The Good Life

Everything changes when you see challenges as blessings.

In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical equivalent. So each word has a number associated with it by adding up the value of the letters. This process reveals incredible insights, where words that don’t otherwise seem related, nevertheless are, because of their numerical equivalents. The word “Vayechi” means “and he lived.” This term refers to the last 17 years of Jacob’s life, which he spent living in Egypt reunited with his beloved son, Joseph.

When the Torah introduces us to Joseph, the first thing we learn about him is that he was 17 years old at the time he was sold into slavery. The numerical equivalent of the word “Vayechi” is “34,” which is 17 x 2. The Hebrew word for “good” is “tov,” and that has the numerical equivalent of “17.” Even if you are not a math geek, don’t switch off your brain – stay with me here.

From this we can easily infer that these two 17-year periods of Jacob’s life were considered “good,” and that those years, which he spent with Joseph, were in fact the “years of his life” when he felt most joyful and alive. Jacob died at age 147, however, so what was the quality of the rest of his life in between?

Complaining is a Killer

While Jacob had a lot of challenges, he didn’t corner the market on suffering. Yet, upon being presented to the Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asked Jacob why he looked so “old,” Jacob complained about his life. Each word of complaint (thirty-three in all) supposedly shortened his lifespan by a year! Perhaps Jacob was being punished for expressing “lack” instead of “abundance” in the face of being reunited with the son he long thought was dead. After all, when someone knocks you to the ground – but you find a huge diamond in the dirt – do you still complain about the shove?

In contrast, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, who were, understandably, terrified to be in his presence, Joseph comforted them by saying that whatever their intention, it was God’s plan that the events unfolded exactly as they did – for this purpose, for this reason, for this moment. Therefore Joseph harbored no ill will; after all, when you don’t see yourself as a victim, it’s impossible to hold a grudge.

Seeing the Good

Says Viktor Frankl, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” While Jacob “came back to life” when he was reunited with Joseph, there is no sense that Jacob experienced that “aha” moment, that sense of coherence obtained in a moment of meaning that transforms suffering, and so, Jacob’s anguish all those prior years remained the same – meaningless suffering.

So how can we tap into being like Joseph? How can we open our eyes and see more “tov,” more “good” in our own lives, regardless of our challenges and the minor and major shoves in our lives? How can we shift the meaningless to the meaningful?

When you experience a state of coherence, where the stories of your life make sense, it creates lots of “ahas” over the events of your past. Whereas before you had mere stories that this and that happened, suddenly you start to see connections within the stories and between stories. You begin to see stories in a new light, and therefore, the stories become new stories.

You even wonder – how had I missed such meaning? How had I failed to connect the dots? How had I not seen the evolution, the blessings, the transformations – that could only have happened the way that they did, each thread weaving inexorably into the next? A new sense of divine benevolence and providence surfaces where before there had only been story – victim story, problem story, trauma story, etc. Eventually, we can learn to be the authors of our own life.

Coherence is a choice. We always see what we are looking for – always, and so the more “tov” you look for, the more you will see. Like those fun picture books we had as children, where we traced outlines following the numbers, and were delighted when a picture suddenly revealed itself, coherence is becoming aware how the dots connect to reveal an image we understand.

As Tal Ben Shahar, international lecturer on Positive Psychology, likes to quip: “Appreciate the good – and the good appreciates.” May we see all of the “17’s” around us – in whatever guise they may appear – and like the righteous Joseph, no matter what our challenges and hardships, may we nevertheless see the whole of our lives as “tov/good.

 

 

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An Attitude of Gratitude

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When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted

or take them with gratitude.

       – Gilbert K. Chesterson

So here’s a Trivial Pursuit question for you – which is anything but trivial: Who was the first person – in recorded history – to ever say “Thank You” to God? OK, I’ll give you a hint – the answer is in the Torah portion, “Vayeitzei.” And the correct answer (which hardly anyone gets right, by the way) is…our Matriarch Leah. Leah was the first person, in recorded history, to express gratitude to God, and she did so when she gave birth to her fourth son, naming him Yehuda, from the word, “hoda’ah,” which means, “to thank.”

