The Subtle Spiritual Awakening of Mike Zoosman: A “Self-Love” Story

By Cantor Mike Zoosman

It’s been a bit more than a year since I posted to this blog with a fictional “epitaph” to illustrate feeling defined by mental health, and to offer my perception of society’s more superficial understanding of O.C.D. After some meaningful changes in my life over the past year, I want to offer a short window into how things are these days in my mind’s universe. The take-away is hopeful: after what I can best describe as an awakening to what I am calling “self-love,” the forecast now seems much more sunny…

This seismic, yet subtle shift did not happen overnight. It was a gradual process, albeit with one particular catalyst. Before describing that jolt, just a few comments about my own theology prior to this year.

My form of theism by my mid-thirties, while not necessarily featuring the quintessential Bearded Man overlooking the universe, was quite traditional. A self-contained God-being held the reins and all was in His control. The problem for me was the nature of this God. As much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, for as long as I can remember I regularly tended to envision a judgmental Deity looking over my shoulder and shaking his head, or even fist, at my actions and thoughts. No alternative approach that I encountered – Jewish or otherwise – to understanding the nature of God seemed to affect this seemingly inbred notion.

My conception of God was perhaps best defined by my profound sense of kinship with Job. Like Job, I too felt that I was living under the dark specter of a punitive and adversarial God. The commentary on Job that made the most sense to me was that of Jack Miles, in which God clearly was in error in how he treated Job, and indeed ended up asking Job for forgiveness. Unlike Job’s innocence of character, however, my view of my own makeup was one that was inherently flawed and driven by the yetzer hara, the “evil impulse.” Job, in other words, had an obvious gripe; I, on the other hand, deserved God’s wrath.

What was the source of this negative self-image, particularly in a religion that does not espouse any “original sin?” In the calculus of nature versus nurture, I’m inclined toward the former as the primary cause of my mental proclivity toward cognitive self-harm. After all, I was blessed to be born and raised in a supportive household with a warm, loving family. I chalk up mostly to biochemistry my brain’s apparently default mission to attack itself – and I recognize I’m far from alone in this tendency. Unfortunately, my scrupulous-leaning mind with its penchant for harsh self-judgment found a home in the notions of a similarly-minded God, and the Deity at the center of my theism soon morphed into a projection of my own unhealthy attitudes toward myself. My religious outlook, rather than acting as a source of comfort, reinforced my anxiety, which yielded a toxic personal narrative.

Over the years, with the help of therapy and increased life experience, I began to see some of the maladaptive aspects of this personal theology I had created throughout my life. This recognition was not comprehensive enough, however, for me to change my theological outlook in any significant way. Rather, it was only the jolting event I referenced above that ultimately provided just such an impetus.

This trigger was the tragic death of my beloved father-in-law, Dr. Morton Winston, z’l (of blessed memory) at the start of this year. Mort was a philosopher, scholar, dedicated human rights activist, Jewish ethical humanist and – as his epitaph rightfully proclaims – Citizen of the World. More than that, he was a father-figure, friend, mentor, and source of wisdom for me, and countless others.

A glimmering light was extinguished with Mort’s loss, and the void has been felt by all who knew him. For me, the shock of his death is widespread and will continue to unfold. There is, however, one specific component to my mourning that served as a unique spark – one that is pertinent here. I was privileged to have been enriched by many informal philosophical, spiritual, and theological conversations over the years that I knew Mort.  The prospect of losing my metaphysical sparring partner unexpectedly kindled within me a more intentional re-examination of my understanding of existential questions through contemplation and reading, including many of the books in Mort’s personal library, replete with his comments and notes in the margins. This in turn empowered me with a renewed openness to thought-experimentation regarding my worldview. The result over time was an illumination, on a much deeper level, of the unhealthy and irrational aspects of my personal theology, including many of the unattended feelings of self-judgment that this outlook reflected.

