Tag Archives: yetzer ha’ra

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.


Question the doubt

"The Doubt" by Domingo Millan

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.


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