Through a Mussar Lens: Uncovering the Truth about Ourselves
Ask someone what’s more important, their bank account or their soul, and all but the most foolish would answer that their soul is far more precious to them than any material possession. It’s interesting to observe, then, how few people live by those priorities. Checkbooks get balanced, taxes are filed, performance is reviewed, the bottom line gets tallied, but who does anything remotely like that for their soul?
A systematic practice to tally the balance sheet of the soul shows up in the Mussar tradition because students are expected to do what is called literally an “accounting of the soul” (cheshbon ha’nefesh, in Hebrew). The practice has roots reaching back to the 11th century text Duties of the Heart, and its most succinct and direct expression comes from the 18th century Mussar classic Path of the Soul, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who writes:
One must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that one should flee from; and second, one must consider his actions, to discover whether they relate to the category of good or to that of evil.
The first aspect of the practice involves identifying the ideal you are pursuing, and the second is to review your thoughts, words, feelings, motivations and deeds themselves to discover to what extent what lives in you corresponds to the ideal. This format is a common theme along the way of Mussar, in which the mind leads, because the mind can understand what is possible, beyond what already is. Then practices are employed to bring the “heart” (the core of your being; your ingrained habits) closer to that ideal objective.
The way this template is enacted in real life is quite simple. Mussar students keep a journal. The basic practice is to keep a journal that is picked up every evening to record anything that happened that day that in any way concerned the middah [soul-trait] that the student was focusing on cultivating that day. In my own Mussar practice recently, I came to a week in which I had assigned to myself the practice of generosity [nedivut in Hebrew]. At the beginning of the week, I wrote in my journal my intention to practice being generous, and to focus the practice even more, I listed the six different forms of generosity I intended to practice on each of the six days of the week (excluding Shabbat):
Day 1 – be generous with money
Day 2 – be generous with food
Day 3 – be generous with time
Day 4 – be generous with possessions
Day 5 – be generous with feelings (particularly empathy)
Day 6 – be generous with words
Then, every evening that week, I got out my journal and recorded how I had done in practicing in the way I had set for myself. Rabbi Y.B. Soloveitchik pointed out that this way of practicing has deep roots in Jewish thought and practice because we find the prototype for this stock-taking in none other than God, because after each day of creation, God looked back at the day and evaluated it: “And He saw that it was good.” Since one of the guiding principles of Mussar practice is to “walk in His way,” in other words, to learn from and try to emulate the divine, so too are we to look back at our actions and evaluate them. That means doing an Accounting of the Soul.
To illustrate from the example of generosity practice that I mentioned, I recorded in my journal at the end of Day 1 that I had, indeed, stretched myself to be more generous with money than was my norm. I had put more than usual into the collection box at shul that morning. I had reached into my wallet to give money to an indigent person. And most telling of all, when I settled up the account at a restaurant and I started to enter the amount of the tip onto the credit card terminal, I caught myself putting in a less than generous amount, erased that, and started again with a higher digit.
But I had nothing like that to record on the day that I had set myself to be generous with food. That day, I had failed to fulfill my intentions. I fed no one. I had had a plan: I was going to buy a sandwich and a drink and give those items to the first homeless person I met. But I didn’t do it. I got caught up in my day and simply did nothing in the direction I intended. That went into my journal, too.
I had a different report on the day I had set to be generous with my possessions. I had a plan for that day, too: I was going to go through some closets to find clothes and other items I didn’t use any more and donate those things to the thrift store. And if you could flip open my journal to see the entry I wrote that evening, you would see written there that I did that very thing.
Accounting of the Soul is a very effective practice for creating self-awareness. That impact of this practice is described in what I wrote in Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. I identified that one of the things that comes about through the journaling of Accounting of the Soul is that what we write reveals to the conscious mind what it is that lurks in the unconscious that directs us to think, act and speak in the habitual ways we do. “These [influences] are, by definition, hidden from us, and so no matter how hard we peer directly into our inner selves, we won’t uncover anything of what lurks below the surface. But because the contents of our unconscious are perfectly reflected in the patterns of our deeds, certain images return night after night, and the patterns become unmistakable. We need this truth about ourselves to guide our steps on the path to deep, lasting, fulfilling transformation. And, in fact, as soon as we have brought to light those soul traits that might otherwise have continued to live in darkness, we have already begun to change.”
Accounting of the Soul is simple to describe, illustrate and explain, but it is surprisingly challenging to practice. Until it has been done enough to become as secure a habit as brushing your teeth before bed, Mussar journaling can be elusive. You can forget to journal, or blame being too tired, or rationalize not doing it for one reason or another. It takes discipline to keep picking up the pen (or tablet) to make those entries night after night.
Another challenge is that things happen and then get forgotten, and when it comes time to journal, they just aren’t there in memory to be retrieved. That happened to me in that same week when I was practicing generosity. I responded to a telephone solicitation by donating $90, and when I wrote in my journal that evening, I put down, “No generosity today.” It wasn’t true; I just hadn’t remembered.
That tendency to lose track of what happens to us during the day, and especially how we speak and behave, is directly targeted by this practice. As you do it more, your awareness is sharpened. Less escapes you. Less is forgotten. More lessons are learned.
You could conclude from this description that Accounting of the Soul fosters mindfulness, and this would be correct. But there is a huge difference between the mindfulness that is taught just for the sake of being more aware and the mindfulness that the Mussar practices foster. The primary difference is that mindfulness in Mussar practice is situated within an ethical framework of Torah values that defines goals and aspirational targets for the practitioner. In that sense, mindfulness is like any other potent substance, like money, nuclear power or dynamite, all of which have the potential to be put to work for the sake of good or for evil. Developing clear and sharp awareness divorced from a system of ethical guideposts and spiritual ideals can be as harmful as placing a gun in the hands of a psychopath.
Our goal in taking stock as I have described it here is not to become more mindful. Our goal is to become more holy, which the Torah tells us is the highest possibility for a human life, and for that, mindfulness is an important tool. The goal makes all the difference.
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