Saturday, September 21, 2019

We All Go Through Spiritual Winters. What to Do During Yours

Our relationship with Judaism often goes through seasons. Sometimes it’s summer, with clear skies and the sun shining; we feel fired up about our Judaism and close to God. Then there are winters, cold, cloudy periods; we feel filled with doubts and distant from God. When you experience a cold season, realize it’s normal and just a reflection of your feeling of distance from God, not God’s distance from you or Judaism’s objective value. God is always close to you and Judaism will always be our people’s lifeline and source of meaning in our lives.

Even righteous people experience spiritual winters. They know it’s normal and do not live their lives based on how they feel in the moment. They live based on convictions, what they know to be true. As the prophet Habakkuk taught (Habakkuk 2:4), “...The righteous shall live by his faith.” They are not guided by passing feelings toward Judaism. They are guided by their faith in God and in the truth of His Torah. They hold on tightly to this faith and keep moving forward, even during tumultuous times. Because they do not give up, they are able to move through cloudy, stormy periods to states of clarity and connection to God.

Our relationship with God cannot be based on passing moods; that would be serving ourselves, not God. To truly serve our Creator, our relationship with Him needs to be unconditional, like that of a parent and child, a relationship embedded in one’s very DNA. The periods that test our loyalty to God serve to strengthen our bond with Him. They separate those who are sincere, from those whose relationship with Him is superficial. To earn the bliss of an unbreakable bond with God, both in this world and even more so in the World to Come, that bond needs to be tested. Instead of fleeing at the first sign of a spiritual chill, expect these periods and use them as an opportunity to demonstrate that your relationship with God is unconditional.

Even when you feel distant from God, be on the lookout for moments of clarity, where you can see through the fog. It might be an experience where you sensed God’s guiding hand, or an inspirational Torah thought which moved you, or an insight you had into life. Like lightning bolts in the middle of a storm, these experiences or insights can briefly light up the night and help you stay on the right path.

During a spiritual winter, in addition to staying the course, two approaches can help reignite our passion for God and Judaism. First, remove impediments which smother our inner fire, the soul’s innate yearning for its Creator. Second, do things which stoke the flame within. Ultimately, a passionate feeling of connection to God is a gift from Him; we cannot force it to happen. But we must do our part. To start, pick at least one item from each of the two categories below. Do your best and ask God for help.

Removing impediments:

1. Reign in distracting behavior. If you spend too much time on distracting behavior, e.g., excessive smartphone or internet use, even over-working, you will not have time to deepen your relationship with God. Every relationship takes time, if we do not put in the time, the relationship will wither. Distracting and addictive behavior robs us of the focus we need to build a relationship with God. Praying with intention, studying Torah, and speaking to God takes time. Are you putting in the time? If you are distracted, you will not hear the voice of your soul yearning for God. Ask, “Which behavior am I engaging in that’s distracting me from focusing on the important things in life? How can I reign in that behavior and better use my time and energy?” For more on this topic, see, “Overcoming Our Soft Addictions.”

2. Enhance your moral purity. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote extensively on the connection between moral purity and spirituality. A law of spirituality, like a law of nature, is that if someone is weak in their moral purity it will weaken their spiritual connection to God. There is no way around it. Moral impurity is like water to a campfire; the more water, the weaker the fire. Whatever connection a person has with God will be much stronger once they are more careful in guarding their moral purity. Like our relationship with God, moral purity is not all or nothing. The more one guards their purity, the greater will be their connection to God and passion for Judaism. Ask, “What can I do to strengthen my moral purity?” For more on this topic, see, “4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity.”

3. Avoid cynical people. Perhaps you have had the experience of being passionate about something, until you spoke to a cynic who drained you of all enthusiasm. Avoid people who make light of serious topics, especially relating to spirituality. When they cannot be avoided, steer the conversation to light subjects, where cynicism is less damaging. Whenever possible, surround yourself with people who are a good influence. Ask, “How can I distance myself from those who bring me down spiritually? Who are positive people I can spend time with? Is there a Torah class in my neighborhood where I can meet likeminded people?”

4. Strengthen your observances. When a person feels connected with God, they can often sense that doing the mitzvot strengthens that connection and sin weakens it. When a person does not feel close to God and their passion for Judaism has cooled, their motivation to restrain from sin weakens. Each sin leads to a further cooling off of one's passion for Judaism creating a downward spiral. Unless one strengthens oneself, a slight slip can lead to a massive decline. When you go through a spiritual winter, take preemptive steps to strengthen your observances, protecting the gains you have amassed, so that you will emerge from this winter even stronger. Ask, “In which area of my Judaism have my observances weakened? What commitment do I make to strengthen that area?” For more on this topic, see, “How to Strengthen Your Commitment to Judaism.”

