Chapter 7: Mind-Control
We have explained that a person should always be b’simchah
because he should realize that everything that happens to him
comes from G-d. Nothing is an accident, or comes about by chance.
The question is, however, how to make the connection between the
abstract and the actual? How can our awareness of these concepts
affect our feelings?
Although a person knows that everything comes from G-d, he will
often become depressed or broken when something tragic happens.
What is at the core of these feelings? Is it the experience itself
that causes the pain and the sorrow, or his involvement with the
To clarify the question: When something happens to a person,
and the person does not have the intelligence to understand that
it is harmful, he will not experience pain. When do we experience
pain? When we understand. And indeed, as King Solomon says:1 “The
more a person knows, the more suffering he experiences.”
So when a person experiences pain, there are two causes for his
feeling: the painful event, and his awareness of it.
When we mentioned “awareness” in the previous paragraph,
we meant the person’s ability to comprehend; but there is
another point involved. A person can be capable of comprehending
the pain of a situation, but can choose not to. If the person
is tuned in to the incident that occurs, he will inevitably feel
pain. But the person can choose to tune out — not pay attention
to what happened. If he does this, and is successful at controlling
his mind, he will not experience any pain at all.
The Modzitzer Rebbe was a great Chassidic leader, who composed
many magnificent Chassidic songs. In his old age, he had to undergo
an operation. Unfortunately, he had been weakened by his ailment,
and the doctors were afraid to give him any anesthesia; they did
not know if he would wake up. But they knew that without the operation
he would not live.
They asked the Rebbe what to do, and he offered a unique suggestion:
He would compose a Chassidic song. When the doctors would see
that he is deeply engrossed in the melody, they should start the
And that is what happened. He composed the song. While they were
performing the surgery, he was singing the song and he felt absolutely
no pain. We have the song today. It has 36 stanzas, because the
operation took quite some time.
This is not a story about a Rebbe and a miracle. Yes, he was
a great Rebbe, and he performed miracles, but this particular
event was natural. He was concentrating so deeply on the song,
that he was not aware of anything else, and he therefore felt
no pain whatsoever.
We are not Rebbeim, and that level of concentration is more than
a little above us, but we can see parallels in our own lives.
Take the following example: a person comes home from work. Something
happened on the train that made him furious, and he enters the
Suddenly, the telephone rings. It is a friend from out of town,
with whom he has not spoken for months. The two friends begin
talking and speak for half an hour. When the commuter hangs up,
he realizes that for the past half-hour he was not upset. Why?
The incident that upset him took place. The telephone call did
not change that. But it did change the focus of his attention.
While he was speaking, he was not thinking of what took place.
And that is why we see that certain people who endured terrible
horrors — for example, people who went through the Holocaust
— can nevertheless pull themselves together and rebuild
their lives and their families. And there are others who have
only to discover that they have lost their car keys to find themselves
in the midst of a crisis.
It has to do not so much with what happens, but how much one
lets what happens affect him. And this leads to another point.
There are times when we hold on to memories of an unpleasant event
far longer than the event calls for. We continue thinking about
it day and night, morning and evening. And thinking about it so
much reinforces and magnifies the pain involved.
There is an alternative. Once we stop thinking about it, the
pain will cease. And this is where many of us make a basic mistake.
Most people think that they are capable of controlling only their
actions and their speech. They know that they can decide whether
to do something or to refrain from doing it; whether to say something
or not to say it. But they think that their thoughts are uncontrollable.
This is a mistake. It is true that it is harder to control thought.
In contrast to speech or deed, thought is constant; there is not
a moment in the day when a person is not thinking. But what to
think about is subject to a person’s control. He has the
ability to focus his thoughts as he chooses.
If a person only realized that he has the ability to stop thinking
about a certain incident, he would let go. And once he let go,
he would no longer feel so much pain and sadness.
What do we mean by letting go and turning away from an undesirable
thought? In the Tanya ,2 the Alter Rebbe says that one should
push away the undesirable thought with both hands. Implicit in
his words is that there are two possibilities: pushing away a
thought with one hand, and pushing away a thought with two hands.
What is the difference? When an incident takes place, even when
it is something that we do not want to think about, it demands
our attention; naturally, our minds focus upon it and thoughts
come to the fore. We have three ways of relating to these thoughts.
One is to accept them, to continue to think about the subject,
even though we know they are undesirable.
This approach actually encourages these thoughts to return. Think
of the following analogy: A person is being bothered by someone
else. Another individual is constantly ringing his doorbell and
asking to be allowed into the house and to be given attention.
