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.
So I spent my day fighting myself. It has been a long week, kids home from school, their dad away at a conference and me balancing work and parenting. So today I cracked. My patience was somewhat intact but my mood was quiet and brooding. My parents in their kindness, offered to take the kids to the beach and boy was I grateful. Yet I spent the day fighting the urge to push away my feelings with food or obsessive thoughts; my two favorite pastimes. Instead, I sat with the feelings. And then towards the end of the day I decided I needed a book. So long before my kids were asleep I had a plan. I would hit the brand new bookstore that opened and find a book to read, something that would make me feel warm and fuzzy. As soon as I had the opportunity, I got into my car and went. Already feeling the freedom on my back , I got to the store and picked out 4 books and spent 53 dollars. I left feeling somewhat dissatisfied with my purchase and then I realized the truth of the situation. The thing I had been working against all day I just succumbed to in 53 minutes in a book store. Rather than face the feelings, I filled myself up with stuff. Rather than allow for the sensations, I spent money to make myself feel better, to push them away and as usual it didn’t work. What did work, was me being able to notice my impulse to run from the feelings, my impulse to push away my dissatisfaction. Because it was the noticing that enabled me to let it go. And then I was able to notice the yellow tinge of the full moon hovering above with wisps of clouds floating by and it was in that moment that the love that I am came pouring out and with it the joy of being in this moment.
In my experience, I often times use food, spending money and reading to disappear from the feelings but it is in the moment that I can notice my impulse to push away my dissatisfaction and take the opportunity to let it go. I can allow for the feelings and rest in the knowingness that they are just feelings and I am more than that. And it is in that moment that I can notice what is actually here and now.
When we try to use external things to make us feel happy, we are often disappointed because in my experience happiness can not come from outside of us. It doesn’t come from books or food or money. In my experience happiness is a choice we make in each moment , the choice is between accepting what is or wishing it were different. When we can accept what is, we can welcome the joy of the moment , because it is in the moment that we appreciate the beauty around us, our children, sharing the excitement of a wriggly worm, our spouse giving us a hug or the sun shining in all of its glory. And with this I welcome you to join me in this moment allow the thoughts to float by and notice the beauty that is here.
I had an experience with my friend Sam that I will tell you about: As usual, we often sit around and debate politics, religion or life. This week was like any other. Conversations about Obama’s state of the union, the weekly Bible reading and quantum mechanics were all present. Oftentimes, in discussing things with Sam, he gets excited often trying to prove his point and I react accordingly trying to prove my own. This conversation was different. As soon as he started getting excited, a part of me took a step back; the part of me that was secure in myself, the part of me that knew that I didn’t need to defend my position because the position or lack of it held no importance.
Don’t get me wrong. I have wonderful ideas but they are just ideas. I recognized that in that moment Sam was not trying to defend his ideas but rather himself. We are oftentimes defending our beliefs as if they are who we are. We relate ourselves to our thoughts so strongly, that if someone challenges those thoughts, it as if they are challenging our whole being. In my experience we as humans revert to fight or flight mode because deep down in all of us we fear for our security and safety. We have given our thoughts such credence that they are who we are. We must defend them to the death . We see it all the time in the news; religious fanaticism, suicide bombers, and ultimately 9/11.
What happened that night with Sam was that, I was able to take a step back, become an observer of the fear, the fear in me and the fear in him. We are so identified with our thoughts, that we allow them to take over and we say things that can be hurtful because we are afraid.
When we can recognize that we are not the thoughts but rather the observer of those thoughts. We can notice that we are not different but the same as the person sitting across the table from us. If we recognize that we are identifying with the false idea that we are not safe in this world, the false idea that we are separate, then we can open up to compassion. Opening up to kindness and allowing the ego to rest enables us to relate with compassion and love rather than fear and defensiveness. It is in the moment of noticing the fear in ourselves and the other, that we can let it go and be free to share our love unconditionally.
A few weeks ago, I was eating dinner with my family. I was having a great time; laughing, smiling, sharing my thoughts and just enjoying myself. I noticed that the people around me were becoming more and more uncomfortable with how good of a time I was having. It was almost as if I wasn’t allowed to. When they saw me enjoying myself to that extent, they decided I must be drunk.
Sometimes I find that we are taught to hold ourselves back from living life to the fullest. We have to be proper. One of my favorite rules is about modesty. I have been encouraged most of my life to be modest but it seems to me that this sense of modesty that we are told to have is a way of hiding our greatness from the world. When I say to my friend, "wow I am loving this writing. I didn’t know I was so good at it." His response is, “Don’t be so high on yourself." Is that what it means to be modest; to deny that that you are good at something? I wonder to myself, if these ideas around modesty hold us back from embracing our greatness. I wonder if we are being encouraged to be modest or if actually it is an attempt to control our behavior by teaching us to not be too great.
