The human mind is incredibly powerful. Mentally, one can imagine touring exotic places, solve difficult mathematical problems, or vividly recall memories of years long past. In our minds, we are not limited by our physical realities but are free to explore the universe and soar to awesome spiritual dimensions. Yet what if we have become prisoners of our own thoughts?
We all desire to live an emotionally healthy and positive lifestyle. We would like to see the good in our spouses and friends, to count our blessings with gratitude every day, and to appreciate the novelty and unique qualities of everything we experience. But sometimes we get stuck and can’t seem to pull our thoughts out of the mud. We start seeing everything in a negative light; we’re insulted by whatever is said to us; and perhaps our imagination leads us to inappropriate and sinful places. We have lost control of our own minds and our sanity!
If we take a step back and analyze how we got to this point, we will discover the trap of Laban. Laban, whose name literally means “white,” is the master of negative thinking. Ever so slowly, he psychologically leads us astray by whitewashing our thoughts until we begin to entertain thoughts that are just a little bit out of line – and before we know it, we are far gone.
“Jacob stole the heart of Laban by not telling him he was fleeing” (Genesis 31:20). Jacob did not stand idly by while this was happening; he made a run for it. The greatest mistake one can make is to try and reason with a wily con artist; in the end, the person will be deceived once again. When tempted by bad thoughts, the best advice is to ignore those thoughts completely. Instead, contemplate positive thoughts and mitzvahs. By doing this, you will have “stolen away” the evil thoughts from Laban. Rebbe Nachman teaches that a person has the ability to concentrate on only one thought at a time – a fact that can work in our favor.
But what if it’s too difficult to readjust your focus and you can’t seem to pull your head out of the gutter? The answer is to run away even further, by doing something completely absurd! Our evil desires do not have a permanent grip on us; rather, they threaten us from time to time. By doing something silly and totally out of the ordinary, we can actually deflect them long enough to get some breathing space.
After Laban finally caught up with Jacob, Jacob gathered stones and built a monument and a mound to represent the peace treaty achieved between the two sides (ibid. 31:45-46). Our psychological battles are a constant struggle; the tug of war between positive and negative thoughts can leave us discouraged by the seeming lack of progress. We begin to perceive our negativity as reality. But this not so! Every effort we make to bring our thoughts to holiness is valued and appreciated on high.
These, then, are the little stones that Jacob gathered. As we gather positive thoughts one by one, they combine to become a large, protective mound. It is only at this point that Jacob is able to say to Laban, “This mound will give testimony” (ibid. 31:48). Hanging on this mound are pictures of all of our good points, of all the times we tried when it was difficult. We need only glance at these pictures to be reminded of our true essence.