What is Kabbalistic or Chassidic Meditation?
Chassidic meditation is the use of the mind through the study of Chassidic teachings (“Chassidus”) to serve G-d and bring Him into revelation in the world through unifying [one's conception of Him], knowing Him through His works, and loving Him through an intellectual understanding of His greatness. To explain the nature of this type of meditation (called Hisboninos in Hebrew), how it works, and what it is that we will meditate upon: Chassidic meditation in general is the process of understanding a thing, an idea, an insight, etc. But in particular, it is the process of understanding the subject [thoroughly and truthfully]. The subject in our case is G-d’s attribute of Wisdom (called Chochma in Hebrew – which has an analogy in human terms of a flash of Divine insight being revealed in one’s mind).
[To understand this analogy and achieve this goal through Chassidic Meditation, we first have to understand the various levels within the human mind, and how they function.]
At first glance it’s not really understood why the way to bring a true love and fear of G-d into our heart is through Chassidic meditation, which is more precisely the process of analytical understanding and intellectualization of a G-dly concept. [We are talking about a G-dly concept that enters a person mind's when he is introduced to it by a teacher, or through reading a book or essay of Chassidic teaching, or hearing a Chassidic story, etc.] At first glance, we might think that detailed understanding and intellectualization is a much lower level than the flash of G-dly wisdom, which will proceed – after its initial revelation in one’s mind – to descend into the person’s intellect, to be understood in its details by the power of Understanding (called Bina in Hebrew). Bina is the faculty which grasps the flash of Chachma in order to examine and analyze it from every angle until it is understood [thoroughly and truthfully].
To summarize this question: why is the exercise of Chassidic meditation specifically called Hisboninos, whose root word is Bina (Understanding)? Why is Bina considered the main thing, even though it functions on a “lower” level of person’s intellect(namely, the “dry” understanding of particular details within the explanation of the G-dly concept)? Remember, the details of the concept [that are recognized and analyzed] within the Bina level are already initially encapsulated within the G-dly concept, which is the higher level of Chochma (the perceived flash of the G-dly wisdom within the Chassidic concept).
The thing which flashes into the person’s intellectual faculty of Chochma is called the Pure Intellectual Concept (in Hebrew, the Sechel of the concept). This is the idea as it first lights up in the person’s brain, before the idea has taken on letters of an explanation in words. This is the actual flash of insight that arouses the person’s power of Understanding (Bina) to strive to understand the details of the Pure Intellectual Concept (the Sechel). In other words, the thing that is eventually understood through the work of the faculty of Understanding (Bina) is the actual pure Sechel of the concept. Nevertheless, a person’s limited understanding of a concept is obviously on a lower level than the pure G-dly concept itself, so we are still left with the following question.
Why then is it that the G-dly objective is to unify [one's understanding of G-d] in terms of Bina (Understanding)?
For example, this was given as a commandment to the Jewish People in the verse, “Hear Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” (Deut. 6:4). Now “hearing” connotes understanding, because just as the ear has the ability to separate sounds in order to understand a spoken message, so too does the “ear” of the mind, which is the faculty of Understanding (Bina). The faculty of Bina has the ability to understand a flash of insight by separating and clarifying the interlocked and condensed concepts that are contained in the initial flash of the idea. The Bina faculty accomplishes this by projecting the subtle concept into many particular explanations. [An analogy would be a prism, which analyzes the content of a beam of "white" light by splitting it into an array of separate colors that are contained within the pristine beam of light.]
To answer this question we first have to explain in more depth the three levels of the human intellect: Chachma (Wisdom), Bina (Understanding) and Daas (Knowledge). These three levels are referred to in Chassidic philosophy by their acronym Cha’Ba’D, or “Chabad” (hence, Chabad Chassidus is the branch of Chassidic teachings whose objective is to accomplish this spiritual goal.)
The first revelation of a drop of Divine Intellect to a human’s intellect is Chachma (Wisdom) – the flash of realization, the “seeing” of the concept that is being taught, etc. Our created intellect first perceives this as a general principle, without its being clothed in letters of thought at all. Thus, Chachma is called the level of the “seeing” of the mind, in that it flashes into the mind without letters of explanation. (We might think of this as the “light bulb” which suddenly lights up above the head of the person.) [Note: we are talking about a Torah-based G-dly concept that the person is being exposed to - from a teacher, from a book, from an essay, etc., or from a person's sudden realization - e.g. perceiving a concept for the first time, by "putting 2 and 2 together" from one's previous knowledge, or a personal experience.]
For example, consider a person who suddently sees a beautiful building. He “feels” immediately in his mind that the building is beautiful, but the reason for its beauty (which is the way that the many colors and shapes are combined to delight the eye) is not grasped yet by the lower Bina faculty of the mind, which is the mental faculty that identifies and understands reasons. So even though he feels the building’s essential beauty in his mind, he hasn’t yet brought it down to the level of putting it into letters of explanation. Therefore he is not yet able to explain to another person (or himself) why the building is beautiful.
Continuing the above example, the person may then proceed to use the second power of his mind, called Understanding, or Bina, to understand the quality of the building’s beauty with all of its details: the perfect color combinations, the exquisite materials, etc. So now that his original realization of the building’s beauty is grasped in his mind through these letters of explanation, he will be able to explain to another person the reasons for his positive feeling about the building, because the letters of explanation produced in the faculty of Bina can be drawn down to become revealed through speech.
