March reading roundup

March books_edited-1This month was an intense one as far as reading is concerned since I began studying and applying Mussar to my everyday life.  I read three books on that subject, slowly and carefully, underlining a bunch of passages and ideas to come back to later.  So there aren’t as many books here as there have been, but it’s been very fulfilling.  April is National Poetry Month, so I’ll try to fit that in.  I hope you enjoy As always, if you have any reading recommendations, I’m all ears!

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates

“I had worked with this prisoner for more than three years, but I had no idea that Shakespeare—and I—had that kind of impact… I had never had that kind of impact on anyone. I had never saved anyone’s life before.”

I got an email about the Big Library Read inviting readers from around the world March 17-31 to read and discuss this book.  Since there were unlimited digital copies available, I figured why not.  Click on that link to learn more about Laura Bates and her groundbreaking work within the prison community.

“For the next two hours, with no chairs in the cells, they kneeled on the concrete floor in front of the cuff ports. With the shackles still on their ankles, the prisoners communicated with one another through those little slots. Gradually, they grew accustomed to face-to-face communication, something they could not otherwise experience in the SHU. And they grew eager to begin their journey into new worlds, created some four hundred years earlier, by one William Shakespeare. Surely, solitary confinement was the most absurd environment in which Shakespeare had ever been studied.”

“This prison that we’re in physically doesn’t matter. We were prisoners before we got here, and we’ll be prisoners when we leave here unless we realize that we’re fighting the wrong battle. What matters is your own psychological prison—and you can break those chains. What have you got to lose? What else do you have to do? The worst that can happen is that you miss one television show. The best that can happen is that you find true freedom.” (Larry, one of the prisoners)

Another great title for this book would have been “Regaining Lost Humanity.” I was shocked to read about the discussions the plays brought forth among the groups that met for weekly discussions with Dr. Bates.  They related to them so completely and used them as a platform to examine their own lives.  Highly recommend this one.

The Confidant: A Novel by Helene Gremillion

Wow.  Just when I thought I’d figured out the mysteries in this novel, another perspective was added and I saw how much more complex the story was.  I read this in a day, it was that good a story.  Every story really has many sides.  I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just recommend this one and say that it gets more interesting the further you read.

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth

There were a few years when I was extremely devoted to reading The New Yorker every week.  I love reading memoirs of its past employees and story collections from their regular writers.  Ms. Groth worked primarily in one job there for 21 years and learned quite a bit about its writers.  I can think of many ways this book could be improved upon, but in the end her heartfelt tributes to some of her favorite friends are delightful to read.  Recommend.

A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman

“In these brilliant essays, Lightman explores the emotional life of science, the power of imagination, the creative moment, and the alternate ways in which scientists and humanists think about the world.” (from

“If Watson and Crick hadn’t discovered the double-helical structure of DNA, then someone else would.  Science brims with colorful personalities, but the most important thing about a scientific result is not the scientist who found it but the result itself.  Because that result is universal.  In a sense, that result already exists.  It is only found by the scientist.  For me, this impersonal, disembodied character of science is both its great strength and its great weakness.  

“I couldn’t help comparing the situation to my other passion, the arts.  In the arts, the individual is the essence.  Individual expression is everything.  You can separate Einstein from the equations of relativity, but you cannot separate Beethoven from “The Moonlight Sonata.”  No one will ever write The Tempest except Shakespeare or The Trial except Kafka.

“I loved the grandeur, the power, the beauty, the logic and precision of science, but I also ached to express something of myself — my individuality, the particular way that I saw the world, my unique way of being…  I would continue following my passion in science, but I could no longer suppress my passion for writing.”

This is a highly enjoyable, if academic, set of essays.  I thought the portraits of Einstein, Feynman, Edward Teller, and others were really compelling.  Highly recommend.

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

This is such a compelling and terrific read! It’s a rags-to-riches bildungsroman of a young man who becomes a tutor for an anxious boy in a very well-to-do family in the early 20th century.  Each character in the household is so well-developed and likeable, no matter what less-than-admirable actions they take… the main character is one of those people that everyone strives to be… compelling, magnetic, changeable.  I was quite engrossed with this one and read into the wee hours because I couldn’t put it down.  I won’t give anything away, but let me warn you that it’s a bit sexually graphic at times.  I read one review that said this novel is “like Henry James on Viagara,” which I’d say is very apt.  Recommend for sure.

