The High Holidays are approaching.

Much is being said and written about “looking back” at our past year; evaluating our actions, admitting our mistakes.

But the essential point is: Change.

Acknowledge that something you’ve been doing is wrong — for whatever reason — is the necessary first step. But the outcome must be to do things differently in the future. If you leave this up to your own spontaneous reaction — promising yourself that you’ll “do it differently next time,” you could be setting yourself up for failure. When the time comes, the emotional pressures that led you to act as you did before might well cause you to do the same again.

That’s the “looking” part.

How do you free yourself from repeating the same behaviors?

Make a plan.

Think of yourself in the previous situation. Look at what you did. If it didn’t produce the outcome you wanted, ask yourself — “Why did I take the action that I did?” Were you stressed? Frightened? Angry? Worried?

Then ask: “What could I do differently?”

Answer in detail. Know it or not, you’re “writing the script” of your next encounter with the same conditions.

Make your plan before you’re in the same situation again.

Ever been in a theatrical production? Even in elementary school? It’s the same thing. Every word of dialogue is prepared and practiced. Every movement of every character is also prepared and practiced.

Remember your high school or college graduation? Every step was planned. Almost every word that would be spoken was prepared in advance.

If done well, everything goes smoothly.

Leading religious services is no different. When I first began leading services professionally, almost 25 years ago, I tended to be informal and spontaneous. But in working with a conventional Conservative synagogue (my first position), I found that my approach was — let’s just say — “less than welcome.” It would have been equally unwelcome in a conventional Reform synagogue.

There was an underlying structure that people expected. Variation was possible, as long as the basic structure remained recognizable and in-place.

Later, I learned to adapt services — especially High Holiday services — to the needs of individual congregations. To do so, I still needed to understand (intuitively, sometimes) what the group was expecting to see and hear. One year, for example, a synagogue president hired me to do services “kol bo” — serving as rabbi, cantor and ba’al koreh. I asked to meet with the board of directors in advance of the services, to get some feeling for the character of the group. Based on that, I could make my plan.

Following my plan, which was based on the group itself, things tended to go much more smoothly. There was a sense of “flow” to the services; people could relax into “the zone,” rather than always wondering what emotional turn the service was going to take next. Again, there’s room for variation when there’s an underlying structure that’s recognized and shared by the group and the leader.

That’s the “planning” part.

But you have one additional tool at your disposal. In its way, its the most potent one, too (although it doesn’t replace the other two tools).

That third tool is mentally seeing yourself in the upcoming situation, behaving according to your plan. This is called “Visualization.” It’s not “hoping” that everything goes OK. It’s seeing it going OK. You will probably have to do this more than once in your preparation for the change you want to make. When you do, some of the underlying feelings will re-emerge. You can work them out and see yourself acting as your own best judgement tells you to act — in advance of actually doing it.

You’ll find that this “programs” your response. It strengthens your “spontaneous” reaction when the time comes.

On a deeper level — a bit more than I can get into in this post — it’s how you invoke Divine Help in achieving your goal.

That’s the “seeing” part.

As R. Kelly wrote, “If I can see it, I can be it.” [1]

Amen to that.


[1] Kelly, R.; I believe I can Fly; © 1996