Many decades ago, the Rebbe asked that Chassidim who were familiar with meditation develop something “kosher,” without any spiritual component to it. The Rebbe explained that creating a proper alternative would save many Jews from idol worship. Furthermore, those who truly need exercises like these for their health would have a kosher format. * Rabbi Dror Shaul decided to develop courses that provide a meditative experience along with contemplation of Chassidic concepts.
Credit to Beis Moshiach
By Sholom Ber Crombie
The location: Dharamsala, India. The breathtaking scenery and villages at the foot of the majestic Himalayas in northern India is a source of inspiration in and of itself. The course: Jewish Meditation. The instructor: A shliach of the Rebbe. This is a description of a scene that repeats itself daily during tourist season.
Over the past several decades, Dharamsala has become a magnet for anything associated with spirituality and meditation. There are ashrams, centers of healing and courses on meditation of all sorts. Visitors from the world over flock there in droves in order to find tranquility. Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, head the pack. Some of them even give courses and workshops on spirituality and various forms of idol worship.
Fortunately though, twelve years ago, Rabbi Dror Moshe Shaul and his wife Michal opened a Chabad house, which is also a center where courses on spirituality are given, albeit of the right sort. Over the years, the Chabad house firmly established its presence and now there are two Chabad houses in Dharamsala.
During the annual tourist season, many Israeli backpackers from all over India head to Dharamsala in order to attend the Chabad house’s special courses, which interweave intensive in-depth learning and experiential tools for self-knowledge. In these courses, they find answers to many questions that preoccupy them in their spiritual search. The urge to see what Judaism has to offer only grows in light of the exposure they have to numerous Far Eastern disciplines, most of which are sourced in impurity. The courses in the Chabad house of Dharamsala address the structure of the soul according to Chassidus and Kabbala. They enable the students to express their inner world in terms of Tanya and deep maamarei Chassidus.
The shluchim, R’ Dror Shaul and R’ Uri Tzipori designed the courses under the guidance of R’ Yitzchok Ginsburgh, who has been involved in the establishment of the Chabad house of Dharamsala since its inception. R’ Ginsburgh even gave some shiurim in order to guide the shluchim in how to create an authentic and internal system of soul meditation. The fact that the shluchim themselves were involved in their own spiritual search in the Far East not that long ago, enables the tourists to identify and relate to them. The common language along with personal experience has become a successful recipe for hafatza. In recent years, hundreds have become baalei t’shuva by way of the Chabad house, many of whom are shluchim themselves today.
THE TANYA SAYS: PICTURE IT IN YOUR MIND
In a special interview with Beis Moshiach, R’ Dror Moshe Shaul agreed to discuss his courses and to share what lies behind the unique Jewish meditation workshops.
In the past, meditation was regarded as outright idol worship, but in recent years it has become more accepted. Today, many forms of it are known in medicine such as guided imagery. What is the difference between them? Which are associated with idol worship and which can be utilized?
Meditation includes a plethora of techniques and tools, depending on the place where it was developed and its spiritual source. The common denominator of them all is that it is a method by which you calm the body and soul, and then you focus the power of thought on a particular issue that you want to implant in your psyche in a deep, experiential way. Today, this idea is also used in conventional medicine under the name “medical hypnosis,” to address emotional problems and physical pain. Although there is neutral meditation, most of the approaches and techniques that the public is exposed to come from a source of idol worship, usually from Eastern religions.
Today, most of the teachers of these techniques have learned to gloss over the direct connection between the approach they teach and the prohibitions of idol worship, so as not to turn people off. But in the vast majority of meditational paradigms there is impurity and idol worship mixed in, such as a connection to a spiritual mentor or names of impurity.
Do you think that the connection between kosher meditation and Chassidus is a natural one?
In Chassidus it explains the difference between external hearing to inner hearing (derher). The first is when you absorb the content intellectually, so that the listener and the topic remain two separate things. The second is when the topic is internalized. The difference between the two types is enormous. While intellectual understanding is also prone to contradiction and forgetting, a direct experience remains forever, even if it is sometimes contradicted. The emphasis in our courses is to try and lead the students to an experience in which Torah and they are one thing, and learning from s’farim is a sort of glimpse into their souls. This way, the learning doesn’t remain mere pretty words but is actualized in exercises whose goal is to experience the learning on the most practical level.
Chassidic meditation demands substantive contemplation as it is explained in several places in Tanya such as perek 11 of Igeres Ha’kodesh, “Now when a man will contemplate in the depths of his understanding and will [moreover]picture in his mind how he comes into being ex nihilo at every single moment …” In other words, the Alter Rebbe demands that we have a direct experience of G-d’s existence in order to fulfill the “bottom line” of truly living a life of faith.
