Music, Bitachon, and Mental Health
Essays 2020 / Finalists
What’s the issue: anxiety and negative thoughts limit us
Anxiety can come up about many different aspects of our life: our self-image, our relationship with others, our material situations, our feelings about our place in the world, even our thoughts about what direction society at large is heading. Not only is anxiety found more commonly than any other time in history, but it also affects people on a much deeper level, often making it difficult to handle day-to-day activities or situations. Anxiety manifests itself as a stream of non-positive thoughts and images, creating worst-case scenarios, dissecting and over-analyzing details of situations and relationships, which in turn create physiological responses, such as shortness of breath or difficulty concentrating, that interfere with daily life.
Often, anxiety is treated with prescription drugs, talk-therapy counseling, or even experimental use of psychoactive drugs. This essay will offer a unique methodology for addressing anxiety based on the ideas and lifestyle of chassidus and chassidim. This methodology is based on the chassidic concepts behind bitachon (trust & certainty), avodah (work on the self), and niggunim (chassidic melodies). This essay will show how niggunim combined with avodah bring one to bitachon and simcha (joy), the ultimate human goal. We all want to feel a sense of security and certainty about who we are and where we’re headed (personally and globally). We want to feel joyous about our life, our circumstances, and our place in the world. This essay will show how chassidus and the chassidic way of life provide us with the ideal path to this goal. It will also provide a comparison with other popular techniques of the day, including Rapid Transformational Therapy and hypnotherapy in general. We will look at some of the pitfalls of this approach and show the advantage that chassidus and the chassidic way of life offer us.
Where are we going: a clear and happy positive fulfilled life
In order for us to understand the methodology that is going to get us where we want to go, we need to understand where we are headed. What is the goal in treating anxiety? Anxiety itself is comprised of a complex combination of feelings but can be mostly boiled down to feelings of doubt and insecurity about the future. The opposite of this would be feelings of confidence and certainty in one’s future. This is a fitting description for the chassidic concept of “bitachon,” explained at length in many sources in chassidus.
Bitachon is the ultimate “cure” for all difficulties in life. It is a pure and certain trust that not only was everything that happened until this point “for the good” but also that everything will turn out in a way that is revealed good. To develop and maintain this bitachon is not an easy task; in fact the Rebbe Rashab termed it “a weighty task indeed” (In Good Hands, pg. 195). But once developed, this bitachon can carry us through any situation or circumstance. It is well worth the effort. In fact, the development of bitachon and the effort invested is what draws down a reciprocal response from G-d Almighty to bestow kindness on the person, whether he deserves it or not, just by virtue of this bitachon. In many letters and responses to people in various situations, the Rebbe repeatedly emphasizes that “bitachon is what brings the bracha” (see In Good Hands).
The sign that one has been successful in the development of this bitachon is the manifestation of simcha, joy. When one trusts in G-d Almighty that the outcome will for sure be good, then there is only joy that can be felt. Any trace of anxiety or depression, of worry or doubt, shows on a “misuse of the imagination,” allowing for thoughts that have no place in one’s mind. This can also go the other way around, whereby arousing an innate simcha, an inner happiness and joy of just being alive and having the appreciation of being in G-d’s world, helps to arouse an innate bitachon that just as He keeps us alive, He will also provide us with all we need in the best way possible.
How do we get there: effort
The Rebbe states in a sicha from Parshas Shemos that “…bitachon involves work and labor within one’s soul. And this effort and labor in developing bitachon in G-d evokes G-d’s kindness” (Ois V). The very fact that we have to put in effort and labor is a cornerstone in the chassidic way of life, which emphasizes avodah, personal effort invested into growing and developing one’s self, to actualize potential.
This is in sharp contrast to a popular method of treating anxiety or depression today, which is Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT), an offshoot of hypnotherapy. The premise of RTT and hypnotherapy is that these techniques bring a person to such a relaxed state that their subconscious is accessed and underlying thoughts and beliefs unknown to the person can be uncovered and thereby corrected by the therapist.
At first glance this seems to be a “magic potion” of a therapy. It claims results in one 90-minute session that last for a lifetime. Whether or not the method is effective is not what I would like to contrast here, for it may be effective and good for certain things. However, it is certainly not the approach of chassidus and the chassidic way of life.
In a letter on the subject of hypnosis as a therapy, we see clearly that the Rebbe is “wary of any method that deprives a person of the free exercise of his will and which puts him in the power of another person, even temporarily — except, of course, in the case of a life-threatening situation” (Health In Mind, Body, and Spirit Volume 3, Chapter V). Why would this issue of free will be so pressing and crucial? This very idea is one of the cornerstones in chassidus, that G-d Almighty gave us free will, He gave us our natures, our personalities, our circumstances in life. Everything, every detail, was organized by Him and Him alone and was done with intention. Man’s purpose in life is to “work,” to toil (Job 5:7). We toil the earth to bring out food to eat, and we toil on ourselves to bring out good character traits and hard work. This is the very purpose for man’s creation. We must know that our effort means more to G-d than any phenomenal result. This is brought out in the HaYom Yom of 29 Menachem Av: “One must serve G-d by his own efforts. [A person’s service] is higher when he is led by the hand from Above, but it is more cherished when it is generated by his own efforts.”
True, the method of hypnotherapy and RTT might be faster and get a person higher than would be on his own. On his own perhaps he could be constantly working to push away thoughts and to transform himself for the better to live a fulfilled and purposeful life, full of trust in G-d Almighty. But the path of work and intention outlined by chassidus is what ultimately leads to greater success and self-fulfillment. It is the Long-Short Way. In the end, this is our whole purpose of being created. To work with ourselves, with the situations that we’ve been given in life. This labor should be seen as a good thing, a positive endeavor, and a fulfillment of our purpose and potential. The very fact that we get anxiety or depression should not depress us, G-d forbid. Instead, we should know that this might be the very purpose of our creation: to push away these thoughts and to deal with our feelings! This is explained at length in Tanya Chapter 27. What it comes down to is that we must work. Our work is cherished and is the purpose for our creation. The chassidic practice of singing niggunim is critical in this effort and life’s work of ours.
How do we get there: the power of music
Why are chassidic niggunim a crucial component in the development of bitachon? To understand this question, first, we must speak about music in general, and why it has such a profound impact on us as human beings. Music is very powerful; the intention of the person behind the music resonates within the music itself, thus resonating with all those who hear it. In her book The Power of Music, Elena Mannes quotes the cross-genre violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain on the “very intimate act” of sound: “The sound of my voice enters your ear canal and it’s moving your eardrum… I am very literally touching you, and when you speak to me, you are literally touching me” (qtd. in npr.org). These musical acts of sounds literally penetrate the body and go deep into the mind, activating more parts of the brain than any other activity.
With such a deep physical connection to music, it only makes sense that music can resonate with us on a spiritual level and engage our emotions in ways more powerful and indescribable than other art forms. Because sound literally penetrates our bodies, the nature of music is such that we are very susceptible to the emotional state of the musicians. If the music is aggressive, it is literally aggressive in our ears and in our bodies. If the people who are making music are happy, positive, fulfilled individuals, then that is what will resonate in the music they are making and in the ears of those listening.
