October 29, 2009


Originally posted on BBC's website, reproduced here by permission of Professor Les Lancaster, Liverpool John Moores University.

The essence of Jewish meditation

By Professor Les Lancaster

What is Jewish meditation?

'Meditation' is a word used extensively today, and it has connotations that do not sit easily with Jewish mystical practices. If you think of meditation simply as a means of relaxation, then you will not understand why Jewish mystics follow practices that can be highly complex. The typical Jewish meditation appears far from relaxing.

A deeper grasp of the term meditation paves the way for my discussion of Jewish mystical practices. We must recognise that there are, in broad terms, two different ways of thinking. The first is normal, everyday rational thought - thinking about things you have to do, or about ideas, or about people around you. The second is, by comparison, less logical and less oriented to immediate everyday goals. This second is a more penetrating kind of thinking.

It involves shifting the centre of gravity of the mind away from the sense of 'I' which normally dominates our goals. Like all meditative practices, Jewish mystical techniques are directed towards enhancing this second form of thinking. At the same time, these practices cultivate an awareness of the divine presence in all things.

In fact, the first type of thinking is simply a surface layer of thought. If you imagine the mind as a sea, then rational thought is simply the surface level of waves on the water. The major currents operate at the deeper levels of the ocean. The objective of meditation is to engage with these deeper currents.

One of the major texts of Kabbalah, the 12th-century Bahir, writes that the biblical prophet Habakkuk 'understood God's thought.' It tells us:

"Just as human thought has no end, for even a mere mortal can think and descend to the end of the world, so too the ear also has no end and is not satiated."

Jewish mystical practices enable us to use thought to 'descend to the end of the world', that is, to plumb the depths where mind and physical reality are no longer separate.

The goals of Jewish meditation

Within the overall framework of Judaism, meditative practices are intended to deepen the individual's engagement with all aspects of the religion. Meditation and techniques of concentration can:

-heighten one's understanding of the Torah

-develop an understanding of ritual and other religious observances

-give direction to prayer

-increase one's awareness of others' needs

More generally, Jewish meditation is understood as:

- promoting a greater closeness to God

- disciplining the mind, so that one has greater ability to focus mentally

- bringing an awareness of those regions of the mind that had previously been 'unconscious'

Examples and exercises

Examples of Jewish meditation

One of the oldest texts that describes Jewish meditation practices is the Sefer Yetsirah. Consider the following extract:

"Ten dimensions of nothingness. Their measure is ten to which there is no end.

A depth of beginning, a depth of end; a depth of good, a depth of evil; a depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of east, a depth of west; a depth of north, a depth of south.

The unified Master - God faithful King - rules over all of them, from His holy dwelling place, until eternity of eternities."

The meditation based on this passage entails consciously building up a deep sense of your place in relation to the dimensions.

We begin with 'depth of beginning'. You could ask yourself: what first triggered the situation in which you presently find yourself? As the mind arrives at answers (perhaps you are reading this because a friend thought you would be interested), continue by dismissing the idea that the answer might be definitive and final; there is always a further root (what is it about you that might have led the friend to think you would be interested; where did that quality in you develop from, and so on?).

When you can no longer put the answer in words (perhaps some ineffable intimation of a root in your soul), begin to move forwards in time.

What seem to be the likely consequences of your immediate situation? Again, continue to go beyond the immediate answers and stretch the bounds of your mental representations. In relation to the depth of good, the question to address concerns that which connects you to the larger whole - to God. And, for evil, what leads to a sense of disconnection? Always, you must stretch the bounds of the answers which pop into the mind.

The meditation continues with the first of the six directions of space. What is immediately above you? Air... the ceiling... other rooms... the roof... birds... sky... vastness of space... the infinite that cannot be formed in the mind...

It is as if you generate a beam of light from within that is gradually extended further and further whilst, at the same time, maintaining your awareness of the centre, the heart as the source of light... And then continue into the remaining directions. You may glimpse your inner core suspended at the heart of a web of infinite interconnections.

Ultimately, the objective is for you to experience a sense of meaning that can only be described as witnessing your self as a centre within a network of interconnections which plunge into an infinite nothingness.

The use of Hebrew in meditation: Visualising the Hebrew letters

The example on the previous page can be attempted without any specific background. However, most Jewish meditations require at least a basic knowledge of Hebrew, the sacred language of Judaism.

Jewish mystics view the Hebrew letters as the agents of creation. There are many techniques for visualising and working with the letters. The Sefer Yetsirah states that God engraved the letters, carved them, weighed them, permuted them, combined them, and formed with them all that was formed and all that would be formed in the future. Each of these processes is mirrored in a kabbalistic practice of visualisation.

Preparation for visualisation requires closing or half-closing the eyes. Normally, when you close the eyes you automatically turn the visual sense off inwardly as well. For this kind of a practice, however, you must remain acutely aware of the visual sense even whilst being closed to outward seeing. It is as if you are seeing the screen made by the insides of your eyelids.

Engraving means outlining the letter in the mind's eye; as the outline is built up, you must hold a clear intent to operate with a specific letter.

Carving entails establishing the letter as a powerful presence in visual consciousness; energy is focused on the letter until it blazes like fire on the inner screen of the mind.

The intent behind weighing is that of allowing the letter's qualities to impress themselves upon you; a receptive state must be cultivated, in which you might, for example, find meaning in the letter's shape, its constituent parts, its relations with other letters, and so on.

This is followed by permuting the letter with other letters; maybe, having focused on the letter's constituent lines, other letters using those lines arise in the mind.

Letters are then combined, enabling them to enter into relationships one with another.

The final stage concerns the meaning of those combinations; what kind of a presence is formed when those specific letters come together? It is not simply a matter of knowing the word (and, in fact, not all combinations produce words), but rather you should attempt to discern the nature of the entity depicted by the specific combination of letters. What tensions arise between the letters, or do they share a more harmonious relation?

Another meditation with the Hebrew letters introduces their sounds, as indicated in the following audio extract. These kinds of practice open up regions of meaning that extend beyond the reach of the everyday rational mind. As quoted earlier from the Bahir, they begin the process of forging deep links with 'God's thought'.