The Gift of Dental Floss

When I was a child, I brushed and flossed my teeth regularly. When I grew older, my dental hygiene ebbed and flowed, depending on circumstances. But looking back, I realize that one thing was always the same: my motivation. I had learned to floss as a response to feelings of guilt and fear.

The guilt part started from knowing that my parents expected me to floss, which I later internalized as “that’s the right the thing to do”, and which was reenforced by dentists, dental hygienists, and well-meaning folks of all persuasions. In fact I remember learning that if one was only going to do one (brushing or flossing), it was “better” to floss. So I would floss because I felt guilty if I didn’t.

The fear part was more powerful and more straight-forward: if you don’t take care of your teeth, you will lose them. Lose them to cavities, gum disease, weak gums, etc. So, especially in the face of an upcoming dental appointment, I would get much more regular with my oral care.

And sometimes I combined the two motivations. I remember bargaining (with whatever conception I had of G*d at the time) that I would maintain a regular dental hygiene practice if only the upcoming visit to the dentist would reveal no cavities. And, as it went, I actually didn’t have any cavities until some time in my late thirties, if memory serves. And I did follow through and take care of my teeth — for a while. So that was a combination of guilt and fear!

And while each of these motivations would work for some period of time, they weren’t able to sustain a good habit consistently over the years. The longest I went with continuous (healthy) teeth care was actually when I realized that brushing my teeth in the afternoon (during the work day) was energizing and revitalizing. I had found a selfish motivation that worked quite well. Eventually, however, that fell off as well, although I can’t recollect exactly why or how.

So this past week a new and strange thing happened. I was washing up in the bathroom and about to brush my teeth, when I was inspired to floss. But this time my motivation was quite surprising to me: I decided to floss my teeth as an act of gratitude. A way of thanking my teeth for their service. An acknowledgement that I really appreciate the work that my teeth do for me. It sounds kind of sappy when I write it out like that, but that was the inspiration of the moment.

And I have to say, it was quite a different experience from any of my previous flossings. I didn’t rush, my mind didn’t wander away from what I was doing. I spent several minutes just caring for my teeth in a loving way. I really enjoyed myself.

It’s too early to say if this will be effective in the long-term, and somehow I am compelled (in the spirit of full disclosure) to reveal that I’m only flossing my upper teeth — because I believe strongly that small, incremental changes are more sustainable than large, “substantial” ones.

But still, it’s a lovely innovation for me, and I thought I’d share it with you. It occurs to me that it might be an effective approach for making positive changes other areas of my life as well. If you have any thoughts on that, please comment below.

May you be blessed with an awareness of your blessings, and may that awareness inspire a heart of gratitude.


Not so fast!

How do you make a significant change in your day-to-day life?

We are all familiar with the “New Year’s resolution” syndrome. We get inspired to commit to some positive lifestyle change, like working out regularly. On January 2nd we enthusiastically join a gym, buy our workout gear, and we start doing our fitness routine religiously three times a week.
But life happens and something comes up; we miss here or there in February.
And then as March goes by we notice the gym outfit is languishing in the back of our closet.
In April we feel guilty every time we open the closet.
By May we reluctantly cancel the membership in realization that we’re not using it.

What happened?

To me, there is a constant tension between short-term impulses and long-term goals, and how we balance them is a life art. For example, I have my evening scheduled out with a concert I’ve looked forward to for weeks, and suddenly a friend calls in need. Do I miss my planned event to support my buddy?
Or  I have my new food plan in place but there’s a surprise office birthday party and my boss Heidi offers me some of her homemade cake; perhaps it would be rude to refuse?
Or  I’m on a budget regimen, but the latest iPhone goes on sale 30% off; should I set aside my budget and take advantage of the one-time offer?

Part of the equation here is delayed gratification: learning how to set my immediate desires aside in favor of my long-term goals. To be effective, I need those long-term goals constantly present in some tangible way, so I can balance them against the temptations of the moment.
(And there are many “systems” out there to help with this; one that I have appreciated, for example, is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits.)

However, one of the things I have not seen addressed is the fact that our current “bad habits” are usually serving important psychological needs. The way that I satisfy those inner needs may well be counter-productive to my long-term goals, but I’m convinced that even “bad habits” develop for good psychological reasons. I ignore them at my peril.

If I try eliminate the a habit (aka “coping mechanism”) without taking those deeper needs into account, I am pushing my emotional life out of equilibrium. And, with an important need going unmet, it won’t be long until I find myself slipping back into the old habits.

For example, I may eat a lot of chocolate to push away feelings of depression and low self-esteem. (Er, I mean a friend might do that, right?!) If I suddenly stop eating chocolate for New Year’s, I may succeed for a few days or weeks, but unless I have developed other ways of coping, surely I will soon be overwhelmed with emotion. When that happens I’ll use the coping mechanism that I know works–and here comes the chocolate.
But now in addition to my existing underlying issues, I also feel like a failure for breaking my resolution!

