The stay-at-home days of COVID-19 created a flurry of activity for many of us, as projects long postponed by the routine of work came to life. For me, it was my garden. Over the course of a year and a half, I managed to transform a hardened patch of dirt into a vibrant, colorful oasis. A lot of work was involved. Stones had to be transported by the trunkful to build terraces, pathways, and flower beds. Holes had to be dug, irrigation pipes laid, trees, bushes, and flowers planted, and mistakes had to be redone. After the garden was built, it took constant work to maintain, to shape it and keep it organized. Pruning, weeding, staking… it was a labor of love, though a seemingly never-ending one.
Then I realized that a year of shemitah — the sabbatical year of agricultural rest, as prescribed in the Torah — was about to begin.
Along with that realization came the discovery of anxiety, panic, of not being productive enough, and the drive to constantly work and make it better. I must finish everything before shemitah! What will happen to my garden if I cannot actively care for it? I dreaded the thought of seeing all of my hard work go to waste, my beautiful, orderly garden devolving into a wild, deadened chaotic mess.
Our psychotherapy clinic in Jerusalem, Machon Dvir, often employs DBT, a form of therapy that seeks to find the dialectic, or integration, of two opposites. One such dialectic is between the “doing mind” and the “being mind.” When we are in “doing mind,” we are productive and industrious. Our actions and thoughts are oriented towards accomplishment, improvement, and creation. The strength of “doing mind” is in promoting achievement, progress, and advancement of the world.
Taken to the extreme, there is such a thing as too much “doing mind.” In excess, doing mind robs us of the opportunity to experience and enjoy what we have. By contrast, when we are in “being mind,” we aren’t doing anything. We are simply existing, experiencing the world around us without being oriented toward any particular activity. “Being mind” is necessary for us to relax, enjoy, and connect. Here too, however, too much being mind can create entropy and meaninglessness.
Sometimes we become stuck at either extreme. If we get stuck in being mind, we float through life aimlessly making plans but not following through. Alternatively, getting stuck in a constant state of doing mind — planning, organizing, working, always looking for the next thing to be done — does not allow us to experience it all. We fear that letting go of control and stopping our constructive activities will lead to it all falling apart. Alternatively, we may perceive that any attempt to succeed on our part will be inevitably met with catastrophic failure, so we choose to do nothing at all.
This is our central dialectical dilemma. DBT teaches us that the optimal approach is the dialectic one — fully embracing both sides in the moment, moving effectively from one to the other as the situation demands. If not for the opportunity to simply be present and experience life, for what purpose are we working? And if we put no effort into our lives, what is there to experience? This is the dialectic that we strive for.
Living dialectically in this way means we are not afraid of failure or of things falling apart; rather, we embrace it as part of life. In so doing, we liberate ourselves from the extremes and allow ourselves to move seamlessly from a “doing” to a “being” state and back again. Living dialectically allows us to find in “being” a sense of transcendent meaning and purpose in the “doing.”
And so, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I had done the last of my planting, pruning, staking and fertilizing. I had shifted from doing mind to being mind for an entire year. I will allow myself to experience being in the garden without thinking about what needs to be done, fixed or added. Weeds will pop up, and unwanted branches and growth will spring forth. New growth will not be propped up or supported. Nature will run wild rather than be actively tamed and organized. And it will all be okay, there will be no catastrophe, no failure. Instead, it will become a bastion of peace and appreciation for what is, and an opportunity to enjoy it without thinking about anything else.
I may even find myself asking, “In what other areas of my life do I need a shemitah? Where might I and my family benefit from my doing less and experiencing more? Where else am I getting stuck rather than living dialectically?
Perhaps sometimes allowing ourselves to simply be will facilitate new opportunities for growth.
Shanah tovah. May this be a year of positive growth for all of us.