Listen Up and Speak Your Truth

images“Are you listening or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?”

– Anonymous

When I hear people complain about a spouse’s lack of backbone and initiative, describing their loved one as a person who lets others walk all over him or her, otherwise known as a doormat, or in Yiddish, a “schmatta,” I halt them in mid-rant with this observation: “Ok, I get it.  But then I guess that makes you Mrs. (or Mr.) Schmatta.  There now – do you feel better?”  I enjoy seeing the dawn of understanding in their eyes when they realize that when they put down their spouses, they indict themselves as well.  Most of the times people are not malicious, and they may genuinely feel that to correct the shortcomings of others, and to put them in their rightful place, is simply being helpful, kind, or responsible.  In other words, it’s the loving thing to do.

Shame, however, whether inwardly directed or outwardly projected – is never a catalyst for growth, change or transformation.  How then, can we avoid shaming people with whom we have a bona fide disagreement?  How do we prevent the trap of the position-based power struggle?  And how can we communicate with others when the topic of conversation is in the red zone, meaning it’s sure to set off emotional triggers, resulting in anger and defensiveness, or its opposite, which is withdrawal and stonewalling?  Borrowing the words from the title of Adele Farber’s famous book, how do we talk so that people will listen and listen so that people will talk?[1]

Listening With No Ego

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The best state in which to receive Torah is when we make of ourselves a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos, enter into a state of total humility and create the internal space to take it in.  As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.

Being able to access this state is a prerequisite for handling tense conversations and emerging through conflict with a higher state of awareness and connection. There are any number of constructs for active listening.  My favorite, “Imago Dialogue,” was created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.  In a nutshell, the listener has to be able to mirror back when the speaker has said – sentence by sentence and then check in that they have repeated the words accurately, followed by a genuine expression of empathy or compassion for the point of view that was just expressed.  The beauty of this model is that for the listener to be able to do that, the listener has to tune out all of their internal thoughts that would otherwise be flooding their minds with counter-arguments, defenses, shifting the conversation to themselves, and other ways of blocking what the speaker is saying. Just like you can’t have simultaneous live conversations, you can’t truly listen to another person as well as the voice in your head at the same time. 

 When you listen with deep presence, attention, and curiosity, sometimes it’s enough for the argument to subside, in that the other person simply wanted the opportunity to be heard without interruption or invalidation.  Other times, you can hear – finally – what the other person has been trying to communicate in vain for years and you can have a whole new perspective. 

For example, for years, my husband and I would have a big upset over our different perceptions of time, and how early or late we should arrive at events, like a wedding.  I make the assumption (which is true) that no wedding ceremony ever happens at the time stated on the invitation.  I also am fine with arriving moments before the couple makes it down the aisle.  My husband, on the other hand, would prefer to arrive at an event early – possibly before the caterer even showed up.  For years, I brushed off his complaints:

“I like to get there early and talk to our friends.”

“But you see them pretty much every week anyway, so what’s the big deal?”

“But I like to get there for the smorg.”

“That’s just a lot of unnecessary calories, on top of a fattening dinner and dessert. Do you really need it?” Etc. Etc.

One day, we sat down to have a conversation about this conflict and we used the technique of active listening and mirroring, and for the first time, I actually heard what my husband was trying to tell me.  By being curious and listening without preconditions, I didn’t reactively defend against what I had perceived to be a control issue.  I was open to seeing what a reasonable request it was to drive to an event leisurely and then enjoy all of the varieties of experience and connection and fun that are part of a joyful wedding.  I was also able to see how being on time could be an expression of personal integrity and even more important, showing love and respect to the people who had invited us.

Talking With Appropriate Ego

The first line of Bamidbar ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions.  So, on one hand, to receive Torah, we should be lowly, like the shifting sand of a barren desert.  But on the other hand, each soul is a precious and unique possession and we are tasked with striving for actualization as well as being a light unto nations.   For that to occur, we must live Torah, that is, to stand tall and be counted and know who we are.

 If you continue to express an issue in a relationship, you can assume that it is based on experiencing an unmet need – and, as radical as this may seem, all unmet needs are valid issues.  It is simply not acceptable for others to summarily dismiss your needs and concerns as invalid, and you don’t have to justify or argue why you have the feelings that you have.

