World – Time – Individual: The Jewish Spiritual Model for Life Planning

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Photo Credit: Robyn Lang (c). Used with permission. 

I recently read an article from Christian writer, Christopher Connors, discussing his method for life planning – or more specifically for creating a five year plan. I enjoyed the article and particularly appreciated the way in which he shared his own plan, which was both a great teaching tool and also demonstrated some serious willingness to be vulnerable and to be held accountable.

He left me considering how long it has been since I took out my own planning tools and reconsidered who I am and how I am going. His article also left me with a desire to share and incredible life “planning” tool that I learned from my Rebbe. I wrote planning in scare quotes here, because the way I experience the use of this technique is less as a means of planning the future (over which, ultimately, I have no control, as has been driven home to me on occasions too numerous to count) but rather as a means of undertaking an in-the-moment experience of life focusing.

This life focusing allows us to clarify our orientations and goals. Once these goals are clarified, we can undertake the shifting in of life practices and habits that develop us towards those goals and the shifting out of life practices and habits that do not. Life focusing also allows us to place the more mundane or even unpleasurable aspects of our life into the context of whole life. I find this aspect particularly meaningful as it helps me understand how my short terms goals are not ends in themselves, which could easily be derided as pointless busy-work, but contributions to larger goals, which in turn are contributions to the life that I have committed myself to.

In this blog post I hope to show you how this process works. In order to do this, we will have to step back for a moment and learn some Kabbalah. Yes, you heard me right. Learn some Kabbalah. Okay, here goes.

The Kabbalah is the system of Jewish spirituality that underlies a lot of Jewish law, meditation and prayer practices and operates as a “theosophy” (spiritual philosophy) for understanding – to the extent we are capable – the forces connecting the universe to the Creator and how the universe is driven by these forces. These forces are understood in Kabbalah to be organised into various relationships, whose patterns exist both in the spiritual realms and also in our own day to day lives.

One of relationship patterns which emerges from the Kabbalistic literature is the relationship between Olam, Shana, Nefesh which we can translate as “World – Time – Individual.” Together, these form the pattern that allows the actualisation of our creative process.

Olam/World refers to the “big picture” vision of that which we desire to create.

Shana/Time refers to the process by which we seek to create, broadly defined.

Nefesh/Individual refers to the steps that will be taken along the path to that creation.

A rough example would be: A painter has a vision (olam/world) of an artwork to create. He assembles his paints and materials and begins the process (shana/time) of painting. The individual (nefesh/individual) brush strokes that he makes combine to form the picture that was envisaged.

We can employ this understanding with reference to our own lives and the process of life focusing.

Olam/World is the big picture mission we see ourselves placed in this world to accomplish. It is a description of an ideal state.

Shana/Time is the various roles or categories of experience in which we will be accomplishing that bigger picture mission. It is the how we will be reaching that ideal state.

Nefesh/Individual are the details – the day to day things we do to actualise those goals.

For example, an abridged version of my own life focusing process might look like this:

Olam/World: I am here to bring the light of the Infinite into this world and to be in a deep relationship with my Creator and those around me.

Shana/Time: I do that by educating myself and others to find light in unlikely places where others have not thought to look.

I do that by creating bridges for the sharing of knowledge between worlds.

I do that by creating space for relationship with the Creator and the others around me and revealing ways for others to do the same.

Nefesh/Individual:

I do that as a mindful mother and enlightened wife who actively creates space for her husband and children to find light and develop relationship.

I do that as an scholar in the academic world, working to create and synthesise new knowledges to open new possibilities for enlightenment in the world.

I do that by living in Israel where I am uniquely enabled to benefit from immersion in a Jewish environment with all the opportunities for teaching and learning that that provides.

I do that in my own spiritual practices of prayer and Torah learning that fill me up with the good that I want to share with the world.

I particularly enjoy writing this out by hand on a blank sheet of paper (i.e. no lines).

My Rebbe, Rav Gerzi, also teaches a meditative practice that can accompany this focusing exercise which I find extremely helpful.

It begins by imagining spheres representing Olam/World Shana/Time and Nefesh/The Individual glowing before your inner vision. They are stacked on top of one another, but not in alignment. Watch with your inner vision as you bring the three spheres into alignment, one on top of the other. It can help to make or imagine a sound as this happens, for example I like to left out a gratified sigh as the spheres come into alignment and imagine them flashing.

You can combine this meditation with the focusing process I just outlined by imagining the essence of each of the sections in you life plan represented by each of the spheres as you imagine them coming into alignment. Sometimes this really helps me as I struggle to recognise the importance of tasks – particularly things like grocery shopping or paying bills which I find difficult to enjoy. Realising that they are in alignment with what I want for myself makes these tasks seem easier and more manageable.

I hope this was helpful and interesting.

Disclaimer regarding Kabbalah, This Disclaimer Appears On All Articles Discussing Kabbalistic Sources.

Please note: One of the greatest difficulties in accessing the Kabbalah is the many people who speak in its name, often saying contradictory things, hurtful things, things that do not resonate with the life experiences of the many, many people that make up this world. There is a great deal of “Kabbalistic” teachings that are spoken without reference to the deep complexity underlying Kabbalistic thought. To this end, I would like to disclaim that anything that was read in this article pertaining to the Kabbalah that you find to be either unreflective of your life or painful to read – may only be one side of the incredibly complex story. I found this out after long periods of agonizing. I encourage you, if you are in fact interested in learning more about Kabbalah to proceed as quickly as possible to the primary sources and a teacher steeped in the tradition. You can email me for more info about how you might find this.

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