Sunday, March 29, 2015

6 Steps to Heal From a Loss

When we lose a loved one, we feel as if a part of us has been taken away, leaving a gaping hole in our heart. We wonder, “Will I ever feel whole again?”

Over time, our pain will lessen and the hole in our heart will begin to close. Here are six proactive steps we can take to help us move through our grief.

1. Give yourself emotional first aid. When we experience a loss, we feel adrift in an ocean of pain. Reach out for support. Unburden yourself to God and ask Him to give you strength and comfort. Accept (or ask for) the help and support of family and friends; that’s what they’re there for. Lastly, give yourself self-compassion by talking to yourself with words of compassion, comfort and encouragement.

These three sources of support – God, other people and yourself – will help you get through your grief, and lessen the searing pain you feel. Eventually, you will be able to focus on accepting the loss. For more details on the topics of social support, self-compassion, and acceptance, see, “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.” This article also discusses the importance of having goals or projects. While you do not want to suppress your grief, you do not want to wallow in it either. Find meaningful ways of keeping busy, especially ones that involve being around other people.

2. Know for whom you are grieving. According to Jewish tradition, when we grieve over a loss, we are not mourning for the one who passed; they are in Heaven, basking in the warm glow of closeness to our loving Creator. We are mourning for ourselves, that we now have to continue our lives without them.

Even as we mourn, even as we know that no one can take their place, we find strength from the following realization: Just as God sent this loved one into our lives to be a source of love and support, so too will He send other people to love and support us. We have to be open to receiving this love and support, and not shut ourselves off from those who reach out to us. (Do not stand on ceremony, waiting for people to contact you. When you are ready, contact them and take advantage of the social support available to you, e.g., family members, friends, mentors, support groups, and local synagogues).

3. Remember that the loss is only temporary. What is so painful about death is that it seems so permanent, as if we will never see our loved one again. But we will. When we go to Heaven or after the Messiah comes, we will be reunited with them. Death of a loved one only means a short-term separation. Since the Messiah can come any day, any day we can be reunited with them.

4. Find meaning in your loss. Erroneously thinking a loss could have been prevented, magnifies our pain. Part of finding meaning and accepting a loss is realizing that ultimately everything comes from God for our eternal benefit, in ways we do not understand.

This awareness is borne out in the blessing mourners recite, where they refer to God as, “The true Judge.” By referring to God in this way, we acknowledge that regardless of the superficial cause of death, ultimately, it was God who called this person back to Heaven. (For further discussion, see, “Who Caused This Crisis?”)

God’s essence is love and mercy. There are times though when this essence is clouded over and we perceive Him as a strict judge. But even then, even in the depths of our pain, we still acknowledge that God is a judge of truth; that there is a truthful and good reason for His actions, even though we do not know what it is.

5. Realize that nothing in this material world is permanent. Our unspoken expectation is that those close to us will live indefinitely; when they die, we are filled with shock and grief. Nothing though in this material world lasts; everything – the money we accumulated, the houses we built, the health we preserved – will eventually fade away. We can be bitter about this reality, or realize that it is part of God’s wondrous plan in creating the world.

God created the world in a manner where, when we die, everything material is left behind. This teaches us that the purpose of life is not pursuing materialism. The reason we were created is to accomplish things of lasting value that we will be able to take with us. These are our Torah learning, mitzvot and good deeds which will accompany our soul to Heaven, where we will reap eternal reward for performing them.

Death is the ultimate reminder that life in this world is temporary; we are just visitors here. We pass through this world with the aim of gathering what will provide us with eternal spiritual nourishment in the World to Come.

When we use the death of a loved one to remind us to focus on pursuits of lasting value and to live the lessons we learned from them, then our loved one has not died; they live on through us.

6. Know that you will be able to rebuild. When you lose a loved one, your world is shattered and you are left with the incredibly challenging task of picking up the pieces and rebuilding it.

Just as you built your life until now with the pieces God gave you, you will be able to build a new life for yourself with the pieces He now gives you. It will take time and it will not be easy, but you can do it. Start small and just focus on putting the essentials in place. Then, piece by piece, with God helping you along the way, you will rebuild your life.

This new life may be very different from the one you lived until now, but you can find happiness again.

Over time, as you allow yourself to grieve, you will realize that your loved one has become part of you and is with you always. They have taken up residence in your heart, soothing the pain that was there and restoring, to some extent, a sense of wholeness.

