A form of introspective contemplation, meditation is the act of relaxing and clearing the mind through balancing mental, physical, and emotional states, getting rid of all thoughts about the past and present and focusing on the present. This is done by shutting out the outside world and focusing within, often with the aid of sounds, words, images and/or breath.
According to H.A. Slagter of the University of Amsterdam: “Meditation is a process by which an individual controls his/her mind and induces a mode of consciousness either to achieve some benefits or for the mind to simply acknowledge is contents without being identified with the content, or just as an end in itself.” (Slagter, 2008).
According to the BBC: “Meditation is a mental and physical course of action that a person uses to separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings in order to become fully aware. It plays a part in virtually all religions although some don't use the word 'meditation' to describe their particular meditative or contemplative practice. Meditation does not always have a religious element. It is a natural part of the human experience and is increasingly used as a therapy for promoting good health and boosting the immune system.Anyone who has looked at a sunset or a beautiful painting and felt calm and inner joy, while their mind becomes clear and their perception sharpens, has had a taste of the realm of meditation. Successful meditation means simply being - not judging, not thinking, just being aware, at peace and living each moment as it unfolds. [Source: BBC]
Meditation is very important in Hinduism, yoga and Buddhism. It has also been incorporated into Chinese traditions such as T'ai Chi and Taoism. Meditation is thought of as a mental exercise that helps one tap into the infinite force of the universe, explore the true nature of existence, gain insights into true reality, see the insufficiency and unreality of sensory experience, and develop correct thoughts and actions. Meditation is usually taught by a meditation master and the methods vary from sect to sect and person to person. Some methods of meditation are based on discourses in the Pali language.
Some people practice meditation for it health benefits. Others do it for spiritual reasons. It is also a valuable tool for developing self-knowledge, improving concentrate and dealing with stress. The Dalai Lama said, "The very purpose of meditation is to disciple the mind and reduce afflictive emotions." Others call it a form of mindfulness that emphasizes paying attention to the present moment. For centuries Buddhists and Hindus have used meditation as a tool to focus their energy inward to explore the mental state of joy, get rid of negative emotions and develop wisdom, compassion and improve well being on a individual and societal level.
Some of the earliest references to meditation, dating back perhaps as far as 5000 B.C., have been found in India in Rig Veda, one of the oldest Hindu text. In between 6th and 5th century B.C. meditation was developed in Buddhism and Jainism. References to meditation are found in Torah of Judaism (Verman, 1997). Members of the Islamic Sufi sect (Lating 2002) engage in activities that have a lot in common with meditation. In Christianity meditation is used as a form of prayer to help believers concentrate upon the revelations of God. Today, meditation is practiced in many parts of the world without religious contexts using techniques that have their roots in methods used thousands of years ago by ancient Hindus and Buddhists. [Source: differencebetween.net]
Websites and Resources on Meditation and Tantrism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Erowid Meditation Vault erowid.org ; Learn to Meditate learn-to-meditate.com ; Yoga Journal: Meditation yogajournal.com/meditation ; National Institutes of Health, US government, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) global.sotozen-net.or.jp ; George Feuerstein, Yoga and Meditation (Dhyana) santosha.com/moksha/meditation ; Tibetan Buddhist Meditation tricycle.org/magazine/tibetan-buddhist-meditation ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Gray, David B. (Apr 2016). "Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. oxfordre.com/religion ; Tantra: An Analysis (in Hinduism), Damien McDonald (2007) digitalcommons.unf.edu
Mindfulness is the cognitive skill, usually developed through meditation, that entails sustaining meta-awareness of the content of one's mind at the present moment. Meta-awareness, or metacognition, is an awareness of one's thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them. “Meta” means "beyond", or "on top of". Metacognition can take a variety of forms, including using particular strategies for problem-solving and reflecting on one's ways of thinking. [Source: Wikipedia]
Mindfulness derives from sati ("to remember to observe") — a key aspect of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and is based on Zen, Tibetan and Vipassana meditation techniques. There is a wide range of definitions for mindfulness and variety of techniques used to achieve it but often include things like how past, present and future moments arise and cease as momentary sense impressions and mental phenomena.
According to Rupert Gethin: Sati and mindfulness “should be understood as what allows awareness of the full range and extent of dhammas; sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value...Sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to "remember" that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure."
Since the 1970s, clinical psychologists and psychiatrist have employed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness to mitigate depression, stress, anxiety, and treat drug addiction. Programs based on mindfulness models have been adopted within schools, prisons, and hospitals and also used for weight management and enhancement of athletic performances.
