The Origins of Meditation
The origins of the word ‘meditation’ come from the Latin word ‘meditari‘ meaning to ponder. Meditation is also commonly associated with contemplation. Meditation is generally performed on an object of attention, which we will discuss in more depth later.
If you notice carefully, the word ‘meditation’ shares a common root with another well known word ‘medicine’. ‘Medi’. As we generally associate ‘medicine’ with healing the ‘body’ from illness or injury, so to with ‘meditation’. Meditation could be descibed as healing the mind.
Jon Kabat Zinn recently remarked that through stillness the opportunity to ‘heal’ begins – The body and mind gets a chance to rest, and tensions and stress dissolve.
What then are the tools of meditation that allow such transformation to begin?
The Tools of Meditation
First, meditation generally involves placing the mind on an object of attention. It could be the breath, it might be on a mantra, as in the Vedic tradition, or it might even involve meditating on an idea or question. Anything can serve as the object of attention.
I remember fondly spending one weekend on a Buddhist retreat in 2009 meditating on the concept of ‘love’. Whatever object that is, it serves as the ‘anchor’ for the meditation.
Types of Meditation
Attempts have been made to try and categorise meditation into different types – largely distinguished by different actions of the mind. Single pointed, analytical, observation etc…
From this, comes different styles of meditation such as transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, yogic meditation etc..The list goes on.
Meditation in Yogic & Buddhist Traditions
Meditation is at the core of the Buddhist and yoga traditions.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is described as:
‘Yogas chitta vritti nirodah’ (Sutra 1.2), which essentially means:
Yoga is the process of quietening the mind.
As part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one such limb is dharana. When practising dharana, attention remains focused on a particular object over a period of time. In other words, it involves some form of concentration. Over time there is a spontaneous change in the the quality of one’s consciousness. This quality is known as dhyana or meditation.
In such states, external stimuli no longer affect the mind and a feeling of calmness and serenity arises. There is a continuous, uninterrupted stream of consciousness. It may feel like being fully engrossed in a movie, as if you were a part of it.
Similarly in the tradition of mindfulness meditation as presented in the Buddhist tradition, the basis is samadhi, or shamatha, which is generally associated with concentration. Once the mind is calm, then insight into the nature of all things arise (vipassana).
The Objects of Meditation
What type of objects do we generally see in the most well-known types of meditation? In mindfulness meditation, there is the conscious act of placing the mind most commonly on the breath – at the nostrils, the belly or anywhere else for that matter. Similarly, any object may serve its purpose when practising dharana & dhyana in the yogic traditions.
The Vedic method often described as ‘transcendental meditation’, involves placing the mind on a divine mantra and repeating it constantly until a feeling of transcendence emerges. Other forms may involve paying attention to particular thoughts, or sounds as they arise in a non-judging way.
Even the mind itself may become the object – watching, observing, noticing, the ‘mind’. Who then is doing the ‘witnessing’ you may ask? A good question.
To this extent, if one is to concentrate on whatever is the object of the meditation, one must place the mind. In all instances, there is a direct action taken in order to do ‘something’ just like instruction is given to a dog to sit still. As we know however, a dog will rarely remain still forever, especially an active one or when food is involved. So too in meditation.
Herein then lies the paradox of meditation – whilst the aim is for the body and mind to reach stillness (even momentarily), there is still some conscious effort involved. Effort involved in maintaining a state of contemplation or concentration, on whatever is the object of attention.
At the core of meditation is some form of attention training. The purpose of the meditation may differ from tradition, yet what is common to such practices is the idea of the mind resting on a chosen object of attention. From there, different experiences may arise. Whatever meditation you choose, find a style that works for you.