Today, meditation is not looked upon as something mystical or as a practice which is meant only for the hermit or monks. Backed by scientific evidence, it is now been recommended by therapists and doctors as the best prescription to combat stress, anxiety, better sleep, better mood or simply put, an effective tool to live a happier and healthier life.
Cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, well known for three decades of research into the health effects of meditation and the founder of the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says that any condition that’s caused or worsened by stress can be alleviated through meditation.
Reduced stress levels, anxiety control, better emotional health, cultivation of happiness, kindness and compassion, improvement in the quality of relationships, increase in attention span, self awareness, better control on age-related problems such as memory loss, better sleep, help in overcoming addictions, etc.are few of the most common and proven reasons why meditation is gaining popularity and is as relevant in today’s fast-paced digital world as it was in ancient times.
Roots of meditation
Essentially, meditation is an integral part of Yoga and the practice of asanas and pranayama helps train the practitioner’s mind and body for meditation. As per Yoga philosophy, when the body has been steady and still for some time, will meditation be experienced? Thus the roots of meditation can also be traced back to Yoga.
Most of the ancient Indian texts such as the Vedas and Upanishads (1500 -500 BCE), and wall arts in temples and palaces, etc., mention about and depict Yogis or Devas and Devis seated in meditative postures and immersed in Self. As mentioned in Patanjali Yoga Sutra, the process of attaining Samadhi is considered the highest goal, starting from Yama, Niyama, to practicing Asana and Pranayama to moving into a state of Pratyahara, starting the Yoga journey inward from Dharana (concentration), which when prolonged leads to Dhyana (meditation) and then Samadhi – a state where the conscious is full of intuitive knowledge.
Many Upanishads discuss Yoga philosophy and techniques which have been taught by various great Yogis like Dakshinamurty, Hiranyagarbha, Kapila Muni, Vashistha, Bhagwaan Dattatreya, Maharishi Bharadwaaja, Dewal, Ashit, Jaivishati, and many others before Sage Patanjali.
“Sitting and concentrating the mind On a single object, On a single object, Controlling the thoughts And the activities of the senses, Let the yogi practice meditation for self-purification.” Bhagavad Gita (Chp 6)
Understanding the history of meditation rather than having the know-how of only one style or practice, will help you relate to the practice at a deeper level and choose a style that suits you best. Passed down from Sages to Guru’s and Yogis, and still thriving, mediation has hundreds of lineages and thousands of techniques. It is the core of Yoga practice, a way of life, which helps the practitioner evolve at all levels, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Techniques such as Vipassana, Samatha and Loving-Kindness are perhaps the most widely practiced forms of meditation today. These techniques are almost 2600 years old. After Prince Siddhartha renounced material pleasures, he first went to study under Arada Kalama who taught him meditation, especially a dhyānic state called the “sphere of nothingness” and later found Uddaka Ramaputta Rudraka (Uddaka) Ramaputta who taught him refined states of meditation known as the immaterial attainments..
Both Yogis taught him meditation techniques. But Siddhartha Gautama wanted more knowledge and decided to remain in meditation until he knew mind’s true nature and could benefit all beings. After spending six days and nights cutting through mind’s most subtle obstacles, he reached enlightenment and became Buddha and spent the rest of his life teaching meditation and its benefits to thousands of people. Below we have covered a few of the techniques that find their roots in Buddha’s teachings.
References in Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism and Zen Meditation
In the same ‘golden century’ as Buddha, three other great thinkers were born and spread the spiritual knowledge to their followers. Thus Jainism in India founded by Mahavira), Taoism in China (founded by Lao Tze) and Confucianism in China (founded by Confucius) came into existence.
In Jainism, there are many ways to meditate. Meditation is of four kinds: Sorrowful (aarta) meditation, Inclement (raudra) meditation, Righteous (dharma) meditation and Spiritual (shukla) meditation. Of these, the first two are inauspicious because they cause the influx of undesirable karma. The last two are auspicious because they help destroy karma and include techniques like mantra chanting, visualization, concentration, self-absorption, etc..
Taoism meditation also spelled as Daoist refers to the traditional meditative practices associated with the Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism which means living in harmony with the unplanned rhythm of the universe, ‘the way’ or Tao. This includes concentration, mindfulness, contemplation, and visualization (Ding, Guan, and Cun). Techniques of Daoist meditation are historically interrelated with Buddhist meditation. Some important practices are Zuowang, Shouyi, Neiguan, Yuanyou, and Zuobo.
Confucianism meditation originated in China and is based on the teachings of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), a Chinese philosopher and contemporary of Buddha. The concept of meditation was not a major aspect of Confucian life until the Neo-Confucian era. At this time Buddhism and Daoism had begun to expand into China. But unlike these two techniques, Confucianism meditation does not require stopping of rational thought, instead directs one’s attention to the current situation.
“Whenever you have to attend to your daily affairs, or undertake any matter, always spend some time in meditation and everything will be alright” Zhu Xi
Zen tradition was founded by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who in the 8th century traveled to China to teach meditation. His teachings developed into the lineage of Chan in China, Korean (Seon), Japan (Zen), and Vietnam (Thien). All of these are known collectively as “Zen”. All schools of Zen practice the sitting meditation called Zazen where one sits upright and follows the breath.
The Ancient Greek Philosophers and Christian meditation
Meditation was a common practice in ancient Greece. Alexander the Great’s military exploits of India (327–325 BCE), helped bring the Eastern and Western cultures together.
George Feuerstein, in his excellent book The Psychology of Yoga mentioned:
“For the Greeks, the Indian sages exemplified the highest virtues of the philosophical life that they themselves sought.”
The Greek word for meditation was “melete”; she was the muse of thought and meditation and her sisters were Aoide, was for song or voice, and Mneme was the muse of memory. Melete (contemplation) was one of the three original (Boeotian) muses before the Nine Olympian Muses was founded. Techniques like navel-gazing (omphaloskepsis) and other concentration techniques developed by Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus were practiced to aid contemplation.
With Christianity’s popularity in Europe, between the 10th and 14th centuries, hesychasm was developed, particularly on Mount Athos in Greece, and involves the repetition of the Jesus prayer. Bible reading among Benedictine monks called Lectio Divina, i.e. divine reading progressed in the 6th century.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, hāgâ became the Greek melete. The Latin Bible then translated melete into meditation. The use of the term meditation as part of a four stepwise process of meditation goes back to the 12th-century monk Guigo II; other steps being, lectio (read), oratio (pray) and contemplatio (contemplate). Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila further spread the practice of Western Christian meditation in the 16th century.
Sufism and Jewish meditation
Arabic word Murāqabah (to observe) refers to meditation in Sufi terminology. Through murāqbah a person watches over their (spiritual) heart and gains insight into the heart’s relation with its creator (named Allah in this tradition) and its own surroundings. The roots of Sufism date back to over 1400 years ago and there are different orders of Sufis, each emphasizing different spiritual practices, many of which are influenced by the tradition of Yoga.
Contemplation of God, mantra chanting, Sirr or Wakoof (awareness of the heart), jikr (remembrance of God), deep conscious breathing, bond of love (between disciple and master), gazing, walking and whirling (Mevlevi or Whirling Dervishes) are a few of the different techniques practiced in this tradition.
There are indications throughout the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) that Judaism always contained a central meditative tradition. The accurate traditional Hebrew term for meditation is Hitbodedut/Hisbodedus (literally self “seclusion”), while the more limited term Hitbonenut/Hisbonenus (“contemplation”) describes the conceptually directed intellectual method of meditation. There are several practices ranging from visualization, prayers, esoteric combinations of Divine names, to intellectual analysis of philosophical, ethical or mystical concepts.
Popular meditation techniques
History is proof that no one has attained spiritual perfection without mastering breath control, self-inquiry, and meditation. The attraction of meditative practices today rests primarily on the extent to which all these traditions can be seen as transcending any religious definition and leading the practitioner towards the ultimate goal of union with the higher consciousness (God) or self-realization.
