Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength

Each year, more than a third of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, only 8% are successful. Why?

Many goals lack achievability or accountability. If a goal is too big or if you have too many of them, they lack achievability. If a goal is too vague and cannot be measured, it lacks accountability.

Many of us want to become better people, more spiritual, and fulfill the purpose for which God created us. That is a noble but big goal. How do we break that down into small steps – giving it achievability? How do we track our progress – giving our goal accountability?

To address this issue I formulated The Chazak Plan. This plan focuses on one area each month. The topics are general enough so that you will benefit regardless of your background.

The Hebrew word Chazak means, “Be strong.” Each of us was born weak, both physically and spiritually. As we got older, our bodies strengthened, but what about our souls? Are they any more developed than they were when we were kids?

The purpose of life is to strengthen our souls. This 12-month plan shows you how.

There are three levels or ways to implement The Chazak Plan and each one builds on the previous one.

The first level is reading the articles posted weekly on the blog which relate to the theme of the month. To sign up to receive these articles, click here. On the page that opens, type your email address in the box on the upper right and click on the “Subscribe” tab.

The second level is answering at least one question in the section, “Questions for the month.”

The third level is choosing a specific behavior, related to the theme of the month, which you aim to do daily or weekly for at least one month. Add this behavior to your checklist to keep track of how often you do it. (Clicking on the checklist hyperlink will take you to links to two documents; one is a blank checklist and the other contains sample entries.)

Some months have more than one suggested goal. For your first 12-month cycle, start with one new goal per month. At the beginning of every month, decide whether you will continue the previous month’s goal. Then, add to your checklist the new change you will make for that month. Regardless of how the previous month went, begin anew with a fresh and energized start.

At the beginning of the day, read your checklist and aim to fulfill each entry at the earliest opportunity, or at a designated time. As you do each entry, put a check mark by it and give yourself positive reinforcement. At the end of the day, read over the sheet and perform any entries you have not done yet. When you lapse, encourage yourself to begin the next day with an invigorated start.

In the beginning, you can pick mini rewards to give yourself. A reward can be a piece of chocolate, downloading a song track, or even just praising yourself for the achievement. Pick a reward that gives you something to look forward to. Soon, you will not need external rewards and the positive feelings which come with keeping your commitment and engaging in meaningful activities will be sufficient.

If possible, do this plan with a partner with whom you schedule weekly check-ins to encourage each other and discuss how you both did the previous week.

If you find that on a regular basis you are not performing your entry, do one or more of the following:

(1) Set an alarm or another reminder to make sure it is not a matter of forgetting.

(2) Try a different reward, one that is more enticing.

(3) Temporarily lower the bar or phrase the goal with a low and high range, so you are at least able to achieve the low range and then work up toward the high one. If that does not help, pick a different goal, one you are more motivated to achieve.

This plan is based on the Hebrew months and you can start the plan at the beginning of any month. The Hebrew months are used because each one contains innate spiritual power which you will be tapping into. Also utilize the power of prayer, by asking God to help you achieve your goals.

Here is an outline of the topics covered each month, followed by a discussion of the month:

Elul: Repentance

Tishrei: Torah study

Cheshvan: Prayer

Kislev: Gratitude

Tevet: Faith

Shvat: Elevating the physical

Adar: Enhancing our joy

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

Tammuz: Forgiveness

Av: Kindness

Elul: Repentance

Elul is the time of year we take stock of our lives and prepare for the High Holidays. Most of us have at least one area in which we struggle; perhaps it is being ethical in business, being moral, being charitable and kind, refraining from hurting others, or some other area. Correcting our key flaw(s) is a major part of our life’s mission and why God put us in this world.

Pick one area on which to focus and choose a manageable change you will make on a daily or weekly basis; input this change into your calendar or checklist. If possible, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance. The focus on repentance continues into next month until after Yom Kippur.

As the High Holidays involve reciting many prayers, for suggestions on how to enhance your prayers, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”

Questions for the month:

“Which area do I struggle with that I’m motivated to address this Elul?”

“What is a manageable commitment I will make?

“Is it clear to me what area to focus on and how to repent (if necessary)? If it is not clear, who can I speak to for guidance?”

