From Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua (“Alter”) of Teplik’s anthology of classic Breslov teachings on secluded meditation and prayer, Hishtapkhut HaNefesh, translated to English by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan as “Outpouring of the Soul” (Breslov Research Institute). (Footnotes not included in this online version.)
TRANSLATOR'S INTRODUCTION (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 18 Tammuz, 5780 / 1980)
The Hebrew word for meditation is [Ashkenazic pronunciation: hisbodedus; Sefardic pronunciation: hitbodedut]. The word occurs in this context in Judaic writings spanning over a thousand years, and is used for all the various forms of Jewish meditation. Yet, in most people's minds, it is primarily with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) that this word is associated.
Many types of meditation were used by Jewish saints and mystics. A vast wealth of ancient literature describes how the prophets of Israel used meditation to reach their high spiritual states. Similar methods were probably used in Talmudic times. They involved repeating a divine name many times to induce the meditative state.
Other schools made use of the meditative techniques found in the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah). These meditative methods made use of the letters of God's name, accompanied by controlled breathing and specified head motions. However, as the masters of these schools themselves warned, these were extremely powerful and dangerous methods.
The publication of the Zohar opened the path to another meditative method involving Unifications (Yichudim). This involved contemplating divine names. and manipulating their letters. These were meditations that, besides inducing a mystical state. would help unify and integrate the personality. The method of Yichudim was particularly favored by the Safed school of Kabbalah, and it forms the basis of the mysticism of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572). However. these meditations were not for the average person either; without proper preparation, they could severely damage the mind.
An ancient method of meditation involved the formal prayers. One of the Baal Shem Tov's most important accomplishments was to use the prayers as a safe method of meditation, which could be done by even the simplest person. The way of prayer, as taught by the Baal Shem Tov, involved nothing more than the regular prayer service, said three times daily by every Jew.
The focal point of the prayer service is the Amidah or Shemonah Esreh, a collection of eighteen (or actually, nineteen) blessings, which is repeated three times each day. This prayer was composed by the Great Assembly just before the close of the prophetic period. There is considerable discussion as to why a single prayer was prescribed to be repeated over and over each day. However, there is considerable evidence that the entire Amidah was meant to be used as a meditative device.
After a person has repeated the Amidah every day for a few years, he knows the words so well that they become an integral part of his being. It does not take any real mental effort on his part to recite the words, and thus it is very much like repeating a single word or phrase over and over. If a person clears his mind of all other thoughts and concentrates on the words of the Amidah, this prayer can induce an extremely high meditative state. This is borne out in practice. The same is true of the other parts of the service that are recited daily.
The Talmud notes that the Early Saints (Chasidim Rishonim) would spend an hour reciting the Amidah. Since the Amidah contains some 500 words, it comes out that they would have been reciting one word approximately every seven seconds. It is proven by experience that reciting even the first section of the Amidah at such a pace will induce a high meditative state.
In an important teaching, the Talmud states, "One who prays must direct his eyes downward and his heart on high" (Yevamoth 105b). One of the important commentators, Rabbi Yonah Gerondi (1196--1263) explains, "This means that in one's heart, he should imagine that he is standing in heaven. He must banish all worldly delights and bodily enjoyments from his heart. The early sages taught that if one wishes to have true concentration (kavanah), he must divest his body from his soul."
A few decades later, this was expressed even more explicitly by the great codifier, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1343), in his Tur. Speaking of "saints and men of deed," he writes, "they would meditate (hitboded) and concentrate in their prayers until they reached a level where they would be divested of the physical. The transcendental spirit would be strengthened in them until they would reach a level close to that of prophecy." This passage is quoted verbatim by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575) in his Shulchan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law.
The idea of using the prayer service as a meditative device thus did not originate with the Baal Shem Tov. But the Baal Shem Tov taught the way of prayer as a method that could be used by anyone, from the greatest Kabbalist to the simplest individual. Rather than concentrate on Kabbalistic concepts. a person would focus his entire mind on the words of the prayer, making them fill his entire consciousness. He would then rise from one level to the next. until he was in a deep meditative state.
Although this method was extremely effective and widespread, it was still difficult for many people. Since the formal prayers were said daily, it required a high degree of concentration to avoid allowing one's mind to wander and to keep one's thoughts focused on the words. As Rabbi Nachman puts it, since the formal prayers are a well traveled path, there are many destructive forces that lie waiting along it, ready to trap the unwary.
A great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman extended the way of prayer to make it more universal and effective. He taught the importance of reciting the Psalms and other non-obligatory prayers to prepare oneself for deep meditation. The individual was to banish all thoughts from his mind, so that he would be completely alone with God. The next stage would be to banish the ego, so that all his awareness would be focused on nothing but God.
Most of the methods that had been used were externally directed, structured meditations. They depended on predetermined words or images, which constituted a meditative focus outside the mind. While they were effective for many people, the very fact that they were externally directed meant that they were not specifically geared to each person's needs.