What’s difficult is that my underlying motivation for the “bad habit” may be hidden from my conscious mind, or missing from the life story I tell about myself. Surely it’s hard to find other, more healthy ways of dealing with the inner needs when those needs are not even consciously acknowledged!

So how can we change successfully?

I think the answer is different for everyone, but there are probably common elements that work well for many people. For me, change is most effective when that change is:

  • small                                                                           (10 min a day, or an hour a week)
  • has a set time                                                           (although it “counts” if I do it later)
  • of limited duration                                                 (to avoid “rest of my life” issues)
  • accompanied by visual feedback                        (think “gold star” chart)
  • has incentives                                                          (little encouragements along the way)
  • includes time to see what obstacles arise       (“check-in” time)
  • has the support of those closest to me            (this one can be tricky, but very helpful)

So I’ve started doing what I call 40-day challenges. I pick some small change that takes about 10 minutes a day. For example, even if my eventual goal is to work out an hour a day, I would start with a ten-minute daily workout (or 20 minutes every other day).
Then I check in with my wife. She gives me feedback about whether this is a good idea (too much or too little, or perhaps she remembers a different change I’ve mentioned that might make more sense to try first). The fact that she knows means not only will she encourage me over the course of the 40 days, but there will be a sense of accountability in the back of my mind. Someone else will know if I just give up on it.
Then I make a chart (Google spreadsheet) to track my progress. I set it up to look like a calendar, with a start and end date. (For me, I always take off for the Sabbath, so my “40 days” generally spans 46 days or so.) I have percentage calculations by the week and overall, and when I complete my daily change, I color in the cell green and add a “1” for the day. (I find these visuals quite compelling!)
As for incentives, I would have them in place before I start. (Turns out that lately I haven’t felt the need for them; but I know that in the past they have been helpful.)

And then I start. I make my chart my home page for my browser, so it’s constantly in front of me. Each day I do the new behavior and record the results in my chart, which turns greener over time.
I watch myself carefully to see what comes up, and I check in with my wife to see if she notices anything. I may find some clues to underlying needs that require some other adjustments in my lifestyle, so I can meet those needs in a healthier way. But since the change I have introduced is relatively small, I’m usually able to accommodate it without a lot of internal upheaval.
And at the end of forty days… I decide if I want to try and continue with this small change that has become a habit, or whether I’ve learned something that causes me to change direction.

I have devised little systems like this in the past, but this one seems to have more promise than others so far. I’m on my second 40-day challenge as we speak — adding 15 minutes of meditation to my daily routine. So far, so good!

So there you have it. My answer to the “how do I change best” question.  For me (at least for now): baby steps, a little at a time.

My blessing for you, dear reader: may you find a change methodology that works for you, and may you find the courage and determination to use it to transform and refine your life in the ways that are deeply important to you. A little bit at a time.

And, if you are so inclined, I would love to hear of your experiences!

Should You Let Them In?

I’m driving west on I580, and coming up there’s a big split. Three lanes go left to San Francisco, and two lanes exit to go north. I’m heading north. There are plenty of signs warning me that I’ll need to be in the right lane to exit north, but even without them, I know it’s coming, because already the backup extends towards me. This northbound exit always causes a bumper-to-bumper standstill, stretching out for a good 1/4 mile. So I slow down, put on my blinker, and take my place in line. I wait with everyone else.

Every few seconds I move forward another few rotations of my tires.

As I inch toward the point where the northbound lanes diverge, I see in my left rearview mirror a speedy little car in the San Francisco lane next to me, putting on its right-turn blinker and slowing down.  Like a dog sniffing a scent, it tentatively noses next to some of the cars behind me, looking for an opening to enter the northbound lane.  Other fast-moving cars bound for San Francisco detour around as this errant car crawls in the lane, now just in front of my left bumper, presenting me with an ethical dilemma: should I let them in?

Why or why not?

This may seem like a trivial or even obvious question, but I think your answer reveals something about how you see the world (at that moment).

On some days, I find this driver annoying and obnoxious. Someone relying on the kindness of strangers to shorten their own wait time at the expense of others. If I were standing in a long line at the grocery store, would they try and budge into that line ahead of the other patrons waiting their turn?
On those days, I want to teach this inconsiderate fool a lesson and make it impossible for them to cut in. Maybe next time they will line up and take their turn waiting with everyone else.

Of course, in a grocery store line you can just indicate to someone where the line starts (“back there”). In traffic on I580, however, there is no face-to-face communication and there is no turning around, so it’s not so easy.

And then, on other days, I think perhaps this driver is from out of town, unfamiliar with the road, or didn’t notice the signs, and are now relying on the kindness of strangers. Do I want to contribute to a cold, heartless world by making it impossible for them to merge?
After all, what’s a car-length of distance in the big scheme of things? Isn’t maintaining a kind heart more important than arriving where I’m going 3 seconds sooner?

