Stress and Prayer
Essays 2018 / Prayer / Stress
Stress is an age old affliction. It contributes to emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, and addiction as well as health issues such as a weak immune system, cancer and heart disease, (may G-d protect us!). But most of all, stress is not fun.
What Chassidism brings to the table is prayer. The potential and ability to separate from our troubles and connect with the source of it all, to make decisions with a clear and settled mind and not in confusion, and above it all, to take the dirt and grit of life and transform it into something useful and beautiful.
Everyone is familiar with stress. Whether it be the overwhelming anxiety over a sick loved one, or the frustrated frenzy of losing your keys, we all know that stress can be unpleasant, not to say damaging, to our lives.
Some stress and anxiety cannot be avoided, and is seen as an integral part of living. Some sources of stress can be helped. The source of the stress can be pinpointed and conditions can be improved.
But there is yet another category of stress that is not a reaction to the environment. This stress is internal. It is transactional. The way we react to a comment, to a mistake, to a misfortune. This is based entirely on our own personal refinement and peace, and this kind of stress requires no small amount of self work.
These three categories of stress and its source each have a unique response. But these responses may seem far-fetched and idealistic to most people. What if I can’t change jobs? What if moving out of the noisy city is not an option? I certainly don’t have the ability to eliminate traffic, and perhaps I don’t think I have time to work on my patience? Is there still a solution for stress?
The concept and methodology that Judaism, Kabbalah, and Chassidus brings to the table is prayer. People have been praying ever since we’ve been around. The need to humble ourselves before and express our deepest feelings to something or someone greater than us is a completely integral part of us. The ability to pray is not simple, and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
And yet, the word prayer is used very often, and is for some people remote.
‘The Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chassidism) explained that the results of prayer are often manifest in the ‘highest places of the universe’1 and not in the physical world. It is therefore easy for people to take it lightly, since they think their prayer is in vain. The truth, however, is that all prayer has an effect.’ 2
This can be explained with a simple and incomplete parable. Let’s say you live at the bottom of a long and intricate waterfall. One day, to your great dismay, the flow of your water source (the waterfall) suddenly slows to a tiny trickle, and the water it produces is bitter! Frantically you try to dig for water storage, and sweeten the water whatever way you can, but your efforts are fruitless. What remains to be done is simple: Climb up the waterfall and find the source of the trouble.
We are all faced with so called ‘bitter waters’ whether it be related to politics, family, or money, (G-d forbid,) and the physical action of merely changing the circumstances is never enough to facilitate the abundant flow of sweet water that should be coming to you. In fact, some people seldom know anything but sparse and bitter water.
But by lifting our heads up to G-d and giving ourselves a little chance to separate from our worries, fears, cares, and concerns, that give us so much trouble in our daily lives, and focus on the source of it all for a change, can be infinitely rewarding to every aspect of our lives.
The Chassidic movement is known for its emphasis on prayer. Mainstream Judaism throughout the ages has sometimes focused on Torah study as the main act of connection of a Jew with his G-d.
But prayer was emphasised so much among the Chassidim, that the Alter Rebbe is reported to have said: ‘In Vilna they learn how to learn Torah, and in Mezritch they learn how to daven (pray). I already know how to learn Torah, but I would like to learn more about davening. I will go to Mezritch.’ 3
The word prayer encompasses so many things. For Jews the first thing that comes to mind is the liturgical prayers, written in a prayer book and chanted every morning, afternoon, and evening. In other cultures prayer only takes place in the world of thought, through meditating. Still other cultures stress talking to G-d in one’s own words. But Jewish thought, especially Chassidism, contains a wealth of wisdom and advice pertaining to all of these methods of prayer. Each is characteristic of a certain direction and path, but all of these paths include one another.
There are many forms of prayer, and the cord that ties them together is than in all of them, we are turning to G-d. The people that practiced Jewish meditation throughout the ages did it for a single reason: In order to connect with G-d. To touch Him, in whatever way they felt they could.
To taste Him: ‘Taste and see for G-d is good’ 4
In this way, Jewish prayer and meditation is about divesting myself of all my barriers in order to find the path up to G-d.
A common, popular method in dealing with stress of all kinds is through meditation. Meditation in general, is, very briefly, calming down. Working through thoughts and emotions in a space with reduced pressure. Any such time is invaluable.
During the Middle Ages Kabbalistic meditation included writing and chanting Divine names, techniques that brought with them many dangers. The Arizal taught a method of meditation and involved only the world of thought, achieving the same goals but avoiding much danger.
And Chassidim, fulfilling the inevitable push towards the revelation of these secrets, brought these methods to an even more accessible state.
What is it like to pray like a Chabad Chassid?
