Self-regulation: A Basis for Transformation

By Aileen Ariella Samimi, Great Neck, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


It is often misconceived that removal of a negative entity implies that a positive entity will take its place. This notion has become a basis for humanity’s languishing, under achieving, idleness, and an overall abandonment of the development of human potential, since once the negativity is removed, positivity is not actively introduced. While conventional wisdom may suggest one to completely eliminate a negative stimulus (whether internal or external) to achieve positivity, Chassidus instructs an individual who is struggling with negativity to ultimately transform it, by means of subjugating it under one’s higher order control, to create positivity. The Chassidic approach emphasizes the importance of struggle towards flourishing and self-transformation. According to Chassidus, there are two fundamental elements to change; the first is known as itkafia, which means to ‘hold back’, and the second is referred to as it’hapkha, meaning ‘to transform’[1]. By understanding the progression of itkafia onto it’hapkha, one may apply the system towards genuine and sustained personal transformation.


The nature of nature, and the reason for our existence
To understand the importance of itkafia and it’hapkha, we must place it into the context of their instrumentality to achieving one’s life mission. A human being is comprised of two opposing forces, the animal soul and the divine, G-dly soul[2]. While the animal soul is responsible for the base drives and desires of the human being, the divine soul is yearning towards the higher, ideal self. These two identities of an individual are in constant struggle for total control of the person. Our mission in this world is to overcome the natural instincts of the animal soul, and create the space for our divine soul to manifest itself. This in turn, allows this world to become a dwelling place for G-d on our plane of existence, which is our grand mission in life[3]. It is the very struggle between animal and spirit that lends us the opportunity to deem G-dliness the victor in a world of concealment[4].


Emphasis on regulation, not removal, for development of the self
This does not mean that our animal soul (and its respective expression) is removed; the animal soul is rather disciplined to serve the higher purposes of the divine soul[5]. This process is known in modern terms as ‘self-regulation’. Once we are able to self-regulate, and hold back from ‘negative’ desires in anticipation for self-refinement, only then can we begin to experience transformation. This is the ideation behind itkafia and it’hapkha.

During the initial stage of itkafia, one encounters a negative stimulus, and instead of focusing on removing the stimulus, the action of itkafia demands that one ‘hold back’ (self-regulate) their affinity towards that negative. By doing so, an internal shift takes place inside the individual in relation to the stimulus, which will allow for subsequent transformation to take place, known as it’hapkha.


Itkafia and the functionality of struggle in the scheme of transformation
Itkafia could be identified as the struggle between the animal soul and the divine soul, or the limbic (emotional) system and the rational mind of a person respectively. In both models, the animal soul/limbic system is driven by selfish ego desires, whether it is to indulge, or act impulsively, and receive instant gratification regardless of resulting consequences; while the divine soul/rational mind is able to see the big picture, and account for one’s actions, making proper judgments and calculations for one’s behavior. These two functions are antithetical, yet are expected to operate in sync with one another.[6]

As long as the divine soul and animal soul continue to work against each other, neither will be expressed properly. Should the divine soul completely eradicate the animal soul, it has lost the very life force that sustains it and gives it momentum to move upward (we need to breathe, eat, and procreate after all). If the animal soul takes over however, its selfish impulses cannot see beyond itself to support the lofty ideals of the divine soul. Therefore, the needs of the animal soul/limbic system must be addressed (not ignored), but only in the terms determined by the divine soul/rational mind which sits above it. In other words, a person’s desires must be regulated appropriately, and neither eradicated nor indulged in[7]. However, the only opportunity to decide these terms is when there is a struggle between the motives of the higher and lower orders[8]. The only chance a person has the opportunity to express ‘holding back’, true itkafia, is in the face of struggle with negativity. Struggle should be valued, since it is the only time that the divine soul can declare that it is in control, and subjugate the animal soul to serve it.

Struggle is an opportunity to exercise self-regulation. Only when there is a struggle can self-regulation become activated to manage it, and only once there is self-regulation in place can one move on to genuine transformation. It is therefore that struggle is an integral and necessary means for transformation.


