Gut Wringing: The Neurogastroenterological Side of Prayer

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Disclaimer: Though biological processes are discussed in this piece, I can’t guarantee that these techniques will work for everyone. It may be life-changing for some and others may feel nothing. We’re all unique creations.

Inhibitions To Prayer

I’ve battled Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) all of my life. Due to a chemical imbalance in my brain, it is much more difficult for me to control my concentration. The sensation is like attempting to film a blade of grass, but the camera’s auto-focus feature keeps locking in on the airplane at 30,000 feet. Most grow out of this condition. I’ve only grown out of feeling the need to treat my condition with narcotics. I’ve tried both successfully and unsuccessfully to manually strengthen control of my focus in other ways. My ADHD has been one of my greatest challenges to my prayer life.

I’ve found that truly meaningful prayer is a three-step process.

  1. Connecting to what is being prayed
  2. Transmission of prayer
  3. The sensation of your prayer being heard

In Jewish thought, the internal sensation that your prayer is being heard is called having “kavanah.” This word literally means “alignment” in Hebrew, but is more of the deep spiritual focus in which one has the sensation that the Holy One has picked up the other telephone line. When I am unable to achieve the sensation of kavanah due to an inability to focus, it feels as though I’m expressing my innermost heartbreak to a dear friend and they’re preoccupied with a game of Candy Crush. The problem isn’t that the Holy One isn’t listening, but that my brain’s spiritual auto-focus is busted. Frustrated by this, I looked to my own biology for a fix.   

My solution for alignment? To bypass my brain.

The Passage Way For Kavanah/Alignment

Many make the mistake in thinking that powerful prayer requires intellect. It most certainly does not. In many ways, the ultimate champions of prayer are little children. Because many children’s minds have not developed to the point of rationally conceiving of an All-Powerful Creator that simply is the fabric of existence itself, their prayers are nothing more than elevated admiration for a parent-figure that exists within. This does not mean that prayer is by any means foolish, but rather that an intellectual may struggle more to overcome their own thoughts in order to connect to the Creator in prayer. Meanwhile, the child’s natural state is full-bodied prayerful pleading. What is an intellectual to do in order to attain prayerful alignment — true kavanah? Bypass the mind and tap into the heart  — or, as I have found, the gut.

Gut Check

Just like clinical heartburn has nothing to do with the cardiovascular system and is actually reflux of stomach acid into one’s esophagus, so too is your emotional and spiritual “heart” not so much the blood-pumping organ in the chest. Rather, your spiritual “heart” could also be in the seat of your second brain: your gut. Your digestive system is frequently the canary in the coal mine of your emotional state. Anxiety, stress, and depression frequently take their toll on your digestion. For example, when I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2017, the news sent me running for a bathroom stall. The expressions “go with your gut”, “gut feeling”, “butterflies in your stomach” are not without an anatomical basis. Yes, you are actually able to process information not only from your digestive system but also with it. This is what is referred to as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).

Your Second Brain in Your Stomach

Your body’s Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is literally a second brain of sorts throughout your digestive system. Actual neurons exist within the human gastrointestinal system. Biological research has shown that one’s ENS actually carries out functions independent of one’s brain. This area of study is known as neurogastroenterology. This form of neurological activity is responsible for many bodily functions ranging from the esophagus’ ability to pull substances into the stomach (why you can drink water while upside down) to your gag reflex.

Neurogastroenterology is also closely tied to one’s deepest emotions. Has sadness ever put a lump in your throat? Have you ever had your heart broken to the point of feeling it in the pit of your stomach? Do instincts ever first manifest as a physical gut feeling? This is the reason why extreme stress can cause one to vomit. But how does this connect to prayer?

Praying With Your Guts

Just as referenced before, the basics of prayer can be broken down into a few simple parts. For prayers of thanks or worship, the feeling of gratitude is processed in your brain before it is transmitted spiritually. The same goes for prayers of request, whether for your own needs or for the wellbeing of another. In many instances, these styles of prayer have a much more complex “signal” to convey and details to transmit. Still, these prayers are processed. Where the neurogastroenterological system comes into play is to process heartfelt prayer through the guts. Usually, an event causes you to feel an emotion that may be processed by the gut, but rarely do you consciously utilize your guts (or “kishkes”, in Yiddish) as the cosmic telephone microphone. But how can you utilize your guts in prayer?

