As someone who had felt plagued by an eye for what was missing in life, I had come to the distressing conclusion that I simply lacked some happiness muscle that others seemed to have no problem flexing. I seemed to always veer toward “something’s wrong.”
“It’s ‘two plus two equals four,’” one of my teachers in yeshiva explained with conviction. “If you focus on what you don’t have, you will feel impoverished. If you focus on what you do have, you’ll feel rich. It’s just the way life works.”
Despite years of what seemed like innate unhappiness, something clicked: I believed him. Filled with conviction that this law applied to me, too, I got to work.
I set my alarm every three hours to pause whatever I was doing – eating a meal, sitting in class, running an errand – to rattle off five things that made me wealthy. I started a 40-day course with an alarm ringing five times a day.
I chose a partner in yeshiva to practice “gratitude drills.” Once a day we’d find an empty room, set a 60-second stop watch, and take turns flooding our consciousness – loudly, exaggeratedly – with the virtues and pleasures of some mundane asset of the other’s choosing.
“Here, this plastic cup,” my partner would say. “Go!”
“Do you know what I can do with this?” I’d plunge in. “I can hold water and sate my thirst. Do you know how many people it took to make and bring this cup to me?” It was freestyle, stream-of-consciousness, ecstatic immersion in wealth awareness.
Buoyed by my inner certainty that focusing on “what is” will necessarily bring joy – I was relentless. Within days I could see I was in a different space. Within weeks people around me began to ask, “What’s different about you?”
I felt so fulfilled. I was genuinely seeing blessing. I no longer felt like an emotional wimp, continuously kicked around by circumstances beyond my control or unwanted thoughts. I proudly shared with my teachers the miraculous results I’d seen and offered to teach the exercises to others. I was good at something important and I felt like a million bucks.
Then the exercises started to lose steam. Okay, I thought, you’ve been doing this for a while and you’ve seen progress. Move the wealth awareness muscles to lower throttle.
I progressed in my studies, got married, and got a job. And then the voices of doubt and complaint started up again.
Are you good at what you do? Have you really accomplished much? As much as so and so? Why are you not more inspired? More sought after?
They didn’t let up.
Okay, I thought, I’ve dealt with this before. I’m an experienced inner wealth warrior. I fired up the watch alarm and reflooded my consciousness daily with my blessing index.
I reread the original sources. I retained a gratitude partner. I arranged to wake up to the theme song to Rocky.
Nothing. I was puzzled, discouraged, upset.
The judgment began to extend to others. I found myself filling up with complaints toward my wife, my kids, my colleagues. Yet the chief complaint remained toward myself: why can’t you tackle this like you did before?
A friend heard of my predicament and offered to share insights that had helped him. The gist of our conversation went something like this.
“You think you were deeply helped back then by the hard core gratitude work you did; you ‘nailed’ the exercises and creative strategies,” he offered.
“Well, yeah,” I thought. Something about it helped.
“You’re wrong. What really helped was a gift – the inner ‘click’ that focusing on what you have will change you. G-d gave you that. Your work only built on it.”
“So how do I replicate the gift?”
“You can’t. See that you didn’t do it, that G-d just popped that understanding into your heart. Respect that and you’ll see how G-d is helping you with new gifts all the time.”
“Ok, but what can I do to ‘respect’ this more readily? A program? Exercises?”
“It’s not about what you do. It’s about what G-d is already doing.”
“Ok, but how do I see that?”
And around and around I went, trying to pin him down, but seemingly chasing my tail. My work-hard-‘cause-it’s-up-to-me sensibility was flummoxed. I believed in G-d, but G-d helps those who work hard. What did he mean?
Our conversations continued until something caught his eye that I hadn’t noticed: my mood had lightened.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good,” I said with a smile. It wasn’t a loopy, ecstatic high; I just felt relaxed. Had it been suggested then that my tendencies toward complaints and negativity were resolved, I would surely have disagreed.
“What do you mean?” he explored.
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I just feel good.”
“Tell me,” he asked with genuine curiosity, “what did you do get to that good feeling?”
I paused. Then it happened: a light went on inside as I confessed, “I didn’t do a darned thing!”
It was another “click.” I saw in that moment that I had been spending hours, months, years struggling to generate greater happiness only to find that stealth-like, under my very own nose, gentle, happy thoughts had showed up. The subjects of my complaints hadn’t dissolved, but from this lighter vista they looked softer, less ominous. I hadn’t generated them, but the feelings of lightness and blessing were real.
And then something fascinating happened. As if in an out of body experience, I watched my posture move from expansive joy to brow-furrowed concern.
“This is great right now,” came the thought. “You’re in a quiet, intimate meeting with a spiritually attuned friend. But what’s going to happen when you go home and face your wife, your kids, your life with all your familiar triggers and habits of judgment?” Darkness descended as I sensed with certainty: you’re going to lose this feeling, it’s not yours to keep.
And then I watched as another thought bubbled up.
“You’re right,” it said, “you don’t know what’s going to be. And that’s the way God runs His world. He animates good moods and low moods. You’re not really in control. And it’s not a problem.”
Simple upswings (and downswings) were normal, the result of the ceaseless flow of Divine energy that animates all life, including my inner world! I just hadn’t seen the swings as normal because my ego was too busy taking credit for the ups and taking personally the downs. And I now understood why I couldn’t replicate my original gratitude work. Having attributed the clarity to my own smarts and doing, I went looking in the wrong well for replenishment and turned my back on the wondrous source of the life-changing “click.”
Shortly after seeing this gift, I came across a striking comment on the Torah’s warning about ingratitude.
“You may be tempted to say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth,’” Moshe warns the Jewish people. “Then you shall remember [God]: it was He who gave you strength to make wealth…”
How does the ancient commentary Onkelos translate “strength”? Counsel, insight. The strength that makes success in life is insight, understanding that lifts our hearts, lightens our load, and comes from beyond.
I used to be proud of how good I was at generating gratitude and discouraged when I couldn’t. I chased after certain feelings and did battle or ran from others. These days, I am more interested in chasing the truth: all feelings come from the gift of Divine energy showing up in my heart, in this moment. I am seeing firsthand that “the truth will set you free”!