States of Consciousness

Jewish Meditation zie boek

~Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan 

Most discussions of meditation speak of higher states of consciousness that can be attained through the practice. For the initiate these states of consciousness may be familiar, but for the outsider they are extremely difficult even to imagine. Much has been written about higher states of consciousness, but the discussion usually concludes with a statement that these states are indescribable and ineffable. There is an important reason that such experiences are indescribable. In the case of objective, external phenomena, a group of people can agree on words to describe them. This is how language in general is constructed. Thus, two people can look at a rose and agree that it is red. Since they are both seeing the same rose, they both have a common experience of which they can speak.

However, when people try to discuss personal experiences in higher states of consciousness, the experiences are entirely internal. I have no way of knowing what is in your mind, so even if you try to describe it, I have no way of being sure of what you mean. Furthermore, since the experiences are internal and individual, it is difficult for people to find a common ground to develop a descriptive vocabulary. Vocabulary is based on shared experi ences, and by definition, internal experiences are difficult if not impossible to share.

For example, let us assume that while in a meditative state, I saw in my mind a color that has no counterpart in the external world. Suppose it was totally different from any other color and impossible to describe in terms of other colors. How could I even begin to describe what the color looked like? There would be no words in human vocabulary to describe it. The same is true of many meditative experiences. This fact makes it extremely difficult to develop an epistemology of the meditative state. One ends up trying to describe experiences for which no language exists. This may be true, but since one of the aims of meditation is to reach higher states of consciousness, we should at least have some idea what this means. The problem is that higher states of consciousness are not only difficult to describe, but also difficult to define. There appears to be no objective epistemology through which one can know for sure that one is in a state of consciousness different from the everyday waking state. Nevertheless, on the basis of subjective experiences and reports, it is possible to gain some understanding of these states of consiousness.

The two most familiar states of consciousness are the waking state and the sleeping state. These are two states of consciousness that are universally known and recognized. Beyond that, we know that sometimes we may feel drowsy, while at other times we are particularly alert. This demonstrates that there are different levels in the waking state of consciousness. Experiments in which brain waves are measured also indicate that different states of brain activity exist in the waking state. Evidence from sleep laboratories indicates that there are also at least two states of consciousness involved in sleep, the first being the nondream state and the second being the dream state, in which rapid eye movement (REM) is observed.

Certain drugs have an effect on a person's state of consciousness. The best known is alcohol, which has the general effect of diminishing alertness, although since it removes inhibitions, it can also lead to increased awareness in some areas. Other, more potent drugs, such as L SD and mescaline, appear to increase the ability to focus on specific sensations, such as beauty, color, form, and the like, A full discussion of drug-induced states of consciousness is beyond the scope of this book. Instead, we shall explore states of consciousness that can be self-induced.

I recall that when I was in yeshivah, a few friends and I decided to have a contest to see who could memorize the most pages of Talmud. For me, it was an interesting experience. The first page took considerable effort and time, perhaps several hours. As I continued, each page became progressively easier. Eventually, after ten pages or so, I found that I could memorize a page after three or four readings. By the time I had gone through some twenty pages, I could memorize a page with a single reading. What had originally been extremely difficult had become relatively easy. My friends reported the same experience. It is well known that memory is a faculty that can be trained. People who regularly memorize large quantities of information find themselves able to do so very readily. Professional actors, for example, can memorize the lines in a play or movie in one or two readings. Similarly, many professional musicians can memorize a score almost immediately.

What was interesting from a subjective viewpoint was that it did not seem to me that my memory had improved. Rather, it seemed that when I looked at a page, I was looking at it differently. It was as if my memory was wide open and the material was going directly into it. It felt as if there was normally a barrier between perception and memory and that this barrier had now been removed. Logically, this would make sense. If we remembered everything we saw or learned, our memory would rapidly become cluttered with useless information. The mind therefore has a sort of filter that prevents unwanted information from being stored in the memory. The problem is that the filter is sometimes there when one does not want it—such as when one wishes to memorize something. With training, however, one can learn to remove this filter at will. The point is that when a person has trained his mind to mem orize, his awareness when reading material to be memorized is completely different. It could be said that he is in a different state of consciousness at the time.

Let me give another example. When I was a graduate student in nuclear physics, I was once working on an extremely difficult mathematical problem for a paper. I became totally involved in the problem and worked on it for almost seventy-two hours without interruption. In order to solve the problem, I had to invent a number of original mathematical techniques and procedures. But the strange thing was that when I read the final paper two years later, I found it almost impossible to understand the mathematics. It was difficult to believe that I had created this mathematical structure. Anyone who has ever worked on a difficult problem, especially in mathematics or the sciences, knows that at a certain point the mind seems to "lock on" to the problem. At that point, solving the problem becomes the most important thing in the world, and every fiber of one's being is concentrated on finding a solution. Subjectively speaking, I know that I can accomplish things when in a "locked-on" state that I cannot accomplish otherwise.

