Saturday, January 24, 2015

Clarity: 8 Ways to Get More of It

Were you ever in a challenging situation or had a goal you wanted to accomplish, and you knew exactly what to do?

That’s clarity.

Clarity is knowing where you need to go and how to get there.

For most of us, moments of clarity are rare occurrences; usually we are conflicted and not sure what to do. For those who think they always have clarity, that is a sign they lack it. This is because no matter how much we know, we always lack full knowledge of a situation. In addition, our judgment is always clouded, because we all have biases.

With humility, we realize that we are prone to mistakes and that increasing our clarity is crucial to achieving meaningful goals and making decisions we will not regret.

8 Ways to Greater Clarity:

1. Pray. Only God has complete clarity and He wants to give you some, if you ask. Speak out the issue with God, preferably out loud and in your native language. Tell Him your concerns, possible options, the pros and cons of each one, and ask Him to guide you. (God often guides us through our intuition – that gut feeling of what we need to do.) This practice, known as Hitbodedut, was popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

2. Learn Torah. To make the most of His gift of life, God gave us His Torah which is filled with clarifying wisdom. The more we study His Torah, with the goal of applying its teachings, the more clarity we will have.

The clarifying power of Torah study is apparent when we consult with those steeped in Torah knowledge; they are often able to cut to the core of an issue and see a situation with startling clarity.

3. Widen and lengthen your vision. When faced with an issue which needs to be addressed, our tendency is to focus only on the immediate future and choose the option which provides the greatest short term gain. While human nature, this often leads to poor decisions and long term loss.

Instead, to achieve greater clarity, we must widen our vision by considering the possible ripple effects of our actions – how others might be affected and unintended consequences. We also have to lengthen our vision, to plan ahead and take into account the likely long term effects of our actions or inactions. Long term consequences include not only months and years from now, but also in the next world – where we will reap what we sowed in this world. By widening and lengthening our vision, we take into account costs and benefits of our actions which would otherwise have eluded us.

Think about something you are considering doing, e.g., moving or changing careers, and ask, “What will this involve? What are the costs and benefits? How do they compare to the costs and benefits of alternative options? What do people I respect suggest I do? What feels like the right thing to do? Do I have enough information to decide if it’s worth doing, or do I need to look into it more?”

When making a decision, it is a matter of balance: not being impulsive, but not overthinking; not making big decisions without consulting others, but not being overly dependent on them; not ignoring our intuition, but not doing something that does not make logical sense.

4. Write a mission statement. A mission statement will help you clarify what is most important to you. Write a mission statement based on your values – what you want your life to be about. Write how you want to live now, so that when you look back at your life, you will view it as a success – that you lived your values.

Here is one possible mission statement:

I want my life to be about:

1. Enhancing my relationship with others, starting with my family and branching out to include as many other people as possible; helping them physically, emotionally and spiritually, and certainly not causing anyone harm. When I do cause distress, to immediately apologize and make amends.

2. Enhancing my relationship with God, fostering a personal relationship with Him and following His guidelines as best I can. When I lapse, to repent and begin again with a fresh start.

3. Using my challenges and gifts to come closer to God and help others. (In your personal mission statement, list specific activities you find fulfilling and schedule into your calendar at least one of them weekly.)

Having a mission statement can motivate us to break out of our comfort zones. Our default setting is to remain stuck in our comfort zones and avoid the unknown. With clarity, we realize that pursuing meaningful life goals often involve taking judicious risks. This is part of what makes life exciting, an adventure into the unknown.

5. Live your values. People often make the mistake of unwittingly compromising their values in an attempt to get ahead or achieve a goal. To avoid this, when faced with a dilemma, ask yourself, “Which option is more in keeping with my values and mission statement?”

To illustrate: Let’s say your mission statement includes enhancing your relationship with others and not mistreating them. Then, one day, your spouse makes a mistake which infuriates you and you want to scream at your spouse. Or you come across an opportunity to make a windfall, but it involves taking advantage of others.

Both of these examples involve a possible short term gain – letting off steam or making more money – but are not in keeping with your values. Engaging in them might feel good in the moment, but later on you will be filled with regret and the loathsome feeling of having not acted like the person you want to be.

In contrast, when you make sacrifices to live in sync with your values, while challenging in the moment, you will be left feeling proud that even under difficult circumstances you stayed true to your values.

