Excerpt

Introduction

 

Several years ago I was asked to be on a panel of psychologists discussing how to deal more effectively with stress, anxiety, family tensions, and career difficulties. Since a few of my books have explored Jewish spiritual methods for personal growth and mindfulness (a word that means responding with more consciousness and compassion to challenging situations), the panel facilitator asked me:

“Do you think Jews tend to be anxious?”
I said, “Is the Pope Catholic?”

The Upside and Possible Downside of Angst

 

Anyone (from any ethnicity or background) can feel anxious or overloaded at times. But those of us who are Jews (whether you are very Jewish, somewhat Jewish, or barely Jewish) tend to have an extra dose of anxiety and pressure that we carry in our nerves and our hearts. (You may have noticed that nearly every Jewish holiday boils down to three things: they tried to kill us, they failed, now let’s eat! Or that a Jewish student in high school or college with a report card of all A’s and one B is likely to be asked by his or her parent, “So…what’s with the B?”)

 

I hope I didn’t make you more anxious just now about being both Jewish and anxious. Psychological studies have shown that a moderate amount of stress and anxiety can be a good thing because it wakes us up pro-actively to challenges we need to deal with and it motivates us to take action. It has been shown that the moderately-anxious person, who can anticipate and deal with tough situations ahead of time, quite often does much better than the anxiety-free person who stays too long in a numbing state of denial. The person who uses anxious thoughts and feelings as an early-alert wake-up call to become more creative and resourceful is going to be far more successful in all sorts of situations where the spaced-out, clueless, or dismissive individual is at a disadvantage.

 

Yet these same research studies reveal the important fact that too much unrelenting stress and worry can become a chronic drain on our energy, which can jeopardize our health and our resilience. Forcing your kishkas (your intestines), your nerve endings, and your lungs to put up with an intense daily dose of worry and angst day after day, year after year, is likely to cause physical and emotional symptoms. Numerous research studies have shown that chronic stress or a frequent feeling of “I’m drowning and I can’t catch up to what’s on my ‘To Do’ list” or “I’ll never be secure or relaxed” can provoke all sorts of skin problems, muscle aches, digestive problems, sleep problems, mood swings, as well as some very serious physical ailments and chronic conditions.

Finding the Right Tools

 

What can be done to shift the way you (or someone you care about who is quite anxious) can begin to deal more effectively with the stress and overload that are a definite part of one’s life each day and each week? Is there something that can help you feel more fully alive and less dragged down by all that is on your packed schedule?

 

For more than thirty years, I’ve been counseling good people—men and women from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds—who have very busy lives and many conflicting demands on their time and energy. They usually come to therapy to deal with a troubled relationship, a frustrating career situation, a painful loss or tragedy, or a desire to reconnect with some aspect of their unique soul that has been held back or pushed aside for too long.

 

In addition, most people come to therapy to pick up practical and useful clues and insights on how to live each day with more creativity and wisdom, or how to juggle the various responsibilities and demands on your time and energy. My job as a therapist is to explore with each individual client a variety of specific life-enhancing tools that can help him or her respond much better to whatever stresses and tough decisions arise on any given day. We often can’t control the tough situations that pop up in our busy lives, but we can do a much better job of responding to these situations with a much stronger sense of compassion, resilience, and higher perspective.

 

The book you are about to read is a brief collection of quick and powerfully effective tools that you can utilize immediately in the middle of a rough day or a complicated, demanding moment to make sure you are bringing out your best and not falling back into old habits of impatience, reactivity, or grumpiness. Rather than you getting twisted up during an important but stressful moment, these accessible tools can help you experience a much greater sense of personal effectiveness and excellent decision-making in situations that formerly knocked you on your butt or caused you to feel frustrated and unsupported.

A Personal Note

 

Like many people, I didn’t know when I was growing up what might be the best methods for dealing with tough situations. There were a number of challenging moments during my early years that definitely were beyond what I knew how to handle.

 

For example, I began to realize at a young age that there was a cloud of lingering pain and fear in my family. My European-born father had barely survived the Holocaust and he lost most of his relatives in the concentration camps. We tried not to bring up the past because we could sense how much pain it caused my hard-working father. But sometimes at the dinner table when I didn’t finish all my vegetables, I would be told that I was “letting down the six million who died.” Only later did I fully understand the impact of those words—that somehow any slip-up on my part might unintentionally dishonor the millions of souls who had perished during those nightmarish years.

