Discovering What Meditation Is All About
Meditation is simply the practice of focusing your attention on a particular object — generally something simple, like a word or phrase, a candle flame or geometrical figure, or the coming and going of your breath. In everyday life, your mind is constantly processing a barrage of sensations, visual impressions, emotions, and thoughts. When you meditate, you narrow your focus, limit the stimuli bombarding your nervous system — and calm your mind in the process. The reason meditation works so effectively is that it connects you with a spiritual dimension, which different commentators give different names, but many people simply call it “being.”
Embark on a journey
The journey of meditation has a great deal in common with climbing a mountain. When you reach the summit of the meditation mountain, what do you see? If we can trust the reports of the meditators and mystics who have climbed the mountain before us, we can declare with some confidence that the top of the mountain harbors the source of all love, wisdom, happiness, and joy. Some people call it spirit or soul, true nature or true self, the ultimate truth or the ground of being (or just being itself). Others call it God or the Divine or the Holy Mystery, or simply the One. There are nearly as many names for it as people who experience it. And some spiritual traditions consider it so sacred and powerful that they hesitate to give it a name.
As for the experience of reaching the summit, seasoned meditators use words like enlightenment (from ignorance), awakening (from a dream), liberation (from bondage), freedom (from limitation), and union (with God or being).
Although many ordinary folks are meditating these days, the practice wasn’t always so readily available. For centuries, monks, nuns, mystics, and wandering ascetics preserved it in secret, using it to enter higher states of consciousness and ultimately to achieve the pinnacle of their particular path. Highly motivated laypeople with time on their hands uncovered a few techniques. However, the rigorous practice of meditation remained a sacred pursuit limited to an elite few who were willing to renounce the world and devote their lives to it. How times have changed! From Beat Zen in the 1950s and the influx of Indian yogis and swamis in the 1960s to the more recent fascination with Buddhism, meditation has definitely become mainstream, and its practical benefits are applauded.
As you discover how to meditate, you are likely to gain the following:
- Stronger focus and concentration
- Reduced tension, anxiety, and stress
- Clearer thinking and less emotional turmoil
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- Support in kicking addictions and other self-defeating behaviors
- Greater creativity and enhanced performance in work and play
- Increased self-understanding and self-acceptance
- More joy, love, and spontaneity
- Greater intimacy with friends and family members
- Deeper sense of meaning and purpose
- Glimpses of a spiritual dimension of being
Develop awareness: The secret to meditation
If, as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then the journey of meditation begins with the cultivation of awareness, or attention. In fact, awareness is the mental muscle that carries you along and sustains you on your journey, not only at the start but every step of the way. No matter which path or technique you choose, the secret of meditation lies in developing, focusing, and directing your awareness. (Incidentally, attention is just slightly focused awareness.)
In meditation, you can do the following:
- Increase your powers of awareness by developing concentration on a particular object.
- Through the practice of receptive awareness, expand your awareness to illuminate the full range of your experience.
- Cultivate positive emotions and mind-states.
- Investigate your inner experience and contemplate the nature of existence itself.
These four conditions — concentration, receptive awareness, contemplation, and cultivation — constitute the major uses of awareness throughout the world’s great meditative traditions. “Meditation techniques are just different paths up the same mountain.”
You can use a variety of techniques to sharpen your sense of awareness. Here are a few of the many techniques that have been developed over the centuries:
- Repeating a meaningful word or phrase, known as a mantra
- Being mindfully aware of the present moment
- Following or counting your breath
- Paying attention to the flow of sensations in your body
- Cultivating loving, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and other healing emotions
- Concentrating on a geometric shape or other simple visual object
- Visualizing a peaceful place or a healing energy or entity
- Reading and reflection upon inspirational or sacred writings
- Gazing at a picture of a holy being or saint
- Contemplating nature
- Chanting praises to the Divine
Unmask meditation poseurs
Some paths superficially resemble meditation but lead you in an altogether different direction. Of course, every activity can become a meditation if you do it with awareness or concentration. But certain activities become confused with meditation in the popular imagination, whereas they may have a very different intent. Some people claim that reading the newspaper or watching their favorite sitcom qualifies as meditation!
Consider the following list of ersatz meditations that certainly have their place in the repertory of leisure pursuits but don’t generally offer the benefits of meditation:
- Thinking: In the West, the term “meditation” has frequently been used to refer to a kind of focused reflection on a particular theme, as when you say, “I’m going to meditate on this problem for a while.” Although higher-order contemplation or inquiry plays a part in some meditation techniques, it bears little resemblance to the often tortured, conflicted process that usually passes for thinking. Besides, thinking tires you out, whereas meditation refreshes you and perks you up.
- Daydreaming: Daydreaming and fantasy offer their own unique pleasures and rewards, including occasional problem-solving and a momentary escape from difficult or tedious circumstances. But rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming often embroils you more actively in the drama of your life.
- Repeating affirmations: This common new-age practice — a contemporary version of what used to be called positive thinking — purports to provide an antidote to your negative beliefs by replacing them with positive alternatives. Generally, however, the negativity is so deeply rooted that the affirmations merely skim the surface like froth on the ocean and never really penetrate to the depths, where your core beliefs reside.
- Praying: Ordinary or petitionary prayer, which calls on God for help or asks for something, can be performed meditatively but has little in common with meditation. However, contemplative prayer, also known as orison — the yearning of the soul for union with the Divine — is actually a form of concentrated contemplation whose focus is God.