Monday, April 4, 2011

The Fog of War

There is a peculiar state of mind called the “fog of war” that affects soldiers engaged in military operations. The phrase was coined by the early nineteenth century military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, to describe how uncertainty, ambiguity, and fear, “…gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.” He maintained that it is a challenge to see things as they really are on the battlefield because  the stakes are so high – literally life or death – and vitally important information is often incomplete or inaccurate. The natural impulse is to over-react and see phantoms and ghoulish enemies that are not actually there. How soldiers and commanders deal with this fog, von Clausewitz maintains, is one of the biggest determinants of who will win the battle.

It has been my experience that this fog of war is not limited to the battlefield. Rather, many of us wake up every day and engage in a perceived fight for our lives against forces that seem to be attacking us from all directions. We are constantly either on the defensive or the attack and often “over-react and see ghoulish enemies that are not actually there.” Life is seen as a constant competition and if, “I’m not winning,” then I am in mortal danger. It is an exhausting way to live and can lead to all sorts of physical and psychological problems. 

There are a variety of techniques designed to help us navigate through this fog: mindfulness exercises like yoga and meditation help us focus on what is real and “stay in the moment;” aerobic exercise clears the mind and dumps endorphins into our systems, helping us to regain balance and vital energy; anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications regulate the chemicals in our body so we can better cope with the stressors of life; going out into nature “recharges the batteries,” etc. For soldiers, repeating the same tasks over and over during training helps them switch into autopilot when the fog hits so that they are able to do what needs to be done even in the most horrifying and extreme situations.

While all these techniques are effective to one degree or another, they do not address the root of the problem. According to Chassidic philosophy, the most basic and fundamental answer to the fog of war is to simply stop viewing the world as a battlefield. Chassidism teaches that our purpose in life is to help bring about the Messianic era, when all violence, hatred, lack, and evil will be removed from the earth and that every time we act in a way that draws people together rather than pushing them apart, we bring this utopian state closer to fruition.  According to the Chassidic masters, the best way to stay in this mindset is to act “as if” the Messianic era had already arrived.

Obviously, anyone who scans the geopolitical landscape would struggle with a statement like that. Unfortunately, thousands of events rock our planet daily that demonstrate conclusively that the Messiah has not yet arrived. However, in our personal lives – where we exhibit at least a modicum of control – we do have the ability to live as if we are in the Messianic era by resisting our initial impulse to see everyone around us as competitors and instead start viewing them as partners. I have been involved in several effective collaborative projects, and the tipping point towards success always occurs when we start to see ourselves as sharing common interests and benefiting equally from the cooperative effort. We push through traditional rivalries because it becomes obvious that the old saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is actually true.

It is this sort of spirit that will epitomize the Messianic era. So why not get a head start on the benefits of that age by living as if it has already arrived? It is as simple as tweaking one’s mindset. That is, when I start to see the person next to me as a potential partner rather than a competitor threatening to take my “last piece of pie,” then I will truly push this world one step closer to perfection.  Chassidic philosophy promises that over the course of time, small actions on the personal level can actually impact and change the wider world. Along the way, I will experience much more success and happiness in my personal life because I will have finally emerged from the fog of war into the brightness of day.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To Thine Own Self Be True

Living authentically means that my external behaviors accurately reflect my internal self.  That is, what I do and say in the world at large aligns with what I think and value inside my head.  In Chassidic thought, a person who lives truthfully is called an atzmi, which is related to the Hebrew word etzem (bone).  This implies that in order to be authentic we have to identify and consistently articulate our most essential selves - those aspects of our personalities that best define who we are.  So often, our public selves are instead an ever-shifting series of masks or personae that we put on to either keep ourselves safe or to opportunistically achieve some desired result.  This may be expedient, but over the course of time we will lose touch with who we really are and become alienated from ourselves.  Of course, this does not imply that we should never compromise or adapt to various situations.  Rather, it means that whatever compromise is achieved must reflect our core values so that we do not find ourselves living at odds with our most fundamental truths.  

A close friend recently related a story that beautifully demonstrates this idea:

Many years ago there was a Chinese emperor who was getting on in years and fretting over the fact that he did not have any children to continue his legacy.  Therefore, he devised a plan that would help him identify the one person in the kingdom best qualified to rule after him.  He randomly invited hundreds of people to his palace and announced that one of them was going to be the new emperor after he died.  The astounded assembly gasped and trembled to hear what the emperor would say next.  He lifted up a bag filled with seeds and stated that they would each get one seed  and that the new emperor would be selected based on the quality of the plants produced from those seeds.  

A small boy was among the crowd that day.  He excitedly got his seed and took it home to his mother.  She helped him plant it in a small pot, water it, and place it in the sun.  He dutifully cared for the seed and watched hopefully for something to sprout, but it never did.  Several weeks went by and nothing happened – he was left staring at an empty jade pot.  Of course, the entire kingdom was quickly abuzz with the news of the contest and everyone was talking about how the people with the seeds were doing.  Tales of the exotic flowers and full, bushy plants being tended by the contestants filled the streets and market places while this small boy looked forlornly at his pile of dirt.  He became more and more depressed as time wore on.
A whole year passed and the emperor summoned everyone back to his palace to judge the products of their labors.  The boy meekly joined the others streaming back to the emperor with their wide variety of flowers, plants, fruit trees, and shrubs.  A veritable walking botanic garden filed through the gates and into the main courtyard.  The boy found his place at the back of the assembly and tried to hide.  The emperor suddenly stepped onto a platform and surveyed all the plants before him.  There was absolute silence for many minutes until his eyes finally landed on the small boy with the empty pot and he signaled for the guards to bring him to the front.  They shouldered their way through the crowd and brought the boy to the emperor who hugged and kissed the shocked lad.  The emperor gazed out at the people and proclaimed in a loud voice that their new emperor, who would take his place after he died, was standing before them.

The emperor then revealed that all the seeds given out a year ago had been boiled.  Therefore, there was no way that any of them could have sprouted because they were all dead.  He shook his head sadly as he explained that everyone, except this boy, must have replaced their seeds.  Only he was fit to rule, because only he had the courage to honest.

We often feel compelled to say or do things contrary to our own belief systems because we feel that we will be judged poorly if we do not.  We’re worried that we will not “fit in” or “move forward” if we do not present ourselves as we think others want us to be.  While there might be short-term advantages to this approach, over the course of time, we will grow further and further away from our true selves and lose sight of who we really are.  This is a problem from a Chassidic perspective because each of us was born according to G-d’s design and the Creator is waiting expectantly for us to employ our innate talents, traits, genius, and quirks.  There is a unique role for each of us to play in the perfection of the world which will remain unfilled until we live according to our true selves.  This keeps the ultimate fulfillment of creation on hold until we can discover and utilize our essential personalities. 

On his deathbed, the great Chassidic master, Reb Zusia of Anipoli, said that he was not at all concerned about being asked – upon arrival in the world to come – why he was not more like Moses, Abraham, or King David.  However, he was very worried that he might be asked, “Zusia, why were you not more like Zusia?”  Each of us is obligated to fully use the gifts endowed to us by the Creator.  This often means having the courage to truly be ourselves even when this makes us appear out of sync with those around us, because the truth is, that they may have all replaced the seeds given to them by the King with those of their own making.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

1000th Visitor

Dear Readers,

Today marked the 1000th visitor to Adding Light!  If you enjoy the articles here, please share them with your friends and check back regularly for new posts.

