There’s a voice in my head that says I can’t really do this. This whole spiritual searching thing I’m doing, who am I kidding? I’m not a wise one. Or sometimes the voice tells me that I’ll do meditation and Mussar for awhile, but then I’ll go back to my normal life. Or if I do really become a more spiritually connected person, I won’t be able to write about it well. I’m not smart enough. So probably I should just quit. I mean really, it’s embarrassing.
Mussar teachers call this voice my yetzer ha’ra, or negative impulse. In Buddhism it’s known as one of the Five Hindrances. In both traditions, there is a recognition that as a person engages in elevating their inner life or creating mindfulness, there are inner hurdles to overcome.
The Five Hindrances include desire, which is the wish to add something more to the present moment; aversion, which is the opposite, wanting to take away from the present moment; sleepiness or sloth and torpor, which is the waning of physical energy, as in maybe I’ll go to sleep instead of meditate; restlessness, which is the impulse to get up and do something (usually associated with worry); and finally my friend, doubt, see paragraph above.
In Mussar, the yetzer ha’ra is more attuned to the individual person. It appears in moments of choice that reflect the battle lines within your character. So if you’re very clear on how you will behave in a situation, let’s say, whether to give a dollar to a homeless person, your yetzer ha’ra won’t get involved. But if generosity is a struggle for you, there might be a moment of real questioning once you reach into your pocket. It’s at that moment of choice that the yetzer ha’ra will appear and tempt you to make the “wrong” decision.
It isn’t an impulse to do harm, says Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness.
Rather, they are pointing to the inner drives that arise from our lower selves. The drives themselves are certainly not appraised as bad; in fact, they are necessary and useful for human life. But whenever you try to control or overrule those drives because of an intention of your higher nature, or when one of those drives becomes exaggerated, you will have a struggle on your hands. The yetzer ha’ra will do everything in its power to subvert your higher self and to influence you to indulge your desires.
The challenges it presents are exactly the ones you must overcome in order to grow spiritually. So in its own rude way, it is helpful.