Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our Two Souls

One of the classic teachings of Judaism comes from Deuteronomy 6:5:
And you shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul... 
I've recited this piece of text hundreds of times in my life, but rarely thought deeply about its wording.  In a recent class at Pardes, my teacher introduced me to how the Midrash Rabba explains this text:

"What do all your heart and all your soul mean?  With each different soul that He created in you."

My teacher then explained that Hashem placed within each of us two souls.  One is the נפש בהמי, the  animal soul; the other is the נשמה טהורה, the pure soul.  The animal soul is considered to be "lower" and is concerned mainly with ME and NOW--in other words, survival.  The pure soul is the "higher" soul and is more mature and reflective; it is concerned with both me and others, now and later.        Sometimes our two souls are on the same wavelength, but other times they may send us conflicting messages, and we have to tease them apart.

There is a lot in this idea that resonates with me, but one thing that strikes me in particular is how the two souls are compared to each other via their classification as either "higher" or "lower."  The lower soul is the one that speaks to us about our basic needs:  food, rest, safety, etc., while the higher soul encourages us to think beyond just ourselves in the present moment.  I think many of us would not have much trouble jumping to the conclusion that we should use our higher soul to override our lower soul and that our animal impulses should be subjugated.  This seems to be the message that we often get from society:  "Stop thinking about yourself.  Push your body past its limits--you don't really need to sleep, or to eat.  Do more with less."  This mentality is the fuel that often feeds eating disorders...but, I would argue that this is not at all what is at the core of this Jewish teaching.

This Midrash tells us that Hashem gave us both souls on purpose.  Why would Hashem bother giving us an animal soul in the first place, if we are just supposed to suppress it all the time?  That "lower soul" is our survival instinct.  It is how we assess immediate danger and how we ensure that our basic human needs are met.  This soul is our voice of self-preservation, and I would suggest that unless we honor our lower soul, the higher soul won't be able to do its job.  Part of what I've learned over the years is that if I don't take care of myself, I can't take care of others at the level at which I'd like to.  If I don't get enough rest, I'm cranky with my friends and have no energy to spend on those relationships.  If I deny my hunger and don't eat enough, I can't focus on teaching my students because part of my mind is stuck on my empty stomach.  Basically, if I don't make sure there is enough in my cup, nothing will be able to spill over into anyone else's.  Now, does this mean I should be concerned only with myself or that I should immediately get everything I want?  Of course not...but, neither should I ignore my basic needs under the false premise that prioritizing the well-being of others is a more worthy pursuit than caring for myself.  Hashem gave me both souls because He understands that by ensuring that my basic needs are securely met, I become available to connect with--and genuinely care for--others.  Both souls are essential, and neither should be dismissed as less valuable than the other.

Take some time to tune into your two souls.  What are they saying?  Are you listening?  I wish for you the ability to hear what the two voices of your truth are telling you, and the courage to take steps toward honoring both essential pieces of yourself.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Victory...In Meal Form

Shavua tov!  I hope we're all emerging from Shabbat rested and energized for a new week.  I was fortunate to enjoy a beautiful Shabbat in Jerusalem and want to share a bit of the experience with you.

On Saturday I had Shabbat lunch at the home of one of my Pardes teachers, along with five other students from my program.  Walking into large groups of people tends to really stress me out, so I arrived a little early to give myself time to settle in before everyone else came.  (It helped that my teacher has two adorable children under age 5, and I was more than happy to keep them occupied while she and her husband finished preparing the meal!)  By the time we sat down for kiddush, I felt comfortable and ready to be present for the experience of the lunch, which turned out to be one of the best Shabbat experiences I've had thus far in Israel.

What made this Shabbat lunch so amazing?  Well, many significant things happened:  1) I arrived at the table hungry, and I was okay with that; 2) I ate foods that I did not cook myself and whose ingredients were at least partially unknown to me; 3) I made conversation; 4) I listened to what other people said; 5) I ate dessert, not because I was particularly hungry but because it looked delicious; 6) I left the table feeling full, and I was okay with that.  Even as I write this, I am aware of how mundane those things sounds like any ordinary meal.  And yet, for me the beauty of this experience was its sheer simplicity and the knowledge that the basic act of enjoying a leisurely meal with friends was something I could taste for myself. 

There were whole years full of Shabbats when none of this would have been possible.  If I made it to the table at all, it was in body only--my mind was frantically calculating, measuring, comparing, and worrying--leaving no room for being present.  This past Saturday, the victory was in being able to take full delight in an experience I used to be able to only watch others enjoy.

