Steadiness

“And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hands, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hands, that Amalek prevailed. When Moses’ hands became weary, they took a stone and placed it under him, so that he would be able to sit on it. Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.” – Exodus 17:11-12

Steadiness is crucial in the spiritual life. We need to remain steady in our struggle with our lower self, with our ego. We need to be strong as we face the trials and tribulations that assault us in this world. We need to be firm in our resolve until the time of battle has passed, even until the last day of our life.

The Hasidic Master, Levi Yitchak of Berditchev, teaches that the tzaddik is called a ner tamid, an eternal light, because he serves God betamidut – steadily, consistently. It is this steadiness that makes him shine continually. His steady illumination allows him to give light to others. [1]

 

What is this steadiness?

First and foremost, it is steadiness of mind. Sri Ramakrishna declared, “Unless the mind becomes steady there cannot be yoga [union with God].” He compares the mind to the flame of a candle, a ner. “It is the wind of worldliness that always disturbs the mind. If that flame doesn’t move at all, then one is said to have attained yoga.” [2]

Sri Ramakrishna also compares the struggle with the mind to the struggle of a sailor to try and control his boat in turbulent waters.

“The helmsman stands up and clutches the rudder firmly as long as the boat is passing through waves, storms, high wind, or around the curves of a river; but he relaxes after steering through them. As soon as the boat passes the curves and the helmsman feels a favourable wind, he sits comfortably and just touches the rudder.” [3]

In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that he needs to learn to steady his mind if he wants to attain the state of yoga – union with God. Arjuna responds to this suggestion with despair, saying that it is impossible to control his restless mind. Krishna admits that it is very difficult to control the fickle mind, but he tells Arjuna that with daily practice and perseverance the mind will gradually become steady.  It is through regular and consistent practice that we achieve a steady mind. [4]

 

We not only need a steady mind; we also need a steady heart. The Dhammapada teaches:

“The man who wisely controls his senses…He is calm like the earth that endures; he is steady like a column that is firm; he is pure like a lake that is clear.” [5]

If we want to succeed in the spiritual life, we need to be the master of our emotions. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak teaches that when we find an obstacle in the path of our Divine service, the crucial thing is not to allow fear to enter into our heart. This is because fear will unsettle our inner equilibrium. If we cannot maintain our inner equilibrium, then we will not be able to receive the Divine Presence when She comes close to uphold and support us. However, if we can learn to control our fear, the Divine Presence will be able to overshadow us. Then, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak promises, no obstacle can harm us. [6]

“Even as a rock is not shaken by the wind, the wise man is not shaken by praise or blame.” [7]

We need to develop steadiness not only in regard to our fears and worries, we also need to be steady in the face of the reactions of others. We cannot let the thoughts and emotions of others affect how we feel ourselves. People will praise our actions one day, and then on another day, the same people will deride the deeds that we have done. There is nothing that we can do to change this; it is the way of the world. Our steadiness needs to transcend the moods and opinions of others. Our steadiness needs to come from within.

Spiritual steadiness, therefore, also means a steady faith. Our faith in God tends to be spasmodic and erratic. We are great believers if matters work out to our liking, but we quickly lose our faith when things start to go wrong. We need to cultivate a firm faith that remains steady no matter what our circumstances. We will develop this type of faith when we realize that the only one we can truly rely on is God.

Reb Yaibe, one of the hasidim of the Baal Shem Tov, uses God’s interchange with Moses at the Burning Bush to make this point. When Moses asks for a sign that God is with him, God replies, “What is in your hand?” Moses responds, “A staff.” A staff, Reb Yaibe explains, implies trust and confidence. We rely on a staff to support and steady us. God is telling Moses that in the same way that we rely on a staff to support us, so we should rely completely on God.

God then tells Moses to throw the staff to the ground and it becomes a serpent. When we feel low, Reb Yaibe continues, the serpent, the yetzer harah (lower self), can get a hold on us. As a result, we begin to doubt God and look for help from man.