The owner of the home really does not enjoy that person’s
company, but he or she does not know what to do.
There are three alternatives. The simplest is that when this
person rings the doorbell, the host invites him into the house.
The host sees no way out. He sits at the coffee table with his
guest, offers him coffee and cake, and talks with him for two
Although the host did not feel comfortable, his guest did. He
got the attention he was looking for. And he got it in a welcome,
genteel manner. He surely was not discouraged from coming again.
On the contrary, after being treated in this manner, it is inevitable
that he will return.
There is another possibility: the host does not allow the guest
into his home. He stands by the door, screaming at the person
who wants to come in, and blocks his entry.
In this case, although the guest did not enter the house, he
still received the host’s attention. The host came to the
door and talked to him. Admittedly, he did not speak to him nicely;
he shouted and he screamed, but he gave the guest his attention.
And so there is the possibility that the guest will return again
to seek this attention, no matter how uncomfortable is the manner
in which it is granted.
Then there is a third alternative: simply to ignore the person
at the door entirely. In that case, he may return once, maybe
twice, maybe even three times, but he will eventually stop, because
there is nothing encouraging him; he is not being acknowledged
The same motif will work with undesirable thoughts. If a person
accepts a thought and thinks about it (even though the thought
is disturbing), he has reinforced that type of thought. The attention
he gives this thought pattern encourages these thoughts to proceed
continually from the subconscious to the conscious, even though
they cause him discomfort.
One may try to stop the thoughts, to prevent them from coming
to mind. But often this means that the person is fighting himself
and repeatedly telling himself not to think about these particular
thoughts. But like the host shouting at the guest at the door,
he is giving these thoughts attention. That is what we mean by
pushing away a thought with one hand. With one hand you are pushing
the thought away, but since you are paying attention to it, you
are bringing it closer to yourself with the other hand.
In other words, when I am thinking that I should not be thinking
about a particular subject, I am still paying attention to thoughts
that I do not want to encourage. I am acknowledging these thoughts,
and in so doing, I am inviting the thoughts to proceed from the
subconscious to the conscious.
There is another alternative. When a thought comes to the person’s
mind, he can refuse to pay any attention to it. He need not make
the effort to push it out of his mind. He can simply ignore it,
and focus his attention on a different subject altogether. And
when he ignores a thought and does not acknowledge it at all,
this thought pattern eventually will no longer seek his attention.
Most people will ask: “How can I think about anything else?
This thought keeps coming to my mind.”
A person once came to the Maggid of Mezeritch with this problem.
“My mind is always straying. How can I control my thoughts?”
“See my disciple, R. Zev of Zhitomer. He will help you,”
the Maggid answered.
And so, the person journeyed to see R. Zev. He arrived in Zhitomer
at night, and only with difficulty was he able to locate R. Zev’s
house. Finally he reached the tzaddik’s home and banged
loudly on the door, anxious to be invited in from the cold.
There was no answer. He banged again, and still no answer. Upset,
he continued to bang with all his might, but no one inside responded.
Annoyed, but with no other alternative, he was forced to spend
the night outside.
In the morning, R. Zev welcomed him warmly. The visitor told
the tzaddik why he had come and R. Zev invited him to partake
of his hospitality for as long as he desired. He was more than
slightly curious at the difference between this reception and
the cold shoulder he had been given the previous night, but in
deference to the tzaddik, he remained silent.
He stayed at R. Zev’s home for several days, sharing talks
with the tzaddik and learning from observing his everyday conduct.
But one thing bothered him. He had come with a specific intent,
to learn how to control his thoughts, and R. Zev had not given
him any instruction with regard to this matter.
Finally, he broached the question to the tzaddik. “The
Maggid sent me here for a reason,” he told his host. “Why
haven’t you taught me how to control my thoughts?”
“But I already have,” answered R. Zev.
“The first night you came, you banged and banged on the
door to my home, trying to come in. I knew you were there, but
decided not to let you enter. And I kept to that decision no matter
how hard you banged. That’s the secret of controlling your
It’s true, this is not easy. But a person has an alternative.
No one can think about two things at the same time. And so, when
a person forces himself to start thinking about another subject,
the undesired thoughts will fade away.
True, they may come back ten minutes later, but once again the
person has the alternative of controlling his thoughts and thinking
of something else. The undesired thoughts may return again twenty
minutes later, but again, the person can think about another subject.
Eventually, if he keeps ignoring the undesirable thought long
enough, it will cease surfacing from the subconscious to the conscious.