Even beyond your five senses, you can be more conscious of a certain area of the body at a given time. For example, during a guided meditation, one way the leader of a guided meditation gets the group to relax is to get them to close their eyes and consciously relax each section of the body — part by part. It may go something like,

“Now, I want you to imagine your shoulders becoming more relaxed. No longer tense, your shoulders are soft and loose. This loose sensation now travels down your back…” The leader does this until those meditating have consciously envisioned each section of the body, to relax it, which in turn has a biological sensation of relaxation. This level of focus allows us to pinpoint areas of the body to stimulate or relax. A similar method was utilized by the U.S. Navy in order to help pilots fall asleep faster — under two minutes in most cases.

Praying with one’s guts is very similar. In prayer, more complex thoughts will still be processed by the brain, but the sensation of kavanah, of spiritual connection, is greatly enhanced when one prays through your guts.

While I’ve provided some of the science behind why it may be that “praying with your kishkes” may ultimately enhance your kavanah, or your spiritual connective focus during prayer, I can’t make the claim that it will work for everyone. I can only share my own experiences on what works for me.

The Silent Scream

One exercise to quickly access the pathway of the guts is through a scream or a yell. Because you probably live in a fairly developed area, you may engage what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov called the “Silent Scream.” Trying screaming, only without connecting your vocal cords that would produce the sound. Use the same abdominal muscles, breath, and possibly even facial expression you would if you were to let out a loud wail. When engaging these wailing muscles in prayer, you will find it very difficult to focus on anything else but your silent wailing to God.

When you speak to God, you should arouse your heart to the point where your soul all but flies out of you. This is true prayer…You must cry out to God from the very depths of your heart.

The biological act of sobbing is not just a facial expression, a release of tears, or a vocal eruption, but also a tightened release of emotion from one’s guts.

I have personally found that the same pit of my stomach that is engaged during a laugh, sob, or scream is my seat of kavanah. When I feel as though I am at the height of spiritual focus, my stomach is in the same state if I’m getting choked up from a beautiful piece of music. While my brain attempts to process the details of the greatness of the Creator, my messages gratitude, admiration, or even distress are processed through my kishkes like an umbilical telephone line to another place — a place beyond.

True prayer isn’t only processing your emotions with your mind but also wringing the tears — both of sadness and ecstasy — from your guts before your Creator.

Protesting with Blessings: Snapshots of Infinity

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In a conversation with a co-worker, I was struck by something he said.

“A lot of the time, I feel like life is just happening to me. I’m rarely able to take even a moment to just pause and appreciate what is going on. I wish I had a technique that would allow me to hit the pause button on the world and let me enjoy what is taking place.”

This sentiment struck me — not because I felt the same way, but because I used to. Then I found the perspective-shifting power of brachot.

Brakhot/brachot (בְּרָכוֹת) (with a ‘kh’ like you’re clearing peanut butter out your throat) or “beh-ra-khot” is just the Hebrew word for “blessings.” The singular form of the word (bracha) also contains the word “berek” which literally means “knee” and “barak” meaning to kneel. Literally, a bracha is a lowering of one’s self. Think of whenever someone is knighted by the Queen of England, that kneel before she taps them on the shoulder with a sword and they gain magic powers. That’s how that works, right?

In Judaism, a bracha is a statement you utter to thank the Creator for a specific item or experience. This statement is usually predetermined, though it can be improvised. And boy-howdy does Judaism have a bracha for all sorts of things.

Waking up has a bracha.

Going to sleep has a bracha.

Drinking a glass of water has a bracha.

Washing your hands in a certain way has a bracha.

Every type of food is categorized and has a bracha.

Witnessing a rainbow has a bracha.

Even using to the restroom or witnessing a political leader has a bracha…and no, they’re not the same.

Most every bracha starts out with the same pre-loaded intro:

“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, Master of the Universe….” fill in the blank. The “blanks” are the icing on the cosmic cupcake.

“…Who brings the fruit of the tree.”

“…Who creates different kinds of fragrances.”