We may always feel a tinge of grief when thinking about a loved one who passed away; occasionally, intense feelings of grief may wash over us. This is normal and to be expected. To feel complete wholeness, we have to wait until the Messiah comes, when the world will be made whole again.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve; some people take more time than others. Regardless of how you grieve, know that you do not grieve alone; God says to you (Isaiah 66:13), “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…”

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nissan: Spiritual Spring Cleaning

Dear Friends,

This post is about the Jewish month of Nissan, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Nissan begins Friday night, the 20th of March, and lasts for one day. 

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 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 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).

Readings for the month:

What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 4 Lessons from the Exodus

4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity

Have a Shabbat Shalom, a Chag Kasher Vesameach (Happy Passover), and may God grant us success in the coming month,

Yaakov


Saturday, March 7, 2015

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

Ever notice how little kids ask lots of questions? That is how they learn and grow. To continue to grow, we need to continue to ask questions, transformative ones. Transformative questions cut to the core of an issue and can elicit insights – lightning bolts of clarity – which help us navigate through the storms of life.

You will benefit most from this article if you focus on one question at a time. Mull on each question for a day or week before moving on to the next one.

Transformative questions:

1. Where am I?

After Adam ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, God asked him (Genesis 3:9), “…Where are you?” This question prodded Adam to think about his current situation and the low spiritual state he now found himself in. Once Adam acknowledged his low state, he could then take responsibility for his actions and repent.

In our lives, we have to ask, “Where am I? Am I climbing up the spiritual ladder, or down? Where am I heading in terms of achieving my goals?” If we do not know where we are, we will not know if we are moving in the right direction.

2. Where do I want to be in 6 months, 1 year and 5 years? What do I have to do now to get there?

Some goals can be achieved in a matter of days or weeks. However, many goals, such as moving to Israel, upgrading our observance, making a career or job change, or retirement planning, can take months to years to achieve.

The Talmud teaches (Tamid 32a), “Who is wise? One who sees (anticipates) the future.” With a little foresight, we can start working now toward our long term goals.

3. In what way is my life not the way I would like it to be and what’s the first step to address that?

Focus on one area which you have the ability to change and are motivated to address. Set a goal for yourself and step by step, move toward that goal. Choose mini rewards you will give yourself as you complete each step. As long as you are moving forward, with God’s help, you will eventually reach your goal.

4. What would a mensch do? What is my higher self telling me to do? What does God want me to do?

Biases and temptations cloud our judgment and we are good at rationalizing our behavior. This can lead to making choices we know deep down are wrong. When faced with a dilemma, asking these questions can help you make decisions you will be proud of, both in this world and in the World to Come, where we will be held accountable for our actions. (When possible, consult with a rabbi or rebbetzin for an unbiased perspective on an issue, based on the Torah’s wisdom.)

5. Am I doing, “…What is straight and what is good in the eyes of God...(Deuteronomy 6:18)?”

Often, we are in conflict. Perhaps, with a neighbor, a member of our synagogue, a family member or business associate. We may erroneously think that we must do whatever we can to advance our interests, certainly if we have the upper hand. Yet, especially during those times, when we are in a position of strength, we must ask ourselves, “Am I doing, ‘…What is straight and what is good in the eyes of God...(ibid)?’” In the end, God's view is all that matters.

If you are in conflict with someone, speak to a rabbi well versed in Torah law to ensure you are acting appropriately and not taking advantage of people or using underhanded tactics. Even when we are in conflict with others, we must always act like a mensch.

6. Which areas do I need to work on?

We often have a tendency to focus more on the flaws of others than on our own. If we tell people what is wrong with them, they are unlikely to change. But if people see how we have changed for the better, we have cleared a path for them to follow. When you have an urge to criticize someone, first make sure you are working on yourself, and have corrected your own similar flaws.

A related question to ask ourselves when we are tempted to blame others for a difficulty is, “In what ways have I contributed to this?” No matter how small, start by taking responsibility and apologizing for your share. This will encourage the other party to do the same. Then you can work together to repair the damage and learn from the mistake.

7. Is it worth it?

Sometimes we act in habitual ways and do things which in hindsight were not worth it. For example, getting upset or into an argument over trivial matters, or spending a lot of time returning an inexpensive item we could have just given away.