There is another basic method of meditation that is internally directed. Classically, this consists of meditating on thoughts, feelings or mental images that arise spontaneously in the mind. Usually, this is best accomplished by focusing on a general idea. around which these thoughts will be evoked. Since there is no formal or predetermined method of evoking such thoughts, this is most commonly an unstructured meditation.
Internally directed meditation can be practiced solely in thought, or. as in some systems, one's thoughts can also be verbalized. One of the best methods of verbalizing such thoughts while keeping them concentrated on a single focus is to express them as spontaneous prayer. This method was to form the basis of the meditative system of Rabbi Nachman.
The tradition of spontaneous prayer has a long history in Judaism and was quite prevalent in Biblical and Talmudic times. Besides the formal services, Jews would always pray to God in their own language and in their own words, asking
Him for their needs. A constant prayer was that God should draw the supplicant close to Him, and help him attain a closeness to the Divine.
The line between such prayer and meditation is often very blurry. It is obviously possible to pray in one's words without entering a meditative state. Many people offer spontaneous prayers while in a normal, mundane state of consciousness. However, if one recites such prayers slowly and quietly, banishing all thoughts but those of the Divine, such prayer can bring a person into a deep meditative state.
Rabbi Nachman realized that such "conversations with God" were not always easy. For one thing, such a conversation requires a high degree of spiritual commitment. For another, a person initially confronted with the Divine, may easily be at a loss for words. Rabbi Nachman speaks of this "bashfulness" and discusses means with which it can be overcome.
Rabbi Nachman was aware of structured meditations, but he saw them primarily as a means of preparation for the internally directed method. Thus, he taught that if one could not find anything to say to God, he should merely take a word and repeat it over and over during his meditative period each day. This same word could be repeated for weeks and months, until one found the right words with which to speak to God.
For those familiar with Eastern mantra meditation, this method may seem familiar. A particular phrase that Rabbi Nachman taught could be repeated was "Lord of the Universe," Ribono Shel Olam in Hebrew. A “mantra" such as this, used over a long period, could be the gateway to deeper forms of meditation.
In order to clear the mind for meditation, Rabbi Nachman prescribed the silent scream. Many relaxation methods for the body involve the voluntary tensing of the muscles, and then a determined relaxation of each one. In a way. the silent scream is a voluntary tensing of the mind. which can then be followed by determined relaxation in meditation. It is an extremely effective method for initiating the meditative state.
Another meditative method taught by Rabbi Nachman involved speaking to various parts of the body. In Breslov tradition, this is seen as an important method of self-improvement. Thus, if one wishes to learn to control his tongue, he can speak to it, and literally tell it to practice self-control. The same is true of all other parts of the body. With this method, a person can learn to gain complete and absolute self-control. Here too, one does not merely speak to the part of the body; he does so while in a meditative state.
There are some who might confuse this with autosuggestion or self-hypnosis. However. many psychological and physiological studies have indicated major differences between the hypnotic and the meditative state. Where hypnotism often alters or blocks out awareness, the ultimate goal of meditation is to increase and expand awareness. Where the hypnotic state is usually a state of constricted consciousness, the meditative state is seen as a state of expanded consciousness.
Although hitbodedut denotes meditation, as Rabbi Nachman saw it, it was also a form of personal prayer. Indeed, this is how most contemporary Breslover Chasidim see it. It is seen not so much as a means to attain higher states of consciousness, but as a path toward self-perfection. If a person is constantly conversing with God, he is certain to become more Godly. When he develops a strong bond with God, he is sure to have a greater desire to do God's will.
Beyond that, consistent personal prayer is seen as a means to a good life, even here on earth. When a person discusses his problems with a friend. they no longer seem so formidable. If one can truly learn to discuss them with God, they virtually shrink into insignificance. As one Breslover Chasid put it, "When you bring your problems to God, they cease to exist. There is nothing in the world to worry about." Or, as King David expressed it almost three millenia ago, "Place your burden on God, and He will carry [it for] you" (Psalms 55:23).
Rabbi Nachman's major teachings regarding meditation were collected in a small book. known as Hishtapkhut HaNefesh, literally, "Outpouring of the Soul." The book was rewritten by Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Bezhilianski, better known as Reb Alter of Teplik, and first published in Jerusalem around 1904. Reprinted numerous times, the book is the classic exposition of Rabbi Nachman's system of meditation and prayer.
When the book was first published, the concept of meditation had virtually been forgotten in Jewish circles. However. with increased general interest in meditation, many ancient Jewish sources that discuss the subject have been rediscovered and studied with renewed interest. In this context, the Hishtapkhut HaNefesh fits perfectly. It provides a path through which even the most unlearned Jew can find his way back to God.
(Rabbi Alter of Teplik’s introduction appears on this website, as well as several selections from “Outpouring of the Soul.”)