Sunday, August 26, 2012

No Pain, No (internal) Gain

I would be remiss in my exploration of Elul themes if I did not venture into the realm of teshuva--certainly a central focus of this month preceding the High Holidays.  Teshuva (תשובה) is often translated as "repentance" or "penitence,"but there's more to it than that.  The Hebrew root of  תשובה is שוב, which means, "return."  When a person does teshuva, he or she repents for his or her sins, turns away from destructive patterns and actions, and returns to a life in harmony with Hashem.  Teshuva also signals new beginnings and a restoration of balance within oneself.  For years, the focus of my High Holiday teshuva was always apologizing to Hashem for yet another year spent engaging in eating disorder behaviors, a year in which I had, once again, fallen short of my "best self" in what felt like so many ways.  So, I prayed fervently for forgiveness and promised that in the year to come, I would really try to "do better" in recovery.  This happened year after year after year...and each time, I fully intended to follow through on my promise.  So, why didn't I?

I was a classic case of ambivalent teshuva.  I yearned to change, and yet I didn't.  It was puzzling and endlessly frustrating...and yet, it seems, not uncommon to the experience of many people who undergo teshuva for a variety of reasons.  In his brilliant work, Orot HaTeshuva, Rav Kook deeply examines the concept of teshuva.  (For more of Rav Kook's ideas, see this blog post.) This past Tuesday was 3 Elul, Rav Kook's yahrzeit, and I set aside some time that day to explore Orot HaTeshuva.  As I read, I came upon a passage that, I believe, gets right to the heart of why it was so hard for me to turn away from my eating disorder, even though I wanted to.  (Note:  instead of reading this text and making a direct inference that your eating disorder is "evil" or "sinful," perhaps think about it more generally as a negative force in your life.)

"The pain felt in the initial inspiration to penitence is due to the severance of the evil layers of the self, which cannot be mended as long as they are attached to and remain part of the person, and cause deterioration of the whole spirit.  Through penitence they are severed from the basic essence of the self. Every severance causes pain, like the pain felt at the amputation of deteriorated organs for medical reasons.  This is the most inward kind of pain, through which a person is liberated from the dark servitude to his sins and his lowly inclinations and their bitter aftereffects." (Orot HaTeshuva)

Rav Kook hits the nail on the head:  I clung to my eating disorder for so long, despite genuinely wanting to change, because separating from it was too painful.  Even though I knew anorexia was harming me, it had become so enmeshed in who I was that detaching it became a labor intensive, often excruciating process of pushing, pulling, and probing.  My eating disorder was killing me; yet, it felt integral to my being.  Letting go of it did, at times, feel as agonizing as if I was chopping off a limb.

But, Rav Kook is also correct about something else:  the necessity of distance to the process of repair.  When we are entrenched in a problem, it's often hard for us to see it clearly for what it is and figure out how to untangle it.  The same is true of eating disorder behaviors--when we're in the middle of using one, we're hardly in a position to view it objectively and make a plan to get rid of it.  For me, the magic of therapy was that it gave me a safe place to detach from my behaviors and observe, with the help of my clinicians, what function each behavior served and how I could begin to chip away at them one by one.  Being willing and able to separate from my anorexia in that context was what allowed me to internalize the tools that I needed in order to dismantle it.

So, for any of you who find yourselves wondering this month why you spent another year engaging in your eating disorder despite having had a genuine desire to kick it to the curb, remember what Rav Kook says:  it hurts to separate from part of yourself, even from a part that is negative.  And, like most people, you do your best to avoid pain.  But, remember also Rav Kook's message that separation is the key to repair.  If you allow yourself some distance from your eating disorder, you will be able to see it more clearly for what it is.  This year, may you be able to tolerate the pain of this separation, and may it lead you to lasting recovery, once and for all!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Chodesh's Elul!

This past Shabbat, we also celebrated Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Elul is the month preceding the High Holidays and is traditionally a time dedicated to introspection, self-evaluation, and spiritual preparation to get us ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In keeping with this practice, during this month I will aim to center each of my weekly posts around a different theme of Elul and how it relates to recovery.

One traditional Elul practice is to recite Psalm 27 twice a day throughout the month.  Below is a translation of this psalm:

The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
When evil men assail me to devour my flesh it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek:  to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.
He will shelter me in His pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.
Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.  In Your behalf my heart says: "Seek My face!"
O Lord, I seek Your face.
Do not hide from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O G-d, my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.
Show me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful foes.
Do not subject me to the will of my foes, for false witnesses and unjust accusers have appeared against me.
Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living...

Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Lord!

When I read the first half of the psalm, I am struck by the strong faith of the speaker and the confidence that no matter what obstacles rise up, Hashem will offer protection and safety.  The psalmist recognizes that to have such unshakable faith is to know security, peace, and the joy of victory.  This reminds me of the mindset that we often need to spur us into recovery.  Because giving up the eating disorder essentially requires a huge leap of faith, we need to feel confident that Hashem is looking out for us and will help us along the journey.  When we feel this way, we often feel empowered, motivated, and confident that we can do the hard work recovery demands--this is what propels our momentum and inspires us to take risks and grow.  I know that when I have an experience that shows me how far I have come in recovery, I enjoy a delicious sense of accomplishment and power as well as deep gratitude to Hashem for getting me to that point.

The second half of the psalm, however, carries a decidedly different tune.  All of a sudden, the psalmist speaks of fear, of doubt, of loneliness.  He begs Hashem not to abandon him in his time of danger and need, and implores G-d to show him the path to a righteous and holy life.  In my mind, this conjures up times when my resolve has weakened, when I've had setbacks, or when the challenges of living a healthy life seemed far, far too demanding--in short, every time I've ever doubted my ability to "make it" in recovery.  The psalmist expresses the intense fear and anguish that can arise at such a time--it's enough to make a person doubt whether he or she has the strength to keep going.  When we are in such a state of despair, remembering that Hashem's love for us is everlasting can give us the courage to keep engaging with life.  The psalmist recognizes an essential truth:  Hashem never gives up on us and never stops wanting us to connect with Him.  In fact, G-d begs us to seek Him out.  And so, even when his faith is weakened, the psalmist hangs onto his determination to feel Hashem's love...and through this, he finds renewed courage.

Psalm 27 is about oneness--unity between the individual and Hashem, and also the joining inside ourselves of our faith and our insecurities.  Elul is a time to bring ourselves closer to G-d, and is also a time to evaluate that relationship...and, like any relationship, our connection with Hashem sometimes feels strong and other times feels hazy.  But, what I take from this psalm is that this is normal--holding the positive with the negative is part of how life works.  Recovery is not a linear path into sunshine and roses; it is full of the ups and downs of real life in this world.  We need to be able to use the strength that we gather in times of security to help us sit with the uncertainties that are also bound to arise--because we know that if we gather our faith and hang on, we will feel safe and strong once again.

So, as we begin our journey through Elul, I wish for you that you do as the psalmist instructs:  Look to Hashem, and be brave!  You can do it!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Circumcise...the Heart?

This past Shabbat was my first back at home after a summer in Jerusalem, and I was a little worried that it wouldn't feel as holy and nourishing as Shabbat always does in Israel.  It was a bit of an adjustment, but turned out to be pretty enjoyable thanks to some great company and yummy food...and some thought-provoking Torah.

In last week's parsha (Eikev), Moshe speaks to the Israelites and basically outlines for them all the ways in which they had been stubborn and difficult, and reminds them of all the ways in which Hashem took care of them in spite of their obstinacy.  He emphasizes that Hashem chose the Israelites from among all the nations because of His tremendous love for them.  Moshe then implores the people to, "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more." (Devarim 10:16).  Literally translated, Moshe is asking the people to "circumcise the foreskin of your heart."  This is some dramatic language and certainly conjures up some strong mental images...but what does it mean?

The "foreskin of your heart" is often interpreted as that which blocks the heart from being open to Hashem's teachings.  Circumcising the heart, therefore, implies making oneself open and available to receive the Divine.  Moshe recognizes that the Jewish people's stubbornness has prevented them from truly being able to access Hashem's love for them, and he is instructing them to let down their defenses so that they might be able to open their minds.

This idea really resonates with me when I think about the process of recovery.  For a long time in my own journey, I had a bit of a control issue--namely, I liked to be in control of everything, at all times.  I was also fiercely self-protective and terrified that if I let my guard down at all, I would be endangered or harmed.  Combine the need for control with the mission to never be hurt, and you get a maddening, defensive stubbornness, which is exactly what I extended to anyone who tried to get me to loosen my grip on my eating disorder. It wasn't until I was ready to open my tightly clenched fists to the fresh air of flexible thinking that I really began to make some progress on recovery.

