Dear Dr. Guterson - your video last week talked about ‘returning’ to your true self, meaning your soul. Does this mean that we cannot change? A: What a great question! Actually, change and growth is what life is all about. Years ago, when I was a History teacher, on the first day of school I would write the following on the blackboard: “Human nature, basically, stays the same.” Now that I am older, I realize the potential flaws in that statement. Yes, we have our temperament and yes, we have our DNA and yes, we have the nurturing that we were given in our early years. And yes, we have our unique pure soul. These are all templates. They are who we are - BUT how they express themselves is up to us. Our actions in life are our choice. We can learn from our (inevitable) mistakes. We can refine our character. The beauty of being a human being, unlike all other creations, is that we have free will. A great example of this is the story of Jill Bolte Taylor. She was a Harvard neuroscientist who, in 1996, suffered a massive stroke that destroyed the functioning of the left side of her brain. At that point she could have given up, she could have thrown in the towel, but she did not. Not for a second. No, instead she exercised her brain daily for the next eight years and ultimately was able to train the right side of her brain and recover all her faculties. (see her book, “My Stroke of Insight”). We need not be prisoners of our templates. We can change the architecture of our brain. We can change our emotions, our actions, our character. Your question is good because yes, we do have a soul, a soul that is the bedrock of our true self. But how we EXPRESS our soul is up to us. And this is our greatest freedom. Learning from Jill Bolte Taylor, we should never ever give up. We should never believe that we cannot be more giving, more confident, more understanding, more forgiving. No pill on earth can make this happen. It takes courage. It takes tenacity.
Q: Dr. Guterson, you talk quite a bit about the soul. Can you help me understand what the soul is? A: For the past 14 weeks, we have discussed the features and structure of the soul. Our understanding of the soul starts with the knowledge that human beings (unlike everything else) were created in G-d’s image, that G-d breathed into us His Essence. Therefore, we all have an actual piece of Divinity within us. And that explains our yearning for transcendence, a longing to connect. To put this soul into action so that it affects ourselves and the world, Chassidic philosophy talks about ‘garments’ of the soul. These ‘garments’ are our thoughts, speech, and actions. They are called garments because, like the clothes that we wear, they can be changed. And change they must if one desires to grow spiritually! As life goes on and as we hopefully get more in touch with the purity of our soul, we have the opportunity to refine these ‘garments’: Thought: we think ALL the time, even while we’re sleeping. We simply cannot stop thinking - but we have the power to decide what we want and what we don’t want to enter our mind. Speech: Since speech reveals what one is thinking about, it too is under our control. How much we talk and what we talk about is within our free choice. Action: Except perhaps those who suffer from severe mental illness, Chassidic philosophy says there is no such thing as “I can’t help myself”. Excuses are excuses. We are capable of choosing our response to whatever comes our way. All of this, of course, is incredibly difficult but also incredibly empowering. Our soul is pure goodness because it is Divine; it is immutable. Our garments, meaning our thoughts, speech, and action can change, must change, and become more refined. As such, we are able to navigate the waves of life. We have marriages and families and friendships that are more whole. We live with purpose and help reveal the holy sparks that are all around us. To be continued….