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Deep Dive into Meditation
Meditation practice has been around for thousands of years, and in recent decades has become an increasingly popular research topic among western scientists. Because meditation affects some of the most fundamental aspects of our human body-mind (e.g., the brain and nervous system, the attention-span, and our subjective sense of wellbeing), its applications and benefits are innumerable.
But what exactly is meditation?
When you hear the word “meditation,” what images does this evoke?
Perhaps what comes to mind is the image of a Buddha sitting cross-legged in a classic lotus pose, with eyes closed and an aura of immeasurable peace and joy.
Or, perhaps you’d think of meditation more in terms of specific activities or intended outcomes. For instance:
Turning the attention inward or withdrawing physically from society and external activities (e.g., a hermit meditating in a mountain cave or a monk/nun cloistered in a monastery); focusing intently upon something with high-level concentration or problem-solving ability (e.g., a philosopher or scientist deeply absorbed in their research).
Or maybe contemplating the meaning of life by asking questions such as Who am I, really? or What’s my essential nature? or What’s my purpose in life?
Or doing something with almost otherworldly proficiency (e.g., an athlete or musician being “in the zone”) or the cultivation of other seemingly miraculous physical or mental abilities.
As we’ll see, there’s a kernel of truth to all of these, although none capture it completely.
While there are, literally, hundreds of different meditation techniques and traditions, a general definition of meditation practices might be “tools for knowing, shaping, and liberating the mind.”
Before offering an overview of these tools, it will be good to clarify a few things.
As you begin to explore meditation, it’s important to understand a few basic ideas.
(1) Although meditation practice is an integral part of many spiritual traditions—Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and contemplative aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—it doesn’t require participation in these traditions. Meditation has many secular applications, and its benefits are available to anyone who chooses to practice it.
(2) Meditation is essentially experiential. To really know what it is, you need to actually do it: You have to embark upon the journey yourself. To inspire such an exploration, we’re offering this overview of various paths, but only you can walk the path.
(3) Meditation is not about aggressively excluding any aspect of human experience. While sense perceptions, physical sensations, thoughts, and internal images can all be skillfully transformed by meditation practice, it’s never wise to attempt forcefully to hold onto or eliminate them.
Now that we’ve clarified these things, here’s a brief foray into nerdiness—to learn how the word “meditation” is related to words from other cultures.
The English word “meditation” is deeply associated with two words originating in India: dhyāna (Sanskrit) and jhāna (Pāḷi). These words are typically translated into English as contemplation, reflection, or meditation.
* When a monk named Bodhidharma brought his meditation practice from India to China, the Sanskrit word dhyāna became the Chinese word ch’an.
* In Vietnam, this same word became thien.
* In Korea, it became son.
* And when the practice spread to Japan, it became zen.
The Japanese version—zen—is the one that was first introduced into Western cultures. It is the most well-known meditation practice to English-speaking people and is often used interchangeably with the English word “meditation.”
Before introducing some different styles of meditation, let’s have a look at what Western science has discovered about its effects and what kinds of physical, mental, and emotional transformations are associated with a meditation practice?
Many of the physiological transformations associated with meditation depend upon neuroplasticity—the capacity of the human brain’s neural networks to grow and reorganize throughout our lifetimes. These changes in the structure and function of the brain can now be detected and recorded via neuroimaging (aka brain scanning) technology. The most common forms of brain scans are electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). With the use of these technologies, scientists have been able to establish correlations between the practice of specific meditation techniques and transformations in the structure, function, and pharmacology of the brain—which is quite interesting!
Tibetan Lama Mingyur Rinpoche is one of the advanced meditation practitioners who regularly collaborates with neuroscientists—perhaps you’ve seen photos of his shaved head covered front-to-back with fMRI electrodes.
Now, it’s worth noting that the relationship between a first-person subjective experience (as reported by meditators) and brain activity observed by neuroscientists can be pretty tricky to pin down exactly. Specifically, establishing correlations between subjective experience and neurological activity doesn’t necessarily imply a causal relationship.
For more on this issue, see: B. Alan Wallace, “A Science of Consciousness: Buddhism (1), the Modern West (0),” The Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies Third Series, No. 4, Fall 2002, pp. 15-32.