And on the third hand, other people don’t have a moral dilemma here at all. If I’m that driver needing to get into the backed-up northbound lanes, why should I do so any early than I have to? What’s the big deal?

Recently I was a passenger in a car with one of the kindest, most considerate people I know, and they merged into the northbound lanes very late, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. I was astonished. And it made me wonder if I was making a mountain out of a molehill.

So most of the time, I tend to let the drivers in because:

  • I want to live in a world of kindness,
  • I want to keep my heart open,
  • there may be a good reason the driver is in that position, and
  • it’s just not that important!

But on other days, my heart is hard and I move up as close as I can to the car in front of me, and teach that interloper a lesson.

And generally, I feel rather yucky afterwards.

But it seems to me that this question of whether we let the driver in to traffic is the same question as whether we welcome immigrants into this country, or listen to people with other viewpoints, or give money to the homeless. It all hinges on our assumptions about the “other” and our own view of abundance or scarcity (of our own time, money, etc.).

So whatever choice you make, the next time you find yourself northbound on I580 at the split and another car sidles up next to you with its right blinker on, see what you can learn about yourself. Listen to the things you tell yourself about this other person and why you should let them in or not, and see if you agree with everything you hear. If you have a passenger, ask them their opinion. You may be surprised.

And whatever your choice, drive safely!

How’s Your Meta?

When someone cuts you off in traffic, how do you understand that?

Is it another example of “people are stupid”?

Does it confirm that the “world is a dangerous place”?

Do you need to respond strongly because “people will walk all over you if you don’t stand up for yourself”?

Is it a message from the universe to “slow down and breathe deeply”?

Is it an opportunity to practice patience and kindness?

What’s fascinating to me is how each of us answers the question uniquely.  Two people can experience the same event at the same time and place, but understand it quite differently. Not only can the same event have divergent meanings, but the motives we impute to the participants can vary widely. How we receive events reveals our internal paradigm or “meta”, the fundamental framework we use to make sense of the stream of life experiences we encounter.

We tend to form a meta in childhood, absorbing the meta of those closest to us.  In adolescence we may intentionally reject all or part of that meta, in favor of something more appealing.  Many of us unconsciously come back to our childhood meta in our twenties or early thirties as we (often) start our own families.

As we get caught up in day-to-day living, we rarely step back to examine our “meta” and consider whether we want to adjust it.  It’s largely a foundation that is out of sight, out of mind.  Just “the way things are”.  It often takes a major crisis for us to step back and re-examine our meta.  And then we have a crisis to deal with, so it’s hard to be thoughtful and contemplative!  But if you think for a moment, it’s unlikely that the world view that we absorbed (mostly unconsciously) as a child is the optimal way for us to experience the world.

The primary blocker is the phenomenon known as confirmation bias.  Things that fit with our world view we notice and they reenforce our belief that our meta is correct.  Things that don’t fit we tend to ignore, overlook, minimize and avoid, without even realizing it. Many of our friends and family may share our views, and the news we read tends to have a bias that we agree with. Why should we reconsider our meta when we’re always right?!

Also,  we often stigmatize people with a significantly different meta as strange, ignorant or crazy.  Maybe all three.  “Those nutty religious people” or “people who wear rose-colored glasses” or “cynical types” or “someone who hasn’t grown up yet”.

And finally, I think we develop strong emotional attachments to our meta. Those of us who have suffered trauma or abuse may find that even contemplating other more free-wheeling orientations can bring up difficult emotions. The feeling that it’s “a dangerous world out there” may stem from young parts of ourselves that have not healed, and those old fears can inform our current world stance in ways we don’t even detect. We often become strongly attached to our “story” of our life and the way we understand how the world works. It’s a “known” quantity; it defines our comfort zone.

So, if your meta is an adaptive creation that gets you through potentially difficult life events, feel free to stick with it (of course!).  But for me, it’s exciting and enlivening to seriously consider and try out other ways of understanding how life works.

One way to do that is through therapy.  Another is through engaging others that we traditionally dismiss as having nothing to offer us.  A third approach is to dialogue with family and friends.  This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, consider having an open-hearted conversation with someone close to you about the way life works.  Ask them if they could wave a magic wand and have you understand something (that you currently don’t), what would it be?

And then, consider trying it out for a day or three.

You may be surprised. You may find out that there really is a power to positive thinking, or that what goes around really does come back around. Or that the teacher does appear when the student is ready, or that G*d really does provide for your basic needs if you ask.

Even if you don’t try out a suggested meta, you may learn something about yourself by monitoring your emotional reaction as they describe their paradigm.  Do you get angry, irritated, nervous, defensive? Looking at the source of those emotions may point to opportunities for internal healing.

Another conversation starter is to ask people close to you to reflect back to you their understanding of your meta.  What they say might surprise you.

You never know.  Meta conversations can get interesting, and we rarely have them.  It’s safer to talk about the weather.  Or the Cubs.  Or even the election.

Part of my meta at the moment: “it’s hard to know something for sure unless you give opposing views an open-hearted, authentic hearing” (alternatively, the popular lyric “you never know until you try”).

May you have great success with whatever you try.

Have a great holiday.






Where there’s fire, there’s smoke

When I awoke this morning, I was disappointed to see it raining outside.  California can certainly use the water during this time of drought, but on this particular morning it’s traditional to burn chametz, and I saw over an inch of water in the outdoor fire pit.  It crossed my mind that I could empty it out and bring it under our roof’s overhang, although perhaps that would be a fire hazard.  My lazy bones suggested that I could do the fire later; perhaps the rain would let up.

But my wife encouraged me to go ahead, especially since our son would soon leave for school, so I dumped out the water, moved the fire pit, and laid down aluminum foil on it.  As I started arranging crumpled papers for the fire, the rain lessened and petered out.

As Scripture describes the holiday of Passover, we are instructed to rid our dwellings of any chametz, which is any food that rises with yeast, like bread.  (Ashkenazic Jews extend the concept to include foods that expand in water.)  Traditionally, we burn our remaining chametz the morning before the first Passover seder.

The chassidic masters teach that the chametz represents our arrogance, being puffed up with our own accomplishments, having an inflated ego, and that Passover is a time to expunge that characteristic.  So the fire eradicating chametz from our dwellings takes on the symbolism of self-improvement through cultivating humility.

As I arranged the crackers and cookies, bread and granola, it occurred to me that chametz can really be anything that comes between us and The Divine.  Anything that breaks that connection or reduces our awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, the Unity that undergirds our world and our experience.  Arrogance is certainly one of those things, because when I place myself over and above others, I lose touch with the fact that we’re all connected, that we’re all in this together.  It makes about as much sense my right ear claiming superiority over my left foot.  But of course it’s easy to fall into the more individualistic, “self”-centered view.

In addition to pride, though, other views that we attach to can be equally damaging to our connection with G*d.  I may cling tightly to a narrative that I have been persecuted more than any other people, or that my personal pain or hardship is greater than others’.  I may carry resentment that I am misunderstood by those around me.  And even though there may be truth in these thoughts, by focusing on the disconnection, I may actually increase and perpetuate the rift between me and my fellows.

So as we lit the fire together (my wife and son and I), and I saw the various kinds of chametz starting to burn, I realized there are many kinds of snares that can reduce our experience from what the Buddhist’s call “great mind” –a consciousness of unity and connection– to “small mind” –a constriction of separateness and struggle.  And I committed myself anew to letting go of as many of them as possible.

And that’s when the smoke started getting in my eyes.

So I thought, “What’s the lesson in the smoke?”

If the chametz represents the obstacles between us and The Divine, then surely the fire represents the passion of the soul to eradicate those barriers and connect to the great Unity.  And in that context, it became clear to me that the smoke is the pain that arises from letting go of the obstacles.

It’s rarely easy to give up those beliefs and habits I’ve become attached to.  I may fear losing my sense of self, my “identity”.  Or I may worry that if I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder from past hurts, as a constant reminder and warning, then perhaps I will allow myself to be hurt again.  And if I give up my resentment at having been misunderstood, then perhaps I will take the chance of showing myself again, and that increased vulnerability may be too scary to contemplate.

Moreover, truly letting go of some of my attachments requires keenly feeling the degree of the pain that caused them, and the pain of having stayed attached to them, and it’s not easy to open myself to those intense emotions.

As I stood around the fire watching the swirling smoke, it occurred to me that while some stances towards the world reduce the pain of letting go, there is no place to stand that is invulnerable.  No matter what our philosophy or approach to life, no matter what our religious or spiritual path, we are vulnerable to both the pitfalls of chametz, and the smoke that comes when we burn it away.  The winds of fate are unpredictable, and each of us takes our turn at struggling to become the best we can be.  And where there’s the fire of self-improvement, there’s the smoke of the difficulty of experiencing the change.

And as these thoughts played across my mind, the sun came out and shone on our little fire.  I kid you not:  bright sunlight flooded the scene.

So my prayer for all of us is that this year, may we see clearly what our next challenge is, what area is best for us to put our growth efforts into, and may we put sustained effort into letting go of those beliefs and habits that separate us from each other and The Divine, and may we have great success in achieving a greater sense of unity for a larger portion of our lives.  May our souls sing with joy as we progress.

And may we remember, when smoke gets in our eyes, that it’s all part of the process of growth.  And to be engaged in the dance of self-improvement is the goal, and the journey is what we’re here for, the process is what our soul’s passion burns for.  And where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

May the light of our fires of self-growth light up the world, and warm all the inhabitants thereof.

