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“Who Do You Think You Are?”

D’var Torah for the Shloshim of Leon Kobrin, Aryeh Leib ben Chaim
8 Adar 5773 / February 18, 2013

My Father’s teachings

My father preached the importance of a number of principles related to the “self.”  One of these was “Know Thyself”.  As a matter of explanation, he provided this model:

“If I know you better than you know yourself, then I win.”
“If you know me better than I know myself, then you win.”

Clearly he focused on who you are with regards to someone else.  It is less clear to me that he identified with the larger picture, such as where one stands in the universe – in the grand scheme of things.  He did, however, stress another precept with possible metaphysical overtones:  “Be pure in thought”.  I am going to now work with these themes and wrestle a bit with the question of “Who do you think you are?”

This question has enormous appeal to me because it can be broken down into fascinating component parts.  There is the “You” who is doing the thinking; there is the thinking itself; and then there is the “you” who is the object of the thinking.  What can we learn about these parts that will give us insight into how we humans form and use identities?

Stopping thinking

To begin, we will focus on thinking.  People like to think a lot, to use their minds.  What, though, would happen if we stopped thinking?  This is an unusual approach for learning about thinking, so we will call upon an unusual learning methodology.

I recently completed a martial arts training exercise that explored the state of being called Mushin.  As described in my training guide, Mushin is a level of consciousness in which you “go with the flow and let ‘it’ happen“.  This means you are focused completely in the present with no regard for the past or the future.  You are “calm and centered, and your reactions are spontaneous and creative.” (1)

Mushin affects how you see your world. The world slows down because your perception of time has changed.  You are completely in the moment to the exclusion of everything else.  As the guide continues, “In Mushin, we‘re surrendering to the consciousness of no-mind.  The chatter ceases and only the moment matters.  We are no longer there, except as part of the universe.  And so the universe is moving through us, with us.” (2)

This idea is not as esoteric as it sounds.  Professional athletes have coined terms such as “being in the zone” and “flowing” to describe their experience of this state.  Musicians get “swept up in the music and make no claim it is their own”. (3)  Painters get “inspired” and “moved from within”.  Poets, writers, and many other artists have stated the same.  Inventors and engineers have related how ideas and solutions ”just came to them”.  Extremely fearful situations, such as losing control of your car and facing an immanent crash, can put you right in the moment.  As a matter of fact, most people you know will probably report feeling like this at some point in their lives.

I am certainly not an expert in Mushin, but I do believe that I have experienced this state a number of times, in small ways.  It has occurred now and then throughout my athletic career.  I have felt the flow while long-distance running.  I have been in the zone while playing ball.  As a writer, there have been occasions when my essays seemed to have written themselves:  I would wake up with the words streaming out of me.  In some high stress situations of everyday life, such as medical emergencies among friends and family members, and even streetfights as a kid, I have been totally consumed by what was happening at the moment.  (Interestingly, the more I learn about martial arts, the more I see that a truly effective practitioner is one who can “stop thinking” and let his training take over in a combat situation).

My recent Mushin exercise helped me further understand what it means to “be here, now”.  It involved simply eating a bowl of popcorn, kernel by kernel, with no distractions or outside thoughts.  It allowed me to engage with what I was doing.  All too often, people treat their lives as an abstraction, especially when they eat.  If someone was to ask “What are you doing?” when you are at your dining-room table, the answer would typically be “having dinner” or “grabbing a bite”.  During my training, my answer would have been “I am eating popcorn”.  Just  that.

If someone was to then ask me, “Who are you?”,  I would have simply said “I am the guy eating popcorn.”  Depending on how engaged I was, I might even have said, “I am the popcorn.”  If I was really deep into the experience, I could have dropped the “I” in my response and just said “eating popcorn”.  When you are concerned about nothing but what you are doing at the time, the “who” that is doing stuff, and the “what” you are doing, tend to merge.

Very interesting:  you don’t always have to “be somebody”.  You can just do what you are doing and not worry so much about who is doing it.  There is a time and place for everything, and that includes thinking.  Yet, here is something remarkable and ironic:  the “no-mind” character of Mushin is achieved through a very active use of the mind, through concentration!


