You can use a new-old self-awareness practice… to become a better person
My Journey with Mussar
By BETH SABO NOVIK
Beth Novik of Saratoga Springs does transformational workshops, corporate speaking, massage therapy, and wellness coaching
“What the heck is Mussar?” was my response when my friend Martina suggested that our Jewish study group begin a mussar practice. Now, four months later, I’m learning, changing and growing through this Jewish self-help practice.
A practice and study based on the idea that we are first and foremost divine souls, Mussar helps us break through barriers that prevent us from living from our divine light that is connected with God. We use meditations, contemplations, exercises and chants to unlock and release our patterns that keep us from being whole. Often you’re supposed to attach a sticky note to your mirror with a saying or mantra regarding the trait you’re working on, to remind yourself first thing in the morning.
Was Ben Jewish?
Influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s system of self-improvement, Mussar suggests working on one trait at a time. The traits are things like…trust, enthusiasm, generosity, patience, order, and compassion. While mussar has been traditionally practiced by Orthodox Jews, there has been a recent surge of interest from the Conservative, Reform and secular Jewish communities. Alan Morinis is a secular Jew who studied mussar and wrote books on the topic such as Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and Every Day, Holy Day, increasing its accessibility and popularity.
In my group we started with the trait ‘order’…which was not easy for me. I have always struggled with that one! Why couldn’t we start with enthusiasm, or compassion? Those would be a little less daunting for my messy, unorganized self. Even though my practice wasn’t perfect (I didn’t chant every morning, and evening journal entries were sporadic) simply focussing on the trait of ‘order’ every day was very powerful.
In my group we are staying with a trait for 3 weeks at a time…some people work on one trait for one week and repeat it later. A lot of what I did was simply notice my relationship to order. I observed what emotions come up for me, and thought about my parents’ relationship to order and how that compares and relates to.
Exploring these things has really changed me. I was able to let go of a lot of the static and emotional baggage I had around keeping my house in order. I’ve improved on keeping my communications in order, returning e-
mails and phone calls in a timely manner. I realized I was carrying old resentment that I learned as a child…and through mussar I was able to let a lot of it go. It was pretty amazing. I was impressed!
The season of Passover is a perfect time to think about the process of spiritual development. I enjoy looking at the story of our exodus from Egypt as a parable of our journey to enlightenment. I believe we are all on a journey to discover our truth and become more in line with the divinity inside us.
The Hebrew word Mitzraim (Egypt) can translate as “a narrow place.” I like the idea that Passover is about the journey we are all on to free ourself from the narrowness of our own self limiting beliefs and head toward the freedom of being open to the beauty, joy and love that make up the fabric of the universe.
We Don’t Have To Finish
This way of looking at Passover as a spiritual journey to freedom is the only way I have made sense of the idea of dayenu. Dayenu means “It would have been enough.” It’s hard to imagine that if we had perished at any point during the exodus that that would be OK…but that’s what the song says. “If you had brought us out of Egypt, but not parted the sea…dayenu. If you had parted the sea but not fed us manna in the desert…dayenu.” In a practical sense, it’s a little hard to stomach…let’s face it, we’d all be dead. But when you look at the story as a model of our individual spiritual journeys, dayenu becomes an acceptance that wherever we are in that process… it’s OK. Our journey to inner godliness might not be completed in this lifetime, but Passover is a time to understand that we are all currently in the process of our own exodus from the beliefs that bind and enslave us…and any progress toward a more spiritual life is good progress. Mussar, and its one-thing-at-a-time approach is a perfect tool to help us on this journey.
The system of concentrating on one thing at a time resonates deeply with me. Last year I started a video series called “One small thing…that could change your life.” As a leader of personal growth workshops I’ve long been a proponent that changing one thing can change everything. Our life is a series of decisions we make one after another. When we bring consciousness to those decisions and explore their roots in order to change them, we are able to change our whole life experience. I give workshops on stress relief and increasing joy. In these workshops I love teaching short, easy things you can do to make yourself feel better…like looking at your loved ones and smiling every time you see them, or taking three deep relaxing breaths every time you’re at a red light.
These techniques can be very helpful and empowering, but mussar goes even deeper to change our understanding and beliefs about ourselves and our relationships. I always thought that I struggled with responsibility. When we did ‘responsibility’ through mussar I saw very clearly that I am extremely responsible and I was simply carrying around the false belief that I wasn’t. My confidence grew, and I now step into responsibility easily and successfully.
When you want to make changes in yourself it can be confusing to know where to start. I sometimes get overwhelmed with how much there is to do and what all the options are. It’s easy to just throw up your hands and not do anything. Instead…do one thing. Mussar is a great way to change one part of yourself at a time. Self-exploration is never easy, but mussar has been a simple system that has profoundly changed how I am in the world and how I am in myself. I am so grateful.