Sunday, November 20, 2011

Catharsis on Paper

A recent paper I wrote for one of my college Psychology courses:

Judaism has always been a religion of positive focus, its adherents finding inventive ways to infuse their service with joy, meaning, and fervor. It is taught that through honest, selfless worship of God, one can simultaneously elevate the mundane through divine service as he transcends his physical trappings in spiritual bliss. Perhaps more so than other religions, Judaism takes pains to ensure that humans – not just constituents of the faith – live a life of pleasantness, compassion, and ultimately happiness.
Similarly, Psychology has a focus on health and wellbeing. For a while, the zeitgeist focused on the pathological aspects of the psyche, focusing on abnormalities, mental illness, and other negative characteristics that crop up in the field. However, both the field’s philosophical beginnings as well as its shifting focus of research have been that of helping others achieve healthier lifestyles and mindsets. Indeed, even during that era of psychopathology, it is self evident that the original intent and subsequent efforts of therapy, psychoanalysis, and other innovations were with the goal of returning the patient to an point of origin beyond sickness, on the road to health. As such, the field has grown rich with many interventions, designed to help people cope, adjust, heal and determine the best possible path in life.
The Importance of Language
In both Judaism and Psychology, there is a primacy placed on language. The way we give expression to feelings, thoughts, and emotions, as well as our conceptualization of many different ideas and theories is contingent on the common language that we share. It is as integral a tool for the rabbi sermonizing to his congregation as it is for the therapist establishing a rapport with his client; coreligionists and colleagues alike rely on the jargon of their respective communities, yet strive to find the words to make it accessible for the “outsider” or layman, when necessary. Language allows us to reify the abstract, to clearly delineate and define our magnificent ideas into something coherent and structured.
Ultimately, language bestows us with the power to create; every instance of speech or communication is a creative process that we tap into, usually unaware of the amazing power that we yield. Practically speaking: using language we can build bridges between people, and perhaps more importantly, inroads into our selves.
Most of therapy is predicated on some sort of communication; the same can be said about religious worship. While it often seems as if the dialogue is one-sided, there is an inherent belief in both instances that there is a reciprocal relationship occurring, albeit in a more nuanced fashion. Beyond the dynamics of the sessions themselves, however, is the utilization of the written word as a helpful, effective intervention with various applications.
Writing as a Cognitive, Behavioral Practice
Psychologist Martin Seligman has written extensively about the positive effect of writing exercises. One of his innovations is “gratitude writing”, in which the client makes a list at the end of the day of all of the good things that happened to him or her throughout the day. Seligman stresses that when it comes to these exercises, nothing is too small or insignificant, but rather the person should strive to remember and record each positive occurrence, along with why he or she thinks such a thing happened (e.g. “My wife pressed my shirts the way I like them today.” and “She did this because she is a thoughtful, caring person.”). The effect of this exercise is twofold: it trains one to view the world, and others in a good light. Seligman also exhorts the practitioner to keep a physical record of the list (Seligman, 2011): the writing itself is of equal importance, due to its role in the habituation of the practice, as well as the creative awareness that writing engenders.
A parallel practice exists in Judaism as well. Hasidic thought – especially that of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov – is preoccupied with focusing on the positive elements of life. The inherent joy that can be found in our existential roles in the physical realm is a main tenet of Hasidic philosophy, and most of the practices associated with Hasidism reflect this sensitivity. Rabbi Nachman in particular battled the human tendency toward depression by preaching the necessity of finding the “good point” (nekuda tova) in every person – most all, the good point within one’s self. That infinitesimal spark of goodness – hidden in even the most depraved, wretched being, mired with the filth of sin – can be found, cultivated, and blown into a raging fire of holy passion that resuscitates the soul of that person. That is the deeper meaning of the verse in Psalms: “I will sing to God with what I have left.” (146:2) To wit: with that small part of what is left of the Godly soul, the sinner rapturously clings to it and returns to God (Sternhartz).
Utilizing the above teaching, Grand Rabbi Aryeh Wohl of Sudilkov (based in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel), a contemporary Hasidic teacher, has designed a similar – yet unique - practice to Seligman’s. Here is an excerpt from a student who received instruction from the Sudilkover rebbe (explanations and translation of terms mine):
The Rebbe then advised me to get a notebook and draw lines down the pages and divide them into three columns. In the first column, I was to record things that I did good [sic] that day; to include even small things like washing negel vasser (ritual hand washing upon arising from sleep) in the morning upon arising. In the second column, I was to record the challenges and nisyonos (Hebrew for “challenge” or “test”) that I experienced that day. This was to include things such as occurrences when I failed to maintain my composure and expressed my anger. Finally, in the third column I was to record examples of Hashem's chasadim (kindnesses) that I observed that day.

