Monday, April 7, 2008


I haven't written in very often, but it's strange that although I came to Jewish practice because I want it to be a spiritual path, I end up writing about petty Jewish politics! But lately, there's been a special aspect of spiritual training and growth that's been very much on my mind lately.

Judaism is full of teachings to nullify the ego. Chassidut is full of teachings to "mevatel" (nullify, cancel) oneself before the tzaddik (righteous leader; in Chassidish, this word usually means the rebbe) or before God. Pirke Avot is also full of similar admonitions, such as "do His will as if it were your will, so that He will do your will as if it were His will" and "Give Him of what is yours, because you and yours are His". Your own will and needs are subordinate to those of God. Of course, we are still commanded to watch our health and ensure our own personal survival, but we're here not for ourselves and our own gratification, but for the service of God. Pirke Avot says again "If you've learned a great deal of Torah, don't think you're so great. You were created for that purpose." Don't get full of yourself for doing good, for learning a lot, etc. It makes no sense to think you're king of the world simply for doing what you were created by a higher power to do.

Another form of self-nullification, or at least, a decentralization of the ego, is called for in the martial arts. I heard the grandmaster of my art say "Make yourself zero." In order to defeat your attacker, make yourself nothing. Slip away from him. Disappear from his view. Getting full of yourself makes that impossible. Being overly concerned with overpowering your opponent robs you of the broader awareness of your situation that you need in order to accomplish what is necessary. Getting caught up in your own fear of his power, or trying too hard to use your own power, leads to blind and wasteful use of muscle power. And muscle power never works in our art, if for no other reason, than that the opponent might be stronger. Use proper placement of body weight and momentum; the structurally strong parts of your posture against the weak parts of his. Never fight force with force. No strength, no power, no ego. Make yourself zero, vanish from his view, open your awareness, and do what is appropriate.

The rabbis and the martial artists were talking about two different things, but there's a common element. While the rabbis are talking from a philosophical and theological perspective, the martial arts master is talking from a pragmatic perspective. The first is about lowering your personal status, either before other people or before God. The other is not about thinking of yourself as less, but putting ego aside for the sake of objectivity and effectiveness. The Jewish version of "bitul (self-nullification)" is about humility before a power and a wisdom greater than you. The martial artist's way of making himself zero is about being in touch, and seeing oneself as a part of the natural flow of things in the universe, instead of its center.

I try to cultivate both. Jewish bitul is a concept ripe for abuse, of course; people can always be told by rabbis to put their own understanding of things, their own values, even their own sense of self-worth on the back burner, and just listen to the rabbi. But as long as I reject that version of bitul, I can still have bitul before God. Knowing that the world is bigger than my (or anyone else's) understanding; knowing that sometimes, ethical obligations might overrule what I want to do at any given moment; that it pays to put aside my own ego for the sake of compassion and sensing beauty and significance. The martial artist's kind of self-nullification accomplishes all that as well, but it is a basically pragmatic kind of freedom from ego. It keeps me aware, keeps me emotionally stable, and frees me from distraction.

I guess that when I've got enough training in both Torah and martial arts, I want to open a full-time martial arts yeshiva....

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