Key Aspects of Mindfulness According to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta
Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Great Discourse on Steadfast Mindfulness) is a 20-or-so-page sutra that delves into many aspects of mindfulness. Among the issues it addresses are 1) Vedananupassana (Contemplation on Feelings) and 2) Cittanupassana (Contemplation on the Mind) as well as:
3) Kayanupassana (Contemplation on the Body)
a) Anapana (In and Out Breathing)
b) Iriyapatha (Postures)
c) Sampajanna (Clear Understanding)
d) Patikulamanasika (Contemplation of impurities)
e) Dhatumanasika (Contemplation of Elements)
f) Navasivathika (Nine Stages of Corpses)
[Source: The Great Discourse on Steadfast Mindfulness, translated by U Jotika and U Dhamminda, Migadavun Monastery, Ye Chan Oh Village, Maymyo, Burma, 1986. Buddha Dharma Education Association, BuddhaNet]
4) Dhammanupassana (Contemplation on Dhammas)
a). Nivarana (Hindrances)
b) Khandha (Aggregates)
c) Ayatana (Sense Bases)
d) Bojjhanga (Enlightenment Factors)
e) Sacca (Noble Truths)
f) Dukkhasacca (the Noble Truth of Dukkha)
g) Samudayasacca (the Noble Truth of the Cause of Dukkha)
h)Nirodhasacca (the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha)
i). Maggasacca (the Path Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha)
Types of Meditation
According to the BBC: “There are a number of methods of meditating - methods which have been used for a long time and have been shown to work... Some involve chanting mantras, some involve concentrating on a particular thing (such as a candle flame or a flower).” Meditation does not necessarily have to involve keeping still; walking meditation is a popular Zen way of doing it, and repetitive movements using beads or prayer wheels are used in other faiths. People can meditate on their own or in groups. Meditating in a group - perhaps at a retreat called a sesshin or in a meditation room or zendo - has the benefit of reminding a person that they are both part of a larger Buddhist community, and part of the larger community of beings of every species.” The 'three trainings' In the West, for many of those who want to explore a spiritual path, meditation is the first thing they encounter. [Source: BBC ]
According to differencebetween.net: “Within this broad definition, meditation is practices in different techniques with different objectives of the practitioners. It is practiced by some as a way to relax mind, some do it to generate positive thoughts of mind, and yet some take it as a method to enhance mind-power. Meditation is also believed to have the power to heal certain diseases of the practitioner, and in the spiritual context some practice it to regulate mind towards some divine power.” [Source: differencebetween.net]
There are three basic kinds of meditation: 1) concentrative meditation which focus attention on breath and an image or sound for a log period of time to calm the mind and allow greater awareness and clarity to emerge; 2) companionate meditation in which practitioners ride themselves of negative energy and thoughts by focusing on compassion; and 3) mindful meditation, which involves becoming hyper-aware of sensations, feelings, images, thoughts, smells, sounds, without thinking of them or reacting, and simply sensing them as a parade that passes by. This type has also been described as “pure awareness” or “open-presence."
The simplest form of meditation is sitting quietly and focus attention on one's breath. Breathing is a key element of meditation. If a person is stressed out or anxious their breath is shallow, rapid and uneven. With the meditation the goal is to calm the mind so that breathing is slow, deep and regular. As one focuses one's awareness on breath, the mind becomes absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation.
The goal of compassionate meditation, Richard Davidson, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, told that the New York Times is to “voluntarily cultivate compassion." For practitioners, “it is something they do every day and they have special exercises where they envision negative events, something that causes anger or irritability, and then transform it and infuse it with an antidote, which is compassion. They say they are able to do it just like that.”
Posture and Breathing in Meditation
According to the BBC: “The classical meditation position is 'the lotus position'. This involves sitting cross-legged with the left foot on top of the right thigh and the right foot on top of the left thigh. If you can't manage that it is still good to sit on the floor either kneeling or cross-legged with enough support to have both knees on the ground and the back erect without having to strain. But it is possible to meditate in any stable posture that keeps the spine straight. Sitting quietly in a chair is perfectly acceptable. While it helps for the body to be alert, relaxed and stable, meditation is really about the mind and the inner experience. Posture is a support to that but most Buddhist traditions do not regard it as an end in itself. It is useful to take time before and after you meditate to settle into and emerge from the practice. It is always a good idea to have some space to let thoughts die down and tune into your feelings and bodily sensations. [Source: BBC |::|]
“Some classical meditation methods use the meditator's own breathing. They may just sit and concentrate on their breathing... not doing anything to alter the way they breathe, not worrying about whether they're doing it right or wrong, not even thinking about breathing; just 'following' the breathing and 'becoming one' with the breathing. It is important not to think: "I am breathing". When a person does that they separate themselves from the breathing and start thinking of themselves as separate from what they are doing - the aim is just to be aware of breathing. This is more difficult than it sounds. Some meditators prefer to count breaths, trying to count up to ten without any distraction at all, and then starting again at one. If they get distracted they notice the distraction and go back to counting.”