The Not-so-great Depression

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

I’ve never known how to describe the cyclical mood issue I struggle with.

It’s not what I think of as “The Great Depression”, which is a clinical diagnosis I associate with people who are paralyzed to the point they can’t get out of bed or function in the world.  I have great sympathy for that condition and the people who suffer from it, and I’m grateful to have been spared that trial.

But I do have a downturn from time to time where the joy and meaning are wrung out of my life experience, and nothing seems worthwhile or important, let alone enjoyable or nourishing.  My life feels like a barren landscape, and each step is a painful burden.  Somehow I manage to fulfill my obligations in the world (or, often, postpone them), but it’s a struggle.  James Taylor captures the mood with:

Looks like another grey morning/
A not-so-good morning after all/
She says “well, what am I to do today/
with too much time and so much sorrow.”

She said “make me angry or just make me cry.
But no more grey morning, I think I’d rather die.”

I decided recently to call this my “not-so-great” depression.

I used to think it arose out of the hardships of my upbringing; unresolved issues from the past manifesting as a stalemate between some inner parts of me that are crying out for healing and other inner parts protecting me from opening up and experiencing difficult (potentially overwhelming) emotions.  That kind of stand-off results in a lack of feeling anything. There’s some truth to that perspective, because when I get help and support and allow some difficult things to come up for healing, I generally experience a lightening of mood and a restoration of balance, purpose and joyfulness, thank G*d.

But I’ve seen some of this dynamic in the next generation of my family, who did not (thank G*d) endure anything like what I went through, and so I think some of the propensity to this kind of feeling may have a genetic disposition to it.  It’s unclear.

But whatever the source, when the not-so-great depression comes upon me, there I am in another grey morning.  

I thought I’d share some of the things I do when that happens, because I expect there are others who would benefit from the discussion (and because it feels good to put these things in writing).

One of the things I often do (and have done for years) is zone out, usually with electronics. I have found myself playing a silly computer game all night long, for example.  This dulls my mind and feeling state and allows me to escape the painful feelings, but it also undermines the rest of my life, leaving me tired and cranky, and often frustrated with myself for wasting time.  With the advent of the Internet and cell phones, it is much easier to engage in this kind of activity, and for many it includes watching TV or surfing youtube. I’m glad to be able to say that I do this much less often than I used to, and for shorter periods of time, but it’s still a coping mechanism that can take the edge off, if used judiciously.  So I don’t especially recommend it, but perhaps in limited scope it has a place.

One of the most positive things that rescues me from the not-so-great depression is helping others.  Of course, when I’m feeling depressed, it’s beyond me to actually seek out those opportunities, but if I have a previous appointment that I need to keep (or if someone calls me needing my help), I notice that it helps me greatly to help someone else.  Funny how that works.

Getting out in a beautiful natural setting can also help, and sometimes even just being outside in the sunshine with a fresh breeze can reinvigorate me.  Exercise is good, but it’s hard for me to get motivated to do an individual workout.  If I have a volleyball game on the schedule (or a racquetball game), I generally return from the event with renewed energy and outlook.

Other things that are sometimes helpful: journaling, meditation, prayer, talking with a close friend, getting out for a walk.  Playing music by myself (piano or violin) can be expressive, but rarely changes the mood, whereas playing duets with someone else is often metamorphic.  And listening to music can be helpful as well.

Another thing that I have found useful is to make a list of things that need doing (a short list with generally no more than five things on it), and then start doing them. Actually writing the list is helpful, as it provides an external means of keeping focus. The list is usually mundane chores, like the laundry and the dishes, but it’s a small lift to get things done instead of just veg out; it’s a victory of sorts and it feels good to check things off my list.  

The most productive thing I have found is to be with my loving wife and pour out my heart. This usually involves tears and intense emotions of various kinds, but it’s the most reliable transformer I have discovered.  I generally find it impossible to actually ask for her time and attention, but when she sees me suffering in this way she generally offers, and it works wonders.

I trust that, ultimately, there is purpose to my having these struggles, and I believe I am richer for the experience, even though I can’t feel that at the time.  In fact, one of the things that’s decidedly not helpful is to remind myself (or be reminded) that The Master is sending me this experience.  “I know that,” I think grumpily.  “And thanks ever so much, Master.”  So instead I try to just put one foot in front of the other with the above interventions, and it passes.

I do hope there comes a time when I no longer experience these not-so-great depressions, but until then, I hope these reflections are useful to others.


P.S. There are many other resources out there for depression and related difficulties; here’s one I notice while searching for a graphic: 


Hi, Anxiety

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

A reader asked me to write about anxiety.

After I recovered from the shock (there’s someone reading my blog?!), I started thinking about how to respond to such a request and I got to feeling, well, a little anxious.  What do I know about anxiety?

Thank G*d, not so much.

But the more I thought about, the more I realized that the topic is more nuanced than it first appears.  Anxiety is a visitor with many faces.

