Jewish Meditation / zie boek
~Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
At this point it would be useful to discuss and classify the various meditative techniques, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The techniques of almost all meditative systems can be classified in similar ways; this does not imply any special relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish meditation. Rather, since a general concept of meditation exists, all forms have characteristics in common, which in turn can be used to classify various techniques.
The situation is analogous to that of prayer, which is important in all religious traditions. Certain elements are characteristic of all prayer. This does not mean that one system of prayer is derived from another, or even that a relationship exists between the systems. Rather, the similarities stem from the fact that there are a limited number of basic ways of relating to God, and these will be found in prayer wherever it exists. Thus, almost every prayer can fit into one of three categories: praise, petition, and thanksgiving. We can praise God and speak of His greatness. We can petition God and ask Him to provide us with the things we need and want. Finally, we can thank God for what He has given us. In Jewish prayer, these three divisions are formalized and follow a set sequence. Nevertheless, if we were to examine prayers of all the world's faiths, we would find that with few exceptions they would all fall into one of the three categories
The same is true of meditation. There are a finite number of ways in which a person can interact with his own mind, and these form the categories of all meditation. Thus, when one understands meditation in general, one can then understand Jewish meditation in particular. Since meditation involves subtle experiences that may be unfamiliar to many readers, I shall begin with a mundane example.
I have defined meditation as a controlled manner of thinking. On the simplest level, you can decide to sit down for the next half hour and just think about one particular subject. Let's say you decide that for the next half hour you will think about rearranging your furniture. In your mind's eye, you might imagine how various arrangements would look and even plan how to move the heavier pieces. During that half hour, you will have been meditating on furniture arrangement. It is as simple as that. There need not be anything esoteric or mysterious about meditation. No special surroundings are required, nor must any particular body position be assumed. You could have meditated while walking around the block, while sitting back in your easy chair, or while relaxing in the tub. The very fact that for a specific time period you were thinking about a specific topic rather than letting your mind wander at random makes it a meditative experience.
Of course, it is not always that easy. What do you do when other thoughts begin to creep into the mind? Remember that the decision was to think about arranging furniture and nothing else. If this meditation is actually going to be a controlled thinking experience, then you will need a technique to rid yourself of undesired thoughts. You might gently push the extraneous thoughts out of your mind or otherwise pull your mind back to the desired subject. Whatever method you use to keep your mind on the subject, in doing so you will be developing the rudiments of a full-fledged meditative technique. Meditation on rearranging your furniture may be a trivial example. But suppose you decided to spend a half hour meditating on how to rearrange your life. You might find yourself thinking about fundamental questions such as these:
What do I ultimately want out of life?
What gives my life meaning?
What is the meaning of life in general?
If I had my life to live over, what would I do with it?
What ideals, if any, would I be willing to die for?
What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?
You have probably already thought about these questions at some time in your life. However, chances are that you thought of them only briefly. Unless you have been involved in a discipline that encourages it, you have probably never spent a full half hour, without interruption, thinking about any of these questions. If you have never done so before, the first time may be very shocking. You may discover that you have no idea of what you perceive as your purpose in life. You may have never thought about the meaning of life at all. Indeed, after a half hour of pondering any of the above questions, you might decide that the question needs more than one session of meditation. You might decide to have a half-hour session once a week. To make sure that you continue, you may decide that at a certain time every week you will spend a half hour meditating on the purpose of life as well as your own personal goals. You will then be on your way to developing a discipline of meditation.
After several weeks of such meditation, you will probably begin to notice yourself growing in a number of areas. You might decide to reevaluate the direction of your life and make major changes in your life-style. You might find yourself more secure in your dealings with others, more confident about how you are spending your time. You may also find that you are constantly gaining new insight into your own personality and motivations. At this point, you might feel that once a week is not enough You may decide to increase the frequency of your meditation to two or three times a week or even once a day. You will then discover why many schools of meditation suggest or require that meditation be a daily exercise.
As you continue to explore what is most meaningful to you, you may come to a point where you feel that you are reaching a new threshold. You may find yourself pondering not only the meaning of your own life, but the very meaning of existence in general. At this point, you will have discovered God. Before discussing this further, it is important to define God. We often think of God as being "out there," far away from the world. But it is important to realize that God is also "in there"— in the deepest recesses of the soul.
Here are two ways in which a person can discover God. First, a person can reflect on questions such as these: What is beyond space and time? How did the world come into existence? Why does the world exist? What came before time? By pondering such questions, a person can find God, but he will find God only in the sense that God is "out there." The second way in which one can find God is by delving deeper and deeper into the self in the manner discussed earlier. Here also one finds God, but one is finding Him in the sense that He is "in there."