Do you know of people who got more involved with Chassidus as a result of these courses?
One of the unique programs that we do at the Chabad house in Dharamsala is an eight day intensive meditation course. The participants get up very early in the morning, immerse in a mikva and start the day by learning Chassidus, hisbonenus and t’filla. Then, throughout the day, we learn Chassidus together in the Chabad house. The high point of the course is when the participants go on a four day hike in the Himalayas. Every day there is a Jewish meditation exercise and learning of Chassidus, so that within two weeks, they go through a process of inner work in conjunction with physical and mental challenges.
On one of these outings we encountered very bad weather with heavy hail coming down. We had to take shelter in a cave until the storm died down. We sat together, learned an inyan in Chassidus, did a meditation and relaxation exercise while meditating upon what we had learned earlier. After a few hours of the exercise, we opened our eyes and saw that it was still hailing outside, so we decided to continue sitting in the cave. While sitting there, we asked each participant to relate what he had experienced while meditating.
In the group was a man who had learned with us for a while at the Chabad house, but still hadn’t felt moved by the learning. Before we had gone on this trip, he asked me whether he would be able to sense the learning on an experiential level during the trip, since until that point, he hadn’t felt anything in particular. When it was this fellow’s turn to share, he asked whether everyone had seen what he had seen. When we didn’t know what he was referring to, he said that during one of the niggunim he opened his eyes and saw an old man with a white beard and white clothes enter the cave and touch the head of each person. He said he had felt a special delight during this exercise.
He was emotionally overwrought by the experience and wanted to make a special hachlata. I started suggesting the usual things: t’fillin every day, Chitas, setting fixed times to study Torah. I finally suggested that when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel he should go to the Ari’s mikva and immerse there. He liked this idea very much, but he said he wanted to immerse immediately in the river at the place we had planned on davening Shacharis. I tried to dissuade him by saying that the water flowed from a glacier and was freezing, but he insisted, and with great mesirus nefesh he immersed in the freezing waters at dawn.
To appreciate what this experience did for people I will tell you that out of nine people in this workshop, I know that five are Lubavitchers today who have established Chassidishe families, boruch Hashem. That bachur is a shliach who runs a Chabad house at one of the Israeli universities.
I first got involved with this when I was in the army and responsible for teaching and training soldiers for survival and escape missions in enemy territory. The most critical area which will determine whether a soldier will be able to survive or escape to safer territory is his ability to control his emotions and his mind and the ability to make the right decisions. Through a variety of challenging tasks, we introduced the soldiers to levels of ability they were unaware they had, forcing them to persevere calmly and confidently in the most difficult moments. Afterward, I studied the subject in a variety of venues in India from a false spiritual perspective.
One of my encounters with foreign spirituality was in Nepal. In my search for truth, I spent a few weeks in the area and heard there was a great spiritual teacher in one of the ashrams in the mountains. Since I wanted to meet someone I could relate to, I traveled for two days to a little village and then walked another two days in the mountains.
With great anticipation and excitement I entered the ashram and searched for someone to tell me how to meet with this man. The first people I met were a man and woman in their forties. In a brief conversation I learned that they were the personal secretaries of the “old, foolish king.” They told me that the old monk did not feel well and I couldn’t meet with him. They asked me, in their American accents, where I was from. I said I was from Israel. “Ah, nice, we are Jewish too,” they said. “If you would like, you can meet with his chief disciple who is also from Israel.”
I was very disappointed but since I had already made the trip, I went to the little room where his disciple was. I met a kibbutznik about fifty years old who was dressed in a red robe and was living in poverty. In my conversation with him, I felt that with all his admiration for his mentor and his philosophy, he was living in terrible loneliness and was pathetic. When he said that he had found the path of truth and this was happiness, you could sense that this was a denial of his sad situation.
Putting ideas and experiences from my past to good use began thirteen years ago. One day, Machon Ascent made a special request of me. They had heard that over the years I had become an expert in giving tours in Eretz Yisroel and the world and they asked whether I could give spiritual tours in the Galil. I liked the idea and began incorporating Chassidic ideas having to do with nature – with the flora and fauna that you encounter on a hike. When Ascent heard about my background in meditation, they asked me to develop this field in the right direction.
HISBONENUS: LIKE LISTENING TO A MAAMER
Since it was very important to me to ensure that there was no impurity in the content or techniques, I spoke to R’ Yitzchok Ginsburgh and told him about the request to use meditative techniques in a way of k’dusha. He responded with a number of fascinating shiurim, some of which were given in Yeshivas Od Yosef Chai at Yosef’s grave in Sh’chem. The shiurim explained the inyan of hisbonenus in Judaism according to the Rebbeim.
