The Essence of Change and the Nature of Time
G-d is the only constant. Everything within the physical world is in a state of perpetual motion passing from one moment to the next. Every thought is related to what happened before, what’s going on now or what will be in the future. As time passes, the current moment ceases to exist and a new instant comes into being by the process of creation. Such is the essence of change and the nature of time, which can be gradual or sudden. In either case, each time we are created a new, we come back different – sometimes a bit ruffled but, G-d willing, a little stronger and wiser.
Yet, the question arises, “If the world and everything in it ceases to exist and is re-created with each passing moment, why don’t we notice it?” The answer is memory. The memory of the previous moment serves to provide us with the illusion of uninterrupted movement through time. It is similar to watching a movie or video. When we see continuous motion on the screen we are actually looking at still pictures being flashed before our eyes many times per second. Each new frame is in exactly the same viewing position as the previous one and within each new image there are slight variations in the actors’ positions or the angle of the camera. The memory of the preceding frame blends with the new image so we do not notice the transition from one picture to the next. Hence we see the illusion of people and objects moving about or derive that we, i.e. the viewers, are moving down the road or across the sky.
Basically, human change occurs in three different forms: physical (body), psychological (mind), and spiritual (soul). Additionally, it can be voluntary i.e. the result of a conscious effort or submitting to surgery or involuntary e.g. the result of an accident, illness, natural disaster or swings in the economy. Moreover, although some might think that change can be temporary or permanent, it is always the latter. Despite the great effort we often put into trying to make things like they were, like moving back to the old neighborhood, taking back an old job or rekindling a past relationship, we always find that it is never quite the same.
Physical change pertains to aging, scarring, chronic illness, amputation, weight loss, weight gain, warts, moles, pimples, plastic surgery, etc. When a person sees a likeness in the mirror that is different from what he or she expects, there is an alteration in body image that causes an emotional impact (see “Effects of Change” below). In learning to deal with any kind of physical modification it is important to know the Hassidic concept that the body is merely the mirror image of the soul. To illustrate, if you look into a cracked mirror you will see a distorted reflection of yourself but your body is unchanged. Likewise, even if, Heaven forbid, there is a loss of a body part or a major function, the real self i.e. the soul, remains intact. Men like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Christopher Reeve understood this basic truth and lived by it.
Psychological change, results from learning and/or a broad spectrum of uncontrollable events. Learning is a powerful catalyst for conversion. It transforms the way a person thinks and behaves. When a boor learns good manners and displays them he becomes a gentleman. The acquisition of knowledge can evoke meekness in the mighty and haughtiness in the humble. People even abandon their life-long religious beliefs upon finding out a few facts they did not know.
Regarding what happens, the mind-altering impact of any occurrence varies widely from one individual to another. The recent cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami in South Asia that claimed the lives of more than one hundred fifty thousand people left some survivors in a catatonic state while others mobilized themselves to search for loved ones. Even those of us who watched the news from the other side of the world can’t help but undergo some attitude adjustment with the reports of so much devastation over so short a time. Suddenly, some insurmountable problems seem more like petty annoyances.
On a positive note, success also effects alterations in the mind set. The prospering individual takes on a new role through a promotion, graduation or wind fall, which triggers a change in behavior and demeanor. Moreover, getting married, giving birth and grieving over the loss of a loved one all alter the course of a person’s life and thereby result in behavioral modifications.
Although spiritual change is a concept that seems more difficult to grasp, it is not. The soul is the driving force behind the physical self. Since the human spirit is a warring dichotomy of G-dly light versus the darkness of animalism, spiritual change is the outcome of the struggle of the intellectual human fighting to gain control over the emotional animal and vice versa. Hence, a profound supernal alteration occurs whenever a person turns away from immorality and toward prayer and sorrowful repentance followed by acts of kindness and charity. The Tanya brings down in chapter five that ours is the world of action. While our souls draw Divine energy and strength from the heavenly realms, what we do here and now has an awesome rippling effect in the supernal dominions.
Hence, the thought speech and action of repentance, prayer and kindhearted endeavors are garments for the soul that connect it to G-dliness. This process automatically allows the soul to discard the filthy rags brought on by arrogance and pleasure seeking. Such is the nature of free will; the decision as to whether or not to love and fear Him enough to reduce the ego and give up some pleasure. Therefore, the more effort a person puts into the prayer, repentance and kindliness, the more G-dliness is revealed in that individual bringing about a much needed spiritual transformation.
Self-Improvement – Making Change Happen (With the Help of the Almighty)
One of the standard customs in our society is to pay lip service to making changes every year – the New Year’s Day resolution. People talk about all kinds of ways to improve themselves such as eat less, exercise more, quit smoking, work harder, improve relationships, etc. The reality is that few ever go beyond making their declarations. Most often it becomes more like a game – a fun topic of conversation at various holiday gatherings: “So, what’s your resolution?”