Tishrei: Torah study

Until after Yom Kippur, the focus on repentance continues. If you have not done so already during the month of Elul, there is still time before Yom Kippur to choose an area of your life to repair or upgrade; add it to your daily checklist.

After Yom Kippur, the focus switches to the festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of the Five Books of Moses and begin a new cycle with the book of Genesis. Now is a great time to join this annual study of the Bible. There is tremendous spiritual power in learning the same portion studied by millions of Jews around the world. Next Simchat Torah, when you finish the Bible, your celebration of the holiday will be even more meaningful.

Spend time each week learning the weekly Torah portion – there are many excellent articles, translations and commentaries available, e.g., The Stone Edition Chumash and The Gutnick Edition Chumash (sections of The Gutnick Chumash can be read for free here). Preferably, each day, study 1/7th of the weekly portion (also known as an aliya) or study the whole portion on Shabbat.

If possible, study at least weekly with a partner, either the Bible or a different area of the Torah. To find a partner, you can contact your local synagogue or kollel, or go to http://www.partnersintorah.org/, who will pair you with a partner free of charge.

Torah study nourishes the soul as food nourishes the body. Study Torah every day of your life – even if only for a few minutes, e.g., reading an article, a few pages from a book, or listening to a class during your commute or while exercising. Preferably, have a set inviolate time for Torah study. Input into your checklist what and when you will study.

Two important areas of Torah to study are (A) teachings which inspire you and (B) Jewish law – so you know how to act.

Questions for the month:

“Which behavioral change will be my New Year’s resolution?”

“Which translation or commentary on the Bible will I use for the upcoming annual cycle?”

“What area of Torah am I currently most drawn to? Who can I study it with, or from which resources?”

Cheshvan: Prayer

On the 7th of Cheshvan, in Israel, prayers for rain begin. For this month, focus on enhancing your prayers. You can pick a section of the prayers to say daily with understanding and input this into your checklist. In addition or instead, you can recite daily one Psalm with understanding (longer Psalms can be read over two to three days).

One type of prayer, popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is called Hitbodedut; this is where we talk out loud to God in our native language, unburdening ourselves to Him. Try this daily practice for at least a week, preferably a month. See if it helps you feel closer to God and to feeling His support and guidance.

Part of upgrading our prayers is showing reverence for the sanctuary, and not talking during the prayer service.

Even while we pray for help in specific areas of our lives, we surrender to God, acknowledging that only He knows what is truly best for us.

Questions for the month:

“Which section of the prayers will I focus on saying this month with understanding? Or, what can I do to enhance my prayers?”

“What issues are weighing on my mind that I can informally speak to God about?”

“How can I enhance the reverence I show for the sanctuary?”

Kislev: Gratitude

During this month we celebrate the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the miracle of the oil, the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple. A key message of the festival is expressing gratitude to God for the miracles He performs for us.

Each day, preferably at the beginning of the day, spend time feeling grateful for the blessings your Creator gave you. Thank Him for His many gifts, for the bright side/silver lining of your difficulties, and for signs of His help amidst your challenges. Consider inputting this daily practice of expressing gratitude into your checklist.

In addition, express your appreciation to others. You can do this in person, on the phone, via an email or text, or with a written note.

For a discussion on gratitude, see the first tool in, “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood” and “Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy.”

Questions for the month:

“What is something I am very grateful to God for? What can I say to Him to express my appreciation?”

“Who is someone who has helped me? How can I express my appreciation?”

Tevet: Faith

The month of Tevet encompasses two moods: Celebration and mourning. During the beginning of the month, we celebrate Chanukah, commemorating, among other events, the rededication of the Second Temple. Later in the month, on the 10th of Tevet, we fast and commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the destruction of the First Temple.

In one month we commemorate two diametrically opposed events. Faith is the bridge between them. Even while we mourn an event which led to the destruction of the Temple, we have faith that like the miracle of Chanukah, another dedication of the Temple will occur, when the Messiah comes and dedicates the Third Temple.

Input into your checklist to do the following daily practice to enhance your faith: Think of a challenge and say to yourself:

“This is from God for my eternal benefit. Part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge. This will work out in the end; either in this world or in the next. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.”

