Monday, January 25, 2010

ANI SHALOM

I am peace.
Isn't that all we want? Especially now? We want peace in our relationships, peace in our homes, peace at work and peace in the world. Aren't we tired of all the conflict? Sometimes it becomes overwhelming and exhausting. There was no way out.... until now.
Mussar is the path to peace.

What does it mean to "be peace?" It means that above all, peace is the priority. It is the source of everything, in all our situations. When every situation is rooted in peace, everything changes. Your attitude, your perspective and your goals are being steered in a different direction. The way you think, speak and act towards others also changes. You are rooted in peace, it is your path and your goal.

The petty quarrels, nonsensical fights, disputes, conflicts and arguments (all the same but with different names) are for what? What do we actually accomplish? Better yet, what do we think we are going to accomplish? Does anything good ever come from it?

This lesson presents us with the ultimate challenge in Rabbi Salanter's teachings.... to become the "MASTER OF YOUR EMOTIONS." Maybe you can only become a "Master" when you are able to "become peace." Peace must prevail over everything. Nothing else matters, except peace. Imagine being able to put aside all those unnecessary emotions (brought on by the yetzer hara/evil inclination) that get hold of you and cause you so much harm. Imagine how incredible that would feel. It's so exciting to imagine that it's even a possibility! Who ever knew there was another option? Previously, there were two ways to handle a conflict (or should I say mishandle); enter into it or walk away from it and be left with harbored resentments. Both options are unpleasant, stressful and cause distance and destruction in relationships.

Of course, we are not saying that if you start learning and living mussar, you will never have another conflict. Some of you may become true "Masters" and never have another conflict. But, for most of us who become mussar students, those old conflicts will take on a whole new light. Something you have never seen or experienced before.

Loving peace is a true strength. Society often teaches us that strength is the one who is able to fight harder and better. The stronger, louder or more articulate one wins the battle.
Mussar strength is the desire to value peace over everything. It is a quiet, yet powerful strength that keeps those harmful words in, instead of letting them out. Mussar strength is about being able to PAUSE and think before speaking. Mussar is about being in control of your emotions... instead of letting your emotions be in control of you. That's strength. It's also peace.

This doesn't mean you can't have your own opinion, differing thoughts or an alternative style of dealing with situations. It means that once you "become peace," you handle your situations in a completely different manner. You can say "no" and express yourself in a way that does not cause harm to another. Your words are gentler and not oppositional. You have a great deal of respect for the opinions and perspective of others. There is no need to kick into those negative labels and the "lashon hara in your head." Before lashon hara comes out in your words, it is in your thoughts. "To be peace" requires removing the lashon hara from our thoughts. Our mussar goal is to become peace in our thoughts, as well as in our speech. Our task is to experience it as the source of all our thoughts, our desires and goals. Peace is not a behavior or an event, it is who you become.

Who ever thought about that? Peaceful strength. Did we think being peace-loving was a weakness? Maybe, we thought the peace-loving person is the submissive one who "gives in" or who "doesn't speak up" or the one who "lets everyone walk all over you?" When you practice mussar and start living it, you are able to become peace. You realize "strength," as we knew it before was not peaceful, nor was it strength. It was weakness. It's easy to fight and speak at high volumes and give in to all of those out-of-control emotions. It's not so easy to be in control of them. To become a master of anything, you must be a master of control. Martial arts masters, (responsible) record-setting athletes, mountain climbers, fire-fighters and (l'havdil*) Torah scholars. What do they all have in common? Control. Knowing when to use their potential, skills and training then, knowing how to use it. Mussar connects you to your potential, teaches you the skills and then, your relationships becomes your training ground. One cannot achieve peace, if you are not in control of your emotions.

Why do we need to "be peace?"
Maybe some of us are seeking a reprieve from the anxiety, stress and uncomfortable aftermath of constant conflict...the only way to achieve peace is to "be peace," by placing peace above all, and .....becoming the "Master of Your Emotions."

Next time, you feel that argument ready to make it's unpleasant appearance... take a moment and PAUSE.... think about how important it is to have peace in the relationship. Ask yourself... what's more important the fight or the relationship? My anger or my marriage/friendship? Proving my point or my relationship? Our conflicts take over and blur our vision. We become blind to the person standing right in front of us. At that moment, we only see ourselves and nothing else. The yetzer hara rules. Usually, that person standing in front of us is someone... we dearly love.

After the PAUSE, you will feel peace. You will value the precious person standing in front of you. You will be able to respect their opinion, even though it may be different than your own. You will judge them favorably and be able to express yourself while focusing on your priority- peace in the relationship. Together, you journey towards your goal, harmoniously united and in peace. (remember: when one person sets the peaceful tone, the other one will follow).

