Path of the Soul #1: Discovering Mussar

May 9, 2009

7 min read


How to close the gap between the high ideals we hold in mind and the living truth of how we act in life.

This new series explores Mussar, a traditional Jewish spiritual discipline that offers sound guidance to help you cultivate the qualities of your soul. Rabbi Elya Lopian, a contemporary master, defines Mussar as "Making the heart feel what the intellect understands." Mussar's teachings and practices help us work a radical inner transformation by showing us how to close the gap between the high ideals we hold in mind and the living truth of how we act in life.

That's just what Mussar did for me. I discovered Mussar at a time when I badly needed its guidance. But first, a bit of background.

I haven't always taught Mussar. In my first career, I was an anthropologist, having received a doctorate from Oxford University, where I went on a Rhodes scholarship. My studies took me to India where I lived for three years, learning two Indian languages and studying with a yoga master and meditating in the Himalayas. I wrote books and published articles and eventually got a tenure-track job at a good university.

But the routines of university life did not satisfy my soul, and so I made a leap to making films. That work kept me for 15 years, always in the independent film community, where I developed and produced my own projects.

My film work crashed to an abrupt halt in 1997 when my company hit the skids. That's not such an uncommon occurrence in the tenuous project-by-project world of independent film, but my problems were actually not the typical ones that plague that insecure industry. What ultimately backfired on me were choices and decisions I myself had made. I hadn't been nearly as honest as I should have been or as I saw myself to be. I thought I was being practical and pragmatic, even effective. But one day what I can only call my crookedness caught up with me and I was brought face-to-face with a painful vision of who I had become at that time.

I had suddenly been handed a very meaningful curriculum: my mission was to redo my life, from the inside out.

Confronting my dark side set off a crisis, though I didn't completely fall apart. In a strange way, I actually felt energized by my unmasking. I had suddenly been handed a very meaningful curriculum: my mission was to redo my life, from the inside out. My task was to make very real changes that would reach into the foundation of my deepest being

But where to get the guidance I so obviously needed? My own inner compass had clearly let me down, so I couldn't rely on that. Nor was I much of practising anything at that time. Though born a Jew, most of my life I lived as if I were only "Jewish on my parents' side" (to quote my friend and teacher Ram Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert). I was a lapsed yogi and an inactive meditator.

I started reading. I read books on Hassidism and Kabbalah. I read on the Jewish festivals and the teachings of the Torah. I read spiritual biographies. Then one day I happened on an article on Mussar as it erupted in 19th century Europe in the form known as the Mussar movement. Everything I read on Mussar spoke directly to my soul's longing for practical yet deeply transformative guidance.

The Mussar approach to living offered me two great things. One was that the rabbis who observed human life and recorded their findings developed a very acute understanding of our inner selves and how we function. Their map of the soul lined up very closely with my own experience and helped me understand the way my own life was going. And second, they had developed a discipline of transformative practices meant to help people like me and you adjust the specific inner traits that are stumbling blocks to living as the beautiful and luminous souls we all have the potential to be.

In my youth I had been drawn to the spiritual disciplines of the East. In Mussar I found a path of personal practice laid out and expressed in Jewish terms. In that encounter my soul came alive and I wanted to know and do more. I read everything I could find. Eventually, I sought a teacher and was fortunate to find a wise, compassionate, creative guide in Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway on Long Island. My encounters with Rabbi Perr form the basis for my recent book, Climbing Jacob's Ladder.

What I have learned from Mussar is that each of us comes into life with a curriculum. We are free to ignore or even deny that curriculum, as the prophet Jonah tried to do, but we are wiser to embrace it, because it describes the path of growth our soul is meant to follow. The Mussar masters knew that, and the tools they have handed down to us are the best guidance the soul could ever want.

Their insights and teachings are what we will be exploring in this series. My prayer is that through this exploration, you will gain some new (and yet time-tested) insights and tools that will help you walk the path of your personal spiritual curriculum as it lies before you, embedded in your middot ha-nefesh, the traits of your soul.

The Way of the Soul

Mussar teaches that in our essential nature, each of us is a soul.

Through the centuries the Mussar masters evolved an accurate, insightful map of the interior world that has at its center the soul. We're not so familiar with the soul today, but Mussar teaches that in our essential nature, each of us is a soul. If we do talk about soul at all, we are more likely to say we "have" a soul. But that way of putting it implies that the soul is somehow a possession or appendage of the "I."

