Many of us walk through life wondering why we can’t be happy. Perhaps you want to lose weight, curb anger, give up an addiction, repair a relationship, or change a bad habit.
We all have things that we wish we could change, and it can be hard to understand why we don’t just, well, change. If general happiness is a worthwhile goal, then how do we get back on track? Especially when so many of us carry hurt or regrets from the past, or struggle with patterns of behavior that just won’t go away.
Teshuvah: A Return to the Self
Consider the wise words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
Rav Kook provides us with a formula for happiness – and on a deeper level, an accessible form of mysticism, to enhance understanding our own humanity. Behold: the power of positive thinking meets spirituality.
In Orot HaTeshuvah, Rav Kook wrote:
The focus of teshuvah must always be directed toward improving the future. One should not begin by making the mending of the past an indispensable prerequisite. If one should immediately begin by mending the past he will encounter many obstacles, and the ways of teshuvah and the nearness of G-d will seem too hard for him. But if he concentrates truly on improving his future behavior, it is certain that divine help will also be granted to him to mend the past.
Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance.” However, it really means “return.” What exactly does one return to? It is perhaps most clearly understood as returning to yourself. If you do wrong, carry injuries or have a destructive habit, the spiritual key is to come back to your truest self, as you were, before the traumatic event took place or the destructive behavior took root in your psyche. And, once back to who you really are as your purest self, there is a closer bond to be had with your Maker.
The Weight of History
Returning to yourself does not mean returning to your past, again and again. The past can certainly be helpful as a learning experiences to draw upon, but Rav Kook tells us that it can burden as well.
Shame and guilt, for instance, cut both ways. These feelings, uncomfortable as they are, can sometimes serve a positive function, acting as a deterrent from repeating problematic behaviors or inspiring us to change for the better.
On the flip side though, shame and guilt can also become all-consuming, self-defeating, and even debilitating. It is possible to carry the weight of these feelings for months, years or even decades if we don’t try to break free from them. Shame and guilt can make us retreat and avoid, rather than confront and change. Many simply repeat bad patterns, tolerating (and accommodating) shame or guilt, living in an endless cycle of repetition, self-judgment and more repetition. Sometimes, breaking the cycle of destructive behavior requires breaking free from the power of the past.
Rav Kook believed this to be true.
On a psychological level, we should resist dwelling on the past in order to move forward. And, on a spiritual level, we should not dwell on the past disproportionately because “the nearness of G-d will seem too hard…” No person contemplating faith wants to be distant from G-d. And, most of us do not want to be distant from who we really are underneath the layers of hurt or regret that can dwell in our lived histories.
Unhealthy and Healthy Religion:
Think about it; organized religion can often focus disproportionately on guilt or shame as though change will only come if you feel truly badly about what has happened.
Unhealthy religion encourages us to double down on the hurt and the guilt by inviting us to look for charismatic figures to help us solve these problems. It is too easy to slip into the child mode in search of a parent substitute to help us find acceptance and healing.
This is the risky business of religion.
Healthy religion understands that guilt, trauma or shame are part of our life experience. In Judaism, doing mitzvot, now, today, in the real world that we live in, and making a difference through action is ultimately healing. It is positive, adult, forward thinking and tremendously enabling.
This is the perspective of Rav Kook.
What we do now will take us to a healthy place in our future, and in the end, our past wounds will have a shot at healing. In a sense, you stop picking at the scab. The scab becomes a scar, and eventually, it fades.
A Therapeutic Mysticism
Rav Kook encourages us to change, not because we should be shamed or guilted into it, but because our better self is calling. It is an utterly, fearlessly optimistic view and a way to connect to religion in a productive way. He asks us to first make changes in our behavior, and let go of feeling overwhelmed, guilty or sorry for ourselves. Then, he tells us, something liberating – and mystical – can happen.
When Rav Kook says, “…if he concentrates truly on improving his future behavior, it is certain that divine help will also be granted to him to mend the past.”
What does this mean?
If you start to behave better, lose weight, treat your spouse better, go into recovery from an addiction, get help for past hurts, or simply commit to better life choices, you discover a virtuous feedback loop enabling you to do more. This is good for your mind and body, but also will help you feel centered and more truly you.
It is teshuvah.
How the Present and Future Affect the Past
“The focus of teshuvah must always be directed toward improving the future.”
The future is a place where opportunities reside and the present is where we dwell right now. The past is the past. It does not change, no matter how painful it may have been, no matter how much we wish it hadn’t happened the way it did.
But if we do move forward into the future, the past still has a way of healing. Even if you carry trauma, to believe that a treatment may unlock the cycle of trigger/response is to grab the future. It is never easy to overcome hurt, but to believe that overcoming is a possibility is to truly embrace living. And, if you wronged someone, finding strength in the present may give you the impetus to try to right a wrong from the past. This can be a huge mitzvah.
HaRav Kook, Healing & You
Next time you feel immobilized by hurt, guilt or by too many missed opportunities, remember HaRav Abraham Isaac Kook. Decide that it’s time to make changes. Perhaps, you need a therapist or a coach. Maybe you’re overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, trauma or guilt.
Deal effectively with what’s in front of you, and see the past from a better place. You may want to right a wrong, or grieve a bad relationship, years of dysfunctional behavior or accept a trauma that you can’t change. The past doesn’t go away, but it does need to be placed into perspective.
Happiness starts with creating the right momentum. Some truths are immortal. Focus on what you can change, and maybe, just maybe, the rest will follow.
I want to thank Rabbi Arye Ben David, the founder of Ayeka, for introducing me to this special text.