Meditation is a holistic discipline during which time the practitioner trains his or her mind in order to realize some benefit.
Meditation is generally a subjective, personal experience and most often done without any external involvement, except perhaps prayer beads to count prayers. Meditation oftentimes involves invoking and cultivating a feeling or internal state, such as compassion, or attending to some focal point, etc. The term can refer to the process of reaching this state, as well as to the state itself.
There are hundreds of specific types of meditation. The word, ‘meditation,’ means many things dependent upon the context of its use. People practice meditation for many reasons within the context of their culture. Meditation is a component of many religions, and has been practiced since antiquity, especially by monastics. To date, the exact mechanism at work in meditation remains unclear.
Etymology and history
The word meditate stems from the Latin root meditatum, i.e. to ponder. In the Old Testament hāgâ (Hebrew: הגה), means to sigh or murmur, but also to meditate. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, hāgâ became the Greek melete. The Latin Bible then translated hāgâ/melete into meditatio.The use of the term meditatio as part of a formal, stepwise process of meditation goes back to the 12th century monk Guigo II.
Apart from its historical usage, the term meditation was introduced as a translation for Eastern spiritual practices, generally referred to as dhyāna, 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 and Christian Hesychasm. A recent edited book about “meditation”, for example, included chapter contributions by authors describing Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, and Taoist traditions. Scholars have noted that “the term ‘meditation’ as it has entered contemporary usage” is parallel to the term “contemplation” in Christianity.
It is difficult to trace the history of meditation without considering the religious context within which it was practiced. Data suggest that even at prehistoric times older 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. References to meditation with Rishabha in Jainism go back to the prehistoric age with the Acaranga Sutra dating to 500 BC.. Some of the earliest written records of meditation date to 1500BC in Hindu Vedantism. Around 500-600BC Taoists in China and Buddhists in India began to develop meditative practices.
In the west, by 20BCE Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of “spiritual exercises” involving attention (prosoche) and concentration and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed meditative techniques, which however did not attract a following among Christian meditators.
The Pāli Canon, which dates to 1st century BCE considers Indian Buddhist meditation as a step towards salvation. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100CE included a number of passages on meditation, clearly pointing to Zen.The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other oriental countries, and in 653 the first meditation hall was opened in Japan,. Returning from China around 1227, Dōgen wrote the instructions for Zazen.
The Islamic practice of Dhikr had involved the repetition of the 99 Names of God in the Qur’an since the 8th or 9th century. By the 12th century, the practice of Sufism included specific meditative techniques, and its followers practiced breathing controls and the repetition of holy words. Interactions with Indians or the Sufis may have influenced the Eastern Christian meditation approach to hesychasm, but this can not be proved. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, hesychasm was developed, particularly on Mount Athos in Greece, and involves the repetition of the Jesus prayer.
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 by the monk Guigo II in the 12th century with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (i.e. read, ponder, pray, contemplate). Western Christian meditation was further developed by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila in the 16th century.
By the 18th century, the study of Buddhism in the West was a topic for intellectuals. The philosopher Schopenhauer discussed it, and Voltaire asked for toleration towards Buddhists. The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927.
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. Since the beginning of the ’70s more than a thousand studies of meditation in English-language have been reported. However, after 60 years of scientific study, the exact mechanism at work in meditation remains unclear.
Modern definitions and Western models
Definitions and scope
|Definitions or Characterizations of Meditation:
Examples from Prominent Reviews*
|Definition / Characterization||Review|
|•”[M]editation refers to a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration”||Walsh & Shapiro (2006)|
|•”[M]editation is used to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set…. regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods”||Cahn & Polich (2006)|
|•”We define meditation… as a stylized mental technique… repetitively practiced for the purpose of attaining a subjective experience that is frequently described as very restful, silent, and of heightened alertness, often characterized as blissful”||Jevning et al (1992)|
|•”the need for the meditator to retrain his attention, whether through concentration or mindfulness, is the single invariant ingredient in… every meditation system”||Goleman (1988)|
|*Influential reviews (cited >50 times in PsycINFO),
encompassing multiple methods of meditation.
As early as 1971, Naranjo 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.” As of 2010, 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 a certain tradition in what it means to practice some state, and so one may see that the differences amongst traditions that have grown up a great distance apart from each other will be even more stark. The defining of what is, ‘meditation’, has caused problems in modern scientific research, and appeals have been made that researchers more clearly define the type of meditation being practiced in order that results of their studies be made more clear. Taylor noted that to refer only to meditation from a particular faith (e.g., “Hindu” or “Buddhist”)
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.
Within a specific context, more precise meanings are not uncommonly given the word “meditation.” For example, ‘meditation’, is sometimes the translation of meditation in Latin, which means the third, of four steps, of Lectio Divina, an ancient form of Christian prayer. ‘Meditation’ may also refer to the second of the three steps of Yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a step called dhyāna in Sanskrit.
Meditation may refer to a mental or spiritual state that may be attained by such practices, and may also refer to the practice of that state.
This article focuses on meditation in the broad sense of a type of discipline, found in various forms in many cultures, by which the practitioner attempts to get beyond the reflexive, “thinking” mind into a deeper, more devout, or more relaxed state. The terms “meditative practice” and “meditation” are mostly used here in this broad sense. However, usage may vary somewhat by context – readers should be aware that in quotations, or in discussions of particular traditions, more specialized meanings of “meditation” may sometimes be used (with meanings made clear by context whenever possible).
Similarities among disciplines
Ornstein 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”.