“Concentration… is the ability to absorb oneself mentally, physically and emotionally in a specific moment.  In that moment there may be an experience, feeling or thought that takes place. …this effortless state seems to demand a prepared and disciplined mind…you have to truly just be.  You have to wait and be. The essence of Mushin lies in the breath.  The breath and the mind are inseparable… as your breathing slows, your mind slows, and you’re able to touch that state of no-mind…” (4) (We will discuss the role played by breath further in this paper).

So, you really have to “think hard” in order to be able to “not think at all!” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – a noted physicist and religious scholar – talks about this very point in his book, “Jewish Mediation”.  Here he provides a vivid description of what appears to me to be the same form of consciousness-raising concentration that is used to promote Mushin: “Anyone who has ever worked on a difficult problem, especially in mathematics or the sciences, knows that at a certain point the mind seems to ‘lock on’ to the problem.  At that point, solving the problem becomes the most important thing in the world, and every fiber of one’s being is concentrated on finding a solution.” “I use the term ‘locking on’ since this is the subjective feeling that one has in the kind of problem-solving that I am describing.  When one is locked on to a problem, there is a tremendous, almost sensual joy in solving it.  It is possible to go without food and sleep, to dismiss all fatigue, until the problem is solved.  Beyond this, it appears that one can call forth intellectual resources of which one is usually totally unaware.” “Being locked on to a problem also brings a person into a state of consciousness different from his normal state.  A much greater portion of the mind seems to be involved in solving the problem than in a normal mental state.”

Rabbi Kaplan continues: “This locked-on state of consciousness appears to be associated with increased physical energy.  The pulse is quicker, and one may perspire profusely.  Sometimes, one even has the experience of trembling with creativity.  It seems that while one is in such a state, the energy that one is utilizing is much greater than normal, and not only is the mind completely involved in the creative effort, but also the body.”

He sees the locked-on “hot” mode of thought (his words) as a companion to what he calls a relaxed, “cool” mode of thought, which he portrays this way: “There appears to be … another type of problem-solving consciousness.  The first time I became aware of it was when, in the course of Kabbalistic research, I was trying to figure out the properties of a five-dimensional hypercube.  The problem was extremely difficult (and) I had spent several afternoons sweating over (it) without coming even close to a solution.” “Then, one evening, I was relaxing in the bathtub, and my mind wandered to the problem, almost off-handedly.  Suddenly, every aspect of the problem seemed perfectly clear…” “Eventually, I began to realize that this was happening to me often…  but the experience was very different from being locked on to a problem.  Quite to the contrary, the mind was free to wander wherever it wanted, but it seemed to hit upon the answers with surprising clarity.” (5) 

It seems to me that Rabbi Kaplan is here describing Mushin.  He seems to have attained a state of “no-mind” that had been achieved through a very active use of the mind.  In doing so, he tapped into a “greater portion” of his mind than normal.
The prospect of tapping into a “greater portion” of mind is intriguing. What is meant by it?

Enter Psychocybernetics

This question has been expertly addressed by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, the father of what is now called Positive Psychology.  He founded the field of Psycho-Cybernetics and popularized the role of self-image in human development and functioning. First, here is his overall perspective:

1) The brain and nervous system work as a goal-striving servo-mechanism that is directed by the mind.

2) If the mind gives it directions for success, then success is achieved.  If it delivers instructions for failure, then failure is achieved.

3) The directions given are based on your self-image.

4) Our self-image is produced through the programming we take on in our lives.  This programming is produced through a combination of three influences: the dictates of authoritative sources; intense personal experiences; and repetitive messages.

5) If your self-image accurately reflects your real limits and capabilities, then you function at your potential.  If your self-image either short-changes or exaggerates your capabilities, then your potential is either under- or over- utilized.

6) Growth in life can only occur from “the inside out, not the outside in”, meaning that the self-image must first be altered before life changes can occur.

