April 6, 2009


The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide” (Schocken Books), pp. 8-14.

Why Meditate?

Meditation, which is thought directed by will, can bring many benefits. Most people learn how to think as very young children, and throughout their adult lives, they do not think any differently than they did as children. That is to say, most people use their minds in a manner not essentially different from the way they did when they were six years old. Through meditation, one can control the thought process and learn to think in new ways, thus gaining new and richer mind experiences.

It is significant that in Kabbalah, one’s normal mode of thinking is referred to as the “mentality of childhood” (mochin de-katnuth). More advanced modes of thought and states of consciousness, on the other hand, are referred to as the “mentality of adulthood” (mochin de-gadluth). One learns these methods of “adult thought” through meditation, through which one develops the ability to transcend the ways of thinking one learned as a child.

In chapter 1, for example, we discussed how different parts of the mind act independently. Thus, a person might want to concentrate on a task at hand, but at the same time other concerns pop into his mind, disturbing his concentration. While one part of the mind is trying to focus on a problem, other parts may be drawing attention to different ideas. As long as this is true, concentration is not complete.

For this reason, a person usually uses only a small portion of the mind. As much as he might try to concentrate on a thought or task, parts of his mind are engaged in other activities. Sometimes the rest of the mind is merely passive. At other times however, other parts of the mind may actually be acting in opposition to one’s concentration. Unless one is able to control the entire mind, one cannot develop full concentration.

People often think of concentration in terms of problem-solving. It can also involve the most basic of experiences, Suppose, for example, that you are trying to experience the beauty of a rose, At the same time, thoughts about your business may be pushing their way into your mind. Your attention does not stay focused on the rose and you cannot see the rose totally, in all its beauty.

But there is another factor that prevents you from experiencing the rose completely. Earlier we discussed the spontaneous images that arise in the field of vision when the eyes are closed. Actually, you can also see these images with your eyes open in a darkened room. Once you are aware of these images, you can even see them with your eyes open in a well-lit room. The reason you are normally not aware of these images is that they are very faint compared with the images entering your mind from your open eyes. Nevertheless, they are constantly with you.

Now suppose you are trying to appreciate the beauty of a rose. No matter how hard you try to focus your mind on the rose, the image of the rose is competing with the self-generated images in the mind. It is as if there were a screen of extraneous imagery between you and the rose, preventing you from seeing it with total clarity.

In a meditative state, however, it is possible to turn off the interference and concentrate totally on the rose. As we shall see, with training, one can turn off the spontaneous self-generated images and thus remove the screen. The beauty of the flower when seen in these higher states of awareness is indescribable to someone who has never experienced it. The most I can say is that the rose actually appears to radiate beauty. This can be true of anything else in the world.

Another important goal of meditation is thus enhanced awareness and perception. The greater the portion of the mind focused on an experience, the more the experience will be enhanced. When every cell in your brain is tuned in to experiencing the rose, the experience is indescribably different from what you would see in your usual state of consciousness.

This works in one of two ways. The most simple way in which meditation works is to quiet down all parts of the mind not concentrating on the immediate experience. In this model the experience is not enhanced directly, but rather all interference with it is removed. Thus, you may be looking at the rose with no greater awareness than before, but without the mental static, it will appear much more vivid. It is somewhat like trying to tune in to a faint radio station; even if you cannot amplify the volume, you will hear the station more clearly if you can eliminate the static. This mode of meditation can be reached through most meditative techniques and is the state of consciousness most readily attainable in its lower levels.

The second way in which meditation can enhance an experience is by focusing more of the mind on it. Ultimately, as one becomes a more experienced meditator, one can learn to focus the entire mind on a single experience. This is analogous to turning up the volume of a radio or using a system of greater fidelity. This level is attained in the more advanced states of meditation, and one can use it to exert the total force of one’s mind on anything one desires.

Of course, neither mode is generally attained without the other. When you quiet other areas of the mind, you also focus more of the mind on the experience. Conversely, focusing more of the mind on the experience almost always involves blocking out other experiences and thoughts.

This increased awareness can be used in many ways. Meditation can be used to gain a greater and clearer awareness of the world around us. Looking at something like a rose while in a meditative state of consciousness, one can see much more in it than one would otherwise see. It has been said that one can see the entire universe in a grain of sand. In a high meditative state, this is actually possible. As one’s capacity for concentration increases, one can also become aware of’subtle phenomena that are not otherwise detectable. Thus, the world of the meditator may become much richer than that of those who have never had the experience.

Here again, there is a language barrier. If one has never experienced these phenomena, then one cannot comprehend it description of them. The situation can be better understood through analogy.

For the average sighted person, a page of braille leels like bumpy paper and nothing more. A blind person, however, does not have his sense of sight competing with his sense of touch, and hence experiences less “static.” Furthermore, since he uses his sense of touch more often, his tactile sense is enhanced. With practice, he learns to decipher the patterns of raised dots as letters and words. It is true that a sighted person can also learn to read braille, but those who have mastered it usually read with their eyes closed, so that their faculty of sight will not interfere with their sense of touch.