In one of my advanced physics courses, I had a difficult mathematical problem on a test. I worked on the problem for a while and then, realizing that I was not making any progress, skipped to the next problem. Fortunately, this was a test in which one had to answer only three out of five questions. Several months later, I was working on another paper and in the course of my calculations found myself confronted with a similar problem. This time, however, I was "locked on" to the problem and totally involved in it. Much to my surprise, I was able to solve the same problem that had stumped me on the test, literally in seconds. It felt like the simplest thing in the world, and indeed it was, since in the course of my calculations I was routinely solving problems that were much more complex and difficult.

I use the term "locking on" since this is the subjective feeling that one has in the kind of problem-solving that I am describing. When one is locked on to a problem, there is tremendous, almost sensual joy in solving it. It is possible to go without food and sleep, to dismiss all fatigue, until the problem is solved. Beyond this, it appears that one can call forth intellectual resources of which one is usually totally unaware. Being locked on to a problem also brings a person into a state of consciousness different from his normal state. A much greater portion of the mind seems to be involved in solving the problem than in a normal mental state. It could therefore be considered a "problem-solving" state of consciousness. I also remember a period during which I was painting. I had just learned how to use acrylics and had found that I could produce a fairly decent piece of work. Whenever I got involved in a painting, it seemed that I was also "locked on" to the project; I would find it extremely difficult to leave it. Again, I was able to create paintings that were surprising even to me. It appeared that when I was creating, I was going into a higher state of consciousness. Subjectively, I did not simply feel a sense of greater awareness or alertness; rather, I felt as if I were thinking in an entirely different mode.

The difference between ordinary intelligence and genius may not be so much a matter of a person's innate ability as his ability to "lock on" to the work at hand and get into a higher state of consciousness. Ordinary people consider works of genius beyond their reach, but this might not be true, since the creator himself may be surprised at what he produces when in a "locked-on" state of consciousness. The degree of creativity that one has, whether in art or in problem-solving, may be several orders of magnitude greater when one is in a "locked-on" state than when one is in a normal state of consciousness. It may be that the secret of genius is the ability to lock on to problems or creative efforts on a much deeper level than most people ordinarily attain.

This locked-on state of consciousness appears to be associated with increased physical energy. The pulse is quicker, and one may perspire profusely. Sometimes, one even has the experience of trembling with creativity. It seems that while one is in such a state, the energy that one is utilizing is much greater than normal, and not only is the mind completely involved in the creative effort, but also the body. 

There appears to be, however, another type of problem-solving consciousness. The first time I became aware of it was when, in the course of Kabbalistic research, I was trying to figure out the properties of a five-dimensional hypercube. The problem was extremely difficult, since it involved trying to visualize what would happen when the hypercube was rotated through fivedimensional space. I had spent several afternoons sweating over the problem, without even coming close to a solution. Then, one evening, I was relaxing in the bathtub, and my mind wandered to the problem, almost offhandedly. Suddenly, every aspect of the problem seemed perfectly clear, and relationships that had been impossibly complex were now easy to visualize and understand. By the time I got out of the tub, I had worked out the problem completely. Eventually, I began to realize that this was happening to me often. Sitting in the tub was an excellent time to solve the most difficult problems. But the experience was very different from being locked on to a problem. Quite to the contrary, the mind was free to wander wherever it wanted, but it seemed to hit upon the right answers with surprising clarity. It seems that the mind has two modes in which it possesses abnormal ability to solve problems. One is the "locked-on" mode, in which the energy of both mind and body is increased. The other is when a person is completely relaxed and the mind drifts to the problem on its own.

I think of the "locked-on" mode as a "hot" mode of thought and the relaxed mode as a "cool" mode of thought. In both cases, one's problem-solving ability is tremendously expanded. In hot concentration, the entire body is brought into play and, as it were, the adrenaline is made to flow. In cool concentration, body and mind are quieted down as much as possible, so that the mind is able to focus on the problem like a laser beam.

These two examples may seem far removed from the usual discussion of the higher states of consciousness associated with meditation. However, there are important links. First, there are intellectual modes of meditation. In some traditions, they are associated with "the way of the intellect. ' Some types of meditation appear to be designed to produce precisely the states of consciousness in which problem-solving ability is enhanced.

