The goal of this Mussar practice is to cause key concepts to penetrate deeply, far more profoundly than intellectual knowledge, to the point where the inherent truth of the concept resonates within one’s life. That is how the concept moves from being information to transformation.
The steps or stages have not changed over the centuries. They are:
Stage 1: Clarifying or reading of Mussar texts to understand a particular concept.
Stage 2: Verbalizing or reflecting on the text to find situations where the concept plays out in life.
Stage 3: Chanting to cause the truth of the concept to penetrate and so begin to lay the groundwork for closing the gap.
Chanting turns the received truth into a living truth that is clearly seen and felt as applying to me! The point is to do what is required to bring about a complete and penetrating self-realization of that which has been learned.
For example, there is a prayer in the morning liturgy that contains the line: Elohai neshama sh’natata bi, tahora hee, “My God, the soul [neshama] that you have given into me is pure.” The Hebrew reads: אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא
Stage 1: Study the phrase to grasp its literal and factual meaning. Do you have a clear understanding of what we are talking about when we say “neshama”? Or what about “tahora,” a Jewish notion of purity that has many conceptual subtleties not conveyed in the simple English word “pure.” And what about “Elohai”? Do you have a firm sense of divinity in your life, and how that relates to you, personally? It is likely that some study may be required to gain a clear grasp of the concepts embedded in this verse.
Stage 2: Next, how does this vision of the inner life come into play in your own life? Do you see your deep inner core as pure? In what ways do you honor or dishonor that profound inner purity? How might you treat yourself differently if you lived your life from such a vision of inner spiritual purity? How might you treat others differently, both because you see yourself as a pure soul, and you extend that recognition to others as well? This reflection may well reveal a gap here between the ideal that tradition holds out for you and the reality of how you live.
There is clearly room for variation in how this practice is done, and when we appreciate that the sole measure we are meant to apply to evaluate the technique is the transformative effect it brings about, we can understand that different techniques might work better for different individuals.
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