Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Best Laid Plans...

I really dislike curveballs...

...and yet, life seems to enjoy throwing them.

You know how it is...you have a plan, one that excites you and energizes you, one that you think will move your life in the direction you want it to go, and then...WHAM.  Curveball.  So much for the plan.

Very recently, I found myself in this situation--a plan that I had looked forward to with great hope and excitement suddenly fell apart and left me back at square one.  Now, it's true that I've been in therapy for over a decade, but let's be real--the demise of a Really Good Plan is still cause for some serious emotional crumbling.  First thought:  Now what will I do?  Second thought:  I can't do anything.  Third thought:  I don't want to eat.

Yep, that was the third thought, because even in recovery, I know that when I am vulnerable, that's where my mind goes.  But the amazing thing about recovery is that I can recognize such a thought as a red flag and can intervene before ever putting that thought into action.  So, instead of not eating, I did the following:  I cried; I reached out to someone I trusted; I distracted myself; I took a nap (all of which, it should be noted, ultimately were way more effective than going hungry).  And, I thought about the concept of bitachon.

Bitachon is translated as trust.  It is a way of applying the concept of "faith in Hashem" to one's everyday life.  If you have faith in Hashem, then you should trust Hashem.  But what does that mean?

On a simplistic level, it means understanding that Hashem would never make us go through something that wasn't ultimately for the greater good.  It also means acknowledging that we don't see the whole picture--only Hashem can do that.  Consequently, we might have plans that seem perfect to us, but maybe they won't ultimately get us where we need to go--and when that happens, Hashem intervenes and foils our plans.  This may seem devastating to us because we can't see where we are headed--all we can see are our ruined plans.  But, remembering that Hashem creates reality in a way that is for our benefit--and the world's--can help us trust that even that which seems bad, might lead us somewhere good.

However, it's important to understand that bitachon does NOT mean being complacent or believing that "everything will be fine if I just sit back and trust Hashem."  Rav Shimshon Pincus Zatzal explains that when we are confronted with adversity, it is misguided bitachon to convince ourselves that there is no problem and that Hashem will handle everything.  Rather, bitachon means acknowledging the severity of the challenges we face and using the tools Hashem has given us to lift ourselves out of problematic situations.  Bitachon is not passive--it is the active channeling of our trust in Hashem to propel ourselves forward.

Personally, I like this idea of bitachon much better than the notion that I just should be happy no matter what my circumstances, because Hashem is taking me where I need to go.  I mean, I have faith in Hashem, but I also believe in personal agency--and bitachon is the intersection of the two.  Perhaps that "great plan" of mine actually wasn't in sync with Hashem's big picture--I can accept that.  I can also use the skills and tools that Hashem has given me--determination, resourcefulness, thoughtfulness, patience--to find another option for myself that is better aligned with what Hashem ultimately wants for me.  Yes, life threw me a curveball...but, I don't need to throw up my hands and wait for the next pitch to smack me in the face.  I can pick up my glove, channel my fielding skills...and trust that Hashem will help me catch it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Go Against the Flow

This week's parasha, Lech Lecha, is so chock-full of rich material that I've already written about it two times!  But, since there's always the possibility to discover something new in Torah, I decided that this week I would try to find a new angle from which to approach this parasha.  An article by Rabbi Max Weiman from aish.com inspired me to begin by taking a close look at Abram--what was it that separated him from the rest of humanity at that point?

In the very beginning, Hashem spoke to Adam, who passed on the teachings to his children and their descendants, including Noah.  But, by the time of Abram, society had once again deteriorated.  Abram lived in a culture of idol worshippers, yet somehow he heard the call of Hashem, the one G-d.  How did this happen?  Some say that he was so enchanted with the beauty of the world, that he knew there had to be one Creator overseeing everything.  However it unfolded, the bottom line is that Abram challenged the status quo and dared to follow what he knew to be true.  He rejected the culture of the majority and instead took a different path--which, as we know, had profound implications for the history of the Jewish people.

Abram wasn't afraid to go against the tide--he went in the direction of what he knew was authentic, even as everyone around him was doing the opposite.  What does it take to be the sort of person who is brave enough to do this?