 

My mother was born in the United States, in a more secure situation, but when I was ten years old she was diagnosed with cancer and she spent the next four years dealing with brutal chemotherapy side-effects, intense mood swings, and progressively declining health until she died when I was fourteen.

 

My mom was only 46—a highly-intelligent woman who never got the chance to live her dreams. It was so clear at every family gathering from then on that each of her loved ones (especially her parents, her widowed husband, her siblings, and my sister and I) felt devastated to lose her.

 

Not knowing how to successfully process these and many other painful dilemmas during my early years, I found that I had acquired by the time I reached 23 years old a variety of physical symptoms and internal distress. Since I’m a guy (and guys are not supposed to ask for help or directions, even when they feel a bit lost), I thought I should just keep it all inside and keep plugging away at life. But I realized in my mid-20’s that my first long-term relationship was not going well and my first choice of career had turned out to be somewhat of a detour from my deeper calling.

 

I remember waking up one morning at the age of 24 and wondering, “Is this how it’s going to be from now on—a life of inner agitation, painful disappointments, and just going through the motions without much joy or sense of purpose? Or is there another way?”

 

That was the year when I began to search for and put into practice some of the resilience methods and refocusing techniques that eventually turned my life around. I learned about and tested in real-life situations numerous possible methods before I began to rely on a few extremely effective tools that have worked consistently whenever I remembered to use them immediately in the middle of a tough situation.

 

I am extremely thankful that I’ve had the chance to learn from many compassionate and wise women and men on what works and what doesn’t work for becoming much healthier and more fully alive even during tough days and stressful weeks. I am still seeking and learning. But every day of my life I am grateful to have found some highly-useful tools for dealing far more effectively with the stresses that still arise in my career, my family responsibilities, several volunteer activities, and being a constantly involved parent of a vulnerable child with special needs whom I love dearly.

 

Once I realized that these particular, easy-to-learn tools worked consistently in my own life, I began to offer them to some of my counseling clients who expressed an interest in alternative methods for dealing with stress and overload. The seven tools you will learn in the seven chapters of this book have already helped thousands of women and men I have counseled since I became a licensed psychologist in my mid-30’s and when I later studied to become a spiritual direction mentor in my mid-40’s.

 

I can’t name names, but I can tell you that the creative and smart women and men who were referred to me for counseling sessions and who have tested out these particular methods as a result of our one-on-one confidential conversations included:

 

  • numerous rabbis, cantors, pastoral counselors and adult education teachers from a variety of denominations who wanted to learn more about how to combine psychology and spirituality for dealing with stress and overload.
  • spouses and children of clergy who wanted to find creative ways to deal with the pressures of living in a fish bowl.
  • many individuals who were moderately or strongly religious or spiritual, and who wanted to learn alternative methods for dealing with tough situations and busy schedules.
  • a number of women and men who would not call themselves religious or spiritual, because they had felt alienated from organized religion, but they were still a bit curious about a non-judgmental spiritual approach that wasn’t dogmatic or rigid.

 

Each of these individuals has given me feedback on which tools they found most effective and which methods were easiest to utilize during life’s most stressful moments.  I appreciate how honest and genuine my diverse counseling clients have been at teaching me which methods work beautifully and which methods need to be discarded from the menu of choices.

What About You and Your Loved Ones?

 

As you think about your own life and the life of your closest family members and friends, have you ever wondered:

  • Is there a better and more satisfying way to deal with the frustrations and time pressures you or a loved one have been experiencing at work, in your family, or in your efforts to make a difference in the world?
  • Is there a lingering sense of inner agitation or impatience that eats away at you or a loved one (or that leaks out every so often at people you live with or work with)?
  • Is there some fear, sadness, or old habit that is holding you or a loved one back from your fullest potential?
  • Is there an unmet longing in your soul for something profound or meaningful that is more fulfilling than the same-old routines you (or certain family members or friends) have been putting up with lately?
  • Is there a particular person or a particular situation in your life recently that tends to bring out your indecisiveness, your short fuse, or your inability to follow through on what you know in your heart you wish you could do?

