By the time I was eight years old, familial discord caused me great shame and distress. I struggled in school. Both of my parents prided themselves in not being submissive to any external religious authority. They finally decided to separate after years of clashing. This exacerbated my feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Feeling like an outsider, I played the “class clown” in order to gain the attention I was craving. I also found temporary relief with binge eating which got more compulsive and solitary over time. I wanted to feel better, to come out from my sad isolation, but I could not control myself or my situation.
It was comforting to know that I could turn to food whenever I needed to deal with anxiety, fear, rejection, boredom, loneliness, or just for amusement. The food became my “Higher Power” that I used to fill the many voids in my heart. My over-dependency on food made me seek more food, rather than secure the appropriate “ingredients” I needed in order to have a fulfilled life: stable and loving relationships, a purpose to live for, and clear moral guidelines.
Eventually, I realized that my strategy in life was not working. My relationship with food was controlling me. I needed to keep my head above water. Nearing my wit’s end, I looked around for whatever was in reach that I might grab hold of as a life preserver. My mother practiced yoga so I asked her to teach me. My father spent hours talking with me about psychology and philosophy and eventually gave me a book about meditation. I studied psychology in college and graduate school. While it seemed like a logical place to find answers to questions like “what is a healthy human being,” as well as a means to earn an income, I found the answers to be insufficient.
I did not understand that I had a purpose in the world, and that my cravings for food and attention were compelling me to pursue only selfish desires.
I decided to make a commitment to a support group and, around the same time, I moved to Massachusetts to learn more about yoga. I ended up renting space in the home of an orthodox Jew who seemed to possess some of that inner tranquility that I was seeking. I admired the way he prepared for Shabbat, made special food, prayed, rested, and abstained from certain activities. During the cold winter months we heated the house with a wood burning stove, yet he would not restart the fire if it went out during Shabbat. While in one cold moment I was annoyed at his “stubborn inflexibility,” I also saw how his discipline elevated the day. Here was purpose, guidelines and order and within this structure I found the warming taste of deep Sabbath rest.
I was trying to gain gratification through physical comfort and a false sense of self-respect that comes through admiration from others.
Through his influence, along with the help of other compassionate teachers and role models, I decided to experiment with some of the Jewish traditions to which I was born but with which I had so little connection. I also began to study Torah. I was now gaining insight to the perpetually vexing question, “What actions are necessary for me to be a healthy human being?” I began to gain clarity about my unique purpose in life. I discovered the intense meaning in practicing the mitzvot as a means to fulfill that purpose and gain a solid structure within which I could thrive. It became clearer to me that my goal in life was to help others gain well-being and peace. And with a new personal relationship with God, I became a more passionate person.
I realized that I had been trying to gain gratification through physical comfort and a false sense of self-respect that comes through admiration from others. I learned that the raging inner battle between my soul and my body was not unique to me, but existed within everyone. I have come to understand the conflict in this way: There is a rider and a horse. The “rider” is the soul and is connected to God. It wants to act spiritually and grow. At the same time, we also have a “horse,” the animal side to us that is also known as the yetzer hara. This part wants what it wants, when it wants it. It craves for sensual gratification. It isn’t interested in fulfilling God’s agenda, being constrained, or considering the ramifications of action. It looks only at the here and now. It can also be very tricky and manipulative; it uses our intellect to justify its own purposes.
In utilizing the spiritual principles found in Torah, I learned to exercise self control. I was now sharing more of my gifts, talents and skills with an eye towards bettering the lives of others. Embracing this purpose-driven life enabled me to move beyond the narrow and lonely experience I once knew. As I opened my heart to others, others opened theirs to me. I met my beautiful wife and together we are building a Jewish home.
Today I feel like I am tapping into a tremendous source. With my supportive Five Towns community, I am striving to be the good person my soul always yearned to be. When I fall down or miss the mark, I try to remember to just start where I am and do what I can. I am not afraid of failure anymore because I no longer measure my success externally. I am trying, and that means I’m already succeeding.