The fact is that most of us want desperately to alter our undesirable behavior patterns and unhealthy life styles. We start out determined to make it happen with the committed thought and speech saying, “I’m really going to do it this time.” Then, soon after, we cave in and surrender because we simply don’t know how to fight it. In the end, we conclude, “I have no will power,” and feel saddened over one more failure. So, why do we repeatedly set ourselves up for more letdowns? The answer lies in the fact that we don’t know what we are dealing with and we mistakenly believe that we can handle this without the help of G-d. We, therefore, unwittingly find ourselves engaged in yet another foolish attempt to gain control over a stampeding elephant.
Another question might be, “What exactly are we fighting?” The answer is that we are battling against the spiritual life force that drives all physical desires. This is otherwise known as the “dark side” of the soul. As described in chapter one of this book, satisfying the body’s cravings is exactly the reason for the animal’s existence. You are fighting against a cunning relentless enemy on his terrain, who has the strength and tenacity of a charging bull. You simply cannot meet this one alone head on and expect to win. Moreover, although people do achieve weight loss and other goals through participation in support groups or the nagging of a determined loved one, the reality is that they rarely maintain their improved status. Most dieters, for instance, end up regaining the lost weight because the process usually lacks the distinction of spiritual dynamics as found in Hassidism. While we all need the help of others to support our efforts, it is important to appreciate that for permanency there must be a spiritual transformation.
The Tanya gives us an innovative methodology for arming ourselves with an intense weapon. It goes to the underlying theme of creation – the war between good and evil. The Tanya basically talks about empowerment by learning the nature of our good inclination, which is driven by G-dly light. Since the physical world is a mere reflection, we need only to make a close observation of nature in order to gain understanding of the supernal realms. Hence, if you want to understand the nature of the relationship between G-dly light and spiritual darkness, observe the relationship between physical light and darkness or day and night.
For example, let’s say you are working or reading in a room by sunlight and you are reaching the end of the day. You will notice that there is a gradual dimming. It takes a while for the darkness to permeate. When you realize that you need more light you flip on the switch and get immediate results. You don’t have to wait for the light to fill the room. Even if all you did was light a match, you can immediately see everything around you. Also, when you compare sunset to sunrise you will notice that the transformation from night to day happens much faster. Thus you can now see that the darkness creeps in as the light wanes but as long as the light source remains unblocked, darkness has no existence.
Then again, there is the question of the light switch. If you are in a dark room and flip it on, the room instantaneously lights up. But when you turn it off the room likewise becomes immediately dark again. Accordingly, one would think that the darkness is as powerful as the light. However, the light source is always in control. There is no such thing as a “dark switch.” You can’t turn darkness on and off.
Hence, one can apply this knowledge when thinking about how to make life style alterations. In chapter thirteen of the Tanya, we learn that we cannot win the fight against our evil inclination without the help of G-d. He is the only source of the light that dissipates spiritual darkness, which is manifested in the physical world through thought speech and action to satisfy lust, gluttony, thrill seeking and the like. Accordingly, the human side of the soul does not radiate its own light and, therefore, cannot overcome this murkiness without seeking and receiving the G-dly brilliance. This connection is accomplished through Bible study, charity and kindliness. These characteristics include maintaining a code of moral behavior such as modesty, sexual purity (abstaining from illicit relationships), honesty in business (especially with weights and measures), not doing to others that which you hate being done to you, etc. As soon as a person begins this effort, the radiance of the Almighty permeates his or her soul, dispelling the darkness; thereby causing the animal cravings to disappear. Furthermore, it is important to note that according to the Tanya, the presence of G-dly light occurring as a result of the person’s efforts is temporary and must be renewed on a daily basis, like recharging the battery in your cell phone. Otherwise, the desire for worldly pleasures returns with a vengeance.
The nature of free will is such that the only choices we have are between good and evil. Likewise, the basis of all decisions “Should I or should I not?” is the choice between giving in or not to physical urges and emotional impulses. The Alter Rebbe referred to pleasure seeking for its own sake as “foolishness.” To explain, it is obviously to one’s advantage to find favor with G-d by always choosing good. Therefore, in order for a person to willingly commit a biblically prohibited immoral act, he or she has to believe that there is nothing wrong with it by virtue of thinking either there is no G-d, or that He will overlook or not be concerned about “minor” indiscretions, or that the ancient rules are not relevant in modern times. Otherwise, the terror of Heavenly retribution would stop anyone but the insane from committing an act that G-d finds offensive.