 But you do need to recognize that your needs and feelings are not universal.  They are not the objective truth from on high.  Therefore, take responsibility for unmet needs as being your issue, and don’t automatically make the other person wrong for not meeting your unmet need.  Once you make your issue about you – and not the other person – you are able to communicate in a clear and powerful way.  You can describe events and facts such as, “You were really late coming home,” versus being critical: “You’re such an inconsiderate jerk for being late.”  And then you can explain exactly why you are upset (because the surprise dinner you had made is now ruined).  And now you can make reasonable requests about how your partner can meet your need for certainty around the time of arrival.  Since only you truly know what would satisfy your unmet need, you need to ask for what you want.  And now you and the other person can be creative about finding solutions that work for you both.   Making space for another’s reality while also being able to stand up for your own self is a never-ending dance of give and take, that when done with love and respect, can create an unbreakable bond of love, connection, and joy.

[1] Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So That Kids will Listen and Listen So That Kids Will Talk, (NY: Simon and Schuster 1980).

How to Create Winning Relationships

“Choose to be kind instead of being right and you’ll be right every time.”

                                     – Richard Carlson

If you have ever seen the movie, The Matrix, there is a scene where a member of the human resistance movement is selling out all of his friends to the enemy. Sitting in an elegant restaurant, he is openly aware that his so-called dining experience is a digital illusion for his brain, while in reality, his body is hooked up to a machine. Nevertheless, as he lifts a forkful of mouth-watering digital steak, he opts for a lifetime of virtual reality.

One of the perks of being human is that we get to make stuff up. Hard-wired with creative potential and endowed with free will, we make up stories and then proceed to live in the version of reality that we created. Sometimes we are aware that we are delusional, denying reality and justifying our actions. Other times, we are unconscious and unaware of our drives, and our habituated and reactive behaviors.

And so God placed into the very structure of our existence, pauses, or reset buttons, where we consider the impact of our choices, and reconnect basic reality.   Shabbos is a reset button, a respite from the exhaustion of creating, where we can ponder our created reality on a deeper level by virtue of our conscious connection with Godly reality.

Every seven years, the land gets to enjoy Shabbos, known as “shemittah,” where the land is not worked and any produce that grows is free for the taking. And then after every seven cycles of shemittah, there is a massive economic and agricultural reset where all indentured servants are set free, debts are forgiven, and all land reverts to its original owners.

For 49 years, we groove along on our created wealth, our acquisitions, our use of slave labor, etc. We dig our roots and think there is permanence in the resulting society and economy. And then in the Torah portion, Behar, God upsets the apple cart and pushes the reset button.

Now, for example, the man who had sold himself into slavery because he could not pay his debts not only is set free, but he is restored to his land. Is this an economic model any MBA would study? In a free market society, these laws make no sense. They are not just counter-intuitive they are irrational and, in fact, delusional. But that depends on whose version of reality you are buying into.

When Behar is read as a double Torah portion in conjunction with “Bechukotai,” we can view difficult passages that portend historical tragedies for the Jewish people, known as “the curses,” in a different light. If we choose to disregard God’s reality, and therefore, prefer the delusions of one’s making, then we are turning away from our very source, and living instead, on our own in “la-la land.” The problem with “la-la land” is that it can turn very brutal very quickly, thereby unleashing devastating consequences.

On the other hand, however, if we focus on “the blessings,” we can see that God is asking something from us that is very loving.  The word “Bechukotai” is derived from the word “chakikah,” which means “engraving.” God is asking us to engrave the words of Torah into our hearts so that Torah becomes authentically and intimately interwoven with the very fabric of our being, and thus becomes the reality in which we live. In God’s reality, then, the so-called irrational becomes natural. We want to give instead of get. We become focused on the needs of others instead of being self-centered. We strive for holiness, and we make space for other.

Being Right or Being Happy

The curse of the dissolution of marriages and other relationships comes about when one or both people become so entrenched in their versions of reality that they cannot make room for the thoughts, opinions or feelings of the other. That means you can’t be so entrenched in your point of view and your particular version of reality that you become the unilateral arbiter of Truth. When you make yourself right, you are by default making the other person wrong. While I am not saying that there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong,” this dialectic is not good for relationships, for any time you win at your partner’s expense, your relationship is the loser.

Hit the Reset Button

When you are in emotional gridlock, hit the pause or reset button and realize that there is another reality, a Godly reality, to tap into that will work for your relationship. In an article entitled, “Think You’re Always Right? It’s Probably Ruining Your Relationship,” Dr. Roger Landry offers a few tips on how to avoid this relationship trap, and one of them is to prioritize kindness and compassion over feeling “right:”

This is so much more important than converting the world to your very limited view. We all face challenges. We all suffer loss and pain. All of our opinions are informed by circumstance. Unless you’ve lived someone else’s life, you can never fully understand why s/he believes what s/he does. Listening to the reasoning behind someone else’s feelings can be a revealing. It deepens your connection with that person and broadens your interpretation of the world around you.

