April 1, 2009


The following is an appendix to Andrea Cohen-Kiener’s “Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work” (Jason Aronson), which is a translation of a modern Chassidic classic, B’nei Machshavah Tovah, by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna (1889-1943), also known as the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.” The appendix, however, is taken from another volume of his works, mentioned below. Footnotes have been omitted for this online version.

The Technique of Quieting

Reb Kalonymus was clearly an expert on meditation and self-observation. A collection of his writings entitled Sefer Derech Hamelech (The Book of the Royal Path) contains the following letter from the study partner of a close associate of Rabbi Shapira:

The Technique of Quieting

From our holy teacher, the great master; may his memory be a shield for us; may God avenge his blood.

In the year 5696 or 5697 (1932-1933), I was a study partner of a close and prized advanced student of Reb Kalonymus, a Mr. Issachar Nachman Zeev (may God avenge his blood), and during the Ten Days of Repentance I was privileged to be called to a private meeting with the holy master, because of my association with the aforementioned student. It appears that the master was very pleased with our association, so that when this young man was summoned, I too was called. He immediately began to instruct us about this matter of “quieting [hashkatah].” Unfortunately, I do not remember the whole of it, but what I do recall is written herein.

Our holy master (may his memory be a shield to us) began with a teaching from the sages: “A dream is one sixtieth of prophecy” (Talmud Berakhot 57b). The master continued with his well-known thesis that the ego constitutes a barrier to the heavenly influx. Thus, if one's thoughts and intellect are active, it is difficult for the heavenly flow to penetrate. However, when one sleeps, his mind and thoughts are quiet, and at such times he has no self-directed thoughts and it is possible for the heavenly influence to reach him. This is the reason that a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy. It is also well known from the teachings of our master that we are more sensitive [to heavenly influences] during prayer than we are during Torah study, because when we learn Torah, we tend to utilize our sense of self: “I learn . . . I think that . . .” In prayer, just the opposite! The whole point is self-abnegation. Now when one sleeps, it is impossible for him to desire anything for himself, since he is unconscious. Thus our goal is to come to a sleep-consciousness while we are awake. That is to say, we wish to stem the flow of thoughts and impulses that is endemic to the working of the mind. This flow of thoughts is highly associative, and it is very difficult for a man to extricate himself from it. (On another occasion I heard our holy master explain that if we could observe the stream of thoughts within for even one day, it would be obvious that very little distinguishes us from madmen. It is just that the insane actually act upon their thoughts, but the thoughts themselves are quite indistinguishable.) He then gave us concrete advice about this quieting.

He said first that one simply watches for a set period of time, observing his thoughts. He eventually will notice that the mind is emptying, his thoughts are slowing a bit from their habitual flow. He then must repeat a single verse or phrase, such as “God is truly God,” in order to insert a thought of holiness into his now open mind. After these steps, he can articulate a need for help in any one of the areas of character development which he needs to work on, be it faith or love or awe. On this occasion, I was privileged to hear his suggestions for work on strengthening faith. He spoke these holy words: “I believe with a complete faith that God is the only existence in the universe. There is no reality other than God. All the world and all that is is just an instance of His light.” One repeats this several times, but not forcefully. The whole point here is to quiet the self. Speaking with a great forcefulness is liable to arouse the ego; one uitters the phrase with a great gentleness.

I also was able to hear his teaching on arousing love. These were his holy words: “I wish so much to be close to His blessed Essence. My deepest desire is to feel that I am forever growing nearer to the mighty Creator.”

He said that it is possible to use quieting to correct any negative trait, but that it is done in a positive way, by emphasizing the opposite of the negative characteristic. So, for example, if someone is plagued with the quality of laziness, he will not speak about moving away from laziness, but rather he will say that he moves toward enthusiastic action. He explained this by referring to a child who is crying; the more he is told not to cry, the more he continues to cry. He taught that it is also possible to quiet by watching the small hand of a watch, which barely moves at all, for a set period of time. This, too, has the effect of curbing the impulses and thoughts.

After this quieting, which has the effect of bringing in a divine influx, he instructed us to say the verse, “Show me, God, Your path,” using his special tune. It was so wonderful and so amazing to see him and hear him, as I did, due to the merit of my friend. Our teacher was very emphatic about this matter; he assured us that it would be very helpful. He said that, for example, with the quality of faith, if we would use this technique for a matter of a few weeks, that when we recite, “This is my God, I will praise him... " (Exodus 15:2) it will be as if we are pointing to Him, as is stated in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 23:19).

At first, we were unable to grasp the full intent of our master's thinking, but after some time, Providence again allowed us to hear these very teachings from our master's holy mouth, as well as additional comments and explanations. He encouraged us most insistently to embark on this exercise.