All techniques can be looked upon as different paths to the same greater goal. They teach you to take the journey inward and ‘be present.’ However, not everyone is interested in delving deeper into the mysteries of life and just want to be able to cope with life’s challenges while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Thus the practice of Yoga asana and meditation are now been practiced by people from all walks of life and age groups because it helps you reflect upon your who you are and what you want to be. It is a tool to help you exit the so-called ‘rat race’ and become aware of who you truly are, with all your strengths and weaknesses.
“When you become the master of your mind, you become the master of everything” by Swami Satchidananda
Today, people are taking up the practice of meditation to improve the quality of their life. Few of the most common qualities of a regular meditator are alertness, compassion for oneself and others, self-control, credibility, patience, self-acceptance, intuitive mind, adaptability, perseverance, better health, glowing skin, strong immune system, etc. The following are a few of the popular meditation techniques that are taught across the globe by teachers or respective organizations and institutes.
Loving-Kindness / Metta Meditation
Metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, is a method of developing compassion and unconditional love for oneself and then extend the wish for the well-being of others and happiness to all beings. It comes from the Buddhist tradition, but it can be adapted and practiced by anyone, regardless of religious affiliation; loving-kindness meditation is essentially about cultivating love.
The method involves sitting comfortably and drawing attention to your heart center and becomes aware of breath moving through your chest area. You have to repeat affirmations like ‘May I be happy, may I be well and free from all sufferings.’ After directing loving-kindness to yourself you have to extend this to someone next to you or a friend you care for. And gradually you extend this to everyone in the room / your family/circle, even to those whom you have difficulty with, then neighbors, city, nation, animals, creatures big and small and the universe.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago (since the time of Buddha) as a universal remedy for universal ills – as an art of living. It is a non-sectarian technique that can be practiced by anyone; however, to learn this technique you have to enroll for a ten-day residential course. The course is free of cost and is taught across the globe.
During the course, participants have to follow a prescribed code of discipline (like Yama and Niyama) and learn and practice the method as instructed. According to dharma.org the time is sufficient to experience the results which further motivates the practitioner to continue the practice on a daily basis. The technique is observation-based and is a self-exploratory journey that focuses on the deep interconnection between the body and mind which is realized through observing physical sensations through the body. This helps dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
3. Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental Meditation is a simple, natural, effortless technique practiced for 20 minutes twice a day while sitting comfortably. It is not a religion or philosophy. The TM technique allows your mind to easily settle inward until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness.
Unlike other meditation techniques, it involves no concentrating or focusing, no trying to “empty the mind”. The TM technique involves the use of a sound called a mantra (which may have no meaning) and is practiced for 15–20 minutes twice per day. You can learn the technique from any qualified teacher on tm.org . They have centers across the globe.
4. Mantra Meditation
Like TM , Mantra meditation is about repeating a word or phrase. However, these mantras or phrases are sacred in nature and are meant to help you evolve spiritually. You will find a reference of mantra chanting or japa (in Sanskrit) in almost all ancient traditions mentioned above, such as Vedic chants, Buddhist chants, Christian, Jewish and Sufi traditions. Thus you can choose a spiritual mantra that resonates with your belief system.
The science behind repeating the mantra is that the sound or meaning becomes well rooted in the mind and flows continuously from moment to moment, at times linked to your breath and at times completely disengaged with your breath. And with continued practice, the repetition slowly becomes completely effortless. It can be used for spiritual growth or for deep relaxation.
5. Chakra Meditation
The Sanskrit word ‘chakra’ literally means ‘wheel’ or ‘circle’. In yogic philosophy, they are represented as energy vortex or seats of pranic energy that are found lying dormant in specific areas in our subtle body. There are seven main chakras which vibrate at different frequencies and are associated with specific colors, elements, symbols, and mantra.
Chakra meditation helps stimulate the flow of energy through these channels and helps activate the chakras which have an influence on specific functions of your physical body, your emotional health and most importantly your subtle body and spiritual experience. When active, chakras become the gateway to experiencing higher planes of consciousness. All sorts of practices fall under the umbrella of chakra meditation technique (mantra, symbols, colors, etc.,) that help in healing or spiritual experience. It is best to be guided by an experienced teacher who can suggest a technique that best suits your personality.
