April 1, 2009


The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide” (Schocken Books), pp. 92-98.

Conversing With God

In the previous chapter, I discussed meditative techniques that are both highly advanced and potentially dangerous for a beginner. The technique that I shall discuss in this chapter, on the other hand, is very simple and is considered among the safest. Still, many people feel that it is one of the most powerful of all the Jewish meditative techniques.

Earlier, I spoke about how difficult it is to speak -- or even to think -- about God. God is totally ineffable, beyond the realms of thought and speech. Yet, as difficult as it is to speak about God, it is relatively easy to speak to Him. What person has not at some point in life prayed to God in his own words? If one is a believer, it is a natural reflex in times of trouble or distress to direct one's words toward God. When a loved one is ill or when one faces something unfaceable, one's thoughts and prayers automatically flow toward the Supreme Being. Prayer is a cry from the depths of the heart, from the ground of one's being, and communication is simple and direct.

Children naturally tend to pray to God. A child who is lonely or hurt will automatically call out to his Father in heaven. A child who has never been taught to pray may begin to do so on his own. It is as if there were a built-in instinct that leads us to call beyond the realm of the physical when we are in dire need.

It seems that, in general, Jews pray spontaneously less than non-Jews, at least nowadays. There seems to be a feeling that Jewish prayer must be in Hebrew, in a prescribed manner, with a predetermined wording. Many Jews are surprised to learn that there is an unbroken tradition of spontaneous prayer in the Jewish religion. If we look at the spectrum of Jewish literature, we find numerous references to spontaneous personal prayer. Many great Jewish leaders considered their own prayers to be very important to their spiritual development. And in Europe, it was the most natural thing in the world for Jews to cry out to God in their native Yiddish.

Although many sources discuss spontaneous prayer, one Jewish leader gave it a central role in his teachings: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rabbi Nachman was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. The Baal Shem taught that every individual could attain a strong personal relationship with God. Rabbi Nachman expanded this concept, teaching that the most powerful method to attain such a relationship with God is personal prayer in one's own native language.

This, of course, was not meant to downgrade the importance of the formal system of worship, which forms the Jew's daily order of devotion. The prescribed worship service is of paramount importance in Judaism. However, worship services can at times become dry and sterile. One's own personal prayers, on the other hand, are always connected to the wellsprings of the heart.

How does a person begin to speak to God? In times of crisis or trouble, it is almost automatic. There is a need to call out to someone, and one knows that God is always there. When our lives are on an even keel, on the other hand, it is not as easy. When everything is going our way, what is there to discuss with God? How does one begin a conversation? Sometimes, it is almost embarrassing.

It is very much like being away from a parent or a close friend for a long time. In times of crisis, it is easy to renew contact since the crisis itself serves as a point of departure. Similarly, when there are special occasions, it is easy to pick up the phone and say hello. This is why relatives often see one another only at weddings and funerals. Such occasions serve as an excuse to get together after prolonged absence.

To pick up the phone and, without any excuse, call a friend you have not spoken to in years is not a very easy thing to do. How does one justify the sudden, unexpected call? And perhaps most important of all, how does one justify not having made contact for the long period before the call?

For very much the same reason, it is difficult for some people to begin a conversation with God. How does one start such a conversation? And what does one say?

If you need an excuse, you can use this book. Tell God, “I just read this book about having conversations with God. I felt it was time I did it.”

Another problem that people encounter when attempting to speak to God is that they feel inadequate. They are aware that God knows their shortcomings and sins, and they feel ashamed in His presence. Others may feel that their lives as Jews are not what they should be and that they cannot approach God as a Jew.

Even if one felt comfortable morally and religiously (and who really does?), there is a basic awe and feeling of inadequacy that everyone feels when trying to speak to God. It is told that the great Chasidic leader Rabbi Zusia of Hanipoli (c. 1720-1800) once came late to synagogue. When he was asked what happened, he replied that when he woke up in the morning, he began the usual prayer, “I give thanks before You . . .” (Modeh ani lefanekha). He said the first three words and could go no further. He explained, “I became suddenly aware of who the ‘I’ was, and who the ‘You’ was. I was struck speechless and could not continue.”

All this adds up to the fact that many people consider it extremely difficult to initiate a conversation with God. Rabbi Nachman speaks about this at considerable length.

It is significant that Rabbi Nachman refers to this practice of speaking to God, not as prayer, but as meditation. It appears that the line between prayer and meditation here is a very fine one, but there is an important difference. When a person speaks to God spontaneously, whenever he feels impelled to do so, then it is prayer. When a person makes it a fixed practice and spends a definite time each day conversing with God, then it is meditation. As we have discussed earlier, meditation is thinking in a controlled manner. If this thinking consists in a conversation with God, it is no less a meditative experience.

In this context, Rabbi Nachman prescribes making a commitment to spending a fixed amount of time each day speaking to God. The amount of time he prescribes is approximately an hour every evening. In our fast-moving modern society, many find twenty to thirty minutes a more comfortable period for such conversation. The main thing is that it be for a fixed period of time and that it be practiced every day without fail.

The most difficult thing is to begin. Rabbi Nachman advises sitting down in the place where you meditate and saying to yourself, “For the next twenty minutes, I will be alone with God.” This in itself is significant, since it is like the beginning of a “visit.” Even if there is nothing to say, it is a valid experience since you are spending time alone with God, aware of His presence. If you sit long enough, says Rabbi Nachman, you will eventually find something to say.

