There are two tensions in the practice of Mussar that are important for us to talk about.
First is the tension between the physical and spiritual dimensions of change. We can change our behavior but not go the next step of transforming ourselves internally. For example, a person might be trying to become more generous (in relationships, with money, etc). Through mussar practice, one could be trained in a kind of Pavlovian way, to perform the right actions. So, you make it a habit to give money, you make it a habit to make sure that people you are in relationship with are taken care of. Yet, internally, your spirit is in rebellion against this and constantly resenting your giving, dubious about the needs of others versus your own needs. This is not the goal of mussar. We are striving to change internally as well - though this may begin with reluctant acts in the physical world. Ultimately, mussar practice is pointing to a higher consciousness, toward a unity underlying all physical existence, so that the practitioner becomes more aware of this deeper reality and more willing, therefore, with the ethical dictates that flow from it.
The second tension is between an awareness of one's flaws and a sense of magnificent spiritual potential within each individual. Mussar practice begins with a very deep sense of self-awareness. The self-aware person will see the many shortcomings, missed opportunities, wasted time, selfish and cruel acts, misguided strivings, etc, etc, that is at the heart of so much of our time here. This self-awareness can lead to a sense of shame and a very low and dejected spirit. If this low state persists, it will become impossible to ascend to the next level - we can't lift ourselves up if we are always focused on our shameful character. The Aish Kodesh (I'm on a big Aish Kodesh trip right now and you will continue to hear much about him in the coming weeks) writes about the impossibility of drawing down Torah from heaven when we are in such a debased state. It becomes impossible to access and draw out the divine potential that is within us if we are blinded to it.
The answer is of course not to try to lower of our self-awareness - ultimately our ability to transcend our current state hinges on our capacity to see a brilliant light within ourselves. The challenge is to see ourselves as complex beings who have a deep core of holiness but who are guided away from that and are led to be out of touch with that. Rav Simchah Bunam famously taught that we should have in one pocket a note that says "I am but dust and ashes" and in the other pocket a note that says "For my sake the world was created." The trick is to know when to reach for each one.
Finally, the lyrics to George Harrison's "Within You Without You" are either terribly insightful, or just ludicrous. But the title fits here, and it's a great song:
We were talking-about the space between us all
And the people-who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth-then it's far too late-when they pass away.
We were talking-about the love we all could share-when we find it
To try our best to hold it there-with our love
With our love-we could save the world-if they only knew.
Try to realize it's all within yourself
No-one else can make you change
And to see you're really only very small,
And life flows ON within you and without you.
We were talking-about the love that's gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul-
They don't know-they can't see-are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself-then you may find, peace of mind,
Is waiting there-
And the time will come when you see
we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you.