ATTAINING INNER DISTANCE
What guidance does our Jewish tradition offer in the way of inner calmness?
In his letter to his son, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (the Ramban) advises: "distance yourself from anger." And in the Orchos Chaim [Ways of Life] of the Rosh, we are advised, "distance yourself from pride." This phrase, "distance yourself," shows up elsewhere as well. We are surely not being told never to be angry, proud, jealous, etc., because Mussar teachers consistently assert that this would be an unrealistic goal -- everyone experiences the full range of inner states, and in and of themselves, every inner trait is neither good nor bad. More important is how we respond to what we feel.
"Distance yourself," then, can mean only two things. Either we are to stay physically far from people who are angry, proud, etc., or we are being directed to develop some kind of inner distance from the experience of our own anger, pride, and other incendiary middot.
Although there are definitely times when we ought to stand away from powerful outer forces, we should be less concerned about falling under external influences than we should the impulses that arise in us. We are solely responsible for the powerful inner forces that can lead us astray and so these are our first priority. The guidance we are being given here is to cultivate an inner attitude that creates some distance between the stimulus that comes at us and our reactions to it. We make this space by cultivating an inner stance as witness.
When you have a strong inner witness, outer influences are seen for what they are and that will help you keep from being infected by sentiments that swirl around you. That same inner faculty also keeps you from being pushed around by the forces that arise within you -- the distanced witness is not susceptible to the tides of doubt, temptation, jealousy, etc., that wash through the interior world.
Do we still face real struggles? Yes. Do the consequences matter? Yes. Do we still feel the full range of human emotions and drives? Yes. In other words, every aspect of your current life is real and important. You would be wise to embrace it because it's your curriculum. But cultivate the witness who will make you the master of the inner realm and not the victim.
The most touted way to cultivate an inner witness is through meditation. While sitting still and silent, many inner states will arise, and over time you can get quite good at living in their presence without feeling that you are a slave to any of them, whether repugnant or alluring.
I'd like to offer another way to practice to the same end, one that encourages the experience of the witness in every context in which you might find yourself. Rabbi Steinsaltz describes the Jewish spiritual experience as a constant beckoning to the light. If we take that word "constant" seriously, then the light we seek must be present at all times and in all situations, no matter how murky or even dark they appear to us.
It is the job of the witness to keep an eye out for that light. When you realize that, and assign this task to the inner witness, and strengthen that practice, then over time you will grow to be increasingly aware of the radiant Presence that is a constant in the ever-shifting contexts in which you live.
An inner eye connected to the constant light won't give you a life of fewer challenges and struggles, but it will give you equanimity from which to engage and triumph. It's hard to imagine a better way to be as you take on the trials that come your way. Perhaps that is why the Alter of the Kelm school of Mussar tells us: "A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything."
From "Everyday Holiness" pp.104-106, by Alan Morinis
© Alan Morinis