Every day, be mindful of your values and act in keeping with them. Do this even when it involves making sacrifices. The more you live in keeping with your values, the higher will be your self-esteem. (To enhance your self-esteem, make sure to praise yourself for the difficult choices and sacrifices you make to stay true to your values.)

6. Ask others for input. The more important the issue, the more important it is to ask others for advice. They can give us an unbiased perspective and offer suggestions we may not have considered.

For issues which involve Jewish law, speak to a rabbi well versed in that area. For other issues, you can speak to a rabbi, a rebbetzin, or someone else you respect who shares your values and has life experience.

If possible, speak to people who have already achieved the goal you are working toward. Sometimes we work toward a goal only to discover that it was not a good fit. For example, we go to school for a particular career, only to be disappointed upon graduating. Perhaps we did not realize the amount of training necessary, average salary or opportunities for growth. Remember the second habit of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Cover, “Begin with the end in mind.” Figure out where you want to go and then work backwards on how you will get there.

When consulting with others, often, one conversation will not be enough; they will make suggestions for you to consider and you may want to check in with them again.

Before asking for advice, make sure you are willing to give serious consideration to what is suggested, even if it may not be what you wanted to hear. After receiving their input, even if you do not agree with everything they said, look for nuggets of wisdom you can utilize. At the end of the day, you will have to deal with the consequences of your decision and need to make the choice you think is right for you.

When the stakes are high or if you are not sure of the appropriateness of the advice given, ask at least two people for input, and then make the decision. This way, if there is a big discrepancy between what people recommend, it will alert you to think through the issue carefully.

Ask yourself, “In which area of my life could I use more clarity? Who can I speak with, to discuss the situation?”

If you cannot find someone to ask advice or you need intensive guidance, consider seeing a recommended therapist or life coach, to guide you through a rough patch.

7. Make a written game plan. It is shocking how many people, while admitting they have a difficulty to overcome or a goal to achieve, do not have a clear plan on how they will do so. Writing helps us crystallize our thoughts, so sit down and write out a plan of attack. Start by writing what your goal is and when you plan to achieve it. Then write out the steps you will need to take to achieve it. Then decide on the first step you will take and when you will take it.

Schedule into your calendar when you will reassess your plan, preferably with the input of others, to see if you need to make adjustments. As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Be honest with yourself and ask, “Is this working? Is the situation improving? Am I moving closer to my goal?”

If not or not enough, restrategize and brainstorm alternatives. In addition, if possible, seek further guidance. Depending on the situation, you may be advised to persevere with your efforts, try a different approach, or modify your goal.

8. Keep your eye on the goal.
To achieve your goal, stay focused on it and work toward it on a daily or weekly basis. Schedule into your calendar what you will do and when, to move you closer to your goal. As long as you are moving forward, eventually, with God’s help you will achieve your goal.

Keeping our eye on the goal will also help us set priorities. We often gravitate toward that which most draws our attention, even though they are usually least important. For example, we may spend hours on the internet with little to show for it or buy things we rarely use. Instead, throughout the day, stay focused on what is truly important, spending your time and resources in productive ways and using a portion of them for Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness.

We can learn a lot about clarity from expert chess players: 1. They have a proactive strategy and do not just react to their opponent’s moves. 2. They think ahead more than just one move at a time. 3. They consider the ramifications of each move, the costs and benefits. 4. While not impulsive, they do not overthink each move. 5. Even when no great options exist, they still make a move and try to advance their position. 6. Their plans are fluid and they are able to shift gears, as circumstances change. 7. They stay focused on winning the game and do not get distracted. 8. They learn from expert players, either by watching them or reading chess books. 9. They do not give up hope no matter how dire the situation, as opportunities for winning can appear out of nowhere, if they are on the lookout. 10. Even when they lose a game, right away, they will challenge their opponent to a rematch, trying a new strategy and avoiding previous mistakes.

Clarity is often elusive. But remember that no matter how confused you feel or how hopeless the situation looks, God can instantly give you clarity. You can go from having no idea what to do to knowing exactly what to do. In the meantime, do your best to achieve clarity, work toward your goals, and ask God for help. May He soon open your eyes to the right path for you and lead you to where you need to go.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Shvat: Elevating the physical

Dear Friends, 

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

Rosh Chodesh Shvat begins this Tuesday night, January 20th, and lasts for one day.

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 own checklist or the Daily 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 taste of your water, consider a filter. (For an informative article comparing two popular diets, see Dr. Edelberg’s article here.)

Another point of focus for this month is to consider if there is an area of your life which 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 reign in and one behavior you’d like to do more of instead.