At the beginning of a meditation session, gently close your eyes and remain aware of the posture of your body while being mindful of the breathing. Correct posture is important in meditation. There are several possible positions, but generally the body is kept upright, with the back perfectly straight. For beginners, such a posture can become uncomfortably painful within a few minutes.
Owing to one’s resolve, one’s mindfulness will gradually go towards the nostril where the contact of breathing is perceived. This point of contact is very important. This is the sign of in and out breathing. You must establish mindfulness to this point of contact. At all times allow the natural process of in and out breathing to take place. When you breath in, do not follow it to the abdomen with your mind. At all times, keep your mindfulness to the nostril area. The in breath passes this point, and so does the out breath. Keep your attention to the point of contact of the breathing at the nostril. At that time the perception of breathing begins to develop. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ^|^]
Our main object now is the process of breathing in and out. Our effort should be to be mindful and contemplate this object. It is not necessary to think and contemplate on other objects. The novice will experience other perceptions entering the mind and the process of thinking and pondering about other perceptions taking place, as a result of which there is a diffusion of the mind. An external object will find residence in the mind only if you think about it. So, you must control your thinking by restricting your thinking process only to the breathing function. When you breath in think ‘IN’. When you breathe out, think ‘OUT’ Restrict the thinking to a mere word in this manner. If you can watch without any thinking at all it is even better. There is a pace at which you think too. Harmonise the two. In this way you leave little room for external objects to find residence in the mind. As a result there will arise only the perception of breathing in the mind. ^|^
Shutting Out Thoughts and Perceptions During Meditation
Meditation teaches self-discipline because it's boring, and because the body gets uncomfortable. The meditator learns to keep going regardless of how bored they are, or how much they want to scratch their nose. Often thoughts and perceptions arise and one must know how to tranquilize them. To this one must be mindful and aware of the thoughts and perceptions but must not try to force them out. Using force, causes fatigue which makes matters worse. Instead you need to develop a method using “an untiring effort.” Note perceptions or thoughts with a relaxed mind . Be patient until the mind goes back to the breathing. Shutting off thoughts, perceptions and internal conversation can be difficult. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The constant banter inside our heads has at least two undesirable effects. First, it constantly re-affirms the false sense of separate self. Second, it serves as a barrier to true introspection. In other words, the intra-cranial chatter prevents comprehending the true character of our minds. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
“The first and most important step in meditation, therefore, is stopping the internal conversation. Try doing so for just one minute. To most people, stopping this conversation seems impossible, so accustomed we have grown to it. The ability to stop the internal conversation may take years to acquire, and there are numerous techniques to assist in this task. One of the most basic is focusing all attention on the rhythmic inward and outward flow of the breath. Merging one's full attention into this tide-like movement and becoming one with it is a tried and proven method for suspending the internal conversation. There are other concentration and visualization techniques in meditation, which me may have a chance to examine later. ~
“Upon successful at suspension of the internal conversation, the meditator gains great insight into his or her mental states and feelings owing to an acute awareness of sensory perceptions and sensations as they first begin to form deep within the mind. Like buds on a plant, should any of these perceptions or sensations be improper (a feeling of anger, for example), the meditator can nip it at the bud before it becomes fully manifest. Proper perceptions and sensations, on the other hand (like a feeling of compassion) are allowed to become fully manifest. In this way, a monk can purify his thoughts and feelings, making them wholly good. (The average person, head full of chatter, is unaware of these perceptions and sensations until they have become fully manifest. At that point, it is too late to do anything about them.)” ~
Chants and Mantras
Chants and mantras are a fixture of meditation, rituals and other religious activity. Technically they are not prayers but are reminders of the beneficence of The Buddha, Dharma and the monk community. Buddhists appeared to have borrowed the practice from Hindus who used mantras to call their gods before prayers. Repeating chants is said to relax the body and refreshes the mind. Monks often chant in low moaning voices to the rhythm of sticks striking an instrument that looks like a wooden cowbell.
