Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sweeter Than Honey

Chassidic philosophy teaches that cooking a bitter vegetable like radishes in honey creates a dish that is sweeter than the honey itself.  The tremendous heat of cooking draws out the vegetable’s inherent – but hidden – sweetness so that it surpasses something that is sweet by nature.  The analogy is used to illustrate how the darker and more unsavory aspects of our personalities like anger, depression, and anxiety can actually be transformed into something sweet through the heat and pressure of difficult experiences.  The point is made that the trials that we go through in life are purposeful, and sent to us from G-d, in order to refine, elevate, and sweeten our baser natures.  Hard times are needed to develop the mellow sweetness of a mature personality.

The complete resolution of difficult situations demands that we must first become bittul.  The concept of bittul, which is at the core of Chassidic thought, states that separation between people and people, people and nature, people and G-d is an illusion.  In fact, all of creation is actually integrated and unified – like one body with many different limbs and organs working in unison.  Seeing ourselves as somehow removed and apart from the rest of existence is seen as a great sin and a sign of tremendous arrogance.  We are bittul when we humbly accept that we are just one part of a much larger reality.

Difficult and intractable problems arise in order to force us to look outside of ourselves and join with the larger world.  It may be as simple as asking advice from someone who has been in our shoes before.  We sometimes think that our problems are unique to us and that nobody else could possibly understand them.  However, the truth is that there is “nothing new under the sun” and that many other people have preceded us on whatever path we are currently on.  Or it may mean joining a support group that uses the power of camaraderie to educate, support, and heal.

Ultimately, it requires that we realize that there is a single unifying force that created the world and that we are caught up in that Creator’s awesome plan.  Recognizing that we have been born to serve a higher purpose depersonalizes our problems and shows us that their resolution depends on our ability to go beyond our own finite resources and draw from G-d’s infinite energy and light.

There is an expression in Alcoholics Anonymous that can be applied to any situation in life:  Let go, let G-d.  It means that we need to stop obsessing over things that are out of our control and realize that we are not the final arbiters of our own reality.  Rather, we are tools in the hands of a great artist – or master builder – who is using our services to accomplish a task.  Our egos view this as a diminishment because we have to admit that we are not as in control as we thought, but our souls are triumphant because we are now poised to accomplish our purpose and will finally have the wherewithal to get the job done.  

We are less inclined to get angry over perceived slights, depressed over disappointments, or anxious about an uncertain future when we are attached to the infinite source of life and recognize that we are never alone in our struggles – that our problems are not ours alone.  We realize that we have a partner who is ready to help – as soon as we learn how to ask.  This state of bittul does not come easily – or even naturally.  It only arises when intractable problems force us to admit that we cannot do it on our own and that we need to reach out and ask for help.  The process of transforming the bitterness of our lives into something sweeter than honey can now begin.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Take A Breath

“Take a deep breath and count to ten,” is the advice we give to someone who is getting angry.  Practices like yoga and meditation use breathing as a technique to achieve a relaxed and balanced state.  Exercise, singing, and intimate relations all incorporate deep breathing and have been shown to be very helpful for emotional and physical well-being.  Studies have proven that proper breathing positively impacts the heart, the brain, digestion, and the immune system.  It’s the easiest thing we can do -  but it is often a neglected and underutilized tool.

Take a moment right now to breathe deeply five times.   Don’t you feel better?

The Tanya, which is a central text in Chassidic philosophy, stresses that G-d did not breathe life into Adam, but rather, G-d blew the life-force into the first human.  Therefore, if we are to access the full power of G-d’s essence throughout our days, we must emulate the Creator by expelling our breath with great force.

A Kabbalistic text called the Bahir uses an analogy of a glass blower to explain the five levels of soul.  The breath that the artist blows into the tube is associated with the Neshama, that part of our souls that contains the ability to talk and reason.  The air that reaches the molten glass and produces the desired shape is related to Ruach, the aspect of our souls that animates and moves us.  The created glass vessel itself is our Nefesh, the dimension of our souls that sustains our physical bodies.  The breath that is inside the artist before he blows is our Chaya, which represents our higher souls residing with the angels in the upper worlds.  Finally, the artist’s desire or will to blow is our Yechida, which is intimately connected to G-d’s Infinite Self.  We can experience our entire souls simply by consciously filling our lungs to capacity and breathing out completely!

