Meditation has ancient roots in Jewish tradition and was practiced by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, prophets and judges, sages and mystics throughout the ages, from Abraham down to our own day (See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book: Meditation and the Bible). There are numerous forms of Jewish meditation, some similar to other types practiced in the world, while others, by far the majority, uniquely Jewish in content and form. It is an activity well worth being aquatinted with and practicing, for meditation is a very potent vehicle for getting in touch with the inner self and the Divine soul. Ultimately, the goal of meditation is to come close to and feel the presence of God, as well as to achieve new insight and realization.
Meditative practices can be combined with prayer, introspection, music, dance, artistic endeavors or being in nature. Meditation in Judaism is much more flexible than just sitting silently for a long period of time. Jewish meditation takes many forms and can be practiced as a form of deep concentration and focus along with many of life’s activities.
Meditation is particularly suited for studying Torah as it says in the evening prayers: “We will discuss Your decrees and will rejoice with the words of Your Torah and with Your commandments for all eternity. For they are our life and the length of our days and about them we will meditate day and night.” Meditating on the Torah we learn helps integrate the teachings in a way that they become a real part of our inner consciousness.
A good example of how we can combine meditation with life’s activities can be seen in the similarity between Shabbat observance and meditation. When someone wants to meditate, he or she usually clears their schedules for that time, turns off the radio, TV, cell phone and anything else which may interfere with the quiet and uninterrupted time needed to successfully clear the mind in order to meditate. This is the secret of all the restrictions of Shabbat, which allows us to cut loose of the hustle and bustle of the week, affording us the time and the quiet to enter into a more spiritual and meditative state of consciousness. In this sense Shabbat can be related to as a full day meditation, and all the activities of the day can be approached from a relaxed, peaceful and sacred mind space.
There are two words usually used to describe meditation in Hebrew: hitbodedut and hitbonenut. Hitbodedut comes from the root, “to be alone,” and infers the need to isolate oneself physically from the hustle and bustle of daily life in order to enter into a meditative state of mind. It also denotes the need to isolate the mind internally from the constant background static of outside stimulus and inner emotional turmoil in order for the intellect to free itself, allowing it to transcend the bounds of normative identification and experience.
The root of the word hitbonenut means to build or to understand. Jewish meditation is much more than an exercise is clearing the mind and experiencing inner peace. Although this is an important first step, the more essential purpose of Jewish meditation is to build the internal structure of a new awareness and to attain new insight and understanding of oneself, the Torah and God. While many forms of meditation are focused on self-awareness, Jewish meditation focuses more on God awareness and understanding His will as revealed in the Torah. Therefore Jewish meditation is in great measure intellectually active rather than passive. Yet, for it to truly be meditation, it cannot remain exclusively within the realm of the intellect but must be drawn down into the heart and even the limbs of the body in order that a truly holistic and integral unification of all levels of one’s being is accomplished.
In fact, the initial impetus of meditation comes from the heart as expressed by King David: “With all my heart I seek you” (Psalms 119:10). The heart longs to be close to God, to know God. This actually is the Ramchal’s definition of the prophetic experience – to be intimately and tangibly aware of God’s imminent presence. It is said that perhaps the greatest distance in the world is that between heart and mind. Bridging that gap is the work of a lifetime. Yet, ultimately heart and mind must be aligned and work together in accomplishing our goals in life. This then becomes a primary goal of meditation. First, we are inspired to seek God with all our hearts. Next, we elevate that longing into a deep intellectual quest to unearth new insights from within the Torah, perpetually expanding our understanding of God and His will. Lastly, we draw this new understanding into our hearts where it becomes fuel for increased spiritual longing to draw ever closer to God.
In general, we are taught in Chassidut that “the mind must rule the heart”, for if not, we are easily swayed by unstable mood swings produced by a complex brew of emotions, many of which are generated by the body and lower aspects of the soul. Yet the heart, the proverbial seat of the emotions, must not be dismissed, as there is a deep level of understanding in the heart that tempers the more calculated and detached coldness of the mind. Meditation and other activities that lend themselves to a meditative head-space, such as prayer and music, strengthen and reinforce the ideal situation when mind and heart work together in harmony and not at cross purposes, as is so often the norm.
The Ohr Chadash Meditation link hopes to present a wide array of examples as how meditation can be used to enrich our lives, giving us tools from the practical to the mystical.