Staring out at the turbulent waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, I was treated to one of my favorite sights a beautiful seal, bobbing in and out of the waves. While the deep grey swells grew and ebbed, she was unaffected by the nature that surrounded her, and bounced playfully in the cold water. Each time I ventured down to the beach, early in the morning or just before sunset, I would look out expectantly and was gifted by the sight of her, diving and resurfacing, skin shining like silk on the surface of the water.
As a 47 year old woman observing chassidic customs for over 20 years, I look at my surroundings with curiosity as to what message Hashem is inviting me to discover. As I stood enjoying the sight of the beautiful ocean and it’s treasures, I felt that Hashem was encouraging me, like the seal, to play.
This message felt very fitting to me because over the past year, I have been trying on a different perspective. A year ago, Pesach, in an attempt to stay awake at the seder, I was reading the summaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichos in the Toras Menachem Haggadah. I discovered that according to the Rebbe, Judaism is essentially a feminine religion (p. 85, quoted from Likutei Sichos, vol 20, p.218). The Rebbe teaches that as a religious and ethical system, Judaism
seeks to change the world using a feminine approach to nurturing, support and offer affection as opposed to conquering by force, which is a man’s nature (stated in the Talmud Yevamos
65b). Through this feminine quality of nurturing, women are able to bring underlying qualities of a child or a person to the surface and help them grow at their own pace. In my dazed state, I asked myself if the tools that I was using to grow as a Jewish woman were in a way of conquering and subduing or in a way of gentleness and nurturing.
Contemplating this over Yom Tov, I became aware that I spend a lot of time ruminating on negative thoughts and criticizing myself . I thought that if I worked harder on certain negative middot, then I could change them I could conquer them. I began to recognize that this system had not worked well; I was still dealing with the same negative middot that I had tried to change for years.
I began to search for simple tools to lessen the tension and stress I was feeling, not just before Pesach, but in my daily life. My research led to the understanding of how our thinking can affect the actual physical state of the body. What I learned was that as part of our autonomic nervous system, Hashem created two primary modes: sympathetic (fight, flight and freeze) and parasympathetic (peace and patience). Like a hunting lioness, ears forward, eyes focused and body ready to attack, our sympathetic nervous system enables us to hyperfocus on our task at hand. However, operating from this mode also creates a surplus of stress hormones, and puts us in a controlled mindset, closing off our ability to recognize other responses available to us. Great if you are on the plains of Africa, but perhaps not too beneficial when trying to work with your family on preparing for Pesach (or any other activity for that matter!)
To maintain balance in our lives, Hashem designed the parasympathetic nervous system, giving us the ability to rest, digest and recuperate after the body experiences stress. Reacting from this more peaceful space puts us in a more relaxed state of being. And, importantly, new and creative ideas and options become open to us we are no longer hyperfocused on trying to control the outcome.
Combining the Rebbe’s teaching that Judaism is a feminine religion based on nurturing and gentleness with my new understanding of the human nervous system, I was hoping to bring out my best and make some of the personal changes I had been struggling with for years. And if I could do that, would I then be able to treat those in my surroundings the same way and bring out their best? I started to speak to myself (not out loud, of course, my teenagers already considered me kind of whacky) with more gentleness. I began to choose kinder language in my thinking and speaking, like “choose to” in lieu of “have to”, and noticed it’s affect on my body, emotions, and behavior. The softening effect of this wordswap was immediate.
When my mind began to race in the morning with my todo list, worrying how I was going to get everything done, I would feel tense and a sense of dread. My kids would enter my room with smiling faces (they have only play on their to do list) and I would act like a drill sergent did you do your negel wasser, say modeh ani, brush your teeth (instantly, their todo list grows) etc. However when I took a breath and substituted the thought that “I have to get all this done today” with the thought “I am choosing to get some things done today”, I felt my jaw and shoulders relax. My chest felt less constricted and I felt calmer. From this gentler feeling state, my mind opened to what I realistically could get done and I was kinder to my children.
You may be thinking “choose to” sounds nice, but there are things that “have to get done!” Yes, things have to get done, but technically everything is a choice. We choose to do things because we want a certain positive outcome or are avoiding a negative outcome. I “have to” do laundry because we need clean clothes to wear and I “have to” pay bills to avoid late fees. But does it all have to get done today?
Chassidus teaches that “tracht gut, wird sein gut”, so I also started to “play” with positive affirmations. I added “Hashem makes it easy and gives me time to do what needs to be done” to my daily routine. Bringing Hashem into the picture in a very conscious, mindful way allowed me to recognize that ultimately He is in control no matter what is on my todo list. By consciously choosing trusting and positive thoughts, I was able to shift into my more gentle parasympathetic state rather than the sympathetic state of sharp focus and intense control. I found myself getting things done, but felt less frustrated and stressed when things did not go as planned. This
calmer feeling state opened me up to different possibilities of how, when and even which tasks needed to be done at all.
I applied this way of thinking not only to my todo list, but also to the tasks on my todo list. For example, when calling the phone company to challenge a discrepancy on my bill, I felt a bit charged and annoyed even before I dialed the number. However, by thinking “I am choosing to call the phone company now” and “Hashem makes the discrepancy quick and easy to resolve” , I felt my shoulders relax and was more consciously aware that Hashem is part of this process. From this space, I felt more calm, gently assertive, and optimistic when I spoke to the service representative.
I brought these thoughts into my life coaching practice. I shared these ideas with my clients and saw them responding to themselves with more gentleness and kindness. The shifts are slight, but powerful. I noticed a client take a deep breath and relax her shoulders when I invited her to “play” with these ideas for the week instead of to “work” on changing her thoughts.
In preparing for Pesach this year, I found myself panicking about all I had to do to get ready for the yom tov, I felt my chest constrict, my shoulders tighten and my body tense. I took a breath and thought “Hashem makes it easy for me to prepare for Pesach”. My mind loosened up and I felt more creative in figuring out what really needed to get done and the best way to do it. I treated my children more gently and actually came to the seder feeling relaxed and more joyful. I believe that using these different words and these positive, trusting affirmations are creating new, more positive neural pathways in my brain.
My experience this year with playing with different words and thoughts taught me that my past stressful reactions were really a matter of choice. The more nurturing and gentle my thoughts to myself are, the more nurturing and gentle my reactions are . With this new mindset, I feel calmer in my body and act with more gentleness to myself and others. These were the changes that I had tried to make for years. The gift of seeing the seal play joyfully amidst the waves was a message to me that I was on the right path.
I invite readers to play with these ideas and see if they find themselves calmer and more
joyful. I have also found that the trust and joy that I experience in that single moment of thinking positive, even before I take action, really may fulfill what the Zohar says that “if down here (people live their lives) with joy and with light, then the world Above reciprocates in kind, with light and joy” (p. 34, In Good Hands). I have noticed that things do flow more easily which is perhaps the revealed “flow of beneficence from Above” that the Rebbe speaks of (p.34, In Good Hands).
“play with it” in lieu of “work on it”
“invite” in lieu of “should, must or another command word”
“could” in lieu of “should”
“notice” in lieu of “focus on, pay attention to”
“choose to” in lieu of “have to”
“Hashem makes it easy for me to…”
“Hashem gives me an abundance of ….” (help, health, money, resources etc..
Miriam Racquel Feldman specializes in personal coaching for Jewish women. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org