Mussar sees it differently. Identity is not the main feature of our inner being, despite the ego's insistent and noisy protests to the contrary. The ego claims to be king, but I liken its true role to that of valet. When it is put firmly in that role, serving the soul of infinite depth as its master, our lives become aligned in a profound way we could hardly previously imagine. Each of us is a soul. That's who we are.

With only limited exceptions, everything that exists in our inner world is an aspect of soul, including personality, emotions, talents, desires, conscience, wisdom, and so on. Even the faculties we ordinarily assign to the "mind," like thought, logic, memory and forgetting, are features of the soul.

But not all facets of the soul are accessible to conscious thought. Well before Freud introduced the notion of the unconscious, the Mussar teachers were working with an understanding that there is a dark inner region that is the source of all that appears in the daylight of our lives. These interior dimensions of the soul live within us at depths that are not accessible to the rational mind.

The Mussar teachers speak of different aspects of soul but they insist that in reality, the soul is an undivided whole. Their template is holistic and sees no divide between heart and mind, emotions and intellect. All are faculties of the soul.

This topography of the inner life has been developed for a practical purpose. Mussar's goal is to help us transform so that the light of holiness shines more brightly into our lives and through us into the world. Making that journey of change is how we fulfil the promise and also the charge of the Torah, "kiddoshim tihiyu" – you shall be holy.

All the holiness we could ever hope for already exists within us, at the core of the soul.

We don't have to go far to find the light of holiness we seek. All the holiness we could ever hope for already exists within us, at the core of the soul, called neshama. This deep inner kernel is inherently holy and pure and is the seat of the "image and likeness of God" in which we are created. The neshama cannot be tainted, not even by evil deeds. We acknowledge that reality in the daily liturgy when we recite, "God, the neshama you have given me is pure."

So what is it that blocks the light of our holy neshama from shining constantly in our lives and into the world? Mussar points here to another dimension of the soul called nefesh. While the neshama is always stainless, the nefesh is the dimension of the inner life that houses all our recognizable characteristics, named the middot ha'nefesh, the traits of the soul. The neshama is unchanging but in the nefesh we find traits that can be in or out of alignment in ways that can be helpful or obstructive.

Each of us has some inner traits that are perfectly aligned but we also have certain inner qualities that are not as refined as they could be. Maimonides says that each character trait that is out of alignment creates a veil that screens the light of holiness. It is these unbalanced soul-traits that obstruct the flow of inner light. These traits define our spiritual work.

The issue is never the inner qualities themselves – Mussar tells us that all human qualities, even anger, jealousy and desire, are not intrinsically "good" or "bad." It's when we have too much or too little of a trait that our spiritual problems arise. Everyone has some anger in his or her soul but only too much anger is a problem. Desire is natural and healthy, but lust is an excess of that soul-trait. And so on with all the traits.

The Mussar classic Orchos Tzaddikim was written in the 16th century but the people it describes are still with us today:

One man is wrathful and always angry, and another even-tempered and never angry. Or, if he is, it only very negligible over a period of many years. One man is exceedingly proud, and another exceedingly humble. One man is lustful, his lust never being sated, and another exceedingly pure-hearted not desiring even the few things that the body needs... One man afflicts himself with hunger and goes begging..., and another is wantonly extravagant with his money. And, along the same lines, the other traits are found, such as cheerfulness and depression, stinginess and generosity, cruelty and mercy, cowardliness and courage, and the like.

A soul-trait can be set at too high a level – like rage in the place of anger, and hatred in the place of judgment, or too low – like self-debasement in the place of humility, or indifference in the place of equanimity. A soul-trait that is out of alignment whether in excess or deficiency creates a veil in the nefesh that blocks the inner light of the neshama. Through introspection and self-examination each of us can identify the handful of traits that are operating as hindrances in our own inner lives, and thus we pinpoint the curriculum for our personal transformative work

Where does this route lead? Toward holiness, we are told, though that's a mysterious and ineffable notion. One thing I do know is that this can't mean that we all aspire to reform ourselves to come out looking and being identical, squeezing ourselves into a mould of ideal qualities. The goal of Mussar practice is not to take on pre-ordained characteristics, but to become the most refined, perfected, elevated version of the unique person you already are. To do that, we must first come to know and embrace our soul curriculum, which means tackling each one of our personal middot, traits, that hang as thick veils blocking the holy inner light from entering our lives.

© Alan Morinis

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