7) Within each of us is a life instinct that is biased towards health and happiness.  That is, in essence, our “natural” state. (6)

Amazingly, Dr. Maltz references two modes of thinking, just as were presented by Rabbi Kaplan, and by the description of Mushin in my training guide: “Servo-mechanisms are divided into two general types: (1) where the target, goal, or “answer” is known and the objective is to reach it or accomplish it; (2) where the target or “answer” is not known and the objective is to discover or locate it. The human brain and nervous system operate both ways.”

He uses the act of picking up a pencil as an example of the first mode. The first time you had to do so, you went through a process of trial and error until the procedure for successfully doing so had been formulated.  That procedure then became remembered for future use, and is duplicated on future efforts. Your conscious thought then just has to select the goal –  your desire to have the pencil – and your brain/nervous system servo-mechanism will activate the response needed to achieve the goal. (7).

Recalling a name temporarily forgotten is an example of the second type of servo-mechanism.  A “scanner” in your brain roams through your stored memories until the correct name is recognized. (8)

One mode of thinking here is active, and the other passive (just as in the examples from our other sources!), and both are automatic.  Dr. Maltz points out that the word cybernetics comes from the Greek word meaning literally “the steersman”.  Servo-mechanisms are so constructed that they automatically “steer” their way to a goal, target or answer.  Depending on the “marching orders” given it by the self–image, the servo-mechanism will produce either success or failure for you, with regards to your natural instinct for health and happiness. (9)

A greater mind

Now, here is where Dr. Maltz sees a “greater mind” in operation.  He asks, “Are you connected to an infinite storehouse of ideas, knowledge and power?”(10).  He reports that many have claimed that the answer to this question is “yes”, and cites these examples: 1) “Many great thinkers of all ages have believed that a human being’s ‘stored information’ is not limited to personal memories of past experiences and learned facts.  ‘There is one mind common to all individual men’ said (poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo) Emerson, who compared our individual minds to the inlets in an ocean of universal mind.” 2) “Thomas Edison believed that he got some of his ideas from a source outside himself.  Once, when complimented for a creative idea, he disclaimed credit, saying that ‘ideas are in the air’, and if he had not discovered it, someone else would have.” 3) “The famous composer Schubert is said to have told a friend that his own creative process consisted of ‘remembering a melody’ that neither he nor anyone else had ever thought of before.” (11)

Let’s assume that we do, indeed, pool our thoughts with others.  The contents of our own minds are borrowed by other people, and we borrow from theirs.  Does that mean our identities – the people we imagine ourselves to be, the “who” part of the “who do you think you are” equation – are shared as well?

The soul

To probe this question, we will call upon Biblical scholar Ethan Dor Shav.  In his illuminating essay, “Soul of Fire:  A Theory of Biblical Man”, he shows how the Tenakh – the Hebrew Bible – contains a very sophisticated conception of the soul and “afterlife.”  This cosmology portrays humans with four main components that are conjoined to the four main spheres of heaven and earth.  They are etzem/basar (body) with earth; nefesh with water; ruah with wind; and neshama with fire.  It is the ruah-soul (pronounced ROO-akh) that will help us understand the “spiritual” interconnectedness of people.