Shallow breathing is our normal state and is good enough for our continued existence, but deep breathing is vital to our achieving greatness.  We must intentionally override the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates our normal body functions, in order to access the tremendous G-dly energy that is inside us.  The vitality produced by forceful breathing can push us out of mundane routines in pursuit of something higher.  Therefore, we should institute a daily regimen that promotes deep breathing.  For example, the Jewish cycle of praying three times daily is an opportunity to focus attention on our breathing in a consistent and sustained way.  The afternoon prayer especially interrupts the frenzied activities of everyday life and creates the opportunity to reflect and refuel.  

We can also learn to use the power of our breathing when faced with difficult or anxious situations.  With practice, stressful moments can automatically trigger deep breathing instead of the shallow, rapid breathing typically induced by the fight or flight instinct.  This will give us the wherewithal to react to the situation in a balanced and measured way rather than panicking and making mistakes.  

Each of us possesses this key to accessing G-dly energy but often forget to use it.  We should challenge ourselves to learn how to consistently breathe properly.  This will give us the energy and balance needed to achieve the greatness for which we are destined.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Welcoming the World

In just the few weeks since I started this blog, there have been visitors from all around the world - including: the United States, Croatia, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Israel, Austria, Hungary, and South Korea.  Wow!  Thanks to everyone who is reading.  If you enjoy this site, please share it with your friends.  Looking forward to hearing your comments and questions in the future.

If you have a topic to suggest, send me an email by clicking on one of the "Contact Me" buttons on the right side of the page.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Letter to Yourself

Chassidic philosophy teaches that we each have two competing souls – a G-dly soul and an animal soul. Our G-dly soul is home to all our higher aspirations like generosity, fairness, empathy, etc. while our animal soul pushes us toward grasping, greedy, and self-serving behavior. These two souls are in a constant struggle inside us.  But it is not a fair fight,because the animal soul is our more natural state while the G-dly soul is foreign to the body and must be pursued. If you were to throw a rock into the air, it would naturally fall back to earth unless a constant force was present to keep it aloft. The same is true of the G-dly soul. If we are not actively working to live in our higher selves then we will naturally fall back into our baser instincts.

A client once told me a story that perfectly illustrates this idea:

She went on a three day canoe/camping trip in the southwest US with her Alcoholics Anonymous group. After dinner on the first night, while everyone was around the campfire, a facilitator led them through a guided visualization. This is an exercise where a leader guides a group into a meditative state through vivid spoken imagery. She reported that it was an amazing, transformative experience and that she felt centered and at peace when it was over.

The facilitator then passed out paper and pens and asked everyone in the group to write letters to themselves describing how they were feeling at that moment and what they thought was important in life. Envelopes were then passed out and the members of the group were instructed to write their addresses on the front, put their letters inside, seal the envelopes, and hand them to the facilitator. She informed the group that she would mail the letters to them at some future date.

Several months went by and my client forgot about the letter. Unfortunately, life was not going very well for her at this time – a bad breakup with a boyfriend, troubles with her teenage daughter, pressures at work, etc. A downward spiral was starting that had, in the past, led her to relapse on alcohol.  She reported that she fought it as long as she could but had finally given up and made up her mind to go to the liquor store after her daughter went out for the night. Remarkably, her “camping” letter arrived that very day. She opened it with shaking hands and read exactly what she needed to stop the relapse. She couldn’t believe how prescient and wise she sounded in the letter and thanked G-d that it arrived when it did.

The lesson of this story is that she had a wise woman inside herself who only spoke under the right conditions. This wise woman needed to be invited and provided with a space in which her quiet and measured words could be appreciated. This aspect of herself could not push and jostle to the front like the animal soul, demanding attention. Rather, it was only brought out by the meditation exercise in a caring and supported environment.