Despite having spent all morning in shul, I believe my most spiritual moment of the day occurred as I sat around that table, surrounded by delicious food and delightful company.  I felt intense thankfulness to Hashem for seeing me through recovery to that day, that meal.  I'm glad Hashem knows what's in my heart even when I can't express it in words, because there's no way I could truly verbalize the gratitude I feel as I reflect on what I was able to be present for this past Shabbat.  It was, as I like to say, a total "Baruch Hashem moment."  It was also not the first time in recovery when I've had such a moment at a meal, but part of the gift is that it is exciting every time.  For me, recovery means being in a perpetual state of shehecheyanu, because I never take for granted being able to enjoy eating freely in the company of others.

I share this anecdote not because it contains some deep Torah insight or profound spiritual teaching.  Rather, I share it because there was a time when I did not believe such an experience would ever be within my reach, and this past Shabbat I found the prize firmly in my grasp.  I want to say that it is possible to trek through the arduous process of recovery and emerge on the other side, able to engage fully with the delights of this world.  If it can happen for me, it can happen for you, too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Find Truth in the Return

Being in Israel always opens me up to parts of myself that are less accessible in other places.  Consequently, I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to feel centered within oneself and in tune with one's inner voice.  A teacher of mine at Pardes introduced me to the work of Rav Kook (rhymes with, "look"), a brilliant Jewish scholar who also happened to be the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate.  Here is what Rav Kook has to say about clarity within the soul:

"When one forgets the essence of one's own soul, when one distracts his mind from attending to the substantive content of his own inner life, everything becomes confused and uncertain.  The primary step, which immediately sheds light on a darkened zone, is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul, and from there to the Soul of all souls..." (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

I may be just a fledgling Torah student, but I believe I understand what Rav Kook is saying.  When I lose sight of what is important in my life and instead become too focused on peripheral matters, I become ungrounded and insecure inside myself.  For a long time, the realities of my life seemed too painful to face.  Instead of dealing with the sources of my unhappiness, I latched onto the shiny distractions of weight and body.  As I became more and more certain that food and exercise were all that mattered, the rest of my life fell away until it was nearly gone, until I was all but unrecognizable even to myself.

Recovery has been a process of returning, of coming home to myself.  Many things have helped:  therapy, writing, and being with people who knew me prior to the eating disorder and could remind me of who I was "before."  The healthier my body became, the more I began to reconnect emotionally with the parts of myself I had forgotten, and to remember what was truly important to me.  Recovery has allowed me to become a teacher and construct a professional identity of which I am proud and through which I find deep fulfillment.  It has made possible my trips to Israel, where I've been able to prioritize my spiritual and religious growth in ways that feel vital to me.  And, it has made me available to connect with some special people who have become my closest friends and who can mirror back to me who I really am, in case I forget.

When I am in touch with my inner truth, I feel a greater sense of security about my place in the world.  I also feel more able to connect with Hashem because when I talk to Him, there is more conviction in my own voice.  I believe Rav Kook is correct--returning to oneself is key.  It doesn't solve every problem, but it allows one to be more present to develop solutions and to experience the journey on the way.

This week, give yourself some quiet space in which to think about your true self, your real priorities and your bottom lines.  Are you living in a way that honors who you are at your core?  Try to identify one way in which you could move closer to your center...and when you are ready, take the first step.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Find What's Yummy

Shalom from Israel!  I do feel like I should apologize for the long stretch without any predicted, getting computer access has been a bit tricky.  But, though I haven't been writing, I've been quite busy exploring Jerusalem and reuniting with dear friends after many, many months apart.  This week I began a 3-week-long course of study at the Pardes Institute, and although I've only had three days of learning so far, I've already made one major discovery:

I LOVE learning Torah!

This is no small realization, especially because I distinctly remember a time when I thought studying Torah sounded both tedious and unproductive.  I've found that not only is learning Torah way more mentally stimulating than I'd originally thought, but also that I have a huge appetite for it.  I can't get enough of the beit midrash, with its continuous current of debate and intellectual energy.  I am completely enthralled by Talmud and the scrupulous attention that the talmudic rabbis paid to every single detail.  Also, I just love the feeling of exploring something new in an environment where every question is valid and every opinion merits air time.  Beginning to learn Torah has also been incredibly humbling--it has been a long time since I've had to learn ANYTHING from scratch, and the feeling can be uncomfortable at times.  But at the same time, the struggle is delicious because the rewards are so satisfying.

At first, I couldn't really see how my newfound enthusiasm for Torah learning related to recovery, but I believe I've found a link.  Discovering what energizes us is a major part of recovery work--figuring out what truly excites us, and making space for it in our lives.  A great therapist of mine once said, "You need to find what's yummy to you."  In other words, it's important to figure out what genuinely brings you positive energy and joy.  For me, in this moment, learning Torah is yummy. I'm grateful to have this opportunity to bring it into my life, and I look forward to sharing with you what I'm learning!

What about you?  What does your soul find delicious?