Mysticism and Spirituality
By Rami Aloni
There is a common misconception that only through the study of the Kabbalah will a person be able to reach an enhanced level of spirituality. Kabbalah after all has been getting a lot of press coverage; therefore one might conclude that the study of Kabbalah is the only proper path to heightened spirituality.
But let us understand that there is quite a large misunderstanding of the two terms: Kabbalah and spirituality; I know because after learning in a regular rabbinic seminary for many years and after attaining a high degree of proficiency in the Talmud, and of course, Hebrew and Aramaic, I took off several years to study Kaballah.
First let we must understand what is mean by spirituality? I define it as being aware of G-d or perhaps better: heightened awareness of G-d. This can mean either the workings of G-d in this world or the elevation of the soul to a finer awareness of G-d in the upper worlds. Kabballah is a systematic study of the manner in which G-d created and is constantly maintaining this world and the upper worlds.
It is possible to reach an attuned level of spirituality with out the study of Kabbalah, however the knowledge of Kabbalah will give an advantage if one desires to be spiritual.
To understand this, let me give an exaggerated example: there is the study of a how to live life and there is living a proper life. They are two separate and not necessarily related items. The fact that someone can learn to become a knowledgeable psychologist or social worker who understands what constitutes a fine life does not necessarily imply that he/she will live a fine life style. There are psychologists and social workers who have problematic lives. Yet there are many persons who, with out studying how to live a proper and comfortable life style, live very nicely and deal reputably with their neighbors, children and spouses. But we will admit that a person who does study how to life a good life can enhance his already good life and he/she does enjoy an advantage of those who have not taken these types of study courses.
In a similar manner, the study of Kabbalah includes the understanding of the manner in which the G-dly influence descends from the upper worlds into this lower world. It is very abstract and highly interesting but it will not necessarily cause a person to become spiritual. It gives a person the facts of the "upper" worlds and how they function, but it does not automatically render the learner a "spiritual" person.
A spiritual person is one who is becomes aware of G-d's presence in this world. It requires a different type of discipline, which does not require the study of Kabbalah. It requires an involvement in a mental process called "hitbonenut". Hitbonenut can be translated loosely as contemplation and/or reflection; it has certain similarities to Eastern meditation but with obvious and defined differences. Hitbonenut was developed to a high degree by the early Chassidic masters and employed with much success by them and their disciples. In its proper form it brought the practitioner to heightened realization of G-dliness.
How it works:
In order to understand the process of hitbonenut we must give this small introduction to Chassidic and mystical thought:
The mind of the person is divided into three categories: chochmah, bina, and da'at. Chochmah is often translated as wisdom, but the mystics used it as meaning an inspired thought like the 'light bulb' flash of inspiration which comes to give an original insight or solve a problem. It is the facet of the mind from which creative thought is derived.
Bina is the next and lower facet of the mind. Bina is the part in which the idea is developed with all of its ramifications and possibilities. The word hitbonenut is derived from the same root word as bina. It is the Hebrew root for building. It is in bina that the building and developing of an idea (hitbonenut) takes place.
Da'at is called the connector. It connects the upper aspects of the mind to the lower aspects, the feelings and emotions. It is through da'at that Adam knew Eve, meaning connected. It is da'at that brings the hitbonenut from bina into the actual realm of the person's being. It is through da'at that the person's essence begins to change upon the realization and perception of the divine.
There are two basic and distinct types of hitbonenut: there is the concrete and the abstract. Both are different than Eastern meditation since the Eastern concept is to void your mind of thought, whereas the concept in hitbonenut is to direct and develop your mind's thinking process bringing it to fruition through an enhanced spiritual awareness.
There are two types of concrete hitbonenut, personal reflection and verse related contemplation. Personal reflection is a hitbonenut based on deep contemplation of the actions and activities in your personal life in order to see how G-d has directed them. By reflecting on these types of thoughts you will come to a realization of the constant and positive action of G-d in your daily life. This is done by directing your mind to consider the actions of a period of time, or even a special event, then contemplating on the "hand of G-d" is in this deed.
The point here is to identify and dwell on G-d's active participation in our daily, even mundane, life. The more time you give to this type of meditative "hitbonenut", the more life will become a game whose goal is seeing G-d within the world. But it is necessary to practice this on an ongoing basis. The more one employs "hitbonenut", the more one will be successful and reap the benefits of a spiritual life here in this world.
Verse related hitbonenut is slightly different. Instead of contemplating and reflecting on a personal event, the focus of hitbonenut is on a verse or statement about G-d's being. Taking a statement such as "ain od belvado", meaning "there is nothing other than Him" and focusing on that statement by developing it in all of its many facets. What is 'ain' what does it mean 'od' and 'belvado' mean and then developing it in context of G-d's presence in this world and your personal life. This requires more training and is more difficult for beginners.
The second type of hitbonenut is the abstract. This is more difficult and here one needs to know the elements of either Chassidic teachings or the Kabbalah. In this type of hitbonenut one begins to "raise" his/her consciousness above this physical world and go into the upper worlds. This type of hitbonenut can not be employed by just every one; training is needed to learn about the various levels of worlds and their properties. However this type of contemplation (as explained above in our little example) yields the highest level of spirituality.
Do not let your lack of knowledge of mysticism hold you back from beginning hitbonenut. You can begin now by employing the simplest form of hitbonenut. Simply closing your eyes and direct your mind to the actions of this day. Consider what has happened and how it has been directed and orchestrated by G-d. For example, what did you think before reading this article and how this article has will change you.
Begin by placing a clock or watch next to you and promising not to open your eyes for five minutes. During these five minutes, take upon yourself these contemplation exercises. Try to connect all the actions that have happened in the past day to G-d's actively causing things to "happen".
We know that nothing "happens" by chance, G-d is actively running the world. Dwell on that thought and try to see how He has "happened" things to "happen" in your life and that includes reading this article. The more you do this, the easier it gets. Don't give up if it is difficult; it takes most people some practice to be able to do this.
After several periods of "hitbonenut," increase the time period from five minutes to seven minutes and later to ten minutes. The more you exercise, the more you will become habitual in seeing G-d's presence in your life and in this world. This will make you a truly spiritual person.
As time goes by, He will present you with the opportunity for deeper and deeper revelations. G-d in His great kindness will cause you to learn the secrets of Chassidic or Kabalistic thought. But it is all dependent on starting.
If you just read this, you will know; but if you do it, you will become.
from the Febuary 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine