In the Jewish tradition we have an affinity for fasting. It seems that with all of the eating that we do as Jews, the ancient Talmudic sages felt that maybe we should balance that out. So, they instituted several fasts during the year. This year after dismissing many of my former laws and customs I wondered how I would approach the fast day known as Tisha b’ab which commemorates the destruction of the holy temple in ancient Jerusalem. I questioned whether I would be fasting this year or not. Why put myself through an experience that kept me from eating-one of my personal joys? Yet one of my wonderful friends said to me, “you’ll fast or you won’t. It doesn’t make a difference because in appreciating the moment you lose nothing in experiencing whatever is here.” That was so liberating. My opportunity, as always, was to meet the moment with love, whether eating or not. Well this was new for me. Now the rules were no longer ruling me and breaking them no longer held the same attraction. I was truly free to do what I would do. And so I didn’t eat until I did. In the process I had the most wonderful insight.
For a while I have been comparing Judaism to other religions. The first thing I noticed is that Judaism did not have guru. There’s no Buddha, no Jesus and no Mohammed. There is no human form for us to look up to. Yes we have Moses and Abraham but they just don’t sit in the same light as the others. After grappling with it for a while I came to the wonderful realization that maybe Jews don’t have a guru because the Old Testament knew that true knowledge can only come from ourselves. When we look to outside sources to fix us, to show us the path, we will be sorely disappointed and led the wrong way. As Jews, the Torah tells us that the only way we will get it, is by looking inside of ourselves. What better opportunity is there for self inquiry than a day that prohibits, eating, drinking, sex, bathing, swimming, shopping and even Bible study. The only thing that we have left to do is feel the moment.
You cant distract yourself with anything. The sages seemed to have known that being in the moment was so difficult for us that they forced us to remove all distractions. And so, I postulate, maybe this was their attempt at giving us an opportunity to truly experience for ourselves what it feels like to be present. In that experience we have the opportunity to get in touch with the feelings and beliefs that keep us stuck. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we truly feel. In my experience when I am not fully aware of my feelings, I unconsciously act unkindly to others, especially when I am dealing with fear. If I am afraid of being rejected, I will reject the person first so as not to be hurt.
When we are in the moment without any distractions we have nothing to divert us from the truth. All the feelings and emotions surface with nowhere to go other than to be brought into consciousness . It is in this moment of reflection that we can notice the discrepancy between our feelings and our actions and choose love rather than fear.
I sit on the porch meditating as my mother comes up the steps and I notice the thoughts arise. “She thinks you look ridiculous. You better open your eyes and greet her or she will think you are crazy.” As soon as they arise, I realize they are coming out of me. Those are my thoughts not hers. I realize in that moment, that everything I believe about others is really about me. Any time I believe someone is judging me, in reality, it is actually me who is judging myself. I have the opportunity to notice my judgments and take responsibility for them. Rather than blame the other person, or seek their approval, I must look inside and find my own approval. If, at any moment I feel judged, it is because I am judging myself or else I wouldn’t be able to feel it.
I was dating someone who didn’t like my body and he told me so. In that moment, I started searching for his approval. When I went to my therapist and told her the story, I felt a lot of shame about the way I acted. How could I have been so dumb to continue in a relationship like that? Her response was simple. “Esther,” she said, “he picked the one thing that is so personal to you; the one thing you hold in the deepest parts of your psyche and he attacked you there. He hit you where it hurts. Don’t beat yourself up. If he had come to you and said, ‘Esther, I am not attracted to you. You are not smart enough.’ You would have laughed at him. But if he is going to pick the one thing that you judge yourself on, then you are going to react accordingly.”
I love that story. Why you may ask does she love a story where she was degraded. And the answer lies in the truth. The truth is that, I was judging myself more than he ever could. I didn’t approve of my body so I allowed the false belief that if I gained approval from someone on the outside, I would be able to find acceptance on the inside. How often do we look to someone else to make us feel better about a self imposed judgement? “Honey” we might say, “how do I look?” Rather than recognizing our own judgments about ourselves, we look for outside approval. Ultimately no matter what they say, there is backlash. Whatever our spouse says, positive or negative, we don’t like it. Because the truth is, we have already decided the correct answer but we don’t want to see it. We resist looking inside because we are too scared to see what we might find. In my experience, when I look inside, my judgments are harsher than anyone else’s could ever be.
The truth is that he opened my eyes to my self hatred and allowed me the opportunity to question my beliefs about my body. The issue that I thought I had dealt with in the past, resurfaced for me to deal with in the present. So, yes that is one of my favorite stories.
It seems that I have spent my life believing that I wasn’t allowed to be friends with a man. Growing up in an orthodox Jewish community I learned from a young age that men and women were to be separated. Whether it was in synagogue, where the women sat behind a glass wall or at the dinner table during holidays where the women sat on one end and the men the other. But I was always longing to switch sides. I wanted to be up there carrying the Torah, feeling the weight of it in my arms and reading its holy words. At the dinner table I wanted to hear about politics not parties, money not manicures. And now at 31 and divorced it is time for me to learn how to relate to men in a new way.
