Jewish Meditation: Four Worlds in a Half Hour

The journey through the four Kabalistic worlds we described earlier can and does take a lifetime to make, but we can also experience it in the space of a single meditation period. Doing so is useful both because it provides us with a map of the larger journey our soul is in the midst of, and because it sensitizes us to the reality that we occupy various realms simultaneously.

We begin in asiyah, the realm of materiality, the world of the physical. Here we focus our awareness on the breath and the body, breathing consciously and holding our posture as carefully as we can at the balance point between tension and relaxation, between our rootedness in the earth and our reaching for heaven. (See the practice points at the end of Chapter One for precise details.) When we feel our awareness firmly rooted in this realm—fully planted in the body and the breath—we are ready to move on to the next world.

This is yetzirah, the realm of feeling and emotion. Here we shift our focus from the body and endeavor to find a serious answer to Bob Dylan’s famous question “How does it feel?” When teaching mindful eating, the Vipassana teacher Sylvia Boorstein suggests that we focus not on the physical sensations of eating—the texture of the food, the way our various teeth work on it, the feel of the food working its way down the esophagus—but rather on the emotional responses it triggers in us. She is describing the shift from asiyah to yetzirah. After we have saturated the body with awareness, we move on to the heart, the emotional center. We focus on whatever it is we are actually feeling at the moment, be it anger, jealousy, love, regret, desire, or boredom. We enter this emotional state completely, saturating it with awareness, much as we described doing with desire in the last practice point. We inhabit these feelings as thoroughly as we can, and we allow them to enter us. We meet them on the primal level, not as ideas but as full-blown realities as real as our body. After these feelings are bristling in us and our awareness is firmly planted in them, we are ready to move on to briyah.

Briyah is the world of conception, of pure thought. The mind is continuously producing thoughts, such an endless and voluminous stream of them, in fact, that it is hard to wrap our awareness around any single thought. Usually we only become aware of thoughts indirectly. We are trying to focus on something else—the breath or the body, or a book we are reading—and thoughts arise and carry our awareness away. When we become aware that this has happened, we also become aware of the thought itself, pure, unconditioned, and unconnected to the kinds of emotional or physical responses our thoughts usually provoke. Conception—thought—is often the basis of both feeling and physical action. It comes first. But there is something that comes before thought too, more basic than thought, although it isn’t until we become fully aware of our thoughts that we realize there is something beneath them—prior to them. It is this realization that carries us to the next realm, atzilut, the world of pure spiritual emanation.

At the base of thought, before either feeling or physicality, there is a more abstract realm, a world of pure spiritual movement and form, of disembodied light and shape. One of the most interesting possibilities of meditation is that it can carry us to this realm. Recent studies in neurophysics have shown that a few moments before a thought arises, there is a minute discharge of chemical energy in the brain. In meditation (although admittedly, likely not on our first attempt at same) we attend to this moment before thought and experience the energy at its base. Earlier we spoke of how the pain in our leg can be transformed into waves of energy, into a more primal reality. Our thoughts also mask a deeper, more primal reality—a flow of pure spiritual emanation. Great poetry often awakens us to the rhythmic, energetic base of thought. If, as Maimonides claimed, thinking carries us closer to God, the emanations below the surface of our thinking carry us closer still.

A caveat: This Kabalistic grid of the Four Worlds is a medieval idea. Our medieval ancestors were fascinated by linear hierarchies. As useful as it may be, we should be careful not to take this formulation too seriously. If in the course of our life’s path we arrive at the realm of pure thought (briyah) before the realm of feeling (yetzirah), it’s really perfectly all right. The point is to start with the body, and to be aware that we occupy several dimensions at once, and that we are on a journey that constantly carries us from one to another and back and forth between them.