The Hindu God Shiva Meditating
Meditation is a mental discipline by which one attempts to get beyond the reflexive, "thinking" mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness. Meditation often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. It is recognized as a component of many religions, and has been practiced since antiquity. It is also practiced outside religious traditions. Different meditative disciplines encompass a wide range of spiritual and/or psychophysical practices which may emphasize different goals—from achievement of a higher state of consciousness, to greater focus, creativity or self-awareness, or simply a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind.
A Brief History
Although there’s a paucity of recorded history on meditation, its roots travel back to ancient times. Researchers speculate that primitive hunter-gatherer societies may have discovered meditation and its altered states of consciousness while staring at the flames of their fires. Over thousands of years, meditation evolved into a structured practice. Indian scriptures called “tantras” mentioned meditation techniques 5000 years ago.
Buddha, one of history’s major proponents of meditation, and a major meditation icon, first made his mark around 500 B.C. His teachings were spread far and wide across the Asian continent. Separate countries or cultures adopted different forms of the word “meditation,” and they each found their own unique way of practicing it. Buddhist and Hindu based Eastern-style meditation practices are still the most popular today.
Meditation was spread to Western society thousands of years after it was adopted in the East. It finally started to gain popularity in the West in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, many professors and researchers began testing the effects of meditation and learned about its multitude of benefits.
Overview of Physical Postures
Different spiritual traditions, and different teachers within those traditions, prescribe or suggest different physical postures for meditation. Sitting, supine, and standing postures are used. Most famous are the several cross-legged sitting postures, including the Lotus Position.
Many meditative traditions teach that the spine should be kept "straight," that is, the meditator should not slouch. Often this is explained as a way of encouraging the circulation of what some call "spiritual energy," the "vital breath", the "life force" (Sanskrit prana, Chinese qi, Latin spiritus) or the Kundalini. In some traditions the meditator may sit on a chair, flat-footed (as in New Thought); sit on a stool (as in Orthodox Christianity); or walk in mindfulness (as in Theravada Buddhism). Some traditions suggest being barefoot, for comfort, for convenience, or for spiritual reasons.
Other traditions, such as those related to kundalini yoga, take a less formal approach. While the basic practice in these traditions is also to sit still quietly in a traditional posture, they emphasize the possibility of kriyas - spontaneous yogic postures, changes in breathing patterns or emotional states, or perhaps repetitive physical movements such as swaying, etc., which may naturally arise as the practitioner sits in meditation, and which should not be resisted but rather allowed to express themselves in order to enhance the natural flow of energy through the body. This is said to help purify the nadis and ultimately deepen one's meditative practice.
Bas-relief in Sukhothai, Thailand depicting monks during walking meditation. Various hand-gestures or mudras may be prescribed. These can carry theological meaning or according to Yogic philosophy can actually affect consciousness. For example, a common Buddhist hand-position is with the right hand resting atop the left (like the Buddha's begging bowl), with the thumbs touching.
In most meditative traditions, the eyes are closed. In some sects such as Zen, the eyes are half-closed, half open and looking slightly downward. In others such as Brahma Kumaris, the eyes are kept fully open.
Quiet is often held to be desirable, and some people use repetitive activities such as deep breathing, humming or chanting to help induce a meditative state.
In Sufism meditation (muraqaba) with eyes closed is called Varood while with open eyes is known as Shahood or Fa'tha.
Focus and Gaze
Often such details are shared by more than one religion, even in cases where mutual influence seems unlikely. One example would be "navel-gazing," which is apparently attested within Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Chinese qigong practice. Another would be the practice of focusing on the breath, which is found in Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and numerous Indic traditions.
Sitting cross-legged (or upon one's knees) for extended periods when one is not sufficiently limber, can result in a range of ergonomic complaints called "meditator's knee". Many meditative traditions do not require sitting cross legged.
For folks with no experience or training in meditation, the information below provides a simple and basic introduction to samatha (calm abiding) meditation. There are many different meditation techniques, and some of them can become quite arduous and advanced; but almost all meditative traditions begin with a mastery of calm abiding as the foundation for advanced practice. The information below is a good summary of what we would tell you if you walked into one of our meetings and asked us how to meditate.
- Sit on the floor with the legs crossed in the lotus, half-lotus, or standard cross-legged position. These positions are uncomfortable for many; alternatively, sit upright in a straight-backed chair. Meditation should not be painful.
