A chassid was once plagued by negative thoughts relentlessly intruding upon him. He was sidetracked by temptations and fantasy, he was distracted by worry and anxiety. One particularly difficult evening he couldn’t stop having negative and inappropriate thoughts. He couldn’t take it anymore so he went to his Rebbe’s house to get advice. He knocked on the front door, but nobody answered. He knocked harder, but still no response. Brazenly, he walked around to the side and looked through the window. He saw the Rebbe sitting at the dining room table learning and so he knocked on the window. Sure enough, the Rebbe didn’t look up and his efforts to get the Rebbe’s attention continued to fail. Disappointed and frustrated, the chassid went home.
The next morning after shul, he waited patiently until it was his turn, and he finally had the attention of the Rebbe. Somewhat exasperated, he said, “Rebbe! I desperately needed you last night.” The Rebbe replied, “I know. I know what you wanted to ask, and I already gave you an answer." Bewildered, the chassid said, “What do you mean? I knocked and knocked but you never answered, and I didn’t even get a chance to ask my question.” The Rebbe looked at him and explained. “Last night you came over to my house. You knocked on the front door, and then you knocked even harder. You came around and knocked on my window. You kept knocking, but the choice was mine whether or not to let you in. These thoughts, these questions, doubts, temptations, worries, they can knock all day on the door of your mind, but never forget, the choice remains yours whether or not to let them in.”
I love this story because it is so much more than a story; it is a strategy, it is a solution. Thinking about our thoughts and mind in this way has helped me personally and countless others I have shared it with. Like the chassid, so many of us are plagued by unwanted and unwelcome thoughts. They could be of temptation, of doubt, of our unworthiness or simply of being overwhelmed. We can’t control what knocks, but never concede that we have control over what we let in.
This week’s Parsha begins:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖םמִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
Place judges and policemen at all your gates.
The Torah is not just talking to us as a people, a nation, or a community. The Torah is telling us that we can have judges and policemen at the gates, the entranceways into our soul, our eyes, our ears, our mouth. We can and must be judicious with what we let it in and when we do so, and we must police and regulate the gateways into our being to ensure we aren’t overloaded, distracted, or sabotaged from success.
Stop saying that you cannot control your mind from racing. You don’t have to perseverate, marinate, stew in a thought, fear, concern, or regret. Of course, I am obviously not talking about diagnosed, serious illnesses or challenges that need therapy and at times medication. I am referring to everyone else. You are the judge, and you are the policeman of the gates into your mind. Decide what to let in, what to think about, what to focus on, what is productive, healthy, and positive and what you are going to lock out, what is a distraction, destructive, negative, and unwelcome.
Our minds run wild on overdrive all day long in ways that sabotage our own success. Some are constantly thinking about every possible problem that could arise, every reason they won’t succeed, everything that could go wrong. For others, the mind is filled with the noise of trying to juggle a million things, emails to return, phone calls to make, people to visit, tasks to get done, people to make happy. For yet others, the mind is overloaded with keeping up with the news cycle, with social media, pop culture, work, home and more. The common denominator is a cluttered mind, a distracted existence. We cannot control what knocks, but we absolutely can control what and when we let them in and that too is a powerful message of our Parsha.
The stakes are high. We cannot be our best selves if we let any thought, image or idea storm our gates and take up precious real estate in our mind. Shoftim v’shotrim, let them come, let them try to knock, but make the conscious choice, the powerful decision not to let them in. If and when the thought comes, pivot, redirect, go to a different thought, a positive one, or train yourself not to think at all. Spend a few minutes each day with your technology off, working out your mindfulness muscles. Practice hisbodedus, meditation, sitting silently and grow comfortable not only in your own skin but managing your own mind. David Allen, the great architect and author of an amazing book and system called Getting Things Done, says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Let them go, put them down, control them, don’t let them control you.