Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Judaism and the Benefits of EFT (Episodic Future Thinking)

The Torah content for these two weeks has been sponsored by Judah and Naomi Dardik in loving memory of Rabbi Moskowitz zt''l, who taught his students to pursue truth by asking questions, who modeled love of Torah and learning, and who exemplified living a life of the mind.

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Artwork: Witness the Future, by Anato Finnstark

Judaism and the Benefits of EFT (Episodic Future Thinking)

Note: This is a sequel to yesterday’s introductory article on EFT. If you haven’t read that, then this will be difficult to follow.

Soon after I began reading McGonigal’s book, I realized that as an Orthodox Jew, I pass by countless opportunities to engage in EFT as part of my day-to-day halachic observance. Every time I daven, I express my yearning for a future in which our nation has returned to Israel, the judges have been restored, our enemies have been destroyed, Jerusalem rebuilt, the Davidic monarchy reestablished, the shechinah returned to the Mikdash, and the world filled with peace. Every time I say mussaf, I ask Hashem to bring back our korbanos. So many of the pesukim I recite on a regular basis are about the Messianic era, the climax of world history. Shabbos, Pesach, Sukkos, Tishah b’Av, Purim, and Chanukah all have future-looking themes. Judaism certainly focuses on the past, but it is a remarkably future-oriented religion.

If you noticed, I said that “I pass by countless opportunities to engage in EFT as part of my day-to-day halachic observance.” I haven’t truly seized these opportunities by imagining these future scenarios in vivid detail, as EFT requires. I haven’t taken the time to really apply my full imagination to these phenomena, asking specific questions such as: Where exactly am I in this future? Who else is here? What is around me? What is true in this version of reality that isn’t true today? What do I really want in this future moment? How will I get it? How do I feel, now that I’m here?

What would happen if I did these things? Not only would the future become more real to me, but it would trigger a shift in my entire perspective which would lead to other psychological and intellectual perfections. McGonigal explains:

When you take a mental time trip ten years into the future, your brain starts to think with a different point of view. This isn’t a metaphor – it’s a literal fact. Scientists describe this as switching your imagination from first-person to third-person perspective … When you’re thinking in first person, you’re totally immersed in your own thoughts and feelings. When you’re thinking in third person, you escape your own ego and get a more objective and expansive experience.

(She goes on to support this assertion from the scientific literature, which I can’t summarize in a 1-page article; let me know if you’d like the citations.) Afterwards, she enumerates some of the benefits of this shift in perspective:

a major benefit of switching from first person to third person is that it’s a huge empathy booster. In scientific language, we “reduce our egocentric biases” and become “less ego-identified” – which means we get out of our own heads and can start to see things the way someone else might. We’re better able to consider that others might have different wants, needs, values, or ideas than we do. We also become more open-minded – and this is particularly important when it comes to thinking about how the future might be different, or how we ourselves might change. Studies show that when we zoom out in time and perspective, we become much more likely to take in new information that runs counter to our existing beliefs. This is a kind of mental superpower.

I can’t help but wonder whether Jews tap into these benefits on a minimal level simply by thinking about the future so often, even if we don’t practice EFT. Thinking about the ingathering of exiles three times a day must, on some level, chip away at the feeling of permanence we have about our current home. Yearning for the judges to “remove sorrow and sighing” must, on some level, give us hope that our emotional turmoil is not everlasting, and that there is hope for a cure. Verbalizing our conviction in a future of peace with our neighbors must, on some level, rewire our minds and emotions to believe in peace as a real possibility; this, in turn, will make us more likely to do something about peace in our lifetimes.

It seems to me that it would be a worthwhile investment of time and energy to practice EFT on the future scenarios we talk about in davening, whether through journaling, simulations (like this cool video of a modernized Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Third Mikdash), reading fiction, writing fiction, fleshing out these scenarios when we encounter them in our learning and teaching, or even by taking a few moments just to visualize what we’re saying when we daven.
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