So what are we doing here on this earth?
Do you ever ask yourself this on yet another draggy Monday morning? I wonder about this a lot, especially as a therapist who sees people’s suffering quite a bit. What’s it all for anyway? Here’s something to chew on for this week if you’re someone who likes to reflect on the whys and hows of being a person.
According to Rabbi David Cooper who writes eloquently about Kabbalistic philosophy (see his book “God is a Verb”) – “the unfolding of creation is the process of a continuous struggle between opposite poles; light and dark, give and take, up and down, right and left, life and death.” (masculine/ feminine… right and left etc…)
If you subscribe to or are willing to entertain this notion of opposite entities influencing and inspiring one another’s development- then part of our work here in this life seems to be about attaining balance in our lives and in our relationships. Noticing how we tend towards more of one pole than another or too much of one when we need more of another, can help us gauge where we are in our lives- both intrapsychically (within ourselves) and interpersonally in our relationships . And with this awareness, we can strive towards unifying these qualities in some way to feel more whole.
So which qualities are we balancing?
The Kabbalah (in a very complex system) conceives of a ladder/hierarchical system which it calls “sephirot”. The sephirot are 10 realms of energy or 10 qualities (believed to reflect divine entities) that occur in pairs/ partnerships on each rung of the ladder. An example of a pairing of qualities is that of “Chesed” and “ Gevurah” (their Hebrew names). Translated, Chesed means lovingkindness or grace and Gevurah refers to restraint, boundaries or withholding.
These paired qualities of being are said to exist (in varying degrees or potentialities) within ourselves and in the universe -even globally- each interacting with and influencing the others.
You don’t need Kabbalah to point out how qualities work to balance each other because you can see these processes unfolding if you pay subtle attention to the patterns and relationships of life. Just look at couples you know, where one seems to be the more demanding of the pair and the other seems to be withdrawing more of the time. One says I need more love and the other says I need space.
How is balance maintained? By the fact that there are two poles… if both were on the same side of things – this relationship would probably not even happen! But the fact that you have a partner with opposite qualities offers you the opportunity to try on new ways of being (and inevitably lead you to have more compassion for your partner).
The Kabbalistic explication of these qualities (later adapted by C.G.Jung in his writings) can be helpful in heightening our awareness of where we fall out in these equations thus helping us enhance the quality of our lives.
Chesed: Grace, Lovingkindness
Chesed is translated as “the force of expansion, of free and complete giving… It is always outgoing, always accepting, always forgiving.” (p.144 : Walking in the Fire by Ariel Bar Tzadok). It is Love. It is the part of us that gives freely.
Chesed is a wonderful trait and an energy that we can offer unendingly to others and ourselves. To give to and care for others, to be charitable and generous with our love, our homes, our time, our empathy for others- these are all acts of generosity.
I like to think of Chesed as our YES to life… (though where the yes comes from.. what motivates it, can be more complicated).
Gevurah: Judgement, Restraint
Gevurah is known as the “the force of constriction” or restraint. Also related to judgment, holding back, setting boundaries and if overdone- too much power.
Gevurah is a wonderful balance for Chesed. It’s the part that knows rules are important to maintain a world or society. It’s the part of us that says “okay I need some time to recuperate from being social. I need to withdraw a bit into myself.” Gevurah is the “No” that we often need to help us stop and slow down.
Generosity and Restraint… how much of each do we express in our lives and allow ourselves to express?
On a particular day you may be more outgoing with your love and less likely to withdraw and spend time alone. In relationships- with your self or with others- you may struggle to embody one quality more than another for example you may have difficulty ending conversations or asking for what you want, focusing more on your idea of how you’re “supposed to be nice”. (Chesed pole..)
Usually we express both qualities in varying degrees and depending upon the situation…. For example- if you’re aware of your tendency to “over give” you may at other times become too harsh when setting limits because you’re living out of this fear of being too kind, being seen as a “doormat” etc..
Living in one polarity more than the other can offset things in our lives. What does this look like?
Can you have too much love? Setting limits on giving
Too much Chesed creates problems because there is a lack of balance as exemplified in a recent article in the NYtimes which discussed the concept of “pathological altruism where a person lacks limits to their giving. : http://nyti.ms/ppP0g5
Generally, there are underlying reasons for why this tendency develops for people, which are worth becoming aware of in therapy or in your own self reflection. This way of relating can become problematic if we are not in touch with our own limits and we give more than we are aware that we want to or are even able to. Sometimes we end up giving because of our own need to give (to be liked, to feel validated) rather than feeling what the other person actually wants or needs. In doing so, we fail to notice their reactions to our behaviors.
