Why don’t we do what we know is good for us?

We Jews just finished the month of Elul which constitutes a time of t’shuvah before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. T’shuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” although this is a poor semantic representation for the Jewish concept. The process of t’shuvah, at its core, is a return to self, to our inner truths – the word in Hebrew, תשובה‎ – literally means, “return.” T’shuvah is the return to the things we know to be true, to be valuable for us, to be healthy for us, but for some reason, we cannot embrace. Professor and popular author, Brené Brown, says that it is because of our difficulty with being vulnerable that we always focus our discussions on “what is good for us,” and not “what is getting in the way of us doing what is good for us.” CNN’s daily feed is filled with articles highlighting “the ten best foods to eat” or “how to get that perfect beach body.” It’s far more difficult to personally confront why we don’t embrace what is good for us. That’s uncomfortable. Instead, we focus our attention elsewhere thinking that it is merely a lack of knowledge that keeps us stuck. If only we knew the perfect way of living, we think. Yet most of us already know what is true, what is good for us. We don’t need countless articles to tell us what we know already. The question then is what gets in the way of us doing what is good for us? This question is at the root of t’shuvah. T’shuvah is the process of uncovering those walls and barriers that distance us from G-d or from our soul (or from our inner self and reality if you prefer different terms). We pile layers and filters upon reality that keeps us from seeing things as they actually are. Our ego, our defensiveness, our fears, and our preconceptions all color and distort our clarity. The 12th-century Jewish scholar, Maimonides, discusses how, when the process of Tshuva is fully embraced, “sin,” or, in Hebrew, “chet,” naturally falls away. The term chet appropriately translates, not to sin in the Christian and Western view of the word, but rather to anything that distances us from G-d, truth, or that inner knowing of what is true and good (intuition, perhaps). T’shuvah is the return, the closure of that distance, the rebuilding of the relationship. It makes sense then that properly performed t’shuvah has us relinquishing our chets with very little effort. When we truly return to our truth, there is no longer a desire to perform those actions that create distance. We don’t need to crush sin with the strength of our will or the power of our shame. We just let those unhelpful behaviors fall smoothly away with the power of awareness. By no means is it easy to cultivate awareness. But it is the proper source for our efforts.

This concept of awareness relates directly to both Buddhist and psychological concepts. Awareness is t’shuvah. Awareness is the process through which we return to our true selves. When we notice deeply what it is that keeps us from getting what we want, we see that it is our pain, fear, confusion, and guilt, resulting from past wounds, patterns, and perceptions. When we heal those wounds, we open ourselves up to actually getting what we know to be good for us. How many of us truly want love and connection with others yet consistently find our own egos, fears, defensiveness, and insecurities placing walls that make us feel lonely and disconnected? How many of us want to feel healthy, happy, and productive yet find our fear of failure or our feelings of inadequacy constantly getting in the way? We know what we want, yet we serve as our own blocks. When we summon up courage and truly confront our pain and sadness, we build our awareness, and thus our freedom. We are not free when we are governed by our reactiveness and egocentric attitudes. We are free when we can see what we want and overcome our fears and insecurities to obtain them. The Sioux First Nation has a saying: “the longest distance in the world is from the head to the heart.” When we notice the complex internal patterns that create this distance between what we want (our hearts) and what we do (our heads), we close that distance. When we turn awareness on how and why we are creating this distance, we bring our hearts and heads closer together. 

Judaism teaches too that what distances us the most from this inner knowing, from our souls, is desire. Rabbi Doniel Katz presents this concept well in his lessons. Desire distances us from our inner value – our self-worth that depends not on what we do or how much money we make or how much we succeed, but rather on our being human. Desire, whether for success or sex or money or the perfect body or perfection tells us that we will be valuable when…when we have what we desire. At times we get what we desire and feel momentarily whole, happy, valuable. But even this temporary achievement simply uncovers a whole host of other and greater desires. More often than not, our desires are abstract and unobtainable. “Success” is elusive and one can strive one’s whole life in pursuit of such an ephemeral goal, never obtaining it and never permitting oneself to feel one’s true value. Rabbi Nachman refers to this as being asleep. We are asleep as long as we are chasing our desires. We are asleep as long as our inner value is dependent on the obtainment of outside desires. On Rosh Hashanah, we make the difficult and introspective attempt to wake up.

Rosh Hashanah presents the idea that the most effective way of achieving change and t‘shuvah is through self-compassion. To be human is to struggle to create harmony between mind and heart. Thus, times when we “miss the mark,” aren’t moments to berate ourselves or judge ourselves. They’re moments that demand the utmost self-compassion. If we truly see our patterns and the pain and fears that distance us from truth and knowing, then we feel great empathy towards ourselves over this loss. We understand that our shortcomings result not from our inadequacies, but from our humanness, from our pain. We do not berate a child who skins their knee and sits on the ground crying. When we understand this truth about ourselves, we cultivate in ourselves empathy and nonjudgement for others as well. Because even those actions of others that we find hurtful or offensive are likely made in pain and fear. 

It is true that we will constantly recreate the circumstances that represent our greatest challenges. We can think about this psychologically or spiritually. Psychologically, our brains create patterns, and until we are aware of those patterns, they are recreated again and again in our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we have had broken relationships in the past, we will consistently recreate those broken relationships again and again until we go through a process of healing, whether through therapy or other forms. Spiritually, G-d (or the universe) continues to present us with the same situation until we learn the lesson we’re meant to learn. We will consistently encounter the same challenges until we perform t’shuvah. What this means is that life is one great learning opportunity. Every moment of pain or anxiety, anger or sadness, distancing from our known truths or distancing from those we love, is an opportunity for growth. It is an opportunity for t’shuvah, for awareness, for returning to ourselves. 

It is our birthright to feel whole, to feel valuable, to feel calm and clear and content. T’shuvah is our return to this state. It is our opportunity to once and for all understand why it is so very difficult for us to be who we want to be. When our barriers feel enormous and unconquerable, remember that all we ever have to do is be awake. T’shuvah is simply the process of waking up. 

May we all enter into this coming year with our eyes open and our hearts and minds close. 

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