Breaking Free

Stop. Breathe. Think.

I closed my eyes.

Relax. Recharge. Reflect.

I observed my mind. What did I find?

In the depths of my awareness, I entered both a paradise of peace, and a tornado of turbulence; after dwelling in the clear, still present, I submerged into the chaotic void of the unreal. I remembered - I relived my experiences until they fused and forged with my internalized narrative. I fantasized – I mapped out millions of possibilities branching into the infinite maze of the future. Ultimately, I returned home – I explored the core and root of my own thoughts and feelings.

I entered into freedom. I could choose what to think about. I could change. I could grow. I was hungry for purpose, and thirsty for inspiration. Why was I here? Who would I become? How would I help the world? At the center of my swirling universe, I tasted the truth – I had free will. I was free will.

Breaking the chains, I bolted from the dark cave into the daylight. I curved around the rocky slope, crossed the pasture, and darted into the forest; after hopping over surfaced tree roots, and shuffling down muddy hills, I finally reached the overflowing spring. Beneath my toe, a ripple spread and shattered the still reflection of the tree canopy.

I dove into the icy underworld, and pulled forward and deeper, towards a bright light that cut through the murkiness. After a few strokes, I grabbed onto the radiating, golden glow – a large, unlocked wooden chest. Light spilled out as I lifted the top, unraveled the scroll inside, and read the clear, black words printed on the white parchment.

Control It. Don’t Let It Control You. Reclaim Your Mind.

Mending Mind: Healing Head and Heart

The first step to reclaiming my mind was reclaiming my thoughts. Over the past decade, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in bus stops, doctors’ offices, bathrooms, and showers, and every hour was packed with about a thousand possible thoughts. What was I thinking about? Every thought is healthy or harmful, constructive or destructive – every thought carries a choice. Will I control my thoughts? Or will my thoughts control me?

A few years ago, I took control. I elected myself CEO, and implemented my first big change: every important decision goes through me. Fear, anger, and habit won't act without my oversight; creativity and discipline won't withhold information from each other; public relations won't change the company budget. Moving forward, I, Mr. CEO, am in charge. After all, I founded this company.

Now, at Me Inc.., every choice is an exercise and experiment. Tea or coffee? Sleep or study? Personal improvement or community service? Every opportunity is an evaluation. What’s healthier? What’s smarter? What will help me grow? What will help grow the world? Thousands of choices fill my schedule, and I weigh each one on the scales of intellect. What are my priorities? What are the pros and cons? What’s right? By reclaiming my choices, I reclaimed my thoughts.

I also reclaimed my emotions. Most people think emotions are like weather. Sometimes you’re happy, and sometimes you’re sad. Today, you predict partly anxious with a forty percent chance of angry outburst, and, tomorrow, a new front of warm optimism moves in from the south. Emotions are NOT like weather. Emotions are like radio stations – you can turn the dial.

For many years I felt sad, anxious, and empty. Although my emotional dysfunction wasn’t quite diagnosable, this gray cloud blocked me from deep fulfillment and real joy. I wanted happiness, peace, and purpose. I wanted to feel better.

Why did I feel bad? I started thinking, and soon it hit me. Maybe I was sad because I was reading Hemingway’s short stories about fictional Nick Adams, an alcoholic destroying his closest relationships. Maybe I was anxious because I was following CNN, and the headlines screamed, North Korea builds nukes… School shooting in safe suburb… Russia threatens trade war… “Death flu” kills hundreds. Maybe I was empty because I was listening to pop hits glamorize the pursuit of physical pleasures and material accomplishments. Maybe my emotional landscape wasn’t an unfortunate accident. Maybe it was time to switch the radio station.

Here, the psychologists had it backwards. I wasn’t consuming sad content because I felt sad; I felt sad because I was consuming sad content. You are what you eat – if you eat trash, you become trash. Likewise, you are what you watch, listen to, and read. If you read sadness you feel sad. Duh! I dropped the Hemingway; I stopped following mainstream news; I turned off the Spotify. I hit the reset button, and cut out all poisonous distractions.

As my own CEO, I calculated my choices. Was the product worth the price? It didn’t pay to dig for diamonds in the dumpster. There are pros and cons to Hemingway, CNN, Spotify, Ritalin, carbohydrates and almost everything else in the world. Everything consists of good and bad ingredients, so I always check the fine print on the shiny wrapper.

Every choice is a trade-off. What do I value more? Knowing what’s going on in the world or mental and emotional well-being? Instant interconnectivity or independent introspection? Easy entertainment or enlightening engagement? Knowing the trade-off is step one to choosing right, and choosing right is reclaiming one’s mind.