Growing up, I felt that to be a part of the group, I wasn’t allowed to be too happy, too successful or too great. I held on to the belief that showing the world my greatness was not allowed. To be the good wife, mother, daughter, sister, etc. I needed to hide who I was from the world so as not to ruffle any feathers. I had this belief that I was too much for the world. So, I accepted these ideas as facts, so that no one would call me a show off. But what’s interesting, is that it backfired. Being insecure, hiding my truth and keeping up this false sense of modesty made me feel angry. So rather than show my greatness,I hid it from the world. Rather than putting myself out there in all of my glory, I pretended that I was not so great. I pretended so well that I actually started to believe it myself. Yet at the same time that made me angry. So, I acted in a way that was defensive and I actually pushed people away.
These days, I enjoy who I am with a greater sense of ease. I am no longer looking for approvalmost of the time...ok, some of the time. I recognize that the approval I was seeking was false anyway. No matter who or what kind of approval I got, it didn’t mean anything unless I was approving of myself. My sense of false modesty has been stripped (pun totally intended) and I can now stand with all of me in all of my glory.
Do you know what I have learned over the past few years? The perspective we hold of ourselves is not quite what the world sees. When I was in college I spent time lying in bed philosophizing about life and one of my favorite philosophies was “applebomin.” Now, what you might ask is applebomin? Don’t take out your dictionary. It won’t be in there. Don’t bring me William Safire. He won’t be able to help decipher it. It is my word; a word I made up in a college dorm that is the basis for my theory on perspective. I was lying in my bed when I recognized that the colors that I see when I look at the world may not be the colors that you see. Granted we both identify the same color as red but the name might be different than the perception and since we are bound by the limits of our language and today by the inability to see through someone else’s eyes I have no idea whether the colors that you are seeing are the same as the ones I am seeing. The word applebomin I made up as the catch phrase for this theory, little did I know scientists were discussing this idea for ages.
So when we speak of perception and perspective little do we know about how others think of us. I remember making a cake and saying to myself, “I wish my friend Sara was here to help me she was so good at making cakes.” A few weeks later I ran into her and said, “ooh I was thinking of you the other day when I was decorating the cake wishing you were there to help me with it you were always so good at that.” Her response was shocking “Esther you were always the good one at making cakes I wanted to be like you” I took a step back in surprise, we both perceived the other as the better.
We don’t know how people perceive us. We might be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised but it is an interesting experiment. I called my friends and asked them what do you think of me, When you think Esther Azar what words come to mind. I got some interesting responses things I didn’t know about myself, the things I strive to be I already am. Self assured, confident, strong, smart. How interesting I am the only one that thinks I am insecure am I putting on a show for the rest of the world or is the show who I really am. Maybe I need to let go of my insecurities and embrace myself as I am seen through the world. .
This is an opportunity to recognize who we are through a mirror. Seeing our strengths and weaknesses so that we can build ourselves to the person we already are. Perception of ourselves is like the color red we may see it differently than our neighbor.
To be honest, it is Friday morning and I have no idea what to write about. This past week I had some amazing experiences that I could share, but nothing is coming to me in this moment. Since I talk about being in the moment and being present, I guess I will explore that topic for now. Because the idea that I must produce a blog entry in this moment because of some outside plan, is almost the antithesis to actually being in the moment. You may say to yourself, “Esther there are deadlines in the real world. We can’t just sit around and wait until the moment of writing occurs because then we would never go to work, never take care of the things we have to take care of and never fulfill our responsibilities.”
In my experience, that is not true. Over the past six months, I have observed the way things are happening. Oftentimes when I place external pressures on myself to get things done, resistance shows up. Instead of making dinner, bathing the kids and getting homework done, I am serving noodles with butter, skipping the bath and fighting with my daughter to do her homework. On the other hand when I let go of the external pressures and allow things to unfold without trying to control the outcome, things I hate doing just seem to happen. The chicken comes out of the freezer in the morning to defrost. My sister comes over and bathes the kids for me and my daughter does her homework without even being asked. It almost seems miraculous.
I recently started a business creating releasing CDs for children and when I created my business plan I envisioned a children’s book to go with it. I called my mother who enjoys writing children’s books and asked her for help and then started thinking about other authors who I could contact to help me. I went away for a few weeks and placed the project on hold for that time. One morning while I was away, I woke up around 6 am and thought to myself, “now’s a good time to write a children’s book” and in about 15 minutes I had a first draft. I was in shock and ecstatic. I immediately emailed it to my mother in New York and she read it to Lori, my 7 year old. My mother called me back excitedly saying how great it was and the pièce de résistance ; Lori laughed. At that point I knew I was on to something. In the past I never would have thought I could write a book like that but when I let go for the moment and let the flow happen, a book was written without any effort.
