Meditation, An Age Old Technique
Most of us brood over life, trapped in the whirlwind of daily stress, perplexity and schedules. A person constantly endeavors to seek solace from this never-ending maze. One answer for a calmer, balanced life may very well lie in meditation.
In a nutshell, the foundation of meditation lies in breathing techniques. Breathing techniques have a strong association with taking the mind away from the stress and nervousness that looms over a person. Slow, deliberate breath calms and centers onself. It also forces the body to take in more oxygen. Repetition of the breathing technique de-clutters the mind and trains it to concentrate. While meditating, a person detaches himself from the world around him and instills positive energy within. Meditation assists in guiding the mind to focus and attain clarity, while generating relaxation and a spiritual connection.
Before we get into breathing techniques and meditation techniques, it is important to understand the various forms of meditation followed by cultures across the globe. Some quarters hold meditation and the related arts with skepticism but something has to be said about its widespread presence and influence in cultures, history and people spread across time and geographical boundaries. World Spa Magazine lays the trail and explores the world of meditation in simple and common terms, to demystify the simple, so to speak.
People, in general, associate meditation with Buddhism or with other forms of mysticism. The image of a person eyes closed, deep in thought and legs crossed pops up into the minds of many when a topic on meditation is discussed.
It will naturally come as a surprise when one realizes that this image is just one form of meditation. It can be argued that variations to a simple theme, as we will learn, do not constitute as meditation. Rather these variations should be classified as yoga, exercise or body stretching, the list is endless. Either way, the result of all these variations to a theme have the same end result – a calm and balanced mind.
Meditation takes different forms in various cultures such as Bodhi dharma, Hinduism, Baha’i faith, Buddhism, Christian meditation, Islam meditation, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and Taoism. Various scriptures corroborate the practice of meditation during antiquity in India and China where meditation takes the form of Taoism, Chi Kung and Wuji Gigong. In Japan, meditation evolved into Zen. Each of these cultures has its own variations, interpretation and purpose of meditation and this in turn gives rise to diverse permutations of practices.
Meditation is at the heart of the Buddhist way of life, it helps one attain a higher level of consciousness. In Buddhism, through meditation, the first step is to learn to identify the negative mental state known as 'delusion' and develop a peaceful and positive mental state or 'virtuous mind'. ‘Delusions’ are overcome by becoming familiar with the ‘virtuous mind’. As we progress, we maintain the virtuous minds and use our wisdom to solve the problems of daily life. As our mind becomes more positive, our actions become more constructive and our experience of life becomes more satisfying and beneficial to others.
In Christianity, meditation methods can be detected in the Bible verse Joshua 1:8, “God says to meditate on His word day and night so we will obey it.” Islamic meditation is practiced in three forms: A. Dhikr (Remembrance) - the follower remembers the name of “Allah” in the heart without uttering a word from his mouth. B. Muraqabah (Contemplation of Scripture) - here one picks certain verses from the holy Koran and think about their meaning deeply. C. Tafakkur (Contemplation of Nature) – here one is required to ponder in depth over the signs or ‘Ayat’ of Allah in the natural world. A simple observation here would be that in effect, the mind is being focused on to a singular thought, word or phrase while tuning out the background chatter or noise.
The fundamental principle in Taoism or Taoist meditation is of generation, transformation and circulation of internal energy. When this particular flow of energy or force is attained, it is known as ‘deh-chee’. In addition to breathing exercises, Taoist meditation focuses on the expansion and contraction of the stomach that works directly with the natural flow of breath to attain mind and body balance.
Chi Kung, also phonetically spelled "qigong," is an ancient form of Chinese yoga, incorporating breathing techniques with an entire system of postures, exercises and meditation techniques. A person practicing Qi Gong may appear to be sitting or standing quietly in a peaceful meditation, being aware of their body and the world around them. In the process, a deep sense of wellbeing and peace falls over the body, slowly building up so that they can move through the five stances (five minutes in each stance) as inner strength, balance and the cultivation of Qi grows stronger. Outwardly, Wuji Qigong is an exercise and stretch version of meditation, focusing on synchronizing the breath with slow movements of the body and guided visualizations.
Zen or zazen meditation in Japanese is the quintessence of Zen Buddhist practice. Zen meditation pacifies the mind and attains calmness. The correct body pose is an imperative part of this form of meditation. The proper sitting posture permits the body muscles to be properly regulated to avoid unnecessary stress. Zen, like all the other meditation forms basic or complex, can be practiced daily when the body is naturally relaxed.
Now if we were to swing to the far side of meditation, we enter the zone of trance meditation. Trance meditation is the art of deliberately changing the state of consciousness to join into the flow of the universe. The three general ways to alter the consciousness do tend to go to extremes and may be harmful to the body. The first way is by altering the actual physical body processes by any number of methods that alter brain chemistry. Many cultures have used potent plant extracts to alter perception while holding spiritual ceremonies. The second way is by fasting, sleep-deprivation, exposure to extremes in temperature or sensation (pain/pleasure). The third is sensory deprivation. Trans meditation needs to be supervised and some practitioners considered this dangerous.
Native American Indians would engage in meditation to get in touch with the greater souls. The process would entail them breathing in smoldering herbs, chanting while steady drumbeats created a hypnotic aura in their minds. Various tribes in Africa derive their form of meditation from varied sources with the aim to connect with the universe. The Ausar Auset Society draws religious beliefs and cultures from ancient Ethiopia & Egypt. According to the Ausar society, a person needs to sit in a quiet place, light incense, play drum based music and focus the mind to reach a meditative trance. Kemetic Meditation finds its roots in ancient Egypt where meditation, yoga and chanting allow one to attain a higher state of being. Australian Aborigines practiced trance meditation with the belief that this could transfer a person to the inner calmness, push the mind to greater heights and discover hidden knowledge of the subconscious mind. The traditional way of practicing this form was by creating a vibrating sound that put the person on a heightened state of reality to conjoin with the spiritual self.
Incense and chanting play a significant role in meditation. Burning incense like frankincense or sandalwood during the meditation process is said to facilitate in creating a positive environment and assists the mind to focus. Focus is attained by uniting the mind with the sense of smell through the aroma of the burning incense. Numerous rituals use incense, a practice that has been carried on through the ages. Mantra recitation is a widespread tool used in meditation. The focus on the hum created by the vocal chords and the repetition of the verses helps the mind to focus on this rhythm and fade out all background noise and thought. One can then still the mind.
Contrary to the general belief, meditation is not about sitting for successive hours in a lotus position to attain enlightenment. Meditation is about finding the balance in the body and still the wandering mind. It is important that one find a posture, a rhythm, a system or process that is comfortable for one self. Meditation aims at creating a space for healing, for awareness and in doing so, creates and attains tranquility. The more focused one gets, the clearer one becomes. Next article in this series looks at the 'how to' steps in meditation.