"Loving peace" is one of the highest levels of character trait excellence. Probably, one of the holiest ways to behave. Just imagine, becoming so other-oriented that you are able to walk away from your own desires and place the desire for peace, above all. It's about being able to turn your back on the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and prove that you are acting at such a high level of strength and holiness. It is a quiet and deep inner strength. Maybe, it appears to others that you are weak because you walk away or because you don't engage in a fight. They might even think you are agreeing to their "wrong" ideas or condoning a behavior you disapprove of. Overall and deep inside, all that matters is the amazing new feeling you are experiencing. There is an absence of conflict, even in your thoughts. A new calm is awakened within you. An experience of quiet and gentle strength.
M'nucha ha'nefesh (resting of the soul). You are peace.

Learning mussar can be a mystical experience. For the serious mussar student, the lessons become part of you and actually transform the way you think, act and speak. The transformation feels unbelievable and incredible. How could this be happening? New words may appear suddenly out of your mouth. You can actually feel them coming down from Shemayim(Heaven). And, the most wonderful surprise of all, new thoughts appear. Kinder, gentler, more compassionate thoughts. The absence of negative thoughts. People who may have previously upset you and caused you to feel hopeless that your relationship with them may never improve, suddenly- take on a new appearance in your mind. Your world becomes brighter as it fills with loving kindness. Your vision changes and everything looks different. Most probably, you will achieve a spiritual height that you couldn't imagine possible. Why? Because you are acting "Tzelem Elokim," in the Image of HaShem. You are acting according to His ways. The fight is gone. The anxiety, stress and pressure disappear. You have reached the heights of holy spiritual behavior, you are the "Master of Your Emotions."
A peacefulness appears and surprisingly, it remains. Peace becomes constant because it is now- who you are.
Ani shalom.

TEXT: Pirkei Avos/Ethics of Our Fathers
Hillel said: Be from the students of Aaron - love peace and pursue peace, love the creations of HaShem and bring them close to the Torah. Before all else, Hillel said to love peace and pursue peace. Although peace is the highest virtue it does not abound in the world. We know from previous experiences, that peacemaking is a very delicate process. Before one can make peace, one must "love peace." We must cherish the goodness of it and yearn for it from the very depths of the heart. The enlightening message here is that....
to love people, we must first love peace!

We cannot bring others close to the Torah, nor can we be close to the Torah, if we do not love and pursue peace first. Loving peace, pursuing it and loving others, as they are creations of HaShem, are all pre-requisites for being close to the Torah. They are bound together and must not be separated.

The lesson teaches us to first, to develop a commitment to peace. If we do, we will be able to overlook insignificant matters and petty quarrels that disrupt the harmony of our relationships (and our lives). Once we awaken the passion for peace, it becomes our goal and we become peace.

AVODA:
The process of learning Mussar does not have an on/off switch. We cannot improve our character traits if we use it with our family and not with the people in the grocery store. (Yet, either one is a good way to start practicing). Some people have expressed that it's easier with strangers than with close family members, others feel the opposite is true. All that matters is that you begin to bring it into your life, into your day and into all your inter-personal relationships. Some situations may present greater challenges than others. Some lessons come more naturally, while others present us with an extreme challenge. We must keep the mussar switch in the "on" position. It is a process that requires constant and continuous practice. Simply, we must keep to keep the focus on improving our character traits (not the character traits of others). We cannot change others, but we can change the patterns in our relationships. We can change the way we think, speak and act towards others. If we are able to move away from judgments, criticism and negative labeling of others, we realize that each human being adds so much to our life.

Mussar is the process of shifting our behavior from old patterns into new ones. There is no need to look for any other reason to love another human being, other than the fact that he or she is a creation of Hashem, that is sufficient enough.

The avoda (homework) for the week is to recite repeatedly, "ani shalom/I am peace."

The lesson teaches us that the zhus (merit) of making shalom (peace) and doing chesed (acts of kindness) are more important than anything else. Once we develop a true love of peace, we can experience the empowering calm that is the result of our pursuit. We can relax and savor the experience... m'nucha ha nefesh. The soul is at peace, there is an absence of conflict, as the calm appears, there is a tremendous empowerment that occupies the place where out-of-control emotions previously resided. The experience is exhilarating, enjoyable and surprisingly, empowering.
ein shalom, ein klum
without peace, there is nothing.

Blessings for a peaceful week. May you love and pursue peace, above all!

Note: It is important to keep in mind when learning mussar, that one specific lesson is not the answer to one specific problem, that you may be experiencing. When in a situation that needs resolution, customize it according to all the mussar knowledge and wisdom you have been learning. ***In extenuating circumstances, related to serious situations, please consult a professional, doctor, counselor, therapist, or Rabbi.***


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