Reading for the month:

Overcoming our Soft Addictions

Take care and may we see success in the coming month,


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Conflict Resolution: How to Win the Battle for Peace

Ever notice how many people are estranged from or fighting with someone?

It was not always this way. What happened?

In previous generations, when people had disagreements with family members, neighbors or business associates, they went to the town rabbi or Bet Din (Jewish court) and resolved the problem. In addition, because people then lived in small, close knit communities and needed each other, there were real incentives to keep the peace.

Times have changed. Now, when people get into an argument, they often see no reason to work things out. In their minds, there are two options: Either the other person capitulates or they will cut off all ties with that person. Protracted battles, emotionally and financially draining, often ensue and both sides end up losing.

It does not have to be this way. By overcoming four common barriers to peace, we can prevent and resolve many conflicts.

Four barriers to peace:

(1) Thinking it is perfectly acceptable to have conflicts. Because arguments are so prevalent, people often think there is nothing wrong with stridently sticking to their opinions and refusing to yield and be flexible. But it is wrong. The Talmud states (Sanhedrin 110a), “Rav said: He who is unyielding in a dispute, violates a negative command, as it is written (Numbers 17:5), ‘…And let him not be as Korach and his assembly …’ Rav Ashi said: He deserves to be smitten with leprosy.”

We are obligated to do what we can to avoid and settle arguments. In addition, King David urges us (Psalms 34:15), “…Seek peace and pursue it…” We must be willing to spend time and money to maintain or restore peace. When we do, it will be among the best time and money we spent.

Even if we have been given the green light by our rabbi to be involved in a dispute, we are still forbidden to use methods against Jewish law to force the other side to capitulate. We are also forbidden to cause the other side needless pain; that would be a violation of the Torah’s command, “Do not cause pain…” (Leviticus 25:17).

This is the opposite of the no-holds-barred approach used by many, who want to win at any cost. But instead of asking a lawyer, “How can I get or keep the most money? How can I force them to do things my way?” We have to ask a rabbi, “What is the halacha, Jewish law, on this matter? How does God want me to act?”

(2) Not being compassionate. We often focus only on our needs and on getting everything to which we feel entitled. We forget that the other party is made up of people too, who also have needs and feelings.

The importance of being sensitive to those with whom we are in conflict is highlighted in a fascinating dialogue in the Torah between Jacob’s sons. They were talking among themselves about their regret over having sold Joseph. What is fascinating is that the brothers did not fault themselves for selling Joseph because it was the wrong thing to do; they still thought they had a legitimate reason for selling him. They faulted themselves for selling Joseph because they should have had compassion for him.

The Torah states: (Genesis 42:21) “They said to each other, ‘It is true, we are guilty for our brother, because we saw his distress when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.’” They blamed themselves for not being compassionate to Joseph, for not being sensitive to his pain.

We all have compassion within us. The Talmud teaches (Yevamot 79a) that one of the defining characteristics of a Jew is that he or she is compassionate.

After we die, we will meet God, our Father in Heaven, and we will have to answer for our actions. For the times we mistreated people, perhaps we will come up with reasons or excuses for why we thought we were entitled to act the way we did.

But what will we answer if God asks us, “Even if you thought you were justified, why were you not compassionate? Why were you not sensitive to their pain?”

To that question, we will have no answer.

We need to correct our behavior now, while there is still time, so we will not be left speechless and ashamed in the World to Come.

Ask, “What’s the compassionate and generous way to act? How does a mensch act? How can I find common ground with the other side and reach a settlement I will be proud of, both in this world and in the World to Come?”

(3) Only seeing the bad in others. Often, we think of people in black or white terms; either they are good or bad. When people do something we do not like, we write them off – terminating the relationship. We disregard the good they have done for us and the good times we shared. Yes, we should be assertive in advocating for our rights, but discarding a relationship over one misguided act or comment is equally misguided.

Think about people with whom you are in conflict and ask, “What are their positive attributes and good deeds? What are some of their struggles, past or present, which may have contributed to their current behavior? Is it possible they think they are doing the right thing? Do I sometimes make mistakes in judgment? Can I guarantee I would act differently if I was in their situation? How can I judge them favorably?”

Just because people did something bad, does not make them bad people. When we realize this, we will be motivated to try to work things out and salvage the relationship, or at least stay on civil terms.

Instead of asking, “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” We have to ask, “How can we work this out?”