Now this raises a pretty big question. Why didn’t Leah say “thank you” when her first child was born? Or her second and third for that matter? How was it that she waited until her fourth to officially thank God for this baby? At a quick glance, we are taught that Leah understood that her husband, Jacob, was destined to have 12 sons. Jacob had four wives, and so Leah did the math. When she gave birth to her third son, it seemed that she had been given “her share” which would have been the case if the 12 sons were divided equally among the wives. But this fourth child was a genuine surprise. He was unexpected. Therefore, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for this extra share over and above what she had perceived to be her lot.

But does this then mean that Leah was not grateful for her first three children as they were expected as part of her lot? Not at all! Leah faced a lot of challenges and was filled with insecurities within her marriage and her role in her family. Yet, she was simultaneously self-aware and communicated her needs to God, and with each child, she felt blessed that this baby was the fulfillment of her prayers.

When she birthed her fourth son, however, she recognized that she had been purely gifted. It was not just that she had prayed, and her prayers had been answered; but that God had provided her with the greatest blessing that she hadn’t even requested! This is the child that then received the name “Yehuda” for pure, unadulterated thanks. More so it is the reminder to us that we never fully understand (or sometimes we never understand at all) our situations and circumstances. But when we are grateful for what we have, then we find the meaning and purpose in who we are and what we are capable of.

This is why the Jewish people have been called by many names, but in the end, we are always “Yehudim,” “Jews” related to the name “Yehuda.” Judaism (Yuda-ism) therefore, can be understood as the means by which we can most fully express what we are at our core – beings who are grateful to God and who show that appreciation.

Ingratitude 101

Unfortunately, it seems that society has become more and more self-consumed, and one of the first things to go is the attitude of gratitude. This approach is a breeding ground for unhappiness. One of the ways we generate unhappiness is taking goodness for granted and focusing on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. When we take goodness for granted and feel that we are entitled to the good in our life, why should we be grateful? After all, it’s “what’s coming to me.” If we feel that we “deserve it,” then it’s not a “gift.” Therefore, we can’t see it as a blessing. Conversely, if we are not getting what we believe to be our “fair share,” then we will be pretty unhappy. And we certainly can’t feel a sense of thanks when we are coming from a mindset of “lack.”

The Pain of Comparisons

In her book, Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff describes a woman who emerged from her annual work review floating on air. Her boss said he was so pleased with her performance that she was getting a 10% pay raise. She immediately called her boyfriend to share the good news and, being elated for her, he promised her a champagne celebration when she came home.

As she was leaving work, however, she happened to overhear a coworker talking on her cell phone to a friend. “Can you believe it?” she said, “My boss was so impressed with me that he gave me a 15% pay raise – 5% more than the automatic 10% that everyone else got!”

When she heard that news, the 10% increase was no longer a cause for elation for her; rather, it only created resentment, discontent, and shame that she was not worthy of more. Since the 10% pay raise was what she was entitled to – and no more – she could no longer see it as a source of blessing and be grateful. Thus, a sense of entitlement kills gratitude. It helps to remember that many people are far less fortunate than you are – and are quite happy with what they have. I saw a sign on a dorm wall that said: “What if you woke up today only with the things that you thanked God for yesterday?”

When we understand that everything is a gift, we escape the trap of an entitlement mentality. And when we develop an “Attitude of Gratitude” then we can see and appreciate all of our many blessings. In the words of Melody Beattie:

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

Money Matters in Relationship

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So what’s wrong with materialism, whose fault is it anyway and how can we fix it?  While Madonna made it big with her hit song, “Material Girl,” a nod to Marilyn Monroe’s sultry, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” materialism is by no means a modern phenomenon. Its roots are biblical.

