Why I'm not "Working on Myself" This Elul. (A How-Not-to Guide)

It’s the Hebrew month of Elul - the month before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the shofars are blowing and talk of Teshuva (spiritual returning to G-d) is in the air!

If you’re reading this, I bet you’re the type of person who has worked on yourself a lot.

Me too. A ton.

My middle-school self would KILL me for doing this, but here’s proof from my first journal:

It’s January 13, 1986. (New Year’s resolution time!)  I’m 13 years old.

These are the points about myself that I really HATE:

  1. Big Nose

  2. Hair that’s too thick and puffs up

  3. Low self-esteem

  4. Too jealous

  5. Make problems worse than they really are

I then go on to list a bunch of upbeat possible solutions such as:  Learn makeup techniques!,  Be optimistic!, Laugh off your problems!

There’s all the classic Jewish middle-school girl problems, plus some mature (I think!) insight into some of my deeper issues.

But the thing that was really causing all of my troubles was hiding in plain sight.

Yup, you guessed it: HATE, or more specifically (and more toxic): SELF-HATE.  

Fueled by self-hatred I continued “working on myself” for a very long time.

The truth is that hate can be a powerful fuel for working on yourself - at least for a short time. Until everything collapses.

You can push yourself, and will yourself, and overcome, and fight, fight, fight to make the changes in your life that will finally let you be “good enough”, but as long as it’s fueled by self-hate it will be exhausting, short lived, and just a plain old lie.

You can not hate yourself into becoming the person you want to be.

It’s time to do some Teshuva on our Teshuva.  I think I can help.

I’d like to offer you some simple, easy steps to help infuse your Teshuva process with mindfulness, compassion, empowerment and self-love. I want to share with you how you can make the shift from working on yourself to working with yourself.

The King is in the Field.

Before you even start thinking of doing Teshuva you have to know this: Everything that we need in order to feel close to Hashem (G-d, The Divine)  is here, right now - at this moment. This is true always - and in Elul, Hashem’s closeness and compassion are particularly potent. Our tradition teaches that in Elul the King is in the field - not far off in some lofty palace. So before you move on to the next step - say these words to yourself: Hashem can meet me exactly where I am! Then, just stay put for a moment.

Got it? If so, you can move on to the next step. If not, please, please, please, with a lot of kindness and gentleness toward yourself, go back to the field. Take your time - Hashem is not going anywhere and the next step will be here as soon as you are ready!

Step Away From the Chet.

As Rambam lays out for us in Hilchot Teshuva, the first thing we must do in our teshuva process is to abandon the chet.  יעזוב החוטא חטאו - Yaazov ha’ choteh cheto - The sinner will abandon his sin.

(Chet is often translated as sin in English - from now on I’m going to stick with the Hebrew and define it as the negative thought, speech or action  that blocks Hashem from our lives.)

The most basic way to understand abandoning the chet is this: You can’t do Teshuva on the thing until you actually stop doing the thing!

That’s a no-brainer, right? Just step away from the chet. But the truth is, the things that most of us want to do Teshuva on are deeper and more habitual than that.

For lasting change, just as important as stepping away from the physical action, is stepping away from our emotional attachment that causes us to over-identify with the chet.

For example, negative self-talk is one sure sign that you are over-identifying with the chet.

If you are saying things like, I’m so stupid, I’m so disorganized, I have no self control, or I can’t believe I @#$%&*$ did that - again! - it’s time to step away.  

So how do we do this? One way is through Mindfulness.

Mindfulness, in this context, is when we access our higher awareness to study automatic/habitual behavior.

For example, you’ve been breathing all day - it just happens automatically.

Now, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your nose - keeping your attention on the air coming in and out at the tip of your nose. (Really, go back and do that.)

Now you are the one who breathes and the one who is watching the breathing. The first one is our automatic/habitual self, the second our mindful self.

There’s the part of you that gets angry (automatic/habitual) and there’s also the mindful/higher/aspirational part of yourself that doesn’t want to lash out in anger any more. When we identify more with our higher selves than our habitual selves, change can happen.

Here’s one easy way that you can integrate mindfulness into your life:  Set a timer to go off every hour (I use an app called Repeat Timer). Each time the timer goes off,  have a mindful moment.

Take three deep breaths in and out -  through your nose - (like we talked about above), and then ask yourself, What’s the most important thing I could be doing right now to connect with my higher/aspirational self? This simple practice can help you step away from the automatic/habitual and increase your capacity for mindfulness.

With regular practice, we can use mindfulness both to recognize anger (or whatever you are dealing with) as soon as it creeps up on us and to stop it before the habitual negative thought, speech or action happens.

This stepping-away is essential to change - because if we don’t step away from the chet in a mindful way we’ll end up stepping away through our addiction of choice.

That means, when we are overly identified with our chet it triggers our shame - which becomes so unbearable we turn toward our addiction of choice (food, internet, alchohol, etc.) in order to get the distance we truly need. When we step away through addiction we’re saying that we can’t bear to look at the situation at all.

However, when we step away from the chet in a mindful way we can get a good look at it and get a clear picture of what needs to shift.  It’s like one of those paintings that just looks like a bunch of dots up close, but when you backup you can actually see the bigger picture.

Stepping away allows us to look at things that would otherwise be too painful to look at.

Please remember that mindfulness is a practice - not a do-it-and-be-done type of thing. Spiritual growth is not a linear process!  Our only job is to notice when we’ve gone off the path and to come back on as soon as we can!

When we approach Teshuva in this kinder and gentler way we can make changes that rest on the sturdy ground of self love and feeling loved by Hashem, not the fragile foundation of self hate.