In this webinar, Cantor Sue Knight Deutsch tells stories from her life and shares personal experiences as she leads participants through the BEST-I practice she learned from Tal Ben-Shahar during her study of positive psychology at WBI.
The practice includes:
- Deep Breaths (before and after each part)
- Read a meaningful and inspiring Excerpt (poem, quote, prose)
- Engage your Senses (Look, Listen, Smell, Taste, Touch)
- Express Thanks (journal)
- Go over your Ideal Self list
Highlights from the Conversation
I want to tell you a story about a teacher, Mrs. Beneducci, a fifth-grade writing teacher in Detroit. It’s a true story. In 1960, she’s standing in front of her fifth-grade class, and she sees a mouse. And the mouse is running around, and she’s trying to catch the mouse, but it’s too quick. And the children are seeing the mouse, and they get up on the chairs. And there’s pandemonium in the class, because there’s this mouse going around. And she they can’t catch the mouse. But this one student has been challenging for Mrs. Beneduci, because he’s blind. Little Stevie, he’s sitting in the corner, and he’s blind. And he just isn’t taking part in this whole thing because he can’t see. So Mrs. Beneducci said to the kids, if you could just be quiet, Little Stevie will help us catch the mouse. And everybody was like, well, the Stevie, he’s blind, how’s he gonna help us catch the mouse. And she turned to little Stevie. And she said, Stevie, you have a really acute sense of hearing. I just know if everybody will be quiet, you can locate the mouse for us. So she got everybody to be quiet. And within seconds, little Stevie had located the mouse, rummaging through the wastebasket. And he was able to take the mouse and set it free.
Years later, little Stevie would be interviewed. And he would say that that day, when Mrs. Beneduci recognized that he had a strength of hearing was a defining moment for him. That day, he stopped feeling sorry for himself for being blind. And he started to look at what he could do. And he started to listen to the music in his head. And sure enough, he became one of the most influential musicians of our time. His name was Stevie Morris. And if you don’t recognize that name, his stage name was Stevie Wonder.
I love that story. Because it points to how someone else pointing to our strengths can bring out and inspire the best in us. You already have those things inside you and you can discover them for yourself.
My uncle inspired me with music, with looking up, with spirituality. It wasn’t till I was 40 years old, that he inspired me to become a cantor. Because in the late ’50s, early ’60s, when I was growing up, women weren’t cantors, especially in Orthodox settings. So I never thought of becoming a cantor. But I was spiritual. And I studied Talmud, I studied Hebrew, and at the age of 40, I was a member of a conservative synagogue here in California. And my uncle came to visit me and he heard me singing in the synagogue and he said, you know, Sue, you could become a cantor and I said, Well, my voice isn’t that great. And he said, but you have the knowledge and you have a sweet voice, you just need some training. And so the next year, at 41 years old, I started training to become a member of the Cantor’s Assembly. And sure enough, before I turned 50, I joined the Assembly. And within a few years of being a canton, I found myself on the Executive Council and going to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and attending meetings. It was amazing. And that was just because he recognized and nurtured my courage and spirituality.
Another person who really got me to where I am today, standing here talking to you about positive psychology, is Dr. Maria Sirois. My husband died in 2009. For a year, I had been trying to function [while] grieving, and it got to the point where I just didn’t know if I could take it anymore. I had to take a break from my work. It was just after Passover, just after the anniversary of his death. He had been to Esalen, an educational institute in Northern California, and he brought me back this T-shirt. I’m a runner, and when I went running that morning, I didn’t notice what T-shirt I was throwing on. But I did what my Uncle David taught me to do—I looked to the heavens. And I said, Okay, what do I do? Where do I go? And I looked down, and Esalen was written across my shirt. And I didn’t even know if it was still there.
I went online and found that the one week I could get away, there was a workshop being taught by Dr. Maria Sirois, called Water in the Desert: Faith, Hope, and Awe in a Time of Loss. And I went, and it changed my life. I followed Maria around after that for years, and I wanted to take the positive psychology course. And it was never the right time. But the right time came, and that too changed my life. I think I’ve been through about 50 transformations in the last 11 years.
