reflection by Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein
You're trying to focus on something. Maybe you're meditating, maybe you're praying. Maybe you're speaking with another person or trying to do some work.
Lo and behold, when we try and focus on something, other things often happen. In our practice, and in our lives, the “five hinderances” identified in the Buddhist tradition arise in all of us, at some point or another: sleepiness, ill will or anger, doubt, restlessness, and sensory desire. The last of these, sensory desire, is the subject of a key teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov, which his friend and student R' Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl discusses in his sermons on this week's parsha.
When desires arise in us, we might think that the righteous or skillful thing to do is to simply suppress them or replace them with whatever else we can.
However, as we may have experienced, suppressing or fighting against desires does not often lead to the best outcomes. And even if it might seem to work in the short term, we may well be performing an act of violence against ourselves that will eventually cause harm.
The way of the Ba'al Shem Tov is to recognize the oneness and Divinity of all being. Everything I experience is a manifestation of the Divine: “I have placed the Eternal One always before me” (Psalms 16:8). Whatever it is that happens, in every moment, this too is the Divine.
Therefore, whatever we are experiencing is an invitation to deepen our relationship with the Oneness that is everything. Specifically, when desire arises in us for something worldly that will bring us a quick shot of dopamine (food, checking a social media app, etc.) we might recognize it as a worldly form of something greater: our yearning for the love that connects all life.
In practice, we can ask ourselves: Where did this desire come from? But what is the deeper need the desire is expressing?
By doing so, we are using whatever is arising in us as an opening to bring ourselves closer to what is really happening.
Anything I do to satisfy my craving for dopamine will only work for seconds, or perhaps minutes. But by asking, “What is the underlying need being expressed here?” and being present with whatever arises, we are reshaping our neural chemistry for the better, and moulding ourselves into sacred vessels for the full range of human emotion and experience.