This twofold manner of discovering God is related to the Kabbalistic concept that God both encompasses and fills all creation. When we say that God is above all things and beyond all things, we are speaking of Him in the sense that He encompasses and defines all creation. This is the concept of God as being "out there." However, in another sense, God is very close to us— closer than the air we breathe, closer than our very souls—and in this sense He fills all creation, and is "in there." Once a person discovers God in this manner, he might want to transform his meditation into a conversation with God. If one discovers God as the ultimate depth of one's being, then the way to relate to this depth would be to relate to God. At this point, one's meditation into the meaning of existence might become a silent conversation with God.
It is significant to note that according to the Midrash, this is exactly how Abraham's career began. First Abraham began to contemplate the meaning of life and existence, and it was in this manner that he discovered God. Abraham then began to have a dialogue with God. Abraham's experience can be seen as a paradigm of how to begin a relationship with the Divine.
Again, the problem of extraneous thoughts may arise. One way to help alleviate this problem is to speak to God out loud rather than just in the mind. One would then be speaking to God orally. Using oral conversation as a meditative technique is an ancient Jewish practice, documented in a number of important texts. In particular, it was a technique stressed by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, as we shall see in chapter 10. There are three important things that could be said about the above type of meditation:
1. It is a verbal type of meditation: it involves words in thought or speech, rather than images.
2. It is inner-directed: the entire form of the meditation comes from within the person rather than being determined by an external stimulus.
3. It is unstructured: when the person sits down to meditate, he has no preconceived notion of what direction the meditation will take.
Some people find an unstructured meditation too loose. In order to put structure into your meditation, you can write out an agenda. You may decide that every day for a given period of time, say a week, you will meditate on one subject; then you will go on to a second subject for the next week. Thus, if you are meditating on how to reorder your life, you might decide to spend one week meditating on your relationship with your spouse, a second week meditating on your relationship with your children, and then two weeks meditating on your career. As soon as one sets up an agenda of meditation, it becomes a structured meditation. Of course, a meditation can be loosely structured or tightly structured, again depending on what one wishes to accomplish. Meditating with an agenda is a practice favored by the Musar schools in Judaism. This form of meditation is especially effective when one wants to perfect one's habits or one's way of life in general.
Another way to add structure to your meditation is to use a biblical verse as the object of meditation. You could take verses randomly from the Bible or seek out verses that apply to the subject of your meditative interest. It is possible to make the entire meditative session, for a clay, a week, or a month, revolve around that verse. Your goal would still be to rearrange your life, but you would be trying to do so in the context of that biblical verse. The verse could also form the basis of a conversation with God.
The method of basing a meditation on a verse, known as gerushin, was used by the mystics of Safed in the sixteenth century. Although the method was used extensively, the texts provide few details. It appears that a number of ways are possible. The simplest way to use a biblical verse as a meditation would be to read the verse before meditating, perhaps memorizing it, and then use it as a point of departure for unstructured meditation. The meditator begins by meditating on the verse and then goes on to direct his mind to the subject upon which he wants to meditate. The course of meditation could lead the meditator far from the original verse; the verse would serve merely as the initial focus of the meditation, not as its entire subject. This means of meditation is also discussed in Judaic literature. Alternatively, you may write the verse on a piece of paper. During the course of meditation, you could then reread it, directing your mind back to the verse from time to time. This is particularly effective if you wish to apply the verse to a particular life problem; in this way, the verse becomes an integral part of the meditation.
Eventually, you may wish to make the verse the entire subject of meditation. In a sense, your meditation would become a conversation with the biblical verse. You would be thinking about the verse, looking at it in different ways, seeking different possible interpretations, and attempting to apply it to your particular life problems. If the verse has a specific lesson, you might use a series of meditative sessions to integrate the verse into your personality. Although we have used a biblical verse as an example, any saying or teaching could be used as the basis for such a meditation. To simplify our discussion, however, we will continue to speak of a biblical verse.
The verse can be used either visually or verbally. If the verse is used visually as the basis for meditation, write the verse on a piece of paper and use it as a focus. Fix your gaze on the verse; do not take your eyes off it. The verse should become the center of your attention to the exclusion of everything else. It should be as if nothing else in the world exists other than the verse. You can then gaze at the verse and allow your thoughts to flow freely. On a more advanced level, you could use this method to clear the mind of all thought other than the verse. This method is known as visual contemplation. Using a verse is just one means of accomplishing such meditation. The subject of your contemplation could also be a candle flame, a flower, a picture, a pebble, or any other object. Since this practice entails using something external to the mind as the object of meditation, it is known as an externally directed meditation. This meditation can be either structured or unstructured.
The simplest way to do the meditation would be to gaze at the object and let your thoughts flow freely. This would be an unstructured meditation. However, if you used the method to fill the mind completely, banishing all other thoughts, then this in itself would impose structure on the meditation, and it would constitute a structured meditation. When one contemplates an object, one looks at it, paying acute attention to every detail. As one continues to gaze, even the most minute details become significant. One can look deeper and deeper into the object, trying to see its inner essence and obliterating all other thought from the mind. Beyond the inner essence, one can strive to see the Divine in the object and use it as a springboard to reach God.
