by Colin Hall
Tikkun Middot, a spiritual practice shared by Jewish mystics and mussar masters alike, involves the intentional cultivation of positive character traits (middot) such as Patience, Equanimity, Honesty, Compassion, Generosity, Gratitude and Joy. In middot practice we grow and strengthen these positive traits through focused study and spiritual practice. When brought into balance, the middot enable us to fully realize our potential for wholeness. Here at Chochmat Halev we incorporate the practice of Mindfulness (bringing sustained, non-judgmental attention to our experience) into our focus on the middot. The synergy of these combined practices offers a unique pathway for deepening self-awareness, building resilience and increasing happiness and a sense of wellbeing.
EQUANIMITY (Shivyon nefesh)
involves the ability to stay calm and balanced even when facing difficulties or challenges. In Jewish spiritual life, equanimity derives from a deep awareness that everything that happens is part of God’s will. Pain and pleasure, good fortune and potentially bad fortune are accepted equally with faith. Equanimity is an expression of nondual awareness, the experience of the unity of all Being. Other terms used by Jewish sources to describe this middah include: Menuchat nefesh (a restful soul), and hishtavut (making all things equal).
Joy is experienced when we are connected to our divine souls. “The greatest mitzvah,” writes Rebbe nachman of Breslov, “is to live in an abiding state of joy.” Doing mitzvot brings joy, whether, whether we are focused on serving the needs of others or dedicating ourselves to a divine purpose. The act of self-transcendence brings joy. Joy is both the origin and outcome of our most sublime thoughts and deeds. It enables us to reach beyond our small selves to connect both with our innermost being and with other beings. While depression closes doors, joy opens all the gateways. We cultivate this virtue by fostering an awareness of our deep interconnection with all Being.
Forgiveness involves letting go of the pain and hurt we have experienced at the hands of others. Being able to readily forgive oneself and others is a powerful virtue. Forgiveness releases us from the pain and resentments of the past, making it possible to heal and transform our relationships in the present. It is a mistake to think that we forgive for the sake others, rather, we forgive for our own benefit–to free ourselves from suffering.
GRATITUDE (Hakarat Ha’tov)
The Hebrew expression for gratitude, hakarat ha’tov, literally means “recognition of the good.” Gratitude is felt when we recognize the good we have received. Those who are grateful recognize that life is a gift and that everything that one possesses, has been given as a gratuitous gift. This virtue is fundamental to Jewishness. In fact, the Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi, comes from the Hebrew root le’hodot, which means to give thanks. Thanksgiving is the verbal expression of gratitude.
Humility enables us to know our place in the scheme of things, and just how much space we should take up in each situation. For Jewish mystic, humility arises from deep awareness of God’s Infinite nature and the grandeur of all that is. Haughtiness is an expression of ignorance and unconsciousness. For the early mussar masters self-effacement is an expression of humility. This does not stem from a lack of self-esteem, , but a true recognition of one’s place in relation to others.
This virtues requires an ability to tolerate painful or frustrating situations without experiencing anxiety, tension, or frustration. It means letting go of the need for immediate gratification and being willing to wait for life to happen on its terms, not ours. Patience is one of the 13 divine attributes of mercy that we seek to emulate.
Chessed is an expression of indiscriminate love. It stems from the awareness of our essential kinship and oneness with all beings. The world was created through this primal energy, as it says in Psalms, , “Olam Chessed yibaneh”–the world is built through love. (psalm 89:3) Through acts of lovingkindness, or gemilut chassadim we connect with the original divine energy of Creation. To love others as we love ourselves and to treat others as we wish to be treated requires that we master the middah of chessed.
Rachamim, or compassion, in Jewish thought, involves greater discrimination than chessed. If Chessed is indiscriminate love, Rachamim discerns the needs and worthiness of the recipient, fine-tuning what is given to the needs of the recipient. Compassion involves joining with others in their suffering and attempting to ease their pain. Compassion in action works to help others. When we act with lovingkindness in word, thought or deed towards ourselves and others, we become partners in God’s creation of the worlds, as it says in PsalmsRachamim: Compassion
The act of giving. This includes two types of giving: that which one is commanded, obligated, or committed to offer (tzedakah); that which is an expression of a movement of the heart in spontaneous response to another (t’rumah or gift). “Every person goes to her death bearing in her hands that which she has given away.” –Persian proverb.
The spontaneous, or more often, the cultivated and practiced sense of meaning and direction in one’s life. This does not necessarily require a particular theological belief or position, and certainly does not preclude the need for us to take initiative and action in our lives. Similarly, it is quite possible (and common) for doubt to be a part of the practice of Trust and Faith. It may be helpful to think of Trust/Faith as the opposite of fear and anxiety-based experience and behavior.
The perspective that each person is created in the divine image, deserving of respect. This perspective informs the manner in which one treats others and oneself: with dignity and recognition. It also requires that one be aware of and responsive to the needs others, and implies a less judgmental point of view.
TRUTH/COURAGE (Emet/Ometz Lev)
These middot refer to the act of speaking what is true (the opposite of speaking falsehoods), and to living with authenticity (the expression of one’s convictions), and to the strength and bravery it sometimes takes to do so. Like all the middot, the practice of Truth and Courage require discernment, wise judgment, and balance in order to avoid thoughtless injury to others (emotional and otherwise).
SILENCE/HOLY SPEECH (Shtikah/Shmirat HaLashon)
The intentional awareness of, and sensitivity to the impact of one’s words. This applies to being boundaried about the amount of one’s speech, as well as the content of one’s speech. The practice of Tikkun Middot particularly emphasizes the lure and potential damage to all involved of gossip and disparaging talk about another.
The experience of awe so profound that it can be accompanied by a kind of fear. This is sometimes felt as a shift in foreground/background, or a shift in a sense of scale. “An inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. Life bears within it the possibility of inner transcendence; the moments when we glimpse it are so rare and powerful that they call upon us to transform the rest of our lives in their wake.” – Arthur Green, Radical Judaism.