At first, it will surface less often than before. Ultimately,
it will stop surfacing entirely.
To explain by analogy: Our muscles are strengthened by exercise.
If we do not exercise a muscle, the muscle becomes weaker. If
a person is, G-d forbid, bedridden for several months because
of a back problem, he may have trouble walking when he is finally
able to get out of bed. His ailment may not have affected the
muscles of his feet, but the inactivity did.
We have many thoughts and experiences in our subconscious minds.
When we allow them to come up to the conscious level, it is like
exercising a muscle. This means that in addition to the fact that
we are focusing on these thoughts now, we are also encouraging
these thoughts to emerge continually from the subconscious.3
When, however, a person does not allow a thought to surface,
and pushes it away with two hands — i.e., he ignores it
entirely — he diminishes the probability of its surfacing
in the future. It is possible that the thought will recur again,
and perhaps recur several times. But each time it is ignored,
its tendency to recur will be weakened.
When, by contrast, a person pushes away a thought with one hand
— i.e., he acknowledges the thought and thinks how not to
think about it — he is, in fact, inviting this thought;
it is like a form of exercise. He allows the thought to capture
his attention, and this encourages the thought to continue surfacing
from the subconscious to the conscious.
A man and a woman once came to a rabbi, and the woman demanded
a divorce. The problem was that her husband would come home drunk
and would say all sorts of unpleasant things to his wife. In response,
she would scream at him. He would then throw something at her;
she would throw something else back at him. And World War III
would break loose — almost every night.
Despite the difficulties, the rabbi saw that the marriage had
potential, even a lot of potential, if both people would only
learn to modify their conduct. So he asked the woman to give it
one more try, and he promised that if this did not work, he would
make sure that the divorce went through.
What did the rabbi suggest? He told the woman, “I have
an ancient book of Kabbalah that contains a remedy for strife
between a husband and his wife.” He continued to give the
woman detailed instructions: She was to take a bottle that holds
exactly eight ounces to a mikveh after midnight on Rosh Chodesh,
the first day of the month. She should fill the bottle with water
three times, and pour out the water three times. Afterwards, she
should fill the bottle again, wrap it in a bag so that others
would not see it, and take it home.
“When your husband comes home,” the rabbi continued,
“take a teaspoon of this water. Do not spit it out, and
do not swallow it until your husband is asleep.”
After much effort, the woman prepared the bottle and the water.
That night, she heard her husband coming home. From the distance,
she heard that he was drunk and that he was saying very unpleasant
Obediently, she took the water, put a teaspoon in her mouth,
and held it there. Her husband walked into the house and started
to shout and scream, insulting her. Of course, she was dying to
scream back at him, but she could not — she had the water
in her mouth. And so, her husband continued to scream and shout
for half an hour.
Finally, because he got no feedback, he grew tired and fell asleep.
After he fell asleep, the woman hurried to spit out the water.
She began to scream and shout and release all the antagonism that
had been building up when he was letting loose. But it did not
bother her husband. He was snoring away; he did not hear anything
The following day, the same thing happened. He came home and
started screaming and shouting, but she could not answer him,
because she had the water in her mouth. But this day, there was
a change — he screamed and shouted for only 25 minutes,
and then he fell asleep.
Day after day, the scene repeated itself, but each time the husband
shouted a little bit less. Soon he shouted for only a minute or
two, and after a while, he stopped shouting altogether.
When the shouting stopped, they were able to communicate with
each other. Once they could talk to each other, they were eventually
able to start appreciating each other.
Was the remedy the rabbi suggested written in the Kabbalah? Well,
not explicitly, but the Kabbalah does teach the virtues of forbearance.
What the rabbi was saying was in essence, “Ignore him, and
let him reach equilibrium. And then you will see that things will
be able to be worked out.” And it was successful. Why? Because
by ignoring something, you discourage it entirely.
The same concept applies with regard to our thoughts. The key
is pushing away an undesirable thought with both hands, turning
our minds to another point of focus and letting the undesired
thought flow out of our consciousness naturally, without effort.
Chassidus highlights the power of our minds, and teaches us that
the mind is the key to the emotions.4 Just like a key with which
one can either turn the engine of a car on or off, by focusing
or turning off our mental attention, we can control our emotions.
To change events that have happened is not within our power;
they are history. But we can change the nature of how we will
react to whatever has happened. We have full control over our
minds, and can decide what we want to think about and what we
do not want to think about. And when we employ such control, we
then become masters of our emotions.
