Meditation of Presence
The practice of this meditation is so simple, it nearly defies description. Like riding a bicycle, you learn it by trying and trying again. The scriptural phrases mentioned below are hints at the reality of meditation, and can be used to help awaken the receptive and alert presentness which is Hitbodedut. Here is a brief instruction to guide one in beginning this meditation practice.
Be in a comfortable but alert posture. Feel your way into the body, allowing and opening to whatever impressions (i.e. sensations, thoughts, feelings) emerge. Let your awareness rest in the flow of the breath, and open your senses to whatever is present- sounds, smells and so on. When you notice that you’ve become absorbed in thought, welcome the thought without judgment and let it go. Simply come back to that which is present: the flow of breath, the sensation of your physical presence and whatever flows into the senses. Know that the Divine Presence is not something remote; we live in and as the body of G-d. Surrender before that Presence by giving your mind and heart to the flow of whatever is happening in this moment. This is Hitbodedut.
Division and the Longing for Wholeness
Our experience of reality emerges in stages. First, there is undifferentiated awareness: a world of sensation pours into our senses. Afterward, this stream of phenomena is mapped into comprehensible parts, understood in relation to past experience and reflected in the body as emotion. Thus, the initial flood of sensed reality is ordered and felt through that screen of conditioned thought and feeling called personality, or ego.
The ego (or the ani in Hebrew), which makes sense of reality by dividing it into its parts, must also divide itself from the rest of reality. Through this division we are able to tell the difference between “self” and “not self” and navigate through life. Of course, the ability to see oneself as separate from the rest of reality is necessary in order to function. But the consequence of this division can be a feeling of separateness, or incompleteness. It is this basic feeling of separateness, or existential pain, which some ultimately come to experience as a deep spiritual longing for unity and wholeness.
Fortunately, this sense of separateness is only an effect of the ani. At the level of our awareness prior to the dividing of reality by the ani, reality can be felt and known as One, and we are not separate from that Oneness. The awakening of our self as this simple awareness, beneath the psychological ani, is the inner aim of this meditation. This is reflected in the core of Jewish liturgy, the Sh’ma:
“Sh'ma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Ehad- Listen, Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.”
Although this is often taken to be an affirmation of belief in one G-d, it does not actually say, “there is only one G-d.” Rather, it says that G-d “is One.” Furthermore, the name of G-d (referred to here as Hashem which means “the Name”) is a form of the verb “to be” in Hebrew. So the phrase is actually pointing to the underlying Unity of Being, and thus to the fulfillment of the longing that drives us to seek “G-d.”
How do we move beyond the division-creating ani and realize the truth of this Unity? The key is in the first word- “Sh'ma- Listen.” By deeply listening- not just with our ears, but with all our faculties- consciousness is gradually drawn out of its ego function. With practice, the original unity of reality can be felt directly. In this way, the phrase “Hashem is One” is not merely an idea or belief, but a direct knowing.
Hokhmah / Wisdom
This direct knowing of Oneness is not a conceptual knowing; the intellect understands aspects of reality, but Reality as a whole remains a mystery. The analytical mind seeks to create inner maps of reality. Meditation, on the other hand, leads one to a state where the map-making ceases. In this state, Oneness can be felt, but not understood. This deep knowing of Oneness which cannot be understood mentally is traditionally called Hokhmah or “Wisdom.”
Hineini-Here I am
Another clue to realizing the truth of Unity can be found in the Biblical tale where G-d calls to Abraham, and he answers “Hineini- Here I am.” This legendary event is a metaphor for our situation; it is as if the Oneness calls to us constantly, but in order to realize it we must become present. Becoming present means that our awareness, or Hokhmah, becomes highly conscious of both the reality around us as well as our emotions within. Ordinarily, we tend to react to the world according to our conditioning and habits. But when Hokhmah permeates the body, our emotions become conscious so that they no longer control us. The tendency to merely react is transformed and our capacity to respond creatively can be realized. In Jewish tradition, the emotions we feel are called HaLev- “The Heart.” When we make these feelings conscious, we are said to have Hokhmat HaLev- “Wisdom of the Heart.” In this wisdom, Unity is not merely an inner experience, but can manifest itself in the way we live. Work can be creative and fulfilling; relationships can be respectful and loving. This is the outer aim of this meditation.
There are many names and images of God. Most are mythic ideas of a deity that stands separate from the world, in much the same way that the ego perceives itself. In this way, the ego tends to make G-d in its own image! But Divinity is not a being, but a Presence that can be felt when we become present. It is the Presence of Being. Hitbodedut literally means to be alone. As meditation, hitbodedut means to isolate one’s deepest self, or consciousness, from its content- thought, emotion, memory and so on. It is to separate oneself from separateness, as it were. It is the process by which one comes to know the Divine Presence, and to know one’s deepest self as that Presence. In knowing oneself as that Presence, so does one come to see that Presence in the faces of others- and in all Reality.