What is Meditation and Where Does it Come From?

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In English, the term meditation comes from the Latin word “meditatio”, which means “to ponder” or “to reflect”. In the state of meditation, the mind is fully awake and clear, but at the same time calm and relaxed. In early historical traditions, mantras or chants were often the objects of meditation. Over the millennia, very different forms of meditation have developed – from breathing meditation to complete inner contemplation to active shaking meditations (you can read more about the different types of meditation below). The spiritual practice of meditation has its origins in many different religions and cultures – including yoga philosophy. In the different traditions, both goals of meditation and techniques are very different. In Christian, Jewish, and Islamic cultures, the highest goal of meditation is to experience and connect with the divine. In Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, on the other hand, meditators want to attain nirvana or enlightenment. The modern Western world also uses it to detached from any spiritual context, as a means of coping with stress (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, MBSR). By the way, the physical yoga exercises (asanas) were developed several thousand years ago to prepare our bodies for long meditations. Try sitting motionless on a hard wooden floor in an upright sitting position for half an hour – then you will understand the great blessing of the asanas.

True meditation is the practice of releasing oneself from the grip of one’s senses and the lower mind in order to achieve a state of transcendence. By definition, it is transcendental. However, the use of this word is not what corresponds to a commercial slogan, but rather to express the beauty of it, in which all fears, desires, anxieties and negative emotions are transcended. The meditator reaches the state of super consciousness, in which he or she is able to identify himself or herself with the all-blissful being. This state is defined as the one where there is no awareness of the body or mind and no duality. During the state of meditation, it is believed that the individual, also known as the knower, becomes one with knowledge and the known. This merging represents a state of unity and oneness between the individual and his or her understanding of the world and himself or herself. It is thought that in this state, the distinction between the knower, knowledge and the known is dissolved and there is a sense of harmony and interconnectedness. This merging is seen as a way to transcend the limitations of the individual self and to achieve a deeper understanding of the world and oneself. Through meditation one becomes a spectator of his own mind. In the initial states not much more can be achieved than to increase one’s own understanding by observing how the ego constantly asserts itself yet over time, the game becomes familiar and one begins to prefer the satisfaction of tranquility.

According to yoga teachings, the physical world is the manifestation of the thoughts of Divine Intelligence and everything consists of vibrations. The concept of waves can be applied not only to physical phenomena such as heat, light, electricity, and energy, but also to the realm of thoughts and ideas. Just as these physical waves have their own characteristics and properties, so do the waves of thought that constantly flow through our minds. Thought has enormous power, and everyone experiences it to some extent. It is believed that if one understands the mechanics of thought vibrations, the techniques for controlling them and the method of transmitting to others; the power of the mind can be greatly enhanced. With the understanding of mental forces, hidden psychic powers are believed to be awakened.

Meditation in the East

The organized form of meditating can be traced back to the Upanishads and Vedas, two of the oldest text sources of the Vedic traditions in India (which include Hinduism and also yoga). According to expert inside opinions, they can be dated back to the 7th to 2nd centuries BC. “Dhyana” in these texts means the state of complete mental immersion, which is step seven of the eight-limbed path of yoga according to Patanjali (Yoga Sutra). This is followed only by samadhi, perfect realization. In Hinduism, the goal is also enlightenment, that is, the realization of the unity of Atman (individual soul) and Brahman (world soul).

Meditation in the West

In the Christian tradition, meditating is part of the practice of gathering the mind: in the Middle Ages (when the first records on the subject were probably written), this included the spiritual exercises lectio (attentive reading), meditatio (object-free contemplation), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (objective contemplation). The basic idea is thus comparable to that in yoga or Buddhism, but meditating is a rather small part of the technique. In Christian monasteries, monks and nuns still meditate today, but for Christians in everyday life, the aspect has much less importance than, for example, prayer. For Buddhists, on the other hand, meditating is one of the most important elements of their religious practice.

Power of Concentration

The forces of nature, when flowing freely over a large area, move slowly and with less power than when they are merged into a mass and channeled through a restricted outlet. The tame course of a river, when held back by the dam of a reservoir and its accumulated water, rushes through the outlet valves with impressive force. The warm rays of the sun, if magnified with the lens of a magnifying glass, are capable of burning objects. This natural law applies to all areas of human activity. Mental concentration consists in fixing the mind, for a prolonged period of time, on an external or internal point. To concentrate, one must have something to focus their mental energy on, it must be one specific object or idea. It has to be a single idea or object. Some people believe they can think about two things at the same time, but the mind is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time. The mind does not work like that; its fluctuating waves are simply bouncing from one idea to the other, with the speed of light.

The mind is capable of doing one thing at a time. Those who imagine that mundane chores, like washing dishes, for example, are done more quickly by thinking of a sunny, palm-lined beach, are deluding themselves. When the mind is occupied with daydreams, the mental waves oscillate between the task at hand and the daydreams. The attention applied to the work is diminished, due to constant interruptions, while their hands also move more slowly. How much better to keep the mind focused and finish the job in half the time! When one is absorbed in reading a book or watching a television program, he or she does not hear the noises around him or her, nor does he or she realize that someone is calling him or her, nor does he or she see the person approaching. This is concentration or firm fixation of the mind on one thing.