After the proverbial Flood, lone survivors Noah and his family stepped out of the Ark into a pristine world. They were tasked with beginning the story of Man again. And it didn’t go well.

Noah became intoxicated, and while he was laying about naked in a drunken stupor, he was castrated by one of his three sons, Ham. In the first known act of forced population control, Ham robbed Noah of the ability to procreate.  With the entire world – literally – before his feet, Ham was nevertheless driven by the insanely delusional belief that the world was not big enough to accommodate a fourth son.

There is a well-known Jewish adage, “middah keneged middah,” which means, “measure for measure.” As punishment for not understanding the purpose of life, Ham’s descendants were cursed with slavery, a state of existence devoid of that which makes life worth living.

The Money Monster

It’s a given that money issues and financial stress can cause strife in a relationship. Modern life can drive bad decision-making, inducing us to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. Mistakenly believing that it is getting whatever we happen to want that will truly make us happy, we enslave ourselves in this futile pursuit, oblivious to the joke that all the rat race is good for is making faster rats.

Being flush, however, doesn’t prevent marital discord. As a matter of fact, studies show that when both spouses in a marriage are highly materialistic, they struggle more emotionally, report more anxiety and depression, and have less life and relationship satisfaction.  One reason is that excess materialism drives couples to externalize their priorities, therefore spending less and less time nurturing their relationship

One antidote is to break the materialistic mindset. Family researcher James Carroll said, “I think it’s about people stepping back and taking an inventory of their values and what is important to them. Are we allowing some of our materialistic ambitions to get in the way of things that, at the core, matter a lot to us?” When we don’t understand the real cost of materialism, sadly, it is our relationships that pay the price.

The Happiness that Money Can Buy

On the other hand, if we spend money on what truly matters, it is possible that money can buy happiness. In the book, “Happy Money, The Science of Happier Spending,” authors Dunn and Norton posit that buying experiences instead of buying things create more long-lasting happiness.

Furthermore, buying experiences with the people we love builds connection and creates an upward spiral of positivity. A good friend of mine plans her family vacations with one goal in mind: “I want to create memories.”

Happiness is not based on money affluence, but rather, time affluence. Before making a purchase ask yourself whether this will change the way you use your time.   Focusing on time rather than money will help you choose activities that focus on well being.  One of the biggest complaints of unhappy couples is that they don’t spend enough time together.  Eventually, failing to invest time makes it impossible to keep a marriage healthy and loving.

The Lesson of the Fourth Son- An Attitude of Gratitude

Our matriarch Leah is the first person in recorded history to express gratitude to God, and she did that when she gave birth to her fourth son, Yehuda, whose very name means “thank you.” Unloved by Jacob, she gave her first three sons names designed to arouse Jacob’s love for her. With her fourth son, however, Leah shifted her attention, and instead of focusing on the negative, she embraced an attitude of gratitude, which opened her up to the positive in her life.  

 This seemingly small shift nevertheless created cosmic consequences. Ham’s warped views prevented the birth of a fourth son, and he unleashed misery into the world.   Leah, on the other hand, opened up the spiritual channel of gratitude and from that act, blessings ensued.   It is from Yehuda, that King David descended, and ultimately it is from Yehuda’s lineage that the Messiah will be born.

Developing an attitude of gratitude can break us free from voluntary servitude to the money monster.  And since our very well being depends on relationships, spending time –  our most valuable currency – on our relationships, measure for measure, yields the greatest return on our investment.

Korach – The Power of the Question

“…And for the child who does not know how to ask,

you must teach him how…”

– Passover Haggadah

Power Struggles

The Torah portion, “Korach,” is the name of one of the most famous attempted power-grabbers in Jewish history. In the story line, the priestly honors and appointments were doled out long ago to Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach, their cousin, was left out of this honor society and was resentful. However, Moses was untouchable as a leader, and so Korach kept his bitterness to himself.  

Times had changed, however. After the incident with the spies in the previous Torah portion of “Shelach,” when the people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, it was a time of crisis and unrest. Moses’ ratings were down, thus giving Korach the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the situation and to try to usurp Moses as the leader.

