Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?

We all have weak links – areas in which we sometimes stumble. Often, these stumbling blocks fall under five fundamental areas. Unaddressed, they hold us back from fulfilling our potential for greatness.

Ethics of the Fathers teaches (1:2), “On three things the world depends: On the Torah, on the service (a reference to prayer), and on doing acts of kindness.” The health of our inner spiritual world also depends on these three things, and they encompass the five stumbling blocks below. For each section, we will include diagnostic questions to help you determine if it is a stumbling block for you, as well as action steps to address that area.

1. Neglecting Torah study. Our souls draw strength from Torah study. When we learn Torah regularly, we provide daily nourishment for our souls.

Diagnostic questions: Do I study Torah on a regular basis (preferably daily, but at least weekly)? Is my Torah study a highlight of my day or week?

Action steps: Preferably, your Torah learning should include two key areas. The first is Jewish law, so you know how to act. The second is to learn something which inspires or excites you. Uplifting articles and books, or listening to inspirational teachers, will fire up your passion for Judaism and increase your fervor to come closer to God.

Ask others which authors and teachers inspire them; many find Chassidic thought to be especially uplifting. Choose your preferred medium – audio, visual or print. Preferably, study at least once a week with a partner; you can locate one through your synagogue, kollel, or through http://www.partnersintorah.org.

An easy way to include Torah study in your routine is to sign up for a weekly or daily email. For emails based on the book The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver, click here. For emails based on the wisdom of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, click here. For emails on a variety of other Torah topics, click here.

Every Jew has a unique share in the Torah which resonates deeply with them. Search for yours and give your soul the nourishment it needs.

2. Neglecting our relationship with God.
Developing our relationship with God falls under the second area discussed in Ethics of the Fathers, that of Divine service. Sometimes, people get so busy with daily life they forget about their Creator. God created us to have a relationship with Him. Each day we do not develop this relationship, is a day lost forever.

Diagnostic questions: Do I speak to God informally or at least think about Him on a daily basis? Do I view God as an integral part of my life, guiding and helping me?

Action steps: Every day, connect with God by: Praying to Him, performing a mitzvah mindfully, sensing His presence, thanking Him for one of His gifts to you and thinking about how He guides every aspect of your life for your eternal benefit.

Each day, say at least one prayer with intention and preferably feeling, tapping into the fact that you are talking to God and that He is listening to you. If you have trouble doing this in formal prayer, try reciting Psalms with intent and/or engage in Hitbodedut – talking out loud to God in your native language.

An essential part of having a relationship with God is not disrespecting Him. For example, we must ensure that we show proper reverence in the sanctuary and do not talk during the prayer service.

Another aspect of our relationship with God is following His will, outlined in His Torah. An important part of any close relationship is doing our best to fulfill a person’s requests, especially when those requests come from our Creator for our highest good. This area is further discussed in, “Is Your Commitment to Judaism Strong Enough?

The last of the three areas discussed in the above teaching of Ethics of the Fathers is doing acts of kindness. We are going to break down this area of interpersonal relations into three subsections in which we often stumble: Hating others, wronging them and being callous toward their needs. Wronging people often begins with hating them and being callous often begins with lacking the required brotherly love, as the Torah tells us (Leviticus 19:18), “…You shall love your fellow as yourself…”

3. Hating your fellow Jew. Perhaps you do not hate anybody, but how about intensely dislike?

We do not have to go out of our way to spend time with people we do not like; often, it is best to limit contact with those who push our buttons or are just not nice people. But, we are forbidden to harbor personal animosity toward a fellow Jew, as the Torah cautions us (Leviticus 19:17), “Do not hate your brother in your heart…” (In general, it is not a good idea to hate anyone; but hating a fellow Jew is especially sinful.)

Diagnostic questions: Are there people I cannot stand and feel distaste just looking at them? Are there people who I would be happy to hear that they are having difficulties?

Often, we dislike people because they wronged us in some way; in that case, see, “The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go.” Other times, some people just rub us the wrong way. When we look at them, we think about their real or imagined faults.

Instead, remind yourself that you do not know everything about them and why they act the way they do; give them the benefit of the doubt, just like you would want others to give you.