When I got married at 23 I went from being a daughter to a wife. Rather than learning about what I wanted and forming my own place in the world, I continued attempting to fit into the role of women I had seen before; a role where women were segregated from the men, where women were respected for their cooking rather than their ideas and, like I have said in the past, I attempted to fit in. But now, with this new opportunity, I find myself in a difficult place. In the past, men other than relatives were seen as potential mates. When I met a guy the question was always “can you marry him?” If the answer was no, then I forgot about him. If the answer was yes, then I spent the next months pining over him and trying to make myself desirable; trying to lose weight, wearing make up, calling when I was supposed to call and not calling when I wasn’t. It was awful and I was miserable. And then I met my husband and he accepted me. I didn’t have to lose weight. I didn’t have to change myself. But then men and women become even more segregated. There was no reason to relate. Couples would get together and play cards the women in the living room playing canasta and the men in the den playing poker. How many times did I want to play poker? Almost every time but the unwritten rule was that, women can not play with the men. I visited a friend a few weeks ago and her sister was telling me about how she went to a lecture given by a Rabbi who said to them that 2 couples should not go out for dinner together because it may create a situation that will encourage inappropriate behavior. As I write this, my stomach gets tied into a knot for many different reasons that I won’t get into now. My question for today is “now what?”
Here I am divorced, happy and excited to take on the world. I am open to potential relationships but not searching for them. When I meet a man that I am attracted to, I want to spend time with him but my only way of relating is through the eyes of a romantic relationship and the funny thing is I don’t even know if that is what I want. Maybe I just want to be friends. Maybe that is what feels true and real for me in the moment. What’s interesting though, is that my mind in all of its glory has decided to return to its old pattern that says man equals romance so that my mind creates suffering. Old patterns arrive and there I go again wondering if I can call and what I should say and how I could get him to like me. At the same time something inside of me says, “Stop! Just stop this! This is not what you want. Esther you no longer need to gain male approval. You no longer need to change yourself for anyone and do the “right thing”. It is time to do what feels good for you. In this moment what brings you joy? Forget the past welcome the present and notice what makes you happy.” Something inside is saying that the past, the history and the belief systems are there to keep me stuck. It is time to let go and open myself to the possibilities of this moment where I can be without rules and pressures. Where I can find what I want rather than what I am “supposed” to want. Bring it on…(and I did call)
I have spent most of my life believing that fat was my enemy. Because I was fat, I was unhappy, lonely, afraid, ugly, undesirable and the list goes on and on. So in July of 2002 I decided I had enough. I weighed 270 pounds. I was unable to walk up the stairs from the subway without sweating and breathing so hard that I needed 5 minutes to catch my breath at the top of the stairs. At the time, depression and loneliness were my closest friends, even though I was married and had a 7 month old baby. I decided that, as usual, fat was the culprit and the only way I would be happy was if I got rid of it. Now this wasn’t a new decision for me. Fat had always been the enemy and the believed cause of all pain in my life. The difference lay in the method of removal. No more diets that didn’t work, no more pills that caused heart failure and definitely no more acceptance of my body as it was. This was war and I was ready to fight! Fat was out. Thin was in. So I jumped on the bandwagon and convinced everyone around me that the last option was here. My key to happiness lay in a few snips of my belly.
In January 2003 I underwent laparoscopic roux-n-y gastric bypass surgery. What this means is that my wonderful surgeon and his team made 4 small incisions in my belly and using a camera went into my abdomen and cut my stomach into two. What used to be the size of a football now became the size of a golf ball. And the rest of the football is floating around my stomach not bothering anyone. The weight loss was immediate. I was unable to eat more than 2-3 bites all day. For the first month I lost 20 pounds and at the end of 18 months I was down to 155 pounds. I had lost 115 pounds and at first it was exciting. All the things I wanted, I believed I would now have; happiness, a better marriage, better relationship with my family. Little did I know fat has nothing to do with any of those things. The fat was not the problem. The problem was me. I had spent so much time blaming my weight for my unhappiness, I forgot that it was the unhappiness that caused the weight.
You might ask yourself, “why was she so unhappy?” Well let me tell you. I believed that I wasn’t allowed to be happy. I wasn’t allow to take up space in the world. It seemed to me that I needed to be quiet. I felt that if I spoke up no one would like what I had to say and therefore I wouldn’t be loved. So instead of speaking, I quieted myself by eating. Instead of sharing my thoughts, I ate them. It felt to me that I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion because I was too young and too inexperienced.
So even with the weight loss I continued to struggle with my eating. Yes my portions were smaller but the compulsive eating remained the same. I continued attempting to push down my true self to fit in. This followed me through, until recently when I realized that my voice can be heard. I do have something useful to say. I am no longer a little child. I am a grown adult and my thoughts and my ideas are worthy, as am I. It was in that space that I was able to notice my desire to eat when not hungry. Sometimes, when I am aware, I can stop the eating and feel the feelings and sensations rather than push them away.
Join us in exploring this topic further in the upcoming course “Happiness Now, No Diet Needed”. Check out the course schedule for further details.
Rabbi Esther Azar