Monday, August 19, 2013

"Why Weren't You Zusha?"

Since we are smack in the middle of Elul, it's not surprising that lately I've been thinking a lot about teshuva.  I also happen to be reading a fabulous book called, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't) by Brené Brown, which focuses on how women experience shame.  Though I don't believe teshuva is a shame-based process, I do believe that some of the ways we act in response to our own feelings of shame are certainly grist for the teshuva mill.

Brené Brown defines shame as, "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.  Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations.  Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection."  Since, as humans, we are programmed to need connection--interpersonally as well as spiritually--the sense of disconnection that comes from shame can be profoundly disconcerting.  It is then not surprising that one might go to great lengths to avoid feeling shame...and, one of the ways we do that is by attempting to be whomever we perceive others want us to be.  Like chameleons, we adjust our speech and behavior (maybe also clothing) to blend in with what is expected by our peer group in any given situation.  We might find ourselves nodding in agreement to something we don't actually support, or glossing over our true beliefs in an effort to avoid confrontation.  In our efforts to remain connected and avoid shame, we sacrifice our authenticity.  Brené Brown describes this dynamic as follows:  "Shame, or the fear of being shamed, moves us away from our authentic selves.  We tell people what they want to hear, or we don't speak out when we should.  In turn, we feel shame for being dishonest, misrepresenting our beliefs or not taking an important stand."  When we believe we can't be connected and be ourselves, we often prioritize being connected...and end up paying a heavy price.

Although I don't think I could have articulated it when I was really struggling, it's clear to me now that my eating disorder had its roots in shame.  Some of the shame came from internal sources and some of it came from other people, but the result was that I believed nothing about me was okay:  my body, my thoughts, my feelings--I was ashamed of all of it.  I had two main strategies for dealing with shame.  One was to make myself physically as small as possible so there would be less for people to find objectionable.  The other was to be hyper-alert to (perceived) hints from other people as to how they wanted me to be--and then, be that way.

Being in recovery has meant giving up anorexia as a means for coping with shame; it is simply not possible to be in recovery and also be starving yourself.  However, it is possible to be in recovery and still be a people-pleaser, and I'll admit that "going chameleon" is still sometimes a default strategy of mine.  Over the years, I've avoided many arguments and smoothed over countless conflicts; I've reinforced others' opinions by agreeing with them; I've given people the answers I believed they wanted, rather than answers that were honest.  In return, I got connection, but I lost my authentic sense of self.  At some point, I realized I no longer knew what I thought, or what I liked.  Learning to eat again was hard, but relearning my own Self has been even harder--and is something I'm still working on.

Judaism teaches us that we are each born at the moment when Hashem realizes the world can no longer exist without us.  He creates each of us with a purpose, to fulfill a unique role in the world.  When we sacrifice our authenticity in order to "blend," we abandon the very work that we were put on earth to do.  Personally, I recognize that I lose sight of my authentic self more often than I would like.  I sometimes prioritize superficial connections with other people over deeper connections with Hashem--and with myself.  As I focus on my process of teshuva, I feel regret when I think of all the ways in which I've not been true to myself...and I feel committed to working harder in the coming year on cultivating my own authenticity.

There is a beautiful Hasidic story about Reb Zusha of Anipoli that goes something like this:

Reb Zusha was on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples.  He was crying and no one could comfort him.  One student asked his Rebbe, "Why do you cry?  You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham."  Reb Zusha answered, "When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,' rather, they will ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you Zusha?' Why didn't I fulfill my potential, why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine?  That is why I am crying." 

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, I invite each of us to think about whether we are behaving in ways that feel authentic to us, or whether, out of fear of shame, we are giving up our own uniqueness in order to be "just like everyone else."  Remember--Hashem doesn't want a duplicate of someone else...He wants US.  I wish that each of us enters the new year knowing that we give Hashem joy when we are authentic--and that we are worthy of connection when we are our true selves.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

From Thought to Action

Wow...when I look back on my last post, it seems like I wrote it so long ago (even though it was really only 12 days).  Since then, I've had to readjust to being home in the States after a month in my "other home" in Israel, and I'll admit that reentry has had some rocky spots.  It's tough to transition between two places, even when (or perhaps because) I adore both of them.  I have a hard time writing from that "ungrounded" space, so this post has been a while in coming...but, in the interim, a couple of things happened to give my creative juices a kick:

1) Rosh Chodesh Elul!