Last year I had COVID, I was in hospital with it. And I’m now a COVID long-hauler, and I’m in that place of “no longer and not yet”—that liminal space of not having fully recovered. I have to create my new self, and this practice the BEST-I, which I learned from Tal Ben-Shahar, is really helpful. I’d like to skip to the very last letter, the I, the Ideal self that’s already inside you, and I want to start creating with you. I’d like you to take a few moments to write down what the qualities and values of a person who inspires you. Now in front of those words in front of those qualities, write the words “I am.” I am forgiving, I am amazingly creative. I am learning. This is a quick way to create a short list of qualities of your ideal self. You see, the words that you chose are the values and qualities that you admire in someone else, and also that you’re ready to bring out in yourself. And you can create your ideal self by looking at the strengths that you use when you are at your best and admiring in someone else. In positive psychology, those are called character strengths. If you don’t know what your character strengths are, there’s a website from Values in Action: via character.org. You can take a free test and you can take it as often as you like. I take it about every three to six months, because these values and strengths change over time, and we can use them to create our ideal self.
So how do you use them? Well, I’ll tell you another story. I quit my pulpit back in 2015. It took a while for me to decide that I needed to go and that I needed to move. And I was really afraid because I had no other pulpit to go to. I was tired and I didn’t want to reinvent myself and go straight to another pulpit. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I felt that by leaving my only source of income, as well as my work, I felt like I was going to jump off a cliff. So I looked at the character strengths that I had, that Maria had introduced me to, and I noticed that one of them was bravery. And I thought well, if it means that I’m feel like I’m going to jump off a cliff, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. So I hired a paragliding instructor. And he took me 3,000 feet up to the top of a cliff in Malibu. He strapped me to him like a baby carrier. So I was facing out and I was strapped to his front. And he said, “Now, I want you to run to the edge of the cliff. And when the ground disappears beneath your feet, I want you to keep running.”
I don’t like heights very much. But I’m brave. So I start running, running, running, running, running. And as I’m getting closer to the edge of the cliff, it’s like, gotta do this, gotta do this. I’m running, running, running, running. And then I realize there’s no more ground beneath my feet. And I keep running. And I realized that I haven’t actually had to jump. I was lifted by the glider. And this for me was such an image of abundance and of something greater than me—and that I can quit my job and I will be lifted, I will be okay. We stayed up in the air for another 30 minutes. And then another strength came forward to be able to see the perspective. I was up there looking down at the Earth. And everybody looked like little ants. And it gave me a different perspective. And it taught me that I need to look at things differently. Maybe when I jump off the cliff, things will appear that I can embrace. So after 30 minutes up in the air, he said, it’s time to come in for a landing. He said, “Now when you come in for the landing, we’re going to land on the beach. I want you to put your legs straight down. And when you hit the hit the ground, stay upright, don’t go forward, you’ll be tempted to go forward, but don’t go forward, because the glider might be carried out to sea.” So I put my legs down, and we landed, and he’s behind me, and he’s like, twice my size and the gliders pulling, and I couldn’t stay upright, I fell flat on my face into the sand, and the glider started to drift out to sea. I heard him yelling behind me to the people on the beach, “Grab the glider, grab the glider!” And before I knew it, I was he was pulling me up and the glider had been grabbed. And what I learned from that is that even if I fall flat on my face, there’ll be people there to help me up. I can call out to people to help me up.
That’s how you can use a strength—you look at, what am I good at? What can I do? And how can I put this to use to create my ideal self? Now the key is to do it daily. That’s also what we learn in positive psychology, is that for something to become a habit, you have to do it every day. So this practice of the BEST-I is something you can do for a few minutes in the morning, or a few minutes in the evening, but it has to be done consistently. After I had COVID, I had to stop running. But I started to walk. And the very first day I couldn’t make it to the end of my street. But every day I went out and went a little further and a little further and got back up to four miles. So it’s those little small, incremental changes.