- The back should be perfectly straight. Try to straighten out even the normal curvature of the spine. Imagine a string running through your spine and pulling up to keep it straight. If you're sitting in a chair, do not lean back against the chair-back; only the base of the spine should be touching the back of the chair.
- Your shoulders should be straight and level, but without any tension.
- Place your hands in the position of meditative equipoise: The right hand is placed in the left hand, palms upwards, with the tips of the thumbs slightly raised and gently touching. The hands are held 4 - 5 inches below the navel. Alternatively, place your hands on your knees, with the fingers pointing downwards.
- Your head and neck should be slightly bent forward with the chin tucked in.
- In most meditative traditions, the eyes are closed. In some sects such as Zen, the eyes are half-closed, half open and looking slightly downward. In others such as Brahma Kumaris, the eyes are kept fully open.
- The mouth is held in a normal position, neither too tightly closed nor too loosely open, with the tongue held against the palate behind the teeth.
A Simple Relaxation Exercise
Before beginning the meditation, it may be helpful to perform this simple relaxation exercise to help settle the mind and the body: Assume the meditative posture as described above, and take a very deep breath, forcing the breath to fill and settle in your abdomen. Hold the breath as long as you can and then release it slowly. As you release the breath, relax your body and visualize all your physical and mental tensions and attachments being expelled with the exhalation. Do this three times.
The most basic technique in samatha, or calming meditation, is the breath-counting technique. Using this technique, you simply breathe normally and naturally, silently counting each inhalation and exhalation:
Breathe in ... count 1
Breathe out ... count 1
Breathe in ... count 2
Breathe out ... count 2
Breathe in ... count 3
Breathe out ... count 3
Continue in this way until you reach a count of either 7 or 10, and then start over again at 1.
The purpose of the counting is to give your mind a definite object on which to focus. One thing you will almost certainly notice in the beginning is how difficult it is to stay focused on your breath and your counting. Thoughts and mental distractions will inevitably arise and disrupt the exercise. When these distractions arise, simply notice them and let them go, and then return to the count, starting over at 1. You should not become frustrated or disappointed when your mind wanders from the count, as this is a perfectly natural occurrence. Just recognize the thought that has arisen, let go of it, and return to the count. You will notice that the longer and more frequently you practice, the less often that your thoughts intrude on your meditation.
Awareness of Breath Meditation
When you feel like you've mastered the breath-counting technique, you can drop the counting and just pay attention to your breathing. Notice the breath as it enters your nostrils, and travels down your throat into your lungs. Notice how your abdomen rises with each inhalation. Do the same thing as you exhale: Notice how your abdomen falls and feel the breath as it leaves your nostrils. At any time, if you feel like you're becoming too distracted, return to the counting until your mind settles once again.
Mantra Recitation Meditation
The silent repetition of a mantra is another popular technique. The Transcendental Meditation technique involves the repetition of a "personalized" mantra; in Buddhist meditation, there are a number of mantras to choose from. Simply repeat the mantra over and over silently to yourself; when a thought arrives to interrupt the recitation, simply notice the thought, let it pass away, and resume the recitation. Examples of Buddhist mantras include:
OM AH HUM (Basic seed syllables which can be recited individually or together)
OM MANÉ PADME HUNG (Mantra of Chenrezig, Boddhisattva of Compassion)
GATÉ GATÉ PARAGATÉ PARASAMGATÉ BODHI SVAHA (Prajnaparamita Heart of Wisdom Mantra)
OM AH HUNG BENZAR GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUNG (Vajra Guru Padmasambhava's Mantra)
For those uncomfortable with the Sanskrit mantras, repeating the simple phrase "CLEAR MIND" can be an effective alternative.
The Meditation Session
Most teachers recommend meditating for 15 - 20 minutes once or twice a day. If you can accommodate two twenty-minute sessions every day, you will be surprised very quickly at the benefits you see. Unfortunately, many of us have difficulty with that type of schedule, so don't feel bad if you can't meet that goal. For beginning meditators especially, twenty minutes can seem like an eternity, so some teachers suggest that you start with a 5 - 10 minute daily meditation, and then work up to longer and more frequent sessions. The important thing is to just give it a try. You cannot master the techniques or experience the benefits of meditation with just one attempt. If you're interested in really experiencing meditation, you should commit yourself to a daily meditation session (even a short one) for at least a week or two, before judging the experience for yourself.
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