All the best - Nachshon

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An End to Suffering

It is a Chassidic custom to eat heaping portions of marror (bitter herbs – usually raw horseradish) during the Passover Seder.  In my case, this practice typically leads to tremendous coughing fits and a huge outpouring of tears.  Someone once asked me what I think about while doing this.  My immediate answer:  I think about all the things in life that should make me cry, but don’t.  

There is a lot of pain and suffering in this world.  Desensitization is a survival trait that allows us to keep functioning and getting things done even when we witness one tragedy after another.  In fact, people who are extremely sensitive and possess great empathy often struggle because they cannot effectively shut out others’ pain and can become debilitated by it.  For example, I have worked for years with heroin addicts and I have always been amazed at how sensitive they are – as a group – to the plight of others.  In fact, they are so sensitive that they feel compelled to turn to the numbing effects of the drug to shut it off.

Learning how to relate to a world that is so full of hurt is one of life’s great endeavors.  It leads to many personality types – and potentially, to lots of psychological problems.  It has been my experience that pretending that the suffering of this world does not personally affect me is a dangerous delusion.  Deep down, we all know that we are interconnected to everything around us and therefore impacted by the travails of others.  We also know that hard times catch up to everyone sooner or later.  The challenge is to be open and sensitive to what is going on around us while not being overwhelmed by the sadness of it all.  In order to do this, we must develop a purpose that gives meaning to both the good and the not-so-good times.

It is a Chassidic axiom that the world is inherently broken and that our souls will never be at peace until we find a way to fix it.  The idea of tikkun olam (the repair of the world) is one of the greatest gifts of the Jewish tradition to the world.  It reconciles the fact that good people often suffer, with the concept of an all-powerful and all-loving G-d.  It answers the question often asked after a tragedy, “How could G-d allow this to happen?”  

Tikkun Olam teaches that the world is a work in progress and that G-d has enlisted us as partners in its completion.  There is an end goal that we are all working towards, and the truth is that some things need to be broken along the way in order to achieve it.  This idea is played out in nature all the time.  For example, if we want a loaf of bread we must start off by plowing under a pristine field, violently ripping and breaking up the ground.  Then we bury the wheat seeds under the dirt.  After a while, the seed casings begin to rot and decay, which allows green shoots to sprout forth.  Soon, the field is covered by a soft green blanket of young wheat plants that will – over the course of months – mature into tall, straight stalks.  Next, we destroy these “amber waves of grain” by slicing the wheat plants at their stems, gathering them up, and then beating and shaking the plants in order to separate the kernels from the chaff.  Grinding the grain into fine powder between large stones is the final step.  At last, we have flour, which is the essential ingredient for bread.

Agriculture is a process of constant transformation from one state to another, often accomplished by destroying the original form.  In order to plant, we have to “destroy” the field.  In order for the shoots to emerge, the seed casings have to rot.  In order to get the grain we must “kill” and “traumatize” the plants.  Finally, we have to pulverize the seeds into flour.  It would be hard to justify this operation if there were no worthwhile product at the end of the day.  However, we do not feel any guilt because the bread we eat sustains life, and therefore the entire operation is purposeful and meaningful.

We can view the course of human history in the same way.  We have been working towards an end goal for thousands of years, namely the messianic era which will bring the world to completion and perfection – and bring an end to suffering.   History creates limitless opportunities for deepening relationships between people and drawing us all together in a spirit of cooperation.  Look how recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan have triggered massive, world-wide outpourings of giving and mobilized entire nations to respond with coordinated relief efforts.

The proper response to suffering is to reach out and connect to others in a way that alleviates the situation.  New and deeper relationships can result from a crisis when we are able to stave off despair and actively pursue the goal of improving the lives of those in pain.  When we respond to life’s suffering in this way we bring the world one step closer to completion.  This perspective allows us to remain active, purposeful, and even joyful, while not shutting ourselves off from the real hardships that surround us.  It encourages us to focus our efforts on bringing an end to suffering because we realize that this is the ultimate purpose of our lives.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Beyond Nihilism

The Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) begins with the phrase, “Futilities of futilities…All is futile!  What profit does man have for all his labor which he toils beneath the sun?”  Counter-intuitively, this phrase was composed by a man at the height of his power, living in sustained peace and prosperity.  King Solomon, the transcriber of Ecclesiastes, ruled over the land of Israel during the time of its greatest political influence and longest period of tranquility.  He had achieved the most any person can expect from this world and yet felt compelled to detail all the vanities of life.  As he writes, “I have applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this, too, is a vexation of the spirit.  For with much wisdom comes much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases pain.”

We generally have no time to think about the ultimate purpose of our lives while we are caught up in the struggle of making a living, raising kids, and pursuing our personal needs and desires.  It is only when we have attained a certain level of prosperity and peace can we sit back and reflect on the point of it all.  The actor and comedian Jim Carey once said that his greatest wish for humanity would be for everyone on the planet to experience fame and fortune so we could all see that it doesn’t necessarily make a person happy.  It is one of life’s great ironies that after years of intense struggle to achieve a certain goal, there is often a great letdown when we finally accomplish it.  We’re left saying something like, “Is this it – now what?”

I have found in my therapeutic practice that a lot of our problems are self-created with the subconscious intention of keeping our thoughts away from the ultimate meaning of our lives.  Nihilism - which is the belief that all endeavors are ultimately futile and devoid of meaning - is the greatest threat to our psychological and emotional well-being.  It undermines our motivation and resolve and we instinctively shy away from anything - including peace and quietude - that might open us up to this manner of thinking.  My first clinical supervisor once told me that many psychological problems, at their core, are existential in nature.  The unspoken and unanswered question is, "What is the meaning of it all?"  After many years of clinical practice, I believe that he was right.

The answer to the problem of nihilism, according to Chassidic philosophy, lies in King Solomon’s use of phrase “under the sun.”  The sun is symbolic of the source of all life – G-d.  When we live our lives detached from the Source (“under the sun”), viewing life as merely an endless pursuit of human needs and pleasures – devoid of any bigger purpose and meaning – then we will always be left empty at the end of the day.  But if we see our lives as connected to G-d’s plan to bring this world to perfection – ushering in the messianic era – then we can find the purpose of even the smallest of actions.

For example, a typical office session might include a client's narrative detailing the many mindless and aggravating tasks the she has to accomplish in her normal day.  She is very disheartened by it all and has to literally drag herself from one thing to the next.  The client reports that she is, "just sick of it" and can’t see the value of, "keeping at it day after day."  With these factors out in the open, we can slowly examine the path of her day, finding how it impacts her life and the lives of those around her.  We then can broaden the inquiry to determine how her responsibilities fit into the needs and workings of the broader community.  Finally, we investigate how these seemingly mundane and repetitive tasks are absolutely necessary for G-d’s plan for humanity to come to fruition.  She may have a strong belief in G-d, but she has neglected to explicitly attach her actions to G-d’s purpose.  This exercise is usually extremely valuable – allowing her to take heart from seeing how everything she does is tied to something bigger than herself.

