic rate is faster.
Rabbi Frankel explained how your brain constantly vacillates between past and present. Keeping your brain in the now is the best thing you can do. He compared it to a car, which has drive, reverse and neutral. Your brain is humming in neutral; that’s when it’s at its best. If seniors stay in the “now” and focus on the present, their fears of aging lessen. That makes the aging process infinitely less challenging and allows them to age with grace.
To join the TORA mailing list or help plan future events, contact Michael Karlin at [email protected] or 201-741-7774.
Mairav Linzer is a rising senior at Stern College for Women. She is currently a summer intern at The Jewish Link.