Living on the Mitzvah Plan

February 21, 2014
To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

Depression is an old companion of mine. It doesn’t run my life, but it shows up periodically and moves into the guest room of my mind, helping itself to my energy and attention.  In almost 59 years of living, I’ve acquired a lot of strategies for dealing with it (therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, etc) but one of the most powerful is something I call the Mitzvah Plan.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

I came up with this back in rabbinical school, during a particularly bad stretch of depression, when the words we say at morning prayer jumped out at me:

These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the world to come, and these are they: . . .early attendance at the house of study morning and evening . . .Shabbat 127a

My Hebrew was still pretty bad at that point, and I translated the bolded phrase above as “sit in the house of study morning and evening.” It was a mistranslation, but a blessing nonetheless. I decided that even in the depths of depression, I could manage to sit my tuchus in the chair at school. So I chose to focus on the fact that I was doing that mitzvah, and give myself credit. One mitzvah leads to another, the sages tell us, and I found that if I kept my mind focused on looking for the next mitzvah, my mind had a harder time getting stuck in dark places. By the time I realized my mistake with the original Hebrew phrase, the Mitzvah Plan was in place and working for me.

[Mind you, I was also seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants, too. The Mitzvah Plan is not a "cure." It's a spiritual discipline I've found helpful in fighting depression. If depression is an issue for you I encourage you to ask for competent help.]

The Mitzvah Plan isn’t just for depression. Bored? Do a mitzvah. Frustrated? Do a mitzvah. Insomnia? Do a mitzvah. What, you did it and you are still bored, frustrated or awake? Do another mitzvah. And another. Keep doing mitzvot until you feel better or the world changes. Then do another mitzvah.

Sometimes it helps by taking me outside of myself to notice someone else’s troubles. Sometimes it helps by making me feel a bit better about myself. Sometimes it helps by just keeping me busy. But at least I’m not wasting my life thinking black thoughts or doing something I’ll regret later.

Where to find mitzvot? They are all around:

  • Are there thank you notes that need writing?
  • Give tzedakah. Very small amounts are still tzedakah.
  • What time of day is it? So say the prayers for that time of day.
  • Recycle something.
  • Write or call a mourner and tell them you’re thinking of them.
  • Do something kind for someone else.
  • Take care of your body: wash or exercise or brush your teeth.
  • Pay bills. (Did you know that paying workers on time is a mitzvah?)
  • Study some Torah.

I know, some of these do not sound  very “spiritual.” But in the Jewish tradition, they are mitzvot; they are acts that will make us holy if we do them with intent.

And I can say, from experience, that one mitzvah leads to another, that they can form a ladder on which to climb out of some pretty bad places. That’s life on the Mitzvah Plan.

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Unhappy Thanksgiving

November 28, 2013
Sad man holding pillow

 (Photo credit: hang_in_there)

I know what it’s like. I’ve been there: Unhappy Thanksgiving.

 

The details are private and personal, but the larger picture: the family gathering that is more painful than fun, the lonely Thanksgiving far from people you love, the holiday when there is an empty chair at the table – I’ve been to all those Thanksgivings, and they were miserable.

 

One of the blessings I count today is that this year is a good year for me: I’m surrounded by family, in a happy home, with food on the table, and the turkey is paid for. I have what I need, and more.

 

Not all years were like that. And I know, for someone reading this, this year isn’t like that. I’m truly sorry that you are having an Unhappy Thanksgiving this year. If I had a magic wand, I would heal all the hunger, and the loneliness, and the poverty, and the broken hearts – but I have no magic wand.

 

All I can tell you is that this is just one day. If the sun is shining, take a walk. If you can identify a blessing, give thanks for it. Gratitude is often the beginning of something good, weirdly enough.

 

But know that I know you are there, and I’ve been there. I wish you better years ahead.

 


Yom Kippur and Depression

September 11, 2013

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

It happens that this year the Days of Awe align with Suicide Prevention Week.

Sometimes people think I’m exaggerating when I say that before I learned Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The (non-Jewish) language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, made me truly crazy.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. Obviously I am still here, but it has sometimes been a spiritual battle.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It trumps nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means call someone, call someone. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting, whatever, DO IT.

MEDICATION – After a long lifetime of hanging on by my very short fingernails, I finally allowed a kind doctor to write me a prescription for antidepressants.  They do not solve everything, but they have been a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and say a blessing when I do it.

THERAPY – If you can get access to therapy, it can be an enormous blessing. Find a therapist by asking people you trust for a referral. Your rabbi should be able to give you a name of someone who has helped others.  Again, there are no easy fixes, but a good therapist can help you find your way.

PRAYER - This is one of the places where traditional prayers can be powerful. My go-to prayer for navy blue days is the blessing for the soul we say in the morning prayers: Elohai neshama sheh natata bee, tehora hee – “My God, the soul you have put within me is pure.” It reminds me that the core of my soul, the core of every soul, is the Divine spark, pure and good. It reminds me that however I happen to feel, the essence of me is pure Goodness.

Why would a rabbi go online and post that she’s on medication for depression, and expects to be on it for the rest of her life? Because (1) illness, including mental illness, is nothing to be ashamed of and (2) because it is the most powerful way I can think of to say it’s OK to take care of yourself and it is OK to ask for help.

In the traditional service, there is a prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings the dead to life.” While I think a future resurrection of the dead is a quaint medieval notion, I do take that prayer literally. Those who feel dead, who are in many ways as good as dead, can come back to life, and whenever that happens, it is a holy miracle.  That’s the blessing I say when I take my meds every morning, and whenever something happens that adds to the spark of the Divine within me.

This Yom Kippur, remember that what we call in English “The Gates of Repentance” are actually the Sha’arei Teshuvah. Teshuvah is much more than “repentance.” Teshuvah means  turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.


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