Consciously attaching what we do to the infinite source of life provides our lives with depth and meaning.  We should start off each day with a quiet meditation linking our “to-do” lists with G-d’s bigger plan, and we should end each day with an accounting of how we did.  This will keep us from living “under the sun,” and far away from nihilism.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Feast or Famine

There is a story that describes how – after death – a certain soul is shown two different rooms upon its arrival in olam haba (the world to come).  The first is a gorgeous, oak paneled dining room with chandeliers, a long table, and high-backed chairs.  A feast is set with all kinds of foods, wines, and delicacies and a constant stream of servants approaches the table offering new dishes and extravagant drinks to try.  However, the soul is shocked to see that emaciated diners sit around the table, moaning and wailing with hunger.  Although there is a banquet in front of them they are starving because four-foot long forks have been attached to their arms.  Try as they might, the long protruding forks prevent them from putting the food into their mouths.  The soul rushes out of the room in horror and is immediately ushered into the second room.

This room is identical to the first one, with the same oak paneling, chandeliers, long table, and high backed-chairs.  There is a feast set, with servants bringing all kinds of food and drink.  Diners sit around the table with the same four-foot long forks attached to their arms, but instead of moaning and screaming with hunger, they are happily chatting and eating the banquet in front of them.  The only difference between the first group and the one in this room is that - instead of trying to feed themselves - they are feeding their dining partners on the opposite side of the table.

Often times the only difference between heaven and hell is our attitude and approach.  

Chassidic philosophy teaches that, sooner or later, a self-absorbed and self-centered personality will lead to misery because it runs contrary to the purpose of our births:  to partner with others in a mutually beneficial manner that will repair the deficiencies of the world (tikkun olam).  We are not designed to be closed off and indifferent to those around us.  Rather, this is an attitude that results from insecurity and fear.  Somewhere along the way, a greedy person came to believe that there is only one pie and that, “when your piece gets bigger, mine gets smaller.”  They have never learned or experienced that by working together there is more to be shared by all.

In the late nineteenth century, many people viewed the world through the lens of what is called Social Darwinism.  The notion of “survival of the fittest” was used to justify elite groups and powerful nations subjugating whole populations based on the belief that it was simply the natural order for the strong to exploit the weak.  This philosophy was the foundation for the colonization of entire continents and the fascist creed of Nazi Germany.  Even today, many people think that succeeding in this world is a “kill or be killed” proposition, even though the vast majority of relationships in nature are symbiotic rather than predatory.  

I have learned through my therapeutic practice that psychological and emotional health result from learning how to tear down the barriers between ourselves and the world and open up to new forms of cooperative relationships with those around us.  This can be a scary proposition for many because there is always the possibility of getting hurt when we reveal ourselves to others.  In order to have the courage to do this I would suggest that it is helpful to see the endeavor as something bigger than ourselves.  Learning to bring people into our lives in a healthy way should not just be for our own benefit.  Rather, it needs to be seen as actually fulfilling the mandate of our births.  It is a fact that people are better able to overcome difficulties and complete complex tasks when they are participating in a project that they see as bigger than themselves.

When we view our personal existence as purposeful rather than just a fluke of nature, then we can gain the courage to reach out to others around us and work together toward the common goal of bringing peace and bounty to this world.  Along the way, we will begin to experience this world as a feast rather than a famine.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Soul Power

If you ask the question, “What is the opposite of death?” most people will reply, “Life.”  From a Chassidic perspective however, the answer is actually birth.  Life is eternal, and death and birth are merely events – transitions from one sphere of reality to another.  I bring up this point in my therapeutic practice when I see that a client’s anxiety and depression is resulting from constrained vision and perspective.  It is the most natural thing in the world to belittle ourselves and fear uncertain futures when we focus on our low status as finite, mistake-prone beings.   However, the truth is that our time in this world is just a snap shot – a brief moment – and that in reality, our souls span across infinite worlds and eternal epochs.  We are actually much bigger than we appear to be.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was once interrogated by the Soviet secret police.  Frustrated and enraged by his lack of cooperation, his interrogator finally pulled out a gun, pointed it at him, and said, “This little toy has made many men talk!”  The Rebbe replied that “this little toy” could only frighten someone who believes in one world and many gods, but because he believed in many worlds with only one G-d, it didn’t scare him at all.  Because the Rebbe lived in a state of constant awareness of the ultimate truth, he was able to stay strong and true to his ideals even in the most horrifying situation.

In order to remain vital and hopeful through challenging and disheartening situations, we must expand our perspective beyond what is right in front of us and remember that we have souls that live both in this world and outside of it.  A stream of helpful information is constantly broadcast from those aspects of ourselves that exist beyond the confines of normal life.  Accessing this stream allows us to live in our higher selves and stay in sync with a larger reality.  Unfortunately, we generally remain oblivious to this source of wisdom because we just don’t tune into it.

From a Chassidic perspective, the human mind is not just a receptacle for memories and information.  Rather it is understood to be a type of jamming device whose main function is to screen out any information that is deemed irrelevant to the situation at hand.  The “default setting” of our minds generally restricts any information that does not pertain to food, shelter, and reproduction from entering into our consciousness.  If we want to go beyond this limited vision and tap into our full soul power, we must “reprogram our settings” so that the mind will allow more subtle messages to come through.

Here is a bit of a guided meditation to illustrate the point:

Imagine you are sitting on a bench in Manhattan.  It is 3:42 a.m. and all the night’s revelers have finally gone home and the day’s first delivery truck has yet to arrive.  It is actually quiet and you breathe deeply.  An old man approaches and sits on the bench.  You can faintly hear him humming a tune and you strain to listen.  It is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard and you sit enraptured.  Long, blissful minutes go by until… a taxi turns a corner and speeds down the street – rushing to the airport.  Trucks start to rumble in the distance.  You hear a door slam and people talking loudly.  You desperately look over at the old man and see that he’s still singing – but you can no longer hear him because the city’s noise is now drowning him out.

There is a constant divine chorus that has reverberated throughout the universe since G-d created it.  Our souls are actually a part of that choir and masterfully sing their assigned parts.  If we want to be truly alive and actualize our fullest potentials then we must learn how to hear what our own souls are singing.  In order to do this, we must first quiet the less refined parts of ourselves that constantly demand our attention.  Interestingly, the easiest and most straight-forward way of accomplishing this is by simply falling asleep.  Our minds are then much more open and receptive to messages streaming from our higher souls.  The trick is to practice remembering our dreams and then strive to understand their meaning to us.  Meditation and prayer also quiets the animal soul and allows us to tap into a higher source.  Getting lost in activities that line up with our personal talents and genius is another effective way to hear the divine chorus.