In any case, the association between meditation practice and beneficial physical and mental transformations is deeply inspiring.
Increasing numbers of scientists, educators, health practitioners, and laypeople are discovering the practical benefits of meditation in contemporary cultures. Scientific experiments have shown, for instance, that experienced meditators tend to have more activity in the left frontal lobe—the part of the brain associated with positive emotions such as happiness, joy, and contentment. Additionally, they may experience: enhanced psychological stability; improved mental clarity; reduction of physical pain and other symptoms of illness; beneficial effects on immunity, brain function, and hormonal functioning; relief from smoking and other addictions; and a greater appreciation of the fullness of the life experience—are some of the other benefits of a meditation practice that have been validated by scientific studies (you can find a list of studies in the reference section).
The bottom line is that meditation practice can improve physical and psychological health and wellbeing—as well as the health of our larger communities. And the correlation between mind training and transformations in the human brain and the entire nervous system has been strongly supported by scientific studies (citation: Goleman and Davidson, Altered Traits.)
In their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson report the results of their review of the scientific research related to the effects of a meditation practice. Not surprisingly, the tangible benefits of a meditation practice are found to be associated with the level of practice. In other words, the longer and more skillfully we practice, the greater the benefits.
Here’s what Goleman and Davidson learned about meditation practice at beginner, long-term, and Olympic levels (excerpted from Altered Traits):
* Beginner’s brains show less amygdala (the danger detector in our brain) reactivity to stress.
* Improvements in attention after just two weeks of practice include better focus, less mind-wandering, and improved working memory—with a concrete payoff in boosted scores on a graduate school entrance exam.
* Some of the earliest benefits are with compassion meditation, including increased connectivity in the circuitry for empathy.
* Markers for inflammation lessen a bit with just thirty hours of practice.
* Brain and hormonal indicators of lower reactivity to stress and lessened inflammation.
* A strengthening of the prefrontal circuits for managing distress.
* Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, signaling less reactivity to stresses in general.
* Compassion meditation at this level brings a greater neural attunement with those who are suffering and an enhanced likelihood of doing something to help.
* A range of benefits related to attention: stronger selective attention, decreased attentional blink, greater ease in sustaining attention, a heightened readiness to respond to whatever may come, and less mind-wandering.
* Fewer self-obsessed thoughts and a weakening of the circuitry for attachment.
* Other biological and brain changes include a slower breath rate, indicating a slowing of the metabolic rate.
* A daylong retreat enhances the immune system, and signs of meditative states continue during sleep.
* Large gamma waves in synchrony among far-flung brain regions (a brain pattern not seen before in anyone) and that also occurs at rest among those yogis who have done the most hours of practice. While gamma waves are strongest during the practices of open presence and compassion, they continue while the mind is at rest, though to a lesser degree.
* Yogis’ brains seem to age more slowly compared to brains of other people their same age.
* The ability to stop and start meditative states in seconds.
* Effortlessness in meditation (among the most seasoned practitioners)—for example, athletes being “in the zone” where movements seem effortless.
* Different pain reaction: little sign of anticipatory anxiety, a short but intense reaction during the pain itself, and then a rapid recovery.
* During compassion meditation, yogis’ brains and hearts couple in ways also not seen in other people.
* Most significant, the yogis’ brain states at rest continue to resemble the brain states during meditation; that is, the state has become a trait (i.e., the natural default setting).
So, the science seems clear about the benefits of meditation on individuals. And as healthy individuals interact with their friends, families, and communities, these benefits naturally share themselves, to some extent at least. So, over time, healthier individuals contribute to healthier families and communities.
But there can be even more direct social benefits. Most notably, Transcendental Meditation (TM) in large groups has been shown to reduce the crime rate in surrounding communities. (Click here for a summary of this fascinating research.)
Scroll to bottom of page for book recommendations and more sources of information if you’d like to learn more about the science of meditation.
Now, let’s return to our basic definition of meditation—tools for knowing, shaping, and liberating the mind—and flesh it out a bit more. As you’ll see, meditation can take lots of different forms.
In exploring ways of defining meditation, the most basic distinction is this:
Meditation as who we are essentially, effortlessly, naturally.