“…Who has given us life, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

Not every bracha is happy. For instance, when we hear terrible news, such as hearing that someone has passed away, there’s a bracha for that.

“Blessed is the True Judge.”

Many make the mistake in thinking that we’re blessing objects or experience. While we have the capability to bless each other, Judaism is pretty firm about not blessing objects. Instead, we bless God not only for the object or experience itself but for our ability to experience it. In a way, a bracha is like tagging the artist of a painting you shared on Instagram to make sure they get the full credit.

What is a bracha…for us? Sure, God enjoys our brachot, but we know that the concept was also created for our own benefit. That takes us back to the original woe of my co-worker — experiencing life instead of life simply happening to us.

The famous alternative peace activist Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen summed up the purpose of a bracha better than I ever could.

“A bracha (blessing) is a protest against taking things for granted.”

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen

Like we always feel the need to snap pictures of the beautiful things in life with our phones, we should be even more eager to snap emotional memory pictures of our blessings. Even if you don’t follow the Jewish recipe, there is a certain consciousness you give moments you have been gifted by simply taking a few seconds to use your lips like a camera shutter and vocalize your gratitude for your own perspective of life.

Redesigning Your Identity: Choosing Who To Be

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Bumbling around at 6 AM that morning, I hardly knew what I was doing…but I was determined to look like I did. I pulled on a crisp tallit (prayer shawl) over my head and shoulders. I awkwardly wrapped tefillin around my arm that was painfully fresh (new tefillin take a while to break in). My siddur opened with a snap, as though it had just come off of the press. The Hebrew may as well have been hieroglyphics. Still, I was on my way to appearing to be someone who did this every morning. Let’s back up a bit.   

I wasn’t raised Jewish. Despite the fact that I had never even met a religious Jew in person, I became pretty obsessed with Judaism late in high school. Really, I was obsessed with the idea that a set of instructions could be established into productive habits could help make the Creator of the Universe a part of my life — not on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis. One of my biggest bones to pick with my own Lutheran upbringing was that, theologically, nothing was required of me. I felt like a child who, even when they set the drapes on fire, still couldn’t get their parents’ attention. Judaism, however, seemed to give me the structure I was craving — a barometer for spiritual alignment.

A few years into my “Jew-ish” journey, I walked the walk and mumbled the talk…at least enough to fool the predominantly Christian Oklahomans around me. I had no idea what I was doing, and even though I wanted to, I wanted to look like I knew I was doing in the meantime. This brings me to my early morning bumble-fest in the dark.

About a year before this point, I had started a job as a sewing machine mechanic. I liked the job for the most part, but I had even interviewed saying, “I can’t work on Saturdays. It’s against my religion. If you need someone to work Saturdays, I guess I’m not the man for the job.” The boss who hired me later told me that my micro speech in the interview helped land me the job, saying, “I can teach anyone how to fix a sewing machine, but I can’t teach the integrity that I witnessed in your job interview.” Really? Oh, sheesh. Even though I meant what I said, this would mean that I was really going to have to walk the walk…as far as my boss knows about Judaism, anyways.

Fast forward a year. I was out of town at training sessions hosted by one of our vendors. I was sharing a hotel room with my boss and another sewing machine technician. By this point, I had never spent my morning, from waking till working, with my boss. In my mind, I thought he was expecting me to have the morning routine of the apparently deeply religious Jewish person he hired — rising, Modeh Ani, ritual handwashing, Morning Shacharit prayers with tallit/tefillin — the whole nine yards. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I thought this sewing machine shop owner from Missouri would know what this kind of morning entailed, but I was determined to be that person…at least for that morning.

Armed with a tallit I had kept in the closet for months and a set of tefillin that I’d maybe donned twice, I woke up in the room, wrapped up, and attempted to pray as a religious person would. While this seemed like an admirable attempt, I honestly did not know what I was doing. The tallit felt itchy, the tefillin were scratchy, and the siddur felt like it was never going to end. This was not a normal part of my morning routine at this stage in my Jew-ish practice. I just simply wanted to be a person who did do this every morning. That desire to be that person was the most honest thing about those prayers that morning…which my two roommates completely slept through.