On the other hand, Chachma is “higher” (more abstract) than the level of the letters that form the explanation, so the pure Chachma itself can’t be revealed through speech. [Only it's explanations or descriptions can be revealed, to or by the person.] Now this example of Chachma and Bina within the mind of a person who sees a beautiful building teaches us how the corresponding powers work in the other ways in which a person relates to the world around him. Chachma and Bina also exist in the realms of “Yes and No”, “Love and Fear”, “Kindness and Strictness”, etc. These are examples of the realm of Emotions (called Middos in Hebrew, which also means “measurements”). (Note: according to Kabbalah, Chachma leans toward the emotion of Kindness, or Chesed in Hebrew, and Bina leans toward the emotion of Strictness, or Gevurah in Hebrew.)
An example can be taken from the case of the great Talmudic sage Rav. Once in a debate with his colleagues, he could not be moved from his opinion, even though his colleagues refuted him with their logical contradictions. He did not answer them, yet he didn’t change his opinion. He couldn’t answer them, because his correct concept was still in the level of his Chachma - a flash of lofty insight which he was not able to bring down into the lower level of letters of explanation (Bina). However, the sage Rabba was subsequently able to dress Rav’s concept into letters of understanding, so Rabba was able to explain the reason for the original opinion of Rav.
Thus far we have explained the faculties of Chachma and Bina in the realm of physicality (the example of the beautiful building), and in the realm of “Measurement” (for example, as in a sage’s opinion on the “measurement” of what is allowable according to a Divine commandment – i.e., should we relate to a particular thing or action with restriction or with lenience; for example, how much of a forbidden act must one do in order to be liable in G-d’s eyes for punishment from a court of law?). Now in general we refer to these two faculties together as the “Intellect” (Sechel in Hebrew), as it is a concept for its own sake. In the realm of worldly knowledge, this could be likened to the “purely academic” disciplines within science, math, psychology, philosophy, etc. But now we are focusing on G-d’s Divine Wisdom, and an understanding of it (its conceptually measured characteristics), so it can be understood in words (made of up letters) to the extent that one can explain it to another person.
The third power of the intellect is Daas, which is translated as Knowledge. This is not a detached intellectual knowledge, but a knowledge that comes about through a personal attachment or bonding to the thing or concept that is being considered. (Hebrew uses the same verb to refer to the ultimate physical attachment, as in “Adam knew Eve”). Daas is only the person mentally connecting and bonding with the object of the understanding, through focusing on the explanation in the letters of thought. Or it can be the connecting and bonding of the mind with the abstract concept itself, which is at a “higher” (more abstract) level, as will be explained.
To understand the mental faculty of Daas, consider two students of equal intellectual ability. One attaches and bonds his mind to the concept he heard from his teacher. He thereby and therefore is able to reach a thorough understanding of the G-dly concept, so he can speak on the topic at length and in detail. The second student heard the same teaching, and he also understood it (!), but he does not tie his mind to the concept. No matter how well he understands it for himself, he doesn’t concentrate his thoughts on the matter, so he can only give over a superficial explanation to someone else. This is because he hasn’t engaged the faculty of Daas in his mind. This can only be done with a strong concentration of his mind on the concept or the explanation of it.
However, the spiritual source of Daas (which has the power to connect the mind to the emotions) is much, much higher than Chachma and Bina. There are actually two levels of Daas: (a) the Higher Daas and (b) the Lower Daas.
The Lower Daas is lower than Chachma and Bina. It is the dynamic of bonding one’s mind to an explanation of a thing that is already understood in detail. For example, one binds his mind to the letters of explanation of the beauty of a thing in order to ingest and absorb its beauty for his own use (betterment, refinement, etc.). Through this dynamic he will produce the Boundaries of the Understanding (the Middos of Bina), which in turn produce the resulting emotions (e.g., love or fear) as they are revealed in the heart.
The Higher Daas has many levels, one higher than the other. The first (lowest level) of the Higher Daas is the level at which it is able to unify Chachma to Bina (Wisdom to Understanding), so this is intermediate between those two powers (higher than Bina, and lower than Chachma – like a bridge that connects the two levels with each other). At first, the concept has already flashed into one’s mind, but it’s not settled in the mind yet because it hasn’t been explained in letters of thought. So one binds his mind with a strong bond to the concept, focusing and concentrating on it. Since he has a desire to clothe the concept in letters of thought, the mind will be aroused to produce the explanation(s) at the level of Bina.
In this way, the person who uses this meditative process of Hisboninos will come to understand the explanations of the G-dly concept so well that he will be able to explain it to another person, and it will also penetrate with permanence into the level of his emotions for G-d. Whenever he returns to recall and meditate on this understood concept, it will immediately arouse in him those spiritual emotions.
[Futhermore, when he gives over his explanations of this concept to another person, his emotions will automatically be aroused, and they will shine through his manner of explaining, and this will facilitate the opening of his “student’s” mind to receive from him a drop of the Chachma of the G-dly concept.]
Source: the explanation by Rabbi Hillel of Paritch (?-1864 C.E.) of Chapter One of “Shaar HaYichud” – The Gate of Divine Unity by the second Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi DovBer (1773-1827 C.E.).
[This page is based on a translation/explanation by Betzalel Malamud of the above work, which can be found in his book “The Key to Chassidus.”]