There is what I might call “serious” anxiety, which is a diagnosable condition for which psychiatrists write prescriptions; people who suffer terrible difficulty with waves of overwhelming fear or anxiety.  I am thankful to have little experience with this, and my heart goes out to those who face this challenge.

At the other end of the spectrum is the more everyday anxiety that I might refer to as stress, or concern for the future.  Doubt, uncertainty, worry about outcomes.  What will the future bring?  This I have more experience with.  And here’s how I approach it when it arises.

First, I recognize it.  “Hi, Anxiety.”  I notice it, I name it.  For me, that’s an important first step; noticing what is arising.

Then I look at it more closely to see what kind of anxiety it is.  For example, there is the anxiety about uncontrollable outcomes.  Taking an airplane (will it arrive safely?); having surgery (will it be successful?); planning an outdoor wedding (will the sun shine?).  These are events whose outcomes we have little or no control over.

For these I have various mantras, depending on my mood.  There’s “que sera sera” (whatever will be will be), which I may even start singing out loud.  There’s “everything G*d does is for the best” (which of course only works if you have that kind of theistic outlook).  And there’s “what’s the worst that can happen?”, wherein I actually let myself imagine the worst case so that I can let it go, realizing that if it happens, that’s just what’s going to happen.
And these mental exercises generally have the effect of calming me down.  And sometimes I do physical exercises, too, which can also be helpful.

I think the hardest kinds of anxiety are where we feel that we have some control over the situation.  A job interview, a first date, or a difficult conversation with someone.  With these cases it’s easy to worry about “what if I freeze up?” or “what if I say something stupid?” or “what if they just don’t like me?”.

And for these, I find it interesting to do a two-step dance.  First step is to prepare as best I can ahead of time (perhaps including some meditation time before the event), and the second step is, right before the event, to realize that it actually falls into the first category of uncontrollable outcomes!  Because once I’m actually in the situation, there’s not a whole of extra things I really can do, except the best I can.

And I also remind myself that everyone, in the end, is just “people” like me, and what feels like a huge occasion worthy of worry is really, in most cases, just another event in my life, in a long stream of events, and not as critical as my mind may be making it out to be.  And so I try and focus on just being as present in the moment as possible, and let the Master Plan unfold however it does.

Sometimes more easily said than done.

And so, when it’s over, it’s a relief to be able to say, “Bye, Anxiety.”


Grin and Beard It

I recently trimmed my beard.

I wouldn’t usually consider such a thing worthy of a passing comment, let alone a post, except that– well, a few things.

First, I used to have a rather big beard, so the difference is notable.  My niece even said she didn’t recognize me when she first saw me afterwards!

Second, in the religious circles I often frequent, wearing a long beard can also be a religious act. Kabbalistically, some consider the beard to be a conduit through which G*d passes blessings, so one would not want to diminish it in anyway.  Also, Jewish law has some things to say about touching a razor to one’s face, and the corners of one’s hair (although it’s possible to shave without those issues coming to bear).

Third, often when people make a large change to their appearance it reflects some inner change, so my friends ask, “Has something important changed?”

Fourth, I’m planning a visit back to Minnesota, and some of my friends there may feel it has something to do with changes in my life (getting married, moving to California, etc).

So I thought it might be helpful just to write my thoughts about it here, rather than repeat myself many times if/when folks ask.

Many months ago I noticed that the long beard felt like it was getting in my way physically, in a way it never had before.  I kept feeling irritation when it got pulled on, or dipped into food, or when the ends brushed my eyes and my face.  For me, that kind of irritation can be a sign of some inner shift, so I asked inside to see what might be happening.  And there were several things:

  • Socially, I noticed that here in California folks reacted to my beard as more of a “statement” than I had felt it was in Minnesota, and I felt it creating distance between myself and other people as a result.  That surprised me, since, if anything, I would expect the Californians to be more easy-going about lifestyle choices.  Perhaps it had more to do with the overall perception of the beard as a religious statement, and the assumption of rigid, dogmatic views?
  • Psychologically, in accessing some old trauma issues from childhood, I was feeling the need to express some very young feelings and memories.  Somehow that was harder to do with a large beard (which is more associated with age and wisdom, I suppose).
  • Spiritually, I am in a period of openness and growth, and somehow the long beard felt associated with a settled energy.  I felt an itch to stir things up a bit and be less fettered.

So for many months I let the idea percolate to see how it might settle out.

My wife has been wonderfully supportive of whatever choices work for me, which has made things much easier.  I know many men whose partners have strong preferences that influence their choices when it comes to facial hair.

So this past December I took out the trimmer and bought an electric shaver, and now here we are.  The man on the left now looks like the man on the right.

I still don’t have much hair on the top.  :>  But I in the past many weeks I have felt that the trimmed beard is somehow “right” for my current stage, and I feel lighter and more energetic in the ways I was hoping to.

