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.