The point is that we need to actually do something in order to transcend our normal states of consciousness and open ourselves up to our souls’ full power.  If we do not actually open the door, then we will never see what’s behind it – and we will never recognize our own true worth and significance.  Ask yourself, “Am I doing anything today to go beyond the mundane and access this divine energy that both inhabits, and envelopes, my true essence?”   If the answer is no, then try to come up with at least one daily activity that will accomplish this goal.  It is a small investment that can be cultivated and expanded over time and will pay off a thousand-fold.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Power of Stories

Stories are powerful tools for personal exploration and growth.  Lessons learned from stories provide an emotional impact that deepens our hearts and an intellectual clarity that opens our minds, allowing us to capture feelings and insights that may have historically been out of our reach.  We are affected by stories in such a strong way because we generally view our own lives as narratives with ourselves in the starring role.  Therefore, it is easier to edit and change our storylines when it is just a simple transfer of life lessons from one narrative to another.  We identify, to a certain degree, with the hero of a story and see how that character’s experiences align with our own.  We gain strength because we now have a type of role model that we can emulate rather than attempting to apply a dry concept or idea to our lives without any context.

I often use Chassidic stories in my therapeutic practice because I see how it makes a message more real for the client.   For instance, here is a story from the Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Chassidic movement – that I frequently relate:

There once was a king who ruled over a large and prosperous kingdom.  The citizens were happy because the king provided security and ample opportunities for livelihoods.  They had known peace for many long years.  The only discord in the kingdom came from the fact that the king and queen had no children.  The people were sad for the royal family, but also concerned about their future because there was no one to continue the king’s legacy.  Beside that however, the kingdom proceeded peacefully from one day to the next.

One day, however, a royal proclamation was announced that created a huge stir in the kingdom.  The king had decided to grant private audiences to anyone in the kingdom who wanted to meet him.  This was especially shocking because the king had always ruled at a distance.  The people never saw him closer than when he spoke from an upstairs window of the palace or when he drove by in his carriage.  He had always been beloved but never in a personal way.  The king set the date and no one could think of anything else until it arrived.

The day dawned bright and sunny and the people flocking to the king were amazed to see a huge fair set up around the palace.  It was part circus and part carnival - providing a month’s worth of food, games, entertainment, sports, jugglers, fire-eaters, and exotic animals.  No one had ever seen anything like it.  The majority of the people never got passed the fair and spent the day in blissful merriment.

However, a small group remembered that they were there to see the king and moved through the carnival and across the drawbridge.  When they arrived in the king’s courtyard their eyes were blinded by light reflecting off countless precious gems and gold coins strewn on the ground in front of them.  Guards were stationed all around the courtyard and they motioned that the people could take whatever they could carry.  The people ran around hectically, stuffing immense fortunes into their pockets.  When they could simply carry no more, they struggled home to count their loot.

However, an even smaller group remembered that they were there to see the king and moved through the courtyard and entered the king’s antechamber.  This room was filled with sorcerers and magicians practicing their arcane arts and willing to teach anyone who wanted to know how to change the course of nature, conjure spirits, brew love potions, and formulate curses.  All those remaining spent the rest of the day learning how to become sorcerers – except for one.

One lone soul opened the door to the king’s room and walked in.  The sight of the king and queen sitting on their thrones in all their majesty triggered great trembling and fear.  The king arose, left his dais, and embraced the person warmly.  Then the king stepped back and said, “My kingdom is yours.”

A joyful and consistent pursuit of meaningful life goals demands that we stay connected to the Source of All.  And because our days are filled with a million concerns and worries, distractions and transitory pleasures, we must always focus on our ultimate objectives.  As they used to say in the 60’s, “You’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize.”  

A narrative like this brings this message home in a powerful and persuasive way because we automatically identify with the hero of the story and feel motivated to make the lessons real in our own lives.  An archetypal tale like this can ennoble us by showing that our lives too can be spent in a higher pursuit of greatness.  It can kick us into different ways of viewing ourselves and our worlds, giving us the strength to accomplish what G-d sent us to do.  Therefore, we should challenge ourselves to view stories as not just entertainment, but as real vehicles for growth and transcendence.  This will certainly help us push through whatever barriers are constricting our lives.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Bigger Picture

In the last post I described how Chassidic philosophy makes the assertion that “where we are today is exactly where we need to be in order to bring G-d’s universe to completion.” I introduced the idea that we are all caught up in hashgacha pratis (Divine Providence), in which the Divine Will purposefully plays out in seemingly random events. Our task is to see our difficult life situations through this lens and react joyfully to them, knowing that they are sent to us from a Holy Source (G-d) and are for our own benefit.

I can imagine that someone might take issue with this attitude. “That’s all well and good,” this person might say, “for someone going through annoying or even troubling life circumstances. But what about those of us living through truly horrific events?” Unfortunately, our world is replete with wars, famine, torture, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, etc. Can we really believe that this is somehow “for our own good” and comes from a “Holy Source?” The answer, according to Chasidic philosophy is an emphatic, “Yes!”

A prominent Jew and holocaust survivor once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, how he could believe in G-d after the Holocaust.

The Rebbe's response was: "How can you not believe in G-d after the Holocaust?"

If the world is just a product of random chance where any person can brutally oppress another just because he happens to be stronger and more prone to cruelty, the Rebbe asks, what kind of world is that? How can we even exist in a world like that? There's got to be some meaning behind it, some hidden and ultimate reason to it.

This is more than just wishful thinking. The purpose of our lives is to make this world a better place, and in order to do that we must be vital and hopeful. The attitude of finding meaning in the darkest moments can spur us on to great deeds while the opposite attitude most often leads to a pessimistic nihilism that inhibits purposeful action because, “What’s the point?”

Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has been so powerful and influential for so many people because he was a witness and victim to the most unfathomable cruelty. Yet he came away with an approach to life that says it is up to us to define and give meaning to what happens to us. He demonstrated how this attitude got him through the horrors of the camps and helped him pick up the pieces of his life after he was liberated. He used this insight to empower literally millions of people around the world. As he famously wrote, “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.” 
I have been consistently amazed at the resiliency and determination shown by my clients who have suffered severe trauma in their lives. The culminating moment of our work together is when they realize that they can thrive, not in spite of the thing that happened to them, but because of it. They explore the implications and lessons that can be gleaned from the experience and often end up directing their energies and efforts toward helping others who have gone through the same kind of tragedy. They realize that they have become deeper people because of what they have gone through. When they are able to move away from the defense mechanisms they have employed to keep themselves safe, they open up to an overwhelming empathy for the suffering of those around them. 

There is no question that they will help others in pain – and because they are coming from a place of such authenticity themselves – their help is useful and productive. Through these kinds of actions they are able to transform the ultimate darkness into the greatest light. Those of us who have never – thank G-d – experienced this same kind of horror must honor those who have and learn whatever lessons they have to teach. This gives meaning to what they have gone through and brings the world one step closer to never experiencing such things again.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Divine Providence

Kabbalah assures us that where we are today is exactly where we need to be in order to bring G-d’s universe to completion.  Whatever they are, our current life situations offer opportunities to be partners in the grand scheme of creation.  We have all heard the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”  In Chassidic philosophy this is called hash’ga’cha pratis, which is usually translated at Divine Providence.  Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity - where everything is interrelated and influences all other parts of the cosmic web - is similar to it.  It is the Divine Will as it plays out in seemingly random events.

For example, a Chassidic Rebbe was once walking with his son after a violent storm had passed through their small town.  Everything was in disarray – roofs torn off of houses, trees uprooted, livestock wandering away from their fields, etc.  As they walked, they both looked down and noticed a tiny caterpillar eating a leaf from a fallen tree.  The Rebbe remarked to his son, “This entire storm happened just so that caterpillar could eat that leaf.”