Therefore, personal transformation must begin with knowledge of truth. It is simply a matter of learning whether or not the Bible permits or prohibits a particular act. With G-d’s law there is no compromise, no exceptions and no gray areas. The lessons of history tell us that movements involving immorality on a massive scale have had dire consequences. For example, the anti-war movement that started in the 1960’s had a famous slogan: “Make love – not war.” Notwithstanding that they were protesting against a war that many thought was immoral in its purpose, the younger generation of that era gave themselves permission to engage in recreational sex and drugs. They comparatively judged themselves more virtuous than the government “war mongers” who visited destruction and death upon villages in Cambodia and Viet Nam. The end result of the colossal thirty-year pleasure binge was that there were massive epidemics of hepatitis, drug overdose, AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis and other diseases that killed a lot more people than the war.
For most of us, the past events of our lives determine our future. One of the familiar ways of thinking that interferes with reaching goals is being stuck in the past. Everything that we do is a product of past events. In other words, whenever we make a choice, we automatically search for memories of similar circumstances and decide according to the previous outcome. For example, many people avoid marriage because they experienced their parents going through an ugly painful divorce. In another example, I once counseled a young man who was an intelligent mid-level executive and was unable to progress in his career because he was incapable of engaging in public speaking. Every time he tried, he stammered and broke into a cold sweat. During my conversations with him he revealed that he wet his pants in front of the class in first grade during show and tell. The other children laughed loudly and he never forgot the humiliation.
The key to any positive transformation is erasing the past; like embarking on a journey and never looking back. G-d demanded that from the people that He chose to redeem. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt because her attachment to the evil life style in Sodom gave her an irresistible urge to turn around. By the same token, G-d wanted the Jewish people to obliterate the memories of their past life in Egypt because it was the most evil place on Earth. They were to gather their things, leave on a moment’s notice and completely forget about their past life of slavery to a nation of sorcery and debauchery. After 210 years in Egypt the morality of the Jews had degenerated to the forty ninth out of fifty levels of evil, which was dangerously close to the point of no return. When the Exodus began, they were destined within a short time to reach the highest possible level of holiness. G-d knew that for such a 180 degree transformation to take place there had to be a total disconnection from past behaviors and customs that were inherently derived from the Egyptian culture.
Everyone lives into the future. When you plan a vacation, you purchase tickets well in advance to get the cheaper fares. Then your thoughts, speech and actions are all oriented toward the trip in preparing your clothes and arranging your life for the journey. Hence we can use the same principle to set goals and live as though we have already reached them. Professional schools use this principle to educate their students. Military schools require their cadets to act and think like officers, medical schools train their students to emulate doctors, and so on.
We know from the Bible that G-d wants us to remain engaged in a continuous effort toward self improvement. It pleases Him when we use the tools he gave us to strive to reach our full potential. In fact, the Tanya relates that when each person stands before the Heavenly Court the question asked by the prosecutor is not “What did you do with your life?” but “Did you reach your full potential?”
Hence, we are instructed to set realistic goals and allow ourselves a reasonable amount of time to reach them. The distinction of “living into the future” or “being in the zone”, as professional athletes often say, is a spiritual tool for setting and reaching goals. For example, if you want to reduce your food intake to lose weight, you need to start thinking like a thin person. How does a thin person think? It is a matter of the individual’s relationship with food. Find someone who has good control over his or her eating and ask how he or she does it and write it down. You will most probably hear “I never eat after 7:00 p.m. and I avoid carbs.” You can also read one of those best selling diet books. However, the important consideration is to emulate people who are thin by also learning how they occupy themselves to avoid thinking about what to eat.
In summary, the general categories of change are those that are forced upon us that we don’t want, those that we stumble upon that make us happy and those that we strive for to improve our situation and/or health. Life altering events, both good and bad, require acceptance and adjustment. The process leading from sudden loss to acceptance emanates from the spirit and is fraught with difficulty. The war between the animal side of the soul and the G-dly side, rages like a territorial dispute between nations. The evil inclination refuses to acknowledge any losses while it insists on taking credit for all gains. The human intellect, which emanates from the G-dly side of the soul, wants to acknowledge the Master of the Universe for all gains and accept losses as a necessary exercise of Divine Will.
The process of striving for change to improve one’s health, job performance, social skills, financial status, etc. depends heavily on one’s relationship with the past. The history of a person’s life takes its toll by dictating a future fraught with self-imposed limitations. Once the person understands that everything ceases to exist with each passing moment and is created a new, he or she can leave the controlling prior events in the non-existent state and face a new future with nothing in it but possibility. Afterwards, it is important to choose realistic goals and then find role models within your community (family, friends, teachers, clergy, etc.) and emulate them by finding out how they think.
In conclusion, we all start our corporeal lives as a seminal drop and end up as worm food. Everything that happens in between is change – growth and development followed by gradual deterioration and death. For those who believe that there is nothing else to being alive, there is but a few moments of tumultuous self awareness. For those who believe that self awareness emanates from the soul, then change, as an integral part of G-d’s Creation, is His way of preparing us for our eternal reward.