The Secret to Getting Unstuck
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
A large part of the Chassidic ethos for living a fulfilling and spiritual life, one that is shared with many other growth-oriented ideologies and movements, is the commitment to continuous, dynamic personal development. But what happens when we get stuck? Whether it is in our spiritual practice, relationships, career, creative endeavors or overall mood, what can we do when we feel burnout, stagnation, or a lack of motivation? Using an ancient Biblical story as a parable, Chassidic thought provides a clear framework for recognizing the source of the stagnation and a practical method for overcoming it. Even though the discourses this essay will draw from tackle the issue in the context of spiritual inspiration, this model can be applied to derive an approach and methodology for dealing with the challenge of feeling stuck in many areas of life.
Background: Love and Awe
Love and awe (sometimes called fear) are the two fundamental, cornerstone emotions of the human experience from which all other feelings are derived, as discussed at length in Tanya1, the seminal work of Chabad Chassidic thought. Love provides the underlying drive for everything positive we do, while awe/fear motivates us to be humble and abstain from negative actions. In Divine service, meditation and prayer harness and direct one’s natural propensity for these emotions by contemplating various aspects of the Divine and how they relate to one’s life. The feelings generated by this practice energize daily life, infusing it with enthusiasm and purpose. Learning to control and direct one’s emotional energy is, according to the mystical teachings of Chassidic thought, the key to maximizing one’s potential and fulfilling one’s purpose in life.
The Story: My Fire is Dead
The following account is found in the Book of Kings2. One woman, a widow of one of the prophets, comes to Elisha, the head of the prophets, and declares, “Your servant, my husband, is dead.” The creditor is demanding payment for her husband’s debts, and is threatening to take away her children as slaves if she cannot pay. Elisha asks her if she has anything left in her possession. She replies that all she has left is one small jug of oil. Elisha instructs her to gather all the empty vessels she can find, bring them into her home with her children, close the door, and pour from the small jug of oil into the empty vessels. The woman does as Elisha instructs her, and miraculously the oil from the small jug keeps flowing until all the empty vessels are filled. Elisha tells the woman to sell the oil, which will provide enough money not only to repay the creditors but also for her and her children to live abundantly.
Dissecting The Parable
This Biblical story is deconstructed by the Alter Rebbe in two brief discourses3, which are in turn analyzed by the Rebbe in a discourse of his own4. The Alter Rebbe treats the story like a parable.
The “one woman” is the neshama, the soul.
The prophet Elisha represents G-d. The name Elisha means, “my Lord, save me.” The word “my husband” in Hebrew (“ishi”) can also mean “my fire” or “the fire of G-
d.” So the story is that the soul, the person, is crying out to G-d that “my fire is dead.” My inspiration, the love and awe that served as the fire of my spiritual life, are gone. The creditor is the animal soul, the source of our propensity toward bodily and materialistic pursuits. The children represent the love and awe, the emotions, which are born of one’s thoughts and therefore referred to as our “children.” Not only does the animal soul want to extinguish my spiritual inspiration, but also wants to “take them as slaves,” to redirect them toward mundane, materialistic pursuits. Instead of love for the Divine and meaningful life, we become obsessed with materialistic pursuits and physical indulgence. Instead of living in awe of the Creator and the wonders of creation, we live in fear of losing our material sustenance.
The small jug of oil represents the essence of the soul. No matter what happens, the purity of the soul always remains intact, unaffected by the drudgery of materialistic life.
The two discourses of the Alter Rebbe present two different interpretations for what the empty vessels represent. In the first discourse the empty vessels represent deeds performed without motivation. In the second discourse the empty vessels are a metaphor for the emptiness I experience when I contemplate how my being is devoid of any real understanding, love or awe of the Divine, and feels a sense of bitterness about this distance – a bitterness that awakens the soul and sparks a deeper desire to connect.
The Great Light of Darkness
One of the more mystical ideas that stems from the above discourses is the concept that the greatest light emanates from darkness. In short, light is synonymous with Divine revelation, the emanation of Divine energy into creation. Darkness is the Divine energy that could not be expressed as light within creation, because the light of this energy would be too intense to be experienced. Instead, it manifests as darkness. In essence, the darkness is actually a greater form of light. By tapping into it with the proper awareness and sincerity, one can extract the potential contained within the darkness and transform it into light – an even greater light than would be possible without the darkness. This mystical idea is expressed in several ways, in various areas of life. A classic example, discussed at length in the Talmud and other sources in Jewish thought, is the idea that a Baal Teshuva, a returnee, is superior to a Tzadik, a perfectly righteous person who never sinned. In a more general sense, when we face a challenge and struggle through the darkness, we become stronger and live more deeply – and with more light – as a result.
The Power of the Soul
Another fundamental teaching that emerges from these discourses is the pure power of the soul, which cannot be touched – no matter what we experience. Every soul possesses this infinite power, and the ability to be a vessel for the greatest levels of inspiration and revelation.
Three Steps to Getting Unstuck
- Got Soul: Recognize that the power of the soul is infinite and cannot be tainted by anything I do or experience. It is always there. I can always tap into it.
- Make Vessels: Keep on trucking. Take action and increase in action, even if I’m not feeling it. Eventually the inspiration will flow again, and without action there will be no way to channel it when it comes.
- Become a Vessel: Go inward and gather myself emotionally. Confront the inner darkness that led me to challenge I am facing. Acknowledge the emptiness, the lacking, and use it as a motivation to thirst for more, to become better, to channel my love and awe according to my true priorities.
When facing the challenge of burnout or a lack of motivation, the temptation is to cave in and give up, or at least slow down. The counterintuitive lesson here is that what is needed is the exact opposite – to do the required introspection and go inward while simultaneously remaining active and even increasing activity. As a result, not only will I be able to overcome the challenges and regain motivation, but “you and your children will live abundantly” – after overcoming the challenge I will experience an even greater inspiration and a deeper appreciation for life.
1 Tanya, Likutei Amarim, Chapters 3 and 7
2 Kings II, Chapter 4.
3 V’Isha Achas and Keshem Sh’Tzoakim, in Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haketzarim, pages 136 and 137.
4 V’Isha Achas, 20 Cheshvan 5746 (printed 20 Cheshvan 5750).