Fast forward a decade or so, I’m now married with an infant son. Around the time my wife was pregnant with our boy, I realized that there would be no fooling my future children as to whom their father really was. If I wanted them to see me in a certain way, as a person who does certain things, I had to honestly take on the habits that would ultimately help me become that person. If I wanted to show them that their dad is a person who never cheated in business, I had to take on the habit of driving back to the store if the cashier accidentally gave me too much change. If I wanted my children to feel that their dad was someone who cared about his community, I would have to just be a guy who volunteered and genuinely did (it turns out that if you volunteer long enough, you will end up genuinely caring for your community—who dathunk?). If I wanted them to see their dad as a guy who valued morning prayer, I would have to honestly get up at 6 AM every week morning, don a tallit and tefillin, and reach out to the Creator of the Universe. There would be no more BS-ing about who I was. If I wanted to impart values and lessons as a father, they may hear my words, but they would definitely witness my actions.

One of my first positive habits to take on was the daily morning prayer I had tried so hard to fake that one morning. I wanted to be that guy who genuinely was not himself without his 9-mile run every morning…but, you know, for Jewish prayer.

One thing I noticed after a while was the attitude shift that was required in order to form positive habits. If I wanted to make sure I did not miss a single morning, I could not just be “trying to pray more often.” That attitude gives failure too much of a pass. No, in order to get this positive habit to stick, I would need to be “a person who prays every morning.” It was no longer about what I was trying to accomplish, it was about becoming the person who does. Beyond changing my attitude, I would have to build this as part of my identity.

Another way I’ve heard this form of habit adjustment put is in the framework of smoking cigarettes. Two people could have the goal of quitting a habit of smoking cigarettes. Both of them are out on the patio of a party and are offered cigarettes by a guest. The first person says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m trying to quit.” The second person says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m not a smoker.” The person who refuses, stating that they are “trying to quit” will likely fail because they still see themselves as a smoker who is a “trying to quit.” The second person, however, has changed how they see themselves. They are no longer a smoker. They are a non-smoker. Non-smokers, by definition, don’t smoke. It’s not a question smoking or not smoking, but rather of who the person is.

I felt this similarly when I officially became a Jew. Though religious for several years, my identity as a religious Jew now dictated my actions. This made some averot (transgressions) easier to avoid — I could just say to myself, “I’m a religious Jew. Religious Jews don’t do that.” and the decision was clear. However, what I underestimated is all of the positive habits that being a religious Jew would require of me. Suddenly, my identity as a religious Jew meant that I had a very wide variety of new responsibilities in addition to the bad habits I would need to break.

Even beyond Judaism or spiritual connotation, forming positive habits is less about intention and more about identity. It’s less a “I’d like to…” and more about “I am…” Before you set out to break a bad habit or to form a positive habit, I’d invite you to take some time to redesign your identity. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” Sit down with a pen and a notepad or an open document and write a description of the ideal you. This isn’t not you, but simply your best you — the you that you know exists in there somewhere. This is the you that you could be if you took the required actions, little by little.

Is this a person who is always honest?
Is this a person who helps the needy?
Does this person exercise and eat a balanced diet?
Does this person block off time for their loved ones first?
Does this person read books more than they watch television?
Does this person spend more time with friends in person than they do on social media?

Designing this person.

After you’ve dedicated yourself to intentionally living out the values you feel inside, pursue the goals that would be required to move the needle even a little bit every day. Even just taking a single step in that direction is the start of designing the best you that you can be.


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Aligning Within Before Aligning Above

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In Judaism, there is an idea called “כַּוָּנָה” or kavanah. Early on in my studies, I was always told this was one’s focus or intention during prayer. The popular idea behind it can be summed up in the immortal words of a Mr. Ferris Beuller.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

As someone diagnosed with fairly severe ADHD, I understood the gist of kavanah in prayer and study…or a lack thereof. I had definitely “read” pages of text before just to realize it was only my eyes that had done the reading. Meanwhile, my mind was off wondering if anyone had noticed that my socks didn’t match. Still, it wasn’t till kavanah was described to me in a different way did I understand it enough to actually do something about it.

