Sunday, August 24, 2014

Shoftim 74 - Intrinsic Motivation , Executive Functions,Procrastination and Mindfulness

The portion-parasha of Shoftim discusses the commandment to set-up Cities of Refuge given in Numbers 35:9-34. Moses had already designated 3 such cities on the East bank of the Jordan even though they would only be functional after all 6 were established,   and that would be after the conquest of the land of Israel. Moses was setting an example of acting with zeal –' ze'ri'zut ' that if a mitzvah presents itself to you, do not permit it to go stale – do the mitzvah now. The cities of refuge would be a safe haven for people who had murdered someone accidently because of a certain degree of carelessness. These Cities of Refuge were Levite cities and places of learning. And it was here, the perpetrator of the accidental murder through carelessness would take steps to atone for his sin and fix his character -become more careful and watchful - za'hir. The Brai'tah of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair taught that the study of Torah brings a person to a place of being more careful –' ze'hi'rut ' and this gives him more 'drive' and 'motivation' – ze'ri'zut. We study Torah in order to share our learning with others and teach, so we can do the mitzvoth and avoid sin. In order to do this we need to develop a framework for character and spiritual  development - the Path of the Just – the ' Mesilat Yesharim ' with which we can  ascend Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair's ladder of spiritual development.

Ze'hi'rut – is being watchful and careful, and ze'ri'zut – is being passionate and motivated. They   actually impact on one another so one can begin a discussion on either one. Ze'ri'zut - being passionate and intrinsically motivated says the ' Mesilat Ye'sharim '- the Path of the Just is the opposite of ' Laziness'.  We all have a problem with ' laziness', because of our ' earthiness' .This make us heavy and suffer from ' inertia'. It is expressed by procrastination in getting started and not finishing things we have started.  Today, the experts say that there is no such thing as a ' lazy child'. There is usually something getting   in the kid's way , so the question we should be asking is not how can we motivate children , but what is getting in their way , how can we help , how can we create the conditions so kids will motivate themselves. In the same way, Rabbi Chaim Vital says the source of' laziness' is ' utzvut '- sadness. According to the research, intrinsic motivation, happiness and well-being is dependent on a person's needs for  ' autonomy and self-direction', mastery – competence, and ' relatedness – belonging' being met and that he has a sense of purpose. People who feel connected by the inner beings, are competent and supported by others have the 'drive and passion' in what they do.

 However, the reason that we suffer from 'procrastination ' is that we do not successfully deal with the ' negative emotions' associated with some tasks. Instead we cope by procrastinating, avoiding the task and ' give in ' to feel good, despite the fact that it is in our best interests to do the task. We can deal with the negative emotions by using the characteristic of ze'hi'rut- watchfulness to monitor and manage our emotions. Being successful in observing God's positive and negative commandments means we need to be competent and show ' mastery ' in whatever we do. We also need to use ' metacognition ' and our' executive functions '  to think about our thinking, to monitor what we are doing, self- regulate our emotions, being reflective and not impulsive in our thinking. It also includes organizing, planning and using working memory – hindsight and foresight to solve problems, maintaining focus, ignoring distractions. The way to self- regulate our negative emotions that cause us to avoid tasks and procrastinate is to use our executive functions in the form of ' mindfulness'. Mindfulness' helps us to be ' neutral and outside observers' who in a non-judgmental way are aware of our negative emotions. This awareness   will signal the need to inhibit our habits of procrastination, put our emotions aside and get on with our plan.


Kids should be learning Torah in order to share their learning with others and apply their learning to the real world of mitzvoth and social-moral behavior. They should be monitoring and self-assessing their learning and behavior. We can support them with more formative assessment as they learn. In this way kids focus on what they are doing and not only on ' how they are doing ' in the form of grades given by the teacher. We can promote the midah of ze'ri'zut =  intrinsic motivation and drive in kids by supporting their autonomy so they feel their learning and doing of mitzvoth is self-directed that the learning is relevant and meaningful to their lives , they are competent and have a sense of belonging in a community of learners. The midah of ze'hi'rut = carefulness is supported by encouraged by promoting executive functions – mindfulness, self –assessment and monitoring .Mindfulness promotes both intrinsic motivation by making us more attentive and connected to what we are doing and executive functions and self-regulation by making us more aware of our thinking and emotions.

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