There is also a direct relationship to the better-known forms of meditation. Mantra meditation, which consists of repeating a word or phrase over and over, is said to elicit the "relaxation response." Many clinical psychologists use this type of meditation to induce relaxation in their patients. Indeed, a type of mantra meditation known as Standardized Clinical Meditation (SCM) has been devised as a therapeutic tool, devoid of all mystical elements.

While this technique appears to relax the body, it also increases the mind's activity. Mantra meditation can be used to relax the body and bring the mind into a state of "cool concentration." When a person is in such a state, his control of his mind processes seems to be increased. This can be demonstrated by a simple experiment:
Sit down in a straight-backed chair. Your back should be straight, since if you are in a hunched or slouched position, you will begin to feel cramped after a while. This experiment should be done at a time when you know that you will not be disturbed or interrupted. Begin by relaxing completely. Then close your eyes. Initially, you will see lights and images flashing in the mind's eye. After a minute or two, these flashes will begin to coalesce and take the form of kaleidoscopically changing images, as discussed earlier. As you relax, the images will begin to change more and more slowly, and eventually they will remain in the mind's eye long enough for you to focus on them. Just concentrate on the images. If other thoughts enter the mind, gently push them out. Try to maintain your concentration on the forms that arise in your mind's eye, and on nothing else. Gradually, you should find that you can hold on to an image for quite a while.

The first few times you do this, try to relax and concentrate on the images in your mind's eye without doing anything else. Each session should last for twenty to thirty minutes. Gradu ally, your ability to hold images and focus on them should increase. Once you have reached this stage, you are ready to demonstrate to yourself the effects of mantra meditation. Since you are only experimenting, and not making a long-term discipline of it at this point, it does not matter what you use for a mantra. It can consist of a nonsense phrase, a favorite line of poetry, a phrase from the Bible, or any other group of words. Some people find the words "My name is " an easy phrase to begin with. If you wish to make a more spiritual experience of it, you can use Rabbi Nachman's mantra, "Lord of the Universe," or its Hebrew equivalent.

Sitting comfortably, just repeat your experimental mantra over and over. At this point, it does not matter how you repeat it. You may wish to chant it slowly, whisper it, or silently mouth the words. The phrase should be said slowly, over and over again, for the entire session. After a while, you will begin to feel very relaxed and at the same time very alert. Now, while repeating the mantra, pay attention to the images formed in your mind's eye. As the mind quiets down, these images should become more and more vivid, and you should be able to hold them in the mind for longer and longer periods. The images may become spectacular and beautiful, sometimes even breathtaking.

The images formed in the mind's eye constitute one of the few objective indicators of the meditative state. You know that you are in a meditative state when the imagery in the mind's eye begins to take on a more substantial and permanent form. While imaging is not the only manifestation of higher states of consciousness, it is an indicator that is important and easy to describe objectively. Other indicators are also manifestations of one's control over the mental process, just as visualization is. Since this is being done as an experiment, it is not advisable to go too far in this direction without carefully planning out a course of meditation. But the experiment shows that in higher states of consciousness, one's ability to form images in the mind and concentrate on them is greatly enhanced. After progressing in meditation and learning how to concentrate, a process that can take weeks or months, one can learn how to control the images seen in one's mind's eye. At this point, one can conjure up an image and hold it in the field of vision as long as one desires. As we shall see, this in itself can become a form of meditation.

Earlier, we discussed the random images that appear in the mind's eye and spoke of them as being a sort of static produced by the brain. Although this static is most easily seen with the eyes closed, it also exists when we are looking at things; at that time, it tends to dull our perception. Thus, if one is looking at a rose, the experience of the rose's beauty is diminished by this static. When a person learns how to hold an image in the mind, however, he can also control the mind's static. He can then see things without being disturbed by the brain's self-generated images. This is especially significant in the appreciation of beauty. If a person "turns off" the mind's static and then looks at a rose, the image in his mind's eye will contain nothing other than the rose. Since at this point he can see the rose without any static, the beauty of the rose is enhanced manyfold. This is one reason that many people report an enhanced sense of beauty while in the meditative state. Indeed, many people learn meditation primarily to experience the new aesthetic experiences that can be encountered in such states of consciousness.

Once a person learns how to control the visions in the mind's eye, he can progress to increasingly more advanced visualizations. The simplest stages of visualization are straightforward; one conjures up images of figures, letters, objects, or scenes. What one sees is not much different from what one sees with normal vision. Nevertheless, to make the images in the mind's eye appear as solid and real as waking images requires considerable training. As one becomes more advanced, the images can appear even more real than what one sees with open eyes. The more advanced one becomes in controlling one's mind, the more control one has over what one can see in the mind's eye. When a person becomes expert in visualization, he will be able to see things in the mind's eye that he could never see with his physical eyes. From descriptions in Kabbalistic and other mystical works, it appears that many experiences encountered in higher states of consciousness fall into this category.