In his study of Biblical texts, Ethan emphasizes understanding the meaning of words in context.  Here is what he has gleaned from Tenakh about ruah: 1) Ruah is shared by all breathing animals (Psalms 104.30; Ecclesiastes 3:19; Genesis 7:15). (Nowhere in the 389 references to ruah in the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures is the term ascribed to a non-breathing creature). Humans are therefore connected to all higher animals. 2) Higher animals are distinguished by the notion of “social self” that accounts for social relationships and inter-subjective dealings. 3) The Bible stresses sensitivity to these relations.  For example, the decree “You shall not kill a mother and its young on the same day” reflects mother-child empathy. (Leviticus 22:28) 4) The social nature of ruah is expressed in a number of Biblical scenes, including the “ruah of jealousy” (Numbers 5:14), the “ruah of rejection” (Isaiah 54:6), the “ruah of in-law tensions” (Genesis 26:35), the “ruah of political conspiracy” (Judges 9:23), and the “ruah of treachery” (Malachi 2:16). 5) Ruah can also express the highest social ideals:  the “ruah of wisdom and understanding”, the “ruah of counsel and might”, and the “ruah of knowledge and Fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:4) 6) Ruah can be transferred.  It passed from Moses to the seventy elders (Numbers 11:25), and Elisha pleaded of Elijah for a double-portion of his ruah. (II Kings 2:9). 7) “Ruah is passed on… to people with whom one has interacted closely.  A father and mother, in particular, give children not only of their body’s genes (as biological parents), but also of their spirit (as relational parents).  This… explains the circling nature of the Biblical Wind”. (Genesis 1.2). 8) “Ruah can affect large groups.  It can be felt sweeping over a sport stadium, soaring in music, or infecting a mob. In these situations, the power of ruah may run both ways – from a ruah-infused leader to the masses, or vice versa, from the cumulative spirit of the group to the leader.”

Ethan states that, “A creature with an individual social persona can become self-aware.  As anyone who has practiced meditation knows, awareness and consciousness are connected to breath.  So when people control their breathing, they can increase their self-awareness.” (12)

Ethan is arguing that the ruah of society grants each individual a social persona, on top of his or her organic and animal selves. (These are described in his studies on etzem/basar and nefesh).   He also claims that we can become aware of the self we have been given, by controlling our breath and meditating, for example.  The question for me is this: in being so “enlightened”, so much higher in consciousness, how should that affect our perception of ourselves?

Here is where we look at the “You” who is thinking about yourself.  It gets tricky, but we will try to get an idea of what is meant.

Ethan gives us an answer with his summary description of ruah. He points out that it is never really completely part of man – it is basically a “ruah of the Lord”.  He gives a number of examples of how this is the case. 1) When ruah initially appears in the Torah, it is when God appears in the “ruah of the day” to confront Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3.8). 2) The Torah says it was God who took of the ruah of Moses and gave it to the elders (Numbers 11:25). 3) It was the ‘Ruah of the Lord’ that gave Samson the strength to tear the lion apart (Judges 14:6).  The “added ‘spirit’ was a momentary gift, a burst of bravery, a feeling that he could achieve anything.” 4) With Saul, God gave ruah but also took it away.  Saul’s persona was transformed into a charismatic king with the addition of ruah (I Samuel 10:6), but then it departed from him. “In ancient Israelite thought,” Ethan concludes, “An individual is possessed by ruah, not vice versa.  Like a social mantel, we assume the air of our ruah during life – rich or poor, husband or wife, meek or brave – but it does not incarnate our inner self.” (13)

From Ethan’s of view, we as a human society partake of the ruah, of the wind-spirit, that God makes available to us. We use it to bind ourselves to one another and act as a unit.  From my understanding, just as an individual can “go with the flow” of the physical activity for which he has prepared, he can also “go with the flow“ of the group activity for which he has been accustomed.  He can “become one” with his social environment just as he can “become one” with his physical environment.  And yet how does he maintain his own special oneness, his own uniqueness?  By remaining self-aware, by staying detached from his thoughts and his emotions. Does he then assume the perspective of the “You” who “thinks about who You are”? That is a topic for our next study.

(1) Martial Arts Fitness Corporation, “Lessons in Mindfulness 2.4” p. 9
(2) Ibid., p. 9
(3) Ibid., p. 15
(4) Ibid., p. 14
(5) Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide, (New York, NY: Shocken Books) pp. 28-30
(6) Maxwell Maltz, MD, The New Psycho-Cybernetics, (New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press) pp. 15-30
(7) Ibid., pp. 30-31
(8) Ibid., p. 33
(9) Ibid., p 30
(10) Ibid., p 35
(11) Ibid., pp. 35-36
(12) Ethan Dor Shav,  “Soul of Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man”, Azure Magazine, (Autumn 5766/2005), pp. 90-93
(13) Ibid.,  p. 93