According to the BBC: “A mantra is a word, a syllable, a phrase or a short prayer that is spoken once or repeated over and over again (either aloud or in a person's head) and that is thought to have a profound spiritual effect on the person. A very well known mantra is the mantra of Avalokiteshvara: om mani padme hum. This is sometimes said to mean "Behold! The jewel in the lotus!", but this translation isn't much help - the phrase isn't really translatable because of the richness of meaning and symbolism it contains. [Source: BBC |::|]
“It's common to use prayer beads to mark the number of repetitions of a mantra. Mantras may also be displayed on a prayer wheel and repeated by spinning the wheel, or written on a prayer flag - in which case the prayer is repeated each time the flag moves in the wind. Prayer wheels can be tiny things that a Buddhist carries with them or enormous objects up to nine feet high found in monasteries. These physical prayer devices are very common in Tibetan Buddhist communities.” |::|
As one notes the breathing and the mind begins to gradually develop some tranquillity and concentration, one may perceive bright lights like tiny little stars which are very attractive. This is merely a positive sign of improvement in your practice. However, do not delight in them. If you do so, they will vanish and the level of your concentration also will drop. These stars like lights will come and go. Now, as you proceed to develop serenity and concentration, the five hindrances tranquilise and the mind goes into samadhi. This stage is referred to as "upachara samadhi" (access concentration) in the commentaries. [Source:Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ^|^]
Now at this stage one might also experience the "perception of light". This is a very bright and lustrous light. This light may completely encompass you. This perception of light is of significance, because it is the sign that one uses to abide in the jhänas. One must allow the brightness to stabilise. So just keep on watching the breadth until it stabilises well. Once it is established, one can direct one’s mindfulness to the light and will then experience an absorption into that light. It is like putting your head into a bucket of water. That is why it is called absorbed concentration. This is the first jhäna. All this is in the path of serene concentration. Abiding in a jhäna sharpens the minds. Makes it powerful it is like sharpening a knife. It also brings with it great bliss. However, one does not develop insight whilst abiding in a jhäna. The upachära (access) state where the mind is released from the five hindrances in the state in which one practices insight meditation. ^|^
So if one is able to acquire a jhäna, by all means do so. But do not try to spend all your time in that state. Emerge from it and get on to insight meditation. Otherwise, it would be like sharpening a knife all the time and never using it to cut. Whilst samädhi temporarily tranquilises many defilements, it does not cut or destroy them. It is insight, wisdom, that cuts, destroys and uproot the defilements that bring about dukkha. So ideally, insight meditation is carried out in the state of upachära samadhi, i.e. a mind released from the five hindrances. One must prepare and arrange one’s mind in this manner, and get onto developing the four foundations of mindfulness. ^|^
Increasing the Time Span of Meditation
As you go on in this manner, one-pointedness of mind will arise, concentration will begin to arise. One must increase the time span of one’s meditation gradually and steadily. An ideal time span is a period of one and a half hours (90) minutes. However, no novice or beginner can go on for such a period of time straight away. A novice can commence with about 15 to 20 minutes. Always resolve the time duration you intend to meditate when you sit to it. Do not get up until this time period lapses, irrespective of the quality of the practice. Part of the practice is to develop resolve and effort. If you stop before the determined time duration, your resolve and effort will weaken. This must be avoided. Now gradually increase your time duration, say on a weekly basis, about 5 or 10 minutes every week. In this way, go on till you reach the hour. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ^|^]
As you proceed towards the hour, you may experience a tremendous level of agitation and restlessness after about 40 to 45 minutes. At that time you may feel that there is absolutely no purpose in going on any further, because whatever mindfulness, concentration and serenity that had been developed is all gone. The urge to stop the practice is very very strong, and many do so at this point. However, this is a fatal error. This is the test of your resolve, effort, patience and forbearance. Do not get deceived by the setback, because this is very natural. It happens to almost all. Patiently wait until the agitation passes away. If you cannot watch the breath, watch the posture or even the mind. Whatever you watch, do not get up from your seat. This torment will last about 10 minutes only, but it may appear very long to you. Gradually, this massive level of agitation will pass away, as all things are of that nature. Thereafter you can complete the hour. ^|^
Once you reach an hour, consolidate it, by practising and hour every day. It is also preferable to carry out your practice at a set time of day, which can vary with the individual. After consolidating the hours practice, gradually take it up to one and a half hours. Very often, samadhi (serene concentration) arises only when an hours practice is well established. Exceptions to this rule are rare. The arising of samadhi is a vital point and experience to every meditator. To acquire this state of samadhi, one must have a firm resolve, make sacrifices, have an unwavering effort and be prepared to go on and on, until one reaches this state. The tranquillity and happiness that arises with the mind going into samadhi itself is well worth it. Above all, you have prepared and arranged your mind to develop insight, because wisdom dawns only to a mind in samadhi. ^|^
