INTRODUCTION TO THE HANDBOOK OF JEWISH MEDITATION
As a student of meditation techniques in a wide variety of spiritual disciplines--including, in addition to Judaism, Theravada Buddhism, Zen, Vajrayana, Hinduism and Sufism--I have found that many meditative practices are common in all traditions, despite the fact that each tradition clearly has its own style and methodology. Thus, a fair amount of meditation is generic. For example, sitting in silence is a universal practice, as is chanting repetitive phrases, one pointed concentration, being mindful of the present moment, or taking time each day for reflection (a practice many call prayer). These are all found in most traditions--only the language changes in how each practice is described.
There are, of course, many meditative practices unique to individual traditions. Zen has a great deal of karma yoga, which is a practice associated with mundane, everyday activities. Zen, as well, has more exotic techniques expressed through highly ritualized forms such as archery or tea ceremony. Theravada Buddhism tends to be abstemious, extremely basic, with simple robes and begging bowls, no meals after lunch, and extended periods of silent practice that last weeks or months at a time. On the other hand, Vajrayana Buddhism is complicated, intellectual, colorful, and filled with imagery. Hinduism has a colorful side that is highly devotional, with many deities and much singing, dancing and feasting. It also has a more austere side, with a number of forms of yoga that defy scientific explanation. Sufism is built on traditional Islamic practices of ablutions and prayer five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan, with additional meditative expressions that include repetitive chanting of names of God for hours at a time, frequently accompanied by ecstatic whirling.
As there are many different forms of meditative practice, we must first define what we mean when we are discussing meditation. The "goal" of meditative practice in all spiritual endeavor is to experience our true nature. Each tradition has its own language for what this means. Libraries are filled with books discussing the similarities and differences of spiritual practice, but we can sum it up simply by saying that human consciousness seeks to know the truth of its own existence, its source and its reason for being--if indeed there is any ultimate truth.
The word "goal" above is put in apostrophes to acknowledge that quite a few spiritual disciplines are adamant that having any goal or making any effort toward self-realization is, by definition, self-defeating. There are two sides to this argument. Some assert that just as an eye cannot see itself, except as a separate image, consciousness cannot be conscious of itself. The other argument is that all effort for self-realization is foolish as there is nothing to achieve; we intrinsically already have everything we need to know. As there is nothing to get, the very idea of a goal is deluded thinking.
This is a clear example of how language, the tool of rationality, is often inherently in conflict with mystical teaching. Meditative techniques are designed to help spiritual "aspirants" achieve altered states of consciousness. When this in fact occurs, the results often transcend rational explanation. Throughout history, mystics have been unable to directly communicate their experiences. Rather, they have found ways to transmit experiences indirectly through metaphor, poetry or enigmatic wisdom teachings. Each mystical teacher finds his or her expression through the cultural structure in which he or she lives, with the culture's beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions, all of which are molded by the era, the surrounding communities, and the general historical perspective in those times.
The teachings of these mystics, although not particularly rational, have profoundly influenced the history of humankind. They have birthed many spiritual traditions and have caused these traditions to branch into various directions. The mystics give us pause to reflect on the possibilities of something more than life as we see it in front of us. They inspire us to seek more deeply, beyond appearances. In many ways, although from widely diverse backgrounds and even though they use their own distinctive languages, they speak about a common theme .
The metaphor for this is that whereas there are many paths up the mountain, it has only a single peak higher than all others. Obviously, each person on the spiritual journey has his or her own natural dispositions and characteristics. Different paths up the mountain will be more readily accessible to some than others. For some a path will seem to be a dead end, for others the barriers they encounter are simply obstacles that need to be surmounted to get higher up the mountain. The mysteries of these spiritual paths defy explanation, and many spiritual adventurers spend their lives exploring a path and its divergent tracks with remarkable patience. In the end, however, no matter what path we take, the highest peak of truth remains the same for all who seek it.
