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Path of the Soul #9: The Calm Soul

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Alan Morinis

Tranquility doesn't spell the end of our spiritual struggles; it's the inner quality that equips us to handle them.

How sweetly the velvety voice of tranquillity beckons:

In lush meadows He lays me down, beside tranquil waters He leads me (Psalm 23).

Jewish sources use several terms to name the soul-trait of undisturbed equanimity. The most descriptive is menuchat ha'nefesh, calmness of the soul.

"A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything." -- Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv

The calm soul is centered and rides on an inner even keel, regardless of what is happening within and around you. I liken it to surfing. Even as the waves are rising and falling, the calm soul rides the crest, staying upright, balanced, and moving in the direction you choose, though exquisitely sensitive to the forces that are at work all around.

But before we surf off into this peaceful and beguiling garden, I want to bring up one of the first Mussar teachings that caught my attention and piqued my interest in this tradition. It was from Rabbi Israel Salanter, the father of the Mussar movement, who said:

As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service.

Here we are being cautioned that "calmness and tranquility" are contrary to spiritual service. That sentiment is echoed in a more general way by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who writes in The Thirteen Petalled Rose:

The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going -- he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest -- to be someone who has lost his way. Only he whom the light continues to beckon, for whom the light is as distant as ever, only he can be considered to have received some sort of response.

These teachings tell us that the Jewish spiritual journey isn't supposed to lead you to a station called peace and tranquillity, and if that happens to be where you lodge at some point along the way, then you better realize you've been traveling on the wrong track. If you're living in a state of equanimity, you need to shake yourself awake because clearly you've fallen asleep.

This is a very wise caution. It's so seductive to think of a total escape from the storms and turmoil of life. Comfort, sweet and soft, invites us to snuggle down and drift off to sleep, and that can't be a spiritual goal. Imagine you're on a ladder. Would you want to be asleep?

Comfort can't be a spiritual goal. Imagine you're on a ladder. Would you want to be asleep?

So how can we square these cautionary teachings with a positive appraisal of equanimity in Jewish spiritual practice?

The fact is that we can have both. Having the soul-trait of equanimity doesn't spell the end of our struggles, but rather is an inner quality that equips us to handle them.

Trying situations -- large and small -- crop up in everybody's life. This is not accidental. Life is constructed to give the soul spiritual trials (nisyonot in Hebrew) that score direct hits on the traits of your inner life -- anger, compassion, greed, generosity, and on through a long list -- where you yourself are particularly vulnerable. That's what makes them tests! If you are a person prone to anger and someone steps on your toe (literally or figuratively), or you are sorely tempted to steal and someone leaves an open purse right under your nose, or lust gets you every time and the hotel desk-clerk is just your type, then here you have a spiritual test.

What's the ideal? To rise to the test and to triumph with flying colors, which would mean stretching into the middah (soul-trait) in a way that is both difficult for you and good for the soul.

What's the reality? You could go either way. That's why the test is real. If you pass a test, then that aspect of your inner being gets strengthened and you earn the right to move on -- to face yet another set of challenges. Otherwise, you are likely to encounter the same test again at some future point.

I've seen this situation play out most clearly in the relationships people take on in their lives. Once the honeymoon is over, the relationship can look like nothing but tests. Too often people run from these trials, get divorced, and then proceed to find another relationship that tests their middot -- in exactly the same way.

When you think of tests along your curriculum for growth, they are likely negative challenges -- lust, greed, rage, arrogance come to mind. But there are positive challenges, nisayonot, as well. Success, for example, can sometimes be more of a challenge than failure. Arrogance and greed can feed on success even more effectively than on failure.

So life keeps delivering tests to our doorstep, whether we happen to be living through days of darkness or when things are going well. We do ourselves a favor by embracing our struggles because they are inevitable, woven right into the plan. In fact, if we are committed to our own growth, we won't even want our struggles to end.

When you see struggle as not only inevitable but as spiritual practice, you are being true to the insights of Rabbis Salanter and Steinsaltz about staying awake on the Jewish way. This says nothing, however, about the inner attitude you adopt as you contend with your challenges. Here's where equanimity comes into play.


What guidance does our Jewish tradition offer in the way of inner calmness?

In his letter to his son, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (the Ramban) advises: "distance yourself from anger." And in the Orchos Chaim [Ways of Life] of the Rosh, we are advised, "distance yourself from pride." This phrase, "distance yourself," shows up elsewhere as well. We are surely not being told never to be angry, proud, jealous, etc., because Mussar teachers consistently assert that this would be an unrealistic goal -- everyone experiences the full range of inner states, and in and of themselves, every inner trait is neither good nor bad. More important is how we respond to what we feel.

"Distance yourself," then, can mean only two things. Either we are to stay physically far from people who are angry, proud, etc., or we are being directed to develop some kind of inner distance from the experience of our own anger, pride, and other incendiary middot.

Although there are definitely times when we ought to stand away from powerful outer forces, we should be less concerned about falling under external influences than we should the impulses that arise in us. We are solely responsible for the powerful inner forces that can lead us astray and so these are our first priority. The guidance we are being given here is to cultivate an inner attitude that creates some distance between the stimulus that comes at us and our reactions to it. We make this space by cultivating an inner stance as witness.

When you have a strong inner witness, outer influences are seen for what they are and that will help you keep from being infected by sentiments that swirl around you. That same inner faculty also keeps you from being pushed around by the forces that arise within you -- the distanced witness is not susceptible to the tides of doubt, temptation, jealousy, etc., that wash through the interior world.

Do we still face real struggles? Yes. Do the consequences matter? Yes. Do we still feel the full range of human emotions and drives? Yes. In other words, every aspect of your current life is real and important. You would be wise to embrace it because it's your curriculum. But cultivate the witness who will make you the master of the inner realm and not the victim.

The most touted way to cultivate an inner witness is through meditation. While sitting still and silent, many inner states will arise, and over time you can get quite good at living in their presence without feeling that you are a slave to any of them, whether repugnant or alluring.

I'd like to offer another way to practice to the same end, one that encourages the experience of the witness in every context in which you might find yourself. Rabbi Steinsaltz describes the Jewish spiritual experience as a constant beckoning to the light. If we take that word "constant" seriously, then the light we seek must be present at all times and in all situations, no matter how murky or even dark they appear to us.

It is the job of the witness to keep an eye out for that light. When you realize that, and assign this task to the inner witness, and strengthen that practice, then over time you will grow to be increasingly aware of the radiant Presence that is a constant in the ever-shifting contexts in which you live.

An inner eye connected to the constant light won't give you a life of fewer challenges and struggles, but it will give you equanimity from which to engage and triumph. It's hard to imagine a better way to be as you take on the trials that come your way. Perhaps that is why the Alter of the Kelm school of Mussar tells us: "A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything."

© Alan Morinis


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