Everyone possesses, to some extent, the faculty of concentration. A conscious practice of this ability strengthens the currents of thought, clarifies ideas and brings into one some of the immense power latent in the mind. What once seemed cloudy and confused becomes clear and definite and what was difficult and complex becomes easy. One is able to work more efficiently, to accomplish more work in less time, and to increase one’s own capacity. The ability to focus and concentrate one’s mind has been linked to a reduction in the likelihood of cognitive decline in later life, specifically in preventing or minimizing the problems associated with senility. By honing the skill of concentration, one is able to keep the mind active and sharp, thereby reducing the risk of age-related cognitive decline. As we age, the human body experiences a natural decline in the number of brain cells, this process is known as neuronal cell death. Research suggests that after the age of thirty, human brain cells die without being replaced at an average rate of 100,000 per day. It is vital to maximize and strengthen cognitive capacity during aging. Someone who practices concentration retains a clear mental vision. The surgeon operates on his patient with his attention concentrated to the maximum. Deep absorption characterizes the technical work of the engineer, the architect or the painter engaged in drawing the smallest details on his plan, in which precision is of the utmost importance. In the spiritual journey, the same level of concentration is required to deal with inner forces. To progress, we must develop it to a very high degree. The practice requires patience, will, regularity and untiring constancy. In the spiritual life, there are no shortcuts.

In Yoga and other spiritual disciplines, first step towards meditation is concentration. What most people call meditation is actually nothing more than concentration. The power of the mind is directed and focused on an abstract idea or an inspiring symbol. When all vibrations of extraneous thoughts have subsided, one goes straight to the source, like an arrow. There are many paths which leads to the destination. To get there, just follow the path that suits you best. But the one who shifts endlessly from one path to another will not succeed. The use of abstract symbols in meditation, as opposed to those that are emotionally charged, can prove to be more beneficial as they are not tied to any specific emotional associations and are able to elevate the mind to a higher level of consciousness. On the other hand, symbols that are emotionally charged and have negative connotations can have the opposite effect and can drag the mind down, hindering the meditative experience. It is crucial to choose symbols that align with the intention of the meditation practice and elevate the mind, rather than those that weigh it down emotionally. Even though the mind is under control during the concentration stage, the moment of reaching meditation state is uncontrollable. It is like entering into sleeping state which happens automatically. Meditation is often described as a continuous stream of thoughts, ideas and focus towards the supreme being or ultimate reality. It is a state in which the mind is free from distractions and able to focus exclusively on the connection with the divine. This can be seen as a way to achieve a deeper understanding of oneself and the world around us, and to connect with a higher power. It is an identification of the individual with a higher divine power and the experience is similar to the flow of oil from one vessel to another.

What Are the Known Meditation Techniques?

Samatha Meditation

Samatha meditation is the mind-rest or concentration meditation. Here the practitioner concentrates on one object. The historical Buddha is said to have named a total of 40 such meditation objects, here are a few:

Breath – This includes, among other things, the breath: here one observes the breath and possibly counts the breaths (inhaling and exhaling).

Metta – Another meditation object can be metta, the loving kindness in the Buddhist tradition. In this, one focuses on a feeling of loving care first toward oneself and then toward one’s loved ones, even to strangers or people one dislikes.

Mantra – In a mantra meditation, the mantra is the meditation object, such as “OM” or “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu”. Focusing one’s attention on such an object can help one not to be constantly distracted by one’s thoughts, but to really let go.

Samatha meditation is often described as a kind of introduction or preparation for Vipassana practice. In the latter, you sit in complete silence and concentration – but without any object to focus on at all. For most of us, this is the greater challenge, because without support or assistance, we find it difficult not to engage our thoughts, not to hold them when they distract us. The prerequisite is complete mindfulness, that is, staying in the present moment. In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that with this practice a transcendent spiritual experience becomes possible: The letting go of all thoughts and feelings is said to bring about the dissolution of the self – the precursor to the attainment of nirvana.

Zazen Meditation

Zazen meditation has its origins in Zen Buddhism. This current is believed to have originated in Japan around the 5th century A.D. and is characterized primarily by the absence of dogma and fixed structures. Zazen meditation plays a central role in Zen and is similar to Vipassana practice in its execution. The central difference is that the practitioner does not keep his or her eyes closed, but open or half open – but without actively looking.

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation gained widespread popularity in the 1960s when its most important teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, became “spiritual advisor” to the Beatles. This form of practice aims to make it easy for practitioners and does not require the use of great concentration to achieve the goal. Instead, one employs a word or mantra, the repetition of which is intended to induce a state of deep stillness and simultaneous alertness. This mantra is given to each student individually by a teacher – but in a very expensive “course”, which is why Transcendental Meditation is sometimes controversial. If the method is applied correctly, the practitioner should be able to experience this state of “restful wakefulness” for up to 24 hours a day, even outside of actual meditation.

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