Where These Tools Came From

 

I had thought in my mid-20’s when I went back to graduate school to complete a PhD in Counseling Psychology that the best solutions for stress and anxiety would probably come from my psych professors and from the science of psychology. But instead I have found during the past 35 years of studying with numerous teachers and health practitioners that the most useful and accessible tools for daily resilience and being more fully alive have come from a difference source—from my research into the profound methods of Jewish spirituality which I have tested out in my own life and with many of my counseling clients over these years. I am still a psychologist who loves science, but I am also someone who loves the usefulness and profound wisdom of the stress remedies and healing options that come from Jewish spirituality.

 

Whether you are Jewish or non-Jewish, quite religious, not-very-religious, or somewhat alienated from religion at the moment, you can test out each of these powerful remedies for yourself in your daily life and see if they work for you (or if they can help someone you care about who is struggling lately with stress or feelings of overload).

What to Expect

 

In each of the seven short chapters that follow, you will learn in depth about one particular life-enhancing tool per chapter.   Not only will you understand where these tools come from and how they work in daily real-life situations, but you will discover for yourself whether or not they make an impact on the quality of your health, your vitality, and your most important work and personal relationships.   For example:

 

  • In Chapter One (“Reconnecting with the Nourishing Breath of Life”), you will discover a deeply spiritual method from ancient Jewish writings for boosting your energy, clarity and creativity during especially stressful moments. It not only improves your breathing and health, but also shifts your perspective and insightfulness to a higher plane.
  • In Chapter Two (“Opening Your Heart Even When You’re Feeling Impatient”), you will experience a quick and powerful way to expand your compassion, receptivity and responsiveness exactly at the moments when you are starting to shut down, tune out, or harden your heart. Derived from both ancient and modern Jewish teachings, this powerful method for healing inner turmoil will not only benefit your own well-being but will make a significant difference in how you work through the tensions you have with people in your personal life, at work, or in your volunteer activities.
  • In Chapter Three (“Finding a Healthy Balance in Situations that Used to Rattle You”), there will be a chance to turn each tough decision, dilemma or competing demand on your time into a breakthrough moment where you find the best possible balance between being either too nice or too tough. Whether you are parenting a child, caring for an aging family member, dealing with intense situations at work, or trying to repair some part of the world, this very accessible Kabbalistic method for balancing compassion and firmness will give you a new level of clarity and mindfulness.
  • In Chapter Four (“Addressing the Fears and Pressures that Constrict You”), you will be given the opportunity to practice a quick meditation technique that is several centuries old but has enormous practicality and inspiration for those who are using it in the 21st century. Based on the mystical teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a Hasidic master in the 18th century, this centering phrase can shift the way you see anxiety-provoking situations and turn a feeling of overwhelm into a renewed sense of resilience and strength.
  • In Chapter Five (“Treating Your Body with Greater Understanding and Care”), you will gain practice on how to use Jewish mantras for relaxing your body, recharging your energy, and restoring your body’s healing potential even when you are under a lot of pressure or juggling several important responsibilities on the same day.
  • In Chapter Six (“Exploring Inner Repair and Outer Repair”), you will find a few moments each day when you will be able to do something quick and mindful that takes important steps to repair either a wound you have inside yourself or a brokenness that you see in the world. Rather than feeling rushed, overloaded or frustrated by the many challenging things you encounter from your Inner Work and Outer Work, you will then be able to feel a sense of slow-but-steady progress. This shift in perspective and effectiveness will come as a result of learning and utilizing a powerful tool from Jewish teachings that are 2,000 years old but extremely relevant today.
  • In Chapter Seven (“Enjoying Mini-Sabbaticals Each Day and Each Week”), you will begin to experiment with Jewish methods for letting go for a few minutes each day or for several hours each weekend so that you can see your life, your loved ones, and the world around you with new eyes. There are some amazing breakthroughs that can happen for your health and your aliveness when you try out these ancient and modern practices for transitioning from intense activity to nourishing relief and then back again. Your body, your mind, and your spirit will thank you for learning how to find the right balance of working hard and letting go each day and each week.
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