I think that the first step is to recognize that the "foreskin of our hearts" is there in the first place, to acknowledge that we are resisting change and avoiding vulnerability...and this isn't necessarily bad, but it does prevent growth. Once we are able to admit to our stubbornness, we can then begin to think of ways to chip away at it, little by little.  As someone who clings firmly to the safety of the status quo, I fully recognize how scary it can be to open oneself up to the world.  However, I also know that when I am willing to try new experiences or make myself vulnerable to another individual, I am rarely disappointed--in fact, I usually come away feeling as though my world has been made brighter because of what I was willing to let in.

During our weekly parsha discussion, my chevruta pointed out to me that there is a parallel pasuk in parshat Nitzavim, in which Moshe promises that if the Israelites follow Hashem's commandments with all their being, "Then the Lord G-d will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live." (Devarim 30:6)  In Eikev, Moshe instructs the Jewish people to circumcise their own hearts, but in Nitzavim he tells them that Hashem will open up their hearts for them. The way I understand this is, first we have to remove the barriers from our own hearts--and then, Hashem will open us up to His love.  In other words, if we're willing to get the process started, Hashem will take us the whole way.

To those of you who sense that your hearts are a bit closed off, I would say this:  remember that you're not being difficult for difficulty's sake--chances are, you're doing the best you can to protect yourself.  But, remember also that the eating disorder is a covering around the heart--not the heart itself.  It isn't what you are, it's what's preventing you from being fully yourself.  There's no need to rip the covering off all at once--yikes!--but maybe there's a way to get the process started, a step you could take to give yourself a taste of what your life could be like without that barrier.  I bet it could be brilliant!  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Holding onto Growth

It's hard for me to believe, but in a few days I will be saying goodbye to Israel.  My program at Pardes has finished and I am now in that nebulous transition phase, trying to be present to enjoy my remaining time here while also preparing for departure.  While I'm looking forward to reconnecting with the people and places of home, I also feel like I am leaving home, because that is what Israel has become for me:  a home for my soul.

Bidding farewell to such an incredible experience conjures up in me a whole range of feelings:  plenty of gratitude and contentment, but also a healthy dose of sadness and longing.  If I dig a bit deeper, I bump up against another emotion that is buried way down but also pervades all the others:  fear.  As I prepare to say goodbye to Israel, I am afraid that I am also saying goodbye to the person I've grown into while I've been here:  someone who is an explorer, who can go with the flow, and who connects to others with her heart wide open.  I am afraid I will stagnate in my spiritual growth when I can no longer fill my lungs with the air of Eretz Yisrael and my head with the wisdom of my teachers.  In many ways, I feel that this summer has given me a taste of my better self.  Will I be able to hold onto that when I return to my life in the States?

One of my teachers introduced me to the works of Reb Zadok HaKohen Milublin and shared with me a quote of his that resonates with me strongly as I wrestle with this fear:

"Just as one must believe in G-d, so too must one afterwards believe in him or herself.  This is to say that G-d has direct dealings with him/her and he/she is not an insignifcant being who is here at one moment and gone the next..." (Tzidkat Hatzaddik #154)

What I take from this is a reminder that who I am is not wholly dependent on others or my surroundings.  I do not need to fear that I will disappear or whither away simply because I leave a nurturing environment.  Hashem created me with purpose because I have something to offer the world.  He gifted me with the experiences of this summer so that I could grow and have more light to share with others.  I used to think I was only in recovery because of the support of my clinical team, that without them I wouldn't be able to hold onto my progress.  In truth, my team did help me get to where I am, but I am the one who sustains my recovery.  I've internalized their support and now can initiate and maintain progress on my own.  I think the same is true of my fears about leaving Israel:  other people may have filled me up this summer, but I am the vessel and I do not automatically crumble and lose my contents just because I move away from the source.

So... my teachers, who challenged and enlightened me intellectually and also nurtured and supported me personally, who shared with me the energy and beauty of Talmud Torah and also made me excited about possibilities for my own life... my friends, who reminded me of what it means to be truly seen, who shared their radiance with me and also reflected my own light back onto me with love and caring...

...תודה רבה  B'ezrat Hashem we should continue to learn and grow together!