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Meditation. Part 1: What is Meditation?

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Part 1: What is Meditation

The idea of using exercise and nutrition to assist in the treatment of illnesses and chronic diseases may seem like common sense now, but this was not the case decades ago. The occurrence and treatment of disease was actually viewed as some discrete phenomenon completely out of the hands of individual patients. The relics of this old way of thinking can still be seen in cancer clinics around the world. Despite a huge amount of research showing the benefits of exercise for cancer patients, and despite the adoption of this evidence by leading cancer research organizations, many clinics and insurers have yet to share the benefits with their patients.

Meditation has appeared in the Western world at several times in the past, but mainstream culture has only recently begun accepting the benefits to health and a well-balanced life. Perhaps not so curiously, given statistics like one in three women and one in two men destined for a cancer diagnosis, meditation has gained acceptance primarily as a tool for the prevention and treatment of disease.

Meditation has been a ritual practice in uncounted cultures stretching back to pre-historic times. Specific practices have been isolated for the purpose of sharing techniques across culture boundaries. Similarly the practices have been isolated for study in university and private laboratories. This removal of context is necessary for researchers to eliminate confounding variables, yet it is entirely new to meditation. To gain a deeper understanding of this complex phenomenon, the following questions will prove helpful.

  • Has meditation reached mainstream audiences in North America?
  • Are the modern practices of meditation fundamentally different from those of the originating cultures?
  • Is meditation an entirely new concept for Western culture?
  • How is meditation defined and studied?

Meditation Goes Mainstream

Around the country meditation has been incorporated into birthing classes, addiction treatment programs, gyms, hospitals, and universities. A growing number of doctors, though still a minority, are recommending the practice to patients with heart disease, emotional disorders, migraine headaches, and even diabetes. This acceptance may seem sudden at first glance. The National Institutes of Health only performed their first survey on meditation in 2007. However, mainstream acceptance has only grown in the U.S. since the 1960s. Most Americans had not even heard of the practice until the Beatles returned from their first visit to the ashram of the Mahareshi in India.

An understanding of just how well meditation is now accepted by the mainstream requires a deeper look at the practitioners. Contrary to popular perception, the meditation facilitators and researchers are far from the image of tree-hugging hippies or robe-wearing monks. Most have never puffed on a hookah or even sat in a drum circle.

Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches meditation techniques at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His is no fringe post either. This Professor Emeritus of Medicine founded both the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Health Care and Society. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine at Harvard uses a combination of peripheral physiological measures and neuro-imaging to study effects of meditation. University and corporate publications routinely outline benefits and make suggestions on how meditation can improve the qualities necessary for achievement and leadership.

In other words, meditation is taking a stronger role in Western culture and many of its distinct sub-cultures. In part this is due to the rapid advances in communications and international trade. The Dalai Lama is able to reach many thousands of Americans and others around the world via his Twitter account, and professionals from around the world are regularly coming to North America for vacation, education, or simply to live. Widespread adoption of meditation is also due to a shift in consciousness. Never has it been more imperative for humans to see themselves as interdependent actors in Nature's drama.

However it is used, meditation does not exist without a context. No person ever felled a tree without some purpose in mind, and you would search in vain for a single person laying a paved road. Meditation is at once a goal-oriented act taken on by a person and an act in the context of community. This has always been the case as can be seen by looking to the many origins of Western practice.

The Meditative Context and Variations on the Theme

Every meditative context is at once a singular and a community experience. What does this mean? Once again, exercise can be used to provide a backdoor to understanding the phenomenon. Every individual who runs half a mile is engaged in the same activity. Their perception of the activity may be entirely different. One person may end up doubled over and panting, another may have a heart attack, and yet another will continue for another half mile in utter enjoyment.

Now consider two individuals in optimum shape running the same half mile. One has a slightly longer torso, which creates more wind drag. This person's muscles may seem to work just a little harder to achieve the same goal. The other person has a higher percentage of body fat