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The Will

Torah Portion Tzav 2019

How do we image the inner life? There are many maps and metaphors for depicting the dynamics of inner work, but the use of the ancient Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert is one of the most common and compelling in the Jewish mystical tradition.

Each element of the Mishkan is understood to stand for something in the inner life of the human being. For example, the light of the oil lamp stands for the soul, the bread offering stands for the physical world, and the incense stands for the sense of the divine that permeates our lives.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we have verses (Leviticus 6:5,7) that focus on the fire of the altar. “The fire on the altar shall not be extinguished.” In the Chasidic tradition, the fire on the altar is often seen as standing for human will.

Most schools of psychology don’t teach much about the will. The idea seems to be that if you can work out any deep psychological issues, resistance will disappear and you will get things done. According to some, if you are procrastinating or avoiding doing your taxes, this might mean you have unresolved attachment issues with you mom. Okay, I am kidding here a bit but not by too much.

The one exception of psychologists teaching about the will is Roberto Assagioli (1888 – 1974). He was a trained psychiatrist in the Freudian school, but felt that both psychiatry and psychoanalysis were insufficient. These approaches neglected, for example, areas such as wisdom, virtue, creativity, and lacked a true understanding of the inner life. Assagioli developed a school of thought called “Psychosynthesis.” Assagioli felt that the closest school of thought to his was that of Carl Jung, who saw the unconscious realm that drives our mental states and behaviors as far more complex than the model proposed by Freud. Assagioli saw his approach as synthesizing psychiatry, psychology of religion, higher consciousness, parapsychology, eastern psychology, humanistic psychology, philosophical psychology, especially the Platonists – and the Kabbalah.

What drives a person to self-actualization, the will needed to make real the authentic desires and images of the inner life? As Assagioli teaches in his The Act of Will, without proper use of the will, all comes to naught. So many people have such great goals, such great visions for themselves, but find themselves often getting sidetracked, dispirited or overwhelmed. The inner flame goes out. People find themselves procrastinating and doing anything but what they most want or need to accomplish. We seem to lack the energy. Those that have inner growth plans – less angry or fearful, less envious or anxious, more conscious and kind - know that there is actual inner work to do. Often when I guide people, we work out a plan for a daily practice – “just 10 minutes a day” I say. Over and over again, people forget or don’t have time for a daily practice of moving the inner life forward. The fire on the altar is reduced to dim embers. Over life we learn that it is way easier to keep the fire lighted than build the fire all over again

How do we keep the inner fire, the will, constant within? I find that four steps help:

First, a rather precise vision of what you are aiming for, not just a lofty vision, but also practical and achievable visions. For example, when I switched from training Karate to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training 19 years ago, like every beginner I asked about how long it takes to get a “black belt.” I quickly learned that that vision always made me feel inadequate. I compared myself to a lofty ideal and I always came up short. I created a different vision. I wanted to be the guy who suited up and showed up, did not get hurt or hurt others, who came back the next day, who trained well, fought in a determined and skillful way, focused on learning and teaching, but not winning, be a good citizen of the club, and more than anything honor the sport. When the promotions come, they come. My vision was not on promotions – it was on something else. It was precise, reasonable and achievable. Sure, the lofty fantasy was in the back of my mind, but the lofty vision did not get me back on the mat two to four times a week. The precise vision did.

In all my endeavors, as a teacher, counselor, professor, writer and as a family person, I have lofty visions, but also simple, precise and realizable ones.

Second, intentionality. Intentionality means a constant reminder of where I am, what may be required of me as a human being, and what precise application of my vision is at stake here. You can’t just have a vision; you have to consciously and mindfully intend it several times a day. Intentionality is like focusing on something with your eyes. We see things effortlessly. If someone said, however, to focus on this table you do something different with your brain. Intentionality means to focus your energy on what is before you, what you have to do.

Third, skills. If you will the ends, you will the means. There are all kinds of skills in spiritual psychology that can apply in different situations. Big task? Break it down into small ones, into micro tasks. Want to be less angry? Focus on your disappointed need and not what they did, and whether your need is rational and useful. If your need is righteous, ask yourself how to get what you need without anger. Fear or anxiety? Ask what is the worse likely outcome is, not what might happen, but will likely happen, and whether you can survive that outcome. In all my teaching and counseling, I find that there are specific skills that apply to situations. Assagioli calls this the “skillful will” as opposed to strong will (Just do it!). Strong will wears out. Skillful will applies just enough energy to move things forward.

The fourth way to keep your will energized is a bit hard to explain. I tend to call it “enlightened reflection.” You have to be able to reflect on all the above and the dynamic among them. Reflect: Is my vision a mix of both what is lofty for the future and achievable for today? Can I focus better? Where are my skills refined and where do I need work?

If we just “will” ourselves, just hope, think and pray about it, the will often collapses - the fire is extinguished. If we cultivate vision, intentionality, skills and enlightened reflection, we can care for the will, keep the flame alive.

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