What is life? Life is energy and energy is about rhythm.
The Jewish mystics call it “rotzo v’shuv” (based on a verse in Ezekiel’s vision “and the energy runs and returns” Ezekiel 1:14. “Rotzo” is a state of yearning and transcendence; “shuv” is a state of immersion and integration.
The very engine of life is driven by the pulsating dance of “transcendence” and “integration.” This is true on all levels of life. On a cosmic level, and when we observe reality on a nano level, all of existence can essentially be seen as a Divine breath, throbbing energy, constantly recreating existence. And on a biological level, individual life is fueled by the heart beat contracting and expanding, and the breath exhaling and inhaling.
Psychologically too what makes a human being human is a constant ebb and flow – of tension and resolution, transcendence and integration, abstraction and concretization. Human nature is not satisfied with animal bliss; it consistently reaches upward, aspiring, dreaming – seeking to improve itself and beyond. And then we return – re-immersing and integrating the transcendent experience.
All growth is built on the dual principle of first desiring and striving for something we don’t yet have, and then acquiring and internalizing it. Like climbing a ladder: First you see the step above you and then you climb and conquer it. As you climb higher broader horizons open up, feeding our hunger for more and than sating that hunger, only to whet our appetite for experiencing higher states of being.
A healthy life and a fulfilled one is when we master the balance between these two poles: A healthy measure of both angst and calm, of dreams and their fulfillment. Unhealthy situations are usually a result of imbalance between the two, with either too much tension and too little resolution or the other way around. Some people dream well, but don’t implement; others act but don’t imagine.
No one is perfect, and it requires constant vigilance to ensure that the transcendent yearning should be balanced by contained integration, so that we have our heads in the heavens but our feet firmly planted on the ground. Yet, life gets out of control – and this is the root of many maladies – when one of the two dominates to the extreme. Sometimes this takes on the shape of exaggerated exuberance, unrealistic fantasies and illusions of grandeur. On the other end of the spectrum, the lack of aspiration can easily evolve into despair and resignation – with no hope or faith in a better tomorrow.
Life then is essentially a journey. Its essential nature is one of movement and rhythm, characterized by cycles of ups and downs, dynamically flowing back and forth.
If we were all in touch with this basic truth, the fundamental nature of life’s vicissitudes, we would be able to ride through most of our challenges, even the difficult times. The problem is that even as we understand with our minds the cycle of life, our subjective hearts get caught up in the moment, consumed by either the moment of joy or pain, unable to see the spinning wheel.
Thus, the great Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov uses the “spiral staircase” as an analogy for life’s cycles: In Yiddish a spiral staircase is called “shvindel trep,” literally: “Swindling stairs”. Why? Because when you climb a regular vertical staircase, you see yourself getting closer to the destination as you climb the stairs. A spiral staircase “swindles” you, because as you get closer to the destination you have to turn completely around, in a 180 degree turn, to the point where you cannot see the apex.
As you climb you keep turning your back to the destination, and just before you reach the top, you must turn completely around for the last time. The key is to always remember, even when your eyes cannot see it and your heart cannot feel it, that we are on a climbing staircase, and we must continue to move.
The practical lesson for us is this: The best way to face the most difficult challenges in life is not to disengage from life and retreat. Quite the contrary: It is specifically in the challenging moments that we are called upon to dig deeper within, intensify our engagement and double our efforts. When at such times, we commit to an extra act of virtue, an extra act of goodness and kindness, the temporary contraction becomes the very fuel for the consequent powerful expansion.