Tag Archives: Mussar

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.

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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.


Gifts

My kids are psyched. Tonight is the first night of Hanukah. Presents are hidden in my closet waiting to be revealed, one by one, over the course of the next eight evenings. At home we will play dreidel, win and lose chocolate gelt, light the candles in the menorah, and eat potato pancakes, called latkes. I’m not going to pretend it’s the magic of Christmas, but it’s all we’ve got  and it works just fine for ginning up lots of excitement in our home.

As a parent, I enjoy this holiday. I like thinking up gifts for my kids, trying to mix up toys with experiences, such as tickets to a play, and stuff they actually need like long underwear and winter socks. When I was a kid during Hanukah, I remember my mother leaving the dinner table when we were done eating and going up to her closet where she kept the presents hidden. (Of course we knew where they were.) My brother, sister, and I would be squealing and laughing waiting for her to return. I remember the look on her face as she carried the presents down the stairs. She was having fun too.

Parents give to their children and it is a joy. To see their faces as they are handed a brightly wrapped box, its contents heavy or light, noisy or silent. To help (or not) as they rip and pull at the wrapping paper. To hear them show and tell each other what they got. It ends up being a gift to yourself of happiness.

While all of this is true, the presents sometimes leave me wondering if I am fostering a kind of greed in my children or at least the idea that things and stuff can make you happy. So every year we talk about cleaning out our extra toys and clothes and giving them to families that do not have as much as we do, and every year we do something along those lines. But so far it’s always felt like something I am doing to try instill in them a sense of how lucky they are and to ward off the possibility that they will grow up to be ungrateful jerks. It’s a token act.

This year I have been thinking about it in a different way. I want to give my kids a chance to give to others because it is good for them to practice generosity. In the Mussar tradition of Judaism, cultivating generosity is about becoming more open-handed (and open-hearted) towards the world. The act of giving influences the heart, or as one classic Mussar text puts it: External motions stimulate internal ones. In the book Everyday Holiness, it is explained like this:

Applied to generosity, the principle is that giving arouses the heart to love. By obligating ourselves to give according to rules and formula, we expose our hearts to repetitive acts of giving that leave their trace on our inner lives. The very act of giving itself ultimately makes us more charitable, merciful, and loving.

I read about this idea of imprinting on the heart a few months ago and since then have looked for opportunities for myself and my children to give. My youngest son now is the one who hands the dollar to the man who sells the Real Change newspaper outside of our local food store. And I always make sure my older son has a quarter to put in the tzedakah box at Sunday school. (Tzedakah is charity or giving of money for the benefit of others.)

My children probably do not feel generous when they do these acts. But Mussar teachers say that’s just fine. In Everyday Holiness it says, “The Mussar tradition’s guidance is this: by accustoming yourself to giving, and developing the habit of giving, eventually your heart will catch up and you will become more generous and loving by nature. ‘Our hearts follow our deeds,’ is how it is put in the thirteenth-century text Sefer ha’Chinuch (The Book of Instruction).”

Giving is not only about the exchange of money. It could be time or food or anything you have to offer to someone else. I haven’t decided yet how to present giving as a one of the eight gifts my children will receive this Hanukah. However I do it, I’m sure someday they’ll thank me.


Recognizing the Good

The truth of the happenstance circumstances of my life is that I am very fortunate. I was born into a family with two dedicated parents, one kind older sister who tolerated my unending interest in her glamourous, five-year old life, and a brother-to-come who quickly became and remains one of my best friends. We lived in a house that just contained us and a dog. The lights never went out because we couldn’t afford the utility bills. Mean people from the government never stormed into our home, scaring us out of our wits or worse. Mother nature never unleashed her fury upon our heads. None of my friends ever died or disappeared. I managed to survive a rebellious adolescence. I have had interesting work experiences and along the way, met people with talent, commitment, and integrity. That is all before I met my husband and we began our life together which includes a move across the country to start anew, two healthy children, and many friends here and afar who we love.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it.

In the Mussar class I am taking we have moved on from studying humility to gratitude.  Here’s how it is described in the book, Everyday Holiness. “The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which means literally, ‘recognizing the good.’ The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours.”

A big part of practicing gratitude is learning not to take for granted the good things in your life. We forget to notice the good, Mussar teachers say, for a few reasons: We are too busy pursuing the enjoyment of worldly things, we become so accustomed to our gifts that they appear to us as permanent and unremarkable, and we are so focused on the travails and afflictions of our lives that we forget to notice that our very being and all we own are among the good things that we have to be thankful for.

