I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Karen Erlichman’s reflections on the connection between being a monk in the world and the Jewish practice of Mussar:
Being a Mussar Monk
In Judaism we don’t have monks. I don’t even know if we have a Hebrew word for monk. We don’t have monastic living; in fact, Jewish theology emphasizes engagement in the world, our human interconnectedness, and our obligation to partner with God in ongoing co-creation.
Jews do have many tools and practices that deepen our connection to God and the sacredness in everyday living. One of these practices is Mussar, a Jewish spiritual framework of ethical principles and spiritual practices that is thousands of years old.
The modern Mussar movement is based on the teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter from Lithuania in the 1800s. Mussar is a psycho-spiritual system of contemplative self-evaluation, reflection and meditation that includes some solo practice, working with a study partner, and learning together in community. Alan Morinis, author of several contemporary books on Mussar and founder of the Mussar Institute, has unearthed Mussar from the wreckage of the Holocaust, where the Yeshiva religious communities that practiced Mussar were systematically annihilated by the Nazis.
Mussar practices guide people through working with middot (singular: middah), which translates as soul traits or soul qualities, by becoming aware of the habits, thoughts, and behaviors that obstruct or unblock the flow of divine light within each person. Some of these soul traits include humility, generosity, equanimity, compassion, forgiveness and trust, to name a few.
Tools and practices used in Mussar include meditation, journaling, study of sacred text, and chanting. Typically, Mussar practice is structured in four 13-week cycles over the course of a year, although it is also an ongoing life practice. Each person has their own “spiritual curriculum” that includes the particular soul traits and growing edges with which they are actively engaged using these tools and practices.
I have just started taking a class at the local Jewish Community Center called “Paying Attention: Shining Light on Real Life,” in which we are learning the practice of Mussar using the mindfulness practice of tikkun middot (healing soul traits), studying sacred text, and working in dyads with chevruta (learning partners).
The class meets every other week, and during the in-between week we connect with our chevruta partners. We are also encouraged to meditate and journal daily on the week’s topic. My particular interest and intention for the class is to create a somatically-based spiritual practice for Mussar–not just learning with words, ideas, meditation and dialogue but also with the body. Mindfulness meditation is rooted in the breath, which connects us to our bodies. The body is also an essential aspect of spiritual practice, one of our personal divination tools.
The first two sessions of the class gave us our conceptual foundation using two key ideas: Hitlamdut and Behira Points. Hebrew is such a rich language for spiritual practice because the grammatical system is very multidimensional. The term hitlamdut is the reflexive form of the verb that means to learn. Hitlamdut means to internalize what you learn, to breathe it in and be transformed by it. We spent the first session studying the concept of hitlamdut and immersing ourselves in an exploration of some ancient sacred texts on the topic.
I spent that first week with a morning practice using the word hitlamdut as a morning mantra, a reminder to engage every breath as present-moment of integrative learning. As the title of the class suggests, hitlamdut is about paying attention in a deeply spiritual way.
Week 2 was centered on the practice of Behira/Choice Points. The Hebrew word behira means choice or choosing, and behira/choice points are moments of awareness in which we consciously tap into our own growing edges and the path we choose in the present moment. A Behira point is like a spiritual crossroad in which we can ground ourselves in mindful awareness and step forward from that interior presence.
I have spent almost every day during the past week making a noble effort to say the words behira point to myself as often as possible throughout the day. Here is a soul snapshot from one particular day:
“I take a deep breath to empty my mind and drop down into the body. I direct my focus down into my belly, where the fulcrum of knowing what is true (this feels much better than right) meets my temptations and appetites.
Today I have an opportunity to practice anew. I have only one hour break in a very full day of clients. I have slept poorly all week. I have crappy shoes on. And my slothful yetzer hara (shadow side) wants to sit in the office and surf on Facebook. The part of me that knows what is true, that knows what is life-giving, offers up the idea of taking a walk. It’s a beautiful winter day, crisp invigorating breeze and bodacious sunshine. I feel the battle begin, and I remember our conversation in class about the behira point. I say the word to myself a few times while I change my shoes and put on the worn out but reliable old sneakers I keep in the closet in case of earthquakes. I leave my phone on the desk and trot down the stairs, swatting the yetzer hara like a persistent mosquito.
It takes a few blocks before I feel truly triumphant. I take the 4th avenue hill and feel my heart pound. As I turn the corner back toward my office, I can sense a change happening inside. My thoughts, emotions, connection to Spirit, inner body sensations and somatic engagement with creation—all of these are shifting and opening up to the Sacred in new ways.”
Blessed is the Holy One of Many Names, who has blessed me with this opportunity to stretch and grow in new ways. May I experience every new learning as an invitation to dive more deeply into the Mystery. Amen.
Karen Lee Erlichman, MSS, LCSW provides psychotherapy, spiritual direction, supervision and mentoring in San Francisco. Karen is the co-founder of Practistry, and completed Facilitator Preparation Training with the Center for Courage and Renewal under the leadership of Parker Palmer. Karen’s writing appears regularly on her blog, and has been published in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. To find out more about Karen, visit her website: www.karenerlichman.com.
Wonderful! Especially how you tell and then walk us through with you.
Thank you for sharing. Learning daily from the wise ?
Thanks, Karen. I loved learning how the Jewish faith does contemplation, etc. So many similarities between faith!!
Karen, thank you for writing this succinctly and with such clarity. Even many Jewish folks don’t know the Mussar practice so your piece is of great benefit “all the way ’round”.
Thank you, Karen. What a lovely practice! I particularly liked the emphasis on choice points…I will try to be aware of them in my own life today.
Love this! Thank you. Though my background is Catholic, I live in a Jewish neighborhood and have taken a number of classes at the JCC and nearby synagogue. Judaism has a monastic feel to me just generally, with the home-based rituals for certain holidays and especially the weekly sabbath, and the saying of blessings, the morning and evening prayers, etc. Coming from a strongly clerical tradition, these practices are very appealing.
Very interesting, thanks Karen! I’m always curious about how different faith traditions approach contemplative practice. You have both filled a void for me and opened up new areas of inquiry.