It takes a lot of work to swim against the cultural stream.  In recovery, this comes up all the time--with the incessant social buzz about diets and weight, it is almost impossible to follow a recovery meal plan without feeling like you're fundamentally at odds with the rest of the Western world.  When people around you are trading stories about workout regimens, it can be hard to remain confident in your decision to cancel your gym membership.  And, when your friends or family members are gossiping about someone else who just lost/gained a noticeable amount of weight, it can be very daunting to look them in the eyes and say, "So what?"

But, this is what recovery demands.  We must be willing to distance ourselves from the commonplace, yet mildly distorted, thinking that pervades our surrounding culture with respect to food and body.  We don't need to buy into the myths of "good" and "bad" foods, and we don't need to believe the falsehood that any one particular body type is the gateway to happiness.  The last time I checked (which wasn't too long ago), no one food will singlehandedly make or break your health, and happy people come in all shapes and sizes.

In the book Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher, there is a chapter called, "Worshiping the Gods of Thinness."  Isn't this what so much of our society is doing?  We have a choice in front of us:  we can either join the majority in their idolization of a phony ideal, or we can be strong enough to follow what we know in our cores to be true.  One of the gifts of recovery is that we can see the falseness of the cultural myths and the misalignment of societal priorities, whereas people who haven't done this work are not always able to do so.  We need to be brave enough to voice our own truths and prove that there is a more genuine way to live.  May we all be blessed with the courage and vision of Abram, and may we spread the light of authenticity to those around us!

Monday, October 15, 2012

"Lapses and Crises"

I know I've mentioned the importance of self-compassion many times, and I do genuinely believe in it...but I'll be honest and say that sometimes it's really hard for me.  As a teacher, I'll gladly work with a student all year on one particular skill, but when it comes to myself, I expect proficiency right out of the gate.  Lately, this has been a problem for me regarding religious observance--although I've been steadily increasing my religiosity over the past two years, I'm still far from where I'd like to be in terms of "religious fluency."  To be fair, I was raised in a secular environment and still operate in one on a daily basis. There are times when my interactions and relationships with the many non-observant (or non-Jewish) people in my life lead me to make compromises and adjustments to my practice that I wish I didn't have to make--but I do make them, because I'm not yet always confident or assertive enough to say, "This is what I need," or "That won't work for me."  When I consciously do something that I know is in violation of Jewish law, the self-judgment voice  starts yelling, "You know better than that.  You're supposed to be taking this seriously.  How can you say you are religious and then go and do that?  You're a fraud.  You will never get better than this." 

As this latest round of Jewish holidays neared its end, I struggled with this critical voice because I felt I hadn't observed the last couple of festival days as thoughtfully as I would have liked.  Never mind that I did observe them more carefully than I had the year before...it wasn't perfect, and I knew I could have done better.  I should have done better.  In the middle of this overwhelmingly negative self-assessment, it dawned on me that this entire routine seemed awfully familiar--this was the same way I had talked to myself in the beginning of my recovery, every time I would give in to the urge to use an eating disorder behavior.  Once I knew how I should be acting, there was no excuse for mistakes.  I judged any slips into the eating disorder as signs that I wasn't taking recovery seriously, that I was insincere, that I was weak, and that I would never get any better than I was in that moment of lapse.

When I noticed that I was having these thoughts about myself as a religious person, I did what I often do in times of self-doubt:  get advice from someone who knows more than I do.  In this case, the person I consulted was Adin Steinsaltz, Jewish scholar extraordinaire and my newest intellectual hero.  I'd been reading his book, Teshuvah, and in light of my current mood I decided to reread the chapter called, "Lapses and Crises."  In this chapter, Steinsaltz emphasizes that stumbling is part of the process of advancement--not a negation of it.  The people who aim the farthest are going to have more opportunities to trip along the way, and the struggle involved in moving from stage to stage is inherent to growth.

This does not mean, however, that we shouldn't take slips seriously...but, neither should we use them as an excuse to abandon the process entirely.  Steinsaltz cautions, "The seriousness of individual lapses should not be minimized, but neither should even the worst of them be allowed to lead to despair and total abdication."  In other words, acknowledge errors and take steps to correct them, but then move on--no mistake is worth resigning oneself to failure.