Oftentimes we believe we need to control things, plan them and make sure they happen. In my experience, letting go of the wanting to control, the planning on how and when and the need to get things done, opens up possibilities I never thought existed. Lori doing her homework on her own, books being created and this blog post being written are the everyday miracles that remind me that watching life unfold is more enjoyable than trying to control it. I hope you can enjoy the unfolding…
I have spent most of my life anticipating the bad things that will happen to me. When I am walking down the street alone late at night, I plan on what I will do if someone comes to attack me. If I am about to be attacked, my plan is to tell the attacker that I have AIDS. This plan has been set since I was about 15 and every time I walk alone I go over the details. I worry whether they will believe me, whether they will care, and what I will do if they don’t. This is a constant fear that I hold onto in the back of my mind. For a while, I wondered though, if it has a purpose-all of this planning, all of the fear. It is as if I believed that in holding these thoughts in my mind somehow they would protect me from any bad. It was my good luck charm. It seems that my belief was that if you think it, it won’t happen. What I have learned this year is that in preparing for suffering, all we are doing is suffering, whether or not the perceived threat comes to fruition. This year I had the opportunity to be part of a burglary and boy was it different than anything I could have planned for.
One night in mid September I returned home from my mothers house after a meal. I began to get into my bed when I heard banging. Imagining that it was the housekeeper sending her boyfriend out of my home secretly, I started calling out to her. When I didn’t receive a response I put my robe on and went to check it out. Coming down the stairs I called out again. This time I was met with a response, “si senora”. I stepped into the kitchen, turned to the right and screamed as I saw 2 men standing there. One man grabbed my mouth and said “Be quiet. Everything is going to be ok. We wont hurt you. We didn’t think anyone was home”. Immediately my mind became fully present and I just went with what they told me. “Where is your jewelry?” “Upstairs in my room.” “Ok show us.” I led them upstairs to my bedroom. One of the men stood behind me and pushed me up against the wall. “Where is it?” “It’s in the closet in an orange box that you keep nails in. Check the shelf, let me help you.” “No. stay here. Don’t worry-we will find it.” The man that was standing behind me was very gentle, speaking softly to me. “Don’t worry we wont hurt you. We didn’t think anyone was home”.
As they searched through my jewelry, I took deep breaths. I thought about my son lying in the next room, hoping they wouldn’t wake him and praying with all my heart that they wouldn’t take him. Counting my blessings that my older daughter slept out and hoping that these burglars would find what they were searching for in this world. Praying that they would take something positive from this experience, helping them to come to a greater realization about life and their chosen profession.
In the middle of all this I said to one of them “I hope that you use the money to do some good in the world”. He replied “You make me feel like a bad person.” “You are not a bad person you are just in a difficult life situation”. I felt like the monk in “Zen Shorts,” who finds a burglar in his house and has nothing to give but the robe on his back and he feels bad about this. At that moment I had such an intense amount of compassion for these two men, all I wanted to do was help them.
They then kindly asked me to stand in my closet. The one who had been standing with me went to check the rest of the house. The second guy watched me. He was not as in control as the first, he was a little more insecure. We had an interesting conversation. He said to me “Where is your engagement ring?” I said. “Sorry, I am divorced.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth I was in shock. “Esther,” I thought, “what are you doing? Why are you telling this man this?” He replied, “What a shame…If we had met under different circumstances, maybe things could have been different here.” And I am not sure if I said this out loud or not, but what went through my mind at that moment was, “Maybe it wasn’t such a good time for a pick up line.” He then went on to tell me I have nice legs. As a shiver of fear ran through my body, I made a tsking sound. A. because my legs are not something I considered nice and B. because is he joking? is this what they teach you in burglary school? Anyway he was insulted at my tsking noise. So, to boost his ego, I thanked him for the compliment and explained that I was just a little bit nervous and I hoped he could understand. While this was happening upstairs the other guy was downstairs where he found my housekeeper hiding in the basement. He gently took her necklace from her neck and brought her upstairs to the closet with me. I hugged her and told her to be quiet. She started to tell me that she called the police and I quickly quieted her down. Then the two burglars spent the next five minutes discussing whether they should lock us up or tie us up and then decided it wouldn’t be safe for my baby in the other room. So, they kindly told us to count to 100 before we moved and then they left. The loudest entrance and the quietest escape-I actually wasn’t even sure that they had left in the end.
During the experience I was extremely calm but afterwards my mind came back,-the thoughts, the fear and the anxiety didn’t end. Someone told me weeks later that the fear I was experiencing after this episode was normal but the strength I showed that day proved my inner ability to deal with any situation. Interestingly enough, I couldn’t remember the strength. Panic set in and I went through weeks of sleepless nights and anxiety attacks. What is interesting to me in this moment is how during the burglary I was fine. Feelings arose, bad things happened and I was ok. Afterwards I suffered 100 times more than during. When I started thinking again, when I let myself tell stories about the incident, when I replayed everything in my mind, life became unbearable. How many times do we allow our thoughts to keep us suffering? How often do we plan for bad things to happen? And either they never happen or when they do, they are not as bad as we imagined. What is it about thoughts that keep us so engaged?
Rabbi Esther Azar