Depending on the situation, ask yourself: Is it worth getting upset or arguing over this? Are the possible benefits worth the costs? Is this the best use of my time? Right now, what’s the best use of my time?

Getting into arguments is rarely worthwhile, especially if one party is agitated and upset; better to wait for a quiet moment to discuss the issue calmly. Sometimes, the things we argue over have no practical value or benefit, and we are working ourselves up over nothing. When you find yourself arguing over something, ask yourself, “Is this a PD (pointless discussion)?” If it is, then either change the topic or bring the conversation to a close.

8. What do I want more: To be right or to be at peace?

There are times when we have to be assertive and stand up for our rights. But many times we will realize that insisting we are right or that things must be done our way is just not worth it. Doing so

often comes at the expense of peace with others and our own peace of mind. Most of the time, especially over insignificant issues, let others be right or find common ground; refuse to be drawn into an argument or conflict.

9. Is it really necessary to say this now?

Some people have the unfortunate habit of constantly correcting others. When we make a minor mistake, they immediately correct us and show us how we are wrong. Even though it is hurtful to be on the receiving end of these critiques, we sometimes fall into the same trap and act the same way. To avoid this bad habit, before correcting or criticizing someone, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to say this now?”

Often, the answer is no. Either it is not a necessary critique, or even if it is, it is not the right time to make the comment. Critiques are best delivered indirectly or at least at an opportune time and in a thoughtful and sensitive manner. For more details, see, “6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit.”

This question can also help us avoid the sin of gossiping. When you have the urge to say something that may reflect negatively on a person, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to say this?” Sometimes the answer is yes, most often the answer is no. If someone starts talking negatively about a person to you, you can respond, “Is it necessary for me to hear this? If not, let’s talk about something else.”

10. How can I chap arein?

The Yiddish expression, “Chap Arein” means to seize the day and take advantage of opportunities while we still can. God spreads out for us, throughout our lives, numerous opportunities for growth. They are custom designed to bring out our potential for greatness. The more you gather these puzzle pieces, the more you build your actualized self – the amazing, fulfilled and Godly person you were meant to be.

Opportunities come in many forms, e.g., inspirational teachers, potential friends or study partners and chances to do acts of kindness. Often, after our life circumstances change – we move to another neighborhood, have less free time, people pass on or move away – we think to ourselves, “Why didn’t I take advantage?”

Make a list of growth opportunities currently available and choose one to pursue. Now’s your chance, chap arein!

11. What exactly am I waiting for?

There is often an area of our lives where we have been sitting on the fence, e.g., something we are doing we know is wrong and want to stop, a mitzvah observance we want to strengthen, an act of kindness we are contemplating, Torah study we are considering, or an estranged relationship we want to repair. Other examples include making a career shift, moving to Israel or becoming marriage minded. But perhaps we are ambivalent and the status que continues. Recently, there have been a number of tragic deaths of young people due to terror attacks, illnesses or accidents. Use these tragedies as a wakeup call, a reminder that no one knows which day will be their last. Now is the time to get off the fence and take action. To make the most of each day, giving priority to what is truly important.

Often, people’s deepest regrets are not what they did, but what they never even tried. Take the first step of a worthwhile goal you have been contemplating, and do what you can to make the most of the strength God gives you.

12. Am I a giver or a taker?

To determine which one you are, ask yourself the following questions, “Am I more focused on what I can do for others or on what others can do for me? When the needs of others clash with my wants, to whom do I give priority? Am I willing to inconvenience myself to help someone out?”

Ethics of the Fathers teaches us to look out for ourselves (1:14), “If I am not for myself, who [will be] for me?” But once our needs are met, our focus has to shift toward fulfilling the needs of others, as the above teaching continues, “If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

Our egos can get in the way of us helping others. We may think, “So I'm inconveniencing others, but I want it my way.” Or, “So I could help someone out, but why should I be inconvenienced and spend my time or money on them?” When we are humble, we realize that we are no greater than anyone else; in God’s eyes, the needs of others are just as important as our own. In addition, with humility, we realize that without our Creator we would have nothing and be nothing. We are more than happy to share the blessings He gives us to fulfill His commandment to help His other children.

We have a natural tendency to focus on ourselves. The way to focus on others is to consider them a part of ourselves. On a deep level, we are all one, creations of God. When we view others as an extension of ourselves, then when they are lacking, we are lacking; when we help them, we help ourselves.

