Shana Tova, happy new year, it’s so good to be back together this year.
I’d like to share a personal story that relates to the themes of Kol Nidre. This past winter during the Omicron wave, I realized, yet again, that living through the pandemic was taking a toll on my physical and mental health. My back was tight all the time. I was having trouble concentrating at work. I wasn’t sleeping well. Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced something like this over the last two and half years.
I see you!
By accident, I discovered an awesome book, written by a neuroscientist at Brown University, named Dr. Jud Brewer. The book is called “Unwinding Anxiety.” Basically, Dr. Jud has become my best friend and spiritual mentor in 2022.
What I learned is that anxiety is a simple equation. The equation is fear, plus uncertainty, plus our habits over time. I’ll say that again because it’s profound. Anxiety is fear, plus uncertainty, plus our habits over time. You might be wondering what on earth this has to do with Kol Nidre. Don’t worry, I’ll get there.
I also learned two other important facts. One is that the roots of our anxiety are based on the evolution of our brains. Our brains don’t love change or uncertainty. To deal with this, our brains form habits for efficiency and predictability, so that we don’t get exhausted every morning from having to re-learn how to brush our teeth or make our beds. The whole structure of a habit is also a simple formula: cue, behavior, reward – or result.
The 2nd fact I learned is that our brains are flexible and that if we put our minds to it, we always have the capacity to change and grow – THANK GOODNESS! This is called neuroplasticity and adopting what’s called a growth mindset.
When we adopt a growth mindset, put together an understanding of what causes our anxiety, and what are our habits are around our anxiety, we can literally hack our brains! We can use what is called ‘rewards-based learning’ to unlearn our anxiety habits. This is the evolutionary basis for changing our consciousness and our lives. It also has wonderful potential for our spiritual growth as well. Side note: I love this book so much that I’ll be teaching a course in the winter about how to unlearn some common Jewish anxieties using these same methods! Stay tuned for details after the High Holidays.
Some habits are great, and the rewards are obvious, like exercising or eating fruits and vegetables for our health. Some are not so great and cause us suffering. For example, my Omicron worry habit in January:
Cue: wake up and feel anxious about COVID.
Behavior: obsessively check the New York Times COVID dashboard. Ask questions like “What if I get COVID and can’t show up to officiate life events? What if I have an asymptomatic case and unknowingly give COVID to my family or my team? What if I get long COVID and can’t function well anymore?” And on and on and on.
Result: nothing but stress, rumination, and tightness in my shoulders, neck, and back. UGH.
All the what-if, anxious thoughts I was having were focused on the future-fear and uncertainty of getting sick, rather than what was happening in the present moment. My persistent anxiety was showing up as constriction and tightness in my body, ruminating thoughts, and terrible insomnia. Basically, the rewards, or the results, of having anxious habits were awful.
The truth is many of our habits cause us suffering. Our habits of anxiety, fear, and shame are all related and they’re sneaky little thieves. That’s right. Anxiety, fear, and shame are ROBBERS. They steal our joy and rob us of the chance to experience what’s happening in the present moment. They tighten and constrict our bodies, rather than create a sense of openness or spaciousness.
I’d like to give some examples of habits that might come up for many of us, especially around the High Holidays or when we consider participating in something Jewish.
Raise your hand, either physically or inside yourself, if you’ve ever been in a Jewish spiritual space and thought “I don’t really know what’s going on here,” and then felt bad about yourself for not knowing or felt like you didn’t belong.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a Jewish space and thought “I really don’t believe what I’m saying,” or “I don’t even know if I believe in the God that’s being described here.” And then you might have lots of negative feelings about your own worth or even about Judaism.
A question to ask when you notice those thoughts and feelings is: what is happening in my body? Do I feel tight or constricted, or do I feel open or spacious? As Dr. Jud would say, “Hmmmm…..time to get curious.”
Here are some other habits we might do to ourselves that are so human, and relevant to the themes of Yom Kippur.
Raise your hand, physically or inside yourself, if you avoid or distract yourself from doing something in your life that needs attention. Maybe you scroll through your social media instead of organizing your taxes or tackling a project at work.
