In his book The Big Leap, bestselling author and successful life coach Gay Hendricks outlines something he calls the Upper Limit problem. “Many people go through life,” he writes, “believing that they only deserve a certain amount of happiness and success. This is known as an ‘upper-limit mindset.’”
Hendricks writes that we all have an “inner thermostat setting” that determines the amount of love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. While it may seem a bit farfetched, consider this example. Have you ever had a feeling of sublime contentment and joy, and while in one of those moments suddenly notice a voice nagging you in the back of your mind? Maybe it starts wondering how your kids are doing at school, like it did for Hendricks when he had one such feeling of content. When this happened, Hendricks began to wonder why it is that in these moments people begin to also experience feelings of anxiousness or worry? His answer was the upper limit problem. He writes that our individual thermostat setting “usually gets programmed in early childhood. And, once programmed, our Upper-Limit thermostat setting holds us back from enjoying all the love…that’s rightfully ours.”
Part of how we overcome our upper limit problem is by beginning to learn how to notice the thoughts generated by our thermostat’s false rhetoric and learn to appreciate them for what they are — safety mechanisms keeping us in a comfortable space. While Hendricks’ introspective solution is incredible, another way to break beyond our upper limits may be to examine who we really are.
Rav Kook, the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and a revolutionary Jewish thinker, says this idea in his book Orot Israel. He writes, “Diminished faith and distance from supreme holiness comes because a person is not able to raise his self-worth to the point that he believes in his heart the great idea that he is worthy of divine greatness.”
For Rav Kook, the reason we limit ourselves from experiencing the true greatness of life is because we detach ourselves from an appreciation of a healthy self-perspective. He writes elsewhere, “When we forget the essence of our soul itself, when we are distracted from introspection, from the content of inner life, everything becomes confused and doubtful.” Rav Kook believes the key to overcoming the belief that we are not worthy of all that Hashem can or wants to give us, is to remember our essence, to turn inwards in introspection. As he writes in Orot HaKodesh, “Holiness does not fight against the self-love embedded deep within the soul of every living being, but rather it sets man in such a superior state.”
Rav Kook is saying that when we are in touch with our true selves, we will be freed of the upper limit problem, and then we can appreciate that we are worthy of pure good. But how exactly does that help? How does remembering our essence as souls really help us overcome our false beliefs which limit ourselves?
Rav Tzadok HaCohen, a Chasidic Master, says in his book Tzidkat HaTzadik that the entirety of the Torah can be summed up by the first and second commandment, “I’m the Lord your God and let there be no other gods for you.” He explains further in another one of his books, commenting
On the idea of Naase V’Nishma, that the whole notion of Am Israel accepting the Torah without knowing what was inside of it seems ridiculous. Yes, the Jewish nation was saved by Hashem, but at the end of the day why would they sign away their lives without even reading the contract? If someone saved you from a hardship and then asked you to sign a document which basically obligated you and all your progeny to do whatever they said, assuming you even considered the offer in the first place, wouldn’t you want to at least look at it first? He explains the reasoning by answering a question addressed by many Jewish philosophers.
They wonder, did the Avot (forefathers/patriarchs) keep the Torah? The question seems very odd at first seeing as to how the Torah hadn’t even been given yet, but the solution given by many is a radical change in how we see the Torah. One perspective is to see it as being outside of ourselves, something separate that must be incorporated into our psyche through hours of hard work and study. Rav Tzadok says that this may be the case today, but this was the antithesis of the way things were. He says that the Avot never had to go through this process because of the nature of their inherent spiritual awareness and closeness to God. He says that Jews have ingrained within them an inherent understanding of the Torah and the way it is applied to the world, this is part of our spirituality that is brought by our soul to the body-soul union that makes us who we are. At our core, he writes, we are naturally attuned to the will of God as expressed in the Torah. The Avot were naturally were aware of Torah and its contents through their spiritual awareness. Burned within each and every Jew is this natural appreciation for our relationship to God. The Zohar also says Hashem, the Torah, and Yisrael are one. One way to interpret this statement is that each and every Jew at his core, the same core which can glean the Torah by examining the world it was used to create, has a unique aspect of God inside of him. In the words of the Tania, the foundational document of the Chabad Chasidic movement, our souls are completely and totally a portion of God.
In the same vein, the Chasidic Master Meor Enayim asks: How do we come to know Hashem? He says you know Him by knowing yourself, each person according to their unique portion of God. Each of us has a nature which is completely unique and special which Hashem wants us to manifest in holiness. Rav Kook says in Zera Kadosh that everyone has this unique aspect of God inside of them. Through self-reflection on our unique personality and nature, that introspection Rav Kook said was the way to achieve self-love, we can come to appreciate how great we really are. If we truly believe that at our core, our very essence, the “I” we associate with, is a soul, then how can I not love myself? If we believe that we are more than our challenges, more than our failures, more than even our success and talents, then we can truly be on the path to self-love.