13. Do I just do good, or do I also seek good?

Usually, if we are asked to help with a worthy cause, we do our best. That is certainly praiseworthy. The question though is how often do we offer to help without waiting to be asked? How often do we seek out people who need encouragement or assistance?

God tells us not just to be kind, but to, “…Love kindness…(Micah 6:8)” We show our love for doing acts of kindness when we take the initiative and look for opportunities to help others. Opportunities to be kind are like opportunities to make money. We do not sit back and wait for financial opportunities to come our way, we seek them out. The spiritual benefits of being kind are far more enriching than any financial windfall.

To start with, after the prayer service on Shabbat, take a look around the room. Is there anyone new you can welcome? Is there anyone you have not seen in a while you can ask how they are doing? Is there anyone standing alone you can approach to wish a Shabbat Shalom? Ask yourself, “What can I do for someone else? Who can I compliment? Who can I encourage? Who can I schmooze with to make them feel good and important?” Did you hear in the synagogue about someone who is ill? Perhaps you can visit or give them a call.

14. What can I do?

Sometimes, we bemoan how a situation is out of our control. Instead of focusing on what is beyond your control, focus on what you can do. Some examples: Pray to God, brainstorm options, ask others for advice, look for a bright side to the difficulty, and use it as an opportunity to strengthen your faith that, “Gam zu letovah – This too is for the best (Tractate Taanit 21a).”

15. Do I really want to improve and grow, or would I rather stay on cruise control?

Although most of us pay lip service to wanting to improve and actualize our potential, are we ready to put in the necessary effort?

If we are honest with ourselves, we may realize the answer is shockingly no. We may be satisfied with our behavior, and personal growth is just not a priority.

One way to know if you have fallen into the trap of complacency is to think about how you respond when you hear a talk or read an article on self-improvement. Are you interested and think, “How can I apply this to my life? How can I use this to become a better person?” Or, do you get mildly annoyed and think, “Why is this person telling me what to do?”

Asking yourself the following questions can also help determine if you have a growth mindset or a stagnant one: “Is there an area I am currently focusing on improving?” If we do not at least set the intention to improve in an area, we likely won’t. “Am I reaching past my comfort zones, challenging myself, or am I on cruise control, doing the same things I’ve always done?” If we continue to do the same things, we will continue to be the same people, with little growth.

It is understandable if someone is not motivated to change. Change is challenging and takes effort; it is much easier to coast along. But God did not create us to coast, He created us to thrive. In order to thrive, we cannot stay stagnant; we must keep growing and developing. The first step to growth is to want it and to be ready to put in the effort necessary to achieve it.

16. Am I stubborn and close minded?

Being stubborn stands in the way of personal growth. If we are not open to new ways of looking at things, how will we break free from our habitual patterns? We will keep making the same mistakes, while insisting we are right.

We each have our mindsets and habitual behaviors, and we will stay stuck in them unless we are willing to consider alternatives. In addition, people who are stubborn, only have access to their limited perspective and intelligence. But those who are willing to consider the viewpoints of others, the perspective and intelligence available to them is multiplied many times.

There is though a place for stubbornness. For example, we should be stubborn when sticking to our principles and living our values. When appropriate, Ethics of the Fathers (5:20) teaches us to “Be bold as a leopard.”

Here are three ways to decrease unhealthy stubbornness:

(1) Work on developing humility; realize you have been wrong in the past and you will likely make mistakes in the future. With true humility, a person is able to admit when they were wrong and change course.

(2) When talking to others, instead of trying to get them to agree with you, really listen and consider what they are saying. You will learn a lot more that way. As has been said, “If your lips are moving, you’re not learning anything new.”

(3) Ask people for feedback and advice, and give serious consideration to what they say. Instead of focusing on why they are wrong, see if there is a nugget of wisdom you can benefit from.

When we are open-minded and interested in learning new ideas and ways of enhancing our lives, we have laid a solid foundation for growth.

Ask, “Which area of my life am I stubborn about? Perhaps there is a better way of dealing with this issue. Who can I speak to for guidance?”

