Prayer and Stress Management

the prayer continued

Stress is a major factor in our health. If stress is not controlled it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. On a more emotional level, stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, anger issues, and relationship problems.

There are many resources for trying to alleviate stress. Of course, exercise is one way to reduce it. People often point to meditation as well. There is much research to support both of these approaches.

I used to have a pretty consistent meditative practice. I would listen to on-line guided meditations nearly every day–usually for just a few minutes. Weekly, I would tune into a Jewish meditation group. My schedule got somewhat complicated and with the move to Cleveland, a new home, 3 new jobs, etc., meditation almost completely fell off my list of priorities. I am not proud of this; stress is still a part of my life and I wish I had a better practice of meditation.

Back in 1986 when I was a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel, and while I was in the process of applying to rabbinical school, I promised myself that I would pray (the formal prayers in the Siddur–or Jewish prayer book) at least one time every day. This was not a huge challenge since I knew many of the prayers and my day had few responsibilities except for picking pomelos during the day and relaxing in the afternoon and evening. Eventually, I made the commitment to pray the traditional services three times per day and since mid-1986 that has been my practice. I have only ever missed it when I have been too ill or immediately following the deaths of my parents–both times when our tradition exempts us from praying.

I got to wondering whether I could “count” my prayer as meditation. They are similar in many ways. I take time out of my day to center myself (sometimes I am more successful than others) and recite the traditional words–kind of like a mantra. Even though it is not always a spectacular spiritual experience (which is often the case with meditation), it does take me out of the mundane for a period of time thrice daily. I may not focus on my breathing, but I do try to quiet my mind and concentrate on the words and what they mean. When I pray with others–which is a story unto itself during a pandemic–I do feel like I am more successful at reaching some kind of spiritual goals.

I ran across an interesting blog post by Marek Struszczyk, a co-manager of http://www.managerup.com. Although the blog is directed to executives, there is a great post about prayer and stress that has broader implications: https://www.managerup.com/prayer-for-stress/. Struszczyk cites a number of studies that show the positive effects of prayer in reducing stress. I did not take a deep dive into each of the articles cited, but the conclusions indicate that prayer can help us to center ourselves, focus on areas of stress and how to alleviate them, and bring better health outcomes.

In Judaism, the verb for “to pray” is actually reflexive. It kind of means to “pray one’s self.” Rabbis have noted that prayer does not just go out to a higher power, but it should also go inward. Prayer should not just move God (or whatever higher power you believe or do not believe in), but should move us to action as well. For instance, there is a prayer in the weekday Amida recited three times a day for justice; because our prayer is reflexive, we address God asking for judges and other authorities to administer laws fairly, and we also challenge ourselves to make justice a reality in our world. It’s not all up to God; we are partners in making prayers into reality.

This way of looking at prayer can reduce stress by helping us to recognize the stressors in our lives and pushing us to find ways to resolve them. It seems almost oxymoronic, but by naming the stress we make it real and can then confront it.

I am a personal trainer and a rabbi so, of course, I’m going to recommend prayer as part of a way to address one’s spiritual, emotional and physical health. At the same time, do not think that prayer alone will make a difference health-wise; it is reflexive and has to be done in tandem with a proper diet, exercise, and sufficient rest.

I will strive to add some meditation back into my schedule, in the meantime, it is encouraging to know that prayer serves a similar purpose and can provide many of the same benefits when it comes to stress. Just knowing that has already relieved my stress a little!

Meditation and Trying to Calm my Mind

Vizsla Meditation

For about 18 months now I have tried to build a meditation practice. I was first introduced to meditation at the Rabbinic Training Institute, a yearly program for rabbis sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

For a long time, I thought that meditation was a bunch of yoga/granola/tree-hugging hooey…until I tried it and learned a little more.

Meditation is not the only way that I try to calm my mind. I have been a regular davener (Yiddish for pray-er, ie, a praying person) for over 30 years, every day, three times a day. I will admit that not every prayer experience is what I hope it to be. Sometimes it seems like a chore, or I just rush through it, or I am anything but mindful–letting my mind wander in a thousand directions. Other times–especially when I am with a minyan (a group of 10 Jews)–I do feel spiritually connected, and allow myself to calm and simply be. Whether it is successful or not, it is significant that I take time out of every day to stop and try to connect with something outside of myself.

My favorite way to calm my mind is Shabbat–the seventh day, the day of rest. I feel like practically my whole week is aimed at Shabbat, preparing for it, waiting for it, missing it…. As an observant Jew, I try to have all the preparations ready before sunset so that I do not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc. It is a gift that God gave to us, and a gift that I give to myself each week. It is the one time during the week when I feel most present for myself and those around me.

And then there is meditation. Why is this so difficult? Why during the week is it nearly impossible for me to get my mind to settle? I find that many times I cannot seem to turn off the thoughts that rush into my mind, and then my thoughts run down the rabbit hole wherever it leads. Other times, I simply fall asleep.

I join a weekly Jewish meditation group on-line for 15 minutes of Torah teaching followed by 30 minutes of meditation; we sit in silence all of us, with our screens in front of us. Like my davening, there are times when it is great, and others where I feel like I “accomplished” nothing. I guess that is why it is called a “practice:” it is never perfect just a continual rehearsal to try to get there.

Speaking of practice, that is the same word used for Yoga. In the past, I have done a lot more yoga than I have since I moved; I hope to remedy this. Almost every time I practice yoga I do feel like my mind is calmed and I am totally present. Perhaps it is because it is so tactile, rather than simply a mind practice. It could also be the group setting (see my minyan comment above). Maybe the influence of others around me doing the same thing helps me to flow in the right direction. Maybe that is why the on-line meditation is so challenging.

Of course, the big question is: why is it important to calm one’s mind? We live in a world that now more than ever bombards us with information, distractions and demands. We often end up on that hamster treadmill, running and running, and getting nowhere and tired real fast.

not a metaphor for your life

None of us wants to live our lives this way, on a treadmill, never examining who we are, what we do, what interests us, what makes us passionate. On a regular basis, we need to calm ourselves and reconnect with the Source of All and with ourselves.

Not everyone will do this in the same way. Doing so, however, has great benefit. Not only does it helps us to ground ourselves in this big world, but it also has many health benefits.

Am I perfect at this? Is my prayer, my yoga, my meditation, my Shabbat everything I want it to be every time? Not by a long-shot; sometimes I am just that metaphorical dog asleep on the couch. In the meantime, I will continue to practice calming my mind, calming myself, and reconnecting with what is truly important in my life.