A Beginning Zvi Zavidowsky, Nefesh Haya School, Jerusalem
What is Jewish Meditation? What is it for and how does one do it? These questions can be answered in a practical way.
The answer is as simple as saying that we have in the Jewish tradition special techniques for healing and transformation, for making ourselves new continually, which were largely “underground” or neglected until recently. Advantages of such techniques on a personal level include making a process flow easier and faster, and achieving greater quality of results. One such beginning technique is presented here. While it is suitable for beginners it has depths that unfold over time.
There is a set of practices found all over the world which can be called “meditation.” The basic assumptions at the beginning stage of meditation are that the human mind regularly needs time to “go deeper,” examine itself, consciously renew itself, clear itself out, let go of accumulated thoughts, and mental “noise” and that it naturally tends to do so when freed from external demands. It is almost common knowledge that everyone needs to take time for themselves on a daily basis just to stay healthy. Meditation is the way of taking time for oneself which works with some or all of the factors of: awareness, breathing, mental imagery and sound, and physical postures. The basic intent of these practices can be summed up in the words of the classic text of Indian Yoga, the Yoga Sutras which begins with the line: “Yoga (unification) is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (In Sanskrit: yogas citta vritti nirodha) In modern terminology we can say that meditation involves working with a shift from the verbal (left-brained) to a spatial/holistic(right-brained) mode of consciousness and to the integration of both modes. There are diverse techniques worked out in each tradition that facilitate the process of unification. The Jewish tradition includes powerful techniques for clearing and stabilizing the mind. Only in the last 30 years authentic Jewish techniques become available which for hundreds of years were passed on by oral tradition alone.
Until Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l gave overwhelming documentation with his books (Meditation and the Bible, Meditation and Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah, and Jewish Meditation) in the 1970s, the idea of “Jewish” meditation was generally unknown to the educated Jewish public. There are still many problems to overcome in restoring the meditative side of Judaism. Along with the legacy of ignorance about Jewish meditation is the widespread taboo attached to practices labeled as “kabbalistic,” which in many circles blocks people from aspiring to learn and know it even on a practical, elementary level. Further, there is little or no agreement among Jewish teachers even now about what meditation is. The word “meditation” has a precise technical meaning or range of meanings, but is commonly used in quite different senses to refer to a multitude of practices such as: the contemplation of metaphysical concepts (hitbonenut as taught by Chabad), cultivation of awe and mindfulness when doing mitzvot, speaking to G-d (hitbodedut as taught by Rabbi Nachman), practices of guided imagery and more. These practices, as elevated and beneficial as they are, are generally advanced or alternate practices which do not cover the basic work of Jewish meditation. There are a few technical terms in Hebrew which refer to meditation with extensions to the functions of prophecy. The main term is hitbodedut (whose root boded—to be alone– is quite close in sound if not in meaning to the Sanskrit root bodh-to awake, from which we have the word Bud-dha) which means to intensively experience one’s solitariness, to go into one’s mental space. The Jewish prophets were called not only Neviim but also Mitbodedim. They used meditation as a means of reaching their inner prophetic voice. This aim persists to this day for all who seek to master their own minds and speak words of prayer from the deepest part of themselves.
The basic definition and aim of Jewish meditation is “stabilizing the mind” called in Hebrew “yishuv ha da’at”. This means reaching a state of mind which is settled, awake, clear, relaxed, and renewed. The basic purpose of meditation is traditionally as a preparation for prayer starting from the Early Chassidim mentioned in the Talmud continuing through to the (New) Chassidim led by the Baal Shem Tov. What makes the techniques intrinsically “Jewish” is the central part played by the Hebrew letters in general and certain names of God in particular. Hebrew is understood as the language of the soul, the root of all human languages. It is the means for communication, transcending the consciousness of separation between man and God and between our everyday awareness and deeper levels of our soul. The Hebrew letters are “keys” which greatly assist in the process of clearing and stabilizing the mind. One name of God, the name “Ya-H,” specifically is a means for activating inner renewal. A modern analogy to the use of the Hebrew letters would be to call them a powerful kind of programming language for optimizing the performance of your personal/spiritual “computer”. As modern people face the severity of the stresses in their lives, the practice of meditation can become as much an essential tool for day to day survival as it is the traditional preparation for prayer and the service of God.
There are many techniques of Jewish meditation. They are best acquired as in any skill with steady effort and practice. The one presented here is an ancient one, intended as a beginning practice, which provides many practical benefits in the way of deep relaxation, mental and physical renewal, and rest. Simultaneously, we never lose touch with the centrality of God. We are receiving these benefits through consciously activating the name of God within our own beings–in Hebrew, “Ya-H”– with breathing, body-awareness and a mental vocalizing of the letters. There are many teachings about this name and its significance in creation. It is associated with the sefira of Chochmah (Wisdom) from which the creation of the world begins and remains continually renewed. The last line of the book of Psalms (Tehilim) says: “kol ha-neshama tehallel Ya-H hallelu-Ya-H”, the whole soul will praise the name of God (Ya-H), praise God (Ya-H). In the Talmud, the rabbis say that this means both with ones whole soul (neshama) and breath (neshima). This is understood as a reference to the practice of “10/5″ breathing, according to the numerical value of the letters (Yod=10, Heh=5). A short passage from the Zohar (232b)(Soncino Zohar Vol. II, p. 343), the classic text of Jewish mysticism says about this Name:
“Now the word Halleluyah contains the highest of all the praises of the Lord, mentioning as it does, the place to which no eye can penetrate, being most recondite and inscrutable. This is Ya-H, the name which is supreme above all.”
The meditation technique is both about doing and not-doing. It is important to grasp that half of the “technique” requires doing nothing, letting-go as completely as possible of thoughts, desires, tensions, urgencies etc as they arise in your inner screen of awareness. The active part of the technique helps a person to let go of the old contents of his/her mind by consciously invoking and directing a fresh influx of vitality with each breath. The spiritual source of this vitality is the name of God, Ya-H. Working with the breath is intrinsically a way of bringing stability to the mind. As the breathing becomes smoother, longer, and deeper, the mind becomes quiet, like a still body of water. When we let the breath “say” the name of God, the level of mind connected with breathing becomes united with the conscious mind. The awareness of the body in the meditation is based on the correspondence of letters to the body. The yod relates to the head; the heh relates to the heart. The awareness draws from the infinite Source to first fill the head and then the heart, satisfying and unifying both. In terms of the two hemispheres of the brain, yod relates to the right and heh to the left. The practice of the two letters unified in the name Ya-H leads to the balancing and unification of the two sides of the brain.