What is Meditation?

October 31, 2014

The practice of meditation is found in all religions throughout the world, and has been a subject of scientific investigation for many years. There has been so much written about meditation recently that it can be confusing. Since Alan Watts popularized Buddhism in the Western world during the 1960’s, each year produces more new meditative techniques with interesting names like “Heart Math,” or “Spherical Awareness.” There is disagreement among religious and scientific circles about what elements are necessary to be able to say that a practice is indeed meditation. For simplicity, here are three qualities that are common to all meditative techniques:

  1. A relaxed physical and mental state

  2. An intention to shift to an altered state of awareness—one that is different than the usual, everyday state of mind

  3. An expectation that meditation brings valuable results—mentally, physically, spiritually, or socially.

We can describe different meditation types in this way:

  1. Concentration meditations. We focus our attention on a phrase, repetitive prayer, sound, or object. Focusing on specific breathing patterns is the basis of many meditative techniques, as are visualization practices. These techniques usually have specific goals. By keeping our minds in one-pointed awareness, we reduce the stress of trying to keep up with our thoughts that are jumping around like monkeys. And when our minds relax, our bodies follow their lead.

  2. Open awareness meditations. Instead of focusing on something, we simply notice whatever comes into our awareness. We may follow sensations we feel in our bodies, noticing and feeling them, then letting them go and noticing what comes next. We might also notice what images appear in our minds spontaneously. An advanced form of open awareness meditation is to aim for a spacious awareness that has infrequent thoughts, or no thoughts at all.

  3. Movement meditations. Included here are Yoga, Tai Chi and some martial arts. Others are “free movement,” in which we close our eyes and move slowly and intuitively in response to quiet music. Free movement is not meant to be a choreographed dance, but an expression of our minds and bodies moving spontaneously in the moment.

  4. Spiritual meditations. These are based on communicating with a deity or with universal forces. Their form is open and could take that of any of the above descriptions. We might think of a problem and listen for the solution. Or connect to spiritual energies for renewal and inspiration for others and ourselves.

–pg. 49-51 of Through the Dark Forest by Carolyn Conger. Specific meditation practices follow this section.

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