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: One Man’s Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition by Alan Morinis

Once I started reading about Morinis’ journey to find out more about the Jewish practice of Mussar and his experiences with his mentor, I couldn’t stop reading.  This memoir is so engaging and casual, yet written so well that it’s hard to stop reading.  Morinis is honest about what he’s feeling in each step of his learning process.  I could relate to all of it… his non-Orthodox religious life with his family, his questions, his observations, and his conclusions.  Highly recommend.

Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis

This book could serve as a textbook for an “Intro to Mussar” class.  It’s filled with lessons, source texts, and ways to apply the principles to your life.  You don’t need to be Jewish to fully learn from this text and integrate it’s self-improvement lessons into your life.  Highly recommend.

With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings to Transform Your Life by Alan Morinis

Mussar is a Jewish tradition of practical wisdom and guidance for inner living.  The main gift that the Mussar tradition makes available to us is a very accurate map of the inner life, along with practices to help us develop in the direction of our ideals.  This new book takes each of the 48 “soul traits” and describes how to work with each quality.  This is another insightful, simple guide toward changing your life in a meaningful way.

In his introduction, Morinis states that “redoing ourselves—the project of becoming a new being—is meant to be the central thrust of our lives.”

I have learned in an online course I’m currently taking that Mussar isn’t so much something to study as something you do.  Each of the “soul traits” in the book is meant to be focused on for a week because the best way to change is through personal observation and practical steps, so this book should take a year to get through.  There are excellent practical ideas for every person in this book.  I will be going back and focusing on each as I continue learning.  Highly recommend.

If you missed this month’s Mussar-related posts, you can read them here:

No Regrets Parenting: Turning Long Days and Short Years into Cherished Moments with Your Kids by Harley A. Rotbart, MD

This quick read is for parents who are beyond busy with their own lives but want to maximize the time spent with their children.  It’s about experiencing joy and making memorable moments while still having to rush out the door in the morning.  Its short chapters are filled with great suggestions for how to make the most of opportunities and enjoy your parenting experience.

I like this description of the book from Goodreads: “There is a simple, single truth for every parent. Your kids need you to be there. They need to see who you are and how you live your life. And, in return, they will help you to better see who you are and how you should be living your life. No Regrets Parenting is about time. Finding enough of it and making the most of it.”  Recommend.

Solomon’s Angels: Ancient Secrets of Love, Manifestation, Power, Wisdom, and Self-Confidence by Doreen Virtue

I had known of King Solomon’s wisdom and his job as the son of King David in completing the building of the Temple.  I did not know about his marriage to the Queen of Sheba, nor did I know a thing about her. Doreen Virtue, in this first novel, must have combed through countless historical and archeological sources to write this book.  The descriptions of the archangels and the details of everyday life in the biblical period were fascinating.  I found the explanation of how the Temple was built, as well as other marvels like the Pyramids or Stonehenge, to be fascinating.  Recommend.

What have you been reading lately? And are you on Goodreads? I’d love to connect there.

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As you do, so you become

Imagine opening your car’s gas cap and filling the car with a squirt bottle of sunscreen.  Or a roll of dimes.  Pickles anybody?

Of course that’s not the fuel our cars were made to accept.  Our vehicles are machines that take us anywhere we need to go and since we rely on them so much, it’s wise to give them exactly what they require to run smoothly for a long time to come.

It’s dawned on me recently that the same exact thing can be said for our physical body.  Our body is a vessel and is a gift to us.  It also takes us anywhere we need to go and we rely on it for everything we want to experience in our lifetime.  It helps us to carry out the purpose of our life.  Therefore, wouldn’t it also be wise to give it exactly the fuel and care that it requires so it will “run smoothly” for as long as we need it?

CollageI have long realized that the numbers on my scale were slowly increasing.  Ever since I started eating ice cream every night when I was pregnant, it’s been on the upswing.  I have wanted to take care of it, but somehow it always seemed overwhelming to focus on. So I kept putting it off.

Now I am studying a path of spiritual self-development, which is about improving oneself but not for the sake of oneself.  It’s not so much about mastering desires (though that is a large part of it) as it is about fulfilling your own potential.  Mussar teaches that everything we encounter in our inner world is an aspect of the soul.  Emotions (and emotional eating), patience, desires, etc.  It is a process of changing your intuitive responses to situations, “making the heart feel what the intellect understands.” (Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, 19th c.)  The task is to try to free ourselves from our primitive natures and have our higher self, the soul, lead the way.

For example, it’s become a habit for me to read in bed before I fall asleep at night.  I almost always munch on Cheerios or M&Ms as part of this.  All my weight gain could have come from just this one practice as far as I know, because I don’t tend to make terrible choices otherwise.  So changing these external actions is part of it.  The more physical changes you make, the more likely it is to become habit.  (So my new habit is chewing gum while I read.) There’s also a process of changing from the inside out, but I’ll skip over that here for now.

In every decision and choice you make, there will be a moment of choice.  Do you react with instinctual anger or do you pause and respond patiently? This is true with eating, of course.  We can choose to go the way of the higher self or the lower self.  We can have the salad or the hamburger, and as long as we are making the choice from our higher nature, there is a time for each.

creative evolution 8x10-002So I’ve started Weight Watchers, but I’m also examining my habits and tendencies as a way toward change.  Losing this excess weight should not be in some vain attempt to look better or receive more praise.  It should be an exercise in wholeness.  It’s yet another way I can empower myself to change my life for the better.  (I will have to remember this when people begin commenting on how much better I look.) I wish to focus on my own inner dignity and self-esteem.  The focus is on a soul-level, not so much a body-level.  There should be no judgement of myself or of others.  There should be no separation of the mind, body, and spirit, for all are part of our soul.

In this spiritual curriculum, being aware of the physical seems just as important as the emotional.  I am paying attention to how I treat my body just as much as I am focusing on my measure of humility or compassion.  They seem linked… emotions affect our bodies and vice versa.  I wish to be grateful to my body that it does all the miraculous actions it performs every moment.  Our bodies are our connection to earth and a key part of our experience.

Please share your own thoughts on this.  Do you think of your body as part of who you are as a whole or as separate?

You’ll find more of my posts about Mussar here.

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Is compassion an action or a feeling?

footstepsHave you ever been in a disagreement with someone and you just knew you were right? You knew that if the other person would only see things from your point of view, with your own history of thoughts, feelings, and experiences, they’d understand?

Who hasn’t, right? Part of being a compassionate person is attempting to feel and see the truth of someone else’s experience.

Let’s define compassion as having a sense of togetherness or closeness with another person, so much so that you recognize that you are not really all that separate.  You feel so connected that feelings are shared and there’s no separation between you.  When you feel this way toward another person, you naturally want to care for them as you care for yourself, eliminating their distress and helping them in any way.

First we feel empathy, but that emotional connection does not turn into compassion until it is put into action, expressing just how you want to care for the other.  How can we become more compassionate? Just like with any tool we want to implement… practice.

It’s hard to stop a judgmental mind from doing it’s normal thing.  It’s difficult to consciously drop that sense of separation we feel between ourselves and other person.  We can come to care so much for our own needs that we don’t even concern ourselves with anyone else’s.  This preoccupation with self prevents us from growing into the person we want to be and overriding your self/instinct takes practice.

partnersAnd so I’ve challenged myself to rise above this tendency.  This week, especially when I drop into judgement or become secluded in myself, I will reach out to understand what something might be like for someone else and act (with love) in some way to help them.

Maybe you’d like to join me? Each day I am actively reaching out to three people with the idea of being generous with my care and effort.  There have been many times lately when I’ve thought about someone I know who just lost his soul mate, but yesterday, I realized that those thoughts don’t do anything.  I wrote a letter to him expressing my wish for wholeness and peace for him and letting him know he’s been in my thoughts.  That action was compassion in action.

Calling a parent or grandparent to say you love them, reaffirming a child by restating their feelings back to them, sending a note or a gift to say you’re thinking of someone, doing the dishes or laundry for someone, donating to a charity, actively listening to someone, etc.  I have found that I don’t have to try to come up with ideas… in the course of a day, opportunities to be compassionate naturally arise.  It’s up to me to act on them.

Let me know how you show compassion to people in your life.

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How is humility connected to anger?

rose leaves-001Last week I wrote about the concept of a personal spiritual curriculum.  One task of Mussar is coming to understand the many “soul traits” that make up every human being and how each of these inner qualities plays out in your personal life.  It tells us that at our core we are all holy, and shows us ways to change those qualities within us that obstruct the light of our holiness from shining through.  The individual balance of the traits within us are what make each of us uniquely who we are. The degree, or measure, of the characteristics that live in each of our souls is what we are to pay attention to.

