The season of scrubbing has begun, when rubber gloves come off the shelves and feather dusters finally get their chance to shine. After what always feels like a long winter, it's time to crawl out of hibernation and pull back the shades, as we start tackling the home organization projects backlogged in our brains for the last few months. We have containers to label and stacks to file–all part of the effort to tidy up and get our lives in order. Spring cleaning has arrived.
The questions are comforting in their familiarity. "Have we used this in the last three years?" "Where does this actually go?" "Can we please find a better place for that?" "How did we accumulate so much stuff?!" And finally, with gusto and glee, "For the dumpster!" An eagerness accompanies the prospect of moving from chaos to order, of getting things on track, one box of giveaways at a time.
But there is another repository of clutter that we ought not to brush under the rug, a place in which we store more junk than we would probably like to admit. That attic of our inner homes–our minds–can quickly become a storehouse of disarray, where piles of mental mess lie strewn about for months (or years?) before we even notice, if we ever do. Many of us feel that we have too much going on upstairs and desperately need a professional cognitive organizer to sweep in and make sense of things. We report that our minds are "all over the place," a telltale reframe that says a lot about the chaotic way we experience our mental activity.
Though setting our thoughts in order is not generally the first post-winter project that springs to mind, it is one we eventually must get to. While dis-ordered thinking is a common symptom of underlying mental health struggles (cloudiness with depression and racing or blurred thinking with anxiety or mania), we don't have to look far to see the effects of jumbled reasoning in day-to-day life, even among those who do not meet criteria for a diagnosable issue.
Living with a constant cognitive stream of half-finished, disorganized thoughts is a common feature of modern life, especially given the relentless cacophony of mental stimulation we are bombarded with from digital devices, which makes it difficult to follow a thought all the way through, let alone figure out where it fits into our rational scheme of things, before getting sideswiped by the next piece of incoming information. Especially in times of heightened stress, it can feel like we're laboring to hold down a single thought for more than a second or two. We see the results of cerebral overload all around us: Forgetfulness, faulty decision-making, difficulty concentrating, speaking in a confused way, impaired problem-solving skills, and losing the logical order of our own ideas. Where can we find the means to live with a more orderly mind?
The Kelm school of mussar
Nowhere in our tradition was the focus order emphasized more than in the mussar school of Kelm. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm–among the primary disciples of Rav Yisrael Salanter–was the first to establish an educational institution built upon mussar principles. Founded in the 1860s, this elite yeshiva (referred to as a Talmud Torah), which never housed more than 30 students, was a place that extolled orderliness as an indispensable vehicle for the development of one's character.
The Alter taught that people can only progress towards a goal that they have first described precisely. Therefore, before working on a middah, or character trait, it had to be clearly defined. A regiment of meticulously planned exercises was then carefully laid out and followed scrupulously for several months, sometimes years. A premium was placed on cultivating concentration and self-control, two essential tools in the process of slow and steady change.
In Kelm, everything had a place. Shoes belonged neatly under the bed at night, one beside the other. Hats were always in the right spot, perfectly situated on one's head or hung fastidiously on the appropriate hook. The dormitory was immaculate and the personal dress impeccable. For the Alter, ordered living reflected ordered thinking; one could not develop without the other. The absence of organization in either action or thought was a symptom of pizur hanefesh, a scattered mind (literally soul), which could prevent one from achieving his potential as a refined person and eved Hashem.
This philosophy appears in the writings of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, a direct descendant of the Alter and perhaps the most well-known disciple of the Kelm approach. In Michtav M'Eliyahu (vol. 1, pg. 92), Rav Dessler points to the organized encampment of the Twelve Tribes in the desert as an example of the importance of order in the service of G-d. The tribal formation was structured, with every group occupying its rightful place. Together, they achieved hit'achdut hapeulah, unity of action, in which the entire organism of Klal Yisrael functioned optimally because each piece served a specific purpose with a vital role to play.