Steinsaltz understands that once we decide to change ourselves for the better in a specific way, we want our progress to be smooth and linear--and immediate.  But, he teaches, this usually isn't how it works.  He explains, "A person who confronts the necessity of making a change in his life or of pressing on with renewed determination must also reckon with internal resistance, partly conscious and immediate, partly unconscious and revealed only with the passage of time.  He cannot simply 'turn over a new leaf' and start afresh; even after he sets out on his new path he will be hounded by those parts of him that remain unreconciled to his decision.  The very struggle to ascend gives one the feeling of being at the bottom of the ladder; but this is only a trick of the senses and the imagination, for the ascent is, in fact, well underway."

Although he is writing specifically about the process of becoming religious, his words also resonate with me in terms of recovery.  Both processes entail major life shifts in both behavioral and emotional realms, and we need to be patient with ourselves and understand that we will stumble along the way.  When we do experience a setback, we should interpret it not as evidence of failure, but as a testament to our desire to strive higher...after all, if we were content to remain static, failure wouldn't be an issue.  A healthy dose of frustration may propel us forward, but we must stop short of getting so discouraged that we quit altogether.  Remember what Steinsaltz says:  if you're stumbling, it's because you're already moving along the path.  May we each keep this wisdom inside our own hearts as we aim to progress forward from wherever we are!  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Make Room for Guests!

Chag sameach--happy Sukkot to all!  Before I dive into the blog post itself, I just want to take a little bit of space to acknowledge that this blog is now one year old!  Developing it has been such a fun journey for me...many thanks to everyone who is along for the ride!

Now, onto the festival of Sukkot, of which we are currently smack in the middle.  After the somber, contemplative mood of the High Holidays, Sukkot brings us into a week of festive celebration.  One of the themes of the holiday is that of, "welcoming guests," or hachnasat orchim in Hebrew.  (For an adorably amusing "Shalom Sesame" video explaining hachnasat orchim, click here...I can't be the only one who gets all nostalgic for "Shalom Sesame!")  Just as Abraham was famous for waiting for strangers to pass by his tent so he could invite them in, so are we supposed to make an extra effort to invite people into our sukkot or to otherwise share the holiday with us.  The spirit of reaching out and welcoming others into our lives is part of what makes Sukkot such a joyous time.

I find the idea of hachnasat orchim to be especially personally relevant because opening myself and my space to others is definitely not a natural instinct of mine.  I am introverted to the core and have been since childhood; but, I am also aware that for the years when I was actively engaged in my eating disorder, I took this particular personality trait to new heights.  In my mind, other people made things messy--and I hated mess.  I wanted things exactly how I wanted them, tightly under my control...and bringing other people into the mix inevitably meant letting in an element of unpredictability and uncertainty, which I simply could not tolerate.  Additionally, I was deeply afraid of rejection and of desiring a relationship with someone who did not want one with me.  I was not willing to risk feeling the pain of being unwanted--better to not reach out in the first place, than to reach out and be disappointed.  One of my early therapists had a name for this:  "people restricting."  In addition to restricting my intake of food, I was also severely limiting my intake of other people--I honestly felt it was the safest way to go.

I've since changed my mind.

Don't get me wrong--I am still a classic introvert who craves "alone time," but I have also discovered that along with unpredictability and uncertainty, other people also inject a lot of energy and love into my life.  In fact, when I think about the moments in my recovery that stand out to me as major milestones, every one of them was an experience that I shared with other people, and the connectedness that I felt with those individuals was part of what made each of those moments so precious.  My eating disorder stepped in to fill a gaping void in my life during a time when I felt profoundly empty.  In order for me to be willing to give it up, I needed something else to slip into that space--and I have found other people to be a critical part of what now "fills me up."  Interestingly, it's only in recovery that I've found myself actually able to present with other people.  Connectedness fuels my recovery, and my recovery powers connectedness--it's a beautifully self-perpetuating phenomenon.

So, although I still find that quiet time alone in a sukkah is sometimes just what I need, I also must acknowledge that when I do go out of my way to let others in, I am almost never disappointed and am almost always enriched.  Hachnasat orchim might not be my natural instinct, but it's definitely one of the best learned habits I've picked up on the way, and is one I am still working hard to cultivate.  During this week of sukkot and beyond, I encourage any other "people restrictors" out there to try a different approach, even just one time.  Invite others to be with you, wherever you are.  It's true--other people do sometimes make a bit of a mess, but they also bring a lot of joy!