Resolutions and revolutions: Mussar and a New Year
I write this from California’s Simi Valley where I am on a retreat with a handful of other rabbis with the Mussar Institute. Mussar is the classical Jewish genre of literature and practices about developing personal menschlichkeit—about being kinder, humbler, more patient, more grateful, more truthful, more etc. It’s something that I try to study and practice every day, and it is not always easy.
I have bad habits (don’t we all?). I’m too quick to yell at my kids when I’m tired. I think about work when I should be focusing on my loved ones. I’m sometimes unorganized and forget emails, I can go on and on…. Even seemingly little things are hard to change, but it is these little things that make us better menschen.
In the New Year, we often have resolutions, but by February they have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes, the best way to kick-start change is to leave your comfort zone. You don’t have to go to California, but if you are resolving to be more mindful, present, or compassionate trying something like meditation is a good way to start. At Holy Blossom, our congregant Cheryl Sylvester and I will be leading monthly Shabbat afternoon meditation sessions before our afternoon service and Havdallah. You can find more info here.
More about resolutions: in a recent op-ed in the New York Times psychologist David DeSteno wrote that we often think about willpower incorrectly. We feel like we are failures when we don’t fulfill our resolutions. We feel our willpower is weak. But, he has found through research that the way to increase self-control is to work on social emotions like gratitude and compassion, virtues I’m working on here in California. “For years I’ve been studying the effects of these emotions on decision-making and behavior, and I’ve found that unlike reason and willpower, they naturally incline us to be patient and persevere. When you are experiencing these emotions, self-control is no longer a battle, for they work not by squashing our desires for pleasure in the moment but by increasing how much we value the future.”
Another program that we will be offering that fits with this line of thinking is “Practicing Self Compassion” which will be led by our congregant Chana Verbian and myself on February 20.
DeSeSteno writes: “So as 2018 commences, take more time to cultivate these emotions. Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals. Doing so will help ensure that every future New Year’s Eve will have more to celebrate than to regret.”