Meditation might have originated in the primitive shamanic practices. It is found in some form or the other in all the civilizations of mankind. Certain postural attitudes, silence, contemplation, solitude, simplicity etc., are a part of all the religious and spiritual traditions of humanity. Meditation, however, developed in a systematic fashion in the context of Hinduism and Buddhism in ancient India. The seventh and eighth steps in the astanga marga (eight-fold path) of the Buddha deal with meditation and the seventh step in the ashtanga yoga of Patanjali is meditation. The Sanskrit term for meditation is dhyan or dhyana. It is said that when the knowledge related to meditation spread out to other cultures it has come to be known as chan in China and zen in Japan.
There are numerous methods of meditation. In spiritual and religious traditions their aim was to realize the truth in accordance with the belief system of the practitioner. Once the truth is realized, it might bring about a transformation in the individual. We may understand realization as a change or transformation in the individual in the desired or intended direction in line with his or her faith or conceptual framework. For instance, a smoker who has all the information related to the ill effects of smoking, despite of his knowledge may continue to smoke. If he realizes the truth about smoking he is likely to give up his smoking habit. From a psychological standpoint, meditation seems to be a method for such a transformation. Hence, modern man may appropriate the methods of meditation to solve his problems and enhance his growth and development. It could be a self-help tool or a self-regulation strategy for promoting health, happiness and effectiveness in the direction sought by the individual.
How do we understand the many available methods of meditation?
At one extreme we have shikantaja (just sitting) as a form of meditation and at the other extreme Sufi dervish dancing as a form of meditation. Objects of meditation too vary enormously. From religious symbols to philosophical concepts, abstract to concrete thoughts and images, geometrical designs, sounds and movements are among them.It appears to me, from a psychological standpoint, that all the methods of meditation involve an attempt to still or empty the mind.
At any give moment human awareness is a stream of self-awareness, thoughts, images, feelings, etc., which form its contents. The contents of awareness are also constantly processed by the mind. They are analyzed, judged, interpreted and so on. The contents and processes thus constitute our awareness. This stream is hardly in our control. As we are all aware, our thinking is both voluntary and involuntary. We do think and also thoughts occur to us.
Meditation essentially deals with our awareness and attention. Our attention is both internal and external; we attend to our subjective experience and also to the external world. It is both voluntary and involuntary. We can choose to attend to thoughts and objects and also at times our attention is so compulsive in the sense that it goes to thoughts and objects that we do not wish to think about or attend to.
When we narrow down our attention and focus it on a limited object, we are trying to exclude all other contents that could possibly enter into our awareness. This is what happens in the methods of meditation known as concentration methods, where we concentrate on an object, place, concept, sound or movement. Awareness is filled with that object of concentration and sooner or alter an adaptation occurs and the object may even disappear momentarily leaving our awareness content less.
In the methods of meditation, which are known as mindfulness methods we just examine the contents of our awareness without processing them. We just observe or witness the contents. It is a bare attention to the contents of awareness without any processing of them.
As human mind is an incessant flow of thoughts, images, feelings, etc., both the concentration and mindfulness methods deliberately aim to empty or still the mind by reducing or eliminating the contents and their processing respectively. Many methods of meditation, which are in vogue use both concentration and mindfulness to different degrees with varying objects, both simple and complex.
Stilling or emptying the mind may contribute to a calmness of the mind. Our stream of thought tends to be rapid and it virtually becomes uncontrollable when we are anxious or worried about something. Such states we experience are often described as restless or turbulent. Meditation, by stilling and emptying the mind may lead to a tranquil state of the mind.
Also, we may note that in all the traditions meditation is found embedded in profound ethics, following which will contribute to the wellness of both the individual and the society.
Whatever may be the method of meditation the first and foremost response, as attested by scientific research is relaxation. Restricting the contents of awareness or minimizing the processes and observing or witnessing them, when coupled with relaxation seems to have profound influence on the meditator.
All the methods of meditation in one way or the other retrain the faculty of attention and help to slowly bring it into voluntary control. As we practice to observe the contents of our awareness in meditation, a part of our mind grows as an observing consciousness. As long as we drift along with the stream of thought, we will not be able to observe it. In order to observe, we have to rise above it. This itself is a kind of freedom. We also realize that there is a space between our thoughts and us. This might lead to an understanding that we need not necessarily identify with all of our thoughts. There comes the power of discrimination and we become less impulsive. When we witness our thoughts in a profound state of relaxation without responding to them, we slowly learn to tolerate and accept them.
When we meditate the thoughts that arise, even if they have an emotional tone, they fail to produce corresponding bodily reactions as the body enters into a state of relaxation soon after we started meditating. We are thus systematically desensitized to our fears and sorrows.
As the thoughts that flood our awareness in meditation are a part of us when we continue to meditate we become more and more intimate with ourselves. The thoughts that we are hitherto unaware may come into our awareness in meditation from the preconscious and unconscious levels of the mind and become integrated in to our awareness.This may bring about integrity and harmony in the individual.
In a way the faculty of attention underlies our happiness, effectiveness, determination, will, character and love. We are not effective in performing any task when our mind wanders. Focusing our attention is necessary for an enhanced performance of the tasks. We also do not enjoy eating a delicious dish we are served with and watching a beautiful sun set with a scattered mind. Setting goals and steadfastly pursuing them with determination are also related to our ability to attend and focus. We attend to people whom we love and focus on their needs.
Cultivating attention through meditation thus may be helpful in many ways. Mediators have been found to have loving relationships with others and they have larger concerns that transcend self-centeredness. No wonder meditation is an art of being and living in the world.
.* Reading Noranjo and Ornstein, and Swamy Rama and his psychiatrist and psychologist disciples facilitated my understanding of meditation from a secular and psychological standpoint.
A version of this article with illustrations was published earlier in Yoga Sanga, an online magazine. http://www.yogasanga.net/?p=13359