As I tie my running sneakers and put in my headphones, the cold, night air stings my nostrils. A rain drizzle sprinkles the hard, unforgiving sidewalk crossing over the bright, red and white highway blur. My marathon training is intensifying. Ten miles, twelve miles, sixteen miles – as the hours pass, I climb and fall with the sloping, concrete hills of Jerusalem.

Turning onto King George Street, I imagine crossing the finish line in a couple of months, the sweet taste of accomplishment filling my bones with strength and satisfaction. I imagine accomplishing all of my goals – writing a book, starting a business, teaching others… Where will I be in five years? Ten years? When will I reach my goals? Slow, slow, I remind myself. One step at a time.

The home stretch, Kanfei Nesharim, is a wide, straight street that served as an airplane runway during the 1948 war. Pushing through the last couple of miles, my knees ache and stomach rumbles. Doubt builds and surfaces. Why am I doing this? What am I proving? Why not just stop now?

Why do we train for marathons? Why do we write books, start businesses, or learn new skills? Why do we chase our dreams? Why do we dream in the first place?

We all want to improve. Physically, intellectually, spiritually. We feel a deep, pulsing, internal engine that inspires us to create, explore, and innovate. We want to learn about the world and understand ourselves. We want to GROW.

We want to grow, but sometimes we struggle. Spending late hours in the library or office, we question ourselves. Do we really want to do this? Is it worth it? Our inner voices clash, conflict, and confuse us.

Society only strengthens this resistance. We become grown-ups; we stop growing, and we solidify our personalities and value systems. We sacrifice spiritual growth for professional and financial growth, conforming to a culture that discourages risk, failure, and deviance.

Really, the whole universe strengthens this resistance. Objects at rest stay at rest, gravity pulls our bodies down, and our instinct seeks pleasure and avoids pain. We are biologically programmed to survive, not thrive – to go, not grow.

How can we swim upstream against the social current? How can we transcend our own physicality and psychology?

Growth begins in the mind. When we change the way we think, we change the way we feel and act. To change the way we think, we let go of old, harmful thought patterns, and we rewire the neural circuitry of our brains. To change the way we think, we integrate our moral principles into our emotional reality, and we align our physical actions with metaphysical truth.

Growth is spiritual. Great athletes, artists, and performers redefine the rules of their field; great writers, scientists, and statespeople transform humanity’s understanding of itself and of world. “We’ve discovered the secret of life,” Francis Crick said when he and Watson revealed the structure of DNA. Every day we discover the secrets of life. Through learning, we tap into an infinite well of hidden knowledge and wisdom.

Below, I present three principles of growth*. Please note, reading my words (or anyone’s words) will not transform us no matter how hard we squint. Change comes only when we eat our words. So please sit down, grab a fork and knife, and enjoy this food for thought.

1. Growth = Time + Effort

Nothing worth doing is easy or quick. Bestselling authors often write hundreds of mediocre stories before reaching publication; top athletes often spend many years on benches and practice squads before rising to the top of their leagues; successful entrepreneurs often bankrupt startups and squander investments before generating profit. Even those rare, exceptional individuals that succeed from the beginning attribute their success to hard work and dedication.

We all fall down, get up, and stay focused. Effort is concentrated awareness. Are we trying our best? Operating at 80-90% of our potential is ideal; we push ourselves, but we don’t burn out. Effort is endurance. Can we sustain this level of difficulty for a long time? Can we slowly, steadily improve? We set SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and time-bound. We write them down, check our progress, and celebrate our results.

Time is consistency, showing up every day. Five, ten, fifteen minutes – a small, daily effort can change an entire mood or mindset. Whether its meditation, praying, stretching, reading, writing, practicing an instrument, juggling, or just thinking – setting and sticking to a fixed time everyday will develop a firm habit in a few months.

CHALLENGE – I challenge us all to focus and think about one question for five minutes a day for five straight weeks. The question can be general or specific, theoretical or personal, simple or complex.

2. Meaning > Happiness

Life is hard and good, and through this crucible of suffering we tap into our true purpose and enjoyment. Meaning causes happiness, not the reverse. How do we achieve our purpose? How do we achieve our world’s purpose?

