The first stage of therapy is to suppress anxiety, that is, to deflate its significance and reduce its importance in the person’s life. Although theoretically this could be done by directly downplaying the significance of the problem itself and demonstrating that things are not as bad as they seem, this is in most cases counter-productive. By the time a problem has reached the proportions where it is has become the cause of anxiety, the person suffering from it has in most cases already convinced himself of its extreme gravity. Trying to argue against this conviction will only encourage him to prove just how grave the problem is.
The surer path is the roundabout one of deflating the problem by deflating the person’s own ego. Although at first we may be tempted to think that a person troubled with anxiety is already suffering from a low self-image and that attacking his ego would be adding insult to injury, this is far from the case. When anxiety gets out of hand, it actually inflates the ego. The person s obsession with his problem exaggerates his self-consciousness; it forces him to think about and focus on himself to the extent that it renders him incapable of relating to other people. His world becomes totally egocentric, more and more himself as less and less others.
Moreover, the greater a person perceives his problem to be, the greater he will come to consider himself to be, since only great people suffer great problems. Beneath every inferiority complex lies a deeper superiority complex.
But the reverse is also true: the greater the ego, the greater the person’s worries and troubles. The more a person experiences his own self and fills his mind with his own feelings and self-image, the more intimidating is anything which poses a potential threat to the perfection of his self-perception.
Furthermore, ego spawns selfish desire. The greater a person feels he is, the more he feels he deserves, and the greater he will be vexed by the lack of anything he feels he deserves. The dichotomy between what he has and what he feels he should have will disturb him continuously.
Ego thus traps the person in a self-perpetuating and self-augmenting spiral of anxiety. As his ego grows, so do his problems, and as his problems get worse, his ego grows accordingly. The neutralization of the ego is therefore the sine qua non of the rectification process; the most primary and basic stage in healing the psyche is submission.
How, then, do we go about neutralizing the ego? Here, again, we have a direct approach and an indirect approach from which to choose. In the words of the Talmudic sages, the direct approach is contemplating the lowliness of man; the indirect approach is contemplating the greatness of the Creator.
Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch succeeded the Ba’al Shem Tov as leader of the Hassidic movement. Two of his disciples, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zushya of Anipol, once asked him whether to begin the process of self-refinement by contemplating the greatness of G-d or the lowliness of man. Rabbi Dovber answered that whereas in earlier generations it was possible to begin with the lowliness of man, in our generation it is better to begin with the greatness of G-d.
In other words, the indirect approach is again the preferred one. If a person begins by considering his own lowliness, he may well succeed in convincing himself of it, but all the while he will still be focused on himself. Once, however, he has fully contemplated the greatness of G-d, he will view his own lowliness in the context of G-d’s greatness. Even though he will be dealing with his own ego, he will still be approaching it indirectly.
Thus, the Hassidic answer to egocentricity is theocentricity. Self-refinement or the quashing of the ego means the reorientation of the emotions toward Divinity: G-d becomes the object of our love, the only one we fear, and so on. This is the essence of Jewish psychology; the object of life is not to know yourself but to know the G-d of your father.
Once again, however, a person can try to change the orientations of the emotions directly or indirectly. The direct approach is seeking out experiences that will inspire him to love and fear G-d. He may indeed succeed in temporarily reorienting his emotions this way, but the effect will be ephemeral. As soon as the experience passes, the emotion it engendered will pass with it. The much more effective way to change the orientation of the emotions is indirectly, that is, by harnessing the mind to contemplate truths that will give rise spontaneously to corresponding emotional reactions.