One of the 48 focuses of Mussar is humility.  You may think of being humble as I used to: some version of being unobtrusive, respectful, and modest.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word for humble (anavah) has nothing to do with that; it means knowing the exact truth of your own abilities and accomplishments, neither inflating nor deflating yourself.  It means “occupying your rightful space.” 

In his new book, With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings to Transform Your LifeAlan Morinis writes that “the ideal is to be so clear on who you are and your place in your own life that you neither inflate beyond what is real (we’d call that arrogance) nor retract from filling out the space that is yours to occupy (self-nullification).  Space, in this context, can be physical but also emotional, psychological, financial, and so on.  It is as much a spiritual obstacle to occupy more space around you than is warranted as it is to hold back on making your presence felt to the full extent of your potential.  Humility therefore involves having a true and accurate vision of yourself.”

The viewpoint that we should use to look at our own capabilities is one of impartial gratitude.  I have a nice singing voice and using it is truly a form of prayer for me, but that does not need to be a source of pride.  Rather, we should ask, “what is the source of this talent?” Did I create my brain, body, and vocal chords with all their complexity? No one of us is better than another, for we all succeed and fail as a result “of many factors playing through us, many of them beyond our influence.” None of our abilities are self-created.  It is ok to acknowledge our talents and accomplishments, but we must also ask, “in what way am I responsible for these qualities that reside in me? Are they not gifts I have received?”

Since Mussar identifies our noisy and complicated everyday life as the ideal place to work at spiritual growth, I want to share with you why this is one of my own inner characteristics that I need to focus on.

droplets on leavesOne of our lessons about humility also focused on another closely related soul trait, anger. “When we express anger, we are often putting our own opinion, our desires, the way we think things should be, ahead of others and most importantly, ahead of God.”  When we lose our temper, we become overpowered by the emotion, letting anger become the master the angry person serves.

In high school growing up, I remember feeling “better than” other students because I grasped concepts before they did, got better grades, or was taking more complicated classes than others were, like calculus or computer programming.  In graduate school, the scales were reversed and I felt completely inadequate because I was slow to understand classical Greek writings on logic, rhetoric and dialectic.  (I definitely would have benefited from some perspective at the time!)

I have sometimes found myself resentful that one ability of mine, singing and song leading, is not utilized or appreciated as it could be.  I long ago learned that if we relate to our lives “through the lens of the self, and if there is any distortion in that lens, then everything else in our lives will appear distorted as well.” Looking at these situations impartially, I am called to recognize that perhaps my “talent” isn’t that great, maybe there are other factors at work, or it could be that my expectations may be incorrect to begin with.

Regardless the reasons, I admit that I’ve been angry at being denied the opportunity to share my voice.  Who am I to want this? Am I wishing to share my ability for my own pleasure or for the spiritual movement of others? I might be an effective teacher, but I am lousy at classroom management, and I feel bad about that, so am I simply looking for another way to belong and be recognized as having a contribution to make? And is this ok?

The daily “A Little Birdie Told Me” e-mail messages from Melody Ross of the Brave Girls Club always speak to the heart of the matter, and this one from last week is no exception:

Brave Girls

None of the feelings that arise in me in these circumstances are pleasant.  I recognize that I am overly preoccupied with myself and am not focusing on the Source of these abilities and what they may be intended for.  I am not able to be full of gratitude, using my voice to worship, if I am thinking negative thoughts.  “My rightful place” may very well be exactly where I already am!

Humility and self-esteem go hand in hand.  “Humility is not an extreme quality, but a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of where you actually fit in life.  When you understand humility in terms of the space you occupy, it’s important to clarify that we are not all meant to occupy the same amount of space.”

One Mussar master taught that every difficult situation any of us face is a test or a spiritual assignment for us to work out (there’s that personal curriculum again).  In this case, we are not asked to completely rid ourselves of all anger, for some measure of anger can be a good thing, spurring us toward opposing injustice, for example.  We are guided to focus our efforts on where we get angry and how, as well as understanding its root causes.

Here’s the kicker: “When anger starts to build within us, we are usually beset by a sense of righteousness… that is anything but humble.” In the Mussar view, arrogance is a skewed manifestation of a lack of self-esteem.  A humble person would know his/her exact space and occupy it with contentment.

