The work of self-transformation plays a key role in the spiritual life. Without it all our other practices are meaningless. Unless we seriously engage in the work of personality purification, immersing ourselves in intensive meditation or the study of spiritual wisdom can lead to disaster.
When we dive inward during meditation, powerful spiritual energies are aroused. These energies create an intense stimulation of heart and mind. This strong stimulation can destabilize our mind and emotions, and throw us into inner turmoil.
Similarly, when we delve into the teachings of spiritual wisdom, we are tapping into the very essence of existence. These ideas are life changing and mind expanding. If we are not prepared for the drastic shift in consciousness that they provoke, our studies will only result in mental confusion.
It is crucial that we engage wholeheartedly in the work of self-transformation – the difficult and painful work of changing our character. No one is born perfect, we are all full of imperfections – otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We come to this world to learn and grow.
The key to building a strong foundation for the work of personal transformation is self-awareness. Most of us wander unconsciously through our lives. We act without thinking, speak without reflecting and are oblivious to the feelings and needs of those around us. We are blind to our character flaws. We tend to think of ourselves as saints. The first real steps are taken on the spiritual path, when we begin to see ourselves as we really are.
This work takes place on several levels. The first level is to take time each evening (just before sleep is usually the best choice) to reflect on the experiences of our day. What were the major events? How did we react to them? How did we interact with people, both at home and in the work place? What feelings and thoughts were evoked and how did they affect us? What caused us react in this manner? If there were conflicts, what was our part in creating the conflict? How could we have prevented the conflict or handled it differently? How will we act differently in the future? If there were special successes, what facilitated these successes, and how can we build on them?
This is the proper way to look at the practice of vidui or confession. Vidui is not meant to be a ritual of breast-beating. It is intended as a technique of self-examination, where we look at ourselves and how we act in the world. Vidui is training in self-awareness, a tool to help us to see ourselves.
Self-examination can only succeed if it is undertaken in a spirit of total honesty. We cannot flinch from seeing our faults or fears. There can be no false pride or modesty. We need to confront our illusions with courage and inner strength.
Self-examination is more than a psychological exercise; it is a spiritual practice. The Talmud Brachot 28B declares: “Know before whom you stand.” Before we set out to reflect upon our day, we need to place ourselves before God. We need to look at our behavior in the clear light of His awe-inspiring Presence.
Once we have developed this habit of daily self-examination, the work of self-awareness can then be taken to a higher level. On this level, we strive to be conscious during every moment of the day. We try to reflect before speaking, to be alert and aware of others around us. We seek to stand back and observe ourselves in every situation. We endeavor to bring God into everything that we say and do.
In the beginning, to live in this fashion takes enormous concentration and focus. With practice, however, it will become the natural way in which we approach our day. Over time we will develop what the Bhagavad Gita calls “skill in action” – an intuitive wisdom in negotiating the experiences of life.
Self-awareness will not only enable us to see ourselves, it will also help us to see and hear other people. The Ethics of the Fathers 4:1 teaches: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” Normally, we are so self-involved that we do not notice the people around us. We hear but do not hear, see but do not see. We converse with other people, but no real communication occurs. We merely hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.
There is much that we can learn from others. We can gain knowledge from their words. We can acquire understanding by observing their actions. We can achieve wisdom by watching how they interact with other people; how they navigate the details of daily life.
This is what the Rabbis are telling us with this dictum: How do we become wise? By being fully present in every moment, by striving to learn from every experience, by being in touch with what is happening both inside and outside of ourselves.
The Baal Shem takes this idea of the Rabbis one step further. He suggests that we can even learn from the wrongdoing of others:
“If you see or hear about the wrongdoing of someone, then you should apply what you hear to yourself, and use it to look at that same fault in yourself. Use the knowledge you have gained from the other’s mistake to prevent yourself from falling into the same error.”
Rather than being repulsed or angered by the wrongdoings of others, let us use the situation as an opportunity to learn about ourselves. How would we feel if we were in their position? How did they come to act in this way? How would we avoid making the same mistake that they did? How would we ensure that we act differently?
The Baal Shem then continues his teaching by turning our thoughts in the opposite direction. Instead of seeing what is wrong in another’s actions, he suggests that we try to discover the positive virtue hidden within their negative behavior. If we see someone risk his life for gain or pleasure in this world, then how much more so should we be willing to risk our life for reward and bliss in the world to come. If we see that evil individuals are at peace and serene despite their evil actions, then how much more so should we, who are trying to fulfill God’s Will to the best of our ability, feel tranquil and at peace.
If we act in this manner, the Baal Shem assures us, we will be able to raise up the Divine sparks in everything around us. We will bring God into every situation. And our every encounter will become a source of spiritual inspiration.
The Dhammapada exhorts us to “look upon the man who tells you thy faults as if he told thee of a hidden treasure.”  We can go through many lifetimes struggling with the same negative character trait. It can become so engrained inside us that we are unable to even see that it is there. To be shown such a fault is a great blessing. It is a gift more valuable than any spiritual experience.
Unfortunately, not everyone is ready to accept such a painful gift. Not everyone has the necessary courage or humility to face this type of self-knowledge. More than one aspirant has run away from the spiritual path when confronted with the stark truth about him or herself.
To see ourselves “naked” can be a terrifying experience. We cannot undergo such self-confrontation without tremendous faith. We need to have faith in God and faith in ourselves – trust in our ability to grow and evolve. Yet such self-confrontation is the quickest way to chip away our outer façade. It is the direct path to our Divine essence.
Self-awareness is the key to real spiritual progress. Only by peeling away the layers of personality imperfection can the Divine light within us begin to shine forth. The more we remove all that is false from our character, the more the doors of the inner reality will open for us. As our self-awareness deepens, our spiritual practices will bear fruit in ever-greater measure, and we will ascend ever-higher toward union with our Supernal Source.
Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick
- Dhammapada, as translated by Juan Mascaro↵