The shiurim were textually based on chapter “Ein Dorshin” in tractate Chagiga which deals with the structure of the earth and the seven heavens. These shiurim were the basis of the book I wrote, which is a practical guide to Jewish meditation called, Hisbonenus B’Maaseh Merkava. R’ Ginsburgh published these shiurim in several books, the most fundamental one being, Lichyos B’Merchav Eloki.
What techniques are your workshops based on?
There are a number of techniques that we use, but the classic structure that we created is based on a similar process of saying a maamer as was customary by the Rebbe. Generally, before saying a maamer, the Rebbe said a sicha, and before he said the maamer, people stood up, sang the Niggun Gaaguim (song of yearning), closed their eyes and listened, and then concluded with a Niggun Simcha.
Similarly, hisbonenus begins with learning Chassidus while engaging in deep discussion and providing vivid examples. Then the s’farim are set aside and after creating a silent state in body and soul while standing, we begin singing one of the niggunei gaaguim like “Tzama Lecha Nafshi,” while meditating on its meaning, closing our eyes and using the tool of guided imagery on the basis of the Chassidus that was learned. When the guided imagery is over, we return to the world with a Niggun Simcha.
I got an especially interesting and powerful reaction from a girl who came to the Chabad house for the course and wanted to inform me that she was dropping out. When I asked her why she was leaving, she said she chose not to continue since she felt that it was affecting her on such a powerful level that she couldn’t take the enormity of it. She said that after hearing the niggun “Tzama Lecha Nafshi” the day before, during the hisbonenus, she dreamed of the Rebbe singing the niggun and she felt a powerful feeling of k’dusha. And being that she felt so distant, she felt that she couldn’t handle the intensity of the experience.
There are also exercises in which we combine meditation with breathing exercises. Another course consists of exercises that combine movement and restful poses in the shape of Alef beis according to Chassidus. Having to move the body in the proper way from a medical standpoint, along with channeling the consciousness towards the spiritual energies of each letter, turns the exercise into a process of inner work which is felt in the limbs of the body.
What is the difference between the approach that you use and the classic approaches to meditation used in the world or any guided imagery that are not associated with avoda zara?
There are many important differences between Jewish meditation and what is generally found in non-Jewish meditation. Jewish meditation consists of deep Chassidic content, which is learned in depth by the intellect and only then is fused with experiential exercises that access the super-conscious. So that when a person experiences something G-dly, it is generally absorbed in the intellect and translated into genuine love and fear and not anything delusional.
In non-Jewish meditation, they usually try to empty the head of any thought or content. Then, if there is a spiritual experience, it turns into an ego trip or towards avoda zara.
Another important point, although Jewish meditation is in lofty, subtle concepts, the purpose is to bring it down and affect this world with simcha and action which express love and unity with others. In meditation that is derived from unholy sources, the exercise causes the person to look at the world from the top-down and this leads the person to feeling estranged and sad. In other words, Jewish meditation engenders inner humility, chayus and giving, while the other meditation – which boasts of love and wholeness – engenders estrangement and apathy.
In my experience, anyone who was ever involved in other forms of meditation and is then exposed to Jewish meditation, experiences the enormous conceptual revolution and understands its significance.
PROVIDING THE TOOLS
What is the uniqueness of these techniques in terms of the health benefits?
The goal of the meditation, breathing and movement courses is to give the participants practical tools to deal with fears, anxiety, confusion and other things we have to contend with. Here too, we see the difference between the truth of Torah – which allows for treating the root causes of the internal distress and resolving it – and medications that deal with symptoms, which is like external calm that only covers over the problem and ultimately causes it to worsen.
On one rainy day, a young girl appeared out of the Indian monsoon and said she wanted to take the course on meditation. My wife explained that there was no course at that time, but if she organized a group we could have an evening of meditation. They arranged a day and time and the girl told other girls to come for an interesting evening at the Chabad house.
Ten girls came to that event and the main topic was chapter 11 of Igeres Ha’kodesh in Tanya, “l’haskilcha bina.” This chapter is fundamental to meditation because it deals with the constant bond between man and Hashem.
The girls enjoyed the program and it was very successful. However, after they all left the one who initiated it remained and complained to my wife, “How can you say that G-d is only good when I went through terrible suffering in my life that no psychologist has been able to heal?”
My wife got into a long conversation with her in which she tried to heal the wounds. After a while she asked, “Did you ever experience genuine good, sweetness and pleasantness?”
The girl thought and then declared, “No, never, except for the meditation tonight. That was genuine relaxation, confidence and hope that I never knew of before.”
At the end of the evening the girl said to my wife, “Until today, I learned that everything is good, but this is the first time in my life that I felt that everything is good.” She left us after promising that she would start learning Chassidus, knowing that this was the only way she would find tranquility for her soul.
What feedback do you get from the backpackers?
