For those new to daily practice in character trait (middot) refinement, we should know that there is no single path that works for everyone. Think of how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. One account says that the sea split into 12 lanes, so we can learn from that that there are many paths to development. However, there are some general practices that appear to be common across those who practiced middot perfection (starting with Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) and those who practice today. The focus here is to learn from those who created the strongest formula for daily middah practice, the School of Mussar.
As with most things in a spiritual life, it is highly recommended to fix for yourself times for each of the following activities. As with davvening and learning Torah, having fixed times for middah work helps build habit and ingrain a practice.
One of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's innovations was to chant a line of Torah with “lips aflame” - meaning to chant out loud with passion. It is recommended that you look at the trait you are working on and select a line appropriate to the trait (see the “Chants” section in the right column of the site). Chant the line over and over for 2-3 minutes, preferably in the morning, as a way to set a clear intention for your day. It's always best to pick the same location, however, if life doesn't afford that luxury, then at leasy try to select the same time each day - whether it be walking to the subway, driving in your car, sitting in the kitchen etc. Use English if Hebrew is a foreign language to you, although over time it might be interesting to try chanting in Hebrew even if you can only understand one or two of the words.
We also have a special extended chant of the first section of Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just). The niggun (melody) comes directly from Rabbi Chaim Epstein, a principle student of Rav Aharon Kotler, who was a principle student of the Alter of Slobodka (one of the three main schools of Mussar). This is an authentic chant and the voice you hear is Pinny Hoch who learned with R. Chaim Epstein and chanted the same page of Mesilat Yesharim for 30 minutes every day for a year.
Daily Exercises (also called Kabbalot or Avodot)
These are practices that you accept (kabalah) upon yourself to undertake throughout the day to help you experience with a sharper focus the trait that you are working on. It is the intention of madrega.com to offer kabalot suggestions each week at the end of the weekly reading. A summary of all kabalot may be found by clicking here. There is no fixed set of kabalot that are considered standard Mussar practice. An example of a kabalah is for the trait of emunah to stop once a day, roughly at the same time each day, take a breath and have recognition of G-d's goodness (hakarat hatov). To build your own library of kabalot look back at previous weekly readings on this site.
Learning a Mussar text is a great way to help turn the mind and heart towards action to improve who we are. Standard texts are listed in the “Books” section of the site under “Character Trait Resources”. Reading 5-10 minutes a day can have a very powerful effect. One way to navigate a text is using Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's method of reading something three times.
- The first reading is to read the line out loud, over and over. E.g. “Those who find no mixture of desire in themselves, can then unify the parts of their soul” (from Chochmah U”Mussar by R. Simcha Zissel Ziv, The Alter of Kelm)
- The second reading we personalize the line to engage the top level of our heart and read out loud. E.g. “If I find no mixture of desire within my heart, I can unify the parts of my soul”
- The third reading repeats the second stage, however the line is chanted out loud to penetrate down to the lower levels of one's heart
Cheshbon HaNefesh (Soul Accounting)
At the end of each day (or at the same time each day, if by the end of the day you are too tired) you account for how your day unfolded (see “Glossary” for definition of Cheshbon HaNefesh). With respect to the trait you are focused on, were there times you were challenged and how did you respond to those challenges? If there were no challenges, is it possible that you were not aware and need to increase your awareness the next day?
Select a cheshbon chart from the Cheshbon HaNefesh Tools section on the right side of the page. Print it off and try to follow it for a month. Rabbis differ on how long it takes to form a habit, however, 40 days seems to be a reasonable length of time. Alternatively, or in addition to, write a journal that focuses on the trait of the day. Where did you succeed, where were you tested and failed? How did you react to success or failure? What have you learned?