I was watching a class with a rabbi I’d met while I was in Jerusalem in 2009 –  Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser. If you close your eyes and listen to his classes, you’d probably assume he was in a tie-dye tank top with some Birkenstocks and white-guy dreads. He’s actually a former professional big wave surfer turned ultra-Orthodox hasidic rabbi. His days are now filled enlightening the spiritually-searching souls that wander into his classes at Aish HaTorah. Anyways, in this class, he described kavanah as simply meaning “alignment.” He explained that it shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp and that “kavanah” would also be what you’d say needed fixing on the front-end of your car to an Israeli mechanic if you ran your car into a curb.

yom-tov-glaser

Alignment. Alignment. It made perfect sense. All this time, I had been trying to focus my mind and heart on the text on the page instead of where it was going — to the Creator of the Universe. This helped immensely. But not completely.

Up until this point, I had been praying out of my head. After some additional study of the works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the source of my prayers took an anatomic shift.

“When you speak to God, you should arouse your heart to the point where your soul all but flies out of you.”

Using this idea of reaching from within for alignment, I wrote a piece about praying from your guts, which I won’t go into as much here. Still, praying from my guts seemed to increase my kavanah very much. Still, I was missing another element of kavanah — the internal sensation that your prayers are being heard. Not reaching to feel the sensation of being heard can feel like spilling your guts in your first love letter to someone and then just tucking it away in a drawer, never to see the light of day again. I couldn’t take this sensation of not knowing if my heavenly voicemails had reached their destination or not.

Soon after this realization that the best source of my kavanah (alignment) with the Creator during prayer was actually reaching out…with my guts (yeah, it makes more sense if you read my other article), I developed a pre-prayer…well, prayer, so to speak. I began using this mantra-like prayer in order to begin the alignment process.

“HaShem, let my mind be in alignment with You.

Hashem, let my heart be in alignment with You.

HaShem, let my soul be in alignment with You.

And let me feel that You hear me.”

I must admit that this mantra is still quite helpful in brewing up some kavanah. Still, what I actually just recently realized is that it was helping me align myself. I know that sounds weird (much like all of this), but I can explain.

As a person with severe ADHD, it is a constant struggle to connect my conscious thought process to the task at hand. Even if I’m actively composing a sentence in writing or on a keyword, my conscious mind may very well be honed in on the sound of the air conditioner or on a neighborhood cat outside of my window. The “H” in “ADHD” stands for hyperactivity, which could explain why one of my legs is constantly bouncing or why if I’m standing, I’m either swiveling at the hips or possibly rocking back and forth. Long story short, my body and mind are rarely in alignment themselves. How could I then expect my entire being to be aligned with the Creator of the Universe?

I recently added a line to the mantra:

“HaShem, let my body be in alignment with You.”

When I tried to align my fidgeting body with my scattered mind and my gut-based soul, I found that I was actively aligning myself in order to align with the Creator of the Universe. Much like a radio not only requires a properly aligned antenna, but also an accurately tuned frequency, there was no chance of proper alignment with HaShem during prayer if I wasn’t successfully aligning the many facets of myself.

Upon coming to this realization, this self-alignment felt reminiscent of the inner workings of a lock. As every pin is aligned within the chamber, the entire mechanism becomes unlocked.

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Much in this same way, when the body, mind, heart, and soul are in alignment, the person becomes “unlocked” in order to connect with the Creator of the Universe in prayer and in performing mitzvot.

Exercise:

Before your set prayers, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and repeat the following mantra-like prayer as many times as you need to:

HaShem, let my body be in alignment with You,

HaShem, let my mind be in alignment with You,

HaShem, let my heart be in alignment with You,

HaShem, let my soul be in alignment with You,

And let me feel that You hear me.

Don’t reach out from your mind. Instead, reach out from your guts. Feel free to repeat this as many times is necessary. Imagine the multiple facets of your being in unified into one being. Imagine each aspect of these parts of yourself aligning with the Creator of the Universe like a laser beam. When you feel like your focus is slipping during prayer, reconvene your many parts and project your unified self to the Creator once again.

“Adonai, bring words to my lips, let my mouth declare Your praise.” – Psalm 51:17 / Opening of the Amidah.

