Category Archives: Mussar

Being There

As a parent, I often feel my children’s pain. They come to me crying and suddenly I feel myself getting teary too. It might be hurt feelings or a bonked head on the corner of the kitchen counter. (Damn that age when they’re just the right height for that!) My response in those moments makes a difference. If I dismiss their feelings – “You’re fine!” – they are left alone. But if I feel it too, they know that someone cares. I don’t necessarily have to fix it.

This is one way of looking at compassion, a trait we have been studying in my Mussar class and one that is also important in Buddhist teachings. Compassion is a sympathetic response to another.

While a parent’s love readily sets the stage for compassion to occur, it is not so easily accessed in other relationships. In the book Everyday Holiness, the primary text we are using for my class on Mussar, it says: “The moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul.”

In our class the other night, we puzzled over what compassion really is. Some thought it meant the ability to feel what another is feeling, to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Another thought that compassion meant to have pity on other people. Many of us were not quite sure. How does it differ from love? When is my desire to help another person compassion and when is it generosity?

According to Jewish teachings, compassion has everything to do with how we relate to others. “Compassion is an inner quality that grows within us out of the perception that we are not really separate from the other,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “We have a commonsense appreciation that we are all separate beings but the truth is that we are very much connected at several levels.” When connectedness resonates within us, we are able to feel another’s pain (and happiness) as if it were our own.

Mussar teachings say that is not enough to feel compassion. One must also act on it. “Compassion does not come into being just by feeling empathy,” the book says. “The depth and richness of the emotional connection must be translated into action that expresses concretely how truly moved you are to take care of the other. It is the action you take that turns a relationship or a shared emotion into compassion.”

I am thinking now of the people in Japan who have suffered such sudden and catastrophic disasters in the past week. I feel for the loss of human life, of homes, and of their sense of safety. I worry about the ongoing threat from the nuclear reactors. But what will I do to express that concern? According to these teachings, that is what matters.

Buddhist teachings on compassion also emphasize the call to action. “Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world,” it says in the book, Lovingkindness, by Sharon Salzberg. “Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion, is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”

The goal of our spiritual practice is to be able to understand, to be able to look without illusion at what is natural in this life, at what is actually happening for others and for ourselves. This willingness to see what is true is the first step in developing compassion. More difficult than acknowledging pain, however, is opening to it. This is the second step in developing compassion: opening to pain and establishing an appropriate relationship to it. We may have to do this a little bit at a time.

Salzberg says even very simple actions can make a big difference. “We may not be able to take away the mass of somebody’s suffering, but we can be present for them. Even if through our small act of being present, somebody does not feel as alone in their suffering as they once did, this will be a very great offering.”

I think it is interesting that the presence of another, in and of itself, can ease pain and suffering. Just being there. I guess that is why there is the Jewish custom to sit shiva after a death. In Jewish life, family and friends come to the house of the bereaved for seven days. People eat and talk, but the custom is mainly to come and sit with the person who is grieving. Just being there is enough.

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Biding Time

I’m always kind of amazed when people honk their horns in traffic. It makes no sense. Not that they should enjoy waiting, no one does. The honking is just blowing off steam.

Impatience comes up a lot in daily life. We have a sense that things should move at a certain pace or we want the instant gratification we have become so used to in our culture, and we are easily frustrated when we have to wait.

But maybe it’s worth it to cultivate some patience. In a lecture on Zen Buddhism, Gerry Shishin Wick writes, “Einstein was once asked about his creativity and he touched upon this subject of patience and effort. He said the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious researcher. His observation can apply to our own practice. We could say the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem or your question and your aspiration for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious Zen student.”

I have been thinking a lot about patience lately, what it means to have it and what happens when I don’t. In Buddhism, one is said to be practicing. We are practitioners. I think patience goes hand in hand with practicing. You are moving in a direction, but you are not there yet. You may never get there, wherever there is. Certainly, it’s not going to come instantly.

There is something a little painful about patience. This is recognized in both Jewish and Buddhist teachings.

Rabbi Abigail Treu, a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes: “Having patience means not only the ability to slow down in our fast-paced world, but also controlling our impulse to grow frustrated when things are not moving quickly enough or going our way.” To do this, she says “we find a way to trust in a positive outcome…to see what good might come out of a difficult or frustrating situation.”

In the Mussar book Everyday Holiness it says, “Patience is not just about waiting, it’s about bearing.” Enduring and tolerating are also words that come into play.

In the lecture on Zen practice that I quoted above, it says: “To learn to live with patience and not be drawn into anger you must let go of the notion that you can live without pain, suffering, disappointment, injury. Here we are asked, encouraged, to practice living with life’s discomforts.”

Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the States had this to say about patience in an essay on Right Understanding:

Work to nourish that quality of constancy, of what’s called, “a long-enduring mind.” It’s not a short game. You know, we’re used to instant food, drive-through, tell the lady through the speaker, “Yes, I’d like a Big Mac, fries and a coke,” or whatever it is. You drive around and you get it and you can eat it while you’re driving; you don’t even have to stop. Instant gratification. This is not an instant gratification thing. It is the longest thing you’ll ever do because it’s your whole life. It’s really to discover how to transform your life from being on automatic pilot to being conscious, to discovery, to play. And it’s wonderful. So it means that you don’t complete it, you actually learn how to play the game and make your life into that.

Patience is having the willingness to hold on to a certain amount of tension. To stay where you are even if it’s uncomfortable, just to see what happens next. Something will, of course. I got interested in this topic after hearing a beautiful talk by Kamala Masters. “Patience is generosity,” she said. “It is a gift of safety and reverence.” I immediately thought of being a parent when she said this, how having patience is an act of generosity to children. I love that.

“Patience is a strong quality,” she said. “You have be humble to step back and be quiet, take a look at the situation and gather more information, then you take the next step forward.” Or as Einstein would say, grope in the dark.


Rules of Engagement

Trust is usually something we think of in terms of other people. Can I trust this person? That is really about whether or not they are honest or have the integrity to do what you think they should do even if you’re not around to see them do it. Trust is also something we engage in when we step into an airplane and buckle up while others prepare to launch this behemoth into the sky and land it safely somewhere else. We feel betrayed if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.

But on the spiritual path, trust isn’t so much about other people. In Judaism, the concept of trust relates to our limited perspective. “We can only see part of the picture of life at any time, and often only a small part, and so we draw faulty conclusions about what something means,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. We can’t see the big picture — for example, how something that seems rotten will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. We cultivate trust, in part, so that we don’t put too much stock in our immediate reactions to life. This is considered to be trust in God.

There is also a sense of a lack of control over our lives, which raises questions about taking initiative. “It is right to put all your powers into taking action to better your own situation and that of the world because you understand and accept your real responsibility,” the book says. “Your obligation is to act, not to determine the outcome.”

The concept of trust comes up in Buddhist practice too. In the book, Smile at Fear, Awakening the True Heart of Bravery, Chogyam Trungpa writes, “The reservoir of trust is a very simple, straightforward idea. If we accept a challenge and take certain steps  to accomplish something, the process will yield results — either success or failure.

Trust means that we know that our actions will bring a definite response from reality. We know that we will get a message. Failure is generally telling us that our action has been undisciplined and inaccurate in some way. Therefore, it fails. When our action is fully disciplined, it usually is fulfilled; we have success.

Trust is being willing to take a chance, he says, acting with confidence that the phenomenal world will respond. “The fruition of our action will always provide us with information,” he writes. “Such trust in the reservoir keeps us from being too arrogant or too timid. If you’re too arrogant, you’ll find yourself bumping into the ceiling. If you’re too timid, you’ll be pushed up by the floor. Roughly speaking, that’s the concept of the reservoir.”

“We begin to feel that we are dealing with a rich world, one that never runs out of messages,” he writes. “The only problem arises if we try to manipulate the situation in our favor.”

I am fascinated by this. Scientists look for the facts, the laws of nature. This seems to me to be about the rules of engagement, trusting in what he calls the dynamic process. “The ancient Chinese Book of Changes, or I Ching, often talks about success being failure and failure being success. Success sows the seeds of future failure, and failure may bring a later success,” he writes. “Whether the situation brings success or failure, it brings an unconditional good understanding.” I can live with that.


Guarding My Tongue

Like most Americans, I am deeply dismayed by the shooting of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Arizona this weekend. Six people died in the attack, including a nine year-old child. This is a terrible tragedy.

Whether or not the man who committed the crime subscribed to the divisive political ideology that is rampant in our culture, his act has sparked an acknowledgment that the conversation around us is, in fact, dangerous.

As kids we were taught to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” According to spiritual teachers of both Jewish and Buddhist traditions, this is wrong. In fact, hurtful speech carries more power and can do more harm than a single act of physical brutality. In the Mussar text, Everyday Holiness, it says, “Speech is judged more powerful than the sword because a physical weapon can injure only those in proximity, while speech can kill at a distance.”

The first time I read this, I wasn’t sure what it meant. I think I understand it better now. Language that calls for bringing down the government or suggesting that certain districts be “targeted” may be said aloud once, heard by many, and lead to numerous acts of violence. “The primary Mussar guideline for speech is not whether something is true or not but rather what impact our words will have,” the book says. “If our speech may cause people financial, physical,  psychological,  or other harm (or even anxiety or fear), then we are enjoined to hold our tongues.”

