Thursday, 8 September 2011

Strife: A Motivator for Change

Frater Serpentis et Aquila of The Hermit’s Lantern recently posted on the topic of Magic is Sacrifice.

This is a rather timely post for me since it’s now the Hebrew month of Ellul. That means that the run-up to the festival Rosh Hashanah (New Year) has started in earnest. It’s not a time of wild celebration but rather one of introspection and making peace with one’s fellow mankind and Creator.

It’s at this time of year that I dust off my copy of “Strife of the Spirit” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and re-read his excellent essays in that book, examine how my life has changed in the past year and apply what I have learned and internalize what changes I need to make for the coming year. In particular his opening essay, that has the same name as the book, resonates strongly. Its message in tweet form is: Peace of mind is not the end goal; strife of the spirit is what makes us strive to better ourselves.

Here is an extract about peace of mind (“Strife of the Spirit”, A Steinsaltz pp4):
“…Here is a truth with with applicability, be it in the international or interpersonal realm, or in the life of the individual soul. Peace with no content, meaningless tranquility, rest without sanctity – all are empty vessels. At best, the emptiness is soon filled with positive content. In all too many cases, however, the empty vessel becomes a repository for whatever comes along. In the absence of anything else, rubbish and abomination can fill the void. It is the same with empty peace of mind: tension and pressure seem to be gone, but nothing positive comes to take their place. A vacuum results, an existence devoid of effort or thought, which is in no sense better than what preceded it…” 
Rabi Steinsaltz asks later on in his essay whether there is an alternative to strife of the spirit and his answer is that for most of us there is no alternative. Some fortunate souls are able to bring opposing forces in their soul in to harmony due to natural talent but those people do not have the potential to achieve the great heights of those who have to genuinely struggle with all their being at whatever circumstance and level they start off at.

Rabbi Steinsaltz finished his essay with (“Strife of the Spirit”, A Steinsaltz pp8):
“…At whatever level man struggles, there will his consciousness be involved. What differentiates the saint from the lowly creature of instinct, cunning, and cruelty is not the life-tension within him but the level at which his conscious being joins the struggle he must wage for survival. The choice between good and evil is preceded by an even more fundamental choice: whether to give spiritual or moral expression to the contradiction inherent in one’s humanness or try to ignore that contradiction. Difficulty, tension, bitterness and pain, are to be found as much in the ash heap as in the heavens. Each human being must decide where to take his stand and fight his battle…” 
Having spent many years in the pursuit of peace of mind, I finally had to admit that it was worthless when I read this essay for the first time. However, putting aside the last vestiges of that quest for peace of mind has not been easy. At least I’ve moved on beyond the first step of recognizing that strife of the spirit necessitates changes in where my effort and will are focused in my day to day life.