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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan

For such a thin book Rabbi Kaplan's book packs a wallup of information. The book discusses various meditation techniques as can be culled from ancient Jewish sources. Rabbi Kaplan discusses basic techniquwes as can be found in other forms of meditation. Such techniques as mantras, visualizing, and contemoplating. One can also use the words of the prayers as mantras or contenplation. Mundane activities with the proper frame of mind can be turned into acts of meditation that put a person into a higher state of consiousness. Excellent book for those into practicing meditation.

By and large many people think of far eastern religions when the word meditation is brought up. Both Jew and non-Jew alike seem oblivious to the fact that there is a form of Jewish meditation out there. Jews like other people are spiritually hungry and end up looking to these far eastern religions to satisfy their appetite. It takes a lot of work to ferret out the Mediation techniques from Judaism. Jewish Mystics have a history of interacting with Sufi mystics and exchanging ideas. To lose such a connection would be a shame.

What exactly is meditation? Quite simply it means to control your mind. Have you ever tried to stop thinking? Bet you were not quite successful? Better yet try thinking about only one thing. You most likely thought about a whole lot of other things besides the one thing. It is very hard to control your mind.

If you close your eyes you will be bombarded with a barrage of fleeting images. To pay them attention and decipher them would be called “Free Association” This Free Association is one way of reading your subconscious mind. The mind can be divided into two parts. These two parts are the conscious and the subconscious mind. You can control the conscious mind but not your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind is what control your thoughts. So to control your thoughts you must control your subconscious mind.

Breathing is controlled by your subconscious mind it is voluntary. Hence many meditation method have you control your breathing as a first step to controlling your subconscious mind. Two more related techniques are discussed on is called “imaging”. Imaging occurs when you imagine let us say the letter “A” in your mind. The second technique is “Etching” this might be when you permanently engrave the letter A into your mind.

Why?......The big question what is the benefit of doing meditation? Throughout our lives we have not grown much in terms of thinking. In fact most of us were taught to think at the age of six and not much has really changed since then. Meditation means we take control of our thought and of our mind. At 6 years old we did not learn how to control or harness the power of our mind. This is a quantum leap. The Torah says that our thinking before we practice spirituality is that of a child while the thinking that we practice after spirituality training is considered adult thinking.


Consider looking at a rose. Is our perception pure? Actually it is not . Even with our eyes open in a well lit room there are images floating right in front of us being generated by our subconscious mind. It interferes with our perception. Some one who practices meditation could learn to quiet the other parts of the brain down. While this does not harness the full power of the mind is does reduce the interference. Considerably close to fine tuning a radio. Clearer sound but not any louder.

Our senses often interfere with each other. Ever try reading Braille? Even someone trained has a hard time doing it unless they close their eyes. Why? Because their vision interferes with their tactile sensations. Blind people also use their cane to navigate. This works because the sounds produced by the cane echo off the walls. This alerts the blind person if he is about to bump into something.

Tibetan healers can feel a person’s pulse and determine what is ailing the person. It takes many years to learn how to do this. The healer actually closes his eyes and enters a state of deep concentration as he feels his patient’s pulse. This closing of the eyes blocks all the distraction cause by our eyes.

Stimuli is constantly coming our way but our mind makes so much static that we do not even perceive it. Spiritual people, prophets were able to quiet their mind down. In this way way they could practice telepathy, Extra Sensory Perception and predictions.

The last chapter we explored the benefits of meditation. This time let us discuss what mediation should look like. Mediation like prayer is practiced in various different religions and cultures and all forms of mediation like prayer share several salient points in common.

When examining prayer one find three basic components. The first component is praise, next is petitioning and finally thanksgiving. Praise is when we extol the attribute of Hashem or any other Deity we chose to pray to. Thanksgiving is when we thank Hashem or any other Deity we are praying for doing something for us. The second aspect is petitioning. Petitioning is when we ask the creator for something, be it health, money or what ever.

One easy example of meditation would be to think about rearranging the furniture in your mind. The object would be to stay focused. If thought enter then you gently push them out or get your mind back on the subject. One can take things a step further and think about how they would rearrange their life. This would be an unstructured form of meditation that is internally driven. One can verbalize their thoughts and talk out loud to Hashem or their patron deity. This is still unstructured ad through such mediation which if one find productive can become a set pattern on a daily or weekly basis such meditation could help one realize that G-d is both within and at the same time way out there.

Such verbal meditation is called, by Rebbe Nachman, hisbodedus. One can turn this unstructured meditation into a structured meditation by adding an agenda of what they would like to discuss. In Tzaphat the mystical cabbalists would pick a verse out of the torah and meditate on it for insights. This was called Gerusin. They could repeat the verse over and over again like a mantra. Rebbe Nachman used to repeat master of the universe like a mantra.

This verse could also be gazed upon and looked at. This would be called contemplation. Just staring at it and absorbing it’s meaning. This contemplation could also be applied to looking at a flame or a Hebrew letter.

The common elements of meditation are contemplation, mantra, structured and unstructured thinking and internally and externally directed meditation.

States of consciousness are always difficult to describe because they are internal event that are subjective hence there is no common vocabulary to describe what I am experiencing in my head. I may even perceive a brand new color yet be totally unable to describe. The situation is different if we both observe a rose because we are seeing the same thing we would be able to describe it using the appropriate vocabulary.

There are two states of consciousness that we are most familiar with and they are waking state and our sleeping state. Within our waking state we can find that at times we can be very drowsy and at the other end of the scale we are extremely alert. Between these two extremes scientists have noted a different wavelength and pattern in our brainwaves.

Likewise when we are asleep there are two different states of consciousness. The two states are called “Dream State” or REM sleep and there is Non Rem or non dream state.

