MEDITATION AND SPIRITUALITY

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MEDITATION AND SPIRITUALITY

in this picture there are all answers
in this picture there are all answers

In researching, reading and learning more about meditation and spirituality in our daily lives and how it impacts every facet  therein, it has been interesting to note that while  looking at all of world’s major religions and their teaching on this topic, that   meditation, along with prayer, is one of the primary tools for spiritual development.  They are all intertwined and related on various levels; no matter what the religion and our own beliefs.

This is only a small look into such a large and fascinating subject to which I have recently taken another in-depth look at, and that I have such a plethora of information on.  I find meditation very helpful, and an important part of daily life.   I anticipate expanding on this topic for a chapter in a book.     Through the meditative development of serenity, one is able to release obscuring hindrances; and it is, with the release of the hindrances, through the meditative development of insight that one gains liberating wisdom.

Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself. The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness. A particularly ambitious form of meditation aims at effortlessly sustained single-pointed concentration single-pointed analysis, meant to enable its practitioner to enjoy an indestructible sense of well-being while engaging in any life activity.  The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation has been practiced since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs. Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation is often used to clear the mind and ease many health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.   It may be done sitting, or in an active way – i.e., Buddhist monks involve awareness in their day-to-day activities as a form of mind-training. Prayer beads or other ritual objects are commonly used during meditation in order to keep track of or remind the practitioner about some aspect of the training.  Meditation may involve generating an emotional state for the purpose of analyzing that state – such as anger, hatred, etc. – or cultivating particular mental response to various phenomena, such as compassion.  The term “meditation” can refer to the state itself, as well as to practices or techniques employed to cultivate the state.  Meditation may also involve repeating a mantra and closing the eyes.  The mantra is chosen based on its suitability to the individual meditator. Meditation has a calming effect and directs awareness inward until pure awareness is achieved, described as “being awake inside without being aware of anything except awareness itself.”  In brief, there are dozens of specific styles of meditation practice, and many different types of activity commonly referred to as meditative practices.

The English meditation is derived from the Latin meditatio, from a verb meditari, meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, and ponder”.  The Tibetan word for meditation “Gom” means “to become familiar with one’s Self” and has the strong implication of training the mind to be familiar with states that are beneficial: concentration, compassion, correct understanding, patience, humility, perseverance, etc.      Apart from its historical usage, the term meditation was introduced as a translation for Eastern spiritual practices, referred to as dhyāna   in Buddhism and Hinduism, which comes from the Sanskrit root dhyai, meaning to contemplate or meditate.  The term “meditation” in English may also refer to practices from Islamic Sufism, or other traditions such as Jewish Kabbalah.  An edited book about “meditation” included chapter contributions by authors describing Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. Scholars have noted that “the term ‘meditation’ as it has entered contemporary usage” is parallel to the term “contemplation” in Christianity, but in many cases, practices similar to modern forms of meditation were simply called ‘prayer’. Christian, Judaic and Islamic forms of meditation are typically devotional, scriptural or thematic, while Asian forms of meditation are often more purely technical.

The history of meditation is intimately bound up with the religious context within which it was practiced. Even in prehistoric times civilizations used repetitive, rhythmic chants and offerings to appease the gods.   Some authors have even suggested the hypothesis that the emergence of the capacity for focused attention, an element of many methods of meditation, may have contributed to the final phases of human biological evolution. Some of the earliest references to meditation are found in the Hindu Vedas.   Around the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, other forms of meditation developed in Taoist China and Buddhist Nepal.   .

Western Christian meditation contrasts with most other approaches in that it does not involve the repetition of any phrase or action and requires no specific posture. Western Christian meditation progressed from the 6th century practice of Bible reading among Benedictine monks called Lectio Divina, i.e. divine reading. Its four formal steps as a “ladder” were defined in the 12th century with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (i.e. read, ponder, pray, contemplate).   Secular forms of meditation were introduced in India in the 1950s as a Westernized form of Hindu meditative techniques and arrived in the United States and Europe in the 1960s. Rather than focusing on spiritual growth, secular meditation emphasizes stress reduction, relaxation and self-improvement.  Both spiritual and secular forms of meditation have been subjects of scientific analyses.  Research on meditation began in 1931, with scientific research increasing dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s.  However, after 60 years of scientific study, the exact mechanism at work in meditation remains unclear.    As early as 1971, it was noted that “The word ‘meditation’ has been used to designate a variety of practices that differ enough from one another so that we may find trouble in defining what meditation is.”  There remains no definition of necessary and sufficient criteria for meditation that has achieved universal or widespread acceptance within the modern scientific community, as one study recently noted a “persistent lack of consensus in the literature” and a “seeming intractability of defining meditation“.   In popular usage, the word “meditation” and the phrase “meditative practice” are often used imprecisely to designate broadly similar practices, or sets of practices, that are found across many cultures and traditions.    Some of the difficulty in precisely defining meditation has been the need to recognize the particularities of the many various traditions. There may be differences between the theories of one tradition of meditation as to what it means to practice meditation. The differences between the various traditions themselves, which have grown up a great distance apart from each other, may be even starker. The defining of what ‘meditation’ is has caused difficulties for modern scientists. Scientific reviews have proposed that researchers attempt to more clearly define the type of meditation being practiced in order that the results of their studies are made clearer. Is not enough, since the cultural traditions from which a particular kind of meditation comes are quite different and even within a single tradition differ in complex ways. The specific name of a school of thought or a teacher or the title of a specific text is often quite important for identifying a particular type of meditation.    It has been noted that “most techniques of meditation do not exist as solitary practices but are only artificially separable from an entire system of practice and belief”. This means that while monks engage in meditation as a part of their everyday lives, they also engage the codified rules and live together in monasteries in specific cultural settings that go along with their meditative practices.

