“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that in 1863. Daniel Wegner (1948-2013), a psychology professor at Harvard University, tested it out over a century later with a simple experiment: He asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, he told them, they should ring a bell. Despite the explicit instructions to avoid it, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute, on average.

Over the next decade, Wegner developed his theory of “ironic processes” to explain why it’s so hard to tamp down unwanted thoughts. He found evidence that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—ironically, bringing it to mind.1

“Fear Not!”

A significant portion of Parshat Shoftim is concerned with matters of national importance to the Jews once they have entered the land. There are various civil laws, guidelines for the future monarchy, and among other things, instructions for waging war. One detail is about the “Kohen Appointed for War,” whose role was to give a rousing, motivational speech, rallying the troops psychologically and spiritually preparing them for battle.

The Torah instructs him to proclaim the following:

“Hear, O Israel, today you are approaching the battle against your enemies. Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them.”2

Try to picture a Bronze Age battlefield: clashing swords, clanging shields, flying spears, thunderous hoof beats. Imagine the blood and the gore, the battle cries, and the screams of the vanquished and dying. War was (and still is!) a terrible, terrifying thing.

Thinking about it that way, this pre-battle pep talk doesn’t make much sense. “Don’t be afraid!” Is that really all he had to say? How could he brazenly get up there and wave his magic wand over the people and say, “Fear not!” Fear, especially in the face of a terrifying war, is a natural emotion; you can’t just magically turn it on or off. So what is the Torah expecting from these hapless soldiers quaking in their boots?3

If the Torah told us that soldiers should fight despite feeling afraid, that would be understandable. But to expect someone not to feel fear at all—how is that even possible?

Stop Fueling Your Feelings

Rabbi Shlomo Freides was a renowned Chabad Chasid during the first half of the 19th century.4 In the late 1820s, he sent a letter to the third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, expressing worry about his declining health. He related that he felt powerless, his only resort to pray that G‑d remove his mental anguish. The Tzemach Tzedek wrote a fascinating response, first criticizing Rabbi Shlomo’s sole reliance on prayer, and then providing practical techniques to overcome his mental struggles.

Here’s what the Rebbe explained.

The Kabbalistic masters explain that every human soul comprises 10 unique attributes, or functions, which we use to explore and interact with the world around us.

The functions are broadly divided into two categories—cognitive facilities and emotional capacities. The soul expresses her cognitive and mental capacity in the human mind, whereas her breadth and depth of emotion is realized in the heart.

By default, the soul operates in a linear way—consciousness flows from the intellect into the emotions. In simple words, how we understand something shapes the way we feel about it.

The mind develops an idea, understands it, and then gauges how it feels about it. The heart comes marching in closely thereafter, developing a corresponding emotional response. You first hear about the wonders of a certain person, you get to know them, you start realizing how terrific they are, and before you know it, you develop feelings for them. You now like them.

Or, you hear about a social ill, you start reading about how rampant it has become, you begin to understand how devastating it is, and before long, you're repulsed and angry about the situation. You just went through the process of mind to heart, cognition to emotion.

Being aware of the process that produces your negative feelings provides a method of taming them, and that is to simply pull the rug out from under those feelings. If thought is the fuel that both generates and maintains your feelings, the best thing to do is to stop the flow—stop thinking about it!

To those soldiers frightened at the clashing cymbals and clanging swords of war, the first and most basic instruction was: don’t think about it.

Pull Out the Rug and Find a Replacement

But as Dostoevsky so keenly observed, it’s virtually impossible to stop thinking about something. So what was a terrified soldier supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when besieged with thoughts of anxiety and fear?

Here’s where we introduce something called the “Blue Dolphin.” If it’s impossible to not think about a white polar bear, why not try thinking about a blue dolphin instead? In other words, forget about not thinking about something; that will never work. But you can try to think about something else, and set the entire emotional process in a different direction.

This is what the Rebbe explained in that letter to his anxious chassid, and it’s something me, you, and everyone else can trot out in our lives right now.

Who doesn’t experience fear, anxiety, anger, hurt, pain, jealousy, frustration, or some other negative feeling I missed out? We all do. It’s part of the human experience.

Now, you can spend your entire life trying to root out the cause of all those negative feelings, and there’s definitely merit to that. Some matters do require excavation, whether it’s on your own or with professional help. There’s a time and place for that.

But it’s not the prescribed method for every negative feeling you may have. Sometimes, you can whip out your blue dolphin, pink cow, or even your toddler-on-a-scooter-juggling-three-balls-and-eating-avocado-toast (if that’s your thing). Whatever works for you. If you have a Torah thought, something you know by heart that you can easily pull up—even better. As you can probably guess, that’s what the Rebbe prescribed to his follower—and it’s not a bad idea for you either.

Remember: you’re in the driver’s seat of your feelings. Grab onto the steering wheel and choose which direction you want to go.5