Research Paper By Amy Hertzberg
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
The spiritual teachings of my religion, Judaism, have led me to pursue a professional career as a life coach. Once enrolled as a student of the International Coach Academy, I was thrilled to discover the strong connection between the ancient spiritual teachings of Judaism and the principals and theories used in life coaching. This paper, which combines my passion for the two disciplines, not only illustrates the connection between them but also demonstrates how ancient Jewish teachings, such as Mussar, can be universally applied to coaching today.
What is Mussar?
The Hebrew term Mussar, comes from the book of Proverbs 1:2 and means moral conduct, instruction or discipline. It also serves as the simple, modern Hebrew word for “ethics.” In his book, Everyday Holiness, Author Alan Morinis writes,
Mussar refers to a spiritual perspective and also to a discipline of transformative practices. (Morinis, 2008, p.8)
History of Mussar:
The Mussar movement was introduced in Lithuania by an Orthodox Rabbi, Israel Salanter, in the second half of the 19th century. Its origins, however, can be traced back to 10th Century Babylonia when Sa’adia Ga’on published his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, which included a chapter on “How a Person Ought to Behave in the World.” (Morinis, 2008, p.8) Salanter believed that cultivating a spiritual life could help relieve social tensions, which, at the time, were tearing apart the European Jewish community. Today, Mussar organizations and institutes have spread beyond the Orthodox Jewish Sector. While some Mussar programs are connected to synagogues, there are number that are not affiliated with a congregation at all. The practice of Mussar has been incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish Day Schools and there are even online Mussar programs and classes. Popular books such as Everyday Holiness written by Alan Morinis, the founder of the Mussar Institute, have sparked a modern interest in Mussar. It is no surprise that the Mussar movement has gained popularity today. Mussar is as applicable to our lives today as it was in the 10th and 19th centuries. While our lives today are certainly different from those of past centuries, human nature has remained the same. Mussar, with its ancient universal wisdom, provides guidance on how to live and can be applied to all people, regardless of religion and time.
A Shared Purpose:
The spiritual teachings of Mussar and the fundamentals of life coaching share a common purpose: to cultivate spiritual development and personal growth. To understand Mussar, one can begin with the Torah’s commandment found in the book of Leviticus:
You shall be holy.
The Torah teaches that we are put on earth for no other purpose than to grow and develop spiritually. Mussar’s mission is to help individuals navigate this path of spiritual development.
Judaism teaches that humans are intentionally created imperfectly. Our flaws and shortcomings were given to us for the sole purpose of improving ourselves. We are created incompletely so that we can do the work to become “whole” and “holy.” Judaism maintains that every individual has a unique spiritual curriculum to master. Our spiritual curriculum is to work on the issues in our lives that challenge us. It is even believed that life itself is designed, so that, through these challenges, we learn and grow. Not only does Judaism proclaim that life’s purpose is to grow spiritually, but personal growth is made possible due to Judaism’s strong belief that humans have the choice, or free will, to change.
Similarly, a main goal of the life coach is to help clients make changes in themselves or in their lives in order to live a more meaningful existence. Like the Jewish path of Mussar, life coaching is a distinct process that supports personal development and self-directed change. In coaching, self-awareness is vital to a client’s success in achieving personal growth and self-directed change. It is only through this deep level of self awareness and understanding of who we are that change can occur. Mussar’s teachings also affirm that through introspection and self-examination, an individual can identify the traits that are obstacles in one’s life. Both disciplines proclaim that in order to understand the origins of our thoughts and behaviors, individuals must explore inner factors, including underlying beliefs, that impact their lives. In fact, digging deep to explore those factors that affect our behavior and bringing them to a conscious level, is the only way self-directed change can occur.
A Shared Outcome:
Not only do Jewish spiritual principals, like Mussar, and life coaching share the common mission of cultivating personal growth and spiritual development, the two aim to deliver the same outcome: transformation. The process for both an individual who practices Mussar and an individual who experiences life coaching, is transformational. The International Coach Academy, in a module entitled “Coaching – what is it?” states,
A coach works with a functional person to get them to become exceptional. (ICA, Module: Coaching what is it?, p. 2)
Likewise, in his book, Everyday Holiness, Author Alan Morinis, states the ultimate goal of Mussar is to help an individual become “
an extraordinary ordinary person. (Morinis, 2008 p.14)
Shared Cored Concepts:
Perhaps the most obvious connection between the Jewish teachings of Mussar and life coaching are the core concepts that both disciplines consider essential to one’s attainment of personal development and spiritual growth. Mussar’s guide to helping one become “whole” and “holy” focuses on a variety of “soul” or character traits for individuals to work on in order to become as spiritually refined and elevated as possible. While Mussar outlines numerous character traits to help an individual grow spiritually, this paper focuses on three character traits; gratitude, trust and honor. These three character traits, which are paramount to Mussar’s guide to spiritual development, are also key concepts used by life coaches.When life coaches and Mussar practitioners apply these character traits as techniques to help an individual develop and grow spiritually, the result is a life lived with meaning and fulfillment.
GRATITUDE = HAKARAT HA’TOV
The Hebrew word for Gratitude, “Hakarat Ha’Tov, literally means “recognizing the good.” Gratitude is intrinsic to being Jewish: Yehuda means “I am grateful.” and the word Jew is derived from Yehudi, the people of Yehuda. (Genesis: Bereshit 29:35) Gratitude is an essential part of Jewish worship. The Torah is filled with blessings for everything in our life, including numerous daily blessings of gratitude even for what would appear to be mundane. Mussar and its Jewish teachings, advise us to awaken to the good and give thanks.
Just as gratitude is essential to Judaism, gratitude is a key concept applied by coaches to reframe a disempowering perspective. The coaching profession believes that gratitude is a state of mind, and plays a vital role in a person’s well-being. When inner gratitude exists, individuals see their world in a different, more positive way. Both Judaism and the coaching profession believe that gratitude is instrumental to spiritual growth and personal development.
The saying “abundance creates abundance” described in the ICA’s module on gratitude, explains that gratitude encourages a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness and generosity; one act of gratitude encourages another. When we experience inner gratitude, we become aware and are able to acknowledge the ways others have contributed to our own success. As a result, we not only feel more inclined to give back, but we often feel thankful for the ability to be generous in the first place. Instead of feeling a desire to receive back from the person we gave to, this deep inner feeling of gratitude becomes our reward. Though devout Jews use prayers and worship to express gratitude, there are practical coaching methods that can be applied today to instill gratitude towards others. For example, a coach can invite a client to write a letter or a card to thank or acknowledge another in their life. Other practical ways individuals learn to express gratitude towards others are to verbally greet, acknowledge, compliment and thank others throughout the day.
Gratitude, according to the ancient wisdom of Mussar, not only promotes generosity towards others, but also encourages us to “see the good in others.” Life coaches also utilize the concept of gratitude to help clients “see the good in others.” For example, when a client has difficulty letting go of hurt and disappointment caused by another person, a coach may use gratitude as a tool to help move the client beyond these negative emotions. One way a coach achieves this is by helping the client explore the “good” in the other person. The coach invites the client to create a “top ten list” of the person’s strengths or of examples of how that person has helped the client. When done successfully, the client adopts a new outlook of thankfulness and appreciation of the other. This shift in perspective allows the client to break through the negative, disempowering mindset and adopt a positive, more empowering one.