Raise your hand if you beat yourself up for something about yourself or your body that you think is either not enough or too much. If you raised your hand, I invite you to get curious the next time you’re aware of doing something like this, and notice what happens in your body. I’m betting that we don’t necessarily feel open or spacious inside. And that’s the negative result of our habits – our thoughts have the capacity to literally tighten and constrict our bodies, minds, and spirit.
What does this have to do with Kol Nidre? Let’s start with the words of the prayer Kol Nidre – it’s all about our vows, our commitments, and our habits! It’s about letting go of those patterns that no longer serve us. And the whole idea of the next 24 hours is to practice teshuvah – which means returning to our integrity and wholeness. We can do this by practicing awareness of how we show up in life, what our habits are and noticing what happens in our bodies. Then we can get curious about how we might respond differently when those situations come up again, with more compassion and forgiveness – for ourselves and with others.
There are several moments in our Yom Kippur prayer that offer clues to how to let go of the habits that no longer serve us.
The first prayer is called Ashamnu – we do all sorts of things that cause harm to ourselves or other people that become habits over time. When we sing that prayer, I invite you to consider which ones resonate for you. Mine are all about creating unnecessary drama, refusing to admit mistakes, and setting bad examples. OY.
If we do these things over and over, they become habits. And the question to ask ourselves is what do we get from those habits? Usually, nothing positive or rewarding. When we realize this about ourselves, it’s a moment of awareness where we can ‘grow our disenchantment with the habit,’ to borrow a phrase from Dr. Jud. We can notice with curiosity and compassion the results of our behavior. Usually, the result is harm – to us or in our relationships with other people. That’s why we encourage everyone to put a hand on their hearts to give ourselves compassion for that prayer, rather than close our fists and beat our hearts, and ourselves up, for being human in our habits.
The next prayer is called Al Cheit, and it’s all about healing from our habits. The difficult truth is that we sometimes harm ourselves so much through our own unconscious habits. Tonight’s Al Cheit focuses on the ways we can enlist compassion and forgiveness to help us heal our relationship with ourselves, so that we might turn to the present moment with more awareness, joy, awe, and gratitude. In the traditional liturgy we ask for forgiveness from the Divine Source. I want to suggest that we also consider asking ourselves for forgiveness, so that we can let go of the habits that no longer serve us and live with more awareness.
And finally, the third prayer is inspired by a congregation in Philadelphia, which focuses on the rewards of right action. It describes all the positive ways we care for ourselves and for others, that can offer us joy, meaning, and purpose in our lives. It’s called Al Mitzvah she’kiyamnu – for the mitzvah – or right action we do already. This is what Dr. Jud calls a bigger, better offer – or a positive alternative to the negative habits that cause harm. When we have a clear sense of what habits no longer offer us rewards, we can replace those habits with a better offer – doing something else that sparks our joy and connection and creates more openness and spaciousness in our bodies. That’s the way to hack our brains and expand our consciousness toward the good.
My invitation to each of us tonight is to find one thing in the prayer, Al Mitzvah Shekiyamnu that can serve as your ethical North Star this coming year. Try to find one line that you can return to again and again as your bigger, better offer to any negative habit that you’re wrestling with in your life right now. Let that mitzvah – that North Star of right action, be a habit you can cultivate with awareness, curiosity, and compassion in your own spiritual development.
This time of year, Jewish spirituality offers us the chance to reflect on who we are in the present moment, and who we want to be in the coming year. We get to dive deep into our own wellspring of curiosity, compassion and forgiveness so that we can emerge from this time together with clear kavannah – clear intentions. Thankfully, we can always pause in the present moment to breathe, to notice what’s happening in our bodies. We can then ask ourselves what we get from our habits. My blessing for all of us is that we can explore Jewish spirituality over the next 24 hours, for the many resources we can draw from, to create new and better habits. May we turn away from anxiety, fear, or shame that no longer serves us, and more towards living our lives with compassion, forgiveness and joy. Ken yehi ratzon, may this be so.
Rabbi Caryn Aviv