In the teachings of the Bahai Faith meditation, along with prayer, is one of the primary tools for spiritual development, and it mainly refers to one’s reflection on the words of God.  While prayer and meditation are linked where meditation happens generally in a prayerful attitude, prayer is seen specifically as turning toward God, and meditation is seen as a communion with one’s self where one focuses on the divine.  Their teachings also note  that the purpose of meditation is to strengthen one’s understanding of the words of God, and to make one’s soul more susceptible to their potentially transformative power, and that both prayer and meditation are needed to bring about and to maintain a spiritual communion with God.

Buddhist meditation refers to the meditative practices associated with the religion and philosophy of Buddhism. Core meditation techniques have been preserved in ancient Buddhist texts and have proliferated and diversified through teacher-student transmissions. Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the path toward Enlightenment and Nirvana.  Buddhist meditation techniques have become increasingly popular in the wider world, with many non-Buddhists taking them up for a variety of reasons. In the Theravada tradition alone, there are over fifty methods for developing mindfulness and forty for developing concentration, while in the Tibetan tradition there are thousands of visualization meditations.   The Buddha is said to have identified two paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practices:   serenity or tranquility which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;   insight which enables one to see explore and discern formations.

Taoist or Daoist meditation has a long history, and has developed various techniques including concentration, visualization, cultivation, contemplation, and mindfulness meditations. Traditional Daoist meditative practices were influenced by Chinese Buddhism beginning around the 5th century, and later had influence upon Traditional Chinese medicine and the Chinese Martial arts.

New Age meditations are often influenced by Eastern philosophy, mysticism, Yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism yet may contain some degree of Western influence. In the West, meditation found its mainstream roots through the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the youth of the day rebelled against traditional belief systems as a reaction against what some perceived as the failure of Christianity to provide spiritual and ethical guidance. New Age meditation as practiced by the early hippies is regarded for its techniques of blanking out the mind and releasing oneself from conscious thinking. This is often aided by repetitive chanting of a mantra, or focusing on an object. New Age meditation evolved into a range of purposes and practices, from serenity and balance to access to other realms of consciousness to the concentration of energy in group meditation to the supreme goal of Samadhi, as in the ancient yogic practice of meditation.

“Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”   Meditation may be for a religious purpose, but even before being brought to the West it was used in secular contexts.   Beginning with the Theosophists meditation has been employed in the West by a number of religious and spiritual movements, such as Yoga, New Age and New Thought movement.

Today, there are many different types of meditation practiced in western culture. Mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving kindness meditations for instance have been found to provide cognitive benefits such as relaxation and decentering. With training in meditation, depressive rumination can be decreased and overall peace of mind can flourish. Different techniques have shown to work better for different people.

Meditation has been linked to a variety of health benefits. The practice of meditation has also been linked with various favorable outcomes that include: “effective functioning, including academic performance, concentration, perceptual sensitivity, reaction time, memory, self-control, empathy, and self-esteem.   In their evaluation of the effects of two meditation-based programs they were able to conclude that meditating had stress reducing effects and cogitation, and also increased forgiveness.

Meditation enhances overall psychological health and preserves a positive attitude towards stress. Mindfulness Meditation has now entered the health care domain because of evidence suggesting a positive correlation between the practice and emotional and physical health. Examples of such benefits include: reduction in stress, anxiety, depression, headaches, pain, elevated blood pressure, etc. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that those who meditated approximately half an hour per day during an eight-week period reported that at the end of the period, they were better able to act in a state of awareness and observation.

Mindfulness meditation may help treat chronic inflammation and associated disorders, such as asthma and arthritis.    A review of scientific studies identified relaxation, concentration, an altered state of awareness, a suspension of logical thought and the maintenance of a self-observing attitude as the behavioral components of meditation;  it is accompanied by a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body that alter metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain activation.  Meditation has been used in clinical settings as a method of stress and pain reduction. Meditation has also been studied specifically for its effects on stress.   Despite the large number of scientific publications on meditation, its measurable effect on brain activity is still not well understood.   In over 1,000 published research studies, various methods of meditation have been linked to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, brain activation, and other bodily processes.

Kathy Kiefer

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