It is this last point, recognizing the gift of my being, that strikes me the most. I can see that I take for granted all of the things and the important people in my life. And I can see how it could be beneficial to acknowledge all of my good fortune, both to improve my perspective on my life (are things going well or not?) and also to create a more open heart in how I relate to others.

But in my meditation practice, as I sit and focus on my breath trying to cultivate mindfulness, I keep thinking about how grateful I should be for my breath. It sustains my life. Without it, there would be nothing else. It reminds me of a story I read recently about a person who was struggling with mindfulness meditation and went to speak to a teacher about it. The student found following the breath to be boring. The teacher suggested they do a practice in which it quickly became difficult to breathe, leaving the beginner gasping. “Now is it so boring?” the teacher asked.

An essay I read recently said that when we focus on the breath, we are focusing on the life force. Life begins with our first breath and will end after our last. To contemplate breathing is to contemplate life itself. As I go about my day today, I will try to remember not to take for granted all that I have to be thankful for. But most of all, I will try to remember to be very grateful for the breath that sustains me in the most basic way.


The Ogre In Me

It all started on Saturday morning when I woke up in the worst mood. I came downstairs to join my husband and children and couldn’t stand any of them. My older son wanted to tell me everything he had thought or done since he woke up and every ounce of my being wanted to shout, “Be quiet!” My younger son came running to me for shelter from his older brother’s taunts and I tried to squirm away from his clutches. I warned my husband of the clouds over my head and he knew enough to steer clear of me.

I tried to use some Buddhist teachings to get me out of the funk. “I’m getting attached to my thoughts. Just let it go and let each moment be what it is.” Problem was, each moment was more annoying than the one that came before it. “I’m adding fuel to my own suffering. This is about me, not them.” None of it was working. I knew I was toxic to be around so I decided to clean the house.

All day I cleaned the house. You might think, “That’ll do the trick!” I thought it would. I still felt grumpy, but the house looked spiffy.

We went out that night with friends and I forgot about my bad mood. We had a great time. The next morning, the ogre in me was back. Sigh. We spent most of the day at a cyclocross bike race at a park in our neighborhood. My husband and kids all raced and we set up a tent where we grilled sausages, cooked frites, and drank beer. My husband is really into bike racing (check out his awesome blog) and this day in the park was his birthday party.

At one point during my husband’s race, while me and the kids and a bunch of friends stood cheering on the sidelines, my younger son started doing that charming testing thing that three year-olds do. It goes like this: I say, don’t go over the line onto the course. My son dips his shoulder under the tape that is strung from pole to pole along the edges of the race course. I say, don’t do it. He does it with his toe. I say, do you want to go sit in the car. He looks at me. I say, don’t. He waves his hand under the tape. And so on.

I’ve been a parent long enough that usually I can pull something besides brute force out of my bag of tricks to get us up and over this hurdle and into something more enjoyable. But not yesterday. I went into total reaction mode. Grabbed him and carried him off to another area where we were away from our friends. We didn’t make it all the way back to the car, but he got the message. He’d been removed. He was crying. I felt like crying too.

The rest of the day wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I could feel myself having little patience with pretty much everything. That night I went to bed early.

This morning started out on the same track until I was driving the kids to school when suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head. This weekend has been about the latest concept we have been studying in my Mussar class: the yetzer ha’ra. I mentioned it in another post awhile back, but this was the first time I think I’ve really experienced it. Here it is explained in the book Everyday Holiness.

We are born with free will and can choose to do good or bad, but whenever we try to do something that stretches us in the direction of good, we need to expect to encounter this inner resistance arising from the shadows. We have an inner inclination to elevate and purify ourselves – that’s the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse to do good – and what stands in our way is the built-in adversary, the yetzer ha’ra.

I think it is interesting that this tension defines the Jewish concept of free will. For me, the idea of an impulse to do good versus an impulse to do evil is a question of whether I can keep my focus on cultivating an inner life or just get swept up in the daily flow of my busy life.

Mussar teachers say it takes great strength to control the yetzer ha’ra, which by the way, is not something to be extinguished. Before now I did not understand what this meant. Now I think I do. If this mood this weekend can be understood as a manifestation of my yetzer ha’ra, then I see now the power of my inner adversary. For all the tricks I tried: cleaning, meditation, exercise, nothing seemed quite enough to overcome that grouchy, irritable, impatient side of me. To control that, harness it somehow? It’s daunting. I stand humbled, which is right where I want to be.


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