Questions for the month:

“What life challenge will I use to help me strengthen my faith?”

“Is there an area of my faith where I have doubts and questions? If yes, who can I speak to for clarity?”

Shvat: Elevating the physical

The 15th of this month is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees. An aspect of this holiday is celebrating and elevating the physical. Part of sanctifying the physical is taking care of the body with which God entrusted you. During this month, choose to upgrade either your sleep, exercise or diet habits.

Pick one change you will make on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month, and using your checklist, track how often you do it. If you find the change very easy, add another one. Some examples: Go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning; exercise 2-3 times a week or go for a daily brisk walk; cut out sugary drinks and/or foods from your diet, limiting them to special occasions. Make water your preferred beverage. If you do not like the way your water tastes, consider a filter.

A related point of focus for this month is to consider if there is an area of your life where your relationship with the physical has become unbalanced and excessive, e.g., overeating, overspending, overworking, or overuse of the internet or your smartphone (surfing, texting, checking email, using Facebook etc.). Most of us have at least one area which, at a minimum, wastes our time and takes us away from more fulfilling activities. This month, pick one behavior to rein in and one behavior you would like to do more of instead. Taking back control of how you spend your time and money will help you feel better about yourself.

Questions for the month:

“What will I upgrade this month, my sleep, exercise or diet habits?”

“Is there an area of my life which has become unbalanced and excessive, which at the very least wastes my time? How will I rein it in and regain control?”

“What would I like to do with the new time or money I free up?”

“Do I feel good about how I’m living my life? If not, what is one change I can make that would help me feel better about myself?”

Adar: Enhancing our joy

Our Sages teach that with the arrival of Adar we increase our joy, culminating in the festival of Purim. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people during the Persian exile.

While we do not have direct control over our moods, the following are six tools which can be helpful in enhancing them: Gratitude, acceptance, self-compassion, expressing ourselves, addressing festering issues and making lifestyle enhancements, see “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.” Many times, even using just one tool will help us feel better and increase our enjoyment of life.

Choose one tool which you will utilize this month. (During a Jewish leap year, when there are two months of Adar, choose one tool per month.) Then, decide on the one change, technique or behavior, related to that tool, you will do on a daily or regular basis, for at least this month. Add it to your checklist and track how often you do it.

Questions for the month:

“What do I think is most negatively affecting my emotional health? How will I address it?”

“What will I do this month to enhance my emotional health and become a happier person?”

Nissan: Spiritual spring cleaning

During Nissan, we celebrate the holiday of Passover. On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It is a time of freedom, when we free ourselves from that which brings us down spiritually.

Even today, many of us are still not yet completely free and are enslaved to our passions, to varying degrees. At the same time, we still maintain some level of moral purity. The goal is to raise it up a notch, thereby increasing our freedom.

When you prepare for the holiday by removing leaven from your house, also remove spiritual pollution. To whatever extent you’re ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those which are filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity. Go through your wardrobe and donate to charity clothing that is immodest and unbecoming of the daughter of the King. Use an internet filter to block inappropriate websites and be more discerning what websites and videos you expose your soul to. If you wouldn’t show it to an impressionable teenager, you probably shouldn’t be watching it either. Avoiding that which downgrades our spirituality will help us have a closer connection to God.

An aspect of maintaining your purity is speaking in an elevated manner. Are there any words you choose to remove from your vocabulary, at least for this month?

Using your checklist, you can check off each day you succeeded in speaking in a refined manner and/or staying away from spiritual pollution (or limiting your exposure as best you can).

Questions for the month:

“How can I declutter and elevate my spirituality at the same time? What will I get rid of?”

“What is a source of spiritual pollution in my life? How can I shield myself from it or at least limit my exposure?”

“What word(s) do I choose to remove from my vocabulary, at least for this month?”

Iyar: Enhancing our relationships

The period known as The Omer occurs during this month. During part of The Omer, we commemorate thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died in a plague. The Talmud teaches that the plague occurred because the students did not treat each other with proper respect.

This month, we focus on treating others well and enhancing our relationship with them.

