What is Meditation?
“Type A” personality? High blood pressure? Experiencing a lot of stress in your life? It’s likely that your doctor may prescribe the practice of mediation. This is just one example of the many ways meditation has been assimilated into western society.
In the Western world the idea of meditating doesn’t seem strange or foreign because it has been embraced by popular culture since it arrived from the East. At the same time, most Westerners have a limited understanding of what meditation is or the techniques used in the practice of meditation.
There are actually many different ways to practice meditation. But what exactly is meditation? Most forms of meditation share a common goal and that is the goal of releasing both the body and the mind from everyday distractions. At the same time people practicing different forms of mediation often provide different definitions of meditation such as:
- Moving to a relaxed state of mind where one experiences only the present moment
- Losing the perception of the individual mind thereby freeing the mind of all thoughts
- Using concentration to liberate the anxious mind from a restless state to a relaxed, harmonious state
Is Meditation a Religion?
Perhaps the most well known group that embraces the practice of meditation is the Buddhists. Some scholars categorize Buddhism as a religion (a spiritually based way of living) and others classify it as a philosophy (a way of living based on using rational thinking). The reason for the confusion may be because the practice of Buddhism shares characteristics of both religion and philosophy.
However, whether or not the western world views Buddhism as a religion or philosophy is of little concern to Buddhists. And there is no “one” Buddhist religion (or philosophy), instead we find many Buddhist traditions. In general, Buddhism is more concerned with the idea of following “The Middle Way” – both a spiritual practice and philosophy that are grounded in the realities of everyday living.
Buddhist Meditation and Spirituality
Buddhists adhere to the idea that, in order to eliminate suffering in everyday life, one must eliminate attachment and desire. When all attachment and desire have been eliminated, one becomes “Enlightened”. Buddhists do not use meditation to pray to a deity, instead meditation is practiced as a means to detach and achieve Enlightenment. Achieving Enlightenment is the more spiritual goal of Buddhist practices and beliefs.
Buddhists practice meditation to enhance the ability to detach themselves from earthly desires. These desires can be something of an emotional or psychological nature, such the desire to be loved or to be powerful. Or, desires can by physical or material in nature, such as desiring to be physically attractive or the desire to obtain material possessions.
It follows that, by releasing oneself from the stressors of attachment to desires and things, one can live in the world more harmoniously and therefore will experience less distress (pain).
Since the tradition arrived in western societies, meditation has been applied both spiritually and secularly. Many Western religions and spiritual movements, such as Theosophy and the New Age movement, have incorporated meditation into their spiritual practice. Even many Christians use meditation techniques to enhance traditional prayer. Employing meditation for secular purposes (such as improving concentration or as a medical treatment), may seem to be limited to the west. However, Eastern meditation has always been used to enhance secular endeavors – for instance in the martial arts.
Meditation is central to all Buddhist traditions as the link between “spiritual growth” (moving towards a state of Enlightenment) and living a right life in the “real” world. While Western application of meditation may sometimes appear to be quite different, the practice of meditation in the West retains this same marriage between the inner life of the mind (or spirit) and life in the everyday (or physical) world.