In Behar, God reveals a society based on kindness that cyclically recreates itself so as not to get entrenched in disregard of the needs and rights of the disenfranchised poor. But one must be willing to adhere to rules and laws that may make no sense or are hard to do.

When we internalize God’s Truth, however, and live from a heart-centered and Torah-based reality, we reap all of the blessings that flow from love and connection. That is the real victory.  Now that’s being right and being happy.  


Lighten Up!

“Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.”

                                                                                    – William Blake

imagesOn any given day, the news reports a story of someone being indicted for some white-collar crime. I wait for the name of the alleged perpetrator. Not Jewish? I breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever Jews, and especially religious Jews, make the news for dishonest, criminal or other bad behavior, I cringe and feel sullied in the core of my Jewish collective soul.

Maybe it stems from this week’s Torah portion, “Emor,” where God charges the Jewish people with the task of sanctifying His Name here on earth. One way of doing that is to act in a way that causes people to revere God, which is called a “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God’s Name). By standing for and becoming living embodiments of holiness, we become God’s emissaries, as it were. Sadly, however, the reverse is also true, and when we act in unsavory and hypocritical ways, so as to garner contempt, it is called a “Chillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s Name).

Standing Up for God – Really?

Sounds like a very tall order – “sanctifying God’s Name.” Furthermore, we are told: “God’s honor is at stake.” How is it even possible that we mere mortals can have any effect on an infinite and perfect Being? The Jewish people – and the world – had just witnessed the destruction of the most powerful civilization on Earth, along with the toppling (literally) of its many gods. The God that redeemed the Jewish people brought the plagues, turned nature on its head, split the sea, etc.   This unimaginable reality was a new paradigm for our understanding of the almighty power of God who directly intervenes in history. Did God really need the Jewish people to be His PR agent?

Furthermore, this command comes at a time when the Jewish people were barely out of Egypt. Had I been there, I could imagine my reaction: Seriously? I am supposed to be Your emissary to make You look good? I’ve been a slave all my life. And as you know, God, I have post-traumatic-stress disorder, my self-esteem is in the pits, and my inner child is wounded to the core. No offense, God, but Your expectations of me are completely unrealistic. God does not ask the impossible, however. In trusting me with His honor, does God know something about me that I don’t know, or am afraid to know?

Stepping into Greatness

In a very familiar quote by Marianne Williamson, she says the following:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  

What Lights You Up?

So how do we light up? And how do we teach our children to shine? This Torah portion begins thus: “God said to Moses: Say to the Kohanim (the priests), the sons of Aaron, and tell them….” This phrase is repeated over and over, followed by copious instructions for the priests, who were responsible to properly instruct their own children. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that the repetition was for emphasis and thus Moses was “warning” the priests of the importance of this task.

The Hebrew word “to warn” is “l’hazeer” and it is related to the word, “zohar,” which means “light.” Predating by thousands of years a contemporary idea one would find in any spiritual parenting book, the Torah is teaching that the purpose of educating our children is to “light them up from within.”[i] It is no coincidence that we use the term “to enlighten” to impart knowledge. True enlightenment is not about acquiring knowledge, however, but about gaining wisdom. Being enlightened is not an external process; rather, it’s the revealing of our inner essence and wisdom, our divine truth.

And so Moses was “warning” the Priests that the process of educating children is not just the external downloading of information but the internal cultivation of their character to reveal their inner greatness, because the essence of parenting is to build a child, and in so doing, to fill the child with light.

Similarly, the essence of the Jewish people is to build this world.   All Jews – not just the “Kohanim” – are charged with being the Priests of this world and being a light unto the nations.   When we understand who we are at our core, and when our external behavior is congruent with this inner reality, then we could never act in any way other than to sanctify God’s Name.   And then, being lit up from within, we would shine with holiness, where living in such a way as to honor God’s Name, would be effortless and natural.

Internalize and Actualize:

  1. Can you think of a time in your life where under the guise of using your freedom, you were really just escaping responsibility and having a free-for-all? In hindsight, was it healthy for you? What lessons did you learn and did you find that you ended up creating more boundaries from this sense of freedom?
  2. What in your life could use some holiness? Think through your thought, speech, action and relationships and write down five things you can implement in those areas to uplift them and yourself.
  3. In what ways do you feel enslaved and what are you a slave to in your life? How can you break free from this and how will your life look when you are no longer under its control?