Contemplating hash’ga’cha pratis - which is the belief that everything happens for a reason - is a great antidote for depression and anxiety.  Through our meditation we come to realize that everything happening in our lives comes from a holy source (G-d) and is for our ultimate benefit.  There is a Chassidic story that beautifully illustrates this point.

Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia were brothers and tzadikkim (holy saints).  They would spend their days travelling to far-flung communities in Czarist Russia to bring joy to downtrodden Jews and draw them closer to G-d.  One day, close to nightfall, they came to a certain hamlet.  The sheriff of this town had devised an ingenious scheme to make some extra money.  He would occasionally arrest some hapless Jew on trumped up charges and wait for the community to bail him out.  In this way, he was able to make a nice living.

As soon as Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia came into town they were arrested and thrown into jail.  They had to spend quite a while incarcerated because no one knew who they were and that they had been arrested.  They woke up the next morning in a jail cell crowded with tough-looking criminals.  Not intimidated by their surroundings, they prepared to recite their morning prayers.  Presently however, they noticed that there was an open bucket being used as a toilet in the cell.  Halacha (Jewish law) is quite clear that one cannot pray in a room that contains such filth.  Reb Zushia gazed at the bucket and started to cry because he realized that they would not be able to pray that morning.  It was almost too much for his pure heart to bear.  He looked over at his brother expecting him to also be downcast and miserable, but instead Reb Elimelech had a broad smile on his face and was on the verge of laughing.

Reb Zushia said, “Brother, don’t you realize what’s happening?  Not only are we stuck in this awful place with no one to get us out, but now we can’t even pray!”

Reb Elimelech replied, “I understand perfectly what is going on.”

“Then why do you look so happy?” Reb Zushia pressed.

Reb Elimelech explained.  “It’s like this brother.  Every day of our lives we have gotten up in the morning and prayed to the Holy One Blessed is He.”

“Correct,” Reb Zushia affirmed.

“And why do we do that?”  Reb Elimelech inquired.

“Why do we do that?” Reb Zushia exclaimed incredulously.  “Because that is what our Creator expects from us!”

“Exactly,” Reb Elimelech said, “And in this case we are not praying because that is what G-d expects from us.  Either way we are fulfilling the will of G-d.  In fact, today is actually a great day.  It is a day to celebrate!  This is the very first time we can serve G-d in this particular way.”

A look of dawning comprehension spread across Reb Zushia’s face.  He soon burst out laughing and then even started to sing and dance a lively tune in praise of his Creator’s wisdom.  His brother joined him, and because their singing was so joyful and contagious, the other prisoners started to sing as well.  Pretty soon all the prisoners in the entire jail house were singing and dancing.  The guards came rushing in thinking that a riot was taking place.  They shouted at the prisoners, asking what was going on and demanding to know who started it.  They were told that the two Jews had started it.  The guards stomped over to Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia and shouted, “What’s going on here?  What started this?” 

The brothers simply pointed to the bucket and said, “That started it.”

“Oh yeah?” sneered the guards.  “We’ll take care of that!”  They marched into the cell and took out the bucket.  The brothers were then free to pray.

This nifty resolution of Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia’s problem only occurred because they reacted joyfully to it.  They were able to react joyfully because they viewed the situation through the lens of hash’ga’cha pratis, recognizing that what they were experiencing was sent by G-d as an opportunity to grow in their service to Him.  This is an example of active faith.  Chassidic philosophy teaches us that we should not just sit back and take whatever garbage comes our way, nor should we become angry and rage at the injustice of life.  Rather, we should view each trial as divinely orchestrated and then respond accordingly.  This allows us to plant and nurture true joy deep in our hearts, keeping depression and anxiety at bay.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Alacrity and Joy

One cannot overstate the emphasis Chassidic philosophy places on the concept of simcha (joy).  It is lauded as a force for good – an active energy that produces a youthful urge forward, drawing others toward us and helping us to successfully do our part in making the world a better place.

Atzvut (depression and dejection), on the other hand, is the worst possible “sin” to a chassid because it takes away all motivation and energy and leads to a type of black, numbing lifelessness that separates and isolates one from the rest of humanity, shutting down all engagement in life. 

According to Kabbalah there are many different worlds – or levels of reality.  The world we live in is called Asyiah (world of action).  That is, we live in a world defined by movement.  We are never truly at rest.  Even when we sleep, we dream.  Our hearts are constantly pumping, with blood coursing under our skin.  Our minds wander and daydream.  Our feet tap.  We explore and travel.  We work and produce.  We love and pursue.  Life always flows and our challenge is to position ourselves so that we flow joyfully with it.  We need to jump into the stream of life courageously – with both feet – and take part in the cosmic dance.

The urge to boldly join with this stream is described by the Hebrew term, z’rizut (alacrity).  Alacrity, which is a prompt and eager liveliness, is a trait intimately linked to joy – joy leads to alacrity and alacrity leads to joy.  Small children fully engaged in play have a lot of alacrity - and a lot of joy.  They just can’t wait to get to the next toy.  They reach for it with eager, chubby hands, absolutely delighting in the moment.  Life is surging through them and their play is its natural expression.  

As we grow older, however, we are taught to temper this eagerness – to “tone it down.”  This is not necessarily a negative thing because many adult pursuits demand focused and deliberate attention.  We cannot impulsively jump from one activity to another if we are going to finish a job well.  There is a danger, however, of toning it down too much – to the point where we are lifelessly going through the motions with no inner zeal or excitement.  If this has become our usual disposition – if we find that our lives have become one giant rut – then we need to “unplug” the joy of our youth.  We need to get moving with alacrity and get back in the habit of grabbing life with both hands.

I have found in my therapeutic practice that the best way to tap into the latent, joyful energy hiding underneath our grown-up malaise is to challenge ourselves to grow in four different areas:  our bodies, emotions, intellect, and spirit.  Consciously pushing ourselves forward in these four fundamental dimensions automatically breaks up the log-jams that restrict our alacrity and joy.  It moves us out of narrow and restricted points of view and releases a new energy into our lives.  Each dimension adds a different type of force that combine into a joyous, galloping whole - triggering a huge, synergistic leap forward.  

Here are some easy things you can do to start this process. 

Body work:  reduce your intake of the staples of the modern diet – fat, sugar, and salt; exercise more; practice deep breathing; take a dance class, etc. 

Heart work:  reconnect with an old friend; do something special for your spouse; visit a nursing home; mentor a child; read poetry; write poetry, etc.

Mind work:  read a book that forces you to use a dictionary; take a language class; meditate; read news sources that challenge your point of view, etc.

Spiritual work:  walk in nature; contemplate; pray; sing; connect to something larger than yourself; read topics that challenge you to look beyond the five senses, etc.

The four additions to your life do not have to be huge and monumental.  Any movement forward is good and has the potential to remove hidden barriers.  I have seen time and again how little changes can get the ball rolling and we start to re-experience the wonder of our youth.  Eventually, we build up an unstoppable momentum for growth that tears apart blockages inhibiting our excitement for life.  I urge you to activate elements of these four areas for yourself.  You will be amazed where it will lead you!

