Aristotle defined moral virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which he considered vices. We learn moral virtue primarily through experience, habit, and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction. This is also called the middle path, or the middle way, and restates the concepts of balance and harmony.
While the concept of balance is certainly appropriate and familiar to us, as we think about the shift from outer appearances to the intrinsic inner world, virtue takes on an entirely different meaning. The heart of virtue actually lies in the transformation of inner currents, which are the source of our motives. It is a balancing not of our behavior, but of the inner world and its controling forces, extinguising their power, strengthening the self, and arriving at various equilibria in the inner spheres, along a multitude of axes.
In my view, the growth process towards virtue is the most difficult challenge any person can undertake. It also happens to be the most important at the soul level.
First it requires an intimate and careful self-study; with the aim of becoming ever-more aware of ourselves – our behaviors, our desires, our emotional reactions and especially our motives; everything from the grand repeating patterns of life to the smallest unconscious details and motivations. We seek to get more and more closely familiar with ourselves and understand our default settings, so to speak. Here we might explore meditations or mindfulness, various self-awareness practices, a bit in inquiry work, illumination of our judgments and standards, subconscious beliefs and how altering those beliefs unblocks a great deal of expression and energy.
Then comes the investigation into how those settings came to be – the wounds, traumas, childhood experiences, and resulting system of deeper core beliefs that created those internal settings and maintain them in their current state. Here we would do lots of trauma healing work, inner-child work, perhaps touching into some past life materials, etc.
Then the deepening recognition and contemplation that the settings aren’t in their ideal state. Being calibrated to the extremes, which is represented by overwhelming inner forces and reflected by external circumstances and entities, we are shown one by one that the settings are out of alignment with our higher truths and mystical values. It is here that we study the wisdom teachings and mystical philosophy, learning the tools and their proper application to begin changing the settings, through the slow and very careful excavation and digestion of pain. This is where the work of mysticism really begins, when we begin to access soul-level impurities, deep unconscious currents, the involuntary forces, attachments and temptations, and work out issues that fall into existential and faith categories. (This kind of work takes places in periods of severe darkness and intense disintegration.).
It is always a movement towards the center or mean, as Aristotle calls it. It follows a kind of swing of the pendulum motion, tempering the middle by ceaseless burnings at either end. It doesn’t always end up in the center when it’s finished; some settings lean more one way than another in their ideal state.
Substantively it involves extinguishing of all kinds of desire, the relinquishing of all kinds of attachments, the dismantling of fear, the healing all of kinds of trust and betrayal wounds, making peace with all kinds of intolerable truths, the complete acceptance of suffering (which is extremely difficult as it relates to innocent others), and an inordinate amount of wrestling with death, with God, with demons, with all the manifestations of sin, etc.
The result is greater and greater internal peace; in the mind and in the emotional body. In this condition, there is increasingly less pull of internal desire in any extreme, and less fear driving deficiency/avoidance. It is an inner freedom from the pulls and traps of egoic desire, freedom from the limits of standards and concepts, freedom perhaps even from the external appearance of virtuousness; rather, capable of spontaneously expressing all the various aspects of personality as the circumstances require.
It has almost nothing to do with external behavior, and everything to do what is going on in the internal world. Behavior is sometimes a byproduct of the process, other times it’s a vehicle for exploring particular temptations. A person who has, in his internal world, attained a great deal of virtuous balance might appear on the surface very disagreeable, perhaps especially so to those steeped in social norms based on deeply egotistical values. Contrary to traditional religious understandings, such a person might consciously and intentionally dive deeply into temptations, in order to explore them completely, rather than fearfully abstaining from them. Exploring the darkness, he might go from crisis to crisis, barely treading societal water, appearing crazy, appearing reclusive, appear irresponsible, because he is following the call of the inner-self who leads him into every kind of human experience…
The path is not subject to external scrutiny in the normal sense. It is not performed for the approval or acclaim of others. It is entirely personal; an intimate relationship between the person and his God.
The attainment of more and more virtue (or more accurately the continuous striving towards those goals) isn’t then about becoming a “good” person. That’s not the point. Some things that are called good in normal human terms, or socially sanctioned as good, or religiously prescribed as good, are in fact deeply polarized, pain or fear-based behaviors, which are not considered virtuous, especially when they are performed from the wrong motives.
What we know generally as goodness: greater love, empathy, compassion, fairness, generosity, justice, fortitude, temperance, courage and wisdom arise as a result of the pursuit of virtue. They are an inevitable and natural expression of the healing and balancing work. But there is also a purified expression of healthy aggression, assertiveness, interpersonal courage, self-respect, personal dignity, and boundaries, a directness and even harshness with those who refuse to acknowledge their own lies. There is a deep intolerance and rejection of sentimentality, self-pity, hypocrisy, and other forms of exaggerated emotional manipulativeness and attempts at control or exploitation. There is a natural distaste for those who refuse their own growth and development, those who are glib and self-satisfied in their complacent egotistical displays, and most importantly a keen intuitive discernment for the energy of evil, without which the pursuit of virtue could never be possible.