Other manifestations of too much Chesed include- codependent relationships, addictions, overindulging children and not teaching them when to stop eating sugar, playing video games or just setting limits with them period. In fact, when you overdo altruism- it can morph unintentionally into cruelty or intrusion of the other’s life. It can also create problems with impulse control if parents don’t teach their children when enough is enough.
Another common illustration of living in the Chesed polarity is it can lead one parent to have to play out the other polarity- for example if a dad is always indulging his children, the mom may feel she has to play bad cop to his good cop and this creates a lot of confusion and distorted alliances within families (Daddy’s the good guy etc..…)
What I have found in my own life and in my work as therapist is that most of us – based upon our histories have a tendency to lean towards one pole or the other in specific areas. Often times you see these trends of swinging from one pole to another when you look at a family’s history over a few generations.
I have worked with many parents who are overly permissive with their children as a reaction to their own overly restrictive parental upbringing where they felt smothered and stifled by their parents. The problem though, with their overindulging is that their children then don’t develop frustration tolerance which creates problems when they face “NO” in their lives outside their home (or when the parent learns to start setting limits).
Some organizations or religions tend to embody too much of one quality and not enough of another. Its all about balance.
Overdoing restraint and judgment… the other side of the spectrum..
On the flip side – if we overdo Gevurah, we can lose sight of the love and the tenderness that’s needed in our relationships (with ourselves and with others). When you grow up with a parent who is overly worried about saving money and never able to spend it—it can become difficult when you grow up to ever pamper yourself… to allow yourself (to eat.. to relax, to take time out for yourself, to spend money on yourself when you have it)
Parents who grew up with excessive Gevurah in the form or harsh discipline (even corporal punishment) – who have not spent time FEELING the fear this engendered in them- are susceptible to repeating this pattern with their own children. I have treated many of these parents and so long as they stay connected to their own parent’s harsh view… (aka “identification with the aggressor”)- the balance remains off. The child in them- is ignored and therefore their actual children are deprived of tenderness too.
So Kabbalah can teach us the importance of creating a life that is about balancing love and compassion with boundaries. When we don’t set boundaries in our lives- we end up feeling drained and used. When we set too many- we can feel isolated… and cut off from people. On one side of the spectrum, we can harm others if we pathologically indulge them. On the other, an extreme form of gevurah can be seen in the personality tendency known as OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder) – where we become so afraid of losing control and inflexible that we try to set limits and rules on everything – and then become controlling of the other and ourselves to such a degree that we cant let love in…we hold back love…. .. Neither extreme works.
So what to do?
1)Reflection We can take some time to reflect on these questions: how do we use and embody these qualities in ourselves? With others? Which pole do we tend more towards and at what times in our lives? (maybe both..). How might you like to refine your expression of each one?
2) Experiment with the pole you’re less familiar with. If you tend more towards restraining yourself or your children or your employees- try giving more charity or spending some time on yourself in a small way, letting your children have more fun than you’re used to…and notice how you feel when you do this.
If you lean more towards overdoing your giving – experiment with trying to set a limit on your impulse to do more.. eat more or try keeping to a limit you don’t usually enforce with your children. If we find ourselves adamantly clinging to one pole- its worth looking at why? What do we think we’re protecting in this way?…This can yield lots of information to about ourselves.
Wherever you find your resistance- see if you can lean into it just a bit more… nudging yourself there gently while allowing yourself to go back to your comfort zone as you need to. (This is what happens in “exposure therapy” which is part of cognitive behavioral therapy or in good experiments that are set up in Gestalt therapy sessions. We practice new behaviors until we get more comfortable with them and they become part of our repertoire).
The important thing is – not to judge yourself or anyone else when you notice your tendencies one way or another. You are where you are for reasons that if you explored them- you’d likely understand how and why they came to be. But can you grow and learn? For sure!
3) Set an Intention Setting an intention is a large part of many spiritual (and some religious) practices. Once you become aware of areas you feel blocked, see what you would like to be different? How would I like this to be? What is my intention to try out today? What do I want to feel more of? Keep it in mind as you go about your day. Hang up an index card near your mirror saying “I want to reach out more”.
Good mental health is about flexibility- how flexible are we in our ability to relate. We are lifelong works in progress. As you flex more with your YES and your NO – your soul, your partner, your children and even nature and the planet will be grateful.