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Charisma is one of those “I know it when I see it” concepts. For example, toddlers have real charisma and it is absolutely magical to watch them play and explore their little worlds. Charisma, which is defined as personal charm or magnetism and comes from the Greek kharisma (grace, favor, gift) results when someone is purely and unconsciously in the moment. It is a type of energy or “vibe” that is put off when there is no shred of self-awareness because the self is completely subsumed in action (or thought). An older child seeing all the attention directed at the toddler is often tempted to mimic the tot. Of course, this never gets the desired result because this action is not authentic and therefore does not have the same charm. This is very frustrating for the older child who is left wondering why everybody is not “oo-ing” and “ah-ing” over him.

Charisma is generally viewed as a mysterious gift – you’ve either got it or you don’t. But, this is not necessarily the case. I have seen charisma developed over time. I have worked with many clients who are acutely and painfully lonely and their main motivation in therapy is to have more friends or to find a spouse. I try to temper their initial impulse to “seek out” these people because there is really nothing more unappealing than someone longing for a relationship. A person on this type of mission carries a kind of needy energy that most people find very unattractive. I prefer to take the approach that finding friends or a spouse should not be a goal, but rather viewed as a byproduct of becoming an amazing person - which will automatically increase charisma and draw people close.

We begin this type of work by exploring the Chassidic premise that everyone is born a genius – that there is something inside each of us that is more powerful than anyone else on the planet. We discuss how we are all born for a purpose and are obligated to discover and utilize our unique gifts, traits, and attributes. This idea often comes as a shock and I usually have to help clients apply it to themselves. In fact, most of us would struggle with this notion. With about six billion other people on the planet, it is hard for us to fathom that there is something so special about ourselves. But the truth is, according to Chassidic philosophy, we would not have been born if we did not possess something unique that can be added to the mix. Our births are seen as essential to the eventual perfection of creation.

The goal is to find something to do that engages our most essential selves in a way that we forget that we’re actually doing it. We do it not for praise or reward, but because it is just a natural extension and expression of our true selves. To refrain would be akin to not breathing. Too many of us have yet to discover this aspect of ourselves and therefore go through life with a major part of our personalities left in a perpetual state of unrealized potential – and with very little charisma.

When we find something that engages us at our core we experience what the Jewish mystics call devekut, which is a state of profound attachment to the Source of the universe. Usually, this term is used in the context of sublime meditation or contemplation but it can also used to describe anyone completely “in the moment” or “in the zone.” Michael Jordan hitting the winning basket at the end of the game was experiencing a certain level of devekut. A little girl completely absorbed in drawing a flower experiences it too. Musicians getting into a song, naturalists watching mist travel down a mountainside, gardeners digging in the dirt, mathematicians struggling over an equation, chefs creating a new dish are all experiencing a type of devekut, and they all have tremendous charisma – at least while they are immersed in their “moments.”

Engaging in activities that are essential to our souls will automatically increase our charisma and broaden and deepen the possibilities of our interpersonal circles. We will not only become more interested but in fact, more interesting – increasing our satisfaction with life. We will also be doing our part to nudge the world closer to perfection because we have finally identified our personal gifts from G-d and are putting them into practice.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A True Education

Education is not just acquisition of knowledge.  It is also the development of a temperament that reacts to adversity and confusion with reflective, deliberate calm – optimistically and confidently seeking resolution to seemingly intractable problems.  A truly educated person understands that wisdom proceeds in stages and that a deeper understanding of a subject is always preceded by a period of turmoil and discombobulation. 

Thomas Kuhn, who popularized the idea of “paradigm shifts” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions posited that science does not proceed as a linear accumulation of knowledge.  Rather, theories are developed that answer pertinent questions to an acceptable degree of reliability and accurateness.  If the majority of scientists use this theory consistently over time, then it becomes a paradigm – or the normal way of approaching a given subject.

Over the course of time however, questions may start to arise that cannot be answered by the dominant paradigm and the scientific community is thrown into a period of confusion and discord until someone offers a new way of looking at things.  This sets the stage for the development of a new paradigm – Einstein’s revolutionary theories of relativity resolving intractable problems in the world of Physics being a good example of this dynamic.

Accordingly, we have not truly educated our children until we have helped them develop an ability to stay calm and devise new ways of doing things when their little worlds fall apart.

For example, many children struggle greatly with the transition from kindergarten to the first grade when the world of unlimited play, singing, and naps is suddenly replaced by sitting at desks, didactic instruction, and evaluation of their work.  For reasons beyond their understanding they now need to produce – and produce well.  Similarly, teenagers coping with the rigors of puberty have to learn how to relate to and use their bodies all over again.  Newly married couples have to radically alter their lifestyles to accommodate the fact that they are (at least emotionally) attached to each other 24/7.  First-time parents have to figure out how to function without sleep – or even consistent personal hygiene.  Career changes, physical injuries, coping with the death of loved ones can all destroy our normal ways of doing things – leaving us to “pick up the pieces” and somehow move on.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that this cycle of destruction and rebirth is not something to get worried or depressed about, rather it is just the way of the universe – in fact, even G-d has experienced it.  The universe we live in is not the first created by G-d.  Rather, it was “built on the ruins” of a previous universe – the destruction of the original universe is known as shevirat ha-keilim (the breaking of the vessels).  This is how it happened.

The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that reality is composed of ten fundamental qualities – or aspects – called sefirot (singular, sefirah).  These sefirot form the structure, or body, of the macrocosmic universe and the microcosmic person (Please see my earlier post, Ego Without Conceit, for a more detailed description).  Originally, these sefirot were distinct components unrelated and unattached to each other.  When G-d released light into the universe in order to give it life the majority of the sefirot where unable to contain this energy and shattered, creating innumerable “sparks” or glowing “shards” of destruction.  Immediately, a new universe was created using these sparks as “building material.”  This time however, the sefirot were woven together in a mutually reinforcing web.  Therefore, when G-d sent the light into the second structure in order to give it life the sefirot held, with each sefirah receiving support and strength from the others.   However, there were some sparks that were unable to be incorporated into this new system because they contained too much of the original aspect of separateness and exclusivity.  These sparks remain to this day and are the source of divisiveness and conflict in our world – generating what is commonly referred to as evil.  

When we feel parts of our own lives falling apart and disintegrating we must know that we are just following in the ways of creation.  It is a sign that our normal ways of doing things are no longer working and that they need to be destroyed in order to transcend into a higher mode.

For example, I recently fainted in a public speaking situation.  While this was very traumatic and embarrassing for me, it has spurred on a reassessment of how I’m living my life and has been an impetus for many healthy changes that were long overdue.  One of the changes is that I am moving away from absolute self-reliance and learning how to seek help and support from those around me – exactly paralleling the fundamental improvement to G-d’s second universe!  I can honestly say that I would not be adapting in this way had I not fainted.  

