There was a time when no matter how much Leah ate, it wasn't enough. She still wasn't getting what she needed.
The slices of gooey cake she consumed prepared her body to take in lots of wonderful nutrients to digest as the sugar arrived, but the nutrients didn't come along with it. Since the empty calories got her body all revved up for the nutrition it craved that didn't follow, Leah never filled up. So she just kept plowing through the rest of the cake, and she was left feeling more miserable and even more desperate.
That was also the time when no matter how much Leah experienced in her life, it wasn't enough. She wasn't getting what she needed.
Her busy life prepared her soul to take in lots of spiritual nutrients to integrate as life experiences arrived, but the spiritual nourishment didn't come along with it. Since the empty encounters got her soul all revved up for the spiritual nutrition it craved that didn't follow, Leah never filled up. So she just kept plowing through the rest of her life, and she was left feeling more miserable and even more desperate.
Spiritual souls and their physical coverings – our bodies – are designed by the Creator to be fueled by pleasurable, Divinely-packaged energy during each day. When the intrinsic value of what we consume is processed out, a great hunger ensues. And no matter how desperately we try to assuage that strong desire with such stuff, it just won't work. Unless we obtain the nutrient-rich sustenance we need, we can end up overstuffed, yet starving more than ever.
How does this happen? The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a key role in both the “fight or flight” response and in seeking the immediate gratification of short-term pleasures. This is often called the reptilian part of our brain – extremely interesting, given that the reptilian snake in the Garden of Eden and his approach to immediate gratification is what got us humans into trouble in the first place.
It is possible to override this persistent hissing by activating a different part of the brain. Our higher functioning prefrontal cortex motivates us to fully actualize our potential and genuinely progress in life. As we develop the ability to discern whether the voice in our brain is coming from our amygdala or our prefrontal cortex, we become increasingly better at recognizing when the amygdala is leading us astray from our long-term goals.
That is why we often feel like we have two minds in one brain. It's actually just two different powerful parts of our brain talking, what Jewish wisdom calls the "yetzer hatov" and the "yetzer hara" – the desire for good and the desire for bad (better known as our self-destructive impulse).
Recent research, through functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) of the brain, has enabled medical science to see clearly what Jewish wisdom has been teaching for ages. There is far more neuroplasticity in our brains than was widely believed. This means that we actually have the ability to train ourselves to recognize when our lower-level brain is urging us to overindulge. Then we are able to re-direct our attention to the higher-level thinking emanating from our frontal lobe.
But how can this ability be cultivated?
One very simple exercise helps develop the mind muscles needed to shift our focus from the amygdala to the frontal lobe. Try focusing on your breathing for just a few moments. You invariably find your thoughts drifting off. As you notice them drifting away, gently bring them back to focus once again on your breathing. You can begin to become aware of how the mind works, and how often we get unfocused from our primary goal.
This offers many opportunities to practice our mental muscles of restraint by steadily and smoothly leading our drifting thoughts back into focus. Paying attention to our breathing turns out to be a wonderful practice for developing the skill of re-focusing ourselves on "the big picture" in life.
Not only that, but this exercise is helpful as well in overcoming deleterious habits and addictions. Concentrating on our breathing is very calming. The amygdala's urgent short-term gratification messages tend to get us all fired up, with plenty of stress hormones released. Consciously slowing down our breath, the only autonomic nervous system we can control, defuses those stressful effects. When calmness ensues, so does our ability to choose more wisely and less impulsively.
Why is it that something as basic as focusing on our breath can actually lead to the cessation of bad habits and the empowerment of wiser aspects of our selves?
Genesis 2:7 explains that God blew the soul of life into the nostrils of the first human being. The Hebrew word for “breath” is nesheema and the Hebrew word for “soul” is neshama. When we slow down and deepen our breathing, we appreciate our essence, the soul breathed into us, reminding us to nurture it.
In a variety of applications, Judaism teaches mindfulness. The blessings we say throughout the day bring us back again and again to our life's purpose. We nurture our bodies with a great variety of colorful and delicious food – packed with nutrients – that this world provides for us. And we nurture our souls with an acknowledgement of the Divine gifts that keep us consciously striving ever-higher.
The rewiring that takes place in our brains through repeated practice creates structural change that can be detected. As new neural pathways form, we think more readily about the consequences of our actions, even at particularly stressful times when cravings are wont to reign. If the self-destructive voice still wins on rare occasions, we can even begin to recognize that the de-energizing guilt which follows emanates from the same panic-producing source that prods us toward the path of destructive overeating.
A deep and steady breath can help us return to the essence that God blew into us. Pausing to slowly inhale, and then even more slowly exhale, we become re-centered with clarity of perspective. It can serve as an ever-available “inspiration” – in every sense of the word.
The drive to overeat dissipates and the emptiness dissolves, as the nutritious physical and spiritual gifts prepared for our benefit are enjoyed, bringing us ever-closer to true fulfillment.