Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness.
The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices (much like the term sports) that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force (qi, ki, prana, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness. A particularly ambitious form of meditation aims at effortlessly sustained single-pointed concentration single-pointed analysis, meant to enable its practitioner to enjoy an indestructible sense of well-being while engaging in any life activity.
The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation has been practiced since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs.
The English word meditation is derived from the Latin meditatio, from a verb meditari, meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, ponder”.
In the Old Testament, hāgâ (Hebrew: הגה) means to sigh or murmur, and 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.
The Tibetan word for meditation “Gom” means “to become familiar with one’s Self” and has the strong implication of training the mind to be familiar with states that are beneficial: concentration, compassion, correct understanding, patience, humility, perseverance, etc.
Apart from its historical usage, the term meditation was introduced as a translation for Eastern spiritual practices, referred to as dhyāna in Buddhism and in Hinduism, 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. The term ‘meditation’ as it has entered contemporary usage” is parallel to the term “contemplation” in Christianity, but in many cases, practices similar to modern forms of meditation were simply called ‘prayer‘. Christian, Judaic and Islamic forms of meditation are typically devotional, scriptural or thematic, while Asian forms of meditation are often more purely technical.
Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation is often used to clear the mind and ease many health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. It may be done sitting, or in an active way.
1. Mindfulness, also called ‘Vipassana’, comes from the Buddhist tradition. I’d say mindfulness is the most popular form of meditation in the western world. It’s all about ‘being present’, letting your mind run, and accepting whatever thoughts come up, while practicing detachment from each thought. Mindfulness is taught along with an awareness on the breath, though the breathing is often considered to be just one sensation among many others, not a particular focus. There is no attempt to change the breathing pattern, which limits this practice and makes it observational rather than active. Changing your breathing changes the energy; just watching what your breathing is doing (particularly if your breathing is shallow, as it generally is) means you are stuck in a low-energy state.
2. Zazen is the generic term for seated meditation in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, but in the modern Zen tradition, it is often referred to as ‘just sitting’. It is a minimal kind of meditation, done for long periods of time, with little instruction beyond the basics of posture (sit with your back straight). There is no particular attention to the breath, nor an attempt to change the breath. Zazen is the ‘anti-method’ approach to meditation, but it is often done in conjunction with a concentration on a certain aspect of Buddhist scripture, or a paradoxical sentence, story or question, called a koan. Zazen is very difficult to learn, and it is very difficult to make progress with this method, because of the lack of guidance on how to do the practice. Also, it was developed for a monastic setting, making it difficult to adapt to an active life in the world.
3. Transcendental Meditation is a simplified practice that emerges from Vedanta, the meditative tradition within Hinduism. In TM, you sit with your back straight (ideally in the Lotus or half-Lotus posture), and use a mantra, a sacred word that is repeated. Your focus is on rising above all that is impermanent. TM is a more involved method than either mindfulness or zazen. At the more advanced levels, TM focuses on the breath and changes the breath to change one’s state of being. TM often leads to leaving the body (indeed, that is the aim of the practice). That is problematic because the energy of the body (and the mind) can be disrupted. Also, the practice is not focused on your life and your purpose, and indeed the philosophy that goes with it is harmful to the heart, considering desires to be ‘egoic’ and materialistic.
4. Kundalini is another practice that comes from Vedanta. Kundalini is the name for the rising stream of energy that exists in a human being (there is also a downward stream, not emphasized in Kundalini). The aim of Kundalini meditation is to become aware of that rising stream, and to ride the stream to infinity. The practitioner concentrates on their breath flowing through each of the energy centers of the body, always moving upward, toward the energy center just above the top of the head. Kundalini makes active use of the breath, using breath to move energy upward.
5. Qi gong is a form of Taoist meditation that uses the breath to circulate energy through the organs and energy centers of the body in a oval pattern called the ‘microcosmic orbit’. Attention is focused on the breath and the circulation of energy (called ‘qi’ or ‘chi’). Attention is also focused on the three major centers used in Taoist meditation: a point about two inches below the navel, the center of the chest, and the center of the forehead. Qi gong uses the breath to direct energy, and circulate energy in the body and spirit, but it is not heart-based. There is little sense of how the heart changes and develops, and no connection between the circulation of energy and emotional states, and no core set of teachings on how to work with emotion.
6. Guided visualization is a popular form of meditation that involves concentration upon an image or imaginary environment. It is usually done while listening to a recording. An example would be to imagine you are in a grassy field, with a clear sky overhead. There is sometimes a focus on the breath, but generally no attempt to use or control the breath, and because the sensation is imaginary, and the impetus for it comes from outside, the practice tends to be rather passive. This kind of meditation does not come from an established meditative tradition like the others listed above, and so it is untested as a method of spiritual development. Not every recorded meditation is an example of guided visualization; the key is whether it contains elements of hypnotic suggestion or the creation of fantasies under the guidance of someone else. If you are listening to a recording where the guide lays out a method for you to do yourself, or calls attention to sensation and energy already occurring within you, that is not guided visualization, but rather meditation instruction. The key is whether you are practicing a method that will enable you to do a practice by yourself or not.
7. Trance-based practices. This is my category for a whole set of reflective practices that generate a trance state. The hallmarks of a trance are: awareness of the self and the environment is limited, conscious control of the experience is absent, rational thinking is absent, and memory of the experience is very limited. Often these kinds of practices involve drugs, music, shallow, rapid breathing (which produces an intoxicating effect), or a form of hypnotic suggestion. Because self-control is so limited, and because of the passivity involved in having a state induced by someone else, a trance state is both potentially dangerous and not helpful for spiritual development. I could’ve easily not included this as meditation, because it isn’t really meditation, but I included it because these kinds of practices are commonly thought to be meditation. The idea that meditation involves a trance-state is actually a common myth about meditation.
8. Heart Rhythm Meditation focuses on the breath and heartbeat, making the breath full, deep, rich, rhythmic, and balanced. Attention is focused on the heart as the center of the energetic system. One tries to identify oneself with the heart. By focusing on the breath, you make your breath powerful. And then learning to direct the breath, to feel the circulation of breath as your pulse in different parts of your body, then on your magnetic field, you learn to direct and circulate energy. You are in control of yourself at all times, and you become both more powerful and more sensitive. Further, your power and sensitivity are always in service of your heart, so you become compassionate.