Breathing is the B in BEST, and I is the Ideal self. Now the E stands for excerpt. You read an excerpt, a quote that inspires you. I have one here on front of my computer: “Appreciate everything, even the ordinary, especially the ordinary,” from Pema Chödrön. I have one from Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” I hired a technician to put in my internet router, and he’s putting in the router in my office and he sees these quotes all over the place. And then he goes into the kitchen and he sees a quote from Caroline Adams Miller, from her book Getting Grit: “Do what scares you first.” And he comes back into my office and he says, “Your house is so inspiring, I just came to put your internet in, and I’m leaving with all this inspiration.” So you can inspire other people just by being who you are. And reading these excerpts can inspire you as well. And it’s not necessarily an excerpt. It can be a poem that you love. It can be an image, I have an image of Joan Borysenko’s Mandala of Angels, because angels are a thing for me. Sometimes I listen to [poet] David Whyte.
You’ve now been inspired by an excerpt or poem or whatever you’ve chosen for your inspiration image. Now, use your senses and look at something beautiful. I look outside at my fig tree in my garden. Or a picture of a condor on my wall that’s flying over the cliffs of Esalen. Look at something that really brings you joy, gives you inspiration, or listen to music—remember Stevie Wonder, he couldn’t see but he could hear, he could engage his senses with hearing. And we can touch; Joan Borysenko says that when you hold something soft to your chest, it releases chemicals that bring a sense of comfort. Taste a cup of your favorite beverage. Enjoy that taste. Smell a flower or essential oils, something that uplifts you.
I really appreciate my sense of taste and smell after COVID, because I lost my sense of taste and smell. So now when I taste something, it tastes extra sweet. Which leads me to the T in the BEST-I. The T is to offer thanks, gratitude. Sonia Lyubomirsky says it promotes the savoring of positive life experiences. It ameliorates stress and trauma. It encourages moral behavior. It helps build and strengthen social bonds. But I like what Maria Sirois says about it. She says, “Gratitude as a concept is interesting. But as a felt sense, it’s a game changer.” In fact, gratitude, thanks is so important that on the front of my book, the first chapter of the book talks about Thank you. It’s a book of questions about how to say thank you to someone, the questions to ask yourself to express the gratitude, to feel the gratitude. T can also be for thoughts. When we feel that gratitude, it changes everything.
So we’ve gone through the B, the breathing, the E, the excerpts, the S, the senses, the T, expressing thanks, gratitude. The breathing gets you in a space to be able then to read your ideal self and embrace it. I wanted to share with you the ideal self that I wrote. Back when I started my positive psychology immersion, I wrote, I am inspiring. I am adaptable. I am a visionary. I am successful at getting my message across—all those things. I didn’t feel I had them at the time. But I’m still working on them. And I realized that they have come true, I am adaptable. I’m told I do inspire. Even the technician that came to put in my internet, I inspired him. Visionary. The word in Hebrew for cantor is Hazzan, the root of which means visionary. The Hazzan is the person that takes the prayers and visions them, and is the conduit for the congregation to reach to open up their spirituality.
One of the things that I do with my Bar Mitzvah kids is I ask them, “What’s going well?” And sometimes they can’t tell me what’s going well, nothing’s going well. So then I changed the question to, “What was the best part of your day so far?” And they can always tell me something. Even the smallest thing. But what happens is that all week long they know I’m going to ask them that question the following week. So they come ready to answer what’s going well, what’s the best part of your day, and then looking for what’s going well, and they’re looking for what’s the best part of their day
Sue Knight Deutsch
Sue is adjunct clergy at Temple Beth El of South Orange County, California, and author of The Healing Hand: 5 Discussions to Have with the Dying Who Are Living. An internationally acclaimed speaker, she originally trained as a psychiatric social worker in her native England and later received her hospice training after being accepted into the Cantors Assembly. The experience of losing her husband to cancer led her to a positive psychology workshop led by Maria Sirois, and deepened her calling. In addition to her Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, Sue is a licensed facilitator of WBI’s Inspire Your Ideal workshop, and teaches on mindfulness, resilience, and how to be present for those who are ill and their families. She is an alum of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Clergy Leadership Program and an ICF credentialed Coach. For more information about Sue, visit cantorsue.com.