Striving for clarity
Though we are not in 19th-century Eastern Europe and few of us possess the extraordinary discipline to last in Kelm, much can be learned from this highly structured, systematic approach to personal growth.
For one, clarity matters. A significant element of our mental disorientation comes from muddled thinking, where we know something is plaguing us but cannot articulate what it is. Unfinished thoughts have a way of getting pushed into the corner of our minds, only to collect dust over time and contribute to the hodgepodge of cognitive clutter.
As a psychotherapist, I have long felt that a significant part of my job is to help others clarify what they are trying to say. Simple questions like, "What do you mean?" compel people to revisit what they have shared and stretch their minds further than they had previously gone. With some gentle prodding and a dose of patience, more words generally spill out, filling in the picture of what they've been trying to express. To clarify our thoughts, we often need to hear ourselves think out loud and sift through the ideas we've just spoken, discarding some and honing in on others, until we feel like we're getting closer to what we really mean.
I have had the experience of reaching the end of a session and wondering if I had offered anything useful, only to be told that the client found it very helpful. I eventually realized that reflective listening–actively checking to ensure I've understood–is integral to healing. Telling clients what I've heard gives them a chance to correct, clarify, fill in, and ultimately define for themselves what they feel I need to know. In the process, they have come to know it too.
A second takeaway from Kelm is that it may be worth "finding a place" for all the varied ideas we're trying to hold. Mind mapping is valuable in this regard. Creating a design of the mind involves sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and sketching a spatial representation of what's going on in our heads. We can do this with basic drawings (think stick figures), colors, keywords, or whatever makes sense. The critical part is organizing our thoughts by distributing them on the page, thereby finding a degree of structure amidst the chaos.
Mind mapping allows us to employ our natural desire for order, which often contains a geographic element. I've heard people report where an idea is located in their brain or correct me if I've charted a problem but put something in the wrong place. We think in pictures. Let's assemble some of those visual perceptions into a subjective depiction of our own minds.
Finally, Kelm taught us that writing is a superb way to make sense of things. The pinkasim, or notebooks, kept by the Alter for personal reflection were legendary. For us, too, the act of articulating ourselves in writing forces us to ask, "What am I trying to say?" We sit there with pen in hand, rummaging in our minds, searching for a way to distill our thoughts into coherent phrases. This moment of contemplation is invaluable; it requires us to reach further and draw out the ideas floating around in our heads. It is not an easy process at first, but the effort to inject ourselves onto the paper (or screen) pays dividends when we're looking at words that we finally have access to, no longer trapped in the recesses of our minds.
Clients who take the time to journal between sessions are doing themselves a great service. They instinctively reorganize the concepts of the previous session in a way that makes sense to them–an act of processing and deepening. Writing is an act of concretizing ideas and, in a certain way, hearing ourselves think through things again, often from a slightly more nuanced angle. Journaling clients often notice new ideas popping up, which is excellent fodder for further discussion. Even just jotting down thoughts on our phones or scribbling them in shorthand on a scrap of paper can assist us in the process of cleaning up our thoughts and creating more order.
The mind is a confusing place, where crisscrossing ideas can overwhelm the system, resulting in a logjam of logic that is difficult to carry. Many of us are looking for ways to reign in our unruly cognitive process before hitting wit's end, to find some mental quiet so we can finally think straight. Thankfully, there are solutions, real strategies for clarifying and organizing our mental space. As we enter the new season, let's not ignore the cognitive overload that may be bogging us down and making it difficult to use our minds effectively. Who knows, maybe we'll even find a way to put some Spring back in our step.
Life Lessins is a blog about mental health from a Jewish perspective. It is a collection of insights culled from 15 years of experience as a mental health professional working within a religious context.
My aim in expressing these perspectives is to share, enrich, educate, and engage in an ongoing conversation with the broader community.
To read more, please visit www.lessintherapy.com