Experiences of pain, confusion, and depression are inescapable. Just as God created a world with light and darkness and day and night, we have times when we are open to hearing and feeling gratitude for the voice of the soul. We have other times when life seems confusing and bleak and the voice of the soul seems distant and mute. When we feel pain, we need to stop and deeply experience the pain. We need to delve into and embrace its emptiness — to hear it and to learn from it.
At times, this pain is caused by our previous experiences — our history. We have all had moments of disappointment and brokenness; we have all experienced moments of darkness in our past. But, sometimes, the source of this pain stems from our future. We are each brought into this world to fulfill a unique purpose. In our daily lives and in the course of a whole lifetime, only our soul can provide a particular “tikkun,” or “repair,” that is needed in this world. This future is always calling to us. Listening to our inner voice, the voice of the soul, guides us toward this tikkun. Sometimes, the inner voice guides us gently, through our intuition or through a feeling. Sometimes, many competing voices — the voices of our ego, our fears, our insecurity, our loved ones, and our community — challenge this process.
But, sometimes, when we have not attended to these gentle messages from our inner voice for a while, we receive an unpleasant reminder. According to Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, this reminder is our inner voice calling us to wake up, to listen, and to refocus. When we ignore the call of the soul, it intensifies its message and sends us “toxic stones.” These toxic stones are feelings of emptiness, or lethargy, or a lack of purpose, or hope. They gather “around one’s heart, [where] one feels because of them a malaise of spirit.” (Olat HaRa’ayah, Introduction to the Siddur)
Rav Kook suggests that the optimal way to hear our inner voice calling us is through “serious prayer” (not to be confused with the organized prayer we recite in a synagogue while using a siddur). This form of prayer is extremely personal, unscripted, and expressed through intense reflection and yearning. It demands that we look inward to our own soul, and that we pause and listen. Every person has a different soul; every person hears a different voice. This voice gives us clarity about why we were created and what our purpose in life may be. At times, we hear this voice as a series of small, daily reminders, and at other times, the voice hits us like a “spiritual lightning bolt,” stunning us with an inner truth that can be life-changing.
The pain, the toxic stones, can help to lead us back to our true inner voice (or soul). Our spiritual life functions in a similar way to our physical life. When a certain part of the body becomes unhealthy, the body sends a message, some form of pain, to help us to focus on a particular ailment; so, too, with our spiritual lives.
As we begin to respond to the messenger of spiritual pain and attend to our inner life, our hope is that a clearer spirit will emerge. Then, we may discover that we have greater clarity, purpose, and motivation. These painful reminders, these toxic stones, are to be reframed as gifts, as divine messengers, and as reminders of healing and hope.
Listening to one’s inner voice does not require theological clarity or even a belief in a watchful God. We need only to enter into our own deeply mysterious life experience, which may be hidden from our simple comprehension. We are perpetually confronted with the humbling awareness that we may be strangers to our own souls. The painful experience of feeling distant from oneself can become a reminder and a catalyst for self-awareness, clarity, and meaningful action.
After serving as a senior educator at the Pardes Institute, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2006 (ayeka.org.il). Ayeka gives Jewish educators strategies for helping Jews bring Jewish wisdom into their lives. Ben David is the author of Becoming a Soulful Educator, and can be reached at email@example.com.