This scientific finding on the physical and emotional effect of music has a backing in chassidus as well. The Frierdiker Rebbe writes in Likkutei Dibburim that he heard from his teacher who heard from the Tzemach Tzedek:
“When one repeats a Torah teaching, one unites oneself with the Naran (nefesh, ruach, neshamah) of the one who taught it; when one sings a niggun which one has heard from him, one unites oneself with his chayah and yechidah.” (Likkutei Dibburim English, Vol. I, pg. 214)
The chayah and yechidah are the highest levels of the soul. Thus, when one sings a niggun he connects quite literally to the soul of the one who created it. This connection affects a person not just spiritually in an external way that he doesn’t realize but also on the level of conscious thought, as the Frierdiker Rebbe heard from his father the Rebbe Rashab that “through a niggun, there comes into being a union on the level of thought” (Likkutei Dibburim English, Vol. I, pg. 214). Thus we see that according to both chassidus and science, music affects us on the deepest levels of our being. This effect is not something that remains in the spiritual realms but affects us here in this world. Music affects how we think, and in turn how we think affects how we feel and how we act and interact with the world. Our thoughts have ramifications far beyond their immediate place in our minds.
This is another interesting comparison with Rapid Transformational Therapy. The creator of this form of therapy, Marisa Peer, a famous British therapist, speaks often about how our “thoughts create our reality.” If we think good thoughts, we will have a good reality. We see this exact concept validated and sourced in chassidus, much before any of these modern psychological techniques came about. The Tzemach Tzedek famously said to one of his chassidim of “tracht gut vet zein gut”: “think good and it will be good.” This chassid’s son was terribly ill and the Tzemach Tzedek told him that if he thinks positively, the outcome will be positive thanks to his thoughts. We see here that thoughts are crucial, and thoughts themselves are what comprise bitachon, a true and certain trust in G-d. For what else is bitachon if not for a calm heart and mind? A calm heart comes from good thoughts and an optimistic outlook for the future. These thoughts are completely in our hands and in our ability to direct; however, they can be easily influenced by our environment and what we expose ourselves to.
Who to connect to: the Rebbe
The underlying messages of today’s popular songs do not promote happiness, well-being, and living a value-centered life. Often, their focus is on coarse materiality, chasing after material possessions and worldly desires. Whether intentional or not, the negative spiritual effect of these songs is real and tangible. Songs are a strong part of the general culture of a nation, and our nation is seeing some of the highest rates of anxiety and depression ever seen. This is often due to the fact that materialism is so strongly emphasized, and greater meaning and life purpose are not spoken about as important aspects of living a healthy life.
Niggunim, by contrast, inspire us to reach beyond ourselves and our physical circumstances and connect to the Source of all life. This inspirational aspect of niggunim is done with intention. Niggunim are intentionally created to bring about hope, trust, and joy. This has been stated in chassidus in HaYom Yom (22 Tammuz) where the Rebbe Rashab states: “A chassidic melody strengthens one’s hope and trust, brings joy, and positions the home and the entire household in a ray of light.” In addition to this source in chassidus, this intentionality and mission and purpose of niggunim has been noted also by academics such as Shmuel Barzilai in his book Chassidic Ecstasy in Music:
“[Chassidic] song contains the no less important goal of allowing worship of G-d with joy, because it is impossible to serve and pray to G-d out of sorrow. Before serving G-d, one must prepare oneself. This is done through negating the sadness within us, thereby allowing joy to exist. Song is needed to help us negate our sadness. The role of song is to bring about joy, and only serving G-d joyfully is considered perfect worship.” (pg. 36)
As we said before, simcha is inherently connected to bitachon, for if one has bitachon, simcha is the only natural and appropriate emotion to feel. Coming from the other direction, arousing within ourselves simcha, bitachon will naturally follow, for if one is joyful about one’s present it is easier to feel optimistic about the future. The ultimate joy and happiness we can feel as human beings is to connect to something beyond us, to connect to G-d. We are the only creatures who can look up at the sky and wonder what this is all about and express that wonderment to others and build conversations around this. Niggunim tap into this essential human nature, inspiring us to reach beyond ourselves. This is because niggunim were written by Rebbeim, the ultimate models of human greatness. One need only peruse a biography of the Rebbe to get a taste of this. The Rebbe is the epitome of someone who transcends self-concern. Either they are written by Rebbeim or by chassidim, chassidim who’s motto in life is “Ample in thought; sparing in words; prolific in deeds. And the one to be worked on is me.” These were people who really worked on themselves to develop strong faith and trust in G-d.
