What is meditation?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Ray Maloney
20th June, 2008
The basic idea generally associated with why people meditate is that during our day we are constantly subjected to sensory input and our minds are always active in the process of thinking. We read the newspaper, study books, and write reports, engage in conversation, solve problems, etc. Typically, as we do these normal activities we engage in a constant mental commentary, sort of an inner "The Drama of Me." Usually people aren't fully aware of all the mental thought activity that we are constantly engaged in. Meditation allows all this activity to settle down, and often results in the mind becoming more peaceful, calm and focused. In essence, meditation allows the awareness to become 'rejuvenated'.
Meditation can be considered a technique, or practice. It usually involves concentrating on an object, such as a flower, a candle, a sound or word, or the breath. Over time, the number of random thoughts occurring diminishes. More importantly, your attachment to these thoughts, and your identification with them, progressively become less. The meditator may get caught up in a thought pattern, but once he/she becomes aware of this, attention is gently brought back to the object of concentration. Meditation can also be objectless, for example consisting of just sitting – Zen mindfulness.
Experiences during meditation probably vary significantly from one individual to another. Relaxation, increased awareness, mental focus and clarity, and a sense of peace are the most common by-products of meditation. While much has been written about the benefits of meditation, the best attitude is not to have any expectations when practicing.
Having a sense of expectation of results is likely to create unnecessary strain in the practice. Since meditation involves becoming more aware and more sensitive to what is within you, facing unpleasant parts of oneself may well be part of meditation. Regardless of the experience, the meditator should try to be aware of the experience and of any attachment to it.
Failure to experience silence, peace of mind, mental clarity, bliss, or other promoted benefit of meditation is not in itself a sign of incorrect practice or that one can't concentrate properly or concentrate enough to be good at meditation. Whether one experiences peace or bliss is not what is important; what generally is considered important in meditation is that one is regular with their meditation -every day- and that one make a reasonable effort, but not strain, to remain with the object of concentration during the practice. With regular practice one inevitably acquires an increased understanding of and proficiency with the particular meditation technique.
Some people use the formal concentrative meditation as a preliminary step to practicing and increasing mindfulness throughout the day - where one tries to maintain a calm but increased awareness of one's thoughts and actions during the day. For some people, meditation is primarily a spiritual practice, and in some cases the meditation practice may be closely tied to the practice of a religion such as, for example, Hinduism or Buddhism.
How is meditation different from relaxation, thinking, concentration or self-hypnosis?
Relaxation: Relaxation is a common by-product of meditation. Relaxation itself can assume many forms, such as taking a hot bath or reclining in the Lazy-boy and watching TV, etc. Meditation is an active process where the meditator remains fully aware of what the awareness is doing. It also attempts to transcend the thought process whereas many forms of relaxation still engage the thought process. Meditation allows the body to relax and can offset the effects of stress both mentally and physically to a potentially much greater degree than passive relaxation.
Thinking: Thoughts generally consume energy in the process of their formation.
Constant thought-activity, especially of random nature, can tire the mind and even bring on headache. Meditation attempts to transcend this level of thought activity. Through regular practice one becomes aware that they are not their thoughts but that there is an awareness that exists independent of thought.
Concentration: Meditation begins with concentration, but after an initial period of concentration, thought activity decreases and keeping the awareness focused becomes more spontaneous. At this point the person may or may not continue to employ the object of concentration.
Self-hypnosis: Self-hypnosis, like meditation, involves at least an initial period of concentration on an object. However in hypnosis one does not try to maintain an awareness of the here-and-now, or to stay conscious of the process, instead one essentially enters a sort of semi-conscious trance.
What are the different meditation techniques?
Meditation involves concentrating on something to take our attention beyond the random thought activity that is usually going on in our heads. This can involve a solid object or picture, a mantra, breath, visualization, or perhaps concentrating on a feeling or a concept. Typical objects employed include a candle flame or a flower. Some people use pictures, such as a mandala - a highly coloured symmetric painting - or a picture of a spiritual teacher in a high meditative state. Mantras are sounds, which have a flowing, meditative quality and may be repeated out loud or inwardly. The breath is also a common focal point. Finally, guided visualization is also considered by some to be a form of meditation. A guided visualization can help to bring one into a meditative state; also, visualization may be used once a meditative state has been reached to produce various results.
Which is right for me?
There is no "right" meditation technique for everybody. Some techniques work better for certain people while other techniques work better for other people. The important thing is to find what works for the individual.
Are there any religious implication or affiliation with meditation?
It is possible to practice meditation without subscribing to any particular religious views. However, meditation has been and still is a central practice in eastern religions for developing spiritual sensitivity. Christians also practice forms of meditation and prayer that bring them closer to God.
Does meditation have any ethical implications?
