Chassidus Lessons from Physical Therapy

Yechezkal Shimon Gutfreund, Brighton, Massachusetts
Essays 2018 / Health and Fitness / Mentor

There is a bit of interesting history to this essay. A few months ago, I had an injury and had to go to a physical therapist. The one I chose was not Jewish (Ben Gibson). Both the instructions and tasks he gave sparked something inside of me – to me, they sounded like Chassidus in the loshen of physical therapy. So, I started to relate the inner meaning of what he was telling me back to him using simple examples from the types of therapy he was giving me. He really liked it and asked that I not only write it up, but I should also give it to his boss (who I also was getting treatment from) who is not only the founder and owner of that shop, but also of 10 other establishments (Ben Rose – who is a Jew, but from an intermarriage and almost no knowledge of any Jewish practices). I wrote up my thoughts in this essay in the spirit of the Mittler Rebbe’s Bad Kodesh. Using the language and metaphor of physical therapy it seems one can express many Chassidic concepts. The essay is original and has never been published anywhere. However, I have refrained for putting the sources in-line in the essay. If that deceases the scoring, I am not concerned, since my goal here is to deliver an essay that can be read by non-Jews and layman alike.

At age 61, I had never been to a physical therapist. While I am not an athlete or even an outdoor sports person, I do practice certain casual sports. For example, I can go miles on a bicycle, and frequently commute to work that way. That is why it was a bit a shock to suddenly experience sharp pains in my legs and knees. So after, getting a referral from an orthopedist, I went to a local physical therapy business: “Joint Ventures” which advertised one-on-one therapy. The legs and knees have, thank G-d, improved, but more important I came away with some very interesting lessons. Not just about taking care of one’s physical body, but also how to improve one’s psychological and spiritual body. That is, there are soul lessons here that can be applied to one’s service of G-d, working on one’s character traits (middos), and dealing with life and its setbacks. The experience of physical therapy gives some simple and universal metaphors and examples that make these ideas easy to explain and teach:

  1. It’s not rejection, it is Divine re-direction
  2. Regaining your spiritual health can’t be done on cruise-control: Real growth requires some pain and effort
  3. Trigger points are not just physical they are spiritual

Divine Redirection

It is probably a bit a shock to anyone to find what they thought was their physical strengths is now a source of weakness. Gloomy thoughts can arise such as: well, you are no longer a youngster, so now get ready to experience old age. Alternatively, one can try denial and rejection: it is not really happening. Or one can see it as Divine punishment.

Physical therapy usual begins with a few simple exercises. Perhaps they will ask you to do one thing which you thought was trivial. But a clever therapist will find things that seem simple, but are exactly in your weak areas, and you will find it almost impossible. A good P.T. will give you very encouraging news: You really do have very strong legs, but there is this one muscle you need to work on, and you have been ignoring it – and that is the core of your problem.

Wow, isn’t that what life is about! We think of ourselves as super achievers and very competent at what we do. Maybe that is true at work – where we have technical competence. But then comes a social skill at work or home and we are thrown off the track and we are sent spinning out of control. Or this could be in our family relationships, or this could be how we pray (the words come easy, but the feelings are missing). But in truth what we have been doing is missing out on growth in some spiritual or psychic dimension of our lives. The pain we now have is really a sign that parts of our spiritual muscles have not been getting enough exercise.  There are life powers we have not been using.  What is really happening is we are being given Divine redirection to make us grow into the fully muscled and powerful people we are inside.

Good muscle tone involves a balance of muscles. If some are too strong and others are not working as hard, you will eventually start suffering problems. Similarly, if you work too hard at material success, and don’t put a balanced effort into family and spiritual pursuits, it is not just that you will face pain in the future, but you are missing out at developing your ability to experience life at its fullest (i.e. full technicolor experience) and the pain is begging you wake up and get help from a spiritual therapist.(1)

Cruise Control

My physical therapist then gave me some exercises to do at home (homework). He told me: “The first exercises will be easy – but they will get harder as you repeat them. If they coming too easy, you are not doing this correctly.” If you use body mass and momentum you can make the exercise too easy and not really get the value of the exercise. Do the exercises slowly, and if done correctly, you will feel some minor pain and discomfort. If you don’t feel pain, you are compensating with your good muscles and not exercising the weak ones.

Fantastic! Do you hear what this is saying? We all are guilty at times of not working on our weakest middos (character traits). We avoid pushing ourselves into certain social encounters (e.g. the family member we avoid rather than try to heal the relationship). Instead of enriching our minds and souls by learning the depth and the majesty of our people, we just passively entertain ourselves. Or maybe it is just tackling a dream about becoming who we really are. In any event, it is only when you push and exercise and yes, feel a little pain, do you actually fix those spiritual muscles that have atrophied.(2)

Trigger Points

Sometimes, home exercises are not enough. The physical therapist will use deep muscle rubs to release stuck muscles or to release a trigger point. What are trigger points? They are muscles that have spasmodically contracted and become very tight and cannot release. Blood flow to the muscle is also limited. In some cases, the therapist will use a dry needle technique (like acupuncture) and directly stab and release that muscle. Normal muscle will not feel anything – but if he/she hits a trigger point the pain will be exquisite and may leave you sore for a day. But the result is the blood will flow again and the muscle will relax. Other times, the therapist will just use deep muscle rubs to release the muscle.

What an insight! Sometimes we cannot get out of our life ruts. We need to go to a life coach, a spiritual mentor, someone older and wiser, and not colored by our internal view. Or it can just be a good friend who you can be truly and completely open with – someone never judgmental. Opening up about our fears, issues, and failings is not without pain. It can hurt, and it will not be easy. But the mere act of being honest and open itself can lift a person to a higher place. To a more noble place. Doing this allows the spiritual life blood to flow again into that part of our life that we have glossed over.(3)

I am sure there are other lessons. But I found this to be a good start, and hope others will continue expand and grow and spread the message.

1. At the core, I think this is the ratzo v’shov principle. For example, see: Tzemach Tzedek, Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Ha’amanat Elokut, chapter one. And I will make the claim that our imbalance to this dynamic (and the resultant imbalances in our lives and physical muscles), is all sourced in the shtus d’lemuas zeh as discussed eloquently in Basi L’gani os 3 & 4 and the Rebbe’s maamarim on Basi L’gani for those years.
2. This is taken directly from the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya, Chapter 15 and his comments on Chaggigah 9b about the avodah of a Benoni. That is, why learning a lesson for the 101st time as well as the donkey drivers who travel an extra parsah –  cannot be done on cruise control but requires true avodah.
3. The Rebbe spoke many times about the importance of a mashpia (e.g. Shoftim 5751). But there is another point here which is not being explicitly raised. See the Reshimah of the Rebbe about Pascal’s Law of Hydrostatics : where the idea of how focused power from above from expansive knowledge can exert greater pressure below on a constrained vessel. Another example comes from the Chassidus Applied episode 199, where R. Jacobson spoke about a newly discovered yechidus with R. Dovid Raskin. The Rebbe told R. Raskin that if you want to poke a hole in a paper board, you don’t use a finger, you use a sharp needle (small surface area at the tip). Here too, the concept of smartly and tightly focused efforts can release great powers in a person.