Our relationships play a pivotal role in either enhancing or negatively affecting our emotional, physical and spiritual health; toxic relationships drain us, while healthy relationships nourish us.

Make a list of your key family, work and social relationships. Decide which ones to strengthen or repair, which ones need better boundaries or for you to distance yourself from, and ways to foster new healthy relationships.

Input into your checklist the following practice or a related one: At least once a week, schedule one-on-one time with someone in your life to strengthen that relationship; shut off your cell and give him or her your undivided attention.

In addition, this month, work on being less critical of others. Start by focusing on the person of whom you are most critical. Consider using your checklist and check off each day you were able to avoid criticizing them.

Questions for the month:

“Which of my relationships do I need to strengthen? What is the first step to doing that?”

“Which relationships need better boundaries or for me to distance myself from? What is the first step to doing that?”

“Do I want to form new healthy relationships? What are some ways I can do that?”

“Which person in my life am I most critical of? For this month, am I willing to commit to give them at least as much compliments as criticisms?”

Read up on the type of relationship you are currently dealing with. Here are links to Aish.com articles on specific relationships:

Dating

Marriage

Parenting

Relating to your parents

Sivan: Living the Torah’s wisdom

The festival of Shavuot occurs during this month. On Shavuot, we celebrate receiving on Mount Sinai the Torah, God’s instruction manual for life. Even those who are unaffiliated, without realizing it, observe part of the Torah. Take for example the 10 Commandments, many already believe in God, do not worship idols, honor their parents, do not commit murder, adultery etc.

Begin at whatever level of observance you are currently on, and pick one area you are motivated to strengthen this month. At the end of each day/week, mark off on your checklist if you kept that observance.

Question for the month:

“What area of observance will I strengthen this month or at least learn more about?”

Tammuz: Forgiveness

On the 17th of this month, we fast to commemorate the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. This is the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks which ends next month on Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Sages teach that a key reason the Messiah has not yet come to rebuild the Temple is because of the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew.

We are a small nation surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction. To defeat the hatred against our people, we must defeat the hatred within our people. This month, go out of your way to be forgiving and overlook the faults of others.

One of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in ourselves and others (Likutey Moharan I, 282). A complementary practice is to realize that we all have difficulties and to feel compassion for our own challenges and for those of others. Each day, look for the good in yourself and others, and feel compassion for the struggles we all face. Then, you will be more forgiving and loving toward yourself and others.

Check off on your checklist each day you complimented someone, or at least spent time thinking about a person’s good points (including your own).

For additional discussion on the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew, see, “What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?

Questions for the month:

“Who in my life do I feel hatred toward or greatly dislike?” (Pick one person and depending on the situation, either work on forgiving them or on reducing the hurt you feel, as this hurt only harms you.)

“Who pushes my buttons? Can I focus on their good points and be more complimentary and understanding?”

“What is the first step I can take to try to resolve a conflict I have with someone?”

Av: Kindness

On the 9th of this month – Tisha B’Av – we fast to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Last month, we focused on removing hatred by forgiving others and thinking about their good qualities. This month, we will focus on the next step, doing kindness and fulfilling the commandment to, “…love your fellow as yourself…(Leviticus 19:18).”

Each day this month, consider checking off on your checklist if you did an act of kindness; it can be something small. If the day is coming to a close and you have not yet done an act of kindness, ask yourself if there is someone you can call or email, who would appreciate that you reached out to them. At the very least, put some money in a charity box. Do not let a day go by without doing something for someone else. As the Sages teach, (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14), “…If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

Question for the month:

“Who can I help and how?” (Some examples: Giving emotional, financial or physical support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.)

Next year’s cycle:

During the coming year, you can go through this cycle again, focusing on a different aspect of the 12 topics.

Each person working to strengthen their spirituality is like a single light, shining ever brighter, in a sea of darkness. The world is currently very dark. To overcome this, we have to focus not only on our own spiritual development, but also on that of others. Encourage your family members and friends to join us on our journey to spiritual strength. Together, we will light up the world and usher in the time when, “…The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).”

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I like how there is a general theme for each month. This gives me the flexibility to choose how I want to apply it. And since there is a new theme each month. I get a fresh start every month.

    ReplyDelete