Imagine you wake up one morning, and suddenly notice that your hands are green. As you pull off your blanket, you see that your legs are green, as well. Your heart rate speeds up, as you realize that your entire room has turned green! As you walk around your house, you’re shocked to see that everything in your home has transformed into a leafy green. You head out of your house and make your way to work, and everything you see has somehow become green. As you pull up to your office, you pass by a reflection in the mirror, and you stop dead in your tracks – you’re wearing green glasses!
We All See the World Through Our Chosen Lens
While this story might seem childish, it reflects a deep spiritual and psychological concept that lies at the heart of the human condition. Each one of us is wearing conceptual glasses – the lens and paradigms through which we see and experience the world around us.
Furthermore, we tend to translate our experiences based on our occupations and interests. A scientist might see the world through the lens of science, constantly comparing everything to his or her scientific perception of reality. When I was studying at Harvard, one of my professors did not let a single class go by without giving an abstract scientific analogy in an attempt to clarify and explain the idea we were discussing in class. An athlete or avid sports fan might see everything through the lens of sports, somehow finding a sports analogy for every possible situation. Most of us have that friend who somehow finds a way to connect every single discussion to sports, no matter how ridiculous the relation may be. An artist might see the world through the lens of art, perceiving everything by its form, design, and texture. Personally, when I taught myself how to play guitar and piano, I began to see the entire world through the lens of music, connecting almost everything else I did throughout the day to the rhythm and beat of the song I was currently working on.
While we may unconsciously see the world through certain lenses, we also have the power to build new lenses through which we will see the world. We have the power to choose how we see the world, to choose the meaning and purpose we give to our experiences. As spiritual beings living in a physical world, the ideal is for us to develop spiritual glasses that allow us to see the world through a Torah lens, to see the physical world as a reflection of a spiritual reality. As the Ramban explains in Parshas Bo (Sh’mos 13:16), we must strive to see past the surface, to recognize the natural as the miraculous expression of Hashem’s will. Our very existence, the fact that we have air to breath, the fact that we have the ability to think and feel, are constant miracles. These types of glasses require regular polishing, constant attention, and persistent effort.
The spiritual glasses that we wear fundamentally affect every experience that we have in life. Ask yourself, how would you answer these questions?
Does our life have meaning and purpose, or are we living aimlessly without any goals or vision?
Does everything in our lives happen for a reason, or is life completely random and chaotic?
Are our challenges happening to us or for us?
Are we destined for greatness or mediocracy?
Each one of these questions requires a decision, resulting in an underlying paradigm through which we come to filter and translate all our experiences in life. The most important step is making the decision, choosing how we are going to perceive reality. (Not making that decision is also a decision.)
The Importance of Focus: We Are What We Think About
“We are what we think about.” This simple sentence contains one of the deepest truths of life. Wherever our focus goes, energy flows. Whenever we start to think about something and focus on it, we begin to see it throughout our lives, as well. Often, we’ll begin to realize that it has actually been there all along. The Torah explains that when Hagar was in the desert, only once Hashem opened her eyes could she finally see the well of water that had been there the whole time (B’reishis 21:19). In your own life, have you ever bought a new shirt, car, or stroller (I recently had a baby, so it’s been quite the ride), and suddenly realized that everyone has that shirt, car, or stroller? In truth, people have always had it, but in the past, you’ve simply filtered this information out, since you weren’t looking for it. Now, however, you’ve begun to focus on it, and you’ve therefore begun to notice what has actually been there the whole time.
This is due to the reticular activating system, a bundle of nerves in our brain that filter out all unnecessary information. Only once something is important to you, and you start to focus on it, will you begin to notice it. Just think about how many times you’ve walked past your neighbors’ house. Do you remember what their front door looks like or how many windows they have? If not, it’s probably because this isn’t very important to you.
Here’s a fun exercise for you to try: Close your eyes and think about the color brown. Brown. Keep thinking about brown. Now open your eyes and look around for a few seconds. Now close your eyes again and try to remember all the red things in the room. Can’t remember most of them? That’s because you weren’t focusing on them, nor were you looking for them.
Now close your eyes and think about the color red. Red. Keep thinking about red. Now open your eyes and look around. Now close your eyes again and try to remember all the red things in the room. I’m sure you can remember far more this time. Not only will we remember the red things, but we also tend to include other things in the “red” category, because we tend to see what we want to see. So if something is burgundy, maroon, magenta, or even pink, we’ll likely include it in the “red” category. We tend to see what we want to see; we tend to find what we’re looking for.
Shaping Our Experience of Life
The power of focus gives us the ability to control how we perceive the events of our lives. Choosing what to focus on can help us overcome our struggles, enabling us to find meaning and purpose in our lives, even in the darkest of times.
For instance, imagine there’s a shadow in the corner of a room. Some people will focus on the shadow, the somber darkness, the fact that nothing ever goes right in life. However, others will shift their focus to something slightly less obvious, but infinitely more radiant. They’ll realize that the reason there is a shadow is because the room is illuminated with light. A shadow only exists because of the luminescent source of light. Instead of focusing on the shadow, these people will shift their gaze upwards and search for the source of light.
When we focus on the light, we strive to see the good in everything. We begin to realize that our challenges and struggles are part of the process, part of our growth, part of our story. We don’t succeed in spite of our challenges, but because of them.
The power of focus gives us the ability to control how we perceive the events of our lives. Choosing what to focus on can help us overcome our struggles, find meaning and purpose in our lives, or _____ – I think we can expand this section a bit because it’s a very powerful concept and can be applied to more than just focusing on the good instead of the bad.
Perception As the Key to Greatness
Perception is also the key to greatness. Many of us get inspired for brief moments, but then continue living average lives. We convince ourselves that we’re just “normal,” not destined for greatness. Have you ever seen someone extraordinary, whether a talmid chacham (Torah sage), someone with exemplary midos (character traits), or someone with an amazing marriage, and then thought to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could become great like that, as well”? You might have even begun to imagine what your life would be like if you could achieve something like this. So what happens? Why don’t we act on this inspiration?
The most significant factor involved is self-perception, the way we perceive ourselves. The underlying source of our self-perception comes from our identity. So many of us lack an empowering identity, the self-perception necessary to create a life of greatness. What usually happens when we have that moment of inspiration, when we imagine a greater version of ourselves? A small voice (our lower self) creeps out from the back of our mind, and whispers, “Who are you kidding? What makes you think you can do that? Have you ever done something like this before?! You’re not cut out for that kind of life; you’re just normal and average, and you’ll always be that way.” We then reinforce our un-empowering identity, letting the inspiration fade.
Yet, there is a way to prevent this from happening. If we learn how to develop and transform our self-perception, then we will realize that we don’t have to repeat our past, that we can begin writing a new chapter in the story of our lives. The key to doing so is understanding the power and nature of identity, which we will develop in our next column.
If you enjoyed this article and want more, then visit my website (ShmuelReichman.com) and learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, my online course. Join our vibrant community of hundreds of people striving to become their greatest selves.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.