During our waking state even without actively meditation we can become so engrossed in a problem that we work for our without end trying to solves. This is what we would called “Locked on” or “Hot Mode” Sometimes I call it the problem solving mode. The “Cool Mode” is when you relax in the bath tube and your mind just drifts lazily over to the problem and somehow you are able to solve the problem.

Memory is also something you can control the author while in Jewish seminary challenged himself memorize several pages of Talmud. The first page was real difficult but as he memorized more and more it got easier. Our memory has a barrier that blocks extraneous memories after all the brain could not withstand the information over load.

There are some exercises you can do for starter. Sit comfortable for 20-30 minutes close your eyes and let the static coalesce into images. Try holding on to those images for as long as possible. The next exercise is say a mantra over and over again and allow an image to form in your mind. Focus on it for as long as possible.

Jewish Meditation as we have seen shares many salient points with other forms of meditation save for the end result or outcome. Many of the techniques are the same. The bible, Talmud and Kabala all have meditation techniques contained there in. These days it can be a work of Linguistic Archaeology to ferret them out. The Jewish nation has been a nation that practiced meditation as part of their practice quite consistently up until 150 years ago.

The enlightenment or Haskalla encouraged intellectual pursuits and frowned on anything mystical. Anything mystical was derided as superstitious. This infected the Torah world as well. Meditation fell out of practice. In the early days of the Israelite nation meditation was practiced quite regularly.

There were schools of prophets ran by master teachers. They taught their students meditative techniques that would help them reach higher states of consciousness. These school were usually headed by the prophets themselves and only extremely dedicated and spiritually advanced students were permitted to join these schools. Many Jews seeking spiritual ecstasy would practice avodah Zarah or idol worship. This was not too big of a problem provided that the Jewish nation was living in their country. Once the Nation of Israel was placed in exile things began to change.

The spiritual leadership of the Jewish People could no longer contain the problem of Jews seeking other spiritual path to transcendence, ones that may be easier. Merkavah mysticism was practiced by Ezekial the prophet. He was most likely one of the last ones to openly practice it before the Sanhedrin decided to submerge the teaching and keep it secret. This was done at some risk. None the less certain schools kept it alive.

Meditation was further eroded with the coming of Shabbtai Tzvi a false messiah. He used mysticism to promote his own end and challenge the Sultan. He ended up converting to Islam in order to save his skin.

In the Kabalistic realm The Sefer Yetzirah was written during the Talmudic times. Abraham Abulafia wrote treatises on meditation. There was also a book on Merkavah meditation. The Rambam himself analyzed meditation as did Gersonides .

Yet even within Kabbalsitic realms meditation suffered a setback. The Zohar a long complex kabbalistic work was reduced to an intellectual pursuit. The Chassidic movement while providing a bit of a revival in meditation also caused a set back. Due to it’s ecstatic character and focus on one person the Rebbe the Jewish community as a whole especially the leadership issued bans against the movement.

The sages built meditative devices within the Jewish prayers. The Amidah is said three times per day. Some would argue that this is repetive yet it’s purpose is to function like a mantra. A mantra when repeated over and over again produces an altered state of consiousness. Kavannote are also built in they serve as a focus or mental perspective that one is to concentrate on while praying.

Kavahna means focus or what you are to direct your mind to. Some mistake the meaning as concentration or emotional content. Actually the term means to direct our mind towards something.

Another important term mentioned by Abraham Maimonides is Hitbonenute which literally means self understanding. This self understanding can be achieved by contemplating on an object or and idea. This leads to an increase in ones love for God. An example would be to go out in an open field and contemplate the stars.

The last term I wish to discuss is Hitbodetude . This form of meditation was made famous by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. It literally means isolation. There are two kinds of isolation. External isolation obviously means getting away from everybody. Internal isolation means blocking out all external stimuli and thought.

Rabbi Kaplan proceeds to discuss mantras. Matras as you recall are words and phrases that are repeated over and over again. Not only is it a good meditation on it's own but it can also be combined with other forms of meditations. Such would include contemplation and visualizations. Contemplation is when you gaze on an object or a word. Some examples of a good contemplation are a candle and the word yud hey vav hey
THis word is loaed with meaning. Inside it is the secret to charity. It is also the secret to Hashem benifence to the Jewish people and the citizens of his planet. Visualization while being safe is very difficult to perform. Most people can keeop a vision in their mind for maybe a few minutes and then it fades. There are a couple of visualization in that chapter. THe first one being the letter aleph. Picture it as colered black against a white background. If the background is hazy then you can visualise a dot that erases all the background distortion. Another visualiztion is to visualize the seven layers of heaven and imaging your self ascending those layer and coming to a curtaqin with G-d's name on it. Real powerful meditation. Even a candle can be mystical for when one gazes upon it once seeing Black, Red, Yellow and blue. Blue is a spiritual color that open up the gateways to God.

THe book explores how mantras were written into the daily prayer. The Amida which said three times daily. One should say the words slowly and concentrate their meaning. The words establish that God is the one who bestows blessing upon us. We must pray at the proper times.

THe Shema is another mantra that is used. Said over and over again one thinks about the unification of the nation of Israel and about the unification of God. Further in the prayers there are also contemplations on the redeemer.

Hitbodedute is discussed. At times it can be rather difficult to start a conversation with God. One can use a mantra " Master of the Universe" in order to get the ball rolling. One can also discuss with God how difficult it is to get into a conversation with him. Hitbodedut is a great meditation for clarifying your life and getting the house in order but be wary of using it as self therapy. One can get into a cul desac they canot get out of.

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One blond hair blue eyed Calfornian who totally digs the Middle East.
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