2) The yarhzeit of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (ג אלול)

Why are these important?  Well, Elul happens to be one of my favorite months of the year due to its emphasis on introspection, self-evaluation, and teshuva (yep...I love that stuff!).  And, no one is a greater source of inspiration for me in the areas of teshuva and self-reflection than Rav Kook.  I've quoted him several times on this blog, and I'm about to do so again--every time I read his work, I come away with something new.

I think recovery is one of the greatest forms of teshuva that there is; it's a process of turning away from an unhealthy lifestyle and re-embracing--and recommitting to--the positively productive, fulfilling, and connected lives we were meant to lead. I'm going to share three excerpts from Rav Kook's famous work, Orot HaTeshuva (The Lights of Penitence), and I'll explain how I see each one relating to recovery as a process of teshuva.

(Note:  Rav Kook consistently uses the masculine form when referring to "person," and I'm keeping his gendered language intact for the sake of preserving the text.  But, feel free to make whatever substitutions you would like in your own mind!)

Rav Kook writes:

"It is in the nature of penitence to endow a person with peace and with solemnity at the same time.  Even the mere thought of penitence is a comfort to him.  In one tiny glimmer of its great light there is already to be found the noble happiness of a whole world, but together with this it confronts his spirit constantly with the obligation of completing it.  This saves him from pride and invests him with a sweet light, which endows his life with great and abiding value."

What I love about this is how Rav Kook recognizes that the very step of THINKING about teshuva (or recovery!) is valuable in and of itself.  A person can feel heartened and galvanized when she first commits to the idea of recovery, and it's important to recognize that the readiness to be open to this process is significant.  However, Rav Kook also cautions us against falling into the trap of only thinking about it, and not actually doing it.  The intention to do teshuva is commendable, but ultimately it needs to lead to actions that follow through.  This is also true regarding recovery--setting goals is important, but then so is actually working towards them.  If we are going to be truthfully committed to this process, then we have the responsibility of sticking with it and actually making it happen.  But, it's not only the end result of all that work that has value--it's the very process itself.

Continuing his ideas about the process of teshuva, Rav Kook says:

"Through the thoughts of penitence a person hears G-d's voice calling him, from the Torah and from the feelings of the heart, from the world and its fullness, and all that is contained therein."

Yes. Yes. YES.

For me, there is nothing ultimately more comforting than knowing--feeling--that Hashem is my greatest coach.  I view recovery as more than just maintaining my physical health, but also using my healthy body to help me live the life that G-d wants me to lead.  When I struggle with feelings of, "Maybe I can't go any farther," I do seek out the voice of Hashem for reassurance and comfort.  For me, I find that connection with Hashem in nature--there is no way I can be still and alert in the natural world and not hear and feel the call of Hashem.  When I'm in a place of fear or ambivalence or confusion regarding what to do next in recovery, going for a walk or sitting outside helps me feel grounded in connection to Hashem, and that gives me the resolve to keep pushing.  If "nature" isn't your thing, I really encourage you to find SOMEWHERE where you can hear G-d's voice most clearly, where He can give you encouragement to turn your thoughts of recovery into actions.

Finally, I have one last Rav Kook nugget to share:

"I see how the sins serve as an obstruction against the bright divine light, which shines so brightly on every soul, and they darken the soul.  Penitence, even if it is only entertained in thought, effects a great redress.  But the soul can reach full liberation only when the potential of penitence is translated into action.  However, since the thought is tied up with holiness and with the desire for penitence, there is no need to be concerned.  G-d, may He be praised, will surely make available all the circumstances for the attainment of full penitence, which illumines all the dark places in its light."

If we think of recovery as teshuva, the message is clear:  As long as we are committed to the process and willing to do the work, Hashem will provide us with whatever support we need to make it happen. We don't need to worry, "What if I can't do it?"  The truth is, G-d will make sure that we can...we just have to be brave enough to make use of the tools He gives us.

Going into Elul, I encourage each of us to think of a way we could further advance our own recovery...and then start doing it.  May this lead us into a new year of growth and satisfaction!