Take, for example, feelings of anger. As we mentioned earlier,
our Sages teach that a person who becomes angry and loses his
temper is considered as if he worshipped idols. One might ask:
if a person is provoked and becomes angry, is it not better that
he let loose? Modern psychology says that if a person allows pressure
to build up inside of him, it can cause problems. The person becomes
like a pressure cooker, and this can even affect his health. If,
however, he lets his temper loose, it will relieve the pressure
and he will be able to relax and be himself again. Why then does
the Torah tell us not to release the anger?
There are two resolutions to this question: First, one can sublimate
the anger and express its energy in a positive form. The way a
person expresses himself does not have to be destructive. The
same energy can be released through positive channels. Instead
of letting loose with anger, a person can grit his teeth and apply
himself with determination to a challenge he faces.
Moreover, if the energy is burning within a person, it may be
better for him to let it out. What the Torah demands of a person,
however, is not to reach that point — never to let his blood
become boiling inside.
Why does a person become full of anger? Not because of what has
happened, but because he is thinking about what happened, and
concentrating on it. We have an alternative. There is no need
to feed these fires. We can divert our thoughts from the disturbing
factor and concentrate on something else.
The challenge is not to work on methods of letting out the pressure,
but to be a step ahead; to work on a way to prevent the pressure
from building up in the first place. And this means disciplining
This is a basic principle of Torah. Just as a person should discipline
his actions and his speech, a person must discipline his thoughts.
When a person makes the effort to discipline his thoughts, eventually
he will attain control.
Take jealousy, for example. If a person sees something that another
person has, and his natural reaction is to become jealous, he
may not be able to change this natural response easily. What he
can do is not occupy himself with thoughts of jealousy. There
he has control.
He may not be able to help a jealous thought from surfacing from
the subconscious to the conscious. That is a natural response.
But to continue to pursue such thoughts and to dwell upon them,
there a person can — and must — exercise control.
Whenever a jealous thought comes to mind, one should stop and
divert his attention. The thought may still return several times.
Nevertheless, eventually, as one continues to exercise control,
these thoughts of jealousy will become far less frequent. Ultimately,
they will cease surfacing from the subconscious to the conscious.
And the same concept applies with regard to thoughts of hatred.
The Torah tells us not to hate another Jew.5 But what happens
if another person hurts us terribly? It is only natural for feelings
of hatred to be aroused. How can we control them?
The answer is that it is indeed very difficult to change our
insides so that we do not react with anger or hatred in such an
instance. That may be beyond our control. Once such a thing takes
place, thoughts of hatred will probably begin to surface.
But here is where we should exercise control. We have the ability
to stop ourselves from occupying our minds with thoughts of hatred.
How can we stop ourselves? Not by pushing the hatred away with
one hand, but by totally cutting it off, by switching to a different
topic entirely. This prevents the feelings of hatred from being
reinforced and magnified. They will not flare up, but eventually
These thoughts of hatred may continue coming back. Nevertheless,
when they are ignored once, a second time, a third time and even
a hundredth time, they will eventually stop surfacing from the
subconscious to the conscious.
Many of us can look back in our past and find that when we were
younger, we were obsessed with certain things. We wanted them
and could not stop thinking about them. In the morning, in the
afternoon, during school, during meals, at night, when we fell
asleep, in our dreams; it was almost as if this were all we thought
When we think back now, we ask ourselves, “What happened?
Why am I no longer obsessed with these same thoughts? What changed?”
Often the situation did not change and we never had this desire
Why then do we not continue to think about it? The answer is
very simple. Several years have passed, and in the interim we
have been confronted with new situations, new desires and new
problems, and maybe even new obsessions. We have devoted so much
time and attention to these new matters, that we lost interest
in the old ones. We paid less and less attention to them, and
eventually we stopped thinking about them altogether.
This is what we should do with feelings of depression and all
negative thoughts. In general, we should know that everything
that happens is good and, therefore, a person should always be
b’simchah , filled with real joy. We should internalize
this idea and make it part of us. This will help us not lose our
equilibrium when undesirable things happen.
But if something is able to cause us to become upset, we should
know that we have an alternative. That alternative does not involve
meditating on how the upsetting factor is, in reality, good which
is disguised. A person who is very upset will not always honestly
be able to come to such a realization. What we can do —
and what we must do, if we want to preserve our inner balance
— is to turn our attention to another subject — and
do so again and again until we are no longer bothered by the upsetting
thought. Once we are not being controlled by our depressing thoughts,
we can focus on the truth that Torah teaches: that everything
comes from G-d and is in essence good.