Does life have purpose?

In A Man’s Search For Meaning, world famous neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes,

“In the last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose,” (pg. 60.)

Our lives have purpose when we pay attention. Why was I born to this exact family at this exact time in this exact place? Why do I have this particular genetic predisposition? Why is my favorite color blue?

Many times, the true purpose hides behind the curtain of our mind’s outer limit. We sense it, but we can’t explain it, and since we can’t explain it we pretend it doesn’t exist. Upon reflection, we can accept the existence of an unknowable, unreachable realm. Human science will never understand everything. To claim the opposite is itself unscientific.

Although true purpose is usually hidden, sometimes, it smacks us in the face. We get stuck in traffic and miss a flight, or we bump into a hometown friend while travelling through a foreign continent. We can trace the effects of these isolated events, and analyze how one moment redirected our entire life trajectory. Understanding the significance of our personal experience is the beginning of spiritual growth.

3. The Highway Metaphor

A few months after I graduated from U of M in Ann Arbor, I embarked on a 10-hour solo drive back home to New York. Cruising east into the rising sun, I turned off the radio, and tuned into my own, relaxed inner attention. The highway, I realized, is the perfect metaphor for growth.

When driving, we must focus on the middle range ahead of us. If we look too far in the distance, we miss the car cutting into our lane, and if we look too close ahead, we miss the exit sign. Likewise, if we set over-ambitious goals, we’re discouraged by slow progress, and if we attach ourselves to details and technicalities, we forget the grand vision.

What will we do today that will help us reach our desired destination? In driving and life, a small adjustment produces massive ramifications over time. If the steering wheel is one millimeter off center, the car will eventually veer off the road. On life’s highway, we need constant balancing and recalibrating to travel straight.

Somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, I pulled up to a gas station, shifted into park, and turned off the car. Gripping the gas pump handle, I imagined the dirty, black liquid sloshing into the tank, and I contemplated the complex, mechanical miracle that’s called the automobile. What happens when the gas is turned into power? Why do I have to brake before shifting gears?

How does a car engine work?

How does the Internet work? How does a clock or mirror or bicycle or satellite work?

We live in the age of dashboard knowledge, not engine knowledge. We know how to operate the interface of our living experience, but we don’t consider why or how our living experience operates in the first place. True wisdom understands how life works both scientifically and spiritually; true wisdom perceives deeper levels of reality buried beneath ordinary situations. True wisdom develops our minds, and thus stimulates growth.

The Finish Line

As I cross the finish line for real, I don’t think about anything other than my quads burning like bricks doused in kerosene, and my calves as dull and tender as if they had stretched over my shoulder. My friend offers me a beer, and I shake my head before collapsing to the ground. Walk it off, he says.

Now, all the training makes sense. I understand how every step, breath, and turn only brought me closer to this completion; all of the pain, doubt, and resistance only strengthened my will.

It doesn’t take long. After wearing the medal, posing for pictures, and putting my face in a pizza, I sense the familiar drive.

What’s next? What’s faster, longer, farther, harder? How will I improve my personal record? My eyes are set on another marathon. This time faster. My eyes are set on an ironman. Not this year, but soon. I focus on my next step. How will I grow today? How will I gain knowledge, wisdom, and strength?

Its me against me. Within my own consciousness, this cosmic collision takes place. Growth versus resistance, trust versus doubt, life versus death. With each small, personal victory, the entire universe rises towards the ultimate completion. The world rests on my shoulders – with joy and gratitude, I accept this great burden.

* Once again, with great humility, I have attempted to explain some Torah wisdom brought down by my teachers. I take no credit for these insightful ideas, and I take full responsibility for any error or misrepresentation of the truth.

The Path

We reached the summit of Crane Mountain before noon, before the bright, summer sun arced above the puffy clouds drifting through the sapphire sky. In the northwest, the Adirondacks spread like a rolling, green sea wave; at our feet, a gust of wind swept small pebbles across the rocky peak and over the cliff edge. It was the perfect morning of a perfect week of a perfect life. It was the sweet taste of organic happiness, the satisfaction of a deep, wholesome, and healthy existence.

