By Andrew Kahn
By the time I was eight years old, familial discord had caused me great shame and distress. I struggled in school. Both of my parents were liberal-minded and prided themselves in not being submissive to any external religious authority. They finally decided to separate after years of clashing. This exacerbated my feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Feeling like an outsider, I played the “class clown” in order to gain the attention I was craving. I also found temporary relief with binge-eating, which got more compulsory and solitary over time. I wanted to feel better, to come out from my sad isolation, but I could not control myself or my situation.
It was comforting to know that I could turn to food whenever I needed to deal with anxiety, fear, rejection, boredom, or loneliness—or just for enjoyment. The food became my “higher power” that I used to fill the many voids in my heart. My over-dependency made me seek more food, rather than secure the appropriate “ingredients” I needed in order to have a fulfilled life: stable and loving relationships, a purpose to live for, and clear moral guidelines to develop contentment and inner peace.
Eventually, it became clear to me that the strategy I was using was not working. Life too often felt like torture. How to gain self-control was a pressing question. I needed to keep my head above water. Nearing my wit’s end, I looked around for whatever was in reach that I might grab hold of as a life preserver. My mother practiced yoga, so I asked her to teach me. She also introduced me to a spiritual recovery fellowship. My father spent hours talking with me about psychology and philosophy, and eventually he gave me a book about meditation. I studied psychology in college and graduate school. While it seemed like a logical place to find answers regarding mental health, and also a means to earn an income, I found the answers to questions like “what is a healthy human being?” to be insufficient.
After making a significant commitment to a support group and immersing myself in the study and practice of yoga in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains, I deepened my connection to the tradition to which I was born but which had little understanding of—Judaism. With the help of compassionate teachers and role models, I embraced my faith. I found that the answers I had been seeking were within the teachings of Torah. This elevated my thinking and got me even more passionate about my purpose: to continue to come into greater alignment with the Loving Source of strength that I had learned to open up to. It became clear to me that my goal in life was to help others gain well-being and peace.
Let’s talk about (y)our current situation. Does it feel a little precarious? Do you feel like you are in harm’s way or like you are trapped, a stranger in a strange land? While in many ways we have it much better than our ancestors in Persia or Egypt, to a great extent we share their dilemma. Exile is not only a geographical condition but is a problem of our separation from G‑d and our purpose. To be alienated from your proper place in the world is unpleasant.
How do you deal with it? Like most people, you try hard to be “in control” of your life, but too often the outcome is a condition that controls you. There are a very limited number of things in this world that you actually have control over. To take control over what you can—yourself, your attitude, and your inner peace—you need an approach that is grounded in the truth of who you are here to be in the world.
If you or someone you love is experiencing some of the symptoms of exile—anxiety, insecurity, fear, headaches, physical tension and pain, disease, depression, obesity, relationship problems—then let’s utilize timeless principles that can be found in Torah to get back home. Sincere motivation, coupled with the right principles, will shed light on the necessary actions.
G‑d is the greatest source of love in the world. One of the ways that G‑d manifests love is by giving us a soul that forever remains connected to Him. Your soul (neshamah) wants only to do acts of goodness. It wants to extend love in a unique way. Because your body’s cravings for food, sex, and other sensory stimulations tend to compel you to pursue selfish desires, there is a battle raging within you. Let’s follow the convention of calling it the rider (neshamah) and the horse (yetzer ha’ra).
No matter how skilled one is at riding a bucking bronco, it is never a serene trot through the park. If you want your actions to be in harmony with and empowered by G‑d, you will need to exercise control over your deeds, words, and thoughts. To really take the reins means to gain control of the body. This is called self-control or self-mastery.
How? Recognize that you have a great helper on your side—G‑d—and to a large extent all of His love infused creation. The power in the world that we call love is both universal and intrinsic. Finding it within leads to greater selflessness and enlightenment. By moving towards love, we endeavor to share more of ourselves—our gifts, talents, and skills—with an eye towards bettering the lives of others.
Strive to discover your unique purpose for being here and wholeheartedly exercise your will to fulfill it. By leading this purpose-driven life, instead of running after selfish attachments, you will cultivate peace within yourself. You will move closer to others who are striving to do the same in their lives, and you will find new, more satisfying pleasures that are much more compatible with long-term peace. Start where you are and focus on doing what you can. Don’t be afraid of failure or slow progress; just keep practicing. v
© 2014 Andrew Kahn. All rights reserved.
Andrew Kahn is the director of the Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio in Cedarhurst. More on this topic can be found in his book, How to Be a Peaceful Presence: Finding Your Inner Peace. Order at www.peacefulpresence.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.