Sunday, June 30, 2013

See the Birthing

The end of the school year is always a crazy time for me as a teacher.  This year was no exception, as I discussed in a previous post.  Aside from all the logistical hoops through which I had to jump, there was also the poignancy of saying goodbye to my flock of third grade graduates, to whom I'd become deeply attached.  I thought that this year I might not have much time to dwell on the transition, due to my impending departure (tomorrow!) to Israel...incorrect!  I always, always have time for Transition Anxiety because, if I'm going to be honest, "change" isn't really my thing.

Sure enough, not even one day after closing up my classroom for the summer, I felt the anxiety set in.  For ten and a half months of the year, work is my world and "teacher" is my identity.  My colleagues are my "other family," and each year my heart grows just a little bit larger to hold a new class of students, all of whom become "my kids."  When I am at work, I know who I am and I like that version of myself.  I thrive on the structure of my days, and I know how to deliver what is expected of me.  No matter how much I need summer vacation, it is always a tough adjustment.  I usually feel a bit lost without my usual routine, I miss the easy social connections I have with the other teachers, and I definitely miss the kids.  At the bottom of all of this is the unspoken question, Who am I outside of teaching?  It's murky territory, and I don't like it.

Coincidentally (or not?), when I picked up my copy of, Toward a Meaningful Life:  The wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, this past Shabbat, I opened directly to the chapter titled, "Upheaval and Change."  To be fair, most of the Rebbe's teachings in this chapter are intended to refer to global upheaval and catastrophic events, but I think they can be applied to personal life changes and transitions, as well.  Put generally, the Rebbe says that when things around us are changing, we can use our relationship with Hashem to ground us.  Upheaval gives us the chance to separate who we are from our material world, to get in touch with that which is at our cores and does not change.  Additionally, he teaches that change is an opportunity for growth:

"Our sages teach, 'Who is wise?  The one who sees the birthing' [Talmud, Tamid 32a]--not just the darkness, but how it leads to light.  Growth occurs in three stages:  an embryonic state, a void between old and new, and a state of transformation.  Upheaval is the middle, chaotic stage.  From our human perspective, it may appear as an abyss, but in the larger view, it is the first sign of something new, a birthing."

I think recovery is definitely this way--the "letting go" stage, when we release our hold on the eating disorder but don't yet have anything positive to cling to, certainly can feel like a frightening abyss.  But, as the Rebbe says, that chaos leads to transformation and growth into a fuller, more authentic life.

I can also apply it to where I am in this moment:  the transitional space between "teacher mode" and summer.  It is hard for me to let go of teaching and the comfortable routine it brings.  But when I stop and think, I know that I am the same "me" whether I am working or not, that who I am is more than my profession, and that maybe this time away from work will give me an opportunity to develop some of the other aspects of myself that get a bit lost during the year.  Tomorrow I will fly to Israel, where I will get to spend time with people dear to my heart, learning texts I love in a place that is my second home.  If I allow myself to expand beyond my identity as a teacher, if I let myself fully inhabit the experiences of this next month, then I know I will grow in ways I can't yet anticipate.  Getting to that growth requires some traveling through uncertainty, but if the choice was either, a) consistency and stagnation, or,  b) disruption and transformation, I know I would choose "b," hands down.

So, for all of us staring down some sort of transition or change and the anxiety it brings, I share the words of the Rebbe and our sages as a reminder that if we can weather the bumps in the road, we will be rewarded with a birth into new beginnings.  I will certainly continue to write and share with you what I am learning on this next adventure!

(For skeptics who need a bit more convincing--or if you just like good music--the Indigo Girls reinforce the Rebbe in this song.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Focus on Your Own Tent!

Something I am really trying to work on is my tendency to assess myself against my perception of other people.  I might think that I am doing just fine, until I see someone whom I perceive to be more successful at whatever I'm trying to do, and then--all of a sudden--whatever I'm doing is deficient.  Mind you, nothing will have actually changed about me--it's just that when I compare myself to others, I often judge myself less favorably than I do when I try to evaluate myself independently.  The obvious answer to this problem is, stop comparing myself to other people!  Unfortunately, I've always found this much easier said than done.  It's definitely true that I fall into the comparing trap much less frequently than I used to, but if I'm going to be honest, even in recovery I'm still a competitive woman with a perfectionist, some comparing seems inevitable.

I started thinking about this in earnest as I read last week's parasha (Balak).  Balak, the Moabite king, hired the gentile prophet, Balaam, to curse the Jewish people.  But, Balaam knew that Hashem favored the Jewish people and that he would be unable to make any prophecies to the contrary.  As he looked out over the people of Israel, Balaam was able to utter only blessings.

"Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him."  (Numbers 24:2) 

According to Rashi, the phrase, dwelling according to its tribes, refers to the meticulous organization of the Israelite camp.  All the people dwelled in their tribal groups, and they arranged their tents so that no tent's entrance faced that of another tent.  This allowed for a feeling of community while still protecting the privacy and modesty of individual families.  The setup prevented general snooping and intrusions, but it also made it difficult for one person to become fixated on the possessions or private actions of another.  Even thousands of years ago, the Israelites realized how easy it would be to fall into the trap of comparing oneself against another, and they knew they needed to protect their society from the damaging competitiveness that results.  

My tendency to compare and compete with others often played itself out in my eating disorder.  I constantly engaged in thought patterns such as, "How much is that person eating?  I have to eat less," or, "If she's going to the gym, then I need to go, too."  The only way I knew if I'd exercised enough, studied enough, or achieved enough was to measure myself against someone else.  This was to my detriment and often completely irrational--even in the hospital, I would look at other girls on the floor and think, "She has more problems than I do.  Why don't I have more problems?  I'm not sick enough."  Some of the best advice I ever got in intensive treatment was, "Put blinders on and focus on yourself."  The truth is, there is always going to be someone sicker, or smarter, or more talented, or more attractive.  There will always be someone who has more advanced degrees than I do, someone who is more athletic, or someone who is more professionally successful.  So, the choice is mine:  I can measure myself against the yardsticks of those other people, or I can validate all the hard work I've done and all the ways in which I have succeeded.  One of the keys to my recovery has been learning how to acknowledge the ways in which I want to improve, while simultaneously affirming that I am enough, just as I am.  

The ancient Israelites understood the importance of, "focusing on your own tent."  They knew that privacy was important not only because it preserved modesty, but also because it safeguarded the integrity and individuality of everyone involved.  When a person is free to focus on her own tent, she is able to invest her energy into making that tent the best it can be, regardless of what everyone else is doing.  The Israelites recognized that an individual who is firmly grounded in her own strengths is going to be more able to serve the community than one who is not.  My wish for all of us is that while we continue to connect and engage with the people around us, that we also allow ourselves the time and space to focus on our own tents, to make them radiate out the brilliant light that is ours alone.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Challenge of Relaxation

The past few weeks have put me back in close touch with a familiar, unpleasant emotional state:  stress.  It's getting to be the end of the school year, which is always a fun time but also brings with it a lot of Things That Must Get Done Immediately.  At the top of my list have been 23 narrative progress reports, one for each student in my class--an endeavor that is time consuming, to say the least.  Close behind that is the realization that I have exactly three days between my last day of school and when I leave for Israel, and one of them is Shabbat--not a whole lot of time to get ready!  Then, there are all the small-yet-significant items such as student assessments, work meetings, and closing down a classroom that has accumulated a year's worth of papers and other random items.  So, I've spent the better part of the past two weeks alternating between frantically trying to stay on top of things at work while also attempting to tackle some pre-trip preparations.  The result has been a near-constant knot of stress in my stomach and frayed emotional ends...and, as this past Shabbat approached, I thought, "I CANNOT afford to take 25 hours off!"  For the first time in a long time, I found myself resenting Shabbat.

At the root of this are two core beliefs that underpinned my eating disorder and my general tendency to be very, very hard on myself:

1)  You earn your worth through what you do.
If I wasn't actively engaged in some productive activity, if I wasn't constantly giving others the impression that I was hardworking and dedicated, then I would lose my right to claim those adjectives.  In order to be liked/admired/considered valuable, I must always be doing something visibly useful.

2) Relaxation is an indulgence.
If there was one word that would turn me off in an instant, it was indulgence.  I believed wholeheartedly that indulgences were for people who had no willpower, that relaxation was for people too weak to push themselves.  I, on the other hand, was a champion of self-denial who found some degree of satisfaction from forcing myself to work/study/exercise when others said, "I've had enough."

After years and years spent working on shedding these core beliefs, I've considered myself pretty much divorced from them...and yet, as this past Shabbat neared and my stress level rose, I found them creeping back into my line of thinking.  But I've worked really hard to learn how to enjoy Shabbat, and I did not want to lose my ability to give myself over to the spirit of those 25 hours.  I went back to some of the writings about Shabbat that I've collected over the years, and came across two that helped me refocus on the meaning of Shabbat:

"It is a day in which we abandon our plebeian pursuits and reclaim our authentic state, in which we may partake of a blessedness in which we are what we are, regardless of whether we are learned or not, of whether our career is a success or a failure..."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath


"Master of the world, let me merit the joy and freedom of the holy Shabbat, and let me nullify the enslavement of the days of the week.  I pray that my mind will be completely settled, without any confusion at all--and that on the holy Sabbath no thoughts of labor and business, nor any worry or trouble, will enter my mind.  Rather it will be in my eyes as though all my work is done.  Then I will have truly attained the rest and pleasure and joy of the holy Sabbath."
--Reb Natan of Breslav, Likutei Tefilot 2:13 

What I learn from these quotes is that Shabbat is a time for me to separate myself from doing and concentrate on being.  In those 25 hours, I get to believe that it's not what I do that makes me valuable, it's who I am.  And although that might be challenging to accept, it's also critical for maintaining a healthy attitude toward myself and toward life.  For sure, it was challenging this week for me to say to myself, "For the next 25 hours, I'm done with work.  There is nothing I have to do.  I get to just be."  But I managed, and let me tell you--if ever there was a week when I needed Shabbat, it was this week.  A day of putting away the to-do list was exactly what my body and mind required.