6. Kundalini Meditation
Kundalini is a bundle of energy that lives at the base of the spine and is often represented by a coiled serpent. The purpose of Kundalini meditation is to awaken the serpent and encourage it up through the Nadirs (energy channels of the body) and into the seven chakras. It is an advanced practice and may take years to master. However, in the process, the practitioner continues to experience physical and mental benefits.
The two basic components of most Kundalini Yoga meditations are sound and breath. Sat Nam meaning truth is my identity is one of the most popular phrases or mantra; however, words with similar rhythms or sounds in any language can be used. Inhalations and exhalations are also practiced using specific patterns or through the use of mantra.
7. Mindfulness and Breath Awareness
Almost all techniques can be categorized as mindfulness. This is a simple tool that can be done anywhere and at anytime. It helps to bring your attention to the ‘now’. It is a mental training practice that involves focusing your mind on your experiences (like your own emotions, thoughts, and sensations) in the present moment. When you draw your attention to the physical sensation of breathing, the mind is likely to wander after a few breaths and it will do so constantly. Your task is to gently bring your attention back to the ‘now.’
8. Zen Meditation
The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen is at the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. Zen meditation is a very simple yet precise method of meditation, where the correct posture is imperative. While holding any of the meditative postures such as lotus, half lotus or vajrasana, the use of meditation cushion is recommended to elevate the hips and rest the knees on the floor.
Apart from posture, breathing and placing of hands and palms is also important (mudra). In Zazen you should focus on exhalation while inhalation is done naturally. The eyes are usually kept open, thus facing a wall is usually recommended to avoid any distraction. While you meditate you allow the thoughts, images, emotions to surface and let them go without trying to fight them or judge them.
9. Singing Bowl Meditation
According to Tibetan oral tradition, the existence of singing bowls dates back to the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (560 – 480 B.C.). The tradition was brought from India to Tibet, along with the teachings of the Buddha, by the great tantric master Padmasambhava in the 8th century A.D
In the Buddhist tradition, they are played to signal the beginning and end of silent meditation cycle. It has also been used in yoga therapy and sound healing. By concentrating on the pulses of sound as they become quieter and quieter, invoke a deep state of relaxation and helps bring the mind into focus.
Which meditation style is best for you
There are many more meditation techniques and each may have several subcategories. With so many options in hand, one will always be tempted to explore and experiment and this is absolutely fine! You have to find a technique that is best suited to your goals, be it spiritual or physical and mental health goals such as reduced stress levels, better sleep, improve concentration and memory or to bring more joy and love in your life.
At times, you may not be aware of your goal or your goals may change in due course of time. But this is also fine. Once you commit yourself to some ‘me time’ through any meditation technique, you will begin to understand yourself better and your actions and choices will reflect what you really want. Meditation makes you more aware of yourself and your surroundings and helps connect the dots between your inner and outer world.
Though most of the meditation techniques are very simple and can be practiced by anyone, anywhere and at any time, it is a consistency that will determine the effectiveness of your practice. Consistency is the key to your meditation practice. Simply choosing what is popular and trending may not really help. But choosing a technique that resonates with your current goals will keep you motivated to continue your daily practice.
Different meditation techniques have different effects on your body and mind. But there is no doubt that meditation has the power to transform your life for the better. Today, most of the successful people from various walks of life, admit that their daily practice of meditation is the key to their success. After all, who will not benefit from awareness and mindfulness?
But remember that many traditions warn you about setting high expectations. Meditation does not change your life overnight, but it helps cultivate a sense of awareness of yourself and your surroundings and gives you a sense of clarity. If you begin your practice with high expectations, a delay or failure in getting the desired result will only demotivate you from continuing your practice.
“The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts or emotions. The goal is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.” Dr. P. Goldin
Although the brain makes up only about 2% of the body’s mass, it burns about 20% of the body’s metabolic energy, even when we’re doing nothing, weaving together thoughts, emotions, hopes, and dreams into a cohesive self-narrative. Meditation helps disrupt the process and trains us to notice the wandering mind and bring it back to focus on the task at hand. Doing this repeatedly is what makes us the masters of our mind.