Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 7, 2022 / 5 Shevat 5782
Summary: As 2022 begins, I wanted to reflect on what we can do to make this a fantastic year, reflect on what causes so much human unhappiness, and help us bridge that gap.
Reading Time: Five minutes
There’s a game most of us play. When we are going through a difficult patch, we tell ourselves “It will be better when this happens,” or “It will be better next week, month, year…” At first blush, this might seem an optimistic way to think about the demands of our lives. Rather than allowing ourselves to imagine that the present difficult moment defines us, we look forward to a better future.
There is a role for this approach, but as we begin a new year, what if there is a more effective way to handle our difficulties? With the latest Omicron surge and the continuing emotional, financial, and health challenges it brings forward, wouldn’t it be great to have some tools that allow us to feel good even in the thicket of our struggles? Why must we wait until things are better to start feeling better now?
The past year and a half have been dedicated to my own personal wellness—physical, spiritual, and emotional. Over the last couple of months, I have been engaged in a professional development course and cohort that is led by our own congregant, Dorice Horenstein. The program, Positive Intelligence, is based on the neurobiology and research of best-selling author, Shirzad Chamine. Its major goal, as I understand it, is to help us overcome the negative thinking that afflicts almost every person. Those negative thoughts and feelings are generated by the primitive fight or flight part of our brains, which constantly surfaces judgements about ourselves, others, and the world around us. In the early days of our species, staying at a high level of mental alert may have kept us alive, but in our world, this “lizard brain” constantly informs us of how bad everything is. When we listen exclusively or primarily to this part of ourselves, our lives become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All we can see is how bad things are because that is what we spend so much time thinking about. In fact, these mental habits become so ingrained that we imagine we are seeing the world correctly.
If we can interrupt our ancient fight or flight brain, we can begin to go through our lives with greater calm, joy, and wisdom. The world no longer looks as grim. None of this should surprise us; Judaism speaks constantly of fostering an attitude of gratitude and provides some tools for achieving this. Gratitude moves our attention out of the constant stress that our automatic fight or flight mechanism generates.
I have known this for years. It is why Hasidic literature speaks so strongly to me because as a body of thought, it is deeply aware that our thoughts create our world. Yet knowing something and applying that knowledge to our day-to-day lives is the difference between book smarts and wisdom. At different periods, I had a robust meditation practice, which really helped. The problem was that we meditated before morning services and by the middle of the day, all its benefits faded away with the stresses of the day. What Positive Intelligence develops is the habit of inserting 2-, 5-, or 12-minute mindfulness exercises throughout the day, and especially before a challenging encounter or meeting. I have found myself more productive, calm, and happy because of this.
Shirzad claims that most of our pain and suffering occurs because we are hijacked by the voices, or saboteurs, in our minds. By the way, Maimonides said the same thing a thousand years ago, but unfortunately, he didn’t leave us exercises to defuse our self-induced pain. Once we develop these mindfulness practices throughout the day, we can suddenly see our lives through a very different set of eyes, so we can change even our most painful moments into positive opportunities. I want to encourage you to incorporate short mindfulness practices throughout your day, such as are outlined in the Positive Intelligence Program. If you do, I believe it can help make 2022 your best year ever—even with the continuing coronavirus variants.
A couple of caveats.
As I continue my practice, I have become both more aware of my own internal saboteurs as well as recognize exactly my level of “reserves.” This is a warning that the deep voices of fear, anxiety, and worry are part and parcel of being human. Without the continuous mental hygiene of a mindfulness practice to combat them, they will regain their dominance and convince us that things are bad. Not only that, but we are also more likely to gravitate toward those who affirm our negative view of life.
In a related vein, most of us are unaware of how prevalent the negative voices in our heads are. These judgements have been running in the background for so long that we don’t recognize their presence, or the control they have over our experiences, or how they poison our relationships. As we begin to confront them and shine a light on them, it might seem as though things are worse than we imagined. What is really happening, however, is that we are suddenly seeing just how powerfully these voices have controlled us and diminished the happiness of which we are all capable. In the beginning, this creates some additional pain, but with practice, their power diminishes.
Finally, if you embark on this sort of a mindfulness practice, it is important to foster compassion, both for yourself and others. None of us wants to imagine that most of our suffering is self-induced. It feels better to blame it on conditions outside of ourselves. Yet is that really the experience that God wants us to have? In a conversation with Dorice, she reminded me of a famous rabbinic quote, “bishvili haolam nivra.” The world was created for me.
What each of us needs to decide is which world we want to live in. Choose well. This could be the best year ever.
Wishing you only good things,
Shabbat Table Talk
- In what ways does your thinking shape your experience?
- Can you recall a time when you were able to shift your perspective so that a challenging or painful moment became an opportunity for growth?
- What currently most interferes with your ability to regularly focus on the positive and the many blessings of your life?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.