Moving Forward: Searching for vital life experiences

You cannot just invent a meaningful ritual. It needs a tradition within which the symbols are embedded in the sensual and physical feelings, like the Pessah Seder.

March 21, 2010 16:58
Moving Forward: Searching for vital life experiences

seder 248 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )


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Psychologists can now tell us how to convert our work experience into a happy flourishing experience.

Such work experiences are characterized as being in a state of “vital engagement.” Vital engagement is when you are totally absorbed in a challenging activity that is significant and meaningful to you. A professional work example would be a cardiac surgeon performing heart transplant surgery. He is challenged, focused and engaged in the work, and finds it meaningful in helping save a life.

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Due to the recent emergence of cross-disciplinary work in fields like cognitive neuroscience and cultural psychology, new ideas about vital engagement are beginning to emerge which define meaningful life experiences. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis explained that such an experience comes when we can integrate our physiological and sociocultural experiences in one event. Since we are multidimensional living beings with bodies, thoughts, emotions and psyches, the most vital and engaging experience is when we connect them all.

When we engage our senses it is an uplifting, invigorating experience. To eat a fine meal in a majestic environment with beautiful background music is engaging. When it occurs with family or a loving partner, it is further enhanced and uplifting and memorable.

After spending time in India witnessing Hindu life, Haidt realized that religious rituals can be considered meaningful, vitally engaging experiences. He noticed Hindus as they would bathe several times a day adhering to purity rituals for their body and eating rituals of sharing food with their priests. Part of their extended ritual experience is also impacted by many sensual feelings like shivering during the morning bath, the pleasure of washing off dust and putting on clean clothes, the feeling of bare feet on cool stone floors and the smell of incense.

The behaviors and sensual associations also have cultural religious symbolic meaning. So, after 20 or 30 years of regularly observing these practices the Hindus experience, the Hindu’s sensual memory then triggers positive cognitive associations. It is an experience in which the sensual has integrated with a psychological and cultural level of experience.

Since the Hindu is immersed in a thousand year old religious tradition that his family has treasured and practiced for generations, the sensual experience is further enhanced. His physical feelings and conscious associations cohere with his actions, by also connecting to a tradition of the past which he is preserving for the future. This sociocultural historical tradition makes this engaging experience a very meaningful one as well.


According to Haidt, you cannot just invent such a meaningful ritual experience. It needs a tradition within which the symbols are embedded in the sensual and physical feelings. Then, after connecting one’s senses through meaningful actions you need a community to endorse it, share it and practice it over time. Haidt concluded that the extent that a community has many rituals that cohere, people within that community are likely to connect in a meaningful manner and experience a vital sense of engagement. It was a little astonishing to me that Haidt, born Jewish on Long Island, did not make any reference to the Pessah Seder in his book. I wrote to him and suggested he experience and research the Seder.

The Seder is a comprehensive sensual experience of taste, smell and sound. The sensual experience is enhanced by the symbolism associated with it. This is evident by eating bitter herbs which symbolize the harshness of life in Egypt, and eating matza which symbolizes the haste of leaving and simplicity of life, and drinking four cups of wine to symbolize the stages of redemption. These tastes, together with smells of the food and sight of the prepared table, permeate the home.

What further enhances the Pessah Seder experience is the educational component which engages one’s cognition and intellect. The Haggada text is meant as a guide for teaching and reexperiencing the enslavement and freedom that is the fundamental message of this exodus story. The older generation is challenged to engage the younger generations. It is fundamental to the experience that one is connecting with a tradition of thousands of years, and there is a commitment to get the next generation to understand, appreciate and be interested in continuing that tradition for the future.

This cognitive intellectual is also supplemented by drama. The purpose is not to just tell the story of what happened but to practically reenact the experience. There are family traditions in which people hit each other with scallions to reenact the whip of slavery and others who wrap matza in a large cloth and carry it on their backs around the table to reenact the experience of fleeing in haste from Egyptian taskmaster. This drama and action is also supplemented with songs and music before, during and after the meal. Lastly there is a very strong historical collective component of connecting with the Jewish people’s historical legacy and identity.

As Haidt mentioned, happiness and meaning come “when we are drawn out of ourselves and into connection with people beyond ourselves... from connecting right.” When this comprehensive sensual, cognitive, drama we call the Seder is experienced together with our family and loved ones, and we are connecting to a greater whole of a legacy of a people, it becomes a vitally engaging and meaningful experience. It is an experience that engages all our senses, our thoughts, and our actions by connecting us to a people, and by transcending time by connecting past and future.

Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness described meaningful experiences. “A meaningful life is one that joins with something larger than we are, and the larger that something is, the more meaning our lives have.” Our challenge for the Pessah Seder experience is to recognize it, invest in it and appreciate it.

The writer is a positive clinical psychologist who helps clients in his Jerusalem office and gives workshops on positive psychology to businesses and organizations.

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