 And Korach did so by posing a simple question to Moses and Aaron: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” That doesn’t sound too bad – does it? Korach is saying, “If we’re all holy, then what makes you guys so special?  I’m every bit as special as you.” Korach even got a few hundred guys to agree with him because his platform was essentially that he was the champion for the masses, he stood for the little guy, and that everyone is equal – perhaps the first Jewish communist.

 But Korach wasn’t looking to make everyone the same. He wasn’t looking to make this an equal opportunity procedure. This wasn’t the Biblical version of: “I’m holy. You’re holy. And that’s OK.” Korach wanted to be the High Priest, and assuming he was to overthrow Moshe and appoint himself, by the time his groupies figured out that nothing changed for them, well you know what happens in takeovers.

Selective Questioning

As fascinating as the story line is (and to find out what happened to Korach, read The Book), what interests me is the use of the question. When Korach asked, “What makes you holier than me?” it wasn’t an honest inquiry at all. He was looking to find fault with Moses, and he was trying to get others to join in, to see reality his way, and he did it through the use of questions, because – and this is important to understand – the reality that we see depends on the questions that we ask.

 Why is that? Our brains take in billions of bits of information per second, but it can only process about 60 bits per second, less than an infinitesimal sliver. You know how people can experience the same thing so differently? That is because they are focusing on their selective 60 bits per second. And I use the word “selective” deliberately. We can actually select which sliver to focus on, and the way we do that is by the questions we ask.

Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without even knowing it. Every other child would come home from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother wanted to know something else. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”

Let’s look at relationships. In the infatuation or romantic phase of a relationship, the part of the brain associated with critical thinking is dysfunctional. When that part of our brain comes back on-line, and critical thinking resumes, we start asking ourselves – “What’s wrong with my spouse? What’s wrong here? What happened to the person I married, etc.?”

And when we turn these questions inward we create inner shame. The brain doesn’t like unanswered questions and so when you ask a negative question (What’s wrong with me?), your brain will only supply a negative answer (I’m such a loser, mess, etc.).

 And while we mustn’t turn a blind eye to problems, the tendency to focus only on the problems–to allot our 60-bit sliver of reality to the negative–shuts out all of the good and wonderful aspects of a relationship. It’s as if we are wearing blinders, and if we can’t see it, then these things don’t exist, even if they are right in front of us. Incidentally, I think this is one of the main reasons relationships fail or suffer, because we become very good at being fault-finders, and we lose the ability to see the good.

Changing What We See

Therefore, if the questions we ask create the reality we see, it stands to reason that we can change our reality by asking better questions. When you change your question, you change what you are looking for. By understanding this dynamic, you can engineer a more positive life and relationships.

 Chassidic thought teaches that there is a seed of greatness in every moment and a spark of holiness in everything – even more so in people. Try looking for it with positive questions. “What is working? What is going well? What is there to be grateful for? When are things good and what factors make it happen? What’s my role in that? What do I do well and how can I do more of that? What are the blessings in this situation? How is this situation calling for me to serve, to act, to change, to grow?”

Here’s the secret, and it’s a phrase well worn into me by Tal Ben Shahar: “When we see the good, the good appreciates.” And we see the good by asking good questions. When Korach looked at Moses, all he could ask was why was he not getting what he wanted, why others were being elevated over him, and why was he being denied what he thought was coming to him. In a situation flowing with lemonade, all Korach could do was make lemons. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us look for the good, see the good, and enjoy the many blessings in our lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all have someone in our lives that makes us jealous. Think about that person and then write down the questions that pop into your mind (ie. “why her and not me?). Now…take those very same questions and ask change them around to focus on positive growth and development for yourself.
  1. Think about a question you have asked yourself (or another) that had a transformative effect on who you are today. What about the question or answer was made such an impact?
  1. Being able to question another or our situation takes a lot of strength. What questions do you have for yourself that perhaps you have been avoiding asking? Write down three questions that you may not yet have the answers for but can begin to work on.

