Rectifying our Subconscious
Through Creative Visualization
Rav DovBer Pinson
The oldest known Kabbalistic text — Sefer Yetzirah — teaches that the month of Elul is connected to the Hebrew letter Yud, the smallest and most fundamental letter in the Aleph Bet. The letter Yud is connected with the Sefira of Chochmah or ‘wisdom’. Chochmah is attributed to the “right” hemisphere of the brain, which is characterized by non-linear thought, creative intuition and imagery (as opposed to language). From this series of correspondences we can see that Elul is a time of ‘making one’s self small’ — like the tiny letter yud — in order to humble the ego and activate some of the deeper, ‘subconscious’ levels of our soul and psyche.
Furthermore, Elul is also associated with “silence”, which is the stillness that comes before Sound. This is significant considering that the Shofar is blown on Rosh HaShannah, the first day of the New Year directly following the final month of Elul. This Shofar blast is considered the ‘first sound’ of the year — the initiatory vibration that gives birth to the next cycle of creation. We learn from this that Elul is thus a time of transition, inward reflection and serious, spiritual work.
Being that it is the last month of the “year”, and being that each step of our journey through the Hebrew calendar is illuminated by a corresponding stage of spiritual development, Elul is recognized as the hardest and deepest stage of the yearly cycle. For as is commonly known the stage of completion, or ‘cleaning up’, is often more difficult and less exciting than the messy and inspired process of creation. It is often easier to start something, than to finish it.
But what exactly is the work of Elul? And what is the proper way to go about doing this work?
To put it simply — the work of Elul begins with us. This presents us with a paradox, being that the self is an entity that is at once both accessible and elusive.
We all have an ‘image’ of ourselves, which — often subconsciously — informs our actions, words and even thoughts.
We often find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking certain things simply because, on a subconscious level, there is this unconscious image ingrained, and these involuntary actions are a result of its influence.
We must therefore delve deeply into the depths of our multi-layered psyche in order to ‘release’ ourselves from the grip of this ‘image’ — the ego — and ‘return’ our center of power to the source of our true being — the Soul or Higher Self. This is the work of Teshuvah, of ‘rectification’ and ‘realignment’ — this is the ‘dirty’ work of Elul.
Throughout this intense and internally directed process we must perform a Cheshbon HaNefesh or ‘Accounting of the Soul’. It is through this meticulous recapitulation of our character traits and behavioral patterns that we attempt to acknowledge all of our mistakes, misdeeds and miscommunications over the course of the previous year and further — to exorcise their negative energetic repercussions. Elul is the time of the cleaning of the slate — where we attempt to ‘balance our karmic check book’.
We must approach this path consciously and compassionately however, for there may often be great inconsistencies between our intellectual knowledge and our actual behavior.
For example, one could have a strong intellectual conviction that lying is harmful to oneself and others. This conviction may be based on an extensive knowledge of Torah teachings concerning the prohibitions against lying, as well years of psychological training in the mechanics of the mind, culminating in a deep understanding of the many reasons why people lie — all to no avail. One’s deeply ingrained, potentially unconscious and emotionally triggered habit of lying could still remain untransformed.
The answer is that the conscious, or rational, level of the mind is just one level out of many. There are many deeper, less tangible levels of self, which are commonly understood to comprise the ‘subconscious mind’. These unconscious attributes can often over-ride our consciously articulated moral compass and determine our behavior.
To reiterate: When we find ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking something negative, malicious or hurtful, despite our best intentions, it is often because there is a certain ‘self-image’ deeply ingrained in the recesses of our subconscious mind. This may be an unconscious identification pattern which is sometimes formed early in life, or may develop later on as a result of any number of different experiences, traumas or transformations.
When we are in the presence of certain conditions, characters or stimuli, this deeply set self-image can end up ‘taking the reins’ — dictating our actions, words and thoughts, and defying our conscious control. You might tell yourself very strongly to stop doing something, but this may not have a lasting or proven effect when exposed to certain circumstances. Despite all your efforts, when the stimulus returns, you may still involuntarily return to your unconscious reaction or reflex.
This reveals a dis-connect between our conscious, logical and verbal self and our deeper subconscious visual self — a tension between word and image as represented by the right-brain and left-brain modalities.
How can we transform our subconscious mind, if not through intellectual or conscious effort? How do we influence ourselves more deeply than our verbal, or logical left-brain is capable?
One approach is the experiential path of repetitive behavior — the path of doing— since habit can become ‘second nature’. It is through this practice of ‘right action’, rather than ‘right intention’ that gives birth to the common conception of Torah’s perspective of ‘deed over creed’. This can be a highly effective technique to alter one’s behavioral patterns on the surface level — from the outside in, so to speak.
But there is another approach, a deeper way that attempts to confront the source of negative character traits and refine them at their root — this is akin to a ‘weeding of our psychological garden’. This path sidesteps our logical, linear left-brain and works directly with the right-brain modality of visualization and imagery.
Imagination- Cheshek –Desire
The source of all suffering or negativity is Cheshek, ‘desire’ and expectation. Our desires are often fueled by our imaginations. So we can approach Teshuvah — ‘rectification’ or ‘realignment’ — on the level of action, and instead of doing a certain behavior, we can just stop doing it — but that would not be a full Teshuvah. It would not get to the root of the desire, which is lodged in the abyss of un-rectified imagination — the source of our false self-image.
Full Teshuvah would require a transformation of perverse or egocentric Cheshek, into positive Cheshek. This would result in the recognition of all desire being rooted in the desire to re-connect with the Infinite One — with Hashem. We would then be capable of visualizing noble things and imagining goodness, instead of entertaining perverse or demoralizing fantasies based on unconscious conditioning. It is through this ‘rewiring’ of our internal circuitry that we are able to redirect our imaginations and energies from sin to Mitzvah — from depression to exaltation and aliveness.