We must all approach difficult situations that break apart our cherished routines as opportunities for growth.  This will, in turn, allow us to instill this attitude and ability in our children – truly educating them and preparing them for life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Faith vs Reason

“Faith begins where the intellect ends,” is a common expression used to describe our relationship to G-d.  Some view this as a proclamation of faith’s superiority over the mind – that the only way to connect to G-d is by turning off our brains.  Chassidic philosophy understands it differently.  In the Chassidic perspective, the intellect is actually the vehicle that leads to faith rather than an obstacle to it.  Meaning that if we want to reap the many emotional and psychological benefits of connecting to our Creator then we must first push our minds to the furthest borders of intellectual inquiry.  Only then can we hope to experience any meaningful connection to G-d.  There is definitely a “point of departure” where the intellect can go no further, but we would never get to that point without it.

Imagine somebody who has a lifelong desire to climb inside the Statue of Liberty and look out over the Atlantic Ocean.  One day this person finally makes the move, gets into his car, and drives off to seek the object of his desire.  Because he lives far away from New York, it takes a few days to get there.  At last, he arrives and sees Lady Liberty off in the distance.  Of course, he would never have gotten there without the car, but what would happen if now he could not get out of it?  For some reason he is stuck and is left to gaze forlornly at the distant statue.  Because he is trapped and can’t get away from it, the vehicle that he used to get there now has become a barrier to the fulfillment of his desire. This is the fate of someone who cannot walk away from the intellect when he needs to, and therefore, does not make the ultimate connection to G-d.

There is a form of deep contemplation and meditation used in the Chassidic world that takes this notion that faith begins where the intellect ends to its logical conclusion.  It is called hitbonenut.  

In this form of meditation, we start by analyzing any intellectual idea or process – food production for example – in such depth that we begin to grasp the root and foundation of the theories underlying it, all their implications, and how they relate to other aspects of reality.  We ponder all the people, energy, and resources involved in bringing food to our table – the farmers, seed and livestock dealers, the scientists and researchers involved in developing new fertilizers and disease resistant crops, farm equipment manufacturers and dealers, the oil production teams that drill miles under the ground to get and refine the fuel needed to power that equipment, the miners who dig under the earth to get the metals used for the equipment, the scientists and researchers needed to improve the metal so it is lighter and stronger, etc.

Then we can start thinking about the food itself – exploring how plants grow and reproduce.  Ask, how is the meat we eat converted to energy that allows us to survive, how do plants make food out of sunlight, etc.  Meditate on the orbits of the earth and the moon around the sun and how this affects our food.  Start thinking about how our planet fits into the context of the broader solar system and universe – be amazed that we are exactly the right distance from the sun for liquid water and sustainable life.  Ask, might there be other “Earths” out there with their own populations producing and eating food?   Start to free associate and wonder about some of the mysteries of the universe like, what is on the “other side” of black holes?  If they capture everything in their vicinity, where does all that “stuff” go?  How does fusion work?  How did this whole thing get started anyway?

By challenging ourselves to push deeper and higher – to a place where the borders and dimensions of the studied concepts begin to blur – we get to a point of actual weeping because we realize that our minds can go no further.  It is like standing on a shore looking out into the unfathomable expanse of a cosmic ocean that overwhelms our minds.  We need to let go and just experience this place where reason ends and nothing makes sense because we cannot relate to it intellectually.

This is a “taste” of the En Sof (G-d without end) and it can fuel our faith for a lifetime.  The practice of hitbonenut allows us to “feel the breezes” of a reality that lies outside our normal lives, where what makes sense has no foothold.  It shows us how our lives can become so much bigger if we can let go of the notion that we have to understand something for it to be valid.  From this perspective, faith is based on experience – not understanding.  However, the experience is the result of deep and exhaustive thinking, followed by the act of leaving the intellect behind.

In general, we must always be able to adapt and let go of cherished tools and approaches to life when the time is right.  Difficulties arise when we feel compelled to always approach life in the same way.  If faith is not a big part of our lives then maybe we should start to develop it; because there are times when the appropriate reaction to frustration over something that is not working for us should be a simple, plaintive cry to G-d, “Help me!”  G-d expects us to try to resolve the problem ourselves, but is also waiting for us to realize that there are occasions when we need to tap into a power that transcends our finite abilities.  Faith balances the intellect and we are able to move forward with our lives.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Power of Nature

The early Chassidic masters would often immerse themselves for hours in the natural world while meditating and communing with G-d.  This raises the question:  If G-d is everywhere, why such a preference for nature?  Also, it takes time out of one’s day to leave the confines of human society and travel to an “untouched” place.  How could these tzaddikim (saints) waste so much time just to sit in a pretty spot?  The answer is that nature has a lot to teach us about G-d’s might and wonder – and about ourselves.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that every person is born with what is called a yetzer hara (evil inclination).  That is, we each have an impulse to do what is base and low – greedy and hurtful.  We feel an absolute compulsion to engage in such unhealthy behavior when we give ourselves over to this shadowy aspect of ourselves.  The challenge of our lives – actually the purpose of our lives – is to struggle mightily against the yetzer hara so we can live in accordance to the wishes of our Creator.

According to Jewish tradition, we were given the yetzer hara at the time of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  Up until that moment, the first humans lived in natural accord with the world around them and fulfilled the expectations of their Creator with their every breath.  However, upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge they were removed from this state of innocence and burdened with the “curse” of self-awareness.  They were now outsiders looking in at the perfection of creation, as if it somehow did not relate to them anymore.  They no longer operated solely out of instinct, but rather, out of consciousness.

The yetzer hara is solely a manifestation of the human world.  A tree cannot “decide” to grow in a way contrary to its genetic code.  A lion hunts and an antelope flees because that is how they were made.  A frog croaks the song given to it by G-d.  Plants and animals propagate, the wind blows, the snow falls and gathers in drifts because that is what G-d wants.  When we travel into nature we are surrounded by a world perfectly in tune with the wishes of the Creator – which is in absolute contrast to the grating noise and confusion often found in human society.

There are deep lessons to be learned from nature.  For example, I was extremely despondent when my mother died and I went up to the mountains on several occasions to “clear my head.”  Watching the seasons’ transitions, with leaves changing color and falling to the ground, the cold winds of winter blowing across perfectly white fields, the first shoots of green pushing through snow, and then summer’s full climaxed glory transformed my idea that she was “gone” to an understanding that she was still very much alive and just moving through G-d’s cycle of life.

I already believed that life continues after death, but submersing in nature’s rhythm of death/rebirth brought it home in a way that an intellectual belief could not.  I was comforted and able to move forward again. 

There are other lessons as well.  Watching how a tree grows can teach us how we should grow.  Studying the way of water, how it is soft and flows to low places can teach humility.  Following an eagle in flight can show us the need for boldness and vision.  Realizing that all creatures are in symbiotic relationship to each other pushes one towards seeking that kind of balance as well.  

The lessons learned from a natural world untrammeled by the ways of the yetzer hara can quiet our own “evil inclination” and encourage us to stay in our “higher selves.”  So rather than following an impulse to behave in a hurtful way, or to fall back into unhealthy coping mechanisms designed to keep us safe, we can journey through the human world with the purpose of making it better – realigning it to the vision of its Creator.  By employing the free-will available to conscious beings we can perform a trick that the rest of the nature cannot – namely, repairing what has been broken, which will certainly lead to a more meaningful and healthy life.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

All the World's a Stage

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. -William Shakespeare

Chassidic philosophy teaches that there are two different ways to attach to G-d.  Yechida tata’ah (lower level attachment) relates to G-d as Creator and Rule-giver.  We are aware and cognizant that there is a Source-of-all-existence Who has created the world with certain parameters, and in order to serve this Creator, we must operate within those rules.