Progress on the “intractable” problem of defining meditation was attempted by a recent study of views common to 7 experts trained in diverse but empirically highly studied (clinical or Eastern-derived) forms of meditation. The study identified “three main criteria… as essential to any meditation practice: the use of a defined technique, logic relaxation, and a self-induced state/mode. Other criteria deemed important [but not essential] involve a state of psychophysical relaxation, the use of a self-focus skill or anchor, the presence of a state of suspension of logical thought processes, a religious/spiritual/philosophical context, or a state of mental silence”.:135 However, the study cautioned that “It is plausible that meditation is best thought of as a natural category of techniques best captured by ‘family resemblances’… or by the related prototype model of concepts”.
In modern psychological research, meditation has been defined and characterized in a variety of ways; many of these emphasize the role of attention (see table at right).
Oftentimes, in the West, meditation is classified in two broad categories, so noted in the following excerpt,
direction of mental attention… A practitioner can focus intensively on one particular object (so-called concentrative mediation), on all mental events that enter the field of awareness (so-called mindfulness meditation), or both specific focal points and the field of awareness.
Other typologies have also been proposed,[additional citations useful] and some techniques shift among major categories. Evidence from neuroimaging studies suggests that major categories of meditation, defined by how they direct attention, appear to generate different brainwave patterns.[additional citations useful] Some evidence also suggests that using different focus objects may generate different brainwave patterns.
In Concentration meditation the meditator holds attention on a particular object (e.g., the breath at the point of one’s own nose or a picture of one’s Guru) while consistently bringing the mind back to concentrate on the chosen object. See also, anapanasati.
In Mindfulness meditation, the meditator sits comfortably and silently, centering attention by focusing awareness on an object or process. The meditator is usually encouraged to maintain an open focus or monitoring. An example of a more detailed description of the process of mindfulness meditation:
In mindfulness meditation, the subject sits comfortably, in silence, centering attention by focusing mental awareness an object or process (either the breathing process, a sound, a mantra koan or riddle evoking questions, a visualisation, or an exercise) and then consciously is encouraged to scan their thoughts in an open focus, shifting freely from one perception to the next (Kutz et al., 1985a, b). No thought, image or sensation is considered an intrusion. The meditator, with a `no effort’ attitude, is asked to remain in the here and now. Using the focus as an `anchor’ (Teasdale et al., 1995) brings the subject constantly back to the present, avoiding cognitive analysis or fantasy regarding the contents of awareness, and increasing tolerance and relaxation of secondary thought processes.
Religious and spiritual
There are literally hundreds of specific approaches to meditation. Some meditative traditions, such as yoga or tantra, are common to several religions.
The Bahá’í Faith teaches that meditation is necessary for spiritual growth, alongside obligatory prayer and fasting. `Abdu’l-Bahá is quoted as saying:
Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries to your mind. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves.
Although the founder of the Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, never specified any particular forms of meditation, some Bahá’í practices are meditative. One of these is the daily repetition of the Arabic phrase Alláhu Abhá (Arabic: الله ابهى) (God is Most Glorious) 95 times preceded by ablutions. Abhá has the same root as Bahá’ (Arabic: بهاء “splendor” or “glory”) which Bahá’ís consider to be the “Greatest Name of God”.
The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment. -Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
The historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree, after which The Buddha returned to the world where he founded the monastic way of life and taught the dharma, or truth, in order to liberate all living beings. Monks live a life of poverty, chastity, prayer, and meditation. The daily routine of a monastery differs from place to place, as does the sort of meditation practiced there. There are literally hundreds of specific Buddhist meditative methods.
Buddhist meditation is fundamentally concerned with two themes: transforming the mind, and using it to explore itself and other phenomena. The traditional goal of Buddhists is, as a part of The Noble Eightfold Path, reaching enlightenment, which means liberation from the bonds of delusion and suffering. Meditation is also practiced for health benefits, which have been observed using the scientific method.
Anapanasati, or watching the breath, has been practiced since the time of The Buddha, and is still practiced in Zen, Tibetan, and Theravadan Buddhism, as well as a part of multiple secular mindfulness programs in Western medicine. In this type of meditation one simply turns the attention to each breath. This type of meditation has been shown to improve the ability to sustain one’s attention to a particular stimuli as well as improving executive functioning and slowing the natural aging process of the brain.
A traditional Buddhist idea is the characterization of meditation as shamatha, which means calm abiding, and as vipassana, which means insight.
There are eight stages of jhana, or meditative states, the last four of which are called the four, ‘formless meditations’.
In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa wrote of ten stages, or bhumis, which one gradually passes through on the path to enlightenment. Of the first stage it is written, “Generally, bodhisattvas of the ten bhumis have the same realization while in meditative absorption. If explained particularly, differences occur during in the post-meditative state. At the first bhumi, one realizes the meaning of entering into the all-pervading Dharmadatu. Through that, one achieves the sameness of oneself and others.”
The four formless states of jhana are referred to in the preceding quote from Gampopa as realizing, “the meaning of entering into the all-pervading Dharmadatu,” and in the proceeding paragraph as the realization of Dzogchen, and of Mahamudra, and in Hinduism as the union of the Atman (Self) with the formless and omnipresent Brahman. Also see Mysticism for more on the cross-cultural phenomenon of entering into union with the formless omnipresent. For more information on Buddhist nondualism see, The Heart Sutra, The Diamond Sutra, Prajnaparamita, Anatta and Mindfulness (psychology), and especially Nondualism and Śūnyatā.
Meditation in Tibetan Buddhism grew up as an integral part of religious life, alongside other practices like mantra recitation, study of sacred literature, hand mudras, prostrations, and so forth. All Tibetan schools share the preliminary practice of Ngondro. From there one begins either with Dzogchen in the Nyingma school or with Mahamudra in the Kagyu. There is a fairly wide consensus among lamas of both the Nyingma and Sarma schools that the end state of dzogchen and mahamudra are the same, that is, to awaken to the sky-like nature of mind, the primordial, pure, nondual state, and then to abide in this state until complete and precious Enlightenment is attained.
In Tonglen, which has a home in Tibetan Buddhism, one takes on the suffering of others on the in-breath and radiates total happiness and well-being to others on the out-breath.
Tummo practitioners will generate enough body heat so that others have seen them, whilst fully submerged beneath icy lakes, cause steam to rise from the surface of the water.
In Compassion meditation one develops a strong desire to help others, and thus transforms their own mind into a more compassionate way of being (even at baseline), which in turn transforms how they view and interact with others, especially when others are suffering (as shown by an increased amount of brain activation when exposed to emotional sounds of others). The generation of compassion for others is recognized in science as self-induced high-amplitude gamma synchrony. Also see Metta and The Four Immeasurables.
In Zen Buddhism there are three most commonly practiced forms of meditation; these are: koan practices – the inner contemplation of a koan, the burning, straining effort to answer what may seem to be undefinable to the logical intellect, shikantaza – just sitting (see also the non-dual section above), and anapanasati – watching the breath. Satori, or a flash of sudden awareness of the universe as unified, is a central component of Zen practice.
Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the meditative development of mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samadhi).. Traditional popular meditation subjects in Theravada include the breath (anapana) and loving-kindness (mettā).
Mindfulness practices have become a part of mainstream psychology over the past thirty years; see the mindfulness section on this page and the main article, Mindfulness (psychology), for more information.
It has been proposed that the meditative traditions of Buddhism, influenced the development of some aspects of Christian contemplative faith (Buddhism and Christianity). Buddhist meditation predated the recorded birth of Jesus by 500 years and were present in Asia Minor and Alexandria during Jesus’ life.
Christian traditions have various meditative practices. These include traditions such as Lectio Divina, rosary meditations, and Eucharistic Adoration in Catholicism, or the Hesychast tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, and the saying of the Jesus Prayer.
Some Western Christian meditative practices rely upon the repetition of a single word or short phrase, such as those derived from the 13th century English text, The Cloud of Unknowing. In many methods of Christian contemplative practice, “meditation” is the middle level in a broad three stage characterization of prayer: it involves more reflection than first level vocal prayer, and is more structured than the multiple layers of contemplation in Christianity. Saints such as Thomas Aquinas and Teresa of Avila have emphasized the importance of meditation in Christianity.
While Protestants view salvation in terms of faith and grace alone (i.e. sola fide and sola gratia) both Western and Eastern Christians see a role for meditation on the path to salvation and redemption. Apostle Paul stated in Romans 9:16 that salvation only comes from “God that hath mercy”.
The path to salvation in Christian meditation is not one of give and take, and the aim meditation is to bring joy to the heart of God. The initiative in Christian salvation is with God, and one does not meditate or love God to gain his favor.
Some mystics in both the Western and Eastern churches have associated feelings of ecstasy with meditation, e.g. St. Teresa of Avila’s legendary meditative ecstasy and the Eastern Orthodox approach to theosis via Hesychasm. However, St. Augustine failed to achieve meditative ecstasy via the teachings of Plotinus and St. Gregory of Sinai, one of the originators of Hesychasm, stated that the goal of Christian meditation is “seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit, beyond the minor phenomenon of ecstasy”. According to E. P. Clowney it is the search for wisdom, not ecstasy that marks the path of Christian meditation, a wisdom sought in the “Christ of Scripture and the Scripture of Christ”.
Catholic use of non-Christian methods
In the 20th century, Christian methods of meditation have been distinguished from and contrasted with so-called “cosmic styles” of Eastern meditation. A 1989 document generally known as Aspects of Christian meditation set forth the position of the Roman Catholic Holy See with respect to the differences between Christian and Eastern styles of meditation. The document, issued as a letter to all Roman Catholic Bishops, stresses the differences between Christian and Eastern meditative approaches. It warns of dangers in attempting to mix Christian meditation with Eastern approaches since that could be both confusing and misleading, and may result in the loss of the essential Christocentric nature of Christian meditation. The letter warned that euphoric states obtained through Eastern meditation should not be confused with prayer or assumed to be signs of the presence of God, and cautioned that meditation, which should be a flight from the self, should not degenerate into a form of self-absorption. In 2003, in a 90-page booklet A Christian reflection on the New Age the Vatican announced that the “Church avoids any concept that is close to those of the New Age”.
The earliest clear references to meditation in Hindu literature are in the middle Upanishads and the Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavad Gita. According to Gavin Flood, the earlier Brihadaranyaka Upanishad refers to meditation when it states that “having becoming calm and concentrated, one perceives the self (ātman) within oneself”.
The practices of Yoga help one to control the mind and senses so the ego can be transcended and the true self (atman) experienced, leading to moksha or liberation. Yoga practice includes ethical discipline (Yamas), physical postures (Asanas), breath control (Pranayama), withdrawal from the senses (Pratyahara), one-pointedness of mind (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), and eventually Samadhi, which is often described as the union of the Self (Atman) with the omnipresent , and is the ultimate goal of all Hindu Yogis.
Meditation in Hinduism is not confined to any school or sect and has expanded beyond Hinduism to the West. Today there is a new branch of Yoga which combines Christian practices with Yogic postures known popularly as Christian Yoga.
The influential modern proponent of Hinduism who first introduced Eastern philosophy to the West in the late 19th century, Swami Vivekananda, describes meditation as follows:
Meditation has been laid stress upon by all religions. The meditative state of mind is declared by the Yogis to be the highest state in which the mind exists. When the mind is studying the external object, it gets identified with it, loses itself. To use the simile of the old Indian philosopher: the soul of man is like a piece of crystal, but it takes the colour of whatever is near it. Whatever the soul touches … it has to take its colour. That is the difficulty. That constitutes the bondage.
A Muslim is obliged to pray at least five times a day: once before sunrise, at noon, in the afternoon, after sunset, and once at night. During prayer a Muslim focuses and meditates on God by reciting the Qur’an and engaging in dhikr to reaffirm and strengthen the bond between Creator and creation, with the purpose of guiding the soul to truth. Such meditation is intended to help maintain a feeling of spiritual peace, in the face of whatever challenges work, social or family life may present.
The five daily acts of peaceful prayer are to serve as a template and inspiration for conduct during the rest of the day, transforming it, ideally, into one single and sustained meditation: even sleep is to be regarded as but another phase of that sustained meditation.
Meditative quiescence is said to have a quality of healing, and—in contemporary terminology—enhancing creativity. The Islamic prophet Muhammad spent sustained periods in contemplation and meditation. It was during one such period that Muhammad began to receive the revelations of the Qur’an.
Following are the styles, or schools, of meditation in the Muslim traditions:
- Tafakkur or tadabbur, literally means reflection upon the universe: this is considered to permit access to a form of cognitive and emotional development that can emanate only from the higher level, i.e. from God. The sensation of receiving divine inspiration awakens and liberates both heart and intellect, permitting such inner growth that the apparently mundane actually takes on the quality of the infinite. Muslim teachings embrace life as a test of one’s submission to God.
- Meditation in the Sufi traditions is largely based on a spectrum of mystical exercises, varying from one lineage to another. Such techniques, particularly the more audacious, can be, and often have been down the ages, a source of controversy among scholars. One broad group of ulema, followers of the great Al-Ghazzali, for example, have in general been open to such techniques and forms of devotion, while another such group, those who concur with the Ibn Taymiya, reject and generally condemn such procedures as species of bid’ah (Arabic: بدعة) or mere innovation.
Numerous Sufi traditions place emphasis upon a meditative procedure similar in its cognitive aspect to one of the two principal approaches to be found in the Buddhist traditions: that of the concentration technique, involving high-intensity and sharply focused introspection. In the Oveyssi-Shahmaghsoudi Sufi order, for example, this is particularly evident, where muraqaba takes the form of tamarkoz, the latter being a Persian term that means concentration.
Meditation has been one of the core spiritual practices undertaken by the Jains since the era of first Tirthankar Lord Rishabha. All the twenty four Tirthankars have practiced deep meditation and attained enlightenment. They are all shown in meditative postures in the images or idols. Lord Mahaveer practiced deep meditation for twelve years and attained enlightenment. The Acaranga Sutra dating to 500 BC, addresses the meditation system of Jainism in detail. Jain Acharya Bhadrabahu of 4th century BC practiced deep Mahaprana meditation for 12 years. Acharya Kundakunda of 1st century BCE, opened new dimensions of meditation in Jain tradition through his books Samayasara, Pravachansar, etc
Jain meditation and spiritual practices system was referred to as salvation-path. It has three important parts, Right perception and faith, Right knowledge and Right conduct, which are also known as Three Jewels.Meditation in Jainism aims at realizing the self, attaining salvation, take the soul to complete freedom. It aims to reach and to remain in the pure state of soul which is believed to be pure conscious, beyond any attachment or aversion. The practitioner strives to be just a knower-seer (Gyata-Drashta). Jain meditation can be broadly categorized to Dharmya Dhyana and Shukla Dhyana.
There exists a number of meditation techniques such as pindāstha-dhyāna, padāstha-dhyāna, rūpāstha-dhyāna, rūpātita-dhyāna, savīrya-dhyāna, etc. In padāstha dhyāna one focuses on Mantra. A Mantra could be either a combination of core letters or words on deity or themes. There is a rich tradition of Mantra in Jainism. All Jain followers irrespective of their sect, whether Digambara or Svetambara practice Mantra. Mantra chanting is an important part of daily lives of Jain monks and followers. Mantra chanting can be done either loudly or silently in mind. Yogasana and Pranayama has been an important practice undertaken since ages. Pranayama – breathing exercises – are performed to strengthen the ten Pranas or vital energy. Yogasana and Pranayama balances the functioning of neuro-endocrine system of body and helps in achieving good physical, mental and emotional health.
Contemplation is a very old and important meditation technique. The practitioner meditates deeply on subtle facts. In agnya vichāya, one contemplates on seven facts – life and non-life, the inflow, bondage, stoppage and removal of karmas, and the final accomplishment of liberation. In apaya vichāya, one contemplates on the incorrect insights one indulges into and that eventually develops right insight. In vipaka vichāya, one reflects on the eight causes or basic types of karma. In sansathan vichāya, when one thinks about the vastness of the universe and the loneliness of the soul.
Acharya Mahapragya formulated Preksha Meditation in 1970s and presented a well organised system of meditation. It is an important milestone in the history of Jain meditation system. Yogasana and Pranayama, meditation, contemplation, Mantra, therapy are its integral parts. Numerous Preksha meditation centers came into existence around the world and numerous meditations camps are being organized to impart training in it.
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 “לשוח” (lasuach) in the field—a term understood by all commentators as some type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63), probably prayer.
Similarly, there are indications throughout the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) that meditation was central to the prophets. In the Old Testament, there are two Hebrew words for meditation: hāgâ (Hebrew: הגה), which means to sigh or murmur, but also to meditate, and sîḥâ (Hebrew: שיחה), which means to muse, or rehearse in one’s mind.
The Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah, is inherently a meditative field of study. The Talmud refers to the advantage of the scholar over the prophet, as his understanding takes on intellectual, conceptual form, that deepens mental grasp, and can be communicated to others. The advantage of the prophet over the scholar is in the transcendence of their intuitive vision. The ideal illumination is achieved when the insights of mystical revelation are brought into conceptual structures. For example, Isaac Luria revealed new doctrines of Kabbalah in the 16th Century, that revolutionised and reordered its teachings into a new system. However, he did not write down his teachings, which were recounted and interpreted instead by his close circle of disciples. After a mystical encounter, called in Kabbalistic tradition an “elevation of the soul” into the spiritual realms, Isaac Luria said that it would take 70 years to explain all that he had experienced. As Kabbalah evolved its teachings took on successively greater conceptual form and philosophical system. Nonetheless, as is implied by the name of Kabbalah, which means “to receive”, its exponents see that for the student to understand its teachings requires a spiritual intuitive reception that illuminates and personalises the intellectual structures.
Corresponding to the learning of Kabbalah are its traditional meditative practices, as for the Kabbalist, the ultimate purpose of its study is to understand and cleave to the Divine. Classic methods include the mental visualisation of the supernal realms the soul navigates through to achieve certain ends. One of the most well known types of meditation in early Jewish mysticism was the work of the Merkabah, from the root /R-K-B/ meaning “chariot” (of God).
In modern Jewish practice one of the best known meditative practices is called “hitbodedut” (התבודדות, alternatively transliterated as “hisbodedus”), and is explained in Kabbalistic, Hasidic, and Mussar writings, especially the Hasidic method of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. The word derives from the Hebrew word “boded” (בודד), meaning the state of being alone. Another Hasidic system is the Habad method of “hisbonenus”, related to the Sephirah of “Binah”, Hebrew for understanding. This practice is the analytical reflective process of making oneself understand a mystical concept well, that follows and internalises its study in Hasidic writings.
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. Many New Age groups combine yoga with meditation where the control of mind and breathing is said to be the highest yoga.
In Zen Yoga Aaron Hoopes talks of meditation as being an avenue to touching the spiritual nature that exists within each of us.
At its core, meditation is about touching the spiritual essence that exists within us all. Experiencing the joy of this essence has been called enlightenment, nirvana, or even rebirth, and reflects a deep understanding within us. The spiritual essence is not something that we create through meditation. It is already there, deep within, behind all the barriers, patiently waiting for us to recognize it. One does not have to be religious or even interested in religion to find value in it. Becoming more aware of your self and realizing your spiritual nature is something that transcends religion. Anyone who has explored meditation knows that it is simply a path that leads to a new, more expansive way of seeing the world around us.
Among the meditation techniques identified as “New Age” are Sahaja Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Natural Stress Relief, 5Rhythms, Transmission Meditation, and Theta Healing.
In Sikhism, the practices of simran and Nām Japō encourage quiet meditation. This is focusing one’s attention on the attributes of God. Sikhs believe that there are 10 ‘gates’ to the body; ‘gates’ is another word for ‘chakras’ or energy centres. The top most energy level is called the tenth gate or dasam dwar. When one reaches this stage through continuous practice meditation becomes a habit that continues whilst walking, talking, eating, awake and even sleeping. There is a distinct taste or flavour when a meditator reaches this lofty stage of meditation, as one experiences absolute peace and tranquility inside and outside the body.
Followers of the Sikh religion also believe that love comes through meditation on the lord’s name since meditation only conjures up positive emotions in oneself which are portrayed through our actions. The first Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak Dev Ji preached the equality of all humankind and stressed the importance of living a householder’s life instead of wandering around jungles meditating, the latter of which being a popular practice at the time. The Guru preached that we can obtain liberation from life and death by living a totally normal family life and by spreading love amongst every human being regardless of religion.
In the Sikh religion, kirtan, otherwise known as singing the hymns of God is seen as one of the most beneficial ways of aiding meditation, and it too in some ways is believed to be a meditation of one kind.
Taoism includes a number of meditative and contemplative traditions, said to have their principles described in the I Ching, Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu and Tao Tsang among other texts. The multitude of schools relating to Qigong, Neigong, Internal alchemy, Daoyin and Zhan zhuang is a large, diverse array of breath-training practices in aid of meditation with much influence on later Chinese Buddhism and with much influence on traditional Chinese medicine and the Chinese as well as some Japanese martial arts. The Chinese martial art T’ai Chi Ch’uan is named after the well-known focus for Taoist and Neo-Confucian meditation, the T’ai Chi T’u, and is often referred to as “meditation in motion”.
“The Guanzi essay ‘Neiye’ (Inward training) is the oldest received writing on the subject of the cultivation of vapor and meditation techniques. The essay was probably composed at the Jixia Academy in Qi in the late fourth century B.C.
Often Taoist Internal martial arts, especially Tai Chi Chuan are thought of as moving meditation. A common phrase being, “movement in stillness” referring to energetic movement in passive Qigong and seated Taoist meditation; with the converse being “stillness in movement”, a state of mental calm and meditation in the tai chi form.
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.
Jiddu Krishnamurti is a person who used the term “meditation” to mean something entirely different from the practice of any system or method to control the mind, or to consciously achieve a specific goal or state: “Man, in order to escape his conflicts, has invented many forms of meditation. These have been based on desire, will, and the urge for achievement, and imply conflict and a struggle to arrive. This conscious, deliberate striving is always within the limits of a conditioned mind, and in this there is no freedom. All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation. Meditation is the ending of thought. It is only then that there is a different dimension which is beyond time.