The Rebbe instructed to read what I had written down out loud before I said Krias Shema al HaMita each night… (Anonymous, 2007)
After several weeks of carefully following the instruction of his teacher, the student observes with pleasant surprise:
…Each night my list of good points and the list of chasadim grew longer and longer and my list of challenges/nisyonos grew shorter and shorter. The process of having to be conscious each day to write something down made me stop and think at intervals throughout the day. What am I doing good today? What am I not doing good today? (Anonymous, 2007)
As with Seligman’s intervention, Rabbi Wohl’s methodology helps the practitioner build up a sense of self efficacy, allows the person to place matters in a proper positive perspective, and increases the cognizance of one’s actions in day-to-day dealings. People who engage in these sorts of exercises will seek opportunities to find the good in daily occurrences. They will be more aware of the consequences of their actions when they recognize that they will have to make an accounting at the end of the day. This is in line with the Jewish concept of cheshbon haNefesh (“accounting of the soul”), a similar exercise wherein one keeps extensive, detailed records of nearly every action and thought that he had, with the intention of examining these records at the end of the day to discern the areas of his character refinement that require attention.
Structure Building Exercises
The above ideas can be adapted for nearly anything. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira of Piaseczna, a Hasidic Rabbi who lived (and perished) in Poland during the Holocaust, wrote a masterful volume geared toward young students. The book, A Student’s Obligation (Chovat HaTalmidim, Warsaw 1929) is replete with behavioral (as well as cognitive) exercises designed to help the youth overcome such common deficiencies like laziness, poor planning skills, lack of commitment, and inefficient task completion. He too emphasizes the importance of writing things down:
It is beneficial to write out a schedule for yourself on a sheet of paper, starting with the time you wish to get up in the morning and continuing with all your activities. Use the sheet as a reference, checking back during the day to see if you have accomplished what you set out to do. (Shapira, 1995)

While the rebbe's target audience for the book was yeshiva (Rabbinical seminary) age students, and thus he mentions this in the context of learning sessions and finding spare time for extra study sessions, the rebbe clearly saw the value in this technique for people in all walks of life:

Whether you are in yeshiva or not, the schedule of study that you set for yourself should be followed to the minute. You should get to the point that if for some reason you are not able to complete a period of learning, you should feel pained, as if the day itself remained uncompleted....
Each day, make it a practice to check yesterday's schedule. What you did not complete yesterday, you should attempt to complete today. You should only do this, however, if you were unable to finish because of laziness or lack of diligence. If you were thrown off schedule because of a difficult passage...then you should not force yourself to complete [what] you missed yesterday.
The whole idea of keeping to a quantitative schedule is to discipline yourself to learn crisply and without meandering. (Shapira, 1995)
While it is clear that the rebbe's focus was on Torah study, his advice can be applied to the totality of the day. The carefully mapped out day will more often than not yield far better results in accomplishment than the haphazard approach to our busy lives. Moreover, it introduces the concept of discipline into everyday operations, which generates consistency, an important ingredient to a healthy lifestyle. There are varying degrees to the stricture of your structure; some people may prefer an outline as opposed to a minute-to-minute checklist. As with everything, it has to be done with a keen sense of self awareness and intellectual honesty.
This suggestion also lends itself finely to the idea of cheshbon haNefesh, as explained above: at the end of the day, one can refer back to his schedule and see how he did. As he starts to sort through the day's events, determining what held him back here, why he dragged his feet at that point, etc. that will aid him in recalling the particularities of the day, and his interactions with people. This segues perfectly into a real, honest soul-searching, which is Rabbi Shapira’s ultimate intent.
Writing as Therapy
Perhaps one of the most important elements of writing is the therapeutic nature of writing. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing – all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” As we mentioned earlier, the process of writing is no less than a creative act, one in which we conceive an idea and carry it within us until it is ready to emerge into the world. The “birth process” – fleshing out an idea and putting it out into the common reality we share with others is simultaneously painful and exhilarating. By giving voice to our passions, our hopes, even our fears, we proclaim our existence to the world and lend credence to our innermost thoughts by acknowledging them openly. Moreover, the very act of writing may assist in relieving tension by serving as an outlet for strong emotions, the medium serving as a “safe” forum for expression. Those thoughts that are too provocative, frightening, or hurtful to be shared with another person can be let out in a private journal. The writing process is a pressure valve, an opportunity for catharsis that is almost unparalleled.
Returning to Rabbi Shapira for a moment, he offers another daring intervention based on this principle. At the end of the ninth chapter, the rebbe addresses the issue of reconciling with an enemy with whom the mutual hate is so great that you simply cannot find any redeeming qualities in this person:
This is what you should do. Write him a letter. Don't send it to him; hide it somewhere in your home. In the letter, insult and shame him as much as the serpent of anger in your heart desires. For some days, read the letter aloud, and imagine that you are standing in front of him, taunting and abusing him with all the expressions of the letter. After some days, you will find your anger has dissipated, and if you are a sensitive person, you may discover yourself running to reconcile with him. (Shapira, 1995)
More than an act of catharsis, the rebbe's advice shows a profound quality in our nature. After pouring out all the venomous feelings and thoughts about this person into this composition, the student is encouraged to reread it every few days. Despite the fact that in the heat of the moment he was able to pen such hateful, hurtful words, a few days later those words will seem to be alien and foreign, and he will have a hard time believing that we actually wrote them.
With every subsequent reading, the student will observe "Wow, I was being pretty harsh. He's not like that all the time..." and he will begin to see flaws in his hateful view of this person. Moreover, he will begin to find ways to counter the arguments made in the letter, and find redeeming qualities in this fellow as he subsequently revisits the letter. Eventually, the feelings of hate and anger will have been replaced by a powerful desire to reconcile with this person, and like Rabbi Shapira asserts, he will run to make peace with him.
Writing allows one to work through a problem, to record all the different factors swirling around in his thoughts and categorize them, and give him something to work with. When ideas are brought into the practical realm, it makes them more manageable to deal with – and a lot less scary.
Writing as Legacy
Writing serves another important function: the giving others a part of one’s self, preserved for posterity. Writing provides an opportunity to bestow on others an intellectual legacy, his curriculum vitae that can be passed on to subsequent generations of family members, students, and general audiences. Lord Byron wrote: “But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.” Giving the world works that inspire creativity, that challenge people to consider (and reconsider) their tightly held notions, that encourages people to imagine something larger than themselves is an important value for many. Writing helps them achieve this goal and reach the greatest amount of people.


Neil Harris said...

I hope the paper was well received.
Loved this post for a number of reasons.

"Write down all your inner struggles, your setbacks and successes, and grant them eternal life. This way your very essence, the personality of your soul, your spiritual attainments, your life's inner treasures, will live on forever in the lives of your spiritual heris as generations come and go." - Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira zt"l, the Piaseczno Rebbe from Tzav V'Ziruz - The Rebbe's personal diary

redsneakz said...

And just to show that the Torah indeed has 70 faces, I derive the same lessons regarding having a positive approach to one's life from the Tanya. This was a beautiful paper. Thanks for sharing it.

Shmuel said...

Thanks for the positive feedback!