If you have difficulty in beginning the conversation, Rabbi Nachman advises repeating the phrase “Master of the Universe” over and over. This can comprise the entire conversation. When you say these words, be aware that you are calling out to God. Eventually, your thoughts will open up, and you will find other ways of expressing yourself.

Of course, “Master of the Universe” is nothing other than Ribbono shel 0lam, a phrase that I discussed earlier as a Jewish mantra. Here we see that it can also be used to call out to God in a most basic way, to establish communication.

If you still cannot begin speaking with God, Rabbi Nachman suggests making this difficulty itself the point of conversation. Tell God how much you would like to speak to Him. Explain to Him that it is hard for you to find something to say. Ask God to help you find words with which to address Him. Discuss the problem with Him as you would with a good friend. Once the conversation has begun, it is usually easy to continue.

Another point of departure can be the feeling of alienation and distance from God. You can initiate a conversation by asking God to bring you closer to Him. Tell him how far you feel from Him and how much closer you would like to be. Ask Him to help you find such closeness.

The conversation does not have to vary. One can speak to God about the same thing day after day, week after week. Obviously, it is impossible to bore God. Since this is a meditation, the regular habit of holding a conversation is as important as its content. If you are asking God to help you speak to Him, or to draw you closer, this exercise will help you develop your ability to hold more extensive conversations with God.

You can repeat the same sentence or phrase as often as you wish. Any significant sentence can be the point of the entire meditation. You can change the phrase or sentence that you are using at any time. Eventually, you will develop enough flexibility to express your thoughts to God freely.

In any case, just as with everything else, practice helps, and one can become proficient in holding conversations with the Infinite Being. Once you learn how to converse with God with ease, you can speak in a quiet, hushed voice, making yourself more and more aware of the One to whom you are speaking. As you converse, you will become increasingly aware of God's presence. At this point, the conversation with God becomes an awesome experience.

As the conversation becomes easier and more relaxed, the experience deepens. It becomes a powerful meditative technique, which can easily bring one to higher states of consciousness. In these states of consciousness, God's presence becomes almost palpable.

The question arises as to what advantage this method has over such other methods as mantra meditation or contemplation. Since this is an inner-directed meditation, it has some important advantages.

One of the purposes of meditation is to help banish the ego. This is often difficult in the modern world. Furthermore, in the high-pressure world of our everyday lives, a person must have a strong sense of self and purpose in order not to be trampled. For many people, a meditative regimen that weakens the ego and sense of self may be counterproductive. One may find one's goals in meditation diametrically opposed to one's ambitions and aspirations in the world.

The method of conversing with God does not have this drawback. It is true that, like other forms of meditation, this method can help a person overcome the ego. Nevertheless, this is a method that replaces the ego with something stronger. In speaking to God, a person can gain a view of himself from a different perspective and begin to see himself as a branch of the Divine. This type of meditation makes one, as it were, partners with the Divine. Thus, for example, if one has discussed future plans with God and still feels good about them, one’s resolution and feeling of purpose are all the stronger.

Of course, this can have dangers in the opposite direction. If a person does not nullify his ego sufficiently, he can become so bullheaded and obstinate that people cannot deal with him. Nothing is so distasteful as a person who acts as if he has a direct line to God. Therefore, the goal is to attain and maintain a balance.

Besides strengthening one’s resolve, conversing with God can also help one to find direction in life. I have discussed this earlier, when I spoke about a meditation concerned with rearranging one's life. Here again, by conversing with God, a person can see himself from a God’s-eye view, as it were. He can then determine if the type of life he is leading is one that is worthy from God’s point of view. If it is not, meditation will help him find ways of improving it.

It is significant that the Hebrew verb for praying is hitpalel. Hebrew linguists note that this is the reflexive of the word palel, meaning "to judge. " Therefore, hitpalel means to judge oneself.

This is not difficult to understand in the context of our discussion. When a person speaks to God, he is able to see himself from a God’s-eye view and he is judging himself in the deepest sense possible. He is looking at his most profound aspirations in the mirror of his prayer and judging whether or not they are worthy. Little by little, the person can also purge himself of any encumbrances to prayer.

Actually, this is like a type of therapy. In many ways, speaking to God is like speaking to a therapist. What, then, is the difference between this method of prayer-meditation and psychotherapy?

First, it is true that both psychotherapy and meditation can help a person direct his life more effectively. I n psychotherapy, however, the answer comes from without, while in prayer-meditation, the answer comes from within. If the person is basically healthy, his answers will reflect his own values and aspirations much more truly than if they are filtered through the eyes of a therapist who may have an entirely different value system. Prayer-meditation may also spur a person to learn more about life and its meaning from external sources, so that help can also come from without.

Furthermore, psychotherapy deals only with the mundane dimensions of man, and not with his spiritual dimensions. Prayer-meditation, on the other hand, deals primarily with the spiritual dimension. Psychotherapy is primarily a way of working out problems, while meditation is a method of enhancing the spiritual dimensions of life.

There are many ways in which prayer-meditation can be very much like self-therapy, and therefore, it has all the dangers inherent therein. As in therapy, a person can uncover deep, unresolved problems that can cause great pain and suffering if they are not worked out. In psychotherapy, one has the therapist to help if the situation becomes too difficult. If one is using meditation as self-therapy, on the other hand, one can get oneself into a psychological cul-de-sac and not be able to escape.

Therefore, if you find yourself using prayer-meditation as a form of self-therapy, it is very important that you have a guide who understands exactly what is happening. Without such a guide, the results can be more negative than positive. The guide should be someone who is well adjusted and psychologically strong, with extensive successful experience in guiding neophyte meditators. The guide’s advice should help the meditator find a proper balance in his or her life.