A human support system is vital if we want to stay strong. We must gather around us people who challenge and encourage us to seek our higher selves. In this way we will be strengthened for all that the world throws our way and will actualize all that G-d hopes for us.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Overcoming Loneliness

Loneliness is the one of the greatest challenges in life.  It is an empty and dislocated feeling that has nothing to do with how many people are around us.  Rather, we feel lonely when we are unable to connect to our environment in a meaningful way.  I find it interesting that I never feel lonely when submerged in nature but often feel very lonely when surrounded by people.  For others it is just the opposite.  They feel right at home in a crowded room but would freak out if left alone in the woods.  Perceiving our environment as something alien and potentially threatening is the common thread that winds through both scenarios.  Do we feel a part of our current scenes or do we feel like uninvited and unwanted guests?

Obviously, we are naturally drawn to the type of environment that feels most comfortable.  However, the necessities of life often demand that we also function in places that feel foreign.  Our challenge is to not just survive situations that trigger loneliness but to actually thrive in them.  Somehow we have to feel that we belong and can connect with whatever is around us.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that in order to do this we must attach ourselves to the life force that is both inherent in all situations and transcends and encompasses all situations.  There is an eternal energy called ohr p’nimi (internal light) that flows through and animates our seemingly finite world.  Only an infinitesimal amount of this G-dly light is allowed to manifest because any more would exceed the capacity of physical reality.  The energy that is “too big” to be revealed in our world and therefore beyond perception is called ohr makif (surrounding light).  The revealed light and the hidden light are opposite aspects of the same G-d.

Our five senses tell us that our world is characterized by separation and fundamental differences between types.  However, this is an illusion because the same energy is inherent in all situations – it is just manifested differently.  For example, the same light passing through stained glass shines in many different colors.  The essence of the light has not changed, only it colors.  Therefore, if we identify ourselves as belonging to the source of the light (i.e., G-d) rather than its external manifestations then we reach the comfortable conclusion that no matter where we find ourselves we have a constant companion that shares our feelings and understands our thoughts.  

I won’t feel alienated at a dinner party if I remember that the same energy that I connect to in nature is hidden in that dining room.  I just need to seek it out in the faces of those around me.  Beyond my own comfort level, a willingness to work through feelings of loneliness and alienation in order to tap into that infinite light actually increases the capacity of this world for goodness.  It is seen by Chassidic philosophy as an act of mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice).  It pushes me past my perceived limitations and draws a “new light” into the world.  Ohr makif (surrounding light) becomes ohr p’nimi (internal light). 

We all feel lonely on occasion.  However, our willingness to seek out the G-dly light inherent in all experiences not only wards off this loneliness but it actually brings our world one step closer to wholeness by revealing a new level of energy.  Our ability to relate freely and intimately in situations that were once alien will actually introduce new light and health into the world.  What we once saw as something separate and foreign will now be experienced as vital to our well-being and pursued vigorously.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happiness vs Joy

The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.    -Victor Frankl

There is a fundamental difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is transitory and dependent on what is happening at a given moment while joy is eternal and can flow through all experiences.  For example, I will be very happy if I win a new car in a contest and I will be very unhappy if someone vandalizes it.  I will be happy if someone compliments me and unhappy if someone criticizes me.  This is normal.  Reacting appropriately to various situations is a sign of a healthy psyche.  I should be sad when someone important leaves my life.  I should be anxious if someone is threatening me, etc. 

But these are just surface level feelings.  We also have deeper emotions that wind their way through all of our experiences.  Joy, despair, and anger are examples.  Our personalities are generally defined by the particular, deep emotion that is most steady and consistent over time.  If it is joy then we will have a cheerful disposition.  If it is despair then we will be depressed.  If it is anger then we will attack any situation that makes us uncomfortable with an emotional hammer.

Let’s take the vandalized car as an example.  A joyful person will put the experience into a broader context and say something like, “At least nobody was hurt.”  A depressed person will see this as just one more example of how nothing works out for him and that he does not deserve anything nice.  An angry person will look for someone to blame and take his anger out on whoever is available – whether that person had anything to do with the event or not.

Clearly, joy is the most desirable and adaptive choice – but how do we get it?

