Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
Obsessive thoughts are one of the frequent causes of distress and depression. Those who suffer from it or know someone who suffers from it don’t need much explanation to understand how paralyzing it is. How do you get rid of paralyzing obsessive thoughts?
The story is told about an individual who was struggling with intrusive negative thoughts. He went to consult with the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Jabad. The Rebbe sent him to consult with a certain Chassid who lived in the nearby village. “He can help you understand how to control unwanted thoughts,” he said.
The Chassid, full of hope, wasted no time in going to the address he was given. When he arrived at his destination, quite late in the evening, he found it locked, but saw that there was light inside. He began to knock on the door, but no one opened it. He knocked harder. Nothing. He started shouting “Open the door! I’m freezing!” Nothing. Having no other choice, he lay down in a corner to sleep.
In the morning, the old man opened the door and greeted the Chassid.
“What brings you here?” he asked, kindly.
“I came to ask you for some advice. But before I do so, I’d like to know why you didn’t open the door for me last night. I was knocking and shouting for a long time. Where is your sense of empathy and hospitality?” asked the Chassid.
“Look, this is my house and I am in charge here. I am the one who decides who to let in and when. I don’t care if they shout and knock and make a fuss. I am the boss in my house. Now, what was your question?”
“Thank you. I got the answer I was looking for,” the Chassid replied to the bewildered, unwitting mentor.
This week’s reading, Shofetim , opens with G-d’s command of “You shall put judges and policemen at all of your gates.” In the literal sense it refers to the community’s responsibility to place judges at the entrances of cities in order to determine the correct conduct in any given case and police whose task will be to ensure that court rulings are implemented.
Our sages explain that this command also has a connotation and application in one’s personal life. Man is like a small city . The seven “gates” through which traffic passes into and out of his personal “city” are his eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. It is our responsibility to place “judges and policemen” at these gates. We need to control what we allow to enter our “city” and what we will allow to leave it.
Two things are needed in order to accomplish this goal: “judges” to determine what we should and should not see, hear and eat and what we should and should not let out of our mouths, and “police” to ensure the implementation of the “judge’s” opinion. It is not all that difficult to know what is right in each situation. All you need to do is consult the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) or discuss it with a competent Rabbi. The real challenge is when it comes to implementing what we know we must do. All of us who have started diets know very well that canyon that exists between knowing and actually doing.
How do we implement in practice the conclusions of our “judges”?
We need police. While “judges” represents reasoning, arguments and logic, “police” represents the opposite: imposition, coercion with no room for arguments. In personal life it represents discipline; forcing oneself to actually behave according to what is right —according to the objective perspective of the law— even if one’s instincts and emotions —one’s personal subjectivity and preferences— resist.
“I am the owner of my house and I decide who and what enters.” (It remains to be defined, however, how to identify that “I”, owner of the house, and his desire. The Tanya deals extensively with the theme of the two souls that fight to occupy that place. But that is a whole different subject in itself…)
Finally, I would like to share the Rebbe’s —may his merit shield us— perspective on the subject of negative thoughts. In many instances, when asked about the subject, the Rebbe advised that the best way to deal with them is to ignore them. Think about something else and don’t give them any room. This system is called hesech hadaat or diverting your thinking to a different place.
It is a very different approach than those that endlessly probe one’s negative thoughts and their possible causes, which very often serves to reinforce them and give them an even more harmful presence in our lives.
So this week’s tool is: when faced with obsessive thoughts, remember that you are the master of your thoughts. The head can entertain only one thought at a time. If you choose to fill your head with a positive thought, there will be no room for negative thinking. Obviously, I am not implying that you ignore and do not address the problems that need to be taken care of. When a problem comes up, work on solving it. Do not give any opportunity to obsess about it in a sterile way that paralyzes you and thus prevents you moving ahead to solve the problems.