As we age, one of the concerns most of us have is loss of memory and cognitive abilities. We remember the times, when younger, when our minds were “sharp as a tack.” Some of us were great in mathematics and could solve any problem. Others of us prided ourselves in being able to memorize something and hold the words or facts, being able to retrieve them with ease. We are finding, however, that as we age, we are sadly and frighteningly losing these cherished abilities.
Many of us are also concerned that these cognitive losses are leading to the onset of dementia or even Alzheimer’s. These feared diseases of old age cause many seniors to worry about them. They take any of the possible symptoms that sometimes naturally occur, as a part of aging, as a sign that the end is near. My own mother passed away from dementia and Parkinson’s. I was concerned that I might develop these same illnesses and so I went to my physician. He told me that they are not inherited conditions but to calm my concerns he put me through an intensive battery of tests repeated twice over a two-year period. I was grateful that the results came back that I was within the “normal” range for cognitive and memory functions. I, however, wondered if there was something, anything, I could do to keep my memory strong.
I recently came across an article on the internet entitled “Games for Alzheimer’s & Dementia” that offered some suggestions as to how to keep the aging mind sharp. It stated: “Games should be challenging but not so difficult that they are frustrating. The best games for Alzheimer’s make players think, rely on their memory and knowledge, and create new memories. Add sensory stimulus, a strong social aspect, and some light exercise and you have a perfect game for people with dementia…Games are fun because they challenge us. That is true if one is young or old, man or woman, or if one happens to have dementia. Our large selection of games have been chosen because they provide an appropriate challenge for people with memory or cognitive challenges without being too difficult. Fitness games improve strength, balance and dexterity; also important for health and safety. Manipulation of game pieces help the hands and arms stay limber and strong. Brain fitness games improve memory functioning and are good for the whole brain.”
All this talk about mind games and brain fitness brought to my mind one of the most important of all spiritual activities in the Jewish religion. It is called Kavanah.
Kavanah is found in the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. It refers to the practice where the devotee concentrates, that is mindful intention, on the secret meanings of prayer letters and words, sometimes referring to the permutations of the divine name. Some kavanot are particular to the tradition of Kabbalah during meditation. A Kavanah can also be a mindful concentration before performing a mitzvah such as kiddush or light Shabbat candles. It is a spiritual way of doing something by attaching one’s self to the spiritual world before action to be taken, so that both the action and the person performing the act will be more grounded in God, thereby having a greater spiritual effect.
Take kiddush, the blessing over wine, for example. One can just make the berachah, the blessing over the wine, and that by itself fulfills the mitzvah. If, however that same person first meditates on the meaning of kiddush and the act to be performed, then that kiddush will have much more meaning and spiritual power. A kavanah can be performed before the doing of any mitzvah, any prayer, or before doing anything at all. It is a way of slowing down the mind and the action, bringing a concentration of cognitive and spiritual effort. In other words, a mind game, so to speak.
A few times I attended a five-day silent meditation retreat. We not only sat and meditated on our breathing, mindfully, that is with intention, slowing down each breath. We also did the same with walking and eating. We slowed down our minds in order to bring to every action, even the most mundane and commonplace of all such as walking, and taking each step with intention and meaning, as if it were the last step we would ever take.
I would suggest the practice of Kavanot to help you in slowing down the mind’s aging process.
Be mindful before you do anything, even walking or eating, and reflect on what it is you are to do or even say. Use the mind as your anchor supporting you and the outcomes will be better and more productive. As you do this, you are strengthening those neuron connections firing them up to remain as strong and healthy for as long as possible.
As many of you know, the first of the 18 benedictions that is recited during the daily morning service, is the blessing for the functioning of our mind. Our mind is precious, maybe the most precious part of our body because when it fails to function it means we too are failing. I believe that the Jewish spiritual practice of Kavanot is one of the ways we can keep the mind as active as it can be for as long as possible. It really is a Jewish way of keeping your brain fit.
If you would like more information and instruction on the practice of Kavanot, you can reach me at email@example.com.
Rabbi Dr. Steven A Moss is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, NY, a synagogue he has served since 1972. He recently retired to Boynton Beach, FL, and is serving as rabbi of Temple Sinai of Palm Beach County. He has also authored, God Is With Me; I Have No Fear, and A Poetical Journey Through Sefirat HaOmer.