Joy results from the simple recognition that we have a place, purpose, and role to play in this world.  It occurs when we realize that, no matter where we find ourselves, we are where we need to be.  We may not be in good or desirable situations – they may even be dangerous and demand resolute action – but we are there because they somehow fit into the context of purposeful lives.  Joy is produced when we understand that we are always part of something larger than ourselves and that every person and situation we encounter helps us to grow and provides us with opportunities to make the world just a little bit better.

Obviously, for this to work we must open ourselves up to the possibility that there is a benevolent force behind this world that desires goodness and love - thinking that we are part of something bigger than ourselves does not necessarily make conspiracy theorists joyful.  Connecting to the eternal force animating the world rather than to external constructs will engender feelings of true joy because every situation can then be viewed in a positive light.  Rather than seeing ourselves as pawns in some malevolent game, we now see ourselves as partners in creation.

We are not tossed about emotionally by the events of our days when joy is the foundation of our lives.  Rather, we capture the state of being so valued by the mystics called equanimity.  This allows us to accept every situation – good and bad – as necessary to our work.  It frees us from worry and gives us the strength to distill goodness and light from every situation.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Where Exactly Are You Going?

"No matter where you go…there you are." -Buckaroo Bonzai

It’s been my experience that it is much better to be moving toward something great than moving away from something awful.  Obviously a single situation often contains both sides of this equation, but it is important to recognize our perspective in the matter.

For example, addicts will often seek out a “geographic” solution to their problem.  They’ll say, “I just can’t take this anymore.  I need to go somewhere (anywhere) else and start over.”  A client and I once had a good laugh when he related how he tried this once.  He decided to move to the “middle of nowhere” USA to get away from the drug scene.  Unfortunately, he met a dealer on the bus he was riding and was so high by the time he got to his destination that he was promptly arrested.  A similar situation is faced by the victim of an abusive relationship.  Its common that he or she will focus exclusively on getting away from the current abuser…  only to land in the arms of the next abuser. 

When you hear yourself say, “I just need to get away from                       ,”  stop and ask yourself where exactly you are going?  Obviously, when one finds oneself in a dangerous situation it is necessary to get to any place of safety as quickly as possible.  But sooner or later, you have to start thinking about what you really want that place to look like.

Actively pursuing solution-oriented goals is much better than passively reacting to negative situations.  One should not give undue power to negativity by using it as a guide for life – habitually moving away from one bad scene after another.  Instead, we should preemptively seek out and pursue the places and people that best fit our personalities, talents, and desires.  Moving forward in this way is the best way to avoid negativity.  But in order to do this we must first find an internal drive – the nucleus of power and inspiration that can push us forward to grow, create, and nurture.

We are all born with a profound motivation to explore and discover.  Each of us has innate likes and dislikes that draw us to certain types of people and environments.  Picture the wide-eyed wonder on the faces of children as they enter a place they’ve never been before.  Meditate on your inner sense of comfort when you have a conversation with somebody that really “gets you.”  Unfortunately, this sense of wonder and awareness of our personal preferences can get lost in the process of growing up.

There are many opportunities to get hurt when we are out exploring the world – especially during adolescence.  Someone may make fun of our awkward first steps into a new activity.  A best friend today may be completely disinterested tomorrow.  An unkind or thoughtless statement about our looks may hurt us badly.  Many people learn to shut down during this time and not care – because caring seems to be a set up for getting hurt.  This leads to what I call whatever-itis.  As teenagers we learn that it’s cool not to care and it hurts less to live in this numbed state.  But in the process our essential selves are lost and we begin to increasingly identify with the various personae, or masks, that we wear to keep us safe.

We can reclaim our sense of wonder at discovery – our internal drive – by finding people who accept and love us for who we really are.  This may require developing new relationships or reaffirming connections to people who have always been around but not appreciated.  A grandparent is an archetype of this kind of person.  However, if we’re not yet ready (or able) to connect so deeply with another person we may want to do something like getting a pet – dogs are fabulously non-judgmental!  If being in nature makes you feel at peace with yourself then get outside on a regular basis and explore.  Do whatever it takes to learn how to be fully present and emotionally available so your innate desire to create and transform your world is awakened.  You will soon discover that wherever you “are” can be a great place – and others will likely want to join you there.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Never Waste the Opportunity of a Crisis

Resistance to change is an instinctual and purposeful aspect of the human psyche.  Our personal identities are defined and our intellectual and emotional energies are conserved by a psychic barrier that surrounds habitual thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.  It protects our relationships and values – and is the bedrock of cultural identification.  Most of the time resistance to change serves us well because it provides the settled and predictable environment needed for life.  However, normal human growth and development demands that we also have the ability to step outside of ourselves and view the world from completely new perspectives.  We must balance the conservative instinct with occasional departures from our treasured convictions.

