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, 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, it may be best to stick to just one new goal per month. At the beginning of every month, decide if 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 progress.

If you find that on a regular basis you are not performing your entry, do one or more of the following: First, set an alarm or another reminder to make sure it is not a matter of forgetting. Two, try a different reward, one that is more enticing. Three, 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 toward the high one. Lastly, you may need to pick a different goal, one that 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: Removing hatred

Av: Restoring love

Elul: Repentance

Elul is the time of year to 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 main component 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 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 our prayers, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”

Questions for the month:

“Which area do I struggle with, which I am motivated to address this Elul?”

“What is a manageable commitment I will make to repair this issue?

“Is it clear to me what area to focus on and how to repent, or, who can I speak to for guidance?”

Readings for the month:

“Am I a Faker or a Genuine Person?”

What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?

Debunking 5 Myths about Repentance

Repairing Our Mistakes: How to Ask for Forgiveness

What’s the Point of It All? The Power of Transformative Questions

Tishrei: Torah study

Until after Yom Kippur, the focus on repentance continues. The reading below, How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan, can be helpful in identifying areas of your life to repair or upgrade. Choose one suggestion and add it to your daily checklist (for at least the 10 Days of Repentance, which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur).

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. 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 a few pages from a book, an article, or listening to a class during your commute. Preferably, have a set inviolate time for Torah study. Input into your checklist what and when you plan to study.

The two most important areas of Torah to study are (A) teachings which inspire you and (B) Jewish law – so you know how to act. For suggested readings for both categories, see endnotes (3) and (5) at the end of the Action Plan below.

Questions for the month:

“Which area from the Action Plan or a different behavioral change, will I incorporate into my life for at least the 10 Days of Repentance?”

“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?”

Readings for the month:

You: As God Intended

How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan

Taking Refuge in a Sukkah of Faith

Cheshvan: Prayer

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

(If you do not yet pray daily, open up a prayer book and see if any of the prayers resonate with you, or better yet, ask your rabbi or spiritual mentor for a suggestion; recite that prayer every day. Alternatively, read daily from the book of Psalms. There are many excellent English translations available with varied formats; choose one that works best for you.)

One type of prayer is called Hitbodedut; this is where we talk out loud to God in our native language, unburdening ourselves to Him. Try this practice for a week or month. See how it can help you feel closer to God and to fortifying yourself with His comfort and support.

Part of upgrading our prayers is showing reverence for the sanctuary, and not talking to others 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 best for us.

Questions for the month:

“Which section of the prayers will I focus on saying this month with understanding?”

“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?”

Readings for the month:

How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer

What Happens to Our Seemingly Unanswered Prayers?

Surrendering to God: 3 steps to transcend your ego

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 on our behalf.

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. Input this daily practice of expressing gratitude into your checklist.

In addition, express appreciation when someone does something beneficial for you. You can do this in person, on the phone, via a quick email or text, or with a written note.

The readings for this month focus on Chanukah and related themes. For additional discussion on gratitude, see the first tool in, “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.”

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?”

Readings for the month:

Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You

Clarity: 8 Ways to Get More of It

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, 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.”

Additional articles on faith, as it relates to dealing with adversity, are listed under the months of Tammuz and Av.

Questions for the month:

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

“Do I struggle with an element of my faith? If yes, who can I speak to for guidance?”

Readings for the month:

Is Faith Logical? One Answer in Ten Questions

How to Build Unshakable Faith

Everything Works Out in the End: Even when it doesn’t appear to

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. (For an informative article by Dr. Edelberg, comparing two popular diets, click here.)

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, overuse of the internet 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 go a long way toward enhancing your self-image, a topic discussed in one of the readings.

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?”

“Am I proud of myself and feel good about who I am? If not, what can I do to address that?”

Reading for the month:

Overcoming our Soft Addictions

How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself

Personal Growth: How to Upgrade Your Skillset

Adar: Enhancing our joy

Our Sages teach us 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 (these tools are discussed in the readings below). Many times, even using just one tool will help us feel better and increase our enjoyment of life.

After reading the articles, choose one tool which you will utilize this month. Then, decide on the one change, technique or behavior, related to that tool, which 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/mood?”

Readings for the month:

The 2 Forms of Divine Providence: Purim and Passover

3-Dimensional Acceptance: A Pathway to Peace and Power

6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood

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 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 are ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity; they downgrade your spiritually.

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, that do not reflect the type of person you are?

Using your checklist, 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 ‘clean house’ 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 to it?”

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

Readings for the month:

What Worked for Our Ancestors: 4 Lessons from the Exodus

4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity

Who Are You? A Balaam, a Job or a Jethro?

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, using your checklist, check off each day you were able to avoid giving others harmful criticism (more details in the readings below).

Questions for the month:

“Which of my relationships do I need to strengthen? How will I do that?”

“Which relationships need better boundaries or for me to distance myself from? How will I do that?”

“Do I want to form new healthy relationships? How will I do that?”

Readings for the month:

6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit

How to Give Constructive Feedback without Sounding Critical

6 Ways to Deal with Critical Family Members

Also 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 the 10 Commandments for example, 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?”

Readings for the month:

The Ten Commandments: Exploring Their Hidden Side

3 Fundamental Mitzvot

What Does God Want from Me?”

Is Your Commitment to Judaism Strong Enough?

Tammuz: Removing hatred

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 need to 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 others and in ourselves (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 others and yourself.

Check off on your checklist each day you spent time thinking about the good points in someone. Each day, try to compliment at least one person for the good you see in them.

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

A number of misfortunes have occurred to the Jewish people during The Three Weeks. Because of this, this month and next month’s focus is also on how to overcome adversity.

Questions for the month:

“Who do I harbor ill will toward?” (Pick one person and either work on forgiving them or reducing the hurt you feel.)

“Who pushes my buttons? Can I focus on their good points and be more accepting of their faults?”

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

Readings for the month:

Conflict Resolution: How to Win the Battle for Peace

The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go

Accessing Your Inner Peace

When Rabbis Behave Badly

Nourishing Yourself with Faith during Difficult Times: Part I

Nourishing Yourself with Faith during Difficult Times: Part II

5 Reasons for Suffering

Adversity + Humility + Acceptance = Transcendence

Av: Restoring love

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. This month, we will focus on the flip side: Restoring love by apologizing and helping others.

Consider if you may have caused someone distress, by what you said or did. If yes, commit to apologize to them as soon as possible.

In addition, each day of this month, check 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?”

The topic of doing acts of kindness is further discussed in, Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You. The topic of not wronging others is further discussed in, “What is Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block?” The topic of apologizing is further discussed in, “Repairing Our Mistakes: How to Ask for Forgiveness.”

Questions for the month:

“Who can I apologize to?” (And make amends if applicable)

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

Readings for the month:

Longing for the Redemption

How to Respond Effectively to a Tragedy or Crisis

Who Caused This Crisis?

How to Overcome Your Challenges: 10 Ways

5 Steps to Heal from a Loss

Dealing with Distressing Memories

Next year’s cycle:

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

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, friends, synagogues and schools 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).”

All the best,

Yaakov

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