Judaism is an extraordinary path for spiritual growth, as we shall see. It is a rich tradition with a long history. It is not really one path up the mountain, but many trails that occasionally are parallel but often go on totally different routes. With limited perspective, one might think that the result is that these paths will never meet again. But, when standing back, we can still see that there is only one highest peak and all paths ultimately lead to the One.
Often, people ask, "If they all lead to an ultimate truth, how do we choose our path?" This question raises many issues. It suggests that we have total free choice, but this is not completely true. We are constrained in many ways. We have our parentage, our character, our physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup, our society, our culture, our ancestry, our language, and so forth. All of these set parameters and incline us one way or another.
Clearly, Eastern spiritual and meditative traditions during the past century have become more accessible in the West. In absorbing some of these teachings, the West has modified, redefined and remolded the practices to fit a more Western model. This simply is the way it works. So, whatever path we "choose," we will adapt it to meet our needs.
As Eastern teachings, particularly in the arena of meditation, have been growing in popularity, an interesting phenomenon has been developing in the past twenty years. Under the influence of strong meditative practices, Westerners have increasingly been returning to their root traditions. When one is immersed in altered consciousness, it overflows into everyday life. Seen through these eyes, we discover that many elements of our lives and many aspects of our root traditions are meditation practices in and of themselves. It is out of this phenomenon that an entire new appreciation of the potential of Jewish meditation has dramatically evolved over the past decade.
While Jewish meditation as an identifiable collection of teachings is a relatively new phenomenon, meditative practices have been deeply rooted in Judaism for thousands of years. The essence of meditation is an integral part of traditional Jewish daily life, ritual, prayer, study of Torah, Talmud, and celebration of the Sabbath and the holy days. Indeed, meditation techniques are so fully integrated into traditional Jewish life, they were never separated out as unique practices of themselves. Today, many practitioners of traditional Judaism are highly skilled meditators, in one way or another, but they don't give this a name.
Very few Jewish teachers over the past two thousand years emphasized meditative techniques, per se, yet they do often describe how one can achieve higher states of consciousness through prayer or continuous study. We must keep in mind that until only the last couple of centuries, traditional Jewish life assumed certain daily activities that in themselves had the potential for regular periods of self-reflection and contemplation. It was a given that people would have periods of quiet, that the Sabbath would be a day of rest, that time for prayer would be made each day, that one would pay close attention to food preparation, that indeed every facet of one's life would be under close scrutiny. The ideal was to live impeccably. This was what life was about. This impeccability by its nature requires experiencing many opportunities for meditative awareness in the context of expanded consciousness..
The most distinctive transformation Judaism has undergone in the past couple of hundred years is the way in which modern Jews live our daily lives. It is not surprising that the farther away we get from a traditional life style, the less meaningful we find in the elements of Jewish practice. Each part loses something when separated from the whole. The complaint of a large number of people who want to be connected with their Judaism is that individual practices, like prayer, or occasional Torah study, a Sabbath morning in a synagogue, or the celebration of a ritual are primarily devoted to a form but lack a spiritual content.
On the other hand, many who have been discontented with Judaism have been drawn to simple practices of sitting quietly, chanting a few words in repetition, or singing to God while focused on basic thoughts of loving kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, and so forth. The plain truth of the matter, of course, is that all these basic practices are within the repertoire of Judaism, but are often hidden, obscured by layers of a tradition originally designed for another way of life. The reason Jewish oriented meditation has become popular so quickly is that it provides a foundation, in a subtle but profound way, upon which these individual practices can link with the heart of the tradition. In this way, there is a new opportunity for modern practitioners to access a deep spirituality through elements of Judaism that are bonded in some way with an inner pulse has continued over the centuries, and will continue for centuries to come.
The roots of Jewish meditation often have been hidden in the oral tradition passed directly from teacher to student, or in kabbalistic writings difficult to decipher. However, many Jewish meditative techniques have been common knowledge and were widely practiced in various ways over the centuries. There are many different Hebrew words for these techniques.