So here’s a toast to authenticity and making changes when the inner guide suggests them.

And let’s keep grinning and enjoying the ride.  With whatever facial accoutrement feels right.


Who you are? How do you know?

‎   ב”ה     الحمد لله

How do you answer the question, “Who are you?”

Your name is a label.  Your occupation is what you do for many hours a day.  Your cultural heritage or religious affiliation may describe your past, your customs, your dress and even your way of viewing the world.  But who are you?  What exactly is the “you” that the question is inquiring about?

Let’s take someone who wants to be a war hero.  A war hero is someone who acts heroically in battle.  But in order to be a hero, you need to have been on the battlefield in a situation requiring heroic action, and then taken that action.  If you are someone who has never seen action, then you aren’t actually a war hero.  If you have seen action, but never had the opportunity to behave heroically, then you’re not a war hero.  You may be a person with heroic potential, but you haven’t embodied it (yet).

Likewise, Michael Jordan was one of the greatest athletes to play the game of basketball.  If he had never set foot on the court, he would have remained a person with amazing athletic potential, but would not have actually become one of the greatest basketball players of all time in actuality.

If you want to be someone who “turns the other cheek”, then you need to have been in a situation where someone actually strikes your cheek.  Then you can choose to turn and present them your other cheek. Unless you actually have that opportunity and take that action, you remain simply someone with turn-the-other-cheek potential.

On some existential level, I suggest that the “you” we ask about with “Who are you?” is the combination of the soul that has the desire to act in certain ways in this life, and the actual life experiences that comprise the choices we have actually made.

Seen from this vantage point, if I am a soul that aspires to embody the “turn the other cheek” trait, then when someone approaches and slaps my cheek, I might actually, on some level, be grateful for the opportunity to embody my true nature by turning the other cheek.   I might embrace the cheek slap as the necessary vehicle for me to embody my true nature. Because without that slap, I could not have actually turned the other cheek; without that slap, I would never have become a person who turns the other cheek.  I would always have remained someone with turn-the-other-cheek potential.

Rabbi Akiva was a famous sage who was burned alive with a Torah scroll.  The Romans wrapped him in wet wool to prolong his suffering.  He apparently sang out in joyful prayer as his skin seared. His students asked, “Even now (you can sing God’s praises)?”  He answered, “All my life I wondered if I could sanctify God’s Name (by giving my life) if I was asked to.  And now I know that I can!”

To get more personal… I’ve lived through some hard experiences as a child.  Over my life, I’ve had different reactions to the events themselves and the subsequent difficulties arising from them.

In the early days, I pushed them as far away from my mind as possible, so that I could function in the world.

Later, I revisited them for healing, and gave voice to the anger and bitterness against the people responsible for them.  And at times I felt sorry for myself for having suffered so much in my early years.

When I started a meditation/Zen practice, I looked at the roots of the suffering and found compassion for both the perpetrators and myself.  Over time I saw that some of the character traits I treasure in myself arose in large measure because of those hardships. So I was able to have a measure of gratitude that I had endured such difficulties.

When I became more religious, I was inspired to actually thank God for the opportunity of living this life.  I know that some people get angry with God and wonder why they have had to suffer; others assume their pain has been a punishment for some kind of sin (in this life or a previous one).  But I had a vision that convinced me that I had chosen this initial life trajectory and had been given the strength to make it through.  There was no unfairness, no punishment, nothing to complain about.  I had chosen it willingly.  And I thanked God for that opportunity.

But throughout, there was an assumption that the events themselves were things that had happened to me.  Shaped me in good ways, perhaps, helped forge my character and so on, but in essence something from “out there” in the world that had sharply intruded into my personal development.

Many nights ago, I was in a structured session designed to allow difficult feelings to arise. Some of the old familiar pain arose.  The fear, the sense of futility, the grey numbness, the self-blame, and the intense need to run away from any kind of thought or feeling.  And as I stayed with those emotions and let them play out in my consciousness, an interesting thing happened.

I saw the old painful events as essential.

In that moment of reliving and healing from old wounds, in the moment of appreciating how central that pain was in allowing me to embody the deep nature of who I am, I actually spread my arms to embrace the suffering. In order to be the guy who could live through those ordeals and (to some measure) come out the other side a reasonably decent person, I had to actual experience the suffering. Otherwise, I would have just been a guy with live-through-it-and-thrive potential. To actually become the person my soul needs to embody, I had to go through those painful experiences.

And in the moment, in actually spreading my arms to receive the old pain, I had a different understanding of the Christian image of Jesus on the cross.  Leaving aside theological questions of who Jesus was or is, I was able to see the crucifixion as an opportunity for Jesus to embody a deep love that included his persecutors and his betrayers.  A love so large that it needed such a situation to be expressed.  Without it, Jesus would have a been a teacher with the potential for showing such a vast love, but not someone who actually had shown that love. I remembered hearing that Jesus reportedly felt abandoned by his Heavenly Father at that moment, and it suddenly made sense to me. Feeling that spiritual abandonment in addition to all the worldly pain was necessary to show the great love that Jesus was embodying at his most difficult moment. For the demonstration of his love to be what it needed to be, the circumstances had to be as harsh as possible.

