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.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ego Without Conceit

The ego gets a bad rap.  We generally associate arrogance and conceit with this concept, although it was originally formulated to describe an important (and value-free) mediating function of our psyches.  According to Freud, we all have an internal force that drives us toward self-satisfaction called the id.  He saw this as a type of sexual energy, but it can also be used to describe any impulse toward personal pleasure and fulfillment.  Adler called it the will to power, while Jung understood it as the will to self-individuation, etc.

However, this self-absorbed and single-minded pursuit is inevitably obstructed by the norms of culture that say you have to follow certain rules in this world.  The collection of cultural norms that constrain our behavior is called the superego.   For example, walking around naked may be the most natural expression of your inner self, but it will likely get you arrested – unless, of course, you live in Berkley!  Somehow we have to navigate the pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment inside the parameters of socially-acceptable behavior.  And it is the ego that serves this mediating function.

Actually, Freud did not come up with this idea.  Rather, it has been part of the Jewish mystical tradition for thousands of years.  Kabbalah teaches that the world is composed of ten fundamental components called sefirot (singular, sefirah).  These ten aspects describe the composition of the macrocosmic universe and the microcosmic person.  There are three “intellectual” sefirot and seven “emotional” sefirot.  Not only can we can use this system to understand the essential structure of reality but we can also implement it as a guide to a healthy life.  

Unless a person has experienced a major head injury or was born with cognitive impairments, the mind generally operates as it should – it is actually our emotions that create mental distortions.  Our three intellectual sefirot of Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge) simply serve their functions to the natural limits of their capacity.  Chochmah is the flash of insight, or seminal thought that arises spontaneously and pushes us in a certain direction.  Kabbalah uses the analogy of lightning on a dark night that briefly allows us to see our surroundings, orient our position, and determine the appropriate direction in which to go.  Binah is the fleshing out of the original idea in a way that it can be implemented.  For example, we may have an idea for a new kind of house but it won’t get anywhere unless we can detail its dimensions, materials, cost, etc.  Finally, Da’at brings the concept to fruition by creating a plan or blueprint that builders can actually follow to build the house.

Constructing a house is a practical example of a desired yet emotionally draining process.  There are cost overruns, personnel and equipment problems, financial set-backs, etc.  Perseverance born from emotional strength is imperative to getting the job done.  Therefore, the proper functioning of our emotional sefirotChesed (active love and outpouring of creative energy), Gevurah (disciplined limit setting), Tiferet (balance, beauty, and compassion), Netzach (endurance, victory), Hod (humility), Yesod (foundation), and Malchut (sovereignty) – is vital to accomplishing the goal.

Chesed (active love and outpouring of creative energy) is the initial excitement and energy inherent to any new project.  We are in love with the idea and want it to happen as quickly as possible.  We want something and all our focus and energy is directed toward its fulfillment.  Freud’s idea of id is reminiscent of this sefirah.   But you can become worn out or make careless mistakes unless you pace yourself and plan the approach to the project carefully.  Continuing with our house analogy – the ability to hold back and act in a calm and measured way, following the general rules of construction resides in the next sefirah of Gevurah (disciplined limit setting), which mirrors Freud’s superego.  Balancing and blending the excitement with a disciplined approach is the job of Tiferet – Freud’s healthy ego.

Kabbalah now goes beyond Freud and suggests how we can actually stay in the realm of Tiferet (beautiful balance).  The sefirah that follows Tiferet is Netzach (endurance, victory), which issues a challenge:  Can we endure in this desired state of Tiferet?  The answer is yes, if we follow the “advice” of the next sefirah – Hod (humility).  We must be humble enough to realize that we cannot succeed by ourselves.  Rather, we need the help and input of others whose particular skills and insights complement our own.  Ultimately, we will have to also rely on the fortitude gained by asking our Creator for help.  Humbly enduring in this state of beautiful balance creates a strong foundation to our lives – Yesod (foundation) – and allows us to have sovereignty (Malchut) over our emotions.  In this way we are able to keep our thinking straight and accomplish even our most ambitious goals.

As you can see, a healthy ego is more about balance than conceit and following the flow of the sefirot allows us to fulfill our most cherished hopes.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The World of Truth

Chassidic philosophy teaches that we live in a world that is olam ha’sheker – a world of falsehood.  It is considered false because we never have all the information needed to completely and accurately understand what’s happening around us.  We base our lives on assumptions that may or may not be true.  We draw distorted conclusions about people and events all the time because we can’t see the entire picture.  After working with hundreds of people who have shared their secrets with me in therapy, I have come to the conclusion that nobody is as they appear to be.  If we knew absolutely everything that ever happened to a person (from the moment of conception to the present) we would have only deep empathy and compassion for him regardless of who he is and what he has done.

If we don’t stay consciously aware of this basic and consistent lack of information then we can become overly confident and judgmental in our assessments of people.  We can forget that the annoying, aggravating, or even hurtful person in front of us was, once upon a time, a tiny baby looking out into her world with hopeful and trusting eyes.  We can lose sight of the fact that people generally come by their bad traits honestly and usually did the best they could in difficult situations.  

Does this attitude condone bad behavior?  Absolutely not!  Each of us is ultimately responsible for our own actions.  However, it allows us to understand that there are reasons outside our knowledge that may explain why a person is behaving in a particular way.  If we truly want to help that person improve, then we first must explore those hidden forces driving the surface level behavior.  In fact, we can also extend this thinking to ourselves.  Don’t assume that you completely understand why you do what you do.  We cannot even claim to have a complete picture of our own lives.  

We cannot judge ourselves or others based on the snap shot of the present moment.  Our lives are streams that started before we were born and will continue after we die.  There are worlds upon worlds that lay outside the borders of the picture that, while not visible to us, impact us greatly.  Only G-d can have perfect understanding because only G-d has all the facts.  We can move out of our personal worlds of falsehood and into worlds of truth when we remember that our perceptions are limited, and that if we had all the facts, we would feel only compassion – for others as well as ourselves.