So how do we “transform” our subconscious? How do we circumvent our logical, linear left-brain, and go deeper in order to affect a more sustainable evolution of our consciousness?
As stated earlier, repetitive behavior is one way, as habit becomes second-nature. Music, rhythm, chant or repetitive sound and vibration provide another avenue to the seat of the subconscious. And another, highly effective way is through imagery.
The Power of Creative Visualization in Re-Programming the Subconscious
In the West we tend to focus on the ‘word’ and on an intellectual, analytic approach to self-transformation — yet much of who we are is informed not by the word, but by the ‘image’. The Kabbalists teach that redemption begins with redeeming our imagination, our power to dream and create holy imagery.
Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin calls the early period of Jewish History, from Abraham until the destruction of the Second Temple, the ‘action’ period. This period was characterized by the bringing of physical offerings as a way of transforming ourselves and absolving misdeeds.
After the Temple period until today, our main modality has been prayer and study — i.e. text, ‘speech’ and words.
The coming Redemption, however, is connected with the ‘garment’ of ‘thought’ — image and imagination.
Exile is the alienation of the power of dimyon or ‘imagination’. The Seforno writes that fantasy — alienated, ego-centered or false imagination — is the nachash, the ‘snake’. Adam and Chava/Eve were seduced into acting contrary to what they understood to be right or true, because they fell into the quicksand of fantasy and false imagination. They were lured by the snake’s promise to be “like G-d” and began generating grandiose and arrogant visions of themselves.
The Kabbalists teach that the word for ‘snake’, nachash, has the same gematria or ‘numeric equivalent’ as the word for the ‘Messiah’, Mashiach. This is a hint that the ultimate redemption of imagination requires the transformation of the nachash into the Mashiach — turning false fantasy into holy dimyon or ‘imagination’.
The Kuzari teaches that the definition of a chasid is a person that has complete control over their mind. This includes, among other things, the power to visualize events or occurrences clearly, for example — the Giving of the Torah or the Holy Temple (Kuzari, Ma’amar 3, Os 5). A tzadik, says Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, is someone who has the ability to visualize holy things in his mind as vividly as if they are real (Sichas Musar, 26).
You may have a negative, subconscious image of who you are or what your abilities may be, that convinces you that you are incapable of living in a functional and fulfilling manner. This image may hold sway over your psyche even though, on a conscious level, you may indeed ‘know’ that you are capable of actualizing your Higher Self. Such a negative self-image can be addressed using various techniques of visualization and rectified imagination.
If you learn to use your chush ha-tziyur — your ‘sense of imagination’ — consciously and creatively, you can access and affect your self and psyche more deeply and directly than conventional study. * Self-transformation is more effective when you can vividly visualize your goal.
Creative Visualization as Taught by the Sages
Rabbi Eliyahu ben Moshe Di Vidas, the great Sixteenth Century moralist and kabbalist, writes in his work Reishis Chochmah that during the daily prayers we should imagine ourselves in The Garden of Eden surrounded by the luminous souls of Tzaddikim or ‘righteous people’. (Shaar ha-Kedushah, Chapter 4). For example, one might imagine oneself davenning in the presence of Abraham, Moshe, Miriam, Channah, Rabbi Akiva, or the Baal Shem Tov — enveloped and intoxicated by the beauty of Paradise.
Reb Elimelech of Lizensk suggested a very deep practice where one visualizes oneself praying in the Beis Hamikdash or ‘Holy Temple’ (No’am Elimelech, Lech Lecha, p. 19). This visualization seems to have been practiced for hundreds of years prior to Reb Elimelech, and there are sources for this practice in both Chassidic and non-Chassidic texts. (Yesod Shoresh ha-Avodah, Shar ha-Korban, p. 82).
The point of this visualization is for one to experience oneself standing in the Temple, or even in the innermost chamber of the Holy of Holies — the most sacred of spaces. This visualization is even deeper than imagining yourself being surrounded by Tzadikim, for here — you are the Tzadik — the holiest person in the world.
Indeed, within our pintele or deepest ‘inner point’, within our shoresh ha-neshamah or ‘root of the soul’, we are all Tzadikim. We are actually in a constant state of unity with the Or Ein Sof, the ‘Infinite Light’.
Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that a person should “turn his attention away from all physicality and conjure up an image of himself ascending into the upper (or inner) worlds”, and that “he should have an intention to receive the light from the source of his soul, from whence his soul comes…” (Shaarei Kedusha, 3:5).
Rabbi Abraham Abulafia speaks about the ‘perfect self’ and the ‘imperfect self’. In reality, we are both. There is a part of us that is always working towards perfection, and there is a part of us that is already, timelessly perfect. Therefore we need to learn, as Rabbi Kalonimus Kalmish of Peasetzna teaches, to imagine ourselves as a true Tzadik and begin to live from that place of perfection (Tzav v’Ziruz, 24, p.340)
In simple terms, just as you used to imagine sin and shortcoming, now you can attempt to ‘reset’ those unconsciously ingrained patterns of your imagination by visualizing goodness and fully actualized potential.
In conclusion, the month of Elul is represented by the zodiac symbol of Besula or Virgo — the Virgin. This energy manifests in two ways. The first is that during the course of Elul, through the gradual and cleansing process of Teshuvah, we attempt to become pure and virgin like. But more importantly, this powerful month reminds us of an indestructible purity that exists within us that is never soiled. There is a part of our soul that remains forever pure, unaffected or unscathed by any external influence. That aspect of our being, although at times obscured or neglected, never goes away — we are always essentially whole.
During the month of Elul, our work is to chip away at our Kelipah or ‘character armor’, so that we can reveal this ever-present purity within.
Rav DovBer Pinson
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