Crisis of Imagination

The greatest crisis of our lives is not economic, intellectual, or even what we usually call religious. It is a crisis of imagination. We are getting stuck on our paths because we are unable to re-imagine our lives differently than they are right now. We hold on desperately to the status quo, afraid that if we let go, we will be swept away by the torrential undercurrents of our emptiness.

The most important thing in the world, implies wisdom master Nachman of Bratzlav, is to be willing to give up who you are for who you might become. He calls this process the giving up of pnimi to reach for makkif. Pnimi, for Master Nachman, means the old familiar things that you hold onto slavishly, even when they no longer serve you on your journey. Makkif is that which is beyond you, which you can only reach if you are willing to take a leap into the abyss.

Find your risk, and you will find yourself. Sometimes that means leaving your home, your father's house, and your birthplace and traveling to strange lands.

Both the Buddha and the biblical Abraham do this quite literally. But for the Kabbalist, the true journey does not require dramatic breaks with past and home. It is rather a journey of the imagination. In the simple and literal meaning of the biblical text, Abraham's command is Lech Lecha: "Go forth from your land, your birthplace and your father's house." Unpacked by the Zohar, it is taken to mean not "Go forth," but "Go to yourself." The journey is inward, the vehicle—imagination.

It is only from this inside place that we can truly change our outside. It is only in the fantasy of re-imagining that we can change our reality. The path of true wisdom is not necessarily to quit your job, leave your home, and travel across the country. Often such a radical break is a failure rather than fulfillment of imagination. True wisdom is to change your life from where you are. Through the power of imagination.

Think "Cookies"!
Virtually every crisis at its core is a failure of imagination. Two simple examples serve the point. Some years back, I took off three years from "spiritual teaching" to get a sense of what the world tasted like as a householder. All my life, I had studied and taught the Hebrew wisdom tradition of Torah. Talmud, Midrash, Luria, Zohar, and Bible were my best friends. I was driven to teach—to touch people's lives and to offer a path to transformation. But what were the deep sources of my drive? Was my faith real? Or was I merely on a very sophisticated form of autopilot? In order to find out, I took off three years to experience the world from a different place. I took a job at a hi-tech company, and from that non-demanding perch, began to re-think my life and beliefs.

During this period, I did a bit of consulting with Israeli hi-tech start-up firms. Truth is, I had little good advice to offer, but some of the hi-tech entrepreneurs who had been my students would call me anyway. At one point, I received a call from a small start-up firm in Ramat Gan, Israel. The problem: they were almost out of venture capital, their market window seemed to be rapidly closing, and their R&D team was simply not keeping pace with their need for solutions.

Apparently, the problem lay with the elevator. The company was on the top floor of an old warehouse. The elevator was small, hot, and inordinately pungent. By the time the R&D teams would get through the daily morning gauntlet of the elevator, they had lost some of their creative sparkle. The president was convinced that this dulled their edge just enough to slow down the speed and elegance of their solutions. What to do? Again, I have to confess to you, dear reader, that I had not the slightest idea.

Our meeting was on Friday. As was my custom, I went home for the Sabbath and consulted with my own private consultant, my son Eitan. Now, you need to know that Eitan has two important pastimes—one is reading and the other is making fun of his father. So when I asked him what I should tell the company, he laughed and said somewhat mockingly, "It's simple, Dad—cookies." I did not find this particularly funny. I raised this subject with him several times, and each time he would only respond, with maddening gravitas, "Cookies."

Finally, I gave up on him. Several days later, I went to tell the president I had found no solution. I was going up the same malodorous elevator when in a blinding flash I realized what Eitan meant. Cookies! Of course! While the rest of us were stuck in an impossible dilemma, Eitan had naturally paradigm shifted. We were all focused on elaborate ways to fix the elevator or to move locations. Eitan, with the simple brilliance of a child, reminded us of the true issue at stake. The crux of the matter was not the elevator, it was how the R&D team felt when they left the elevator. What to do? Cookies. We set up a table with juices, fruit, and healthy cookies right outside of the elevator. So even though the ride up the elevator was terrible, people would spend the whole ride in eager anticipation of the goodies that awaited them. A simple paradigm shift inspired by re-imagining.

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