In lieu of gazing at the written verse, you could repeat the verse over and over for the entire period of meditation. This would be a verbal meditation as opposed to a visual contemplation. Here again, the meditation could be unstructured, where the mind is allowed to roam wherever the verse takes it. Alterna tively, it could be structured, where all thought other than the words of the verse is removed from the mind. Of course, here again, the subject of meditation need not be a biblical verse. Any sentence, word, or phrase can do. As we shall see, the great Chasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav prescribed using the phrase "Lord of the Universe" as a meditative device.
In Eastern traditions, the repeated phrase is known as a mantra, and meditation using such a phrase is called mantra meditation. One of the best-known examples of a system based on mantra meditation is Transcendental Meditation. Since there is no equivalent English term for this type of meditation, I shall use the term "mantra" where necessary. There are, then, three ways in which the above-mentioned meditations can be classified. They can be either visual or verbal, structured or unstructured, internally or externally directed. Inner-directed, unstructured meditation is most valuable as a means of examining one's life or finding meaning in life. Externally directed, structured meditation is most often used to focus the mind and thought processes or to gain a transcendental experience.
Although most meditative methods are visual or verbal, other faculties can be the focus of meditation as well. Thus, instead of meditating on an object or verse, one could meditate on a sound, such as the chirping of a cricket, the rush of a waterfall, or a musical note played over and over. One would be using the sense of hearing to direct the meditation, although in these cases the meditation would be nonverbal.
In a similar manner, the meditation could involve the sense of smell. Indeed, there are Hebrew blessings said over fragrances, and in practice they can make the enjoyment of a fragrance into a meditative experience. The blessings over food can make a meditative experience out of tasting and eating. The sense of touch, too, can be the focus of a meditative experience. It is also possible to use the kinesthetic sense as the object of meditation. This would consist of meditating on a body movement or a series of body movements. This is a method used by the Sufis in their dance meditations. Chasidim often use this form of meditation in dancing and in their slow swaying motions. Any action meditation can be seen as using the kinesthetic sense, even if other senses are involved. The main thing is to concentrate on the act and elevate it to an expression of divine worship. This can include even mundane acts such as washing the dishes.
In Judaism, action meditation is most important when connected with the performance of the commandments and rituals. Many Jews and non-Jews think of the precepts as routine, ritualistic actions. Many Jewish sources, however, speak of the commandments as meditative devices, which can bring a person to a high level of God consciousness. When the commandments are seen in this light, they assume great spiritual significance. A final focus of meditation can be one's own emotions. Thus, for example, one can focus on the emotion of love in exactly the same way that one can focus on a flower or a candle flame. One can ponder the love one feels for another person and enhance the emotion, experiencing it totally without any outside interference. One can also take this intensified love and direct it toward God or toward one's fellow man. Indeed, the commandments "Love God your Lord with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might" (Deut. 6:5) and "Love your neighbor like yourself" (Lev. 19:18) actually mandate such a meditation. When one directs one's mind to love God and one's fellow man, one provides one's life with an entirely new focus.
Control of the emotions is a very important element of selfcontrol in general. Often the concept of self-control conjures up the image of an emotionless, dry, rigid way of life. If a person is in complete control of his emotions, however, he can call forth any emotion he desires and is free to enhance it as he wills. Rather than be controlled by emotions such as love, yearning, or awe, he can control them. One can evoke these emotions and blend them together, painting every aspect of life with a rich palette of feelings. Control of the emotions can thus lead a person to experience a richer blend of feelings in his daily life than the average person generally experiences.
The final types of meditation do not make use of any device, but involve direct control of the thoughts. These are usually considered the most advanced forms of meditation. One such technique involves the exercise mentioned in chapter 1, in which you were asked to try to stop thinking for a period of time. For most people this is impossible, and it is an excellent demonstration that the mind is not entirely under the control of the will. After a few seconds of trying not to think, thoughts begin to creep into the mind, and after a short period, they often return in a torrent.
Like many other disciplines, this, too, can be developed. If a person practices stopping his thought flow, he can learn to do so for longer and longer periods; eventually, he can learn to turn his thought processes on and off at will. This may sound easy, but in practice it takes years of intense practice to perfect this ability. Since this type of meditation does not use anything as a focus, it is often called nondirected meditation. In its more advanced forms, it can actually focus on "nonthought" or on nothingness. This form of meditation can be dangerous and should not be attempted without a practiced guide or master.
Most of the methods that I shall discuss in this book, however, are fairly straightforward and safe if practiced properly. They can be readily learned and can bring the meditator to increased awareness and higher states of consciousness.