A habit is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary, to the point that we become enslaved by our habits.
We all know that habits can be formed around actions like eating, exercising, drinking alcohol and taking drugs, but our tradition also tells us that acting without thought, by rote, is an obstacle to the formation of good character and, ultimately to our spiritual growth.
In his book, the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says that habits aren’t our destiny, and that by harnessing the power of our brains we can create new, more productive habits that allow us to improve our behavior, and even the world.
While based on modern science Duhigg’s idea isn’t new. In 1989, Stephen Covey taught about the powerful role that habits have in forming our character in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
But, The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, who lived from 1720-1793, preceded them both when he said, “Character requires habituation, and habit rules all things, and all beginnings are difficult.”
In his essay, Through a Mussar Lens: Tree of Light, Rabbi Avi Fertig tells us that the numbing effect of habit comes from the physical aspect of our beings and the physical world in which we live. He says that the Hebrew word for habit is hergel, related to the word regel, meaning foot. The foot represents our physical nature—the lower half of our bodies. Walking is perhaps the most habitual thing we do. We never stop to contemplate the myriad processes that must come together perfectly so that we can take the next step. The nature of the physical is that it gets old, moldy and stale. Habit is when our hearts and minds are closed and we are governed by the lower half, the “foot,” so that we go through everything in the way we walk, devoid of conscious thought or focused will. In essence, we become like a slave, performing our duties, under the domination of a habituated mind.
The orthodox practice of Mussar, originating in the 10th century, but reaching its height in the 19th century, gives us a prescription to free us from our brain numbing bondage. What Mussar seeks to accomplish is to counteract the pernicious effects of habit as it slowly creeps into our spiritual practices. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter defined Mussar as the Torah’s antidote to what he called timtum ha’lev, the closed heart that is no longer sensitive and supple. Mussar is meant to re-awaken us to the truths we know well but have “forgotten,” as they have become habitual features of our day.
I’d like to introduce you to one of those Mussar practices. It is called the Cheshbon Hanefesh practice and it is outlined in Alan Morinis’s book, Climbing Jacobs Ladder, and can also be found on The Mussar Institute website. The exercise is designed to promote positive character building habits. And, it is a practice that all of us can easily introduce into our daily lives. Each month we focus on one of 13 prescribed traits, or middots. For that entire month we commit to noticing how that trait manifests in our life. Each night, we journal about how we experienced that trait and we attempt to cultivate the most positive aspect of the behaviors which are:
Savlanut / Patience
Consider inserting the instructions for Cheshbon Hanefesh practice into your seder as a new way to contemplate modern day slavery. For by focusing on one of these ideals over the course of a month, year after year, we are forming new, more positive habits, and releasing our slave plagued minds from anesthetizing barriers that obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives.