~Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
The best-known form of meditation today is mantra meditation. The word "mantra" is an Eastern term denoting a word or phrase that is repeated over and over as a meditative exercise. In many types of Eastern meditation, mantra meditation is the central exercise, and it forms virtually the entire basis of Transcendental Meditation. Since there is no adequate generic Western term for this type of meditation, I shall use the Eastern term "mantra."
One immediate effect of mantra meditation is to relax the body. In this form of meditation, it seems that the more the body relaxes, the more active the mind becomes. It is as if energy is released by the body, which can be used by the mind. In any case, meditation, especially using a mantra, is an excellent relaxation method. For this reason, a number of psychologists have developed religiously neutral forms of mantra meditation to elicit the "relaxation response." An entire system called Standardized Clinical Meditation (SCM) has been developed to utilize this form of meditation in a clinical context.
Mantra meditation most probably works largely through habituation. If a person is in a room all day with, say, a loudly ticking clock, his mind eventually turns off the sound of the ticking. Although he hears the ticking, it simply does not register. The person is said to have become habituated to the ticking sound, so that he no longer pays attention to it. This is an important mechanism through which the mind filters out the commonplace and allows the thinker to concentrate on what is important. When one repeats a mantra over and over, the mind also becomes habituated to it. Eventually, one becomes able to say it without the words registering in the conscious mind. By this time, one has also formed the habit of erasing all thought from the mind while reciting the mantra. It is therefore a highly effective psychological means of removing all thought from the mind. This may seem quite mundane and nonmystical. However, the mantra does not necessarily have to be the mystical element in the meditation. The mantra can serve as a means of clearing the mind of mundane thought, leaving it open to other, transcendental experiences. This can be true no matter how nonmystical the mantra is. Indeed, in certain types of clinical meditation, a nonsense word can be used as the mantra.
Nevertheless, if the mantra has spiritual power in its own right, it not only clears the mind of mundane thought, but also puts the meditator into a special spiritual space. The form of the mantra can be extremely important if one wishes to accomplish a specific spiritual goal in one's meditation. Although mantra meditation is not the most typical Jewish form of meditation, it is one of the simplest. As in general meditation, it consists in repeating a word or a phrase over and over, usually for a period of half an hour each day. The most important element of the meditation is that it be done daily and that there be a commitment to continue the practice for a period of at least a month. It usually takes between thirty and forty days for the results of this type of meditation to become manifest.
There appear to be references to mantra meditation even in the Bible. On the basis of philological analysis, it seems that the Hebrew verb hagah denotes a kind of meditation in which a word or sound is repeated over and over. The great Hebrew linguist David Kimchi (1160-1235) writes that the word hagah denotes a sound or a thought that is repeated like the cooing of a dove or the growling of a lion. Nevertheless, the biblical references to this type of meditation are ambiguous and not clearly stated. The earliest unambiguous reference to a mantra type of meditation is found in Heykhaloth Rabbatai, the primary text of Merkavah mysticism, dating from Talmudic times. The text presents a mystical "name" of God, which is actually a rather long phrase consisting of a number of mystical words or names. The instruction says that this phrase must be repeated 120 times, again and again. The technique is reminiscent of mantra meditation, especially in some Eastern systems in which the mantra is repeated for a set number of times.
It is significant that in the Heykhaloth, the mantra is seen not as an end in itself, but rather as the first step in the discipline of the chariot. The mantra was used to bring the initiate into a state of consciousness from which he could travel from chamber to chamber in the supernal worlds. Thus, rather than define the state of consciousness, the mantra brought the individual into the first stage of the meditative state, from which he could use other techniques to progress further. In later Kabbalistic schools, it appears that biblical verses or selections from the Talmud or Zohar would be used as mantras. In sixteenth-century Safed, for example, there is mention of a technique known as gerushin, which appears to consist in repeating a biblical verse over and over as a sort of mantra. Besides bringing the meditator into a higher state of consciousness, the purpose of this technique was to provide him with deeper insight into the verse itself. As he repeated the verse, it would eventually appear as if the verse itself were telling the initiate its meaning. Rather than studying or analyzing the verse, the meditator would then be communing with it.
This concept is even more graphically illustrated in a technique used by Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) and his followers. Instead of using a biblical verse, this technique made use of a selection from the Mishnah, the earliest portion of the Talmud, completed around 200 C.E. A portion of the Mishnah (a particular paragraph or mishnah) would be repeated as a mantra, leading to a state of consciousness in which a maggid, an angelic being associated with the mishnah, would speak to the meditator. Again, the meditator would gain deep insights, not from studying or analyzing the mishnah, but by experiencing its spiritual essence.
It is significant that there may be an allusion to this technique in the Talmud itself. The Talmud speaks of reviewing a mishnah and says, "Repeating one's mishnah one hundred times is not the same as repeating it one hundred and one times." There may be an allusion in this teaching that even in Talmudic times, the Mishnah was used as a type of mantra.
