Saturday, September 1, 2012

What is Meditation?


Meditation is a mental practice used to get beyond the unaware mind into a deeper state of awareness. According to Wikipedia,

“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 common form of meditation is mindfulness meditation. This is relatively easy for beginners to do. During meditation, we try to keep our mind on a single point of focus. The point of focus could be a short repetitive prayer, our breath, a breath count, qi energy flows, or anything else.

Meditation has a long history. It has been part of Buddhist culture for thousands of years. The two common types of Buddhist meditation are shamatha and vipassana. Shamatha consists of types of concentration meditations used to develop focus. Vipassana consists of practices to develop insight into the true nature of reality.

Step eight of the eight-fold path of Buddhism refers to “Right Concentration”, referring to meditation. In this context, concentration refers to a mental state where the entire mind is directed toward a single object. Through meditation, people develop the ability to remain calm and focused in everyday situations.

Christians have practiced meditation for almost as long, although they prefer the term "contemplation" nowadays. Some Catholics use the rosary to practice meditation. There are many biblical references to meditation among the prophets. Many scholars and religious officials of the Middle Ages wrote guides to meditation. In addition, there are many secular meditation practices.

Regardless of our motivation or background in meditation, our first efforts at meditation are difficult. Before we even notice it, our mind has wandered away. We find that our mind bounces around from one idea to another and it seems that there is nothing we can do to stop it. Some people describe it as your “monkey mind”, where your mind jumps around like a monkey jumping from one branch to another.

Mindfulness meditation is the process of recognizing when our minds have wandered away from our point of focus and bringing it back. Your mind may wander away during every single breath. That's OK. Just notice when it happens and bring it back. It is important to avoid judgment about how you are doing. There is no such thing as a "good" meditation or a "bad" meditation. It just is. Live in the moment during your meditation. It is not about forcing a result. It is about developing a skill. That's meditation.

The idea of meditation is to learn to become aware of our thoughts and emotions. It is not about stopping those thoughts. With practice, we can develop the ability to concentrate and focus so that we can control distractions and ignore all the stories we make up that cause us stress and discomfort.

Exercise develops your muscular strength or endurance. Meditation develops your “concentration muscles” and helps us learn how to maintain focus. When the mind wanders, all that is necessary is to bring the mind back to that point of focus. Do not allow recriminations or frustrations to develop. It is more important to meditate regularly than to meditate for a long time but only occasionally. If you are a beginner, start with 10 minutes a day. When that feels comfortable, go ahead and extend the time a little bit.

Let's finish with a quote from ZBOHY, the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (http://www.hsuyun.org/chan/en/essays/bychuanzhi/204-healing-breath.html)

As the mind is quieted by the slow breathing exercise, the brain becomes better able to regulate serotonin (c.f. Bujatti, M. and Reiderer, P., Journal of Neural Transmission 39: 257-267, 1976) and other chemicals responsible for regulating our biochemistry: we sleep better, our overall mood improves, and we become calmer and less agitated. In addition, muscles relax, the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems become stronger and healthier, physical endurance and stamina increase, digestion improves, and mental capacity for concentration and memory are enhanced.

Here are some links to articles with some specific meditation guidelines:
You can read about breath counting meditation here 
You can read about meditation for relaxing and energizing here
You can read about walking meditation here
You can read about labyrinth walking meditation here
You can read about meditation in tai chi here

© 2012 Eric Borreson