Meditation as a practice, technique, exercise, or exploration—something we do to accomplish specific goals.
Let’s explore each of these, in turn.
On a so-called direct path, meditation is who we are essentially, effortlessly, naturally.
There’s nothing to be done, nothing to be accomplished. We simply need to recognize the truth of who we always and already are. A teacher might point us in the right direction, assist us in unveiling this truth—but it’s for us to realize and then simply enjoy. Through self-inquiry—directly inquiring into the nature of self and reality—we discover ourselves as natural meditation.
A traditional image used to describe meditation as our natural state is a chest of gold that’s buried in our backyard. We’re already rich—the only question is whether we know it or not. The gold is unconditioned peace and joy, causeless happiness, and our inherent and original perfection.
The intention of a Direct Path—also known as the Nondual Approach or Open Awareness—is to unveil the gold: the profound comfort and ease, causeless joy, and eternal freedom of our true nature.
When we discover the gold—when we see the truth of who we are essentially—then psychological suffering dissolves, and the inherent qualities of our true nature shine forth. There may then be a period of integration in which the body and mind become more fully transparent to the truth that has been apprehended.
The Direct Path is both the most simple and the most advanced. It’s simple because it’s direct and points to something that’s already here. It, therefore, requires no effort to achieve or attain anything.
It’s advanced because, for those of us with very complicated minds, simple things can be really difficult to comprehend!
Traditions associated with a Direct-Path approach include Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Zen/Ch’an, and Advaita Vedanta. Contemporary teachers of the Direct Path include Francis Lucille, Peter Fenner, Adyashanti, Swami Sarvapriyananda, Eckhart Tolle, Gangaji, Mooji, Loch Kelly, Rupert Spira, Jeff Foster, and Greg Goode.
The second general meaning of meditation is an activity, exercise, or technique we employ to accomplish specific goals. It’s a cultivation of the mind (and perhaps the body also) which, over time, creates specific mental, emotional, and/or physical benefits and enhances insight into the nature of mind and reality.
In this way of understanding, meditation includes tools for knowing, shaping, and liberating the mind—which was our original brief definition. So, in the same way that cardio or weight training helps us cultivate a healthy, strong, and flexible body, meditation practice supports us in cultivating a healthy, strong, and flexible mind.
Such techniques can help dissolve unquestioned beliefs and habitual ways of looking at things in order to experience things differently, with fresh eyes, so to speak. It can also facilitate access to a subtle level of awareness from which we can perceive reality directly and with great clarity.
As opposed to the Direct Path approach described above, these meditation techniques belong to the so-called Progressive Path of gradual refinement.
A classic metaphor used to describe progressive approaches to meditation is a precious diamond encrusted in layers of rock. For the true qualities of the diamond to become apparent, we need to chip away the stone and polish the diamond.
The diamond is our true nature, our inherent perfection—currently obscured by old mental and emotional habits. Various meditation techniques can help us challenge and dissolve these old habits, revealing the diamond’s natural beauty, so our appreciation can be more direct and intimate.
There are hundreds of intentional meditation techniques. Now, let’s explore some of these different forms of meditation practice.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Thus wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal—an astute observer of the human condition! Our contemporary cultures are so often fraught with hyperactive movement and shrinking attention spans, undermining our ability to simply “sit quietly in a room alone.”
The most quintessential form of meditation is “just sitting”—also known as zazen or shikantaza. This form of practice has much in common with the Direct Path.
Zazen begins with the physical gesture of simply sitting the body down. We just sit, keeping the body in more-or-less the same position. In this way, we give the body a rest. And with the decrease in physical movement, we naturally become aware of more subtle phenomena: the movement of the breath, emotional energies, thoughts, and internal images.
In this form of meditation practice, there’s no interference with any of this, no attempt to change or transform thoughts, sensations, emotions. We just sit quietly.
While there’s a classic meditation posture that is considered ideal for zazen, any stable position is acceptable. You can sit in a chair, or on a meditation cushion, or directly on the floor. And if sitting upright is not an option, then lying down is fine too.