 

The Amidah Is a Jedi Mind Trick: Prayer Helping Answer Prayers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Consistent, daily prayer is somewhat of a new thing for me. Years went by where I badly wanted to be the person who just wasn’t themselves without wrapping themselves up in a tallit and tefillin and having a morning teleconference with Infinite Truth of the Universe. I wanted to be like those people who humblebrag that, “I’m just not myself if I don’t get my 9-mile run in every morning.”…but, you know, for prayer.

Finally, in much the same way many people develop new habits, I forced myself to become dependent on my morning davening. First, I started with at least the Shema and the Ve’ahavta. It wasn’t too long before I added the Amidah, aka The Shemonah Esrei, aka the 18 Blessings. This prayer is the meat patty in the hamburger of Jewish prayer. Fortunately, it only takes about 10-15 minutes to do with kavanah (alignment/intent).

Eventually, I got over the hurdle of actually budgeting time to pray. I was beginning to really taste what I was eating. The basic formula of the Amidah is talking about Who the Creator is with preceding descriptions.

“Pardon us….(insert accolades here)…Blessed are You Adonai, gracious One who pardons abundantly.”

“Hear our voice…(insert descriptive reasonings why here)… Blessed are You Adonai, who hears prayer.”

This is the general theme for blessings ranging from desiring a fruitful year, teshuvah (repentence), deliverance, salvation, restoration,  to peace and much more. However, there was one prayer that first made me feel that these brachot, these blessings, were affirmations with the powerful persuasion of a Jedi mind trick.

“My G‑d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully…”

One day at work at around 4:45 PM, the volume of the usual workplace chatter began to increase as people prepared to leave for the day. The topic of discussion was of a former co-worker with a checkered past. Due to this person’s absence, everyone felt free to chime in on their thoughts about this individual. Going around the room, someone had asked me, “Ken, you worked with him. Do you have any bizarre stories?” Oh, buddy did I ever. I had them all in the chamber, ready to fire. As I was about to blurt them out like any other gossiper, certain words rang out in my head.

“….guard my tongue from evil…”

Was what I was about to say useful? Was it productive? Was it even nice? No. I simply side-stepped the request for feedback with a, “Not really.”

Now, do I believe that the Creator of the Universe reached down from the heavens and covered my mouth before I could talk smack on this former co-worker? I honestly don’t believe so. In fact, I don’t really believe that the Holy One intercedes in the behavior of creation very frequently. We were given free will and I believe the Creator respects our ability to make utter fools of ourselves. What I do believe happened was a literal answer to my prayers via the prayer itself.

As I would pray these positive attributes every day, taking words from a book and speaking them as truth into my life, I was slowly aligning my will with that of the Creator of the Universe. In essence, tefillah is not about begging the Creator to intercede and change the winds in our favor. True tefillah is an act of aligning ourselves to the Creator’s will and conditioning ourselves to remain in that zone. In the way the robust mind of a Jedi is able to impact the thinking of a weaker minded individual, prayer is the Creator realigning our weak (by comparison) minds to embrace G-dly attributes. The Holy One did not stop my tongue from speaking evil but rather gave me the strength I had requested in order to keep myself from succumbing to the temptation to speak evil.

When we internalize the words of the Amidah and of other prayers that contain positive attributes, they help to shape our behavior as well as how we perceive the world and its inhabitants.

Your Ideal Rebbe: Using Self-Imposed Rules To Redesign Yourself

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There is a tradition within Chasidic Judaism of following the lifestyle habits of one’s teacher extremely closely. This teacher is known as a “Rebbe.” It is not uncommon for these students to completely emulate their Rebbe. They wear the same style of clothes. They eat similar foods in a similar way. They make similar gestures and even mimic the way their Rebbe speaks. Imagine for a moment that in two hours, it’s announced that you are slated to become the Rebbe of a group of thousands of these “chasidim” — pious students. They will copy the way you dress, what time you go to bed, how you spend your leisure time, how you treat other people, and basically almost every other aspect of your life.

  • Would you be prepared to be emulated in such a way?
  • Would your lifestyle require some refining before you took this position?
  • Would you want to emulate such a person as yourself?

At this point, you’re probably pondering your habits…and grimacing. The good news is that, with some time and effort, all of your habits can be changed. One way to free yourself from bad habits is by setting rules for yourself — your own self-torah.