Hinduism, Buddhism and Yoga
Meditation is a central part of Hinduism, Buddhism and yoga. Jayaram V, a leading author of Indian religions, wrote: “Yoga is essentially a Hindu tradition with its roots in the Vedic ritual symbolism and its internalization. Yoga is mentioned and explained in several ancient Upanishads, long before the emergence of Buddhism. Prior to the Buddha, yoga was practiced in many forms by the ascetics and ascetic traditions of ancient India, including Jainism. The rudiments of yoga practice are found in the Katha and Svetasvatara Upanishads, while a more advanced version in the Maitri Upanishad. The epic Mahabharata makes many references to yoga. According to Edwin F. Bryant, the terms yoga and yogi occur about 900 times in the epic. [Source: Jayaram V, Hinduwebsite.com |*|]
“By all accounts, Patanjali did not invent the wheel of yoga. He codified it and standardized its teaching. During his wanderings as an ascetic monk, the Buddha practiced various forms of austerities and yoga. His enlightenment was a direct result of dhyana, an ancient form of meditation. The ascetic practices of both Buddhism and Hinduism draw heavily from ancient Yoga traditions in their respective ways to practice self-transformation. Both rely upon Yoga to restrain human nature and overcome desires and attachments. They use many common terms to explain the practices of yoga or stages in self-absorption. However, yoga has a much wider connotation in Hinduism than in Buddhism. |*|
“Hindu yoga aims to achieve liberation through union with the inner Self and in some yogas through union with the Supreme Self, whereas in Buddhism it is meant to suppress the modification and disperse the formation of ego. In Buddhism self-absorption denotes the end of all desires and modifications and an experience with emptiness. In Hinduism also it denotes the end of all desires and modifications but an experience with transcendence or union with the transcendental Self.” |*|
Superhuman Abilities Attributed to Meditation
There are descriptions of monks and holymen in ancient Indian and Chinese texts, who after years of meditation, were able to perform miracles and attaining superhuman powers like flying, astral projection, altering basic body functions and breaking objects by looking at them.
Some Bhutanese monks have reportedly mastered a form of meditation known as "lunggom" — meaning "walking on air" — which allows the monks to project themselves and travel around the countryside without leaving the monastery. One monk told a National Geographic writer who asked him demonstrate, "Unfortunately, it takes much time to learn the theoretical aspects of lunggom before one can put it into practice so I'm afraid that we will just have to walk normally."
On the superhuman abilities ascribed to Buddha, Donald Lopez Jr., a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, wrote: “ With this enlightenment, he was believed to possess all manner of supernormal powers, including full knowledge of each of his own past lives and those of other beings, the ability to know others’ thoughts, the ability to create doubles of himself, the ability to rise into the air and simultaneously shoot fire and water from his body. . . . Although he passed into nirvana at the age of eighty-one, he could have lived “for an aeon or until the end of the aeon” if only he had been asked to do so.” See Miracles In the Story of Buddha. [Source: “Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed” By Donald S. Lopez Jr.]
Swami Rama wrote in “Living with the Himalayan Masters”: “I had never before seen a man who could sit still without blinking his eyelids for eight to ten hours, but this adept was very unusual. He levitated two and a half feet during his meditations. We measured this with a string, which was later measured by a foot rule. I would like to make it clear, though, as I have already told you, that I don’t consider levitation to be a spiritual practice. It is an advanced practice of pranayama with application of bandeaus (locks). One who knows about the relationship between mass and weight understands that it is possible to levitate, but only after long practice.” He had “the power to transform matter into different forms, like changing a rock into a sugar cube. One after another the next morning he did many such things. He told me to touch the sand – and the grains of sand turned into almonds and cashews. I had heard of this science before and knew its basic principles, but I had hardly believed such stories. I did not explore this field, but I am fully acquainted with the governing laws of science. ” [Source: “Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities” By Dean Radin PhD]
In the 1980s, a team led by Harvard Professor of Medicine Herbert Benson, visited remote monasteries in the Himalayan and studied monks who used Tum-mo (a yoga technique) to raise the temperatures of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees F. In 1985, the research team made a video of monks drying cold, wet sheets with body heat alone. It is still unknown how the monks are able to generate such heat. The researchers also studied advanced meditators in Sikkim, India, where monks were able to lower their metabolism by an astonishing 64 percent. Monks spending winter nights in meditation caves at 4,800 meters in the Himalayas are still found today. [Source: Arjun Walia, collective-evolution.com]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated January 2024