Afterward, Moses grabs the serpent by the tail and it once again becomes a staff. The way to counteract the influence of the lower self, Rebbe Yaibe concludes, is to realize that in the end (the tail) the serpent will again become a staff. In the final analysis, all other supports but God will fail us, only God will always be there for us. [8]

To attain a steady faith, we need to build steadiness in our devotion. The rabbis teach that we should make a fixed place for our prayers. We can understand this teaching to mean that we need to keep a place inside us that is vibrant with prayer; a place where we constantly turn to God, a place that is always alive with His presence. As Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger teaches:

“There needs to burn in [the human soul] a fiery longing to worship the Creator, and this longing has to be renewed each day.” [9]

By building a place inside ourselves that constantly longs for God we will awaken true devotion in our hearts. From this steady devotion will arise the living experience of God’s presence; it is the living presence of God that creates true faith.

Leviticus 6:1-2 states:

“This is the Torah of the burnt offering [olah]: It is the burnt offering, which shall be burning upon the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning in it.”

The Hasidic Master, Nachum of Chernobyl, interprets this phrase in a novel fashion: “This is the Torah of the oleh” – the one who is ascending; “which shall be burning upon the altar all night” – who is struggling throughout the trial and tribulations of life to transform his lower self; “until the morning” – until his lower self becomes filled with the light of his Higher Self and he is reborn anew. [10]

The Torah was given to help us in the struggle to transform ourselves. The key to this process is steadiness. The whole of Judaism is built on the power of steadiness: the daily practices, the constant learning, the regular fulfillment of spiritual disciplines and rituals. By integrating these practices into our way of life, we build a tremendous force of spiritual steadiness, a reservoir of spiritual energy and strength that we can draw upon when we face a life crisis or a moment of personal tragedy and loss.

Above all else, steadiness means consistency in our spiritual practice and effort; it means having profound patience and perseverance as we strive along the path.

The rabbis saw steadiness in learning as an essential dimension of this process. The Talmud Brachot 35 states: “The first generation made their study permanent and their work temporary and both [their learning and their work] succeeded. The latter generations made their work permanent and their learning temporary and neither [their work nor their learning] succeeded.”

Learning is the foundation of understanding. It is our learning that inspires us to live the life of holiness. It provides the motivation to evolve and grow. Regular study builds concentration and the habit of reflection and analysis. Steady learning creates a steady heart and mind.

Swami Ashokananda of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco used to say that the most important quality in a disciple is the readiness to learn and to change. [11] This capacity to constantly evolve is a key aspect of the spiritual life. The desire to learn and expand is of greater value on the path than an abundance of spiritual talents.

Yet even spiritual growth should not occur in great fits and starts. It is better to have slow, steady growth; to evolve gradually from stage to stage. Swami Brahmananda gives the following analogy in this regard: If a man wants to reach the roof he will not have someone throw him up from the floor below; that way he would break his neck. To reach the roof safely, he must climb the stairs one at a time. [12]

Rebbe Dov Baer of Mezeritch also teaches that it is preferable to progress from one level to the next than to make huge spiritual leaps. If we go from level to level, he explains, we can tap into each of these levels when we need inner strength. If we jump to the highest level all at once, however, we will have to reach up to that highest level every time that we need help or inspiration. Also, if we ascend from level to level, then we will still be able to remain linked into God even after we have lost our highest state of consciousness. If we reach the highest level in one great leap, however, when we drop from that level, we will immediately fall straight back into physical consciousness again. [13]

 

Beyond all these levels of steadiness, there is one more aspect of steadiness that we need in order to succeed in the spiritual life. We need steadfast friends who will support us when we are weary of the struggle, who will strengthen us when we feel that we cannot go forward another step.

True spiritual friends are a real blessing. They are a gift worth more than any object or experience. Spiritual friends will help us to be steady in heart and mind. They will aid us in being consistent in our devotion and learning. They will encourage us to learn and grow. They will stand on either side of us, like Aaron and Hur stood beside Moses, holding up our arms until the battle is won.

Copyright © 2010, by Yoel Glick

first published on 11/6/2010

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Acknowledgements



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Torah Portion Tzaveh
  2. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, , p. 113
  3. Gospel, p. 112
  4. Swami Chidananda, An Instrument of Thy Peace.  P. 247
  5. Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaro, p. 48
  6. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Torah portion Ekev
  7. Dhammapada, p. 46
  8. Reb Yaibe, Torah portion Shemot
  9. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, translation by Arthur Green, p. 155
  10. Nachum of Chernobyl, Meor Einayim, Torah Portion Tzav
  11. Sister Gargi, A Disciple’s Journal, p. 188
  12. Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion, p. 186-7
  13. Yaacov Yosef of Polonya, Toldot Yaacov Yosef, Torah portion Vayaitzei

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