My Mussar Journey
My wife, Adriaan, introduced me to Mussar when she bought me a copy of Climbing Jacob’s Ladder at a retreat in December 2004 at the former Elat Chayyim in Accord, N.Y. I immediately read it and asked, “How does one engage in this practice?” because I sensed this would be great for me, addressing directly my flaws, hidden and explicit, and longings for a better life and existence.
I then looked up Alan Morinis and The Mussar Institute online and discovered that Web-based Mussar programs were being offered beginning in January 2005. I immediately enrolled, and thus began my immersion and commitment to a daily Mussar study and practice. It began with online material emailed biweekly, an online va’ad that eventually faded out, and chevruta study by telephone with Gerry Owen of Santa Monica, Calif., a weekly study relationship still in place.
I was seeking and receptive to a transformative practice that ideally was rooted in a Jewish framework for several reasons. First, years earlier, at Hobart College, I was fortunate to be engaged in one of the best Western civilization courses in the country which was based on reading original texts, lectures and intense course work. For a secular, lightly Jewish educated 18-year-old, it was a stunning and revelatory experience to discover that Judaism is one of the major foundations of our culture, values and codes (along with Greek philosophy). I jokingly say that I had to go to an Episcopal college to learn about Judaism.
The immediate connection to Mussar and to Alan was that I also had a major business reversal as a real estate developer that put me into a state of shock, anger, fear and bitterness, contaminating my most important relationships with my wife and our two children, Moses and Noah, and putting me into a state of paralysis and inhibition in my work.
Mussar absolutely works to help one become a higher conscious being, more effective in all of our relationships, and able to have connections in all of our worlds—profession, community, synagogue—to have a zivug (“joining”) with HaShem and the most important people in our lives. One should engage in a daily, consistent practice of affirmations, contemplations, text study, chevruta, va’ad, prayer, and journaling. While I have been very puzzled why some people do not, upon reflection, and with compassion, I realized I also was blessed with two very important experiences as a young adult that provided the early training, habit and discipline that have allowed me to stay fully engaged in a daily Mussar practice.
At age 26, I started both classic Freudian psychoanalysis and Okinawan karate, which opened up the door to mindfulness about physical health and exercise that can only be achieved by consistent, nearly daily activity. Both of these activities required commitment to work diligently and the discipline to work toward goals of growth, change and maturity, and the ability to uncover and confront fears.
The core issues that I had to deal with were the personal hurt, anger, and fear that I carried constantly as a result of massive business mistakes. A mask of arrogance and denial disguised my low self-esteem from me. The process of change and awareness began the first week of my initial Mussar program in January 2005, in the first chevruta study, when Gerry said (from the particular text) that this is about the Other and the other. The Other being HaShem and the other the particular person at the moment to whom we seek to engage and connect, in particular my wife and children. I learned to connect to the Divine, and walk in the ways of HaShem, by the improved quality and attention to relationships on all levels and all areas of my life.
Mussar practice furthers and encourages a “God Consciousness” and desire to connect to HaShem and, at the same time, helps build a solid foundation of character, a more connected and present person. Fortunately, the daily prayer and Mussar practice work like the dripping water Rabbi Akiba recognized as causing deep change, and I became aware of the ethical and central component of Jewish spiritual practice, the cultivation of compassion and forgiveness. The first level for me was forgiving my brother for attempting to take advantage of my financial troubles. This was very fortunate since it freed me from a constant inner rancor and bitterness toward a family member and thrust my attention to the source of my mistakes, which was me as the decision-maker. Ultimately, the greatest and most difficult act of forgiveness is to forgive myself for my earlier failings.
The direct benefit of this forgiveness for me is that I have shifted from a self-focused and narrow world to one that is truly a present and mindful giver, to HaShem and to the most important and immediate people in my life, my wife and children, and from there an ever-expanding circle. Having dealt positively with my pain through compassion and forgiveness, I was able to become a deeply present listener, companion, guide and friend.
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