There is also evidence that the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) made use of a similar technique with the Zohar. Unlike other Kabbalists of his time, who analyzed the Zohar and tried to probe its mysteries intellectually, the Ari probed its depths by means of a meditative technique. Judging by the description of his technique, he seems to have used a short selection of the Zohar as a mantra, repeating it over and over until its meaning became clear. The Ari describes this experience by saying that the Zohar "spoke to him."
In relatively modern times, a practical form of mantra meditation was prescribed by the noted Chasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1811). Of all the Chasidic masters, none spoke of hitbodeduth meditation more often than he. As we shall see, his main technique consisted in engaging in conversations with God. Nevertheless, Rabbi Nachman said that if a person does not known what to say, he should simply repeat the phrase Ribbono shel Olam, which is Hebrew for "Master of the Universe." From the description of the technique, it seems obvious that Rabbi Nachman was prescribing the use of this phrase as a mantra to bring a person into a higher state of consciousness.
Here, too, Rabbi Nachman did not regard repeating the mantra as an end in itself. Rather, he saw it as a way of opening the mind in order to enter into conversation with God, a method that he maintained was the best way to get close to God. Still, he saw repetition as an important technique in its own right.
Since the phrase Ribbono shel Olam was prescribed as a mantralike device by Rabbi Nachman, some people refer to it as Rabbi Nachman's mantra. Some, for the sake of authenticity, prefer the Chasidic pronunciation, Ribboinoi shel Oylawm. In any case, it is an ideal phrase for anyone who wants to engage in an authentic Jewish mantra meditation. Not only was it prescribed by one of the great Chasidic masters, but the phrase itself was used as an introduction to prayer as far back as early Talmudic times. The expression Ribbono shel Olam was used as early as the first century B. C . E . by Simeon ben Shetach, and according to the Talmud, it was also in use in biblical times.
Mantra meditation is one of the simplest types of meditation. It is therefore a good place to begin if you wish to embark on a program of meditation. Rabbi Nachman's mantra, Ribbono shel Olam, is a good one with which to start. It also provides an excellent example of meditation in general.
You cannot begin a program of meditation without a certain degree of commitment. In order for it to have an effect, you must do it on a daily basis, spending at least twenty or thirty minutes repeating the mantra. If you do it every day, the effects become cumulative. However, when you miss or skip days, the cumulative effect is lost. Furthermore, it takes several weeks of discipline with a mantra to attain a full level of a higher state of consciousness. Some effects may be manifest immediately, but it takes a few weeks before you experience the full effects. If you have the commitment, the results can be striking.
At this point, a word of warning is in order. Mantra meditation is a fairly safe method for most people, but it can be dangerous for someone with a history of mental illness. If a person's connection to the real world is not strong to begin with, he may have difficulty reestablishing his connection with reality after a deep meditative experience. Just as certain forms of strenuous exercise must be avoided by people with a history of heart trouble, certain forms of mental exercise should be avoided by people with a history of mental illness. The Talmudic story of Ben Zoma, who lost his mind after a particularly intense meditative experience, serves as a warning. Any person with doubts about his mental stability should make sure that he has an expert guide before becoming involved with any type of intense meditation.
In general, the preparations for meditation are straightforward and simple. You should meditate in a time and place where you will not be interrupted or disturbed by people, phone calls, or noise. Rabbi Nachman said that it was best to have a special room for meditation if possible. Since this is a luxury that few can afford, you may choose a special corner of the house, a special chair, or a room where you can be alone at night when no one else is about. Rabbi Nachman also said that woods, hills, and fields are good places to meditate, especially when the weather is comfortable.
But the place is not important, as long as it is an environment where you will not be interrupted. You can even meditate under the covers in bed at night, if it is a place where you know you will not be disturbed, and Rabbi Nachman presents this as a viable alternative. An excellent place, if available, would also be the synagogue when no one is around to disturb the meditative session.
Many people associate meditation with the Eastern lotus position. However, we should remember that in the East it was common to sit on the floor or on a mat, so that the lotus position was close to the normal, comfortable sitting position for Eastern meditators. For Westerners, this position is difficult to learn and is initially quite uncomfortable. In practice, it is found that sitting in a comfortable straight-backed chair is just as effective. In any case, this is of little relevance to Jewish meditation, since the systems do not prescribe any special position. It is true that there are references to sitting in a chair, but they are only meant as a suggestion. You may choose any position in which you can remain comfortable for a long period of time without moving the body or being subject to cramping.
During meditation, sit with the eyes lightly closed, totally relaxed. Your hands can rest comfortably on the table or on your lap. Your fingers should not be clasped or intertwined, as the Kabbalists teach that this should be avoided. Rather, if your hands are together, one should rest lightly on the other. Before beginning a meditation, settle yourself in the place. This means sitting quietly in the place where you will be meditating, fitting into it and making yourself at ease. During this period, try to relax completely, clearing your mind of all extraneous concerns. Some people find it helpful to hum a relaxing melody
during these preparatory moments. This period should last between five and ten minutes.
In this respect, the advantage of meditating in the same place every day becomes clear. You will come to associate that place with the serene mood developed during meditation, and after a few days, the calmness comes automatically as soon as you sit down in your meditation place. This tends to reinforce the process and make it easier to advance. Let us assume that you are using Rabbi Nachman's mantra, Ribbono shel Olam, Repeat the phrase over and over, slowly, in a very soft voice. The meditative norm is that it should be said in the softest voice that you can comfortably pronounce. You can either whisper it or vocalize it softly, whichever is more comfortable to you.
There are no firm standards regarding this in Jewish meditation. Some people find it easier to whisper the mantra. It is also permissible to mouth it without voicing it at all. It is not recommended, however, that it merely be thought in the mind, at least for beginners. If the mantra is repeated mentally, without at least mouthing it, it can be interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Therefore, one should not place too much emphasis on how the mantra is said, as long as it is said for the designated time. This usually consists of a period between twenty minutes and a half hour, as mentioned earlier. If you wish, you may use a silent timer to signal when the meditation period is over. This is preferable to looking at a clock, which takes the mind off the meditation. You can also have someone else signal you when the time is up. After a while, however, you will automatically know when the period of meditation is over.
At first, you may allow the. mind to wander freely while reciting the mantra. As long as you have an inner awareness that the words Ribbono shel Olam denote "Master of the Universe," the words themselves will pull your thoughts in a meaningful direction. No matter where the thoughts lead, there is no cause for concern. A Chasidic teaching says that any thought that enters the mind during meditation does so for a purpose. It is also instructive to pay attention to the visual images you see while meditating with the eyes closed. As you become more advanced, these images become clearer and more vivid, and it becomes much easier to focus on them. Beyond that, as days pass, your control over these images improves dramatically during the meditative state. The vividness of these images can also become spectacular.
One must be careful, however, not to take these images too seriously. As one advances, the images become more explicit and can take the form of visions. The neophyte meditator may be tempted to place great significance on these visions, and think that he is actually experiencing prophecy or the like. It is therefore important to realize that any visions one may experience are not important and that undue emphasis should not be placed on them. Unless a person is extremely advanced, it is assumed that any visions he experiences are creations of the mind and nothing more.
In the Kabbalah literature, there are warnings even to advanced meditators not to give credence to visions. Even the most impressive visions can be spurious and come from the Other Side. Indeed, acting on the basis of images seen while in a meditative state is considered to be extremely dangerous and detrimental to one's spiritual development. Therefore, when a person experiences images or visions, they should be taken as aesthetic experiences and nothing more. At most, they should be taken as the first hints of a spiritual experience.
In general, bodily motion destroys concentration during mantra meditation and should be avoided. Some people, however, report that a slight, very slow swaying, perhaps a half inch in each direction, helps ease tension during the initial stages. If you find this helpful, you may use it.
At first, during meditation, you may allow the mind to wander freely or concentrate on the images you see in your mind's eye. However, as you become more advanced, you should begin to allow the words of the mantra to fill the mind completely, blanking out all sensation. This involves keeping all other thoughts out of the consciousness. All of your attention should be focused on the words of the mantra, leaving no room for any other thought.
Of course, until you become proficient in this discipline, extraneous thoughts will constantly try to push their way into the mind. You must then gently push them out, forcing your concentration back to the words of the mantra. This can sometimes take considerable effort, but it is the means through which one gains control of one's thoughts.
Some people find it easier to banish extraneous thoughts if they recite the mantra very slowly. As we shall see, slowness is also used in other types of meditation. At other times, however, it may be preferable to recite the mantra rapidly, sometimes even racing through the words. Here again, each individual must find his own pace.
After the meditation is over, remain in place for approximately five minutes, allowing the mind to absorb the effects of the meditation. You also need some time to "come back down" before returning to your daily routine. Again, you may wish to hum a soft melody during this period. It should be a time of intimate closeness with the Divine.
You may wish to use the moments following a meditation to have a short conversation with God. As mentioned earlier, Rabbi Nachman saw mantra meditation primarily as a means of preparing for such a divine conversation, which he saw as a higher type of meditation. In any case, one can feel very close to God after a meditation, and it is a good time to express that closeness. Whereas Eastern schools see mantra meditation as an end in itself, Jewish sources seem to indicate that it is more of a preparation
for a deeper spiritual experience. Some sources state that after meditating, one should smell fragrant spices or perfumes, so as to reinvolve oneself in the physical world. It is also prescribed that some light food be eaten shortly afterward, since through the blessing, the food can elevate the entire body.
Of course, meditating on the phrase Ribbono shel Olam, "Master of the Universe," has great value in its own right, and some people may be content to make it a lifetime practice. Others, however, may want to use it as a way to learn meditative techniques and recognize higher states of consciousness, and then go on to what are considered more advanced methods.