Monthly Mussar: Summoning Self-Compassion in an Unrelenting World

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I cringed a little bit when the rabbi asked us to talk with our study partner about what teshuvah (repentance) meant to us. I was at the Alternative Second Day Rosh Hashanah Experience at Sixth & I, and having completed the yoga part of our morning, which was lovely, it was time to move on to our text study, and also, to dig deep and share our thoughts with our study partners whom we’d just met.

Now I should mention that I chose to participate in this event for such an opportunity. But as I found myself face-to-face with my study partner, I was lacking. Usually, I take the time before and during the High Holidays very seriously to take stock of my actions over the past year and my relationships that might be struggling, to think about showing compassion for others that may have wronged me, and also to ask others to show compassion to me.

And indeed, this past month, I did focus on compassion, as part of my Mussar journey. Over time, I’ve come to find that compassion is key to our relationships with others. And as I’ve considered patience and gratitude so far on this endeavor, I’ve also seen that compassion is an important input into working towards cultivating those traits as well. For example, while channeling patience during my bike commutes when encountering wayward drivers, I found it helpful to think of the person driving the car and how they might not know how to be a better or more considerate driver, or how they might be having a bad day. While showing more compassion may not solve the aggressive or unaware driving problem, it does help me to keep my blood pressure lower, stay safer, and see the world as a better place.

Part1

Yet, despite my focus on compassion this past month, I did not find myself prepared for the High Holidays in the way I like to be. For me, this year, the months leading up to the High Holidays were a time of being overwhelmed in many ways: of being so focused on work, and career progress, and exercise, and maintaining certain relationships. By the time I got to the High Holidays, I felt deficient in my preparation and also that I had no energy left to make the situation any better. And so, as I sat and talked about teshuvah, and thought about the relationships I had that could use some repairing, the thought of one more area of my life that needed attention became too much for me.

I made it through the exercise alright, but by the next day, I could only think about everything I was already juggling, and then my guilt for my lack of teshuvah added to the mix. Between all of these pressures, both self-imposed and otherwise, I found my body rebelling: the next day, as I bent over to prepare my bike for my morning commute, I was brought down by a shooting pain in my back. It lasted for the next several days, and I figured out by then that my body was telling me I was taking on too much.

It was then that I recognized that while I might not be able to channel compassion in my relationships in the ways I thought I should, I needed to show some compassion to myself. I had thought I had mastered self-compassion in terms of feelings – not getting upset at myself for feeling sad or anxious – as well as actions – not feeling overwhelming regret about something I did or didn’t do. But I realized then that self-compassion could also mean not being so disciplined that I wear myself ragged.

Despite this newfound awareness, I didn’t actually change my actions. And by Yom Kippur, I found myself so completely overwhelmed that I knew that going to services to think about the ways I failed this year and make commitments to do better was taking on more than I could really handle. And so I made an executive decision: I needed to show myself some compassion. And so, instead of making my way to services, like I usually do, and like I had planned, I spent the day in my own introspection in the park. I thought about the last year, the things I was struggling with at the moment, and how things could be different in the year ahead. And by the end of the day, I actually felt a bit better.

Part2

There is a time and place for compassion, and without it, we risk pushing ourselves and others too hard. On the other hand, if we cannot show discipline, also to ourselves and others, we may not be able to reach our full potential, either personally or in our relationships. It can be hard to know which is appropriate. The best we can do is let our intuition guide us. For me, this month, after too much discipline, self-compassion was what I needed.

This next month, I am focusing on equanimity – mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper. It’s something that I find myself continually having to work on, so I am glad to get a month to think about it. Were you ever in a difficult where you showed equanimity? Or wished you showed equanimity? Share below in the comments.

 

 

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