“One who craves attention from others has not yet found himself; he is unaware of his true worth.  Lacking self-esteem, he depends on the opinion of others.  He hungers for their praise, for without their appreciation he feels worthless.  When people fail to applaud him he becomes helpless, and therefore, hostile and angry.” ~ Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe

Anger reveals dependency.  Wow.  That realization struck me as hugely and wholly true.  I am unsure how exactly to work on it, but acknowledging that it’s there feels like a good first step.

As Melody wrote, When we do things from a soul-deep place, we must find our validation from the Source of those things — not from what others on the outside think about what we are doing or how we are doing it.”

The Mussar masters advocate gradual change involving routine and regular practice.  I am learning.  I never said I was perfect… yet I am still shocked by this revelation that I have work to do to adjust my own sense of humility.  Awareness is the first step, right?

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“Silver liquid drops”

pink flowered tree

I took my camera out of the bag after several months of hibernation.  Here are a few photos from this tree my soggy backyard, along with some of my favorite quotations.  I appreciate anew the perspective that looking through the lens provides.

droplet w quote

world in a drop“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”        ~ W.B. Yeats

suprise bug_quote

I didn’t even know that little bug was there until post-production. I love it when that happens!


“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.” ~ Henry David Thoreau


Let the rain kiss you.  Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.  Let the rain sing you a lullaby. ~ Langston Hughes


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What is your personal spiritual curriculum?

Liv Lane

You can find more from Liv Lane here.

You have probably thought about what your purpose in life might be.  You have identified less-than-admirable traits that you want to work on (for me, one is being judgmental).  But have you ever thought that maybe you have your very own curriculum of qualities within that you are challenged to address?

I have just recently begun studying Mussar, a centuries-old Jewish spiritual tradition aimed at helping us overcome obstacles so we can strive to become the fullest version of the unique soul we already are. Mussar addresses 48 “soul characteristics” through which we can view our own behavior (cultivating humility, joy, awe, goodheartedness, closeness with friends, judging others favorably, etc.) and draws on teachings from the Torah and oral wisdom.  It teaches that each of us has our own personal spiritual curriculum that we are to work on in our lifetime.  The fruit of working through each quality or method is a refined soul (holiness) and a strong and open heart (wholeness).

Blog_flowersDrawing from an online course I’m currently taking and from what I’m learning in my reading, I want to share with you the compelling notion that life is a curriculum:

“The core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest essence is inherently pure and holy, but this inner radiance is obscured by extremes of emotion, desire, and bad habits which veil that inner light.  Our task is to transform the ‘veils’ and so uncover the brilliant light of the soul.”

“The Mussar masters taught that… you have already been given your assignment and you have already encountered it…  Your curriculum shows up most clearly in issues that repeatedly challenge you… a string of soured or broken relationships, unfulfilled dreams, etc.  Embedded within this personal history there is a curriculum, and the sooner you become familiar with your curriculum and get to work on it, the faster you’ll get free of these habitual patters.  Then you will suffer less and cause less suffering for others.  Then you will make the contribution to the world that is your unique and highest potential.”

We do have a choice in the matter.  Do we let this curriculum happen any way it will in our life or will we aim to discover pathways for living and growing that prior generations have helped illuminate?  Certainly, the circumstances of our daily lives differ from those of a millenium ago or before (Abraham and Sarah didn’t text each other or watch YouTube), but the essential nature of being human does not.

Tangled webAnd so begins the journey inward.  The goal of Mussar is to encourage us to examine specific traits and observe our own behavior.  It involves learning about each trait and assessing how each plays out in our own lives.  Each of us will have certain traits in too high or too low a measure, thus setting our own personal spiritual curriculum.  It is a Mussar principle that it is practice (more than thought) that brings about personal change.

“Done in a systematic and thorough way, this practice provides clear knowledge of the forces and contours of your own inner landscape.  That interior world of personality, thought, values, wisdom and emotions, along with its eternal essence, is what we know as ‘soul,’ and a rigorous process of soul-accounting delivers up penetrating insight and, ultimately, change.”

The main gift that the Mussar tradition provides us is a very accurate map of our inner life, along with practices to help us develop in the direction of our ideals.

Cool, right?!?! Though the path of study involves Torah study and learning from the writings of Jewish sages, the goal is universal – to become a good human being, cultivating personal growth in the midst of day-to-day life.  What I think is especially awesome is that it doesn’t really matter how far you get; what matters is that you start moving in the right direction.

Next week I’ll share with you one startling realization I’ve come to already that has caused me to seriously examine my own behavior and thought patterns.

Share anything you like in the comments below… I’d love to hear your thoughts about this!

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