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Four Ways to Find Freedom and Expansiveness Amidst Our Blessings and Adversities

April 10, 2022 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Learning how to run towards, instead of away, from our challenges.

Life is full of both blessing and suffering. Imagine if we each held a sign that let others know the challenges we face each day:

There would be the secretary that you see at your doctor’s office who always seems stressed: In the middle of a messy divorce and just got a call from my son’s school that he was suspended.

There would be that guy at the gym who seems so quiet. Sister is in the hospital from an overdose and just got a message that my company is downsizing. 

There would be the colleague who never seems to make it to the meetings on time. Single mom, special needs child, no family support.

They are the people sitting beside us on the train and walking past us on the sidewalk. They are our friends and our families.

They are us.

In her recent book, Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke, teaches us how to run towards, instead of away, from our challenges. The upcoming holiday of Passover is a unique time when we re-examine what it means to be free. Here are four ways, based on lessons from Dopamine Nation, that we can utilize to find new freedom and expansiveness within both our blessings and our adversities.

1. Walk toward what you’re trying to escape.

Many of us are afraid to face our own discomfort. Whether it’s loneliness or sickness or grief, at some point we would rather distract ourselves from the pain.

But the pain we feel is the pain of being alive, and if we stop running from it, we may discover that it wasn’t something we needed to escape from in the first place.

We are far stronger than we imagine. As Anna Lembke writes,

I urge you to find a way to immerse yourself fully in the life that you’ve been given. To stop running from whatever you’re trying to escape, and instead to stop and turn and face whatever it is. Then I dare you to walk toward it. In this way, the world may reveal itself to you as something magical and awe-inspiring that does not require escape. Instead the world may become something worth paying attention to.

2. Light one step at a time.

Walking towards what we fear is not an all or nothing effort. It is a continuous, daily effort that requires patience and resilience. We can light one step at a time by doing the next right thing at this moment. And only after we have made our way through the tunnel can we see all the dark corners that we have lit up with our perseverance.

Lembke compares growth to the scene in Harry Potter when Dumbledore walks down a darkened alley lighting lamp posts along the way. “Only when he gets to the end of the alley and stops to look back does he see the whole alley illuminated, the light of his progress.”

3. Learn to use pleasure to grow instead of allowing it to keep you stuck.

When pleasure becomes an end in and of itself, it stunts our growth and blocks the way forward. Neuroscience has taught us that in order to keep our dopamine levels stable, there is an inherent pull on the side of pain as soon as we overindulge in any pleasure. This pain is a gift. It teaches us the necessity of self-regulation in order to find balance in our lives. It also teaches us that we cannot always avoid pain and discomfort.

In our temperature-regulated, tech-run, bubble-wrapped lives learning to tolerate discomfort has become a kind of superpower.  Lembke describes the paradox of hedonism: “… the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake leads to anhedonia. Which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind. The relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, leads to pain.”

4. Accept that grief and sadness are part of what makes us whole.

We all experience days – even periods – when we feel sad, grieving or frustrated. And as anyone who has ever grieved can attest, the more you try to avoid the grief, the more relentlessly it will find you, often at the least expected moments. Loss and sadness are part of what makes us whole. Don’t try to avoid them; accept them.

Passover is a unique opportunity to reflect on the journey that we have each taken over the past year with all of its obstacles and gifts. This is the time of year we left the narrowness of Egypt and walked forward into the expansiveness of an unknown destination.  Each of us can find a way forward today as we walk toward whatever we have been trying to escape from.

If we were holding a sign at the table this Passover, perhaps it would say: I have come through the darkness. And tonight, I can see that there were little lights guiding me forward all along. Thank You for showing me that there is always a way to find freedom. Thank You for giving me the strength to turn towards the life I have been given.

Feature image:, Divya Agrawal


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