 

 

The Mindset of Abundance: Heart-Inspired Living

generosityIf you have ever been solicited by a charity (or cousin out of work), you may have been told outright – or made to feel – that you should “give until it hurts.” In this week’s Torah portion, “Terumah“, we see how giving is not about “hurting” but about “healing.”

In the story line, the Jewish People left Egypt, stood at Mount Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, and then, in one of the worst fits in our history, thinking that Moses was dead, we built a golden calf to be his replacement.

After those responsible had been duly punished, God decided that what we needed is a good building project to boost morale. He commanded us to build the Mishkan, which is the portable tabernacle that we carried with us in the desert that housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

In order to build this portable tabernacle, a lot of building materials and precious metals were needed. Imagine how challenging this must have been for a slave population suddenly made free, suddenly going from rags-to-riches, now being asked to part with their newly acquired possessions.

Unlike any other financial levy that had ever occurred in the ancient world, however, God told Moses to collect these offerings from “every heart-inspired person,” leaving it up to the dictates of each person’s heart not only how much to donate, but whether to donate at all.

In a way, discretionary giving can be harder. For people accustomed to having no choices, being told to give a certain amount is probably not too difficult. But what personal experience could the Jewish People draw on to make this type of decision?

Perhaps the deeper lesson that God was teaching the Jewish People was that in becoming givers, they would not only become free, but happier as well.

Living From Abundance

In freedom, there isn’t always a script or a set formula. It’s the sum of your choices that makes you who you are. And unless you have the right to say “No,” what is the real value of your “Yes”? A defining moment for the Jewish People—the exercise of giving freely (or not) – allowed them to transition from being a slave to a free-willed human since the nature of a slave is not to be a giver or a decision-maker.

The Jewish People in the desert responded to this challenge and gave and gave until Moses had to tell them to stop. Their generosity did not necessarily stem from the fact that they suddenly had something to give. Have you ever known someone who experienced depression or lived in poverty as a child, and then, despite how wealthy the person became later in life, his or her worldview never changed?

Perhaps – and this is just a suggestion – the feeling of closeness and connection that the Jewish People had with God at that time, allowed them to tap into their Godly essence – an inspired heart, which means living from the place of abundance. As Wayne Dyer points out, “Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tap into.” And that creates joy because giving makes us happier.

The Joy of Giving

People who give money to charity are vastly more likely than non-givers to say that they are “very happy” about their lives. It’s not always about giving money either, as research shows that volunteers are much happier as well. A Harvard Business School study concluded that giving not only increases happiness but happier people, in turn, give more and that these two relationships may operate in circular fashion. It should come as no surprise that doing good correlates to feeling good. So doesn’t it make sense to be on the lookout for ways to increase your own happiness, as you are increasing happiness in the world?

Don’t worry – I would never suggest that you become a doormat or give indiscriminately. Giving from the heart doesn’t mean that we leave our brains out of the equation. I am suggesting, however, that we take a cue from “Terumah” and understand, as Eckhart Tolle pointed out, “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”

So as you go through your week, notice when you are giving – whether it’s writing a check, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, giving up a parking spot, throwing a quarter in a stranger’s expired meter, or giving someone a shoulder to cry on. Make a conscious effort to honor a request from a loved one, give some space and breathing room to a partner, hold back a zinger, or find a way to say the right word at the right time.

And pay attention to the many gifts and blessings that you receive as well. And in so doing, may you feel more inspired to live from a “heart-inspired place.”

Questions to Ponder –

Think for a moment about what enslaves you. What makes it hard for you to be generous or to let go?

What would it take for you to shift from a feeling of lack to a feeling of abundance?

What would happen if you went through life asking yourself – what does this person, this situation, my community, or the world need from me – whether it’s giving up resources, time, a need to control, a need to be right, a need to judge, or a need to look good?

Could that increase your sense of freedom and joy?