For Krishnamurti, meditation was choiceless awareness in the present: “When you learn about yourself, watch yourself, watch the way you walk, how you eat, what you say, the gossip, the hate, the jealousy – if you are aware of all that in yourself, without any choice, that is part of meditation.
Many religions have their own prayer beads. Most prayer beads and Christian rosaries consist of pearls or beads linked together by a thread. The Roman Catholic rosary is a string of beads containing five sets with ten small beads. Each set of ten is separated by another bead. The Hindu japa mala has 108 beads, as well as those used in Jainism and Buddhist prayer beads. Each bead is counted once as a person recites a mantra, or phrase, until the person has gone all the way around the mala, which is counted as 100, with an extra 8 there to compensate for misses. The Muslim mishbaha has 99 beads. Prayers and specific meditations of each religion are different and there are theological reasons for the number of beads. Prayer beads may come in different colors, sizes and designs. However, the central purpose, which is to pray repetitively and to meditate, is the same across all religions that use them as a prayer tool.
According to the NCAAM, a U.S. government entity within the National Institute of Health, “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.”
Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School conducted a series of clinical tests on meditators from various disciplines including Transcendental Meditation and Tibetan Buddhism. In 1975, Benson published a book titled The Relaxation Response where he outlined his own version of meditation for relaxation.
Autogenic training was developed by the German psychiatrist Johannes Schultz in 1932. Schultz emphasized parallels to techniques in yoga and meditation; however, autogenic training is devoid of any mysticism.
Australian psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares published, in the 1960s, a book entitled Relief Without Drugs, in which he recommended several simple and secular relaxation techniques, based on Hindu practices, as a means to alleviate anxiety, stress and chronic physical pain.
The 1999 book The Calm Technique: Meditation Without Magic or Mysticism by Paul Wilson has a discussion and instruction in a form of secular meditation.
Biofeedback has been used by many researchers since the 1950s in an effort to enter deeper states of mind.
Acem Meditation has been developed in the Scandinavian countries since 1966. It is non-religious technique with no requirement for change of lifestyle or adaption to any system of belief.
Sound and light techniques of meditation are based on the results of studies with electroencephalography in long-term meditators. Studies have demonstrated the presence of a frequency-following response to auditory and visual stimuli. This EEG activity was termed “frequency-following response” because its period (cycles per second) corresponds to the fundamental frequency of the stimulus. Stated plainly, if the stimulus is 5 Hz, the resulting measured EEG will show a 5 Hz frequency-following response using appropriate time-domain averaging protocols. This is the justification behind such inventions as the Dreamachine and binaural beats. Binaural beats and other audio techniques form the basis of the techniques at The Monroe Institute.
Mindfulness has become a part of mainstream Western psychology. Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness as ‘moment to moment non-judgmental awareness’. Several methods are used during time set aside specifically for mindfulness meditation, such as body scan techniques or letting thought arise and pass, and also during our daily lives, such as being aware of the taste and texture of the food that we eat. Scientifically demonstrated benefits of mindfulness practice include an increase in the body’s ability to heal and a shift from a tendency to use the right prefrontal cortex to a tendency to use the left prefrontal cortex, associated with a trend away from depression and anxiety and towards happiness, relaxation, and emotional balance.
Jacobson’s Progressive Muscle Relaxation was developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the early 1920s. In this practice one tenses and then relaxes muscle groups in a sequential pattern whilst concentrating on how they feel. The method has been seen to help people with many conditions especially extreme anxiety.
The Transcendental Meditation or TM technique is a form of mantra meditation introduced in India in 1955 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917–2008). Taught in a standardized, seven-step course over 4 days by certified teachers, it involves the silent use of a sound or mantra and is practiced for 15–20 minutes twice per day, while sitting comfortably with closed eyes. Many scientific studies have been done to demonstrate the beneficial effects of Transcendental Meditation, see this page for more information.
Modern cross-cultural dissemination
Methods of meditation have been cross-culturally disseminated at various times throughout history, such as Buddhism going to East Asia, and Sufi practices going to many Islamic societies. Of special relevance to the modern world is the dissemination of meditative practices since the late 1800s, accompanying increased travel and communication among cultures worldwide. Most prominent has been the transmission of numerous Asian-derived practices to the West. Interest in some Western-based meditative practices has also been revived, and these have been disseminated to a limited extent in Asian countries.
Ideas about Eastern meditation had begun “seeping into American popular culture even before the American Revolution through the various sects of European occult Christianity,” and such ideas “came pouring in [to America] during the era of the transcendentalists, especially between the 1840s and the 1880s.”
The World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, was the landmark event that increased Western awareness of meditation. This was the first time that Western audiences on American soil received Asian spiritual teachings from Asians themselves. Thereafter, Swami Vivekananda… [founded] various Vedanta ashrams… Anagarika Dharmapala lectured at Harvard on Theravada Buddhist meditation in 1904; Abdul Baha … [toured] the US teaching the Islamic principles of Bahai, and Soyen Shaku toured in 1907 teaching Zen…
More recently, in the 1960s, another surge in Western interest in meditative practices began. Observers have suggested many types of explanations for this interest in Eastern meditation (and revived Western contemplation). Thomas Keating, a founder of Contemplative Outreach, wrote that “the rush to the East is a symptom of what is lacking in the West. There is a deep spiritual hunger that is not being satisfied in the West.”:31 Daniel Goleman, a scholar of meditation, suggested that the shift in interest from “established religions” to meditative practices “is caused by the scarcity of the personal experience of these [meditation-derived] transcendental states – the living spirit at the common core of all religions.”
Another suggested contributing factor is the rise of communist political power in Asia, which “set the stage for an influx of Asian spiritual teachers to the West” (often as refugees).
