“Just Not Feeling It”
Essays 2020 / Finalists
In a generation heavily plagued by the desire for instant gratification, there is something everyone is still fighting for – Happiness. That elusive word so often spoken about, and so often misunderstood.
On a global scale, millions of dollars are spent on various methods in the pursuit of happiness. For so many, these are all but futile attempts. Happiness comes and goes so fleetingly. In a world filled with confusion and injustice, what then is the key to finding true and everlasting happiness?
I have chosen to discuss this idea using the tools Chassidus gives us. In today’s world, where self-help books sell in the millions and every other blogger or social media star offers inspiring tips for a better life, can we glean some insight from the Torah and Chassidus to really better our lives and feel genuinely happy?
Like almost everyone, this question was something I often pondered. Then I studied Chapter 12 of ‘The Tanya’ – the masterpiece of ‘The Alter Rebbe’ – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement. Throughout my youth, I often heard the classic mantra taught in Tanya that “The mind rules over the heart”. This was explained to me as a basic human level of self-control. Your heart may want one thing, and your mind tells you otherwise. Choose to act with your mind. Nothing too revolutionary here.
Then I was taught it again. It is well known that when writing ‘The Tanya’, the Alter Rebbe was very particular about every single word and letter written. The famous anecdote is told that he debated for hours over writing a word with the letter Vav or without it.
If the Alter Rebbe was merely talking about self control the way I previously understood it, he would have written “The mind rules over your actions”. That is self control. Upon seeing the wording that the Alter Rebbe uses – “The mind rules over the heart”, we must conclude that there is something deeper to be learnt.
The story mentioned in The Tanya to illustrate this idea is of a Chossid called Reb Moshe Maisels. During Napoleon’s war with Russia, Reb Maisels served as a translator for the French army. He was on a daring mission to attain a respected position in the French Army, and convey all that he learned to the Russians. Napoleon once walked into a meeting where Military officers were engaged in a heated debate on strategy for the upcoming battle. Napoleon didn’t recognize Reb Moshe Meisels and screamed ‘Who is this man? Is he a Russian spy?’ Napoleon then placed his hand over Reb Moshe’s heart to see if his heart would be racing from fear of being exposed. Reb Moshe immediately remembered the principle of “The mind rules over the heart,” and with the incredible power of his mind was able to control the fearful feeling in his heart, thus his heartbeat was at normal speed and he was calm.
The Alter Rebbe later adds that this is not something we need to actively do, it is not something to work on or try hard at, it is our inborn state. Our mind naturally rules our heart. Our emotions are constantly checking in with the mind to see how they should be feeling. They look to the mind for agreement. When they receive an answer of clarity from the mind, they happily comply. The emotion is the child of the intellect, and like a child, it is looking for a guide, for a direction and an answer. If the mind has clarity, the heart complies. When the message from the mind is an unbreakable commitment to something or someone, then the emotion doesn’t argue.
This understanding changes everything, for several reasons. Firstly, the knowledge that whatever I may be feeling now is coming from just a thought, stops emotions from building up to become this unbreakable wall. No emotion is real and everlasting because they all stem from a thought which can change from one second to the next. Just knowing this alone is empowering. A moment of anger doesn’t have to lead to a bad day, or week. If I am aware that my feeling right now stems from a thought that can change in a minute, then this feeling is temporary. It’s not something I will always be feeling or am stuck feeling. Just like my thoughts, it is fluid.
Secondly, with this understanding, we can address our feelings before they even happen. We often let our emotions get the better of us and build up until they feel too big to live with. This can be feelings of anger, sadness or resentment that seem to take over our rational thinking. When we understand that these emotions don’t stem from any single act, but actually come from our thinking we can address it. I can divert thoughts of anger before they ever become anger itself. By dealing with the root, which is always the thought behind it, the feeling itself will shrink before it manifests in behaviour.
Another thing becomes evidently clear when we understand this. Nowadays, the most valid and unarguable excuse for anyone who doesn’t want to push themselves to do something is – “I’m just not feeling it”. Why should I do something when I don’t feel like it? This can be with regard to spirituality- “ I don’t feel spiritual so why pray?” or it can even manifest in day-to-day life- “I don’t feel happy right now so why smile or say good morning?”.
When we acknowledge our power to control our emotion via thought, this argument loses all basis. There is no such thing as a feeling (or lack thereof) coming from nowhere. Feelings come from thoughts. So whilst “I’m just not feeling it” has no solution, the real problem- “I’m just not thinking it” is simple to help. Start thinking about it! If I am not motivated to do something, it’s not due to any feeling, rather due to my mind not holding that thing in high esteem. If it would, my emotions would follow suit.
Lastly, and arguably the most powerful tool this explanation gives us is that no circumstance in life ever defines how you feel. Your thoughts do. No situation in life, no matter how hard or painful can rule over your emotions. Only your mind can do that. So regardless of circumstance, you choose how you feel. In times of crisis, this can be a lifeline. I have all the inner strength I need to get through whatever may be, as long as I think I do.
This brings a story to mind.There was once a family travelling to New York to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R`Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with a stopover in Detroit. Their flight experienced severe delays and eventually their flight from Detroit to New York was cancelled. They would be stuck in the airport in Detroit indefinitely. They were highly irritated by the situation and wrote a letter to the Rebbe expressing this. The Rebbe sent them a letter in response. In it, he replied something to the effect of “a Jew is never stuck! You think your flight got cancelled so you ended up in Detroit. It’s the other way around! G-d wants you to be in Detroit, so your flight got cancelled!”
The family, inspired by the Rebbe’s words, spent their time in Detroit meeting and reaching out to other Jews, forging life-changing, long-lasting friendships. Their mood, attitude and behaviour towards the whole situation was changed as soon as their mind took control with this changed perspective.
This idea is expressed in a famous Chassidic mantra “Think good and it will be good” This isn’t just a catchy slogan. This is reality. Your thoughts will be how you feel. If you are thinking positive, so therefore feeling positive, how can your reality be any different? It will actually be positive!
In the Maamer, Margela bePumei deRava, 5746, The Rebbe mentions a story where the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Tzemech Tzedek, told this to a man struggling with physical health problems, and indeed when he changed his thoughts, his physical situation improved! The Rebbe goes on to say in that Maamer, if this is so with physical problems, how much more so with Spiritual!
So the key is the mind. The key to feeling, action and reality is the mind. Hence the name Chabad Chassidus, (Chabad is the Hebrew acronym for “Wisdom, Intellect and Understanding Three faculties of the mind”). Not only is our service of God through intellect, through learning His wisdom, and studying the Torah. Our entire life, our attitude to others, to ourselves, our outlook on the world are representations of our thoughts.
Our thoughts then, hold a lot of power. So what should we think about? What thoughts and perspectives are conducive to healthy emotions? The world around us constantly chants “be positive!” But why? What gives us the motivation to serve our creator with joy? To be truly happy?
The revolution of the leader of Chassidus, Rabbi Yisroel Bal Shem Tov was that our service of God needs to be out of happiness. As explained by Chabad Chassidus, this happiness comes through the mind. Through deep contemplation on how great G-d is. Then, once I am awed by the Almighty, I contemplate how much love He holds for such a small creation like me. Lastly, I comprehend the mission He has entrusted me with. I see myself and everything in the world around me, as an emissary of the Divine.
There is a famous story along these lines. The students of Rabbi Yisroel Bal Shem Tov, were notorious for their joy in life and breaking out in song and dance. Someone once asked the Bal Shem tov, why his students acted so bizarre. The Bal shem Tov answered with a parable. Imagine a town corner with a musician playing lively music. All those who gather around can’t help but dance along. Slowly a small crowd of dancing people have gathered. A deaf man walks by and is shocked by the scene. He thinks that all the townspeople have gone mad, jumping up and down in the streets for no reason.
So too, the Bal Shem Tov explained, Chassidim can’t help their feelings of happiness when they experience every single thing around them as a tool to be used in service of G-d. Everything is Divine. Should they hold back their feelings of joy, just because there are those with less sensitive ears?
When we are able to train our thoughts to see the world as pieces of the Divine puzzle, nothing can get in our way. As our sages explain ( Rashi on Bereishis Rabbah 11:6) regarding the verse “Everything G‑d created to make”, the words “to make (ie to improve)” are the mission statement to us.
G-d created the world in need of improvement and perfecting, and we have been tasked with that job. G-d has handed each one of us a mission. Change your world. When we feel the tremendous power of our goal, we are charged with a sense of purpose and urgency. This leaves us little time to dwell on thoughts that will ultimately lead to unhealthy feelings. As the Rebbe writes in a letter (17th Adar Sheini 5717) to someone who wrote of feelings of depression, “How does one have time for this?” Every moment is precious time that we need to fulfill our mission and can not be wasted on unproductive thoughts.
Someone who is imbued with a sense of purpose, and how much more so divine purpose, finds happiness in that. Your thoughts are consumed with that mission, you feel attached to the infinite through a common goal. You are indispensable and you are never alone. G-d needs you for His plan.
What can give a person greater joy than that?