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Spiritual Formation

and Moral Psychology

Lunch & Learn

with Rabbi Finley

After Shul Theater

Every Week, 12:30pm


May 30
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Thought Of The Week

or Trying to Define Spiritual Psychology

Why don't smart people, like you, do better in their relationships with their families and other people who count? I think I have made some progress in figuring this out.

One thing seems obvious to me: there is nothing so complex as the human mind. I don't mean the brain. I think one of the reasons we have seen a turn to neuroscience, for all its benefits, is that the brain, as complex as it is, is not nearly so complex as the mind of a person with whom you have a close, supposed-to-be-loving relationship. Even the greatest neuroscientists, I would imagine, can't figure out at least their first teenager. I don't think we are equipped, generally speaking, to deal with each other close up, at least starting out. I often compare human relationships to sports, and the analogy has always held up well.

One thing that I have learned from a lifetime of study of martial arts is that nearly every instinct is wrong. Every dancer, golfer and tennis player knows the hours and years it takes to develop a "good swing." In martial arts (mine is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), we train exactly where to put your hand and exactly how to move your hips and exactly where to put the ball of your foot. In martial arts, you not only have to manage your moves that have taken you years to sharpen, but also respond to and get ahead of the sharpened moves, and therefore the mind, of the opponent.

We, at my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, club have seen many a natural athlete come in the door and zoom through the ranks in a few months until they hit the point where whatever they brought with them into the room is not enough any more. Now they are where we all end up: the drudgery of training, the pain of losing, and finding the will to come back again and again. And the exquisite joy of slowly mastering the game.

The analogy is not too far off. Human relationships under stress are like fighting matches, but the goal is not to fight, certainly not to win, but to love better and wiser.

Our minds, in their natural states, are not any better equipped to manage personal relationships, than a beginner is equipped to be good at a sport that requires precision. Smart people tend to have their intelligence, whichever version they may have, reflected back to them regularly. College students who get good grades are told they are smart. People who are successful at their profession are validated by the fact that they are good at what they do. People who make a lot of money are smart in doing something that someone else needs be done. People's friends tell them how smart they are and what good advice and counsel they give. With all this validation around them, they instinctively know why their relationship with this other person is not going well: it is their fault.

What smart people typically do is try to persuade the other person (oftentimes who also, unfortunately, sees him/her self as smart) that this other person is wrong, often throwing subtlety to the wind and just saying "you are wrong." Wisdom challenged smart people even call their unruly spouse or child "stupid," a move that is rarely persuasive.

Fighting in families sometimes is just constant, and often hardens into antipathy and silent hostility. A standoff.

Sometimes traditional therapy works, personal or family, and sometimes not. There are at least two reasons why not, in my opinion. One, no therapeutic practice or point of view is one size fits all. I often receive effusive gratitude from those whom I counsel. Then there was that young woman who, when I kept gently asking to explain to me what she hoped to gain by a given behavior (a standard technique of mine), told me that I was the most difficult person to speak with that she had ever met. Her mom subsequently told me she had found a far better counselor than I was. From an ego self point of view, I felt bad that I had failed, but my higher self was happy she found her way to someone whose approach fit her.

The second reason traditional therapy sometimes does not work, or does not work quickly enough for some people or families in crisis, is that insight is not enough. A person might have the profound insight that they married someone just like (in some significant way) the parent with whom they had been battling their whole lives. Now, however, short term at least, the problem is managing the anger and fighting, or the sullen hostility. "Now that you know this," I would ask such a person, "what behavior must you change in yourself in order to make things better?" The neophyte, the white belt, as it were, wants to change the other person, or better yet, just criticize them, fight with them. That is their instinct.

The instinct to fight, criticize, change the other person forgets the truth. The opponent is not your spouse, child, parents, etc. The opponent is actually the part of you that forgets the real goal: building and sustaining loving relationships. Even at the martial arts club, the higher-level belts of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu learn that, generally speaking, defeating the opponent at the club is only a tertiary goal. Second most important is ridding oneself as much as possible of the impediments to a graceful and precise game. Most important is honoring the sport, in countless subtle ways.

The person who goes beyond smart, into wisdom, knows they are not equipped in their natural, instinctive state, to handle personal relationships under stress without significant drilling, i.e., the deliberate and purposeful training of consciousness to live, not with some generic person (hence the ineffectiveness of bromides), but with the actual person whom you are supposed to love better, or at least with whom you must be civil.

The kind of counseling that includes insight and the training and drilling of consciousness toward a life of honor I call spiritual psychology. Sometimes I call it spiritual jiu jitsu.
(Next time: what are the initial moves and drills that must be mastered?)

Rabbi Mordecai Finley


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