Zazen is the core practice of Zen Buddhism. Shunryu Suzuki—one of the first teachers to introduce zazen to Americans, and the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—writes:
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
By activating our beginner’s mind, zazen practice can unveil a childlike innocence, wonder, awe, freshness, and spontaneity. And it begins and ends with the simple willingness to sit quietly in a room alone. Although zazen is associated primarily with Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual traditions, similar practices are found in the contemplative aspects of all three Abrahamic religions.
Another type of meditation that you’ve likely heard about is mindfulness, which is central to traditions such as:
* Buddhist Insight Meditation (vipassana)
* Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
* Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MSCT)
* Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC)
* Unified Mindfulness
While some people may use the word “mindfulness” interchangeably with “meditation,” here we’ll consider mindfulness practice as one specific form of meditation.
As its name implies, mindfulness simply means to keep something in mind or to remember something. Thus, when we are mindfully aware of something, we keep it in mind, moment by moment.
To be mindful of your breath, for instance, is to keep the breath in mind: to remember to pay attention to your breathing—that is, how it sounds and how it feels in the body—in a gently focused way, again and again. You allow your attention to be completely (or at least primarily) absorbed by the breath.
Other common objects of mindfulness include sense perceptions, physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, and internal images. This ability to attend to things we deem relevant—and to remain gently focused on them—requires us to be alert, watchful, and committed to doing our best.
The opposite of mindfulness is distraction: having your attention pulled away from what you’ve decided to attend to. Since high levels of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are a feature of many contemporary cultures, mindfulness can be a beneficial skill to cultivate!
Mindfulness practice enhances concentration, clarity, and equanimity. To be mindful of a thought, feeling, sensation, or perception is to shine the light of awareness upon it in order to see the phenomena clearly and understand it deeply.
As you become more and more familiar with mindfulness practice—and as you systematically train your attention skills—your capacity to maintain attentive continuity with any chosen object will increase. Little by little, the moments of mindfulness will become more and more of an uninterrupted stream of mindfulness. This streaming, flowing mindfulness is profoundly healing—and deeply enjoyable.
Some contemporary teachers of mindfulness include John Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Shinzen Young, Tara Brach, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, Bhante Gunaratana, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ajahn Jayasaro, and Ajahn Brahm.
Closely related to mindfulness practices are those specifically intended to enhance our concentration—our capacity to sustain mental focus. We might, for instance, gaze at a candle flame, a beautiful flower, or the image of a deity—bringing our attention back to this object whenever it wanders.
In this style of meditation, we use an object (a candle flame, a flower, etc.) as support for the practice. In other mindfulness practices—as described above—the object of support may be more subtle: the breath, for instance, or physical sensations or thoughts.
Whether the object of support is gross or subtle, these kinds of meditation practices are known as “meditation with object.” And they are dualistic: there’s a “you” who’s doing the observing and an external object that’s being observed.
In contrast, meditation without an object of support is nondual: Awareness shines its light on itself, and the seer and the seen are realized to be one and the same. We can access this by asking: who or what is it that is being aware of the candle flame or flower?
Shining the light of mindfulness on the breath is the first stage of many Eastern meditative traditions. And because the physiological breathing process is deeply intertwined with the nervous system and other autonomic body functions (e.g., the immune and endocrine systems), such practices can be deeply healing for the body and the mind. In addition, the physical breath can also support access to the subtle energy known as qi (also spelled: chi) in the Chinese martial and healing arts, or prana or kundalini in the Indian yoga traditions. In these traditions, meditation practices such as pranayama are used to activate and balance the flow of subtle energy through various subtle-body channels (e.g., nadis, meridians, chakras).
Creative visualization is central to certain meditation techniques. Such techniques often include generating positive emotional states along with the chosen internal imagery. Visualization can also be used to help activate the experience of subtle energy in the chakras or meridian system.
You may already be familiar with athletes, musicians, or businesspeople using visualization to enhance their performance.
Visualization practices (accompanied by drumming) are also central to shamanic journeying. For more information on shamanism, you can explore the work of Sandra Ingerman, Myron Eshowsky, and Malidoma Some.
Tibetan Buddhist Chod practice is another form of meditation in which visualization plays a central role. See, for instance, Tsultrim Allioni’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict.
