Many people starting their Mussar journey jump to the chapter on Equanimity. I remember doing exactly that, and then being confused. In this post, I’ll explain why this soul trait is hard, and offer you some ways to practice Mussar Equanimity. As you may recall, Equanimity translates directly from Hebrew as “calmness of the soul.” Equanimity in balance means that, we have the ability to keep our head, to not get too high when things are going well, and not too low in a setback.
Right now, my own Equanimity is being challenged. You have been sending me lots of feedback on what to write about, and I have to battle not to get too excited – part of me wants to just keep working to learn everything I can, and turn that info around in blog posts and new offerings. That voice is my Evil Inclination, trying to get me off the workaholic bandwagon. I know that path, and the outcome for me isn’t good.
My Equanimity was challenged in the opposite direction, this past weekend. I was talking to a friend from my corporate days, who mentioned that he ran into someone who I used to work with. I was surprised at how overcome I was with negative feelings. Yes, I have reason to dislike this person, because they directly caused me “harm” and made some decisions that in my opinion set back the company in a big way. I “watched” in amazement as my Equanimity was thrown off. I became upset – my blood pressure went up, and I started bad mouthing the person. The latter is a real Mussar no no, and I knew it. Yet the words just tumbled out of my mouth.
WOW. This is exactly why Mussar is a practice. We need to keep working to gradually over time heal and bring these soul traits towards balance. I’ll frame the remainder of the story around three paths to help you practice Mussar Equanimity.
1. Practice Mussar Equanimity Directly
I think of Equanimity as being what Eckhart Tolle calls “the watcher,” which is our higher consciousness that exists independently of, and behind the thinking mind. When we are the watcher, we are mindfully present, and better able to access our free will. In the story above, I was being the watcher as my ego bad mouthed this person. Because I was mindfully present, I said less than I might have otherwise, and limited myself to a factual recitation of the things the person had done. I kept judging thoughts out of my mouth. For example, I did not use words like “evil” or “poisonous.”
It is very hard to directly build Equanimity. It required a practice like mediation to learn how to both observe and quiet thoughts as they come into the head. Tolle’s book The Power of Now is the best I have read on the direct approach to Equanimity.
2. Practice Mussar Equanimity Indirectly
There is a reason that I put the chapter on Equanimity late in my Mussar book. It is hard to just do, especially because our Equanimity is often thrown off by other underlying soul traits that are out of balance. I can look within, and see many other soul traits that contributed to my Equanimity imbalance. For example, my Honor was activated because today I was judging this person based on something they did 10 years ago; Humility because I think I know better than this person who was much more senior than I was; Silence because I could not keep quiet; and of course Forgiveness. I am a grudge holder. Rabbi Micha Berger has an interesting suggestion on how not to hold a grudge in this article. Part of the answer is to remember a teaching from Alan Morinis – often when things go wrong, they only seem wrong to us, which is a gift because we are being shown a part of our spiritual curriculum, and thus an opportunity for growth.
By committing to our Mussar practice, we begin to heal the various soul traits that disturb our Equanimity.
3. Take a Walk in Nature.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once wrote the following: “The song of the birds as they perch in the trees… the sweet smells of lilies and the fruit of God’s garden…return one’s mind to it’s natural state.” (With Heart in Mind by Alan Morinis chapter 12). Kook’s advice to seek nature to restore tranquility is supported by modern science – numerous studies have shown that being in nature lowers blood pressure, and improves depression.
Sorry, there are no magic bullets. But that good news is that a Mussar practice can be conducted in about 5 minutes a day. They are five minutes that can and will transform your life.