Monday, August 17, 2009

The Path to Contentment- (Facing our Flaws)

Last week, we learned the value of this special time of year to be learning Mussar. Of course, it’s important to learn and practice it throughout the year. However, this is the time of year we are preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is the time of year when everything we learn each week in our vaads and practice daily in our lives, comes together in one of the most profound statements from Rabbi Salanter… “Being alive is recognizing one’s flaws.” We cannot experience life to the fullest or receive the most from it or live to our greatest potential, as Hashem desires of us, if we do not recognize our own flaws. That is the beauty of learning mussar. Surprisingly, it is a joyous experience. Most people live afraid to face their flaws. We live with false images of who we really are. There is a pure goodness exists within us but it is eclipsed by the material and physical realm that rules our existence. We do not know that we have a goodness that holds for us a precious place filled with peace and joy. When we find that place, we experience our lives at the richest and most fulfilling level that we can attain- our true potential, pure goodness, as we are created in the image of Hashem.

Before we became students of Rabbi Miller (and began working weekly in the vaads), we were living distant from ourselves. When we become mussar students, the first lesson taught us to recognize and acknowledge that there is something that exists deep within us that is pure and good- the holiness of how we were created, in the image of Hashem. There exists within us, attributes of Hashem. We can act, think and speak in a kinder, more loving, gentle way. We are learning that we can actually live each day knowing this and feeling a connection to it. As strange as that may seem, it is also appealing, beautiful and attractive. Even the thought of it, touches our soul.

Before Mussar, we didn’t live to our potential. What exactly is our potential? It is living to be our holy best. It is living according to the goodness of our nishama (our soul). All our behavior (our thoughts, actions and speech) come from this goodness. It is something that we never knew existed. We thought we were doing our best. We always tried to do our best. But, that was our best, as we knew it then. It was buried under layers of negative character traits that we had developed. We were living with our flaws, yet we were not able to see clearly exactly what they were. We were not recognizing them. Now that we do, we see a tremendous difference. It is a truly enriched and enlightened way to live your day.

It can be a joyful experience to face one’s flaws. We must face our flaws in order to be able to live to our greatest potential. When we do so, we view it as an opportunity to improve our character traits. Then, we can acknowledge that the recognition of our flaws helps us to become better people. We can treat others with love, respect, honor and compassion. This in turn, makes us better people. We are behaving with character traits that are rooted in goodness. We are acting according to the goodness of our nishamas. When we live facing our flaws, we live a richer, fuller life filled with greater self- worth, peaceful relationships, complete contentment and joy.

Mussar learning teaches us how to face our flaws. We do this without guilt or shame but view it as an opportunity to improve our character traits. It is only then, that we can clearly see how we behave, apply the wisdom we have gained from the Mussar lessons (in the vaads) and practice it daily in our lives. Living this process creates a true transformation. We are proof. It
is happening in the lives of many of the vaad members. Incredibly, some have expressed experiencing a change even after attending one vaad meeting. Once you begin the process, you immediately receive the benefits. It is a logical, pure and peaceful process. It is non-threatening, non-invasive and non-confrontational. Most of us (before Mussar) were living
uncomfortably comfortable. We live accepting that there is no better way to be and that’s as good as it gets. Now, that we face our situations head-on and apply all our mussar lessons, we realize how uncomfortable we were and do not have to accept that. We can live striving to improve our character traits. This greatly improves all our relationships and the quality of our lives, all day, everyday.

Lessons of the Parables of Ben Ish Hai:
The text tells the story of two neighbors- one rich and the other poor. The rich man lived with excess, whatever he wanted he had and more of it. The poor man lived with the bare essentials. He had little and felt truly content. The rich man was thin and frail while the poor man was robust and healthy, always glowing with joy. When the rich man asked the poor man “why am I so thin and frail and you are so healthy and full of vitality?” The poor man pointed out that the rich man had an angry and irritable nature and that he constantly loses his temper with his servants and children. He said, “anger weakens the body and takes a great toll on one’s health. Your insatiable desires cause you to always be in a state of jealousy, wanting more, unable to satisfy all of your passions, this causes you anguish and worry.” The poor man then stated, “I have an easy-going nature. I see to it to never get angry. I am happy with whatever Hashem gives me and then feel truly blessed. I have no jealousy. So, I have peace of mind, which is the foundation of good health.

This text provided us with many important and powerful lessons. First, the text teaches that personal happiness is only dependent on one’s purity of character. We can easily succumb to the belief (based on societal pressure (i.e.; advertising, television, movies, fashion, etc.) that our happiness is dependent on the above mentioned factors or that one’s economic status rather than the purity of our character is the key to happiness. We live desiring our next purchase, always wanting more. Do we ever feel truly content with what we do have? Are we looking at someone else’s life and wanting what they have? The Torah warns us not to give into the negative character traits such as jealousy, greed and conceit. These traits are improper and destructive to our well-being.

The next lesson was about anger. When we realize (and practice) that we can live without anger, we will instantly transform our lives. Anger is an ego reaction. It is the yetzer hara attacking us, and the person we are angry at. It is mean and hurtful to all those involved. No good ever comes from it. It is filled with judgment, criticism and destructive labeling (ie; lazy, immature, disorganized, irresponsible, etc). When you look at someone you love (or care about) with these negative thoughts, you do not have a positive vision of that person. We don’t want to be looked at that way. Nor do we want to look at another person (especially someone we love) that way. It interferes with the quality of the relationship. Sadly, it is most harmful to us and it interferes with our ability to achieve true contentment, inner peace and joy.*

We also acknowledged that living with gratitude is the antidote to jealousy. We may, for a brief moment, have a thought of something good happening to someone else, that we may also want for our self, but it doesn’t stay with us. It quickly disappears and turns into gratitude accompanied by a realization of knowing that this is exactly what Hashem has granted us. We are probably not seeing the whole picture. We usually, just have a tiny keyhole view into someone else’s life (as well as, our own). When we live with trust, faith and connection to Hashem, we can feel a true sense of contentment, knowing that what we have is created just for us. It is ours and only ours and it is just the way it is supposed to be. We don’t need as much as we think we need in order to achieve pure happiness. All we need is to overcome our negative character traits, live with gratitude, faith and trust in Hashem…. then, we can experience healthy, joyful bodies and souls.

This week the avodah (homework) was to read the text once a day. Then, to customize the lessons just for your own personal situations and how you can apply the lessons in the text to improve the negative character traits that may be interfering with your ability to achieve contentment with what you have.

Due to the length of this blog, the situations will appear later in the week. The situations for this week are longer than normal. They are pertaining to how to work through a conflict and achieve a peaceful resolution.

May we all be blessed with feeling truly blessed with what we have.

*this does not mean that one does not address conflict situations. Rabbi Miller teaches a method in which to deal with conflict through positive outcome resolution skills that we learn in the vaad. More about this can be found in previous blogs and will be discussed later this week in the situations.

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