is the Jewish mystical discipline of active thought-meditation.
In 1986 a collection of Hebrew manuscripts, roughly 200 years old, written by
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) was published. One
of these manuscripts (Ma'amorim Ketzarim, Inyonim, p. 133)
discusses passive versus active thought-meditation. This amazingly contemporary
treatise sheds light on some of the pitfalls of passive meditation and lends insight
into the distinctions between passive and active meditation. The following is
a translation and adaptation of this manuscript into English, followed by a few
notes. (Full explanation of the topics mentioned would require much more space
than can be alloted here.)
THOUGHT-MEDITATION; its qualities
There are two different methods of thought-meditation.
1) The first method entails centering and settling one's consciousness on the
general sense of an idea, while passively withdrawing from all thoughts, feelings
and body sensations. The meditator disengages and contracts the mind, and in no
way increases the breadth or detail of understanding. This is done by fixating
on a point of awareness in an uninterrupted stream of consciousness for approximately
half an hour, which brings the person to the general state of "airy vision." (This
may take weeks or months of preparation to accomplish).
Airy vision results
from thought-meditation that uses the superficial powers of the intellect to divest
the idea that is the focus of the meditation of any concrete definition. By thus
abstracting the idea, the person will come to perceive through the mind's eye
the subtle spirit of the idea as an airy vision devoid of tangible meaning. In
this context the prophets said, "And they will be swept away by the [cosmic] wind,"
and "When you will gaze upon [the idea] it will be naught." As a result of this
type of meditation, many people have been misled and deluded by their own imagination
and by charlatans who promote futile and vain visions for their own gain.
deliberation is required to recognize this type of meditation. A few simple indications
may be: 1) As bodily tensions are released, the person may experience slight twitching,
jerking or nervous movements. 2) As the emotions are settled and calmed, a slight
turbulence, disturbance or racing may be felt in the heart. 3) The mind is empty
of thoughts and all thoughts that arise dissipate. 4) There is an increase in
2) The second method demands detailed, broad and deep comprehension,
as opposed to withdrawing from the intellect. This process requires intense mental
exertion to increase one's awareness of the open, simple and revealed meaning
of the idea; to scrutinize and elaborate on the concept's many details, facets
and ramifications, and not to allow the mind to contract and settle on one point
alone. The indications for the second type of meditation are profoundly different
than the indications for the first type. There is no passive dissipation of the
energies of the body, heart, and mind whatsoever; but rather, there is active
exertion, concentration and channeling of all the person's powers into the mind.
This intense mental exertion is so all consuming that the person has no sensation
of "self" at all. The awareness achieved through active thought-meditation is
very different from the consciousness reached through passive meditation, where
the person is susceptible to imaginings, vain visions and futile delusions. To
the contrary, the person enclothes the idea in many metaphors and analogies until
it is thoroughly comprehended and the truth can be perceived vividly through the
Another indication that one is engaged in active thought-meditation
is the yearning to grasp new insights into the idea; to discover in every nuance
the implicit and specific meaning. The person will be entirely oblivious to the
"self," for the mind's total preoccupation with the idea completely overshadows
any sensations of the heart.
Regarding the ecstacy and awakening that come
through the first type of meditation, the person will find the arousal exceedingly
euphoric. This happens because the meditative process of emptying one's mind is
specifically directed toward bringing exhilaration into the "self." In actuality,
this state constitutes a dualism between G-d and the individual. The person inescapably
becomes egoistic and is ultimately distant from and in direct opposition to G-dliness,
he returns strongly his sense of "self" being connected, [or worse, "soars upward
like an eagle and proclaims 'I am and there is no other'"].
In contrast, with
the second type of meditation, enlightenment comes only through channeling and
emanating G-dliness (as a by-product). The person is not preparing the "self"
to experience a revelation, but rather, is absorbed in intense mental exertion
and is devoted to the vivification of a Torah insight. Enlightenment is spontaneously
triggered by the Torah's G-dly wisdom, through "gazing at the Glory of the King
and nothing else," and not because the person has cleared the mind in order to
receive a revelation. Nor is the person enthralled by accompanying feelings of
ecstacy, for the conscious awareness of "self" has no prominence at all, making
exhilaration and other associated sensations irrelevant. So it is written, "The
fool does not desire [true] enlightenment," but seeks feelings of ecstacy. Moreover,
the fool's perpetuation of self-centeredness shuts out even the faintest glimmer
of G-dly enlightenment.
Another distinction: the ecstacy experienced through
the first type of meditation may cause a person to feel high and mighty, and to
become callous, overbearing and flippant. He will likely acquire a heightened
sensitivity to and an increased appetite for sensual pleasures. Through the second
method, however, the person becomes truly humble and no longer esteems the "self"
to be central. He is also far from desiring transient pleasures and relating to
contemptible character traits, like indignation, oppressiveness, frivolity, etc.
Such a person regards any negative characteristics he finds within himself as
repulsive and deplorable, takes no credit for personal accomplishments, and considers
the "self" to be veritably nothing at all.
COMMENTS (gleaned from Rabbi
Hillel Paritcher's commentaries on Shar Ha'Yichud and Kuntres Ha'Hispaalus
written by Rabbi Dov Ber, the second Rebbe of Lubavitch):
* Lack of self-centeredness
does not imply sublimation, denial or loss of individuality. To the contrary,
centering upon G-dliness liberates the spirit, whereas holding on to one's awareness
of "self" obstructs spontaneity, creativity and enthusiasm. * As an unsought and
automatic result of attaining G-dly enlightenment, one may be imbued with Supernal
Delight, the highest form of human pleasure. Yet the person is not carried away
by this elation and does not give in to it. His intention remains purely to offer
delight to G-d through his alignment with the Supreme Will.
* To gain a clearer
understanding of how to practice Hisbonenut, active thought-meditation,
much more explanation is needed. For example, it is taught that one should not
meditate exclusively on a single isolated metaphor, but rather on the complete
world-view that results from the synthesis of many metaphors. To do this the meditator
must dwell at length on the precise meaning of several ideas until the kernel
of each idea crystallizes in his understanding. Then he should broaden the viewpoint
until the ideas can be seen through the mind's eye in a single glance as one unified
insight. By gazing with the mind's eye deep into this unified insight, the first
level of enlightenment may be realized, which is the enthusiasm of the natural
soul (the astral body). Next, if he will go beyond the limits of the physical
body and natural soul, through purity of intention and increased intensity in
the meditation, the second level of enlightenment may be attained, namely the
awakening of the G-dly attributes of the higher soul. On the third level, the
G-dly attributes of the higher soul illuminate and permeate the attributes of
the natural soul, which are based in the power centers of the physical body -
action, emotion, thought, will and pleasure.
Stern has conducted Jewish meditation classes and workshops throughout the United
States. He recently moved to Israel.