In other forms of meditation, mantra is central. A mantra is a syllable, word, or sequence of syllables/words repeated aloud or silently. A mantra can be a seed syllable associated with one of the chakras. It can be a name of a deity or a mantra associated with a deity.
* The Sanskrit syllable Aum (aka Om), for instance, is a simple mantra that is perhaps the most well-known in Western cultures.
* Practitioners within the Transcendental Meditation (TM) tradition receive a longer mantra from their teacher, whose repetition then forms the basis of their practice.
A mantra operates at three levels: sound, vibration, and meaning. The sound is heard by the ears (or the mind, if chanted silently). The vibration is felt in the body—and associated with the breath, so it can directly affect the nervous system and subtle energy. And the meaning of the syllable/words is processed by the mind—hopefully with a positive, uplifting effect.
And then, importantly, the sound of the mantra is followed back into silence—its source. In this way, a mantra practice can support being mindfully aware of the appearance and disappearance of the sound, vibration, and meaning.
A mantra can also serve as a kind of protection for the mind. In the same way that a fenced pasture keeps horses from wandering too widely, a mantra can help keep the mind from wandering into distracted, unproductive, or toxic activity.
We tend to think of meditation as something that’s done with the body in a relatively stationary position. And in many cases, this is true. However, there are forms of meditation that involve physical movement.
Physical movements—particularly if we’re being mindful of the breath—affect the subtle energy of the body. And subtle energy and mind affect one another in the way that a horse and a rider affect one another.
So, transforming the subtle body through physical practices tends to transform mental-emotional patterns, opening the way to deeper insights. When this happens, these activities become forms of meditation.
Forms of moving meditation include:
* Traditional Eastern body-mind practices such as tai-chi, qigong, or yoga asana, when practiced mindfully.
* Walking meditation. For more information, see Thich Nhat Hanh, The Long Road Turns to Joy.
* The Feldenkrais Method.
* Somatic therapy (e.g., Hakomi Method) or Somatic Experiencing.
Finding a balance between moving and seated forms of meditation can be a skillful strategy, especially for beginners.
Some forms of meditation allow us to find something that is beyond the body and the mind and direct our attention away from the body. For example, in somatic meditation, we specifically bring our attention out of the mental space and into the direct somatic felt sense perception of the body. This can be done in both stillness and movement.
In somatic meditation, the goal is embodiment, allowing your awareness and attention to occupy the felt perception of being in this body from the inside. This allows us to have a greater sense of awareness of how our body is feeling, where there may be something out of balance, and where things are in flow. It also allows us to have greater sensitivity to our emotions and subtle energetic sensations.
There is so much information that exists in our felt sensory perceptions before we have concepts and ideas about it. Somatic meditation is like learning the language of the body and sensations rather than thoughts and ideas.
Commons forms of somatic meditation are:
*Certain kinds of breath meditation
*Meditating on the three Dan-tiens
*Mindfulness of the body
As we’ve seen, there are many different meditation techniques, which are encompassed within two basic approaches: (1) Direct Path inquiry into who we are essentially, naturally, effortlessly; and (2) Intentional approaches to explore and transform the body-mind.
And now you may be wondering: Among all these options, how do I choose? On this point, it’s worth quoting mythologist Joseph Campbell when he famously advises: “Follow your bliss!” Notice what piques your interest, where your enthusiasm naturally leads you—and go with that.
All the Direct Path, mindfulness, and other teachers listed above have websites, books, Facebook pages, and/or YouTube channels, from which you can learn more about their classes, retreats, and other programs. So, have fun exploring—and once you’ve found a teacher or approach that resonates, stick with it for a while, notice the transformations it initiates, and feel grateful for this opportunity to learn and grow. Bon Voyage!
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, by Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body, by Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works, by Shinzen Young
Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, by James Kingsland
Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, by B. Alan Wallace
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: https://nccih.nih.gov
Mind & Life Institute: https://www.mindandlife.org
Center for Healthy Minds (UW-Madison): https://centerhealthyminds.org
American Mindfulness Research Association: https://goamra.org/
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (Stanford University): https://ccare.stanford.edu
Institute of Noetic Sciences: https://noetic.org/science/fomr-paper/
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: https://mbct.com
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