Look for shared humanity. Deep within your heart is a place of tenderness and vulnerability; it exists within those you dislike as well. You have more in common with those you dislike than differences. You have flaws and weaknesses, so do they. You try hard to provide for yourself and your family, so do they. You have worries and concerns, hopes and dreams, so do they. Sometimes, you struggle just to get by, so do they. As best you can, feel warmth and compassion for them.

Generally speaking, the people we dislike are those we do not know well. The more we get to know people, their good qualities and struggles, the more we realize that in many ways they are just like us.

The Sages teach that the entire Jewish people are all part of one soul – we are one spiritual entity. When you see another Jew, you are seeing a part of yourself. Just as you are accepting of your own flaws, be accepting of the flaws of others as well, as they are an extension of yourself. Perhaps this idea is hinted to in Leviticus (19:18) where God says to us, “…You shall love your fellow as yourself…” How do you come to love your fellow? By realizing that he is “as yourself” – an extension of who you are.

Action steps: The next time you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts about someone, switch focus to their admirable qualities and the good they have done. Also think about their possible struggles, e.g., a difficult upbringing or mental illness, which may give you insight into why they act the way they do. Preferably, compliment them for the good you see in them. A sincere compliment is a powerful way to break down barriers between people. In addition, remind yourself that they are a part of you and to accept them as they are. Lastly, look for ways to assist those you dislike or ask for their assistance; both can help cultivate feelings of closeness.

The above encompasses individuals. Jews can also be divided into groups, e.g., Israelis and those living in the diaspora, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Chassidim and Mitnagdim, as well as a whole spectrum of religiosity. It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking down and showing disdain for those who are different than us. In addition, we are often quick to label a whole group based on the behavior of isolated individuals.

The next time you catch yourself harboring dislike for a particular group of Jews, ask, “Does everyone in this group act in the manner I find offensive? Am I sure that I would not act the same way or worse if I was in their situation?” In addition, think about their praiseworthy qualities and the good deeds they do, and try to feel some love for your fellow Jews.

4. Wronging others.
We may have wronged others emotionally or financially. We frequently excuse our behavior by saying, “I didn’t intend any harm. I was just…” But good intentions do not whitewash sinful acts.

Diagnostic questions: Is there anyone I offended or whose feelings I hurt? Have I caused someone distress? Have I made fun of someone (even good-naturedly)? Am I late in agreed upon payments or am I withholding money which belongs to others? Have I not kept my word or reneged on an agreement? Have I enriched myself at the expense of others?

You may think, “I’ll straighten it out later. I’ll make good in the end.” But repentance is only possible while you are in this world. Nobody knows which day will be their last. Once a person’s body shuts down, so do the gates of repentance. Whatever you can correct, do so while you still can.

Action steps: Can you recall a time you hurt someone, perhaps a family member, friend, neighbor, former classmate, fellow congregant or business associate? Even if you think you have both moved on since then, you still have to make amends and/or apologize. Ask, “Whom do I need to ask for forgiveness? When will I contact them?”

5. Being callous. Sometimes, our issue is not that we hate others or have wronged them; it is that we ignore them. Often, we are so focused on our own lives that we do not pay enough attention to others. We sometimes ignore the difficulties they have, perhaps in finding a job or a spouse, coping with illness or paying bills. Although we cannot help everyone, we still have to do whatever we can. Ethics of the Fathers reminds us (2:21), “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”

Diagnostic questions: How often do I spend time and resources helping others – daily, weekly or less than that?

Sometimes, we are attentive to those with difficulties, but ignore those who do not appear needy. For example, there are individuals in the synagogue who do not know many people and stand off to the side after the prayer service. Do we go over to them and make them feel welcomed, or do we stick with our circle of friends? Do we wish a warm, good Shabbos to every Jew we meet or only to those we know? The truth is we are all needy; we all need to be noticed, cared about and respected for who we are.

Action steps: Devote a portion of your time and resources to helping others. If you cannot provide tangible assistance, do not minimize the importance of including someone in your prayers. At least each week, preferably daily, do an act of kindness. When you meet someone, show an interest in that person and see if you can be of assistance.

To recap, the five areas we sometimes stumble in are: Neglecting Torah study, neglecting our relationship with God, hating others, wronging them or being callous toward their needs. What is the common denominator?