Returning to the Cave

Sometimes it hurts to heal head and heart; sometimes our closest friends and family reject our choices and goals. Sometimes we smack into a wall of cosmic resistance, and there is no way around, over, or beneath it. What do we do?

Control it. Don’t let it control you. Growth needs pain like plants need water, and greatness thrives off opposition. Greatness goes through the wall. Greatness transforms the wall into a step – a ten-foot wall is a small step for a one-hundred-foot person.

It’s time to choose. Some claim that free will doesn’t exist, and they are right - when one chooses to deny free will, it doesn’t exist. When one surrenders choice, one is swept away with the downstream current.

Others affirm and accept choice, and they are also right – when one accepts choice, choice blossoms. When one embraces choice, one swims upstream towards the source of life and truth, towards the overflowing spring.

With the glowing scroll in my right hand, I returned back to the dark cave. I descended down a rocky, spiral staircase, and turned left into a straight, narrow tunnel with torches along the walls; after a few hundred meters, the underground corridor opened up to a massive cavern.

I scrambled up the cave floor to a plateau of pavement with a broken yellow line, and suddenly a taxi honked and whizzed past. In the distance, skyscrapers lined the cave walls, stretching up to the earth ceiling. After weaving through the alleyways, I entered into the apartment where my broken chains were on the ground.

Stop. Breath. Think.

I closed my eyes.

Relax. Recharge. Reflect.

I observed my mind. This is what I found.

Why Me?

Why am I here?

For many months, I set aside a few minutes every day to ask myself this question, Determined to discover the source of my soul, I entered further into my inner awareness, cutting through confusion and uncertainty with the sharp blade of concentration.

First, I was a writer. Then, I was a teacher, and then I was an entrepreneur. I was a creative artist, a self-sacrificing builder, and a visionary leader. I was a thinker. I was a doer. I was both. I was everything. I was nothing. I was confused.

My existential excursions always circled back to this original ambiguity; over and over again, I shattered my identity as I searched for an unreachable, unreal version of myself. Instead of paralyzing myself inside of a familiar caricature, I surrendered and accepted my fate. I would never discover who I was. For the rest of my life, I would float through the fog like a wandering gray blob.

My despair hardened into frustration. Why couldn’t I squeeze myself into a standard, labeled box like everyone else did? Why couldn’t I accept a simple, surface-level reality? Why did I always dig deeper? Why did I always ask questions?

Finally, I understood. Emerging through this anguish, I tasted the sweet realization; rising up from a dungeon of doubt, I unraveled the riddle to reveal the answer hidden in the question. In a moment of insight, the light of truth flickered. I was here to ask why.

Through asking why, I transformed. Through asking why, I broke through layer after layer towards the source of life and growth. Through asking why, I accepted limitation, redefined my relationships, and generated wisdom.

Accepting Limitation

Asking why was my first step to real humility. Buried in every “why” is the critical admittance of “I don’t know,” and thus every why implies vulnerability.

A few summers ago in upstate New York, some friends and I went out to a field to lie down flat on the grass, and stare up at the night sky. As a patch of clouds broke up, thousands of stars spotted the black emptiness. Shrinking, sinking into the soft soil, I felt small and powerless. Swallowed up by the infinite darkness, I encountered the hard truth. I knew nothing. ​

​ We, humanity, know nothing. Physicists don't know what 80% of the universe is made of. They call this “dark matter.” Biologists don't know how organic life sprang into existence. They call this “prehistoric soup.” Evolutionary geneticists don't know how Homo sapiens developed two nostrils. They call this “random selection.”

Science, I supposed, described how the universe worked, not why the universe worked. Logic was limited. I couldn’t map my life experiences over a grid; I couldn’t upload my consciousness onto a hard drive. I was more than a robotic monkey. I was a human. I was a questioner.

For many years, I wrote down all of my questions about life, truth, self, and anything mysterious. With the guidance of my teachers and mentors, I pushed past the periphery of my understanding to absorb and digest ancient insight.

Fortunately, during my mission to define the metaphysical, I uncovered a foundation of faith. By embracing the necessary cycle of confusion and clarity, paradoxes no longer slowed my progress – on the contrary, uncertainty fueled my curiosity. Reaching for my unanswered questions, step-by-step, I climbed up higher into the rabbit hole.

I accepted limitation. I would never fully understand the complexity of even one ant or raindrop or musical note. I would never understand the absolute truth. I would only taste a trace. I would only catch a glimpse of light between the passing patches of cloud and fog.

Entering the mystery, I ascended into a world of infinite awe and wonder. Although my life was a mere speck of ink on the cosmic portrait, each day of my life contained its own universe – each moment was pregnant with purpose. After twenty years of watching the night sky, I understood a fundamental insight. My soul – like a star – was an indestructible fire of truth illuminating the vast void of chaos and darkness.