Thus, for example, the Zohar speaks of the "lamp of darkness." This appears to denote a darkness that radiates. Similarly, in Talmudic sources, there are references to "black fire." There is a teaching that the primeval Torah was originally written "with black fire on white fire." This is something that we cannot see with ordinary vision, and indeed, it is impossible to imagine in a normal state of consciousness. Ordinarily, we see bright colors, not blackness or darkness, as radiant.

In the mind's eye, however, it is possible to visualize a lamp radiating darkness. It would be like the negative image of a lamp radiating light. Just as when one sees light, one is aware that energy is being radiated, when one sees the lamp of darkness, one would be aware of negative energy radiating. Visualizing "black fire" would be a very similar experience. When a person has learned to control his visualization experience, negative energy becomes a simple thing to visualize.

It is also possible for a person to intensify his perception of beauty in an image in his mind's eye. This is beyond the enhanced perception that we have discussed earlier, in which one removes the static and focuses the entire mind on a beautiful object. Rather, one would be turning up the "beauty" dial in the mind, to make the mind particularly sensitive and appreciative of beauty. The image that one then sees in the mind's eye may appear thousands of times more beautiful than an image seen with the physical eyes, since one is intentionally amplifying the sensation of beauty.

This is significant, since Beauty (tifereth) is one of the Ten Sefiroth discussed in Kabbalah. The Ten Sefiroth are Will (keter), Learning Ability (chokhmah), Understanding (binah), Love (chesed), Strength (gevurah), Beauty (tifereth), Dominance (netzach), Submissiveness (hod), Sexuality (yesod), and Receptivity (malkhuth). These Sefiroth may be looked upon as "dials" in the mind that can be used to amplify the experiences associated with them. Thus, since Beauty is one of the Ten Sefiroth, one can turn up the "dial" and amplify the sensation.

Another important phenomenon that can be experienced in a higher, controlled state of consciousness is panoscopic vision. Normally, when one looks at a solid object, one can see only one side of it at a time. Similarly, in the mind's eye, one usually visualizes something only one side at a time. Of course, in the case of a real object, one can rotate it to see the other side, and one can do the same in the mind's eye. In a higher state of consciousness, however, it is possible to attain panoscopic vision, whereby one can look at an object in the mind's eye from all sides at once.

Thus, for example, if one were looking at America on a globe, one would not be able to see Asia, since it is on the opposite side of the globe. However, in a higher state of consciousness, it would be possible to visualize the globe and see America and Asia simultaneously. It is impossible to describe this sensation to one who has never experienced it. A number of modern artists, such as Picasso, seem to have had such experiences and attempted to depict them on canvas. The human mind can normally visualize an object only from one side because this is the way we see with our eyes. This is merely due to habit from the time of infanthood. When one learns how to control one's mental processes, one can break these habits and visualize things in totally different perspectives. Panoscopic vision is one example of this phenomenon.

There is evidence that the prophet Ezekiel had such an experience in his famous vision. He describes certain angels, known as chayyoth, as having four different faces on four different sides: the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle. Yet he continually stresses that these figures "did not rotate as they moved." What he was saying was that although he saw the chayyoth from only one side and they did not rotate, he could see all four faces at once.

Even more spectacular is the fact that in an advanced state of consciousness, it is possible to visualize more than the usual three dimensions. Of course, with our physical eyes, we never see more than the three-dimensional world around us. However, in higher meditative states, it is possible to visualize four and sometimes even five dimensions. There is evidence that the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) contains meditative exercises that include such visualizations. Synesthesia is another important phenomenon observed in higher states of consciousness. Human senses tend to be compartmentalized, so that different parts of the mind deal with different senses; one part of the mind may deal with sight, while another deals with hearing. In a normal state of consciousness, we do not see sounds or hear colors.

In higher states of consciousness, however, the barriers between the senses are lowered. In such states, one's sense of sight can be used to perceive sounds. Similarly, one is able to hear colors, see fragrances, and feel sights. This is the experience of synesthesia, which means "mixing of senses." Even in a normal state of consciousness, on an ethereal level, one may have a vague feeling that a sound or melody has a particular texture or color. This is because the barriers between the senses are never totally absolute. In higher states of consciousness, however, the spillover can become quite vivid. For example, one may see a piece of music as a complex visual pattern. I am saying not that the music is associated with the pattern, but that the music is the pattern. It is a very strange sensation, which is impossible to describe to someone who has never experienced it.