As this maladaptive framework came more sharply into focus this past year, it left room in my mind’s eye to see another, more hopeful spiritual horizon. I began to consider more seriously a notion of Divinity that emphasized ideas about individual and collective consciousness. I won’t go into the details of my new theology and practice, which is still evolving and – I expect – will continue to do so throughout my life. More relevant to this blog is what happened in the process of disconnecting from the unhealthy religious-mental prison that I had unwittingly created…

Namely, I experienced something quite revolutionary in the “history” of my mind: decades-old patterns of self-denigrating thoughts started to get undercut. I began to feel a peace of mind that eluded me throughout years of extended, often high-dose trials of more than a dozen different SSRIs, benzodiazepines and other psychotropic drugs. I found myself more ready and able to access the “wise mind” approaches that my therapist had long been suggesting. (In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, “Wise Mind” is often described as the integration of emotion and reason.) I seemed to be slowly cultivating a deeper sense of wisdom – one that still has much room for growth, to be sure. I no longer felt that I was inadvertently stifling the development of this newfound wisdom by my attachment to a theology that was not serving me well.

The new mode of thinking that endowed me with a frame of mind that was open enough to exploring other approaches to metaphysical questions also emboldened me to try out new forms of self-care. I finally gave in to the gentle prodding from my therapist to explore mindfulness and meditation more intentionally, and when the opportunity presented itself to engage in these practices with an experienced nearby guide, I seized the moment.

I am still very much a novice when it comes to these life-affirming strategies. Yet, the past several months of daily formal and informal practice already have added a profound component to my “awakening,” if you will. My intentional self-care has led to the discovery of what I can best describe as a radical self-love that I did not know could exist, at least not for me. As is well-known, this path is by no means novel. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, Taoist and other spiritual traditions the world over suggest ways of accessing it in their wisdom literature. No doubt, many readers of this blog are very familiar with these ideas. At least for this “meat-and-potatoes” twenty-first century cantor and chaplain, however, the idea of living each day with the feeling of an all-encompassing self-love has been akin to the discovery of a new world.

I can imagine this might sound Pollyannaish to some, but I can assure you that for a would-be skeptic and cynic like myself, the proof has been in the cognitive pudding. Decades of negative self-talk initially proved hard to undo, but eventually the layers began to peel off, and as they have continued to dissolve, there has been no going back. With my symptoms of anxiety consistently negligible, and with my therapist’s blessing, I decided to completely taper off my psych meds, as well as the medication that I took to abate the side effects that those drugs caused. I’m happy to report that the taper has been completed for a few months now, with no noticeable return of symptoms.

What’s more, from this exceptionless self-love has sprung an ability to love others more profoundly and non-judgmentally, and to engage in the world more meaningfully and wholeheartedly. This has applied in my relationships with family and friends, in my professional life, and – as Mort would applaud – in my civic-mindedness as a “world-citizen.”

And so, as I live out my thirty-sixth year this is where I find myself. My understanding of the Sacred has shifted drastically from a kind of theism that allowed for a judging and potentially harmful God, to an understanding of the Holy that emphasizes an ultimate love and compassion that I believe is potentially present within me, and all creatures. Of course, I still remain very much the same person I was a year ago. My mind still has its idiosyncrasies. I continue to react as anyone would to the injustices occurring in our country and the suffering throughout the world. The same interests, joys, habits and peculiarities remain, including a particular weakness for the Red Sox, and admittedly Game of Thrones of late. Yet, no matter where my mind rushes off to at a given moment, I am developing the mental muscles to accept its musings and return to a loving awareness of the present. In doing so, I have begun to engage more intentionally in the lifelong process of being more mindful of the inbuilt continuously renewable source of acceptance and love that I believe we all carry.

Mike Zoosman received his Cantorial Investiture and Master of Sacred Music from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2007, and became a Board Certified Chaplain through Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains in 2014. After serving in the pulpit and as a chaplain in prison and psychiatric hospital settings, he began his current post as a multifaith chaplain for pediatrics, mental health and infectious disease units at the National Institutes of Health – Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. He and his wife Molly live live with their newborn daughter Sunny in College Park, MD.

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