I recognize that hearing this point of view, and how it arose in my experience may do nothing to help someone else who has anger, resentment and lingering effects of trauma or abuse.  And my apologies if something I’ve written here is painful to read. But it was quite a moment for me, and I wanted to share it.

Since I’m writing on a sensitive subject, let me respond to a few potential misunderstandings or reactions to what I’ve written so far:

  • In our adult lives, I don’t think our soul’s ideal is to passively endure abusive behavior, but rather to take firm and appropriate action to end it.
  • Nothing here should be read as justifying abusive actions on the part of others
  • Some may see in this perspective a “story that I tell myself” to feel better about what has happened to me; a “feel-good” panacea that helps me avoid seeing the world as a dangerous or unfair place.  Perhaps I am just fooling myself by trying to see meaning where none exists. That’s certainly a legitimate viewpoint, and one I can hardly disprove. But (of course) it’s not where I live. Still, I think it’s natural to have thoughts like that (I do myself occasionally!), and I thought I’d acknowledge that, in case it’s helpful.

As I see it, when we encounter difficulty, when we are disappointed or frustrated, betrayed or teetering on despair, we have a unique opportunity to become in actuality the person that, up until then, we only had the potential to become.  The difficulty we encounter may be a gift for us to embody our soul’s ideal.

And even if we don’t succeed in manifesting our ideal, we still have the opportunity to become the person who has done our best.  And that is no small thing.

For me, part of my soul mission is being a person who never gives up. So even an opportunity where I feel like I failed to be my authentic self in some other fashion is still an opportunity for me to be true to my soul — by being the man who doesn’t give up in the face of discouraging outcomes.

So while I don’t always find that accepting, gracious response in the moment, I do know it’s available in general.

And when I do welcome the experience in the moment, it’s an especially sweet embrace.

May you find it in your heart to embrace the life you have lived thus far, to be thankful for all the events and opportunities therein, and to find joy in the person that you have expressed yourself to be in the past (even with all your imperfections).

May you be well-pleased with your future choices which express the beautiful nature of your soul in this world, especially when the circumstances are challenging.

Eating My Lima Beans

ב”ה    الحمد لله

I hate lima beans.  Always have.

I remember in third grade, sitting at the dinner table long after the others had left, staring at the seven lima beans my mother insisted I had to eat before I was excused.  Finally I consumed them, in the most painful manner.  I would ladle one enemy bean onto my fork with my right hand and clutch my water glass in my left.  I moved my tongue to one side.  Then I lowered the lima bean down just inside the base of my teeth, holding my breath so as not to taste it and washed it quickly down with a large mouthful of water.  Like a bitter pill.  One down, six to go.

It didn’t help to be told me they were “good for me”.

It didn’t help to told that people were starving in Ethiopa.  Send them these lima beans; they would enjoy eating them, and then I wouldn’t have to.

My life experience didn’t include the kind of insistent, throbbing hunger that would make me grateful for any kind of food, of whatever taste.  (Thank God I was never so deprived.)

Not only did I not appreciate the blessing of having enough food to eat, I also didn’t appreciate the blessing that someone cared enough about me to force me to eat healthy food.  As an adult, I’ve been with families where the kids fend for themselves and the adults have no interest in what they’re eating.  It’s a blessing to have a parent that –whatever other faults they may have, large or small–  makes you eat something good for you, even when you don’t want to.

But in that lonely dinner chair, all I knew was that my mother, who was supposed to love me, was subjecting me to cruel and unusual punishment.

And I’ve been reflecting on that the past few days, because recently God has been making me eat some adult lima beans.

Today’s lima beans are the bitter experience of reliving some old and painful experiences from childhood.  Intense feelings and memories that need healing.  Most unpleasant.  Oh, I always feels better afterwards, but the sensations themselves are awful to go through, and I throw my little internal tantrums wondering if I’ll ever be “done” with these adult lima beans, and why I have to go through all this, and will it never end.

Just like I did when I was a kid staying late at the dinner table.

Of course, as an adult I know a little bit more about life and how things work.  These days I know that there is One behind these experiences Who loves me infinitely, knows what’s best for me, and would never let me suffer any more than is exactly necessary for my growth and spiritual well-being.

These days I appreciate the cathartic power of these unpleasant adult lima beans, and feel myself growing healthier and stronger as I eat more of them.

And that makes things much more bearable.

But I still get grumpy.

And I still hate lima beans.  Both kinds.

But now, when I’ve cleared my plate for the evening, I can sincerely thank my Heavenly Father for setting them before me and making me eat them.