The first step in personal growth and development occurs when we recognize feelings of frustration that are consistently engendered by a particular situation.  Something is just not working for us.  This frustration may revolve around relationships, activities, or goals.  We are stymied and can’t get what we want.  Our first instinct in situations like this is to try and change them.  For example, if I think my boss is a jerk and I hate my job my first thought may be, “I need a new job.”  If my girlfriend leaves me feeling empty it may be time to start looking around.  If I just can’t seem to lose those 15 pounds then, “I’m just going to go buy bigger pants.”

But what happens if my next boss is also a jerk, or the next girlfriend also leaves me wanting, or if those new pants start to feel tight after just a few months?  The painful truth is that, sooner or later, we all must be able to recognize and admit our own roles in intractable problems.  This is not easy because, as mentioned above, we all have an instinctual aversion to change.  Admitting that we are part of the problem implies that we going to have to change something about ourselves if we want to be part of the solution. 

Change makes us vulnerable.  It’s awkward and sometimes embarrassing because we’re trying to do something we have not yet mastered.  It draws energy away from other parts of our lives and can leave us tired and unsure of ourselves.  Therefore, fundamental change in personality is generally a last resort that often requires the particular situation getting so bad that it turns into a crisis.  Our hand is now forced and we have nothing left to do except examine ourselves to see if, and how, we can adapt.  Like a snake shedding its skin in order to grow we must shed our usual thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.  And like the snake that hides while its new skin is hardening we must find refuge in an environment that makes us feel safe and supported while going through the travails of trial and error.

That safety is found in deep and enduring relationships with people who have our best interests at heart and are able to talk us through hurt, disappointment, and self-doubts.  But we might not have a person like this in our lives, or if we do, we do not take advantage of the connection.  Attaching to someone during the process of change and adaptation is absolutely essential if we are going to be able to access our essential natures and change something deep.  It provides the emotional and psychic space to address the frustration over what’s not working for us.  It allows us to see a crisis as an opportunity for change rather than one more example of how things just don’t work for us.

The opportunity of a crisis is usually brief and can easily be missed if we allow ourselves to fall back into old habits.  Challenge yourself to find somebody to connect with the next time things start to fall apart for you.  Look deeply into yourself, talk things over with your confidant, and tap into the courage needed to do things differently.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Strive for Greatness

“Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”  - William Shakespeare

Chassidic philosophy teaches that all of us are destined for greatness.  We all have genius in some aspect of our lives and it is our obligation to discover and use that genius.  Neglecting this obligation can lead to fundamental and persistent psychological problems.  A healthy psyche does not result from a life free from strife, but rather, it is the natural consequence of a life in pursuit of greatness. 

The pursuit of greatness starts with an exploration of our personal and innate talents, traits, and preferences – basically “who are we?”  This is not as hard as it sounds.  It can be as simple as remembering back to childhood and asking, “What did I love back then?  What was I good at?  What could I do in my sleep?”  I have asked these questions to literally hundreds of my clients in therapy and have never had someone stumped.  It may take a little prodding and encouragement, but everyone can find something they have always loved and been good at.  This little exercise begins the process of discovering the essential self.

Next, we have to scan our world to determine what needs to be accomplished.  The world we live in is, to say the least, imperfect – it needs to be fixed.  According to Chassidic Philosophy everyone has the obligation (and ability) to make the world just a little bit better.  We are hard-wired for this job and feel unsettled when we are unable to do it.  Unfortunately, we are often distracted away from this core function.  The main reason we don’t always follow this path, I believe, is because we are too busy warding off perceived threats.  We can’t accomplish anything great when we are in “fight or flight” mode – all we can do is survive.