Self-regulation as a liberating virtue, not a limitation, to enable it’hapkha
In this new light, self-regulation is to be considered a virtue that liberates a person from their desires. Once the divine soul is in control and no longer subject to the whims of the animal soul, it is free for unbound expression. As counter intuitive as it may seem, the more one is able to regulate oneself, the more liberated they become. The more a person engages in successful itkafia, the closer they are to the transformative state of it’hapkha. Judaism recognizes this phenomenon, and is therefore laden with opportunities for self-regulation. Laws such as those of Shabbat observance, dietary regulations, and physical relations create the infrastructure of Judaism, all involving base desires that are channeled for an elevated purpose, not an abstinence from them. Because only with self-regulation can a person reach transformation. The laws and directives in the Torah are therefore intended for self-transformation.

The status of ‘holiness’ is in fact contingent on the ability to self-regulate. While some authorities define ‘holiness’ to be a complete abstaining from prohibited actions[9], others define ‘holiness’ as not indulging even in things that are permissible, like eating, drinking of wine, and marital relations[10]. In Ethics of our Fathers**, the status of ‘strength’ is donned upon one who conquers, not eradicates, his desires- because self-regulation requires more strength of character than the ability to simply remove a negative stimulus. The Talmud[11]expounds that Divine Mercy is brought upon those who are able to change their nature (transform themselves) since this is considered a worthy accomplishment deserving as such. The Midrash Shmuel[12] informs us that only those who are disciplined with themselves are the ones to endure. Self-regulation is arguably more desirable than any other character trait, since it is the very means by which all other positive character traits could be acquired. This is true self transformation.


A model for transformation
In offering a pragmatic approach to practicing itkafia and it’hapkha, a parallel concept will be introduced, of ‘sur me’ra ve’aseh tov’- turn away from bad, and do good[13].

The first step of sur me’ra corresponds to itkafia. When a person is faced with a negative stimulus, (which varies for each individual), they must turn away from bad. This action is achieved by holding oneself back from approaching the stimulus, as opposed to removing the stimulus. Doing so offers a detachment from the stimulus, which will allow one to be in control of it, since they no longer will identify with it. For example, should one be allured by negative speech, he or she must hold back from that desire when he or she comes to speak, and not look to remove the person whom he or she is gossiping with. This is because by only removing the friend being spoken to, the person’s negative desire still exists, but whether or not it is expressed is conditional on his or her environment. When the actual root of desire for negative speech is controlled and channeled, a person’s gossip buddy could be standing right in front of them, but they will no longer possess the urge to speak negatively, since the desire has been regulated by ‘holding back’. Step one is essentially disassociation with negativity by subjugating it through self-regulation.

Now that the negative is at bay, it does not mean that a positive will automatically take its place. We have simply reached a stable baseline. It is time then for positivity to be introduced.

The second step then, of aseh tov, doing good, is that of it’hapkha, a positive transformed state, where there is no longer a struggle with negativity. In this state, only good is done, sustaining the positive transformation. In the example of desire for negative speech, once the desire no longer exists, a person should incorporate positive behaviors of speech in its stead. In this way, an individual is able to flourish in their transformed state, and not just exist in it.

Only when an individual encounters a struggle, are they afforded the opportunity to refine themselves by means of self-regulation, overpowering the negative and introducing positivity. This allows for an internal change to take place within the person that will cultivate authentic transformation. Of this, Chassidus is positive.


[1] Tanya, chapter 27

[2] Ibid., chapter 1

[3] Ibid., chapter 37

[4] Zohar, Parashat Terumah, p. 128

[5] Tanya, chapter 7

[6] Tanya, chapter 9

[7] Ibid., chapter 12

[8] Ibid., chapter 15

[9] Rashi, Parashat Kedoshim, chapter 19

[10] Ramban, Parashat Kedoshim, chapter 19

[11] Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShanah, 17a

[12] on Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 26a

[13] Book of Tehillim, chapter 34