Reading braille is a good example of an experience that is meaningless to a nonsensitized person but has a world of meaning for a sensitized person. Many such experiences may exist in the world, and meditation can teach one to “read” these messages.

Another analogy may express this even more clearly. Many blind people learn to navigate by listening to the subliminal echoes given off by buildings and other large objects. This is why blind people often tap their canes constantly; they listen to the echoes produced by the tapping, and the echoes warn them of obstructions. The strange thing is that blind people claim that they do not actually hear these echoes, but sense them in a manner that they cannot describe. Rather than speak of’ this experience as hearing an echo, a blind person will describe it as sensing an obstruction. These echoes are not perceptible to a sighted person since the flood of information experienced through vision overwhelms them completely. Moreover, there is a learning period during which a blind person becomes sensitized to these echoes.

On a more esoteric level, in Tibetan medicine, as well as in Kabbalah, a number of illnesses can be diagnosed merely by feeling the pulse. The subtle differences in the feel and rhythm of the pulse can provide a skilled practitioner with a picture of the body’s state of health with uncanny accuracy. Observing the Dalai Lama’s personal physician make such a diagnosis, a famous doctor reported that he had witnessed something bordering on the supernatural.

The secret, however, is twofold. First, the practitioner must learn to enter a deep state of concentration in which the pulse beat fills his entire world of sensation and the subtlest variations in it stand out clearly and vividly. The practitioner is thus able to garner a great deal of information from the pulse beat. To him, every pulse beat is an encyclopedia of information about the body. Once he learns how to “read” the pulse beat in this manner, he can then learn what every variation means. People who have attempted to learn this technique report that it can take as much as fifteen years to master it well enough to make an accurate diagnosis.

A number of Judaic sources speak of meditation as a means of attaining extrasensory perception (ESP) in such areas as telepathy, mind-reading, clairvoyance, and predicting the future. These powers may also involve increased awareness. In the ordinary state of consciousness, ESP signals received by the mind may be overshadowed by the perceptual information entering the brain, as well as by the mind’s natural “static” or “noise.” As discussed earlier, this static consists of thoughts and images spontaneously produced by the mind which are not under the conscious mind’s control. In the meditative state, when this noise or static is quieted, ESP phenomena may become more readily discernible. A number of ESP experiments appear to indicate that this is true, and that meditation enhances the effect. Unfortunately, as in the case of most ESP experiments, results depend on so many variables that unambiguous conclusions are difficult to obtain.

Another purpose of meditation is to attune the mind to certain truths (or Truths with a capital T). When a person tries to explore questions such as the meaning of existence, the true goal of life, or the ultimate nature of reality, the answers remain elusive, tickling the edge of the mind. Possible answers hover on the borderline of consciousness, but are so subtle that they cannot be discerned through the static of the mind.

One of the most elusive truths is knowledge of the self. Generally we see ourselves only through a thick veil of ego. For this reason, it is impossible to see ourselves as others see us. Through meditation, however, we can remove the veil of ego, and see ourselves with a degree of objectivity. In this manner, we can look at ourselves objectively as a third person. We are then able to see our own shortcomings and overcome them.

The self-awareness engendered by meditation can also strengthen the ego when needed. Thus, a person with a weak self-image and feelings of inadequacy can learn to be more self-assured. He can examine his motivations and learn to become more inner-directed, doing the things he desires, and not simply what others expect of him. He can look objectively at his relationships with others and learn to improve them.

One of the most powerful uses of meditation is to gain an awareness of the spiritual. Although we may be surrounded by a sea of spirituality, we are not usually aware of it. Spiritual sensations are quite faint and usually overshadowed by the world of the senses. Even in a state of sensory deprivation, the self-generated thoughts of the mind tend to obscure spiritual sensation. However, if a person can quiet down all extraneous thoughts, he can then “tune in” to the spiritual. This tuning-in is what is known as the mystical experience. In this sense, meditation is the most important technique of mystics all over the world.

The most vivid experiences were those attained by the prophets in the Bible. In the biblical sense, a prophet is more than a person who merely sees the future. Rather, he is one who has such a strong experience of the spiritual that he can use it to garner information. Sometimes this information includes knowledge of the future, hence the popular conception of a prophet as one who sees what has not yet occurred. Nevertheless, the true prophet has access to many other truths besides knowledge of the future. It is important to realize the important role that meditation played in the careers of the prophets of Israel.

On its highest level, meditation can provide a person with an experience of God. This is certainly the highest possible spiritual experience. Our perception of God is often clouded by ego and anthropomorphism, so that we tend to see God as a mirror image of ourselves. By freeing the mind of these encumbrances, meditation can help us to open our minds totally to the experience of God. In many religious traditions, including Judaism, this is the highest goal of meditation.