In many traditions meditation practice is a means for reinforcing ethical qualities. In these traditions, calmness of mind, peacefulness and happiness are possible in meditation and in life generally only if they are accompanied by the observance of ethical norms of behaviour.
What are the ABC’s of meditation?
There are a few recommended guidelines for meditation:
It should be done at least once every day, preferably at the same time. It should preferably be done before a meal rather than after a meal. A spot should be set-aside for meditation, which should be a quiet place and used for nothing but meditation. One should sit with the spine straight and vertical and the head balanced level. While meditation is beneficial at any time, most people who meditate agree that early morning is the best time to meditate. Part of the reason is that it is said that in early morning the hustle-and-bustle of the world has not yet begun and so it is easier to establish a meditative atmosphere. Having an early morning meditation also lets us carry some of the energy and peace of the meditation into our daily activities. Many people also meditate either before dinner or later in the evening. Others also meditate at noon. A meditation at these times allows one to throw off some of the accumulated stress of the workday and become rejuvenated for further activity. An important consideration is when your schedule will allow you to meditate. Having a time of the day set aside for meditation helps in maintaining regularity. Ideally one would meditate twice a day for 20 – 30 minutes, at weekends longer times may be spent.
Should I meditate with my eyes open or with my eyes closed?
Different traditions give different answers. Closing your eyes may contribute to drowsiness and sleepiness--if that's the case for you then try opening them a little. Opening your eyes may be distracting, if that's the case try closing your eyes or focus your gaze on a blank wall (Zen-style). Experiment and see what works for you and then stick with your choice of technique.
What are the physiological effects of meditation?
The most common physiological effects of meditation are reduced blood pressure, lower pulse rate, decreased metabolic rate and changes in the concentration of serum levels of various substances e.g. cholesterol.
When I meditate I experience physical pain in my body. What should I do?
The point of practicing meditation is to develop mindfulness. The object of meditation isn't all that important, although the breath is a good object since it is always available, simple and peaceful. But if it's difficult for any reason or something like pain comes up, then focusing on that is possible too. The practice of walking meditation (paying attention to the sensations at the feet as you walk from one point to another and then back again) is also very good and can be mixed in with sitting meditation over a period of an hour (35 mins sitting 25 minutes walking, say). Sensations (itching/aches/pains) can arise in the body when meditating for several reasons. Sometimes the cause is just an uncomfortable posture--make sure that your posture is comfortable under normal circumstances. Other times the cause is that sensations in the body are more noticeable in meditation. The body and mind are calmer and you are able to notice more details in your bodily experience. It is often interesting to simply observe these sensations in your body: to use them as the objects of meditation. Sometimes these sensations just go away without your having to move or change your posture. Remember that a quiet body contributes to a quiet mind. One technique you might try is primarily awareness of the body. You learn to focus on different parts of the body and "sweep" your attention through it.
I have a sinus problem yet I understand that breath is a cornerstone of meditation.
Awareness of breathing can be done in a number of ways. One technique that is taught by Burmese masters is to focus your attention on the belly and diaphragm rather than the nostrils. To get a sense of what to pay attention to, place your hand on your belly (about two fingers down from the bottom of your rib cage) and feel the sensations there as you breathe in and out. There is typically a 'rising' of the belly (in breath) and a 'falling' (out breath). Try to sustain both attentiveness in that area, but also stay relaxed and breath as naturally as you can. This means that if you have to keep your mouth open for any reason this is not a problem. Mind you, there is no reason why you shouldn't meditate on the feeling of the in-and-out breath at the mouth, if that's where you have to breath from—except that there are no specific written instructions for this practice anywhere that
I am aware of. You could just adapt the meditation instructions for breathing at the nostrils to breathing at the mouth.
Is there any method or meditation that isn't centred on breath so I can help me to breath better and meditate more efficiently?
The point of meditation isn't to become an efficient meditating machine! As much as anything, meditation is a question of attitude towards whatever experience you are having.
How long should I meditate?
When first learning meditation it is usually not possible to meditate for more than 10-15 minutes. After regular practice for a while, one becomes able to meditate for longer periods of time. Many people meditate twice daily for 20-30 minutes each time, but the right duration and frequency is for each individual to decide.
Do I need a teacher?
It is theoretically possible to learn meditation from a book. However most people who teach and practice meditation agree that a teacher can be an invaluable aid in learning a meditation technique and making sure it is practiced correctly. The beginner will usually have several questions, which a teacher will be able to answer. Also, learning with a group of people, e.g. a meditation class, allows you to experience the benefit of meditating with a group of people. Most people find that they have some of their best meditations while meditating in a group, because there is a collective energy and focus present. Various individuals and groups teach meditation. Some charge and some do not. Many different techniques are taught, some more spiritual in nature and others mainly concerned with stress-reduction and gaining a little peace of mind. As always, the important thing is finding what works for you.
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