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!