(4) Being stubborn and unyielding. The Talmud states (Taanit 20b) that a person should always be soft as a reed and not hard as a cedar. We should always try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. Sometimes though, we become obstinate and fixated on a course of action. We insist that things must be done our way. But the possible benefits of insisting it is done our way are rarely worth the costs of the resulting strife.

Make a list of the costs and possible benefits of each approach to resolving a conflict. Keep in mind current and projected costs related to time and money and the toll on relationships and physical and emotional health.

Looking over the costs of the disagreement, ask, “Is it worth it? Are the costs of continuing this way worth the possible benefits or should I cut my losses and consider other, less costly alternatives?”

Many times we will realize that continuing the conflict, or in the way we have been doing, is not worth it. It just does not make sense and is self-destructive. But two factors, related to stubbornness, can hold us back from shifting gears to find a peaceful resolution.

A. Not willing to lose. We often think of compromising or yielding on an issue as losing; this is a mistake. Winning is coming out whole, with our integrity intact. The Talmud states (Beitzah 16a) that a person’s income is set each year by God and that, “…You will be given what belongs to you. No man can touch what is prepared for his fellow…(Yoma 38b)”

Seeking peace and making reasonable compromises – what God wants you to do –will not compromise the money He has designated for you. Not only that, but resolving a dispute will bring Divine blessing into your life. Without blessing, money is worthless.

B. Not willing to swallow our pride. Sometimes, both sides would be willing to come to an agreement, but each is waiting for the other to make the first move. We must be the courageous ones: The first to apologize for our share of the disagreement and the first to offer to give in a little, for the sake of peace. We must follow the example of Moses, who went out of his way to try to make peace with those who were clearly in the wrong (Numbers 16:12).

Ask, “Even if I’m right and even if they don’t deserve it, how can I take the lead in working out a peaceful resolution?”

Resolving conflicts

It is much easier to avoid conflicts than to resolve them. To help prevent fights over money, have every agreement clearly spelled out in writing, including inheritance related issues, so that everyone is on the same page. The cost and hassle this may involve is well worth it.

When a disagreement is over an insignificant issue, let the other side have it their way; it is not worth arguing over. The voice in your head telling you to fight over something “out of principle” is often the voice of the evil inclination goading you on.

When an issue is important, schedule a time with the other party to talk about it in a calm and polite manner. A few discussions may be necessary before an agreement is reached. Even if the other side becomes accusatory or aggressive, refuse to follow suit; that will only heat up the disagreement and reduce the chances of settling the issue peacefully.

First, focus on the areas where there is agreement. For the areas in which you disagree, try to understand their perspective. Then be as flexible as you can and willing to make reasonable concessions. Often, when the other side sees that you are willing to soften your position to find a mutually beneficial solution, they will do the same.

As mentioned above, doing what we can to avoid and settle arguments is a religious obligation. (Speak to a rabbi to confirm you have fulfilled your obligation.) If we stubbornly stick to our position and refuse to yield, God may hold us accountable for the negative repercussions of the dispute, compounded by the number of people involved. That is a heavy cost no one can afford.

(For further discussion on the severe consequences of perpetuating a conflict, see Shemirat Halashon Shaar HaZechirah chapters 15-17 by the Chafetz Chayim. This work can be read online in English here, in Vol. 1 starting with p. 173.)

If you are not able to resolve the issue on your own, enlist the help of a third party – a rabbi or someone else you both respect to mediate. Often, when a third party is involved, especially a respected rabbi, people are on their best behavior and want to show how reasonable and accommodating they are.

If that does not work, the next step is to go to a Bet Din (Jewish court), as the Torah states (Deuteronomy 25:1), “When there is an argument between people, let them come to judgment…” (An alternative to Bet Din is to go to arbitration. If neither of these are options, one must speak to a rabbi to determine under what circumstances they would be permitted to proceed to secular court.)

To make peace, we need a willing party. There is not always one and sometimes we have to protect ourselves from the aggression of others. Other times, we have to accept that some people will always be upset with us and have no interest in making peace. Nevertheless, we have to focus on what is within our control, making sure that our behavior is above board and that we have gone the extra mile for peace. We also have to ask God for help and pray that He speedily bring a peaceful and fair resolution.

The Sages teach that before the Messiah comes, there will be unity and peace among the Jewish people. We are steadily approaching the time when the Messiah will arrive. Even if in the past you were unable to make peace with someone, consider reaching out to them again. Perhaps now is the time for peace.

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