There is a school of psychological treatment called Internal Family Systems (IFS). The basic theory of this school of therapy is that the human mind is subdivided into an unknown number of parts. It believes that the interaction between all these different parts plays a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the person. However, one important belief of this school of thought is that each person has a Self, and the Self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family. In IFS therapy, the Self represents the seat of consciousness. The Self demonstrates many positive qualities such as acceptance, confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, connectedness, leadership, and perspective. Unlike visible parts, the Self is never seen. It is the witnessing “I” in the inner world — this aspect of an individual does the observing.
However even before IFS, Rebbe Nachman was trying to encourage this type of perspective. He writes in Likutei Maharan, at our core we are a soul, a part of ourselves which is unchanging. An exercise that Rabbi David Aaron, head of Isralight and Yeshivat Orayta, uses to highlight this perspective is to think about how the same “I” we experience now, is the “I” we experienced when we were 10 years younger, the same “I” we experienced when we were kids, and the same “I” we will experience when we grow older. This Self, described by IFS, is a core which may be a path to appreciating the ideas mentioned by Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook. As Rav Kook says, “I must find my happiness within myself…The more I will know myself, the more I allow myself to be original and stand on my own with an inner awareness combined with knowledge, emotion, poetry — the more the light of G-d will enlighten me and the more my strengths will evolve to become a blessing to me and the world.”
Each of us has our own unique soul — a part of God — that we are trying to manifest in holiness. The more we appreciate our own unique nature and aspect of God, the more we will gain the self-respect and love to appreciate how we are worthy of the greatness of the world always. This mirrors exactly what Gay Hendricks says is the result of overcoming the upper limit problem, “The goal in life is not to attain some imaginary ideal; it is to find and fully use our own gifts. The only relevant question is whether you will let it be possible for you.”
So how do we live that knowledge? How do we begin to move beyond ourselves and mature our understanding of who we are? One way comes from a classic Jewish story about the Hallel prayer said on Jewish holidays. On one of the days this prayer was being said, a student went to his rabbi and asked if there was one part of the prayer that he should be focusing on to ensure he received some much-needed help from God. The rabbi thought for a moment and responded saying focus on the part beginning with Ana Hashem, “Please God.” The issue was that there are two main places this formulation is used. Everyone who overheard this advice were arguing over which of the two the rabbi meant, please God save us or please God grant us success. The rabbi turned to them and said you are all wrong, there is a less prominent part where this formulation is used, namely, “Please God because I am your servant.” The message can be explained by a beautiful parable. A king once drafted a rule which stated that all craftsman would need to come to him in order to receive the tools they needed for their projects and every day the craftsman would wait in line to receive what they needed. A little while later the king hired an expert craftsman to build him a palace. When the expert came to the warehouse to receive his supplies, he skipped right to the front of the line. When inevitably all the craftsman waiting in line complained, they were told that since the expert was building a palace for the king he didn’t need to wait in line.
The message behind this story and the message the rabbi was trying to convey are one and the same. When we do things for ourselves, all we get from the results is our own satisfaction. However, when we do things for a higher purpose, even if they are the exact same action just with a different intention, then the benefits we reap are beyond anything we could have received if we did something for just ourselves. When we take a step beyond ourselves, we embrace something much bigger. Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes in Letters to a Buddhist Jew, “Expanding the sense of self to include another is the ultimate act of love…when the childish grasp of self as central…is relinquished, a deeper more subtle notion of self begins to replace it and the love of God can begin…the ultimate humility, sacrifice of the limited self for the expanded self, is the beginning of revealing the Divine…When I identify my own I with His…I have begun the spiritual Journey, and perhaps more than begun.”
When we step outside of ourselves and live for something greater, we can begin to appreciate what it means to really experience who we are. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live,” and while we all hope we never will have to face that fate, we all should know what we would apply this statement too. In his introduction to the book Shaarei Yosher, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, who died right before the Holocaust in 1939, speaks to this idea. He writes, “The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people.” What Rabbi Shkop is explaining is that the more we can live for something greater than just our limited self, the greater and greater we will become.
This idea was examined by researcher Monika Ardelt in her paper Self-Development Through Selflessness: The paradoxical Process of Growing Wiser. She asks, drawing from people such as Ghandi and the Buddha portrayed in Eastern traditions, “How can we explain the paradox that the highest level of self-development requires a quieting of the ego and the transcendence of the self?” Her answer speaks to everything we have been saying, “A dialectical relationship exists between selflessness and self-knowledge insofar that only individuals who know who they are can over come their self-centeredness.” Ardelt asserts that only those who have truly explored their unique nature — as we would say, the unique godliness inside of each and every person — and reached some appreciation for themselves, can begin to grow and reach the highest level of self-actualization. Only those who know themselves can move beyond themselves. When we begin to live from a soul perspective, a perspective always focused on discovering our own inner nature and connecting that to God, that is when we can truly begin to become holier, kinder, and more godly people and allow ourselves to feel all the love and goodness that comes along with doing that.