Writing Your Own Torah

There is an instruction in the Torah that every king must write a copy of the Torah for himself. I’m certainly not suggesting that your torah should supersede the Torah given to Moshe if you’re a religious Jew. However, in order to help free you from bad habits, establishing your own personal rules and standards for life can help you come closer to being the Rebbe you could realistically see following.

Building Rules To Become Your Best You

Setting arbitrary rules that aren’t focused on a goal won’t stick around as long as goal-rooted rules. Setting a bedtime for yourself will lack weight if waking up earlier has no benefit for you. Think about the kind of person you want to become and then reverse engineer what rules will help you accomplish this. Have a mindset of less of “it would be nice if…” and more of “this type of person does this,” etc.

Design Your Ideal Self First

Before you start thinking about which rules will help develop the best you, you need to define and design what the best “you” looks like. Take a few minutes to think about what this person is doing at any given hour of the day. What kind of habits do they have? How do they treat people? Imagine you’re studying your ideal Rebbe.

For example:

  • My Rebbe takes advantage of the early morning hours to read, pray, meditate, and prepare for the day.
  • He’s an altruistic soul, giving charity and volunteering time to those in need in his community.
  • He’s a focused, efficient and successful worker.
  • He’s a family man — raising children to have an appreciation for the simple things in life.
  • He’s a loving husband — giving his wife the proper attention and support to sustain their relationship.
  • He is mindful of his blessings throughout the day.
  • He’s honest in all of his dealings and speech.
  • He’s always looking to expand and increase his creative endeavors.
  • Etc.

Create an hour-by-hour log of what your ideal Rebbe be doing at any given time.

Gauge If Keeping These Rules Will Bring Contentment

When designing your ideal “you”, take as much time as you need to in order to gauge if this new lifestyle will bring you contentment. If your rules are more focused on making money, take a few days to really consider if having more money or goods will actually make you more content with life. In many instances, downsizing possessions may actually bring more contentment than acquiring more “stuff.” Make sure that your destination is where you want to end up.

Customizing The Rules To The Ideal Rebbe, Not The Other Way Around

Now that we have some examples for an ideal Rebbe ( this is an ideal Rebbe, not the only ideal Rebbe), we can begin to craft some detailed rules to help us get there. For example: If he wants to be someone who wants to take advantage of the early morning, he’ll need to get to sleep at a reasonable time. A helpful rule would be to say he begins getting ready for bed at 9:45 PM and is in bed by 10 PM. If he wants to be an efficient worker, other rules could include not using social media at work or no multitasking when working on a single assignment. Parenting goals could include putting your phone away around your children or making sure you have a date night with your wife on a predetermined day. These rules should always correspond with the character traits of your Ideal Rebbe.

Some Ideas For Non-Specific Goals

Sometimes, there are simply some rules that are handy for being a more well-rounded individual. There’s nothing wrong with these. In fact, these rules may help you design your ideal Rebbe.

Here are 30 of my favorite rules from bestselling author Daniel Wong

  • Spend 10 minutes every day in quiet reflection.
  • Exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes each time.
  • Read for 30 minutes a day. (I’m referring to books, not tweets or Facebook status updates.)
  • Every day, write down one thing you’re thankful for.
  • Compliment one person a day.
  • Never play with your phone or look at your computer screen when someone is talking to you.
  • Be home for dinner at least four times a week.
  • Be five minutes early for every appointment.
  • Never criticize someone over email. If you want to offer constructive criticism, do it in person.
  • Spend the last 15 minutes of each workday planning for the next day.
  • Don’t check your email more than three times a day.
  • Whenever you make a phone call, out of courtesy ask the other party if it’s a good time for him or her to talk.
  • Don’t talk bad behind anyone’s back.
  • Once a month, ask your teacher, spouse or boss for feedback.
  • Proofread every email before sending it.

Other Rule Sources: Pirkei Avot

One of my favorite sources of rules that I can apply to my life is in the words of Pirkei Avot: The Ethics of Our Fathers. This tractate of Mishnah is full of applicable rules for living from some of the greatest Jewish sages.

What rules for living have you established for yourself already? Have you been able to keep them?