I know that Shabbat can be challenging because it bumps up against those eating-disordered core beliefs that we cling to so tightly.  Yet, to be able to lean into that window of time when we simply are who we are, is so precious and vital to recovery, and to life.  I hope that we all can begin to release ourselves from the pressures of constantly producing and give ourselves that chance every week to relax and recharge.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

No "Yeah Buts!"

This past week's parasha is one that leads the reader, upon beginning its first chapter, to have a sneaking suspicion that it is not going to end well for Am Yisrael.  Indeed, that would be putting it lightly--the well-known episode of the meraglim, or spies, featured in parashat Shelach is one of disastrous consequences for the Jewish people.  Here, in a nutshell, is what happens:

As the Jews near Eretz Yisrael, Moshe sends twelve upstanding men to scout out the territory and the people who dwell there.  Although Hashem has promised them the land, the Jewish people still need to figure out the most efficient, responsible way to conquer it.  So, the spies go into the land for forty days, and when they come back, ten of them report that, yes, the land is as good as promised...however, it is occupied by some rather intimidating, larger-than-life humans who would surely be too strong for the Jews to overpower.  Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, try to convince the people that they will be victorious...but, to no avail.  Before long, those other ten spies instill such uncertainty and fear in the people that they demand a new leader who will replace Moshe and bring them back to Egypt, to the miserable-yet-familiar confines of slavery.  Understandably, Hashem is furious that despite all the miracles He has done for the Jews, they still are unconvinced of His protection and power and do not believe that He could bring them into the Promised Land.  So, He declares that the Jews will wander in the wilderness for forty years, during which time the entire adult generation will die, leaving only their children to inherit Eretz Yisrael.

When the spies reported their findings to the people, they transitioned from their positive observations to their negative ones through the Hebrew word, efes, which roughly translates as, "however."  (Interestingly, in modern Hebrew efes means, "zero," which coincides with how the spies used it to completely negate all the goodness of the land.) Through that word, the spies let their insecurities overtake what should have been their fundamental knowledge that the land would be theirs--it was only a matter of how.

As I read these chapters of Shelach, I remembered a phrase that came up quite a bit in my recovery:  "Yeah, but...".  I was formally introduced to the concept of the "Yeah Buts" many years ago when I attended a body image workshop led by two of my recovery mentors.  They explained that the eating disorder uses "Yeah Buts" to refute the positive messages of our healthy voices.  For every encouraging statement, every suggestion toward progress, there was a "Yeah But" to prove that it wouldn't work.  (Examples:  "I guess I could add Food X to my afternoon snack...yeah, but Food X doesn't taste good at that time of day."  "I probably should increase my nutritionist appointments to every week instead of twice a month...yeah, but I don't want to pay all those copays.")  The main problem of "Yeah Buts" is that they shut down possibilities and convince us that what we want--what we know we could have--is actually out of our reach.

With that one word, efes, the spies uttered a gigantic, "Yeah, but...".

This past Shabbat I read a weekly Parsha column by Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School in NYC.  Rabbi Linzer goes into a detailed analysis of the story of the spies, but he also manages to universalize its lesson as follows:

If one is not a priori committed to an enterprise, if one does not believe that the land is good, then every problem looms large, every challenge becomes an obstacle. However, if there is a fundamental belief in G-d's promise and in the goodness of the land, then whatever the problems and whatever the challenges, they can be met and dealt with--"We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!" (13:30)

What I take from Rabbi Linzer's message is that when we believe wholeheartedly that a positive outcome is ours for the taking, then we will look at challenges as just parts of the journey--uncomfortable parts, perhaps, but completely surpassable.  However, if we enter into a process with a lack of faith at our core, then obstacles become reasons to abandon the entire undertaking.  On this blog, I have previously compared recovery to Eretz Yisrael, and I believe the comparison holds true here.  Just like the Promised Land, recovery is what we yearn for, what we dream could be ours.  If we believe that Hashem has put it within our reach and that if we work hard, we shall surely attain it, then all the bumps in the road to get there become just that--mere bumps in the road.  It's when we start to doubt that we could ever truly live in recovery, that we become vulnerable to the "Yeah Buts."

If you find yourself doubting your ability to recover, I hope that you can use the lesson of the spies to remind yourself that the only thing really standing between you and recovery is whether or not you believe you can do it.  If you believe recovery will be yours, then you will overcome all the obstacles in your path.  As Joshua and Caleb said, "the Land is very, very good!" (14:7)  So is recovery--so, don't let any "Yeah Buts" prevent you from having it!