Redefining Relationships

Asking why was also my first step to real relationships. By questioning assumptions, I uncovered deeper dimensions in my personal service to others.

After my first year in yeshiva, I returned back home to an alien environment. My friends and family had changed; they expressed unfamiliar values, concerns, and motivations. American culture had changed; constantly barking into colorful, rectangular boxes, people guzzled this strange, oil-black, liquid fuel. In truth, I was the one that changed. After hundreds of hours of analyzing complex, profound texts, I had forged and refined a clearer lens to interpret the language of life.

With a deeper understanding of my own intuitive, moral conscience, I reevaluated my relationships. What did my friend really want? Where was he coming from? Which attribute motivated and sustained his challenges and goals? With patience, I decoded what he said into what he meant.

How would I help? Often, listening was enough. One word or sentence at the right time was enough. Instead of spitting out ambiguous opinions and familiar clichés, I calculated my responses. My intention shifted completely. No longer did I ask myself, “What should I tell my friend?” Now, I asked, “What does he need to hear?”

The wisdom of why transformed my whole perspective – like an x-ray, the vision of my intellect penetrated all surfaces. Digging deeper, I traced values and philosophies back to their roots. Almost always, I observed, educated people constructed sophisticated arguments and proofs to justify an assumption based on emotion or intuition; almost no one sorted out the truth in clear black ink on blank white paper.

Through wisdom, I redefined my relationships. My goal was to give, guide, and grow through objective consideration, building trust, and selfless action. My goal was to question my role. How would I give to the other? How would I receive? How would I develop stronger, deeper, more meaningful connections? In a short time, these small, inner adjustments stimulated massive, inter-personal transformation.

Generating Wisdom

Finally, asking why was my first step to real wisdom. By exploring the questions that bothered me, I unlocked the deeper chambers of my intellect.

Where was wisdom? Where was truth? Where was insight? I needed more than answers. I needed a map. I needed a process.

I stopped consuming, and I started creating. I stopped reading books, watching movies, and travelling so much. I stopped searching, seeking, and exploring. Instead, I reversed inward the flashlight of my concentration. I started free writing, logging my daily activities, and listing my principles and goals. I started asking myself hard questions. I started thinking.

How would I think better, clearer, and faster? How would I think more positive, productive, and proactive? The more I examined my thoughts, the more I illuminated the darkness of cognitive conditioning. The more I controlled my attention, the more I shaped my reality.

Through this crystallization, I entered into wisdom. Wisdom was like nuclear physics. Every true idea was an atom, and this immense, invisible energy either would wipe out civilian populations or fuel power plants. How would I use my wisdom? Would my ideas build or destroy cities?

I entered into truth. Truth was like medicine. If administered at the wrong time, or to the wrong person, the healing drug would become a poison. Too much truth could destroy another’s self-confidence, happiness, and even sanity. How would I deliver and withhold the truth to help others?

I entered into insight. Insight was like lightning. In brief moments, bright flashes illuminated my entire psychological landscape, and I identified my emotional and intellectual assumptions. How would I hold onto these fragments of awakening? How would I convert this inspiration into action?

Through wisdom, truth, and insight, I entered into reality. As I sharpened and refined my questions, they disappeared, and the puzzle pieces of my obligation snapped into place. Clarity morphed to joy, and then solidified into habit; through habit, I upgraded into myself 2.0, wiped clean of all previous bugs and glitches.

I Know Why. But What Now?

I was here to ask why. But why was I here to ask why? Was there a downside or danger to asking why?

Sometimes, asking why was unpleasant or frightening. As I penetrated my subconscious, blocked and forgotten pain resurfaced; ugly, raw reality cracked all illusions of peace and stability. Sometimes, asking why was paralyzing. As I coordinated and calculated my direction and pace, I lost momentum – one after the other, my peers passed forward on their paths to achievement and recognition. Although asking why was hard, it was a necessary sacrifice. I refused to remain an undefined, gray blob. I wanted purpose, not pleasure; I wanted long-term growth, not instant gratification. To plant and cultivate my questions, I gave up money, respect, and sleep. To acquire my indestructible identity, I let go of all comfortable assumptions.

I was here to ask why. But didn’t everyone ask why? How was I different?

For me, asking deep questions wasn’t a mere thought experiment, meditation, or mindset. Asking why was my life. A relentless curiosity colored all facets of my personality, relationships, and activities; I asked the questions no one else cared about. Asking why distinguished me from others.

For everyone and everything, the essential component of identity is that which distinguishes one from the rest. What distinguishes you from others? What have you gained from asking why? What are your questions? Please share.

