Worlds are colliding or so it seems. Last week I stumbled upon a form of Jewish spiritual practice that I had never heard of before called Mussar. Instead of Torah study, it focuses on aspects of character such as humility, compassion, generosity, and others that we experience in everyday life. The practice teaches you to look inward, develop awareness, and cultivate positive traits. Seems palatable.
I signed up for a class at my synagogue. I’m in a group. Can’t hurt.
At the same time, my Buddhist meditation class is beginning to focus on emotions. My meditation teacher began his talk this week with this:
Most of us have tried to excuse the difficulties in our life by finger pointing and blaming others. By doing this, we remain clean. It is always someone else’s fault or it is the circumstances. Very infrequently does it feel that the cause is self-inflicted. At some point, a maturation occurs and we realize that we are doing it to ourselves. The difficulties in our life are self-contained.
In Mussar, practitioners choose thirteen traits to work on and then rotate focusing on each trait for one week. After thirteen weeks, the cycle begins again. At the end of the year, the cycle has occurred four times. The practice includes repetition of a focus phrase that reminds you to be aware of the trait and a daily journal in which you keep track of your successes and failures, although I’m sure they wouldn’t call it that.
Both practices call for daily meditation. In Buddhist meditation we are told to give “bare attention” to whatever is happening in our mind. The focus is on the present moment and giving full awareness to anything that is occurring, whether it be an itch or a pain in the body or an emotion that arises. With all of it my teacher says, relax, observe, and allow. So there is an effort to gain clarity and to recognize what is happening in our inner world. Not to judge it or try to change it, but just to honor it.
In the book Everyday Holiness, the text we are using for the class on Mussar, Alan Morinis writes that the practice is also a guide to working on the inner life.
Because this book tracks a Jewish spiritual path, it is useful to see that the Torah acknowledges this primary choice that confronts us. In the book of Deuteronomy we are told: “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” That enigmatic image occurs only one other time in the Torah, in the variant: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart.” I understand circumcism here to be a metaphor for spiritual initiation – removing obstacles to having an open, sensitive, initiated inner life. In the first quote we are offered the option of initiating ourselves. The second quote tells us that God will do it…Initiate yourself, or God will initiate you. The Torah gives no third option.
I don’t actually believe in God, but I do see that people often turn to religion when life gets hard. Someone they love dies or something very difficult happens. I could imagine myself wandering into synagogue looking for help during a crisis. I guess I see that as God’s way of initiating your heart. Not God, but life. I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe that if I do this work now, then life won’t come at me. I know it will. I’m just getting ready. And in the meantime, maybe I’ll stop griping at my kids.