17. Do I want to live life my way or God's way?

We have a picture in our minds of how we want our lives to be: Our ideal job, spouse, children, health and financial situation. When life does not go as planned, we have a choice: We can either stubbornly insist our lives should be different, or we can accept our lives as they are. With the latter perspective, we view life as an adventure into the unknown and make the most of the opportunities our Creator gives us. When we choose to live life our Creator’s way, we flow in-sync with life and sudden changes or unexpected obstacles do not throw us off course.

How do we know which choice we have made? If we feel bitter and down over our challenges, a part of us is insisting life must go our way. When we choose to live life God’s way, accepting the circumstances and guidelines He gives us, we live content lives. We are grateful for our blessings and do our best to overcome our challenges. We follow God’s will, outlined in His Torah, even when it entails making sacrifices and not doing things “our way.” We realize that those who insist on living life their way live alone. While those who live life God’s way, live with God – both in this world and in the World to Come.

18. What’s my greatest weakness? How can I strengthen or work around it?

Many of us have a weakness or a bad habit which gets in our way. Perhaps we procrastinate, are afraid of commitment or leaving our comfort zones, get upset easily, or have poor communication skills.

Our main focus has to be on utilizing and developing our strengths, and not on trying to fix every weakness; many of them we will just need to accept. At the same time, we want to address major weaknesses which prevent us from reaching our potential. Instead of saying, “That’s just how I am,” read articles or books on the issue and if necessary, seek professional help from a recommended therapist or life coach.

To discover your greatest weakness, ask yourself, “What issue keeps coming up? What’s holding me back?” Also ask those who know you well, which weakness you would benefit most improving.

Choose an area you are motivated to address, and at the beginning of each day, mentally state your intention to improve in that area and ask God to help you. 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.

For more on this topic, see “Personal Growth: How to Upgrade Your Skillset.”

19. What’s my greatest strength? How can I spend more time using it?

To discover your greatest strength, ask yourself, “What do I do well? Which abilities have people frequently complimented me on? What do I enjoy doing and which gives me a sense of fulfillment?” Perhaps when engaged in this activity, you feel a sense of “flow” and time passes quickly. Also, ask those who know you well, at which areas you excel.

Whenever possible, focus your energies on activities that play to your strengths and delegate or pass on those which trigger your weaknesses. For example, most jobs involve a number of tasks. Some, we do efficiently, while others, we struggle with and our productivity plummets. Perhaps you do not mind doing paperwork, or it stops you in your tracks. Maybe you work best on the big picture, or you thrive on the details. Maybe you are great at the interpersonal aspects of your job, or you prefer the technical ones which involve others as little as possible. The more you focus on what you do well, the higher will be your productivity and job satisfaction.

Make sure that at least once a week you do something which plays to your strengths and you find fulfilling. In addition, think of ways you can add more of those types of activities into your life.

20. What’s the point of it all?

Most of us spend the majority of our time taking care of our bodies: Eating, sleeping and working, so we can eat and sleep some more. But the purpose of life cannot be just to take care of our bodies, because no matter what we do, the body will eventually die. We therefore have to ask ourselves, “What’s the point of it all? Why did God create me?”

Life is our Creator’s invitation to have a personal relationship with Him.

At the start of each day, remind yourself that God created you to come closer to Him through the choices you make, and thereby earn the bliss of the next world.

Every day, choose wisely: Choose to have faith in your Creator, to be grateful to Him, to follow His guidelines as best you can, and to make time for Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness. Each day, through your choices, you set the intensity of your relationship with God.

God created you with unique strengths so that you can use those gifts to help others and deepen your relationship with Him. Think about your strengths and resources, and brainstorm ways of using them for the greater good.

21. Will this matter to me when I’m in the next world?

Life is fleeting; nothing is permanent. People often spend their lives focused on advancing their career or accumulating money, but in an instant it can all disappear and be for naught. When something does not go our way, we frequently get upset. But we have to remember that nothing in this material world lasts; everything will eventually fade away. The next time you are distressed about something or are spending too much time on it, ask, “Will this matter to me in the next world?”

Because the purpose of this world is to give us the opportunity to choose wisely, the only things we will care about in the next world, are the choices we made in this one. We will regret poor choices and delight in good ones. Everything else will be irrelevant. With this in mind, we have to rethink our priorities. We have to shift our focus to the choices and pursuits which will, in the next world, yield eternal benefits.

Now that you have read through these questions, pick one to focus on and ask yourself that question.

What’s the answer?

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