In a Western context
“Meditation” in its modern sense refers to Yogic meditation that originated in India. In the late nineteenth century, Theosophists adopted the word “meditation” to refer to various spiritual practices drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and other Indian religions. Thus the English word “meditation” does not exclusively translate to any single term or concept, and can be used to translate words such as the Sanskrit dhāraṇā, dhyana, samadhi and bhavana.
Meditation may be for a religious purpose, but even before being brought to the West it was used in secular contexts, such as the martial arts. Beginning with the Theosophists, though, meditation has been employed in the West by a number of religious and spiritual movements, such as Yoga, New Age and the New Thought movement, as well as limited use in Christianity.
Meditation techniques have also been used by Western theories of counseling and psychotherapy. Relaxation training works toward achieving mental and muscle relaxation to reduce daily stresses. Jacobson is credited with developing the initial progressive relaxation procedure. These techniques are used in conjunction with other behavioral techniques. Originally used with systematic desensitization, relaxation techniques are now used with other clinical problems. Meditation, hypnosis and biofeedback-induced relaxation are a few of the techniques used with relaxation training. One of the eight essential phases of EMDR (developed by Shapiro), bringing adequate closure to the end of each session, also entails the use of relaxation techniques, including meditation. Multimodal therapy, a technically eclectic approach to behavioral therapy, also employs the use of meditation as a technique used in individual therapy.
From the point of view of psychology and physiology, meditation can induce an altered state of consciousness. Such altered states of consciousness may correspond to altered neuro-physiologic states.
Meditation, religion, and drugs
Many traditions in which meditation is practiced, such as Transcendental Meditation, and Buddhism, Christianity and several religions, disallow the use of drugs. On the other hand, the ingestion of psychoactives has been a central feature in the rituals of many religions, in order to produce altered states of consciousness. In the Rastafari movement, cannabis is believed to be a gift from Jah and a sacred herb very worthy of use. Bob Marley “meditated” daily, as he called it, on his long hammock in a corridor-like room with wooden floor and shutters. In several traditional shamanistic ceremonies, drugs are used as agents of ritual. Salvia divinorum had a long history of use amongst the Mazatec shamans, who used it to produce visionary states of consciousness, in their spiritual healing rituals. Native Americans are known to use peyote, as part of religious ceremony, to this very day.
During the 1960s, eastern meditation traditions and psychedelics such as LSD became popular in America, and it was suggested that LSD use and meditation were both means to the same spiritual/existential end. Many practictioners of eastern traditions rejected this idea, including many who had tried LSD themselves. In The Master Game, Robert S de Ropp writes that the “door to full consciousness” can be glimpsed with the aid of substances, but to “pass beyond the door” requires yoga and meditation. Other authors, such as Rick Strassman, believe that the relationship between religious experiences reached by way of meditation and through the use of psychedelic drugs deserves further exploration. Also see Psychedelic psychotherapy.
The fourth of the five precepts of the Pancasila, the ethical code in the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions states that adherents must not ingest, “intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.” Edwin Arnold, in his famous poem The Light of Asia speaks of abstinence like this: “Shun drugs and drinks which work the wit abuse; Clear minds, clean bodies, need no Soma juice.” Yoga texts also warns of the use of chemicals to alter consciousness.
Various postures are taken up in meditation. Sitting, supine, and standing postures are used.
Most popular is the full-lotus posture, half-lotus posture, Burmese posture, or kneeling posture.
Meditation can also be practiced while walking, such as kinhin, or doing simple repetitive tasks, as in Zen samu, or work which encourages mindfulness.
Postures with legs uncrossed
In some traditions the practitioner may sit on a chair, flat-footed and without back support (as in New Thought); sit on a stool (as in Orthodox Christianity); or walk in mindfulness, also known as kinhin (as in Theravada and Zen Buddhism).
Those traditions related to kundalini yoga, take a less formal approach. While the basic practice in these traditions is also to sit still quietly in a traditional posture, they emphasize the possibility of kriyas – spontaneous yogic postures, changes in breathing patterns or emotional states, or perhaps repetitive physical movements such as swaying, etc., which may naturally arise as the practitioner sits in meditation, and which should not be resisted but rather allowed to express themselves to enhance the natural flow of energy through the body. This is said to help purify the nadis and ultimately deepen one’s meditative practice.
Cross legged sitting helps create a stable base for meditation that offers the least discomfort and distraction for extended periods of meditation. Several different varieties of seated asanas are practiced depending on the culture – ranging from easy crossed legs, to siddhasana (“perfect pose”), or the half and full lotus postures. Sitting on the heels is also possible. Seated meditation cushions often help extend meditative time and serve to elevate the hips and spine into proper alignment. Sitting cross-legged (or upon one’s knees) for extended periods when one is not sufficiently limber, can result in a range of ergonomic complaints called “meditator’s knee”.
Many meditative traditions teach that the spinal column should be kept “straight,” that is, the individual should sit erect but relaxed, by balancing the torso such that the spinal column supports it with very little effort. Sitting on a cushion that elevates the pelvis as high as or higher than the knees and then slightly rolling the pelvis forward, or by other similar means, makes it possible to do this. The correct posture causes the chin to drop down to the neck to the point where the tongue is pressed against the teeth, the chest to lift and tilt backwards, the shoulders to sit further back, and the low back to curve forwards.
If done correctly, this posture is easy for some to maintain for long periods of time without discomfort, as muscular effort is used only keep the spine balanced, and not to support the weight of the torso. Often this posture is explained as a way of encouraging the circulation of what some call “spiritual energy,” the “vital breath”, the “life force” (Sanskrit prana, Chinese qi, Latin spiritus) or the Kundalini. It is said that one’s meditation will not be as good if one’s posture is not so good.
