Why is it so difficult to do what is good? What is the relationship between living a religious life and an ethical one? How can religion fortify an ethical life? To these questions we will add one more: In a cultural milieu in which personal satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are deemed synonymous, can we hope to attain an alternate spirituality that promises to take us beyond ourselves not through intoxication, but through profound concern for the other people among whom we live?
...The ultimate threat to the soul is sleep. Once the other has called us, once we have fallen in love, we are enjoined to a life of never-ending responsibility...Learning to stay awake is central to Mussar practice.
The quotation above comes from Rabbi Ira Stone, in his book A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar. Mussar is a system of Jewish ethics and practice aimed at helping us live righteously.
He begins by outlining the basic philosophy and theology of Mussar practice. Mussar assumes that we are conscious beings, each endowed with a yetzer ha-tov (the good impulse, or impulse toward goodness) and yetzer ha-ra (the evil impulse, or impulse toward wickedness.) Both are a necessary part of our humanity. Mussar practice is intended to help us cultivate our best qualities, in order that we might resist the yetzer ha-ra's inclinations to become "forgetful" (or, in Stone's words, to fall asleep -- to ignore our obligations to one another and to God) and instead strengthen the yetzer ha-tov in being "awake."
And how do we do this? Through cultivating middot, character traits or qualities, which align us with ethics and holiness. Working on our middot allows us to develop the twin spiritual faculties of awe of God (yirat Hashem) and love of God (ahavat Hashem.) As we develop those strengths, that in turn helps us orient ourselves toward our better impulses. With greater awe and love, we can more easily make ethical choices.
The ultimate goal is the transformation and healing of all of qualities and our impulses, from negative to positive. It's a tall order, but one that I find tremendously resonant with my sense of spiritual practice. The student of Mussar, writes Rabbi Stone, may feel as though the texts at hand tell them something they already knew. The point isn't merely taking in new information: it's studying the things which we know to be true and right, but which something in us perhaps resists.
This isn't merely dry academic study. Rabbi Stone cites Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of the great lights of Mussar, in his insistence that Mussar texts be studied "with lips aflame" -- in other words, aloud and with passion.
Rabbi Stone offers a fairly standard list of middot, qualities. As I read through them, some leap out at me because they are qualities I have tried to cultivate; others leap out at me because they are qualities which still challenge me. Here are a few:
Equanimity. Rise above events that are inconsequential -- both bad and good -- for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.
Order. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly -- each and every one having a set place and a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.
Diligence. Always find something to do -- for yourself or for a friend -- and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.
Silence. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: "What benefit will my speech bring to me or to others?"
I've spent a lot of time, these last years, working on equanimity. And I know that I am happiest and most productive when my life is reasonably well-ordered. But I struggle sometimes with diligence and with silence. Sometimes I think I should be cultivating greater diligence, keeping busier, not wasting an instant of my precious life -- and other times I think: no, I'm only human, I've got a three-year-old, I need some downtime! Sometimes I think I should strive for greater silence, especially online where there's such a constant brouhaha of people gabbling -- and other times I think: no, today's world demands not that I remain silent but precisely that I speak.
And then I wonder: am I resisting a practice of improving my diligence because it's honestly healthy for me as a woman and a mother in 2013 to cut myself some slack? (Yes, almost certainly.) Or am I resisting it because I'm looking for an excuse to lose a few hours watching mediocre television and wittering around on the internet? (Yes to that too, I suspect.) Am I resisting a practice of silence because I genuinely have valuable Torah to offer to the world? (Yes, I think so.) Or am I resisting it because I'm not sufficiently spiritually-advanced to be able to sustain a practice of only speaking when my speech is really necessary? (Surely the answer to that question too is yes.)
Part of what moves me, in Rabbi Stone's writing, is the assertion that we need to remain awake and alert to our obligations because it is in these obligations to one another that we meet God. Mussar practice is a practice of self-refinement. As we refine our qualities, we become better-attuned to our love and our awe. Through love and awe, we become better able to perform mitzvot, to act with awareness that we are obligated to and for God and to and for each other. And that's how we cultivate true joy in our lives: not fleeting enjoyment, but real, deep joy. We cultivate joy through acting with mindfulness of the other, both the other beings with whom we share creation, and the ultimate Other who we understand as the source of all things.
More on this: Middot through text and practice, 2007.