[i] (Based on Sichas Shabbos Parshas Emor, 5750)

The Brain Game

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl

2 brainsThe Emotional Brain

I knew I was being targeted, manipulated and controlled – yet I didn’t care. When I turned over the cover of the latest edition of the Wine Spectator and saw “the car,” I “knew” I had to have it. I put the word “knew” in quotes because the part of my brain that made that decision was not the rational thinking and knowing neocortex part of my brain, but my unconscious, emotional brain, which responds to its desires. Just as the advertisers hoped I would, my unconscious brain did the emotional math and put two and two together. Wine connoisseurs drive this car. I think of myself as a wine connoisseur; ergo, I should buy this car.

I wasn’t buying a car as much as I was buying my idea of what this car represented. The subsequent half-hearted on-line research for info about the car (the auto manufacturer’s website) was my feeble attempt to think I was enlisting the rational part of my brain so I could justify a purely emotional decision. Crashworthy – smashworthy – who cares. Anything short of it’s being rated the worst death trap on wheels, and I was filling out that loan application at the car dealership.

When it’s Personal

Kinda sounds a little like some form of slavery to me. And so even though I know we left the slavery of Egypt a few thousand years ago, the question is, whether Egypt has fully left me? Even though a part of me knew I was being used for commercial gain, I just wanted what I wanted (or thought I wanted), and I put the critical thinking part of me on hold. Being a free human being, however, is to be mindful, present, conscious – and to think critically. Just as are not supposed to be slaves to Pharaoh, neither are we supposed to be slaves to habit, emotions, and unconscious reactions. God doesn’t want us to do things blindly in a knee-jerk way without enlisting the support of our rational faculties. Neither does God want us not to do something, however – where we refrain from acting – in the same mindless manner. After all, in our daily morning blessings, we thank God for not making us a slave. Therefore, our mental enslavements are a superfluous and voluntary add-on.

The Torah portion, “Acharei-Mot,” means “after the death” and it refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who had entered into the Holy of Holies without any authority to do so, and brought with them “strange fire,” described as an incense mixture of their choosing. While this action was born of a genuine desire to connect with and to serve God, their actions were met with instant death. The commentaries explain that while their motivation was to cleave to God, their behavior ignored the requirements and directives that God had given them. They acted emotionally, not rationally, and their behavior literally consumed them, resulting in their deaths.  

God then instructed Moses to tell his brother, Aaron, not to come unbidden into the Holy of Holies lest he were to die – as did his sons. The question arises – why did God deem it necessary to couple the instruction to Aaron with the death of his sons? Would it not have sufficed to have said  – “Don’t do this thing.”

One of the classic commentators, Rashi, compares this to a doctor telling a sick person what to do and what to avoid. Face it, how many of us take our doctor’s advice seriously? How many of us change our lifestyle and habits even after we weigh in, get our elevated cholesterol levels, and tell the truth about our lack of sleep and exercise? On the other hand, if we have a family member who died young from heart disease, or if the doctor tells us that unless we avoid doing certain things we will die – just as so and so died – it makes it real, more powerful. Therefore, we are much more likely to take the doctor’s advice to heart. Whether we are acting – or refraining from acting – God wants us to use our cognitive functions, as well as our emotional desires, in a harmonious way for our benefit. For Aaron, considering what was at stake, God wanted the warning to make a deep impression, by appealing to both his rational and emotional brain.  

Leaving the Egypt Within

Leaving Egypt was not just a physical change in geography. Transitioning from a slave mentality to a free-willed human being that could embody holiness was the real journey, and it’s the journey of a lifetime. The message here is not to be enslaved by emotions, desires, and unconscious habitual behaviors. On the other hand, we are not to be detached from our feelings and live in a purely cerebral world. It’s a fallacy to think that is even possible, and futile to pit these aspects of us as adversaries. Rather, they are an inseparable part of the human condition. The trick, however, is to be conscious, so that these support and enrich each other.                                                                                             

In the last few Torah portions, we learned about the mind/body/soul connection, where improper negative speech, borne of improper thoughts and emotions, manifests as physical ailments on the body. In this Torah portion, we need to understand how emotions drive thoughts and thoughts drive emotions. Be not a slave to either, but integrate them so that you can be in the driver’s seat.