For example, the word hitbonenut usually refers to a type of contemplation in which one focuses one's thought on a subject that has an intrinsic potential to alter one's conscious. Another word used in a similar context is histakkelut, which is a type of contemplation that involves visualizations. Hitbodedut, often used to describe meditation, means to seclude oneself physically, to separate oneself. The term kavvanah, which means intention, is also used to describe a meditative, focused state of mind. The term hishtavut, meaning equanimity, is viewed as foundation for attaining higher states of awareness. The idea of bittul ha-yesh, literally to nullify the sense of "is-ness," is descriptive of letting go of one's self-awareness, also viewed as an essential element of expanded consciousness. So too the term meserit ha-nefesh, sacrifice of the vital soul, which is a way of referring to the state of selflessness.
Aryeh Kaplan, the most prolific modern writer to discuss the Jewish contemplative approach, lists several types of Jewish meditation in his books JEWISH MEDITATION and MEDITATION AND THE BIBLE. One is called suach, a state of prayerful elevation in which the meditator communes with the divine source of life. Another is called hagah or higayon, in which the meditator uses repetition-much like a mantra-to enter a state of altered consciousness. A third method, ranan, involves drenching the emotions until the meditator attains a level of ecstasy. In the East this is referred to as bhakti, in which one attains a connection with the Divine through concentrated devotional practice.
Yet another method of Jewish meditation is called shasha. It is one of the higher and more difficult forms, in that the meditator is continuously pressing the limits of the mind. It is as if there were a sphere of light-named Awareness-that seems always out of reach. The meditator dances on the periphery, not quite absorbed in the sphere and yet not really outside it. On this edge of Awareness, one attains a deep state of rapture. At a higher level, however, one comes to the ultimate realization that there never was an edge in the first place, and one transcends rapture into yet a more inclusive state. This is the state of devekut, being at one with all.
A wellknown reference to the mystical side of Judaism is recorded in the Talmud (Berachot 32b) in a discussion about prayer. It says that the first hasidim, ancient pious practitioners, meditated an hour before prayer and an hour after. Since the Talmud itself is an old document, the ancient ones to whom it refers must have lived well over two thousand years ago.
The Talmud notes that if these practitioners did the required three prayers a day lasting an hour each, they would have spent nine hours a day in meditation and prayer. It then inquires, in typically talmudic fashion: if these people spent nine hours a day in contemplative activity, how could they keep up their studies of Torah, and, moreover, how could they earn a living? The answer it provides is that these contemplatives did not have any difficulty in learning because they never forgot anything, and they did not have to work so hard because, for them, a little effort went a long way. The important point here is that the Talmud gives clear support to the contemplative lifestyle, and it suggests that a strong commitment to inner work will be rewarded in mysterious ways.
In another section (Hagigah 11b), the Talmud gives detailed instructions about teaching the secrets of Judaism's hidden mysteries. For example, there was a profound and esoteric teaching called the mystery of "descent into the chariot." The mystical chariot was the means by which one could use contemplative techniques to be transported to higher realms of awareness. In this section of the Talmud, it is written that a teacher was not permitted to discuss anything regarding the chariot unless the student was already accomplished on the highest level. Today we might call this "post doctorate" spiritual education.
Throughout this same talmudic section, the great masters are reluctant to answer their students' questions regarding the mystical underpinning of the creation. Indeed, the Talmud discusses at great length the dangers of esoteric exploration. It is here that the famous story is told about four sages who entered the pardes-the orchard or garden of mystical awareness. Three of the four were not well prepared for the shock of experiencing the overwhelming light of expanded consciousness. One died as soon as he looked around him, another instantly went mad, and a third became a disbeliever. Only one, Rabbi Akiva, came out unharmed. As Rabbi Akiva is one of the most important figures in the Talmud, it is of great significance that his mystical and contemplative character is a point of considerable distinction. Clearly, the talmudic scholars had extraordinary respect for contemplative practice.