‘Ba’arichus’, saying every word of the liturgical prayers with great intent, is part of it. But more than this, praying like a Chassid is meditating, contemplating, before praying, until he has reached his ‘gate of nothingness’ (Ayin). The point of the contemplation is to come to love and fear G-d. This love and fear are like the two wings of a bird, missing one, the bird would not be able to fly, and so too with a person, without love and fear of G-d he cannot act with truth and clarity in this world. But how does one know that his love and fear is not merely emotional excitement, that he didn’t just work himself up, that his love and fear is truly ‘Divine’? That is why he contemplates, because one’s mind is a pure, untainted vessel, the abode of a Jew’s G-dly soul. Depending on the level of a person’s knowledge, and a person’s desire, one can listen and contemplate on the song of the frogs, as did the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the song of G-d coming out from within creation.
Like Rebbe Nachman, who talks about ‘the greatness of praying in the fields, among the grasses, which give strength to one’s prayers because they, too, sing God’s praises and their prayers and energy are included in the person who prays among them!’ 5
A person can contemplate on how G-d is manifest in this world, through nature and through himself.
Depending on his knowledge, he can contemplate on how G-d, who starts off being nothing, comes down, in chain-like descent, into everything in this world and how everything in this world is a manifestation of his essence. Contemplation on this descent, called ‘Hishtalshelus’, relies upon the knowledge of Kabbalah and the ability to use one’s imagination, his ‘Seichel’, to bring his knowledge to life in the world of thought, which is the inner ‘garment’ of his soul.
The highest contemplation leads to ‘Bittul’, the feeling of being far, and small, compared to G-d. Only when the Chassid has reached the highest point, the point of nothingness where everything is completely nullified within G-d as if nothing exists or has ever existed, the closest the Chassid can get to seeing it through G-d perspective, can he be finished, and can he pray.
Prayer is a requirement in Jewish law. The requirement is generally fulfilled by reciting the liturgy from the prayer book. Written in it are the things that all Jews should desire, and pray for, and thank G-d for, and express. For many of us, Hebrew is not our first language, and for some of us it’s easier than for others to translate every word and concentrate on it. It is way easier for all of us to say the words monotonously and let our minds think through yesterday and tomorrow meanwhile. But every word said with intent, even the smallest effort to take the word from the book, and internalize it, make it part of me, is infinitely rewarding. As the Baal Shem Tov says: ‘Even one line, or two or three words in a service… would be sufficient’. 6
A word should be dear to me, I should ‘hug’ it, without letting go, not wanting to separate from it. And while meditation with thought illuminates the mind, in order for this prayer and connection to descend in actuality into daily life, our mouth is a good tool.
While these liturgical prayers are irreplaceable, almost equally valuable are prayers that come personal. I say the first things that come to mind, without any discernment, my worries and cares come tumbling forward. I talk it over with G-d, and He gives me answers through my own mouth that I surely would never have come up with on my own. If I try hard enough, I won’t be disappointed. What do I talk to Him about?
I can thank Him for everything that I enjoy about my life, ranging from my family to strawberries, to everything amazing that He did for me yesterday, helping me succeed and giving me unearned gifts and teaching me much needed lessons.
I can apologize for misconduct, impatience, jealousy, anger, and all the myriads of bad traits and actions that we all display at one time or another. Talk about those traits, how to resolve them, why did they happen.
And I can talk about the ‘wrongs’ that G-d did to me, talk to Him about them, work out why I was just given a smack, and how I can accept and cope with it.
We have a lot to say, and we can go on for a long time. One of the greatest pleasures of a human being is to talk. G-d is always listening, and he doesn’t charge for listening. He created me with my lacks and my virtues, and he’s waiting to hear.
‘Open your mouth and I will fill it’7 Is a description of this kind of prayer, the kind of prayer that David composed his Psalms with. It can lead, after many hours and years of work on many fronts, to prophecy and ‘the holy spirit’ (Ruach HaKodesh).
One essential aspect of, and companion to, all these methods of prayer, is melody. Hundreds of Chassidic melodies were composed that depict, or tell, like a story, the journey of the soul. When a melody is sung and the dirt and grit, the brokenness, of the soul is put into a melody, the singer’s soul is played like a piano by the melody.
There is nothing like a Niggun, a melody, to awaken one from his slumber.
A Niggun can be sung before or after prayer, during prayer, or whenever in life a person needs to turn immediately to G-d, in a direct and real way that is beyond words and explanations.
Deveikus & the Good in Everything
While some stress is seen as an unavoidable part of life, most stress is definitely avoidable, and has to do with the individual attitude of a person.
