Great minds think alike. When important thinkers from very different perspectives reach the same conclusion we should pay attention to what they’re saying.
Mussar comprises the Torah’s approach to personal and religious growth. Mussar teachings are spread throughout our religious literature and have received renewed emphasis during the last few hundred years of Jewish history.What does mussar teach us? Rav Dessler, an influential Rabbi regarded for his contributions to Jewish thought, defines mussar very succinctly. He says that people need to question their ability to reach valid conclusions and decisions. We’re not necessarily in a position to exercise good judgement because we are, unfortunately, likely to be swayed from truth.
Our wants bias our judgement. What we want shapes the way we view any given situation and the way we think through decisions. Our character flaws and self interest shape our wants and help to distort our perspective. To reach truth we need to refine our character traits (our middos) and develop an intense desire for truth. This is mussar. Mussar requires that we must become fully aware of the limits of our objectivity. Mussar then provides us the process through which we free ourselves from these limitations.
Rav Dessler describes that “This is the only way: to destroy bias at its source. Many years of devoted and selfless labor are needed before one can hope to strengthen the yearning for truth to such an extent that one can free oneself from the bias of the middos (1).” He goes even further and says “If an opinion or decision comes to him easily, without a struggle, he should hold it in suspicion and search for how his decision was motivated by self interest (1).”
The first step of mussar is to become aware of and critically analyze our thought process. Don’t accept the conclusions you reach without examining the thought process that led to those conclusions. Without hard work we won’t see things as they truly are.
The words of Rav Dessler can certainly stand on their own. In this case, however, I believe that by examining some other sources we can clarify and extend what Rav Dessler says.
Aaron Beck is a major contributor to the field of cognitive psychology. Beck has a revolutionary theory of emotion and writes that “The affective response is determined by the way an individual structures his experience…The cognitive structuring or conceptualization of a situation is dependent on the schema elicited. The specific schema, consequently, has a direct bearing on the affective response to a situation. It is postulated, therefore, that the schema determines the specific type of affective response (2).”
Beck is saying that our emotions are a function of our thought process. “Your emotions result entirely from the way you look at things (3).” To change our emotional response to a given situation we must be aware that our feelings are generated by the way that we view and experience that situation. Our schema are the way we look at the world and at various situations which arise. Without our awareness, these schema affect our decisions, specifically our emotional responses. To reach truth, it follows that we need to become aware of our schema and of how they shape our thinking. Again we see the same idea – we don’t automatically see things as they truly are. Our perspective is heavily colored by our own pre-existing wants and beliefs.
This idea is also implicit in Stephen Covey’s concept of a paradigm. Stephen Covey has sold over 15 million copies of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and has had a major impact on countless individuals and businesses. Covey explains that the way that we relate to the world and to situations that arise flows from our paradigms – from the models that we use to understand the world. Often we aren’t sufficiently cognizant of the effect that our paradigms have on our decisions and actions. “We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them. We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be (4).” It follows from this that to make significant changes in our lives we need to examine and revise our paradigms. “Paradigms are powerful because they create the lens through which we see the world. The power of a paradigm shift is the essential power of quantum change… (5)”
What emerges from these sources is that the way we feel and the choices we make depend to a large degree on how we look at the world. We need to listen to our internal conversations and learn to focus on our middos. Our individual perspective effects our emotional responses and our decisions. To achieve personal growth we need to reexamine our thought process.
(1)Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu,Vol 1, Mabat HaEmes, The Truth Perspective
(2)Beck, Dr Aaron, Depression: Causes and Treatment (Philadelphia 1967), pages 287-288
(3)Burns, Dr David, Feeling Good (New York 1999), Page 29
(4)Covey, Stephen, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York 1990), page 24
(5)Covey, page 32