5. Enhance your mood and energy levels. If you generally feel apathetic and unmotivated, you will likely feel the same about your Judaism. Try strategies to enhance your mood and overall energy. Begin by getting more sleep, exercising (in sunlight when possible) and eating a healthy diet. Ask, “Am I generally upbeat and energetic or lethargic and in a low mood?” What can I do to enhance my mood and energy levels?” For more on this topic, see, “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.”

Stoking the flame:

1. Listen to uplifting Jewish music. A heartfelt, stirring melody can often help us shift from feeling spiritually cold to hot and inspired. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught of the importance of dancing and clapping. Daily, or at least on a regular basis, put on uplifting Jewish music and dance and clap to the music. (If possible, learn the meaning of the words to the song). This can help you break out of a stagnant, disconnected state and enhance your mood. Ask, “Whose music do I like or who can I ask to recommend uplifting Jewish music?”

2. Study Torah. Preferably daily, study Torah that inspires you. Many find Chassidic thought especially inspiring. One inspiring work which details practical teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is A Bit More Advice available at https://breslov.org. (Currently, the site is offering a free e-book on Rebbe Nachman if you sign up for their newsletter.) In addition, set up at least a weekly study session, preferably with someone who is passionate about Judaism. One of the benefits of studying with a partner is that we are often able to put in greater effort and toil into deciphering challenging Torah passages than when we study alone. Toiling in Torah study elevates us and increases our feeling of connection to God. Ask, “What book or class will I try, or who will I ask about setting up a study partner?”

3. Find an inspirational rabbi or rebbetzin. Find a role model who is passionate about Judaism to inspire, advise and encourage you. If they have a positive effect on you, you have found the right one. Think of people who live nearby or with whom you have crossed paths and stay in touch with them. Call or speak with them regularly, perhaps monthly, to maintain a connection. Reading a biography of one of our righteous men or women is a great way to get inspired. Ask, “Who is someone who may be a good spiritual role model for me? When will I reach out to them to develop the relationship? Which biography of an inspirational role model will I buy or borrow?”

4. Tune into God’s presence. God is close by throughout our lives, whether we feel His presence or not. During the day, bring to mind that God’s glory fills the world – His presence is in every cell and atom. Realize you are standing before God at all times. Shift your awareness, from inward – centered on your thoughts – to outward, tuning in to God’s presence which surrounds you always. The more you think about God, the more you will see His guiding hand in your life and feel connected to Him. Every time we say a prayer or a blessing over food is an opportunity to tune into God’s presence. Throughout the day, think about God and ask Him to help you do His will.

5. Pray. Prayer is a key source of spiritual vitality. We pray three times a day so even just improving our prayers a little bit, perhaps focusing on one prayer to say with greater intention, will have a big effect. In addition to the daily prayers, aim to recite Psalms daily (glancing at a translation to understand the words). Also, speak to God informally, in your native language. Thank Him for the blessings in your life and the times you felt His guiding hand, tell Him about your challenges and plead with God to bring you closer to Him. When possible, visit Israel, praying and studying Torah there; it is easier to feel a connection to God while in His Holy Land. Ask, “What can I do to say my prayers with greater concentration? Am I willing to recite a portion of Psalms daily? Am I willing to try speaking to God informally in my native language?” For more on this topic, see, “How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer.”

Some of us have felt periods of inspiration in our lives, others have not yet. The above strategies can help both groups, but if you have felt inspired in the past, try to reconnect with that feeling. Recall a time when you felt inspired or close to God. How did it feel? What were you thinking about? What were you doing? Can you feel now a little bit of that elevated feeling of Divine connection? Whether or not you were able to recapture some of it now, know that the possibility of a deep feeling of inspiration and connection to God exists every day of your life. Do your part to cultivate it and wait patiently for God to gift it to you.

Deepening our connection with God takes time. Be prepared for challenges and setbacks along the way. Keep moving forward even when you feel uninspired and distant from Him. As best you can, avoid that which weakens your relationship with Him and do that which strengthens it. The tenacious efforts you make to overcome feeling distant from God, is the very force that will propel you to higher levels of connection to Him. With perseverance, at the right time, God will awaken within you a passion for Judaism and a burning desire for closeness to Him.

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