I can’t think clearly, so preoccupied am I with the stressors of this world. I have to take the time to step back and think about what’s really going on, underneath the fiction and layers of cloudy reality that we live in. I have to separate and attach myself to G-d.
This attachment is called Deveikus in Chassidus. The Baal Shem Tov taught that the meditative state achieved when separating oneself from the world can actually be retained and sustained while doing mundane affairs. A person can be ‘cleaving’ literally: ‘glued’, to G-d while eating, talking about the weather, and making money. This is a very high level indeed, a level others thought impossible. But this is how he is said to have lived his life.
The Baal Shem Tov believed that all Jews were capable of Deveikus.
That the nature of the soul is like a candle, always pointed above, trying to separate from the wick and rise upwards, towards its source, towards G-d. 8
A practice that feels, perhaps, more simple and attainable for all of us is the ‘Gam Zu LeTovah’, -this too is for the best.
Some Chassidic masters would recommend that I only pray for one thing, which is that I should be able to take everything that comes to me in life with joy. I should take it with a smile. Gam Zu LeTovah. This too is for the best. 9
I should know that whatever I asked for, he granted to me whether I saw or knew or understood.
I should be able to see and accept that everything that is being done to me is good, and is ‘Divine Providence’ (Hashgachah Pratis), part of His master plan.
That is my only prayer, no matter what I am saying.
Many stressors can’t be avoided or changed externally. But if we take everything with a positive attitude, we can save ourselves so much pain.
The main point of Emunah-faith, is this! Everything G-d does is for the best.
If I really believe this, how can I be so distressed when someone criticises me, so frustrated when I lose the keys, so angry when someone bumps into me?
Not to say that emotions are unwelcome. Emotions are also for the good. There is an inherent goodness, even in sadness.
This faith is certainly a skill to be worked on. And it may take some paradigm shifts, some thinking through, something that all the levels of prayer can help facilitate. But it is truly simple, and it changes everything.
- Meditation helps by providing a means to relax, unburden ourselves, and separate from our troubles. This valuable time of separation from the hubbub of daily life can allow us to calm down and view our troubles from an elevated perspective that will lead to action and decision making with a calm and settled mind.
- Talk Therapy, ( ‘Hitbodedut’ of Rebbe Nachman) allows a person to unravel his psyche through talking, the human’s greatest tool, and work out problems in an unequaled personal journey, express himself in the freest way, knowing no bounds, and unburden himself to something greater than him. Instead of a relationship with a human such as a psychologist or even a Rebbe, this relationship makes a direct connection between yourself and your Creator.
- Positivity changes everything. The least simple and practical of the three, this one requires time and effort towards self- refinement as the only goal. Accepting your challenges with joy and peace is a skill that requires self control and practice to succeed. But don’t give up, because without joy a person is still stuck in the mud, pushing himself along with the greatest, bitterest, effort.
So whether I am meditating towards nothingness, contemplating nature, having a positive attitude, or talking therapeutically, the object of my prayer is always G-d. The effects I am not concerned with.
I am not concerned with connecting with myself, understanding myself, resolving my issues in order to live better, I’m not even concerned with reducing stress and anxiety in order to make life a more pleasant experience. All of these things that come as a result of prayer are considered gifts from G-d.
But my conscious goal while praying has nothing to do with these rewards. When I am praying, I am only concerned with one thing: Getting close to G-d. At that point I have no other purpose on earth, no other, more selfish, motive.
At that point I am like a magnet that only has one desire, that is to glue itself to its partner. Perhaps this point is the whole argument for this response to stress.
It is only from this place, the place of utter humility and self-sacrifice, where this whole journey up the cliff to the top of the waterfall ceases to be about your own needs and becomes only one need -to get to G-d, that true direction can be found and brought down into daily life that now has a true mission and a goal.
For despite our efforts to change our situation some things are not meant be changed. Rather we are placed in a situation, and given the tools to change ourselves, and more importantly, our perspective. Whatever is happening is G-d’s will, and how we accept it will make all the difference.
1 Brachot 6B
2 Keter Shem Tov #138
3 From the writings and talks of R. Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch
4 Psalms 34:9
5 Likutei MoHaRan II 11
6 Lekutim Yekarim 22
7 Psalms 81:10
8 Sefer Beinonim Ch. 19
9 Maggid Devarav LeYaakov pp. 16-17
For further reading:
Sefer Beinonim – The Alter Rebbe Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmunah- The Alter Rebbe Kuntres HaHisPaalus- The Mitteler Rebbe Kuntres HaHisBonenus- The Mitteler Rebbe Lekutei MoHaRan- Rebbe Nachman Maggid Devarav LeYaakov- The Maggid of Mezeritch Keter Shem Tov- The Baal Shem Tov.