Meditation Basics

Meditation has been defined as: “self regulation of attention, in the service of self-inquiry, in the here and now.” The various techniques of meditation can be classified according to their focus. Some focus on the field or background perception and experience, also called “mindfulness”; others focus on a pre-selected specific object, and are called “concentrative” meditation. There are also techniques that shift between the field and the object.

History of meditation:

Indian scriptures dating back 5000 years describe meditation techniques. Meditation originated from Vedic Hinduism, which is the oldest religion that professes meditation as a spiritual and religious practice. Meditation has also always been central to Buddhism.

Christian traditions have various practices which can be identified as forms of “meditation.” Practices such as the rosary and the Adoration (focusing on the Eucharist) in Catholicism may be compared to forms of Eastern meditation that focus on an individual object. Christian meditation is considered a form of prayer.

Meditation in Islam is the core of its creed and way of life. In the five times a day (before dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night) that a Muslim is obligated to pray, focusing and meditating on Allah through reciting Quran and dhikr is the core of this practice aimed at establishing the connection between Creator and creation.

There is evidence that Judaism has had meditative practices that go back thousands of years. For instance, in the Torah, the patriarch Isaac is described as going lasuach in the field—a term understood by all commentators as some type of meditative practice, probably prayer.

New Age meditations are often influenced by Eastern philosophy and mysticism such as Yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism, yet may contain some degree of Western influence. In the west meditation found its mainstream roots through the hippie-counterculture social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s when many of the youth of the day rebelled against traditional belief systems.

Today, forms of meditation that are devoid of mystical or religious content have been developed in the west as a way of promoting physical and mental well being. “Meditation” in its modern sense refers to Yogic meditation that originated in India.

How to practice meditation:

Many meditative traditions teach that the spine should be kept “straight” (i.e. that 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”, or the “life force”. In some traditions the meditator may sit on a chair, flat-footed or sit on a stool or walk in mindfulness. Some suggest being barefoot, for comfort, for convenience, or for spiritual reasons.

Depending on which meditative tradition you are using, the eyes can be closed, half-open, or fully open. Being in a quiet place is desirable, and some people use repetitive activities such as deep breathing, humming or chanting to help induce a meditative state.

Though the content may differ, most forms of meditation involve turning your attention inward, away from your usual preoccupations and activities, and focusing on a particular object, such as the breath, a mantra, visualization, or a sound. In the process, you make the simple but significant shift from thinking and doing to just being. With repeated practice, your mind begins to settle down, your breathing slows, and you settle into a relaxed, peaceful, harmonious state. The thread that’s common to all forms of meditation is the cultivation of awareness.

Meditation can also be practiced while walking or doing simple repetitive tasks. Walking meditation helps to break down habitual automatic mind clutter. You learn to focus on living in the moment, relaxing, looking around to see what’s in front of you. In a form of meditation using visualization, such as Chinese Qi Gong, the practitioner concentrates on flows of energy (Qi) in the body, starting in the abdomen and then circulating through the body, until dispersed.

Benefits of meditation:

Some forms of meditation are designed to induce a particular state of mind or body. For example, healing meditations may help detoxify the body and stimulate the immune system, whereas meditations for opening the heart may guide you in extending love and compassion to others.
Meditation is widely recommended as a healthy way to manage stress, and for good reason. It provides many health-enhancing benefits, like reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety, relieving physical complaints like headaches, and even enhancing immunity to illness.

The most common behavioral components of meditation are:

Quiet Mind: With meditation, your thinking mind becomes quiet. You stop focusing on the stressors of your day or your life’s problems, as well as solving these problems. You just let that voice in your head be quiet, which is easier said than done. For example, start thinking about nothing now. (It’s OK; I’ll wait.) If you’re not practiced at quieting your mind, it probably didn’t take long before thoughts crept in.

Being In The Now: Rather than focusing on the past or the future, virtually all meditative practices involve focusing on right now. This involves experiencing each moment and letting it go, experiencing the next. This, too, takes practice, as many of us live most of our lives thinking toward the future or relishing and rehashing the past.

Altered State of Consciousness: With the quiet mind and focus on the present, comes an altered level of consciousness that isn’t a sleeping state but isn’t quite your average wakeful state, either. Meditation increases brain activity in an area of the brain associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions, and some evidence shows that regular practice brings prolonged positive changes in these areas.

There are many different ways to learn meditation from simply sitting quietly in your living room and concentrating on your breathing to taking a class, or finding information on the Internet. In any case, it is a practice that has proven to be beneficial for mind, body and spirit.