This week we begin a difficult trait, equanimity (מנוחת הנפש- menuchat hanefesh). This trait is considered by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z”tl as the pinnacle of personal development. In his Mussar group model the trait isn’t tackled until at least a couple of decades of personal development work have taken place. That being said, we’ll tackle it together and not only that, do it in two weeks !!!
There are two ideas that I’d like for us to explore by way of moving towards an appreciation of the trait. The first idea which we’ll look at this week comes from Rabbi Lefin’s book Cheshbon HaNefesh (Accounting of the Soul). The second idea will look at limits by exploring the Rambam’s commentary on Pirkei Avot and also the story of Noah and the flood.
Rabbi Lefin begins his 13 trait path with equanimity and says that equanimity is the ability to rise above events that are inconsequential – both bad and good. This statement speaks very much to an ability to navigate what life delivers, without being thrown off equilibrium nor without trying to grab more of what is pleasant or push away what is unpleasant.
This seems all well and good, until we start to ask how to work with that on a daily basis. What happens when something unpleasant presents itself? How do I stay present and at the same time not be thrown off balance.
Rabbi Lefin suggests a model that integrates heart and mind, body and soul. He says that as long as one’s mind is settled, then the intellectual spirit stands guard and spreads light across the mind. The animal spirit is then sent to spread this light throughout the entire body. R. Lefin is saying that equanimity requires a calm mind in order that the intellect can effectively direct the body to react in the correct way. To complete the picture he also says as its opposite, that when a mind is agitated a fearful dark falls upon the person.
I learned from a meditation teacher once a beautiful analogy of the importance of clearing the mind from agitation. He equated the mind to a blackboard and noted that each time a thought enters, it is written on the mind’s blackboard with chalk. After many thoughts and many moments, the blackboard is so full that if you write anything else, it’s illegible, written over top of so many previous thoughts. Meditation, reflection, concentration in part, help clean the blackboard so you can focus on individual thoughts without having them obscured. With a clear thought, it is much easier to direct the body to good.
This is similar to what R. Lefin is saying, and he goes further to say that if you fail to wipe your blackboard clean then you can’t connect to your body in the right way and you run the risk of having a lower level physical drive (animal spirit) take over. That’s where impulse responses (unbridled desire) get us into trouble.
I gave a talk a few years ago in NYC at a Kallah run by The Mussar Institute. The talk was on equanimity and so to add to this writing, I planned on using some of that material. However, following a disk crash there was nothing left on my computer. Now there was a test of my equanimity. I saw from a long way off the potential for me to get frustrated, to let my animal nefesh (soul) take control and so I moved to my intellect and discussed solutions with my wife. I was able to put enough distance between the disturbing event and my emotional reaction to reduce my loss of equilibrium. A small victory, but as with every trait, success in character development is built in small steps.
According to Rabbi Lefin, equanimity is aided by having the mind direct the body. However, the most useful work towards equanimity is to focus on other traits that will aid a fine balance. Traits such as patience and order contribute to the mind and body forging the right relationship. In addition, simplifying our lives will afford us the time at each moment to work on erasing the blackboard and dealing with the present, unencumbered by issues from the past or future. This is what is meant by the Yiddish expression, Tsu feel iz umgezunt (too much ain’t healthy).
Practice: Each morning, tell yourself that you are clearing out the clutter of your mind and then sit quietly and take a few breaths. As you breathe out, imagine erasing your over-crowded blackboard. Then imagine filling your mind with so much positive light that there is no longer space for clutter to re-enter. At the end of the series of breaths, affirm out loud that you will strive to maintain your equilibrium whether bad or good things come your way.