Saying Goodbye

When I went to Jerusalem to learn in yeshiva, my friends and family were concerned. Some said I was running away from the real world, and that I should find a job like every other college graduate. Others said I was brainwashed, or joining a cult. They were right. I was escaping. But, not from the real world. I was escaping from the fake world. They were also right that I was brainwashed. I was washing – cleaning – my brain, which was layered with gunk from too much TV and high fructose corn syrup.

During the last week of August 2015, I booked a flight, packed two suitcases, and said goodbye. I didn’t make time to argue or explain. Logic, I reasoned, was slippery, and could twist to support the most evil intentions. My clarity came only from stretching past my rational limits, and touching something real and true.

Why did I go to yeshiva? I don’t know. I only know how I went to yeshiva. I know what happened – I know what I thought and felt. The following story is no more than a map of time, a navigational aid. I, the humble cartographer, seek no gain, and claim no credit. I would not suffer at all if this delicate design were forever lost in the sea of cyberspace.

Life Beyond Fiction

In college, I wanted to write the next classic American novel. I looked up to Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemmingway, writers that expressed deep ideas in simple terms, pushed past the boundaries of the English language, and revolutionized the form of fiction. What was the secret to their success? How did they develop artistic genius? I investigated their lives. Maybe their personal triumphs would hint to the source of their success. What I found was a cautionary insight.

Faulkner was a frequent adulterer, Hemmingway was an alcoholic, and dozens of other famous writers were anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. The most successful writers suffered the most. What was going on? Were they great writers because of their dysfunctional personal lives or were their personal lives dysfunctional because they were great writers?

I loved writing. The creative storytelling gene was woven into the fabric of my DNA. Sometimes, after hours of sifting through subconscious sand, an image would flash across the page like a speck of gold flashes in the pan, and, from the void of vagueness, a sentence would burst forth in its perfectly proper place and form.

Writing was my purpose. But, what was the purpose of my writing? What was I willing to sacrifice for my writing? Health? Sanity? Family? Did I aspire to be a great writer or a great father and spouse?

When viewed under the microscope, my passion broke down. I didn’t want to be the best writer. I wanted to be the best me, whatever that was. I wanted to grow in every area, including, but not limited to, writing. Writing was a crude, two-dimensional, picture of my soul. But what was my soul?

Searching for Self

I went to yeshiva because I got rejected from Teach for America, and I got rejected from TFA because, deep down, I didn’t want to join, and TFA knew this. I didn’t want a 9-5 schedule or summer vacations or a sense of purpose. I wanted purpose itself. I wanted freedom.

Who was I? Why was I born? These questions weren’t existential exercises. For two months during my junior year in college, I felt my sanity slipping from my grip. Anxiety crept around every corner, and ambushed my confidence during the dark hours of the night. In the emptiness of despair, only my firm understanding of truth deflected chaos and confusion.

I wanted real freedom. Freedom was NOT the ability to DO what I want. Freedom was the ability to THINK what I want, to CHOOSE what I want. What were my values? Why? Had I contemplated my life priorities or had I just copied John Stewart or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet?

I dug deeper. Did I control my thoughts or did my thoughts control me? Who was calling the shots? My inner circle or my inner voice? My emotion or my intellect?

I didn’t fear social rejection – I didn’t care what others might say. I feared my own future self-rejection – I feared regret and complacency. I feared travelling across the country or world to teach underprivileged kids, and still feeling empty inside. Who was I supposed to be? I hadn’t thought about this for more than 20 hours total throughout my 20 years of life – I hadn’t thought about this for longer than five minutes straight. Thinking about this question for two years would cost me many career opportunities. But, not thinking about this question would cost me much more. Not thinking about this question would cost me my life.

Sacrifice

I thought going to yeshiva would be a sacrifice. I would sacrifice my passion for my purpose, my financial freedom for my intellectual freedom – my old self for my new self. In the end, I didn’t sacrifice anything. I still have my passion – I write every day, and educate my friends and readers; I still have financial freedom – I control my money, not the other way around; I still am my old self – all of my past experiences, both positive and negative, are my inspiration to work hard and grow. Sometimes, an alternative path flashes into focus. In that life, I didn’t go to yeshiva. I went back to Ann Arbor to work at Goldfish Swim School, and write short stories. In that life, I let go of my questions, and floated downstream.

Instead, I chose this life. I went to yeshiva in Jerusalem, and now I learn in Baltimore. In this life, I swallowed and digested my questions, and I grew healthy and strong. Two years ago, I booked a flight, packed two suitcases, and said goodbye. Two years ago, I jumped into the overflowing well. How deep will I swim?

22/23