View from Crane Mountain

For the past ten days, I had participated in a Jewish educational program in Warrensburg, New York. Immersing myself in the traditional, religious lifestyle, I grappled with Talmudic logic, reconciled my skepticism with my intuition, and opened my mind to new perspectives. Throughout the program, I also asked and explored many fundamental questions that had always bothered me.

What is my purpose? What is the purpose of life? Does God exist? What does it mean to be a human? What does it mean to be a Jew? How can we make the world better? How can we find happiness?

Returning to my roots was a critical checkpoint in my search for wisdom that sparked in childhood, and burned from adolescence into college. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I enrolled in introductory classes in English literature, psychology, economics, statistics, linguistics, informatics, and film; I raided local bookstores, combing the sections marked philosophy, self-improvement, and spirituality; I wound through the dusty maze of bookshelves in the Hatcher Graduate Library, tracking down obscure titles on eastern religion, meditation, lucid dreaming, and the supernatural; I experimented with drugs, music, and lifestyle habits. I questioned everything – I even considered working a stable, respectable job in a normal, clean New York office building.

Despite my intellectual and spiritual growth, I still felt lacking. I had discovered pearls of wisdom and shards of truth, but I had not reached the core. I had penetrated farther into my inner awareness, but still I barely knew myself. I questioned my basic beliefs. What was the source of wisdom and truth? What was the root of my existence?

As I entered the world of observant Judaism, I was struck by the intricate beauty and infinite depth of the Torah. The more I knew, the more there was to know. The more I knew, the more I longed to know. Often, my questions were the same questions of the great Jewish thinkers of past centuries; to find my answers, I only needed to tap into the 2000+ year old tradition of Jewish scholarship.

On the top of Crane Mountain, I experienced a bright, fresh awakening. For the first time in my life I sensed true freedom. I reflected on my academic and personal progress, on the many mountains I had already scaled. I contemplated my future. What was next? Where would I go?

As a faint golden glow hovered on the horizon, a current of inspiration flowed into my mind. I understood that my search for wisdom must continue; I had to climb higher up the ladder into the infinite unknown. In the distance, the homeland of my heritage called out to me. I inched towards the cliff edge and closed my eyes. If not now, when? I took a breath, flexed my legs, and lunged forward. I took the leap of faith. I boarded a plane to Jerusalem to learn in yeshiva.

View of Jerusalem from Mt of Olives

After two years of learning, I gained even more than I had expected. I forged bonds of brotherhood with many other motivated and passionate young men, and I reevaluated my ethical principles. Through my experiences both inside and outside of the classroom, I learned three important lessons. I share them here in hopes to help others.*

Lesson 1: Control It. Don’t Let It Control You.

Upon awakening, the floodgates of our perception open, and thousands of objects seize our attention. We see our pillow, toothbrush, coffee mug, smart phone, car, desk chair, and notepad. Within hours, a spectrum of emotion has flowed through our heart. We feel happiness, anger, gratitude, boredom, excitement, and regret. What is our relationship to these objects and emotions? Do we control them or do they control us?

Could I survive a week without coffee? Could I survive a day without a smartphone? Could I stop feeling angry? Could I start feeling grateful? Does my happiness depend on external factors or can I create my own happiness whenever and wherever I want?

Unfortunately, our internal world is too often controlled by our external world; our satisfaction and happiness depend on impermanent and inconsistent variables. At worst, we enslave ourselves to momentary pleasures; at best, we define happiness as a passing phenomenon, a mysterious mood that is captured, but never cultivated.

When we acknowledge and understand our relationships to the objects and emotions that populate our personal universe, we transform our thought patterns and redirect our decision-making process.

"If you CAN say no – say YES. If you CAN’T say no – say NO"

A few years ago, I was walking home from the library on a cool, March evening. My head was clear and quiet as a long list of worries bubbled up into my awareness. I stopped, took a breath, and let go of all the troubling thoughts. An unfamiliar question popped into my mind. “What do I want to think about?” At that moment, I realized I had two options. I could control my thoughts or let me thoughts control me. I could intentionally think about the future or unintentionally think about the future. In other words, I could plan or worry. I could be active or passive.