I remember one day when my oldest son was just a toddler he ran up to me with pure joy and jumped into my arms.  I expected him to look lovingly into my eyes, but instead he turned his face away from me and happily gazed out at the world around him.  I realized at that moment what my job as a father is – to make sure my mere presence allows my children to feel safe looking out into their worlds.

Unfortunately, many people have never experienced this feeling of comfort, so instead of exploring their worlds, making mistakes, dusting themselves off and trying again, they do whatever they can to keep dangerous situations and people at bay. 

In order to move out of this survival mode we need to find someone – a teacher, mentor, or guide – who can be a stabilizing and reassuring presence in our lives.  We need someone to connect with.  In the Chassidic world this person is called a mashpia.  A therapist can be this person – so can a parent.  It is any person who makes us feel comfortable enough to look out into the world in pursuit of opportunities rather than in avoidance of threats.

When we feel comfortable in our own skins and can walk with our heads up and our eyes forward we are ready for the last step in the pursuit of greatness – namely, plugging ourselves into that particular part of the world that needs our natural traits and talents.  Truly, we are the answer to what’s ailing our planet.  You’ve always had a way with kids?  Great, be a parent, a teacher, or a coach.  You’ve always been good with plants?  Fabulous, start an urban garden, grow organic vegetables, or give a class at a retirement center.  You’ve always had a knack for business?  Stupendous, mentor a non-profit on how to manage their finances or teach single moms how to manage their budgets.

Whoever you are – you are needed.  Find out what you’re good at, discover what needs to be accomplished in this world, and plug yourself in so that you can be of use to those around you.  This will automatically lead to greatness and is the recipe for a happy and well-adjusted life.

Awakening from Depression

For Your Well-being – Psychology and Jewish Wisdom

Clinical depression is a debilitating condition that impacts all aspects of a person’s life – relationships, school or career, and even physical health.   A study at Duke University has found that 17.1% of Americans suffer from depression sometime during their lives.  That’s over 5 million people.  Many suffer in silence not realizing that they are in the grip of a major psychiatric disorder – and that there is a way out of their despair.  Modern Psychiatry and Psychology have developed many effective drug and therapy-based answers to clinical depression.  The type of anti-depressant usually prescribed is called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).  Prozac is the most famous example from this family.  Research has found that combining an anti-depressant with therapeutic interventions such as individual psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or family-based therapy has the greatest immediate and long-term impact on depression. 

In my own clinical practice I have seen how effective this combined approach can be, especially when it is supplemented by one more element – namely, traditional Jewish wisdom.  Over three thousand years of primary texts (such as the Torah, Talmud, and Zohar) and their commentaries has provided a deep reservoir of ideas and approaches that any practicing psychotherapist would be wise to explore and tap into.  For example, Jewish wisdom makes a sharp distinction between atzvut (dejection and depression) and merirut (bitterness and sorrow).  I explain to my clients suffering from depression that we need to differentiate between sadness, which is an authentic and appropriate reaction to something like a death or some other loss, and depression, which is basically a numbing out of feeling that leads to nihilistic thinking.  This is a vital point to understand because it has been my experience that we tend to move into depression when we are unable to experience sadness to an appropriate degree.  We get stuck in our grief and we shut down.

Jewish tradition teaches that there are appropriate times and places for all our emotions – including sadness and grief.  For example, there is a practice called tikkun chatzot where pious individuals wake up in the middle of the night to mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Jewish mourning periods of shiva, the year of saying kaddish, and yartzeit anniversaries set aside times when it is safe to step out of our normal routines and truly feel and express our sadness.  Memorial days like Tisha b’Av and the 17th of Tammuz evoke sorrow over the losses that the Jewish nation has suffered.

In general Jewish tradition values simcha (joy) over all other emotions because a joyful person is able to accomplish more goodness in this world than someone who is dejected and depressed.  However, the reality is that we cannot be truly joyful unless we have passed through our particular sadness authentically and thoroughly.  Therefore, my goal for therapy is to create a place and time where clients feel safe to let down their defenses and find their tears over painful memories or events.  This cathartic process allows them to get unstuck from their grief and move back into the active pursuit of life.