There is Talmudic evidence that synesthesia was associated with the mystical state of revelation. When the Ten Commandments were given, the Torah describes the people's experience by stating, "All the people saw the sounds" (Exod. 20:18). An ancient Talmudic source states that "they saw that which would normally be heard, and heard that which would normally be seen." This is a clear example of synesthesia.

Another phenomenon that can be visualized in a higher meditative state is nothingness. When we think of nothingness, we often think of it as simple blackness, a vacuum, or the interplanetary void. None of this, however, is true nothingness. Blackness or space cannot be nothingness, since "blackness" and "space" are things themselves. Nothingness must be the absence of everything, even of blackness and empty space.

If you want to know what nothingness looks like, just focus on what you see behind your head. (In some systems, one focuses on what one sees inside the head.) Obviously, you cannot see anything behind your head. But this means precisely that what you see behind your head is nothingness. Therefore, if you want to know what nothing really looks like, concentrate on what you see behind your head. If you wanted to visualize nothingness in a meditative state, you would have to take this perception of nothingness and bring it into your mind's eye. In a normal state of consciousness, this would be impossible, but in higher states of consciousness, with training and practice, it can be accomplished. Indeed, in a number of systems of meditation, it is an important practice. For one thing, filling the mind with nothingness is a highly effective way of clearing it of all perception. There are some experiences that are so subtle that even the visualization of blackness or empty space could overshadow them. However, when the mind is filled with the experience of nothingness, it is open to the most subtle influences.

One of the influences that the mind can detect while visualizing nothingness is the spiritual. In such a state, the spiritual can appear very spectacular, since the nothingness in the mind can be filled with that which comes from the Without. Of course, visualizing nothingness is a highly advanced technique. The spiritual, however, can be experienced on much simpler levels. Indeed, there appears to be an area of the mind that is particularly receptive to the spiritual experience. Sometimes, without warning, a person can have a spiritual experience that leaves him awestruck or exhilarated. A more intense spiritual experience can have a profound effect on a person's entire life. Just as a person can amplify his sense of beauty through meditation, he can also amplify his sense of the spiritual. If part of the mind is particularly sensitive to the spiritual, then through meditation this sensitivity can voluntarily be enhanced and increased. This results from the control of the mind that one has during the meditative experience. Enhanced spiritual experiences are associated with the states of consciousness experienced by prophets and mystics. The senses are blocked out, and all sensation, both internal and external, is eliminated. In such states of consciousness, the feeling of the Divine is strengthened, and a person can experience an intense feeling of closeness to God. Meditations of this type can bring a person to the most profound and beautiful experiences imaginable.

A word of caution is in order at this point. The experiences that a person can have in these states of consciousness can be so beatific that he may not want to return to his normal state of consciousness. It is possible for a person to become completely lost in the mystic state, actually swallowed up by it. Therefore, before exploring these highest states, be sure that you have something to bring you down safely. It is very much like flying a plane. Taking off is exhilarating, but before you take off, you had better know how to land again. For this reason, most texts on Jewish meditation stress that before embarking on the higher levels, a person should have a master. Then, if he goes "up" and does not know how to come down, or does not want to, the master will be able to talk him clown.

Other sources indicate that mystics would actually take an oath to return to a normal state of consciousness at the end of their meditative sessions. Then, even if they were not inclined to return, they would be bound by their oath. All texts on Jewish meditation stress that the person embarking on more advanced forms of meditation should first develop a strong internal discipline. This is very important, since higher states of consciousness are very enticing and it is possible to lose one's sense of reality. However, if a person is in control of his actions and emotions in general, he will also remain in control of his sense of reality. Rather than negate his life, his meditative experiences will enhance it.

It is in this context that a common folk saying states that people who study Kabbalah go mad. This obviously does not mean the academic study of Kabbalah; although Kabbalah is a difficult intellectual discipline, it is no more dangerous than any other study. However, involvement in the more esoteric forms of Kabbalistic meditation can be dangerous to mental health, especially if the meditator proceeds without adequate preparation. In a sense, it is like climbing a mountain. Even for an experienced climber, there is always an element of danger. If a person had limited experience, he would not even think of climbing a difficult mountain without a guide; to do so would be to court disaster. The same is true of one who tries the more esoteric forms of meditation without proper training and discipline.

The forms of meditation presented in this book are not dangerous mountains. Rather, they are gentle hills, which are safe to climb, but from which one can see wide vistas.