In the physical realm objects fall to the ground, fire burns, water flows, cold freezes, etc.  In the emotional realm love heals and hate hurts, trust is built up slowly, uncertainty creates anxiety, etc.  In the intellectual realm the past comes before the future, two different objects cannot share the same space, contradictions are untenable, etc.  And in the spiritual realm only certain acts draw one close to G-d, some objects are holy while others profane, acts of kindness are preferred over acts of cruelty, etc.

Conversely, Yechida ilah’ah (higher level attachment) reveals that our world, filled with all its distinct rules and dimensions, is an illusion and that in actuality, everything is G-d and G-d is everything.  There is nothing closer or farther away from G-d, because everything is G-d.  All rules lose their meaning from this perspective.  Nothing has greater value than anything else because all are manifestations of the same G-d.  Plurality is shown to be false because all is one.  Our normal waking state is therefore called olam ha-sheker (a world of deceit) because we do not generally connect to G-d at this level and act as if the world of appearances is fundamentally true and all there is – thereby constantly living in a denial of the ultimate truth.  

Of course, attempting to live according to this higher perspective would lead to insanity or worse because, the fact is, you and that bus travelling 40 miles an hour are not actually one and if you step in front of it, then…  Real and undeniable consequences result from the choices we make.  We can’t say to someone we have just offended, “Don’t worry about it.  It’s all G-d.”  That would be mean – and absurd.  We are obligated to learn the rules of physics, etiquette, logic, and morality/ethics, because if we don’t we will constantly hurt ourselves or others.  

And yet, the higher level reality remains undeniably true:  everything is G-d and G-d is everything.  How do we resolve this paradox?

Reconciling these two perspectives – the lower and higher attachments to G-d – is vital to the development of a healthy and balanced psyche, because even if our minds are not aware of this philosophical schism, our souls are.  Our essential selves are constantly pulled in two different directions – toward active engagement in this world and toward absolute self-nullification in G-d.  This creates a fundamental split that demands resolution.  

The answer, according to Chassidic philosophy, is to live “as if” this world is real – but always remembering that it is not.  This is the stance of an actor who completely “gets into his part,” but then easily moves back into his real self when the play is over.  For reasons beyond our comprehension, G-d has cast us in a giant cosmic drama and we are expected to play the roles written for us to the best of our abilities.  We must “get into our parts” while never forgetting there is a bigger reality beyond the confines of the stage.  Something from my own personal experience can illustrate this point.

I used to act in community theater and once performed a Chekov play “in the round.”  This means that the audience encircled the stage, with the first row so close that they could prop their feet on the platform.  Everything was going well until the final act, which was the emotional climax of the play.  I was confronting my wife’s lover and concentrating intensely on my delivery of a complex soliloquy when suddenly an audience member from the first row had an epileptic seizure and collapsed onto the stage.  For what seemed like hours, we all just stared at the unfortunate person convulsing in front of us.  Both the audience and the actors were so engrossed in the play that it took a great effort to pull ourselves out of the story and realize that a very real situation had just landed in front of us.  This was the last play in which I ever performed because I felt so uncomfortable and disconcerted by my inability to move back into reality when I needed to.

Our psychic well-being depends on our ability to “get into” the roles written for our personal scripts (lower level attachment to G-d) while never losing sight of the fact that there is a greater reality just outside the confines of the stage (higher level attachment to G-d).  We need to take this world seriously, but  not so seriously that we delude ourselves into thinking that this is “all there is.”  Practicing moving back and forth easily between these two perspectives reconciles the soul’s duty to engage in this world with its simultaneous yearning to be subsumed back into its Source.  Hopelessness, anxiety, or anger lose their potency because we know that there is a higher reality just past the stage lights that we can tap into whenever we need to.  We gain perspective and, hopefully – peace of mind.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Darkness Into Light

Guilt and shame over past behavior is a major stumbling block to our continued growth and development.  We have all done things that we regret and wish we could undo.  Of course, this is impossible and we need to find a way to cope with our personal histories.  At the very least, we want to get to a place where we are not paralyzed and can function adequately in our current lives.  Optimally, we want to go beyond “adequate functioning” and learn how to actually transform our negative experiences into vehicles for growth – to become great, not in spite of our past failures, but because of them.  We can do this by exploring the fundamental character traits that underlie our actions.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that a person may be born with an innate fascination for blood and cutting flesh – it is part of his fundamental personality.  He has no freedom in terms of how he feels.  His only freedom lies in what he does with it.  By nature, he may become an ax murderer or… a surgeon.  We are all born with inherent tendencies and dispositions that push us toward different types of behaviors.  To try and deny these traits would be tantamount to running away from our selves.  Rather, we have to embrace them and learn how to use them for the good.

One of the best ways to discover our own innate characters is by exploring the roots of our most undesirable behaviors.  Let’s take anger as an example.  Each of us has an innate fight-or-flight instinct that can trigger various reactions.  Anger is a type of reaction that fits into the “fight” category.  Children who find themselves in vulnerable situations at home - whether it is a disruptive event like a divorce or an ill-timed cross-country move, an abusive or neglectful caregiver, or just a bad fit between personality and environment - have little power to change their scenes.  They can’t just get a job and move out.  Rather, they are stuck and need to learn how to survive.  A child may turn to anger because she finds lashing out to be the most effective way of keeping herself safe and getting her needs met.  The anger becomes habitual if the situation that triggers the feelings of vulnerability lasts too long.  

This child reacts with anger rather than other behaviors because it is what comes most naturally and easily to her - and has the biggest impact.  Another child may turn to more passive strategies, which are in the “flight” category.  This child may learn to disappear – physically, by running away or just blending into the wallpaper – or emotionally, through disassociation or drug use.  Again, this can become habitual.

The use of anger as a habitual coping strategy is a sign of an aggressive nature.  It is a window into the angry person’s soul.  The challenge lies in her ability to direct that aggressiveness away from anger and toward more healthy and adaptive behaviors.  There is fierceness inside an angry person – an assertive drive toward changing a situation – that can be quite effective, for example, when applied to improving an unjust world.  When an angry person directs her innate aggressiveness toward something positive like political justice or fighting for the rights of children, then she grows as an individual and impacts the world in a positive way.  She has transformed the darkness of this particular trait into light.  She can move past the guilt and shame over past angry outbursts because they have actually shown her something fundamental about herself – and she has learned how to channel her nature in a more healthy and appropriate way.

There is only one way out of our problems – we have to grow through them.  A client of Carl Jung’s had a recurring dream where she was sitting in the middle of a stinking garbage dump.  She looked up and saw Dr. Jung floating above her.  She reached out her hands – pleading for him to take her out – but instead, he indicated to her that she needed to start walking and to not stop until she got out of the dump.  She was devastated – but, she starting walking. Forward movement is all we need to get out of our own personal “dumps.”  But in order to do this, we have to get past debilitating guilt and shame.   This is accomplished most effectively by recognizing that our past behaviors have meaning when they provide the vehicle for our future growth.