Rabbi Mordecai Finley
The Fight for Our Lives
Reflections on the Daily Spiritual Practice #3
We studied the Kabbalistic emanations during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavu'ot as an entry into inner life work. I offered at that time to use our subsequent study sessions to go back to that study, but at a more organic pace. Instead of one emanation per week, we would take our time. I also offered the idea that we would study them in the reverse direction: starting with human inner fragmentation instead of ending there.
In the first two weeks since Shavu'ot, I have taught two essential ideas for studying our inner conflicts. First, I spoke of the essential nature of a practice where we take time each day to look within, for at least two reasons. We need to know what is happening in our inner lives, and we must also exert energy to regulate and repair what we find there. Over years of my own inner work and working with others, I have formed a list of the most destructive forces in our inner lives. This list is by no means exhaustive. The list just gives us something to look for. For deeper inner work, this list would have to be expanded in many ways. In any case, at the basic level of the daily spiritual practice, we should be aware of: anger, resentment, despair, unresolved grief, irrational obligation (guilt), shame (the sense that there is something fundamentally missing in you), anxiety, fear, envy and destructive desire.
Inevitably, one discovers a few of these forces (or some things not listed here) as the most present in your life. Last week, I talked about a very common way we experience these destructive forces - in a sub-personality. If one is attentive, we can notice ourselves sliding into ego states different from what I call, for convenience's sake, our "A" selves. Our A self is identified with a thoughtful understanding of who we are, the values we want to live by, and our sense of a means for transformation. We are on path to a life devoted, along with everything else, to the true, the right and the good. The B (and C and D . . .) selves are organized ego states that have a very different sense of what our lives are about. When we enter those ego states, our bodies feel different. Our voices change a bit. Our vocabulary is altered. Our experience of the world and ourselves shifts.
Here are some examples. Under emotional stress, some people become weary and depressed, and talk and walk like a depressed person. Other people get animated with anger, and find themselves very conscious of enemies and allies. Other people feel very confused. Others become superficially cheerful. Other folks feel panicky. These ego states, sub-personalities, try to run our lives.
With our daily practice, as we review past days and plan for upcoming days, we can notice when we have slid over into alternative ego states that do not conform with our best version of ourselves. I believe we all have these alternative ego states, different ones for different people. Some of these alternative ego states are not so destructive; they are just part of normal living. For example, there is, hopefully, a different kind of "you" at a party and then at a funeral. Here is an example of not so adaptive ego states: an almost irresistible urge to tell jokes at a funeral, or to ruin a party with your negativity. You have seen this; maybe it was you.
The Jewishly educated cognoscenti out there know where I am headed: the idea of the Yetzer HaRa. As one enters into the practice of the observation and regulation of the inner life according to some standard of what is true, right and good, one notices patterns that are inimical to this work. The Hebrew word "Yetzer" is often translated as "urge", but that is not accurate. The term "Yetzer" is from the Hebrew word root that connotes to "shape" or "form." Yetzer, etymologically, means a shaped pattern, a formation. "Ra" in Hebrew means bad, destructive or evil. I translate "yetzer hara" as "pattern toward destructiveness."
When we want to move into an understanding of the experience of unnecessary human suffering, what we do to ourselves and to others that can be avoided, we confront the idea of the Yetzer HaRa. To put it briefly, the experience of Malkhut / Shekhina, the seventh of the seven emanations studied between Passover and Shavuot, is the experience of the Yetzer HaRa.
We must learn how to fight it. The martial metaphor is not accidental. The fight against the Yetzer HaRa can be a fight for our lives, as we want them to be. The fight can be a fight for a future that we want, not the drive into the abyss that we sometimes seem headed for.
There are skills and attitudes that must be mastered, according to my way of teaching. I will discuss the inner martial art of fighting against our inner destructive patterns this Shabbat.