Every moment is ripe and pregnant with potential. We can choose what we think about or we can pass weeks and months without analyzing and questioning the basic assumptions that strengthen our preconceptions and solidify our habits.

Lesson 2: Who is wise? One Who Learns From Everyone.

I have to admit. I’m not the smartest or strongest person in the world. I’m not the most honest, hard working, or sensitive. I’m not the best friend, student, or writer; despite what my mother thinks I’m not the best son in the world. I’m not the best at anything and I never will be.

Nonetheless, I am the best Me. I have a unique perspective and original information to share with others; from my understanding and experiences, I have wisdom to teach. We all have wisdom to teach. Every person has some exclusive knowledge, both practical and profound, that nobody else has; every person is an expert educator, elucidating his or her own life journey.

Perceiving others as teachers is the gateway to wisdom. Often, we encounter new people at business meetings, parties, classes, and meals. Moments after they introduce themselves, we forget their names. Why? Do we have bad memory? Do we lack interpersonal skills?

We tend to forget names at first meetings because we focus all attention on presenting ourselves. What will we say? How will we say it? How do we look? Automatically, our minds fixate on the details and subtleties of our personal expression.

Some Friends I've learned from

To shift the focus from ourselves to others, we can ask the other person questions. Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you do? Why are you here? What can you teach me? Everyone has a story to tell.

The same principle holds for our family, friends, and peers. What do my parents teach me? What do my siblings teach me? What do my friends teach me? Our intricate network of personal relationships is not the result of chance. Many times, the strengths and flaws we perceive in others are the same strengths and flaws we discover in ourselves.

Lesson 3: My Life Is Not About Me.

We live in the age of iLife. The media, technology, and philosophy of Western culture prioritize independence, individuality, and freedom. In courts, classrooms, and newspaper columns, we demand our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

First, we must check the foundations of our moral structure. Independence must be balanced with interdependence, individuality balanced with equality, and freedom balanced with obligation. We must question our language. Is life a right? Or is life a privilege? Is life an object I possess? Or is life a process I participate in?

Is my life about maximizing my own enjoyment or maximizing my positive impact on the world? Am I willing to sacrifice my desires and ambitions to satisfy others?

Understanding that I am not the center of the universe changes my intentions. No longer do I make money to purchase material possessions for myself. Now, I make money to support my family and community. No longer do I learn a new subject to gain status over my friends and peers. Now, I learn a new subject to share valuable insight and help others.

Understanding that life is a gift changes my attitude. No longer do I deserve air, money, or respect. Now, I’m grateful for the basic fact of my existence. No longer am I paralyzed by fear of failure or worthlessness. Now, I am propelled by positivity and purpose.

When life is all about me, I am small and restricted within the boundaries of my flesh and mind. When life is about more than me, my self extends to the edges of the cosmos.

What’s Next?

I’ve reached a new summit. As the sun blazes high in the sky, Jerusalem sprouts from the earth in the east; the Sataf Forest rises and falls, circling Mount Eitan. Hiking on the trail, I reflect on my progress. In two years, I’ve learned much about life and myself. Through my commitment to growth and hard work, I’ve reached new heights in my spiritual climb.

The path straightens for a half-kilometer before curving south. By living day by day, step by step, I ground myself in the present moment, and pull the past and future into focus. Questions fuel my progress. Who am I? What is God? How will I help the world? I strive to clarify this uncertainty through my learning and contemplation.

View From Mt Eitan

Before I go to sleep, I'm grateful for the initial spark to learn in yeshiva and uncover my spiritual DNA. I’m grateful for my parents, brother, family, friends, teachers, and rabbis, as well my health, intellect, and awareness. I close my eyes. Tomorrow I will start fresh, and put into practice my new understanding. Tomorrow, I will share with the world the depth and detail of my inner experiences.

Please subscribe below to follow the progress of my adventures and the exploration of my questions and ideas. Every month, I plan to post articles and stories detailing my journey.

* With great humility, I have attempt to explain some Torah wisdom brought down by my teachers. I take no credit for these insightful ideas, and I take full responsibility for any error or misrepresentation of the truth.