It is getting sidetracked from the purpose of life. The allures of this world – physical pleasure and materialism – often distract us from focusing on why we are here, which is to grow spiritually. When we realize that life is about spiritual growth and coming closer to God, we will be less likely to stumble in these areas. Instead, we will devote time to learning Torah and developing our relationship with God. We will love others, treat them well, and help them as best we can.

Look over these five areas and start by focusing on your biggest issue or the one you are most motivated to address. Many times, after you remove one stumbling block, the other areas will improve as well. If they do not, focus on them afterward. Commit to a specific action step and implement it at the earliest opportunity.

By repairing an area in which you struggle, you remove that stumbling block from your life. This will enable you to soar to even greater and previously unfathomable spiritual heights.
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Personal Growth: How to Upgrade Your Skillset

In the past, people lived with their extended families, spending time speaking with and observing their elder relatives, and did not need a formal education on life skills. But in today’s society, where we do not spend as much time with our extended family, we often enter adulthood not having learned basic skills, which can lead to underachievement and interpersonal problems.

If you do not have access to elders from whom you can learn life skills, four books on this topic to consider are: What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. (There are many other books on life skills, including those written from a Jewish perspective, e.g., Alive! A 10-step guide to a vibrant life by Mordechai Weinberger (click here for a sample chapter). These four though, are more likely to be in your local public library. If you generally do not read secular works, start with books written from a Jewish perspective and see if they are adequate for you.)

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book, he discusses how to overcome 21 harmful habits, which hold people back in their relationships and from progressing in their careers. Underlying many of them is a lack of humility. To enhance your humility, see, “You’re Not Arrogant, But Are You Truly Humble?” After deepening your humility, select the habit which is your biggest issue. To discover which one that is, you can email the list of the habits to your family members, close friends and/or colleagues. Ask them which habit – on the list or not included – do they think you will gain the most by addressing. Then focus on the one which is most commonly mentioned or resonates with you.

Choose someone to give you monthly feedback on how you are doing in addressing the habit you selected; see if they have any suggestions, in this area, how you can improve even more. Do not argue with them, just thank them for their feedback and give their comments serious consideration. Between feedback sessions, ask them (and anyone else who knows what you are focusing on) to give you encouragement and positive reinforcement. Ask them not to mention other areas to work on, unless time sensitive. Once you have sufficiently improved in an area, move on to another one.

After you have addressed your most destructive habits (or if you are among the select few who do not have any of those habits), consider the other three books, which focus on healthy habits and mindsets. A summary of Dale Carnegie’s book is available here. Before reading The 7 Habits, consider taking the free assessment quiz to determine your “Personal Effectiveness Quotient” and which habits to focus on. Before reading Crucial Conversations, consider taking the free assessment to determine which areas to focus on.

Another book to consider, if you feel stuck and unfulfilled in your career and/or personal life, is Marshall Goldsmith’s Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It.

A book that can be helpful in identifying and addressing the areas you need to work on is, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do by Amy Morin. Here are the 13 things: “They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves. They Don’t Give Away Their Power. They Don’t Shy Away from Change. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks. They Don’t Dwell on the Past. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success. They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure. They Don’t Fear Alone Time. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything. They Don’t Expect Immediate Results.” If you do any of those things on a regular basis, that issue may be a key stumbling block in your life.

Part of personal growth is letting go of bad habits and forming healthy ones. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, discusses how to do this. On his website, he has a number of free resources and guides. Marshall Goldsmith’s latest book is on this topic, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be.

When you read a technique in any of these books which resonates with you, write it down and preferably, try it out before reading the next chapter. With life skills, it is not how many you know, it is how often you use them.

For specific issues, read books/articles targeting that area. One publisher of self-help books is New Harbinger Publications. For emotional issues that are not of a severe nature, one resource is the self-help treatment website available here.

Write down which area of personal growth you have chosen to address. Consider the following practice: Every morning, read your goal or mentally state your intention to improve in that area, and ask God to help you. State your intention in the positive, what you want to do and not what you want to avoid. If there is something practical you can do daily or at least weekly to move you closer to your goal, schedule that into your calendar. With God’s help, upgrading your skillset will assist you in achieving your goals and enhancing your quality of life.
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