Just what is meditation? What are the goals? What are the different methods of meditation? Meditation has so many permutations worldwide; it is difficult to precisely define just what meditation is. Although meditation has been widely researched by science in the past decades, the mechanism by which it works is still unknown. One of the earliest written records of meditation can be found in the Hindu culture, about 1500 BCE. Later, about 400 BCE, Taoism developed in China, and Buddhism in India. Religious meditation practices are found in many major religions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Baha’i, Taoism, and Judaism. for the purpose of Webster’s dictionary defines meditate as “to engage in contemplation or reflection; and 2) to engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness”.
There may be a variety of purposes, depending on the origin of the meditation technique. Secular meditation may include ways to bring about a state of relaxation, or mental clarity. Meditation is recommended by many holistic medical practitioners as a method to promote health and treat issues such as anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. In the more ancient traditional meditation practices such as Taoism or Buddhism, the purpose of meditation is to cultivate energy or life force – qi or chi in the traditional Chinese Medicine, or Prana in Ayurveda practices. Ultimately, traditional meditation in the great religions is a way to train the mind and spirit in compassion, love, patience and forgiveness.
In an article in the Huffington Post, answering whether there is such a thing as secular meditation, that is, a practice apart from religious or spiritual context, the Hindu monastic Swami B.V. Tripurari answered,
“In the least, meditation is aimed at ego death, nothing less. Therefore one might argue that employing meditative techniques for something less than this is not meditation at all. And if ego death is objectively desirable, giving rise as it does to compassion and other universally sought qualities, why argue with the success arising out of a religious context? If light forms of religion have proven useful in helping to foster ego death and the deathless mystic experience, what is the need to discard them?”
My personal favorite contemplative exercise in awareness is creative work such as music, poetry, journaling, painting, drawing, photography and artisan crafts. While these activities don’t come under the classification as formal meditation, these activities seem to bring me out of the “busy mind” and into a deeper, more contemplative state of awareness. Walking in nature, dwelling in what I believe is the Cathedral of Creation, is another activity that helps me to clear my mind and open the door for experiencing a more spiritual consciousness.
Another practice that I love, is a “moving meditation” such as Tai Chi. In an article published in the Fall 2003 edition of The Journal of the American Society of Internal Arts, William C. Phillips defines meditation as “the process of conscious, controlled focus of the mind which may take place when the thinking process, both in pictures and in words, have been stopped.” He further explains that “meditation is not a trance state, a sleep state, nor a state of nothingness. Meditators, if successful, are always alert, relaxed, and in control of their minds.” Phillips explains that meditation has two aspects. Yin meditation clears the mind of all thought, holding the mind in a clear and focused state. Yang meditation then focuses the mind; examples include shapes, colors, affirmations, mantras, chakras, and prayers.
Phillips describes the Buddhist tradition of satipatthana, or foundation for mindfulness. The purpose of a satipatthana exercise is to quiet the mind – to get it to stop output – but keep it busy with inputs until it develops a habit of becoming quiet, refraining from all thought during the exercise. When this has been achieved, the mind is ready to begin to meditate. Satipatthana has four elements:
- Mindfulness of the body
- Mindfulness of feelings and sensations
- Mindfulness of the mind or consciousness
- Mindfulness of mental phenomena or mental objects
Phillips explains that while many do not make any attempt to keep their minds empty during their practice of Tai Chi Chuan, and it is probably not really a meditation for them, it can be meditation with mental and spiritual value as well as a physical practice, if that is the intent.
For some of us, quieting the mind and practicing sitting meditation poses the greatest challenge. Everything we have been taught encourages outer attention and goal-oriented activity. I have used guided meditation CD’s and mediation music in the past to help me develop the ability to sit with a quiet mind. I have used Dr. Anthony Weil’s CD’s and Marcy Hamm’s music CDs are two of my favorites.
Two good books on meditation come to mind, that I have found to be insightful and helpful. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most beloved authors of works on mindful meditation. Sakyong Mipham has written a well-regarded book on meditation, “Turning the Mind into an Ally”. While I have not read any of Pema Chodron’s books, several of my friends have recommended her work.
Meditation practice helps us to develop spiritually, mentally and physically, and can be a combination of creative work, moving meditation and sitting meditation practice. It is meant to be dynamic rather than simply “zoning out”. No need to run off to live in an isolated monastery or mountain refuge; meditation is meant to enhance our daily life. While it may be easier to live the enlightened life as an aesthetic sitting on a mountaintop, in today’s troubled times our spiritual leaders are telling us that is not really doing anything useful; that we should become our very best and make a difference.
In the words by Maryanne Williamson, quoted by Nelson Mandela in his 1994 inaugural speech:
“And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I would love to hear about your journey with meditation. What meditative practice works best for you? What about your journey may be help and encouragement for others? Please write about your experience with meditation practice in the Comments section below.
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