Hand gestures and position
Various hand-gestures or mudras may be prescribed in meditation. These can carry theological meaning or according to Yogic philosophy can actually affect consciousness, mood and energy. For example, a common Buddhist hand-position is with the right hand resting atop the left (like the Buddha’s begging bowl), with the thumbs touching. Each finger is associated with a different sensitivity, and the belief is that finger endings locked into mudras create subtle energy shifts due to the different circuit connections. Pressing on finger endings also stimulates brain sections relating to different qualities – which a practitioner may want to enhance through meditation to invoke specific affects or changes.
Eye focus and gaze
In some schools such as Zen, the eyes are half-closed, half open and looking slightly downward. In others such as Brahma Kumaris, the eyes are kept fully open. Others may keep the eye-lids 1/10th or barely open depending on what drishti (eye focus in kundalini yoga – meaning “vision” or “insight” in Sanskrit) the meditation instructs. Different eye focus points have different effects, and points such as the 3rd eye, or gazing over the nose help to lock the brain into a point of stillness. Pictures of saints in meditation may reflect different eye postures, and different meditations may call for staring into a saint’s eyes, a candle flame, or some other object of focus, which is known to some as trataka meditation.
In Sufism, meditation (muraqaba) with eyes closed is called Varood while having the eyes open is known as Shahood or Fa’tha.
Often such details are shared by more than one religion, even in cases where mutual influence seems unlikely. One example is “navel-gazing,” which is apparently attested within Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Chinese qigong practice. Another is the practice of focusing on the breath, found in Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and numerous Indic traditions.
Oftentimes people will recite words and sound as a part of a meditation and/or to help induce some subjective state. Mantras are sounds considered capable of creating transformation by those who recite them; mantras are common to several religious and meditative traditions. In Sikhism recitation and repetition of mantra and hymns or shabad, which describe the qualities of God, creates an experiential connection with Divinity. Bij (or “seed” in Gurmukhi) mantras are repeated constantly, deeply planted in the mind as constant reminders of Oneness. Buddhists regard the recitation of mantras as a means for cutting off previous negative karma, also see Buddhist chant. In yogic science, man-tra (“man” meaning mind, “tra” to cut) helps “yoke” the mind to a more conscious and harmonious vibration. Mantra can affect the mind through combination (mudra) of tongue and palate. The repetition of mantra can aid meditation, clear the subconscious of unhealthy attachments, provide anchored stability, counter information overload, and break accumulated mental patterns.
All the religions mentioned on this page use some form of song such as communal prayer, mantra recitation, or shabad; even the Christian Jesus Prayer is a form of chanting.
Over 1,000 publications on meditation have appeared to date. Many of the these early studies lack a theoretically unified perspective, oftentimes resulting in poor methodological quality.
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 chemistry. 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.
In June, 2007 the United States National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine published an independent, peer-reviewed, meta-analysis of the state of meditation research. The result was mixed: some studies showed substantial, detectable, changes in the brain of people who meditated, while other studies were very poor in quality and could not be reliably depended upon. More rigor in future studies was called for.
In popular culture
Various forms of meditation have been described in popular culture sources. In particular, science fiction stories such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, Star Trek, Artemis Fowl, Star Wars, Maskman, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, and Stargate SG-1 have featured characters who practice one form of meditation or another. Mediation also appears as the overt theme of novels such as Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Usually these practices are inspired by real-world meditation traditions, but sometimes they have very different methods and purposes.
Enlightenment can refer to many different concepts. In a secular or non-Buddhist context, the word enlightenment often means “full comprehension of a situation”. Spiritual enlightenment means to obtain a spiritual revelation or deep insight into the meaning and purpose of all things, to communicate with or understand the mind of God, to achieve some other type of profound spiritual understanding, or to achieve a fundamentally changed level of existence whereby one’s self is experienced as a nonchanging field of pure consciousness. Some scientists believe that during meditative states leading up to the subjective experience of enlightenment there are actual physical changes in the brain.
Enlightenment is a translation of the Pāli and Sanskrit word bodhi, which means a state of freedom from suffering, desire and ignorance, which are collectively known as saṃsāra. Bohi is also translated as “awakening” or “understanding”. Nirvana and Bodhi are nearly synonymous with the word enlightenment, and in experience may be the same idea. Tathagata and Buddha-nature are often used as impersonal translations of enlightenment.
In Theravada Buddhism, enlightenment refers to a unique experience which wholly transforms the enlightened individual from their previous condition in samsara. The Buddha, is said to have achieved enlightenment, as are others reputed to have attained Buddhahood.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition, anyone is capable of achieving enlightenment. In Japanese, kensho is the name for an enlightenment experience where one realizes the non-duality of the observer and the observed, while satori is the term for a flash of sudden understanding or awareness. These are experiences along the path to full enlightenment.
Mahayana Buddhists equate enlightenment with discovery of one’s Buddha nature. It is a state of complete emptiness, a passage beyond the material world into a thought-transcending realm of non-duality and unconditionedness. It is a state where the ego and self have been transcended.
The Heart Sutra says that in truth there is no suffering and no enlightenment and this apparent contradiction is also seen in the The Diamond Sutra.
In other traditions
In Hinduism the word moksha is similar to enlightenment and Nirvana.
The word ‘enlightenment’ also has parallels in the Abrahamic religions: in the Kabbalah tradition in Judaism, in Christian mysticism, particularly in Gnosticism, and in the Sufi tradition of Islam.
In Christianity the word Charity is similar to enlightenment. There is a difference between doing something Charitable and having Charity.
In the Fourth Way teaching, enlightenment is the highest state of Man (humanity).