Hitbonenut is the Jewish mystical discipline of active thought-meditation. In 1986 a collection of Hebrew manuscripts, roughly 200 years old, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) was published. One of these manuscripts (Ma'amorim Ketzarim, Inyonim, p. 133) discusses passive versus active thought-meditation. This amazingly contemporary treatise sheds light on some of the pitfalls of passive meditation and lends insight into the distinctions between passive and active meditation. The following is a translation and adaptation of this manuscript into English, followed by a few notes. An uninterrupted stream
…brings the person to the general state of airy vision…
There are two different methods of thought-meditation:
1) The first method entails centering and settling one's consciousness on the general sense of an idea, while passively withdrawing from all thoughts, feelings and body sensations.
The one who meditates disengages and contracts the mind, and in no way increases the breadth or detail of understanding. This is done by fixating on a point of awareness in an uninterrupted stream of consciousness for approximately half an hour, which brings the person to the general state of "airy vision". (This may take weeks or months of preparation to accomplish).
Airy vision results from thought-meditation that uses the superficial powers of the intellect to divest the idea that is the focus of the meditation of any concrete definition. By thus abstracting the idea, the person will come to perceive through the mind's eye the subtle spirit of the idea as an airy vision devoid of tangible meaning. In this context the prophets said, "And they will be swept away by the [cosmic] wind," and "When you will gaze upon [the idea] it will be naught." As a result of this type of meditation, many people have been misled and deluded by their own imagination and by charlatans who promote futile and vain visions for their own gain.
Little deliberation is required to recognize this type of meditation. A few simple indications may be: a) As bodily tensions are released, the person may experience slight twitching, jerking or nervous movements. b) As the emotions are settled and calmed, a slight turbulence, disturbance or racing may be felt in the heart. c) The mind is empty of thoughts and all thoughts that arise dissipate. d) There is an increase in self-awareness.
2) The second method demands detailed, broad and deep comprehension, as opposed to withdrawing from the intellect. This process requires intense mental exertion to increase one's awareness of the open, simple and revealed meaning of the idea, to scrutinize and elaborate on the concept's many details, facets and ramifications, and not to allow the mind to contract and settle on one point alone. The indications for the second type of meditation are profoundly different than the indications for the first type. This intense mental exertion is so all-consuming that the person has no sensation of 'self' at all…
There is no passive dissipation of the energies of the body, heart, and mind whatsoever; rather, there is active exertion, concentration and channeling of all the person's powers into the mind. This intense mental exertion is so all-consuming that the person has no sensation of "self" at all.
The awareness achieved through active thought-meditation is very different from the consciousness reached through passive meditation, where the person is susceptible to imaginings, vain visions and futile delusions. To the contrary, the person enclothes the idea in many metaphors and analogies until it is thoroughly comprehended and the truth can be perceived vividly through the mind's eye.
Another indication that one is engaged in active thought-meditation is the yearning to grasp new insights into the idea; to discover in every nuance the implicit and specific meaning. The person will be entirely oblivious to the "self," for the mind's total preoccupation with the idea completely overshadows any sensations of the heart. The person inescapably becomes egoistic and is ultimately…in direct opposition to G‑dliness…
Regarding the ecstasy and awakening that come through the first type of meditation, the person will find the arousal exceedingly euphoric. This happens because the meditative process of emptying one's mind is specifically directed toward bringing exhilaration into the "self". In actuality, this state constitutes a dualism between G‑d and the individual. The person inescapably becomes egoistic and is ultimately distant from and in direct opposition to G‑dliness, he returns strongly his sense of "self" being connected, [or worse, "soars upward like an eagle and proclaims 'I am and there is no other'"].
In contrast, with the second type of meditation, enlightenment comes only through channeling and emanating G‑dliness (as a by-product). The person is not preparing the "self" to experience a revelation, but rather, is absorbed in intense mental exertion and is devoted to the vivification of a Torah insight. Enlightenment is spontaneously triggered by the Torah's G‑dly wisdom, through "gazing at the Glory of the King and nothing else," and not because the person has cleared the mind in order to receive a revelation. The fool's perpetuation of self-centeredness shuts out…G‑dly enlightenment…
Nor is the person enthralled by accompanying feelings of ecstasy, for the conscious awareness of "self" has no prominence at all, making exhilaration and other associated sensations irrelevant. So it is written, "The fool does not desire [true] enlightenment," but seeks feelings of ecstasy. Moreover, the fool's perpetuation of self-centeredness shuts out even the faintest glimmer of G‑dly enlightenment.
Another distinction is that the ecstasy experienced through the first type of meditation may cause a person to feel high and mighty, and to become callous, overbearing and flippant. He will likely acquire a heightened sensitivity to and an increased appetite for sensual pleasures. Through the second method, however, the person becomes truly humble and no longer esteems the "self" to be central. He is also far from desiring transient pleasures and relating to contemptible character traits, like indignation, oppressiveness, frivolity, etc. Such a person regards any negative characteristics he finds within himself as repulsive and deplorable, takes no credit for personal accomplishments, and considers the "self" to be veritably nothing at all.
[Gleaned from Rabbi Hillel Paritcher's commentaries on Shar HaYichud and Kuntres HaHispaalus, written by Rabbi Dov Ber, the second Rebbe of Lubavitch]
Lack of self-centeredness does not imply sublimation, denial or loss of individuality. To the contrary, centering upon G‑dliness liberates the spirit, whereas holding on to one's awareness of "self" obstructs spontaneity, creativity and enthusiasm. As an unsought and automatic result of attaining G‑dly enlightenment, one may be imbued with Supernal Delight, the highest form of human pleasure. Yet the person is not carried away by this elation and does not give in to it. His intention remains purely to offer delight to G‑d through his alignment with the Supreme Will. He should broaden the viewpoint until the ideas can be seen through the mind's eye in a single glance…
To gain a clearer understanding of how to practice Hitbonenut, active thought-meditation, much more explanation is needed. For example, it is taught that one should not meditate exclusively on a single isolated metaphor, but rather on the complete world-view which results from the synthesis of many metaphors. To do this, the one meditating must dwell at length on the precise meaning of several ideas until the kernel of each idea crystallizes in his understanding. Then he should broaden the viewpoint until the ideas can be seen through the mind's eye in a single glance as one unified insight. By gazing with the mind's eye deep into this unified insight, the first level of enlightenment may be realized, which is the enthusiasm of the natural soul. Next, if he will go beyond the limits of the physical body and natural soul, through purity of intention and increased intensity in the meditation, the second level of enlightenment may be attained, namely the awakening of the G‑dly attributes of the higher soul. On the third level, the G‑dly attributes of the higher soul illuminate and permeate the attributes of the natural soul, which are based in the power centers of the physical body - action, emotion, thought, will and pleasure.