Niggunim connect us to the thought of the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s thoughts are holy thoughts of bitachon, simcha, Torah, and G-d Almighty, the Source of life and happiness and ultimate goodness. If we connect to Him we are connecting to all the good things in life and to our own life source. The Rebbe’s Torah is what teaches us about the concept of bitachon in the first place and how this affects our lives in a tangible way. The Rebbe is here to remind us that “bitachon is what brings the bracha,” a physical bracha in this actual physical world. The Rebbe gives us this awareness with Torah. Through the niggunim he gave us we internalize this awareness, we internalize the Rebbe’s perspective by connecting to the Rebbe’s highest levels of the neshama and connecting to the thought of the Rebbe. Everything begins with the thought. Our thoughts affect our realities and our day to day lives. Just as non-positive thoughts of anxiety and worry can affect us in a physical way, so too positive and optimistic thoughts can affect us physically and affect our environment and surroundings.
How do we do it? How do we use niggunim to connect?
The first step is we must know that “the singing of niggunim plays a serious part in the way of life of chassidim” (Frierdiker Rebbe, Likkutei Dibburim English Volume I, pg. 213). Niggunim play a crucial role in our personal efforts to grow and become better, healthier people. This is a practice that should be taken seriously, not as “background music” which is all-too-common nowadays. Music is not just a nice pause in an event where we can talk to each other and catch up. Music is a serious endeavor and has a serious effect on us. Niggunim have a specific purpose and are tools that were given to us to be better people and to grow. If we take them seriously we will be able to internalize their positive effects that much more. Without this knowledge there can be no awareness, and awareness is the first step in treating any difficulty or illness.
The next step is to bring this awareness into more tangible words and actions that help us internalize the message and joyful effect of niggunim. Based on my experience as a musician, a teacher, and someone who’s experienced the power of niggunim, I present these 8 steps of action we can take to really connect with the niggunim that have been given to us:
- Develop a relationship with certain niggunim that particularly resonate and make a list of them.
- Categorize them, which niggunim are pensive, which are uplifting, etc…
- Create a list of words or ideas that you feel connect to each one.
- Listen to the original recordings, really learn them properly and know them. (Recordings can be found on http://www.chassidus.com/audio/nigun/)
- If there are sources on a particular niggun and the historical background or meaning behind it, it’s helpful to read.
- Sing them with eyes closed, by self or in group at a farbrengen. At a farbrengen a niggun helps us internalize the ideas that were spoken about. Closing our eyes helps us connect to the melody we’re singing and to become more aware of what’s going on inside of us.
- Sing this niggun over and over again. This gets to the depth of the niggun and the repetition helps us internalize it. While singing, have in mind the word list or emotions or thoughts that you feel come up through the niggun.
- When non-positive thoughts come up, have this niggun at hand in your mind. Even if you cannot sing it, just remembering the melody and the thoughts/emotions associated with it is a first step. In many letters (see In Good Hands and Health In Mind Body and Spirit Volume 3 Chapter V) the Rebbe brings up a technique for maintaining a positive mindset involving averting one’s attention from non-positive thoughts and filling the mind with positive thoughts of Torah and G-d. Having a niggun on hand can be used to implement this technique.
After all is said and done, we must remember the cornerstones of chassidic life. We must work on developing our trust and joy in serving G-d, and this trust and joy will bring us all that we need physically and spiritually. Serving G-d meaning that we put in effort to work on ourselves, thus fulfilling our life’s purpose. Whatever situation we were given, whether mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual was given to us by Him and was given with a purpose and intention. If we have difficulty we should not be discouraged, we should be encouraged and know that our whole reason for being created could be to work through this. Most importantly, we must remember that we have a Rebbe guiding us and giving us the tools we need, chassidus and niggunim, to help us accomplish our mission in this world.