The YOU Inside of You
Mah Nishma?! 👋
As we explored in the last XL, your inner-space of sensations, feelings and fleeting thoughts is where you live most of the day.
In Hebrew, it’s called your “Nefesh.”2
In any given moment, you will find yourself feeling a bunch of sensations and feelings.
Most likely, you will also feel that you’ll keep feeling this way forever.
“I have a headache. I feel like it will never go away…I know that it will at some point, but I feel like it won’t!”
This is true of all sensations and feelings:
“I feel drained like I have nothing left to give…it’s hard for me to imagine ever feeling inspired and energized again.”
This may not be something you verbalize, but it is something you might FEEL.
It’s also true of positive feelings.
We hopefully feel healthy and good right now. This would be wonderful. If accurate, it’s a great time to be appreciative and grateful in contrast to all the times we haven’t felt so good, and gather strength for sub-optimal times to come.
But, alas, we don’t naturally take advantage of these opportunities to rise above the feelings we feel.
We tend to remain grounded in their powerful gravitational pull.
One of the hallmarks of feelings and emotions is that they are absolute and all-encompassing.3
As we’ve done once already, let’s pay attention again to how we speak about our day-to-day experiences, and observe how our words reflect this sense of being stuck. And more than just being generically stuck, notice as well how we so-often use language that is reactive — reflecting a perception that whatever we’re feeling was done to us — that we are emotionally victims to the world around us:
“You made me angry”
“She’s annoying me.”
“I slept terribly. It really put me in a bad mood.”
“We just fell in love...”
“I don’t know…we just fell out of love.”
Here’s the problem: if our souls are the lenses that we see through, and how we see the world is necessarily a function of what happens to us, then, we’d find ourselves permanently trapped in these mindsets and emotional patterns without having any say in the matter.
What do you think?
Do you have a choice to see things differently from the way Life seems to have dictated for you?
Stuck in the Stimulus and Response Loop
Let’s slow down the way we experience any given moment of life to a frame-by-frame slow-motion:
First, we see, hear, touch, smell, or feel things out in the world.
Based on our associations and the narratives we’ve crafted for ourselves — or have been taught to believe by others — these sensations trigger memories, which get dislodged and seem to surface on their own.
The memories are followed immediately by associated emotions that flood our systems,
followed by not-necessarily-productive thoughts that start scrolling through our heads in response to those emotions.
All of this happens in a matter of seconds.
If we go with the flow, we will then react in turn with whatever behavioral response we’ve been conditioned to have.
If in some past relationship you felt abandoned, your mind (and Nefesh more broadly) in all likelihood became conditioned to respond to that stimulus in a certain way. All things equal, it’s impossible that this conditioning will not affect your future responses to similar stimuli (or stimuli that you interpret as similar).
How could it not?
Is there a way to short circuit this??
I’m going to share two approaches with you.
The Adult in the Room
The first is called Da’at (דעת). And it’s the greatest gift we’ve been given, and actually the first thing we pray for every day.4
What is it?
Well, I could translate it but I think it would probably flatten its meaning. Let’s describe how it works instead.
So the Nefesh has all of these perceptions, feelings, instincts, emotions, and thoughts that swirl around in your head. But not just in your head. In your heart. In your chest. In your gut. In your bones. A lot of stuff going on in there. Often contradictory. If you could hear them all, they would sound like the cacophony of children in a kindergarten right after snack time as the sugar high kicks in.
You’ve gotta ask yourself the question:
Is there an adult in the room of all those voices inside of you??
Yes. There is.
YOU are the adult in the room.
More precisely, Jewish mystics refer to the Da’at as the “You inside the You.”
It’s your clear mind in the eye of the storm.
Your sound judgment.
Your inner voice.
YOU are the CEO at the head of the table of all those other voices you have going on inside. It’s just that you, and all of us really, tend forget who’s running the meeting when things get out of hand — which, of course, they often do.
Just like adults sometimes forget we’re adults and get caught up in the pandemonium when kids go wild — your Da’at can get caught up in the noise, and resign itself to it.
Once you’ve lost your cool, it’s hard to get your Da’at back. However, if we develop the habit of…
P A U S I N G
…before reacting, we stand a much greater chance of short circuiting our otherwise hard-wired reactions, and stopping our triggering before it starts.5
One of my teachers since I was a kid, Rabbi Dr. Baruch Hilsenrath, calls this “pausitive thinking.”6
But even before you formally think. Simply stop and observe what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling.
“I’m feeling tense.”
“I’m feeling my anxiety levels rise.”
“I’m having those negative thoughts again.”
By simply observing your thoughts and feelings, you are able to step back, and step up and away from those thoughts, feelings and emotions that inhabit your more reactive self (i.e. your Nefesh).
I am feeling tense but I am not my tenseness.
I am feeling anxious but I am not my anxiety.
I am having negative thoughts, but I am not my negative thoughts.
Mindful observation of oneself induces a state of Da’at in which I am reminded that I am separate from what I think and feel and can judge and decide which ones of these thoughts and feelings I want to validate and connect with.
In this way, even before you make a decision, you’re already ahead of the game by disentangling and separating yourself from your lower self’s knee-jerk, programmed reactions.
Only from this higher position of perspective can you make an actual choice as to what you actively connect to.
But now that we’ve reached this point in our exploration, we can appreciate that even deeper than the lens through which you see is THE YOU WHO IS SEEING.
The YOU inside of you.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Episode 5 dropping tomorrow morning.
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I decided to split Episode 5 into two shorter pieces for easier digestion.
The etymological root נפש has a connotation of “rest,” “renewal,” and “expansion.” This is a function of the infinite, expansive soul coming up against the seemingly limited, static body. The reason humans always want more more MORE is because our soul is seeking infinity in the physical world (this phenomenon is what the philosopher-scientist-mathematician Blaise Pascal referred to as the “God-shaped hole” inside of a person).
Shabbat invites us to renew ourselves by taking 25 hours to physically rest and not expand in the physical realm, but rather expand spiritually and consciously where we are in the present.
A further insight related to footnote 2:
As we’ll see, the human soul is a magnificently large, dynamic entity that stretches from your Nefesh i.e. the interface with your physical body all the way to infinity. But it is in the experience of Nefesh of the here and now that the infinite soul, so to speak, takes the shape of the finite body, and feels finite and contained in that present moment and the feelings that fill it.
The fourth blessing in the daily Amida prayer, and the first one with actual requests asks of God: “Grant us Da’at…from You [Hashem].”
I have a theory that “being emotionally triggered” has become more and more of “a thing” due to the way we have become hard-wired in stimulus-response loops by the technology we increasingly use and rely on.
Invariably, if I don’t exercise my Da’at, it atrophies from disuse, and my reactive Nefesh becomes an extension of the hardware I’m using (read: being used by).
Pausing before reacting to judge and listen to our conscience is uniquely human. Animals also have the Nefesh — this lower aspect of soul. There’s every reason to believe that animals have raw sensory experience, and on some level, emotions that are not entirely different from ours. What is unique to us is that we have a conscience that sits above our Nefesh, and if we can preserve the calm, by slowing down the interval between stimulus and response, we stand a much better chance of rewriting the scripts the play out inside of us.
Our humanity depends on this.