The kind of speech in the news today is that of people like Sarah Palin and others in the Tea Party movement who have used violent imagery to get out the vote. They will likely deny that they are responsible for what happened. We should not expect them to do otherwise.

This is discouraging, in part because it feels like there’s nothing we can do. We can express our outrage. We can say it has to stop. But in the end, there is a feeling of powerlessness.

Except that we can do something. It’s true, we can’t change what other people say and write, but we can look at the implications of what we ourselves are saying. I want to tell Sarah Palin that she should guard her tongue, but maybe instead I should think about guarding my own.

In Buddhism, this is called Right Speech. It is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. In this lecture by Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan, she explains the concept.

The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech.  He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.”  In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip.  Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.

Buddhists have an interesting explanation of why thoughtless speech can be so harmful. Again, Phelan: “I think one of the characteristics of speech is that by talking to others about someone else, we have a tendency to reduce the fullness of that person to a category,” she says. “So, the person becomes ‘that’ kind of person. You know, ‘what would you expect from someone like that?'”

The harm comes from turning the other person into a fixed idea. “It is sort of like taking one frame from a movie and using the picture of that instant to be the whole person, freezing both our opinion of them as well as the way we respond to them,” she says. “I think the more we talk about someone with a third party, the more our opinion becomes solidified, and we mistake this solidity for reality. So, speech can be a conditioning agent whereby we lose our freedom of both perception and response. We, ourselves, become fixed and unable to grow out of a particular opinion of and response to another person.”

If I want to think about what happened this weekend, instead of laying blame on whose actions caused this tragedy, I am going to try to focus on the unimaginable grief and worry of the people injured and their families. I’m going to try to think about the incredible power that words can have to teach, to heal, to comfort, and connect, but also to do real and lasting harm. I am going to try to learn something about guarding my tongue.


Just Do it

Seize the day. Go for it. Just do it. These are slogans, an ad campaign, even the title of a movie. They resonate ambition, courage, and success. That’s why we like them. They’re also a good introduction to the trait of enthusiasm that we have recently been studying in my Mussar class.

According the book Everyday Holiness, “The soul-trait of enthusiasm or zeal carries the sense of awakened energy…The lesson for us here is that merely showing up in life just isn’t enough.” Plodding through our daily routines dodging the slings and arrows and seeking comfort here and there just isn’t going to cut it on a spiritual path. You have to try, stretch, push yourself along.

The Buddhists agree. They would call it bringing energy and intention to your practice. Sitting on the cushion, your back a little slumped, your mind bored and wandering isn’t going to get you to enlightenment. You have to focus, seek, listen.

What does trying mean? For me it starts with the question, “If not now, when?” I read a book about a year ago called How to Live, A Search for Wisdom from Old People. It was a written by a Henry Alford who interviewed a bunch of people who were all 70 or older. I was struck by one woman who commented that you should act now in your life. There is no later. Now is later, she said.

Enthusiasm or zerizut is like that. Do good deeds now. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by. And do it til it’s done. “As important as it is to be quick off the mark, it is equally important  to sustain energy throughout the whole enterprise,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “It takes enthusiasm not to bog down, wander off, or pull up midcourse but to press on to finish the good deed with vigor.”

There is another aspect to this trait that I think is really interesting. It is the idea that laziness is connected to our physicality. That the heaviness of the body or of gravity keeps us from acting with zeal. To cultivate enthusiasm is to counter that heaviness with the lightness or weightlessness of spirit.

I cleaned out my closet last weekend. There were a lot of extra clothes in there, things I don’t wear and honestly some that I had forgotten I owned. This was definitely one of those, I’ll do it later projects. It was interesting to see that while the motivation for diving in and finally doing it was to practice enthusiasm, I thought a lot more about gratitude and generosity. I ended up sorting through my clothes with the idea in mind that someone else might really be able to use these items. I felt grateful for the comforts I have enjoyed in my life and I felt excited to share what I had with others.

The project is not entirely done. I did bring several bags over to the local Goodwill. And there are a couple more that I plan to donate to a transitional housing facility for homeless women. I love walking into my pared down closet now. It is lighter and so am I.


Making Progress

In the beginning of Jubuhoo, I had the vague sense that I could be doing a better job of living. I could be experiencing my life more instead of chattering in my head while my life was happening around me. I sensed that I could be kinder, more patient. I felt that somehow I was missing the big picture.

Since then I’ve taken classes on Buddhist meditation and on the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar. I’ve been surprised at how in sync they are with each other. They are not the same, but I am finding it is possible to explore both with ease. It makes me think that the spiritual path is what it is. Over time people have developed different methods of cultivating an inner life, but ultimately we are all human beings with vices and virtues.

The one issue that I haven’t really known how to deal with so far is the Jewish concept of God. In practicing Mussar, it is not necessary to invoke God like it is with Torah, which is the foundation of traditional Judaism. Mussar is about becoming the kind of person who can follow Torah with deep authenticity. I’ve kind of avoided the Torah piece and just focused on becoming the kind of person who does anything with deep authenticity.

In Buddhism, instead of God there are the basic tenets called the Four Noble Truths. In a recent class, I began to see how simple, but no less profound, these truths really are. While the Jewish God is lofty and omnipotent and for me not easily accessible, these Buddhist concepts seem just fundamentally basic. Some people describe Buddhism as grim. The more I learn about it, the more I think it is about seeking the truth. Looking it in the face and taking it on the chin.

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. It means we will all get sick, grow old, and die. As much as we may fight it, it is true for every one of us that sickness, old age, and death will happen. Impermanence is also a fact of life. People leave town, houses burn down, great jobs are won and then lost, children grow up and leave home, wonderful pets live with you and then run away. Life changes whether we like it or not.

All of that may be true, but why would I want to dwell on it? Buddhism recognizes the suffering we all experience, sometimes in a big, clear way, and sometimes in the vague sense that we’re not quite as happy as we’d like to be. This is the Second Noble Truth – that our suffering lies in our very deep desire to be happy and secure. We all want the good things in our life to remain and we want the bad things to take a hike. We crave for life to stay as it is or we want it to be different. This constant craving or rejecting what is happening is the source of our suffering.

The Third Noble Truth is that there is a way to end our suffering and that is through acceptance of life on life’s terms. It starts by recognizing the truth of the first two Noble Truths and then aligning your life with mindfulness, benign actions, and acceptance. The Fourth Noble Truth provides guidance on how to align your life in such a way. I will write more on that in the future.

Going back to the beginning of this post and why I started Jubuhoo in September, I think this is the big picture I was missing. These Four Noble Truths make sense to me. While I have learned so much from Mussar and plan to continue studying and practicing the cultivation of wholesome traits, I don’t see myself suddenly realizing that I believe in the Jewish concept of God.

I feel gratitude to my teachers over the past few months and to the people who have taken the time to write the books I have quoted here. I am also grateful to the friends and strangers who have embraced this blog. I hope you all have peaceful holidays with your friends and families. I look forward to studying and writing more in the next year.


Worry

Once again, I have entered stormy waters. Life changes and suddenly it becomes difficult to pass through whatever is occurring. In my twenties, I experienced the painful ending of a relationship and sensed for the first time what it meant to ride along in rough seas, holding on to the sides of my rickety boat, and hoping not to tip over. I made it. Now again, I find myself struggling for steadiness.

We all experience this; it is life. People get sick, jobs are lost, and in my case, my child needs help. I want to preserve his privacy so I won’t talk about what is happening with him. This post is meant to look at how my inner life responds when my outer life is difficult.

Outwardly, I am taking care of business. Making decisions, getting educated, and trying to act in his best interest. Inwardly, I am grieving. I feel sadness, which in terms of mindfulness, is an emotion I can hold. But what is most difficult to manage is worry. I feel mindfulness slipping away from me because it is overpowered by my thoughts. The Buddhists call it restless mind. “Restlessness is agitation,” say Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith, in their book, The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation.

Restlessness seduces us into thinking that if we are restless enough, we will somehow make things better. It never occurs to us that being agitated or worried contributes nothing at all to improving the situation. Agitation just breeds more agitation.

That is the seduction of worry, at least for me. It seems that if I worry, I am holding on to the situation. I am fixing it by holding it. But I think that really I am just exhausting my energy like a mouse on one of those insane exercise wheels.

The writers suggest trying to see anxiety as the hindrance restlessness. “We learn to trust that if we let go and direct our minds back to our breath or the posture of our bodies, such as sitting or standing, we become much more effective because we develop steadiness of mind, which sees clearly what needs to be done.”

Seeing clearly what needs to be done is exactly what I am after right now. It is the reason I am worried. I am not sure what to do. In writing about acceptance, Joseph Goldstein, a respected Buddhist teacher in the West, says that struggle comes from not accepting what is present. In each moment, accept what is happening without wishing to change it in any way. Just to see it clearly.

In Mussar, we are learning about silence, both in restraint of speech but also in contemplation. “The soul needs silence as the body needs sleep,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. “Sleep to refresh; silence to cleanse. Sleep to dream; silence to awaken to the deeply real. The Talmud points to this in saying, ‘There is no better medicine than silence.'”

In my morning meditation I am trying to allow my worrying mind to quiet down and to listen to the silence within me. My day is noisy. My mind is noisy. But there is this space that is silent and I am grateful that I can rest there momentarily.


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