For many of them that go around to the many ashrams in India, the conflation of meditation and Judaism seems strange, but after they become familiar with the contents of the course, it seems the most natural thing in the world. The course enables a person to connect on an experiential level to Chassidic concepts and to transform them into something alive in his life, as opposed to just remaining in the realm of intellect. In order for a person to make a real change in his life, he needs to experience G-dliness directly.
Obviously, when you see it directly from the source as written in Chassidic books, it becomes that much more powerful and enables the one engaged in contemplative meditation to succeed in his life’s mission. The Rebbe’s demand that we live with the yechida of the soul, requires us to reach a state wherein knowledge of Chassidus is something alive. The experience transcends the power of thought and opens the person to becoming a G-dly vessel.
Are there sources in Chassidus for hisbonenus like this?
There’s the story about the Alter Rebbe who asked the Mitteler Rebbe what he davened with. The Mitteler Rebbe said by meditating on, “v’kol koma lifanecha sishtachaveh,” i.e. the koma of Adam Kadmon. Then he dared to ask his father what he davened with and his father said, “with the shtender.” He explained that he saw the activating G-dly force which vivified the lectern.
Each of us knows that a genuine experience helps a person even if he only recalls it for a moment several years down the road. One of the important areas we are developing is a person’s identification with his mission, particularly as it is assigned to him by the Rebbe. In my life I have had to deal with many difficult challenges. Many times, in the most difficult situations, this is what helped me prevail. This work is really one of saving lives.
THE REBBE RECOMMENDS KOSHER MEDITATION
In the 70’s, many people were interested in various forms of meditation. It bordered on idol worship and caused many to stumble spiritually. In a sicha of 13 Tammuz 5739/1979, the Rebbe spoke about this phenomenon and suggested that a kosher form of meditation be developed for those who think they need meditation for healing purposes. The Rebbe set forth two conditions: 1) kosher meditation should be only for those who need it for healing or those who have convinced themselves that they need meditation, who also need to be healed, and 2) those who are involved in it should be knowledgeable so that no idol worship is involved, and they also need to be experts in medicine so they will know how to heal using meditation:
“In every matter there is, as the verse says, ‘See, I have given before you life and good,’ and as the verse goes on to say, the opposite of life and good. There is a great principle here. We find regarding avoda zara that the Gemara asks, ‘Since they have been worshiped as false gods, shouldn’t they be destroyed? However,
should G-d destroy the world because of the foolishness of the idol-worshipers?’ There are idol worshipers who worship the sun, moon and stars. In other words, there are things that are good and beneficial and they turn them into avoda zara, which is a rebellion against the King of kings, Hashem. And if one wonders why the sun and moon exist when they are turned into objects of worship, then the answer is as the Gemara says: should the world be destroyed because of fools?
“The same concept applies in regard to meditation. Though essentially good, meditation can also be destructive. There are those who have connected meditation to actually bowing down to an idol or a man and worshiping it or him, bringing incense before them etc. This has led to a new plague which is not written in the Torah, which has spread in this country and is now reaching other countries and even Eretz Yisroel.
“They have called it by a refined name, ‘meditation,’ or ‘transcendental meditation,’ i.e. something above limits, above our bounded intellects. However, they have also incorporated into the procedures the bringing of incense and other practices that are clearly ‘avoda zara,’ the worship of false gods.
“Since we are living within the darkness of Galus, many Jewish youth, boys and girls, and even adults, have fallen into this snare. Before they became involved with this cult, they were troubled and disturbed. The cult was able to bring them peace of mind and even to good health. However, their meditation is connected with avoda zara, burning incense and bowing to a guru, etc.
“These are people who need to be healed so they will be cured of this sort of illness. First and foremost, their nerves need to be calmed, and they need to relax in general, and this is enabled through this method called ‘meditation.’ G-d forbid to say that it must be associated with avoda zara. This is a matter of healing and as we see, those who tried to be healed in a kosher way, without incense, without idols, and without anything related to avoda zara, not even something supportive of avoda zara, were successful.”
FROM INDIA TO ERETZ YISROEL
Six months ago, R’ Dror Moshe Shaul founded the Yichuda center in Rechovos. It is meant for those seeking the same philosophies in Eretz Yisroel and who fall into programs that are sourced in impurity.
“For a number of years we were asked in India where there are similar courses and workshops and we were embarrassed to say that you have to go to Dharamsala to get it. So we decided to open the Yichuda center in Rechovos, which will be a place for mekuravim from India as well as for those who seek spirituality in Eretz Yisroel.
“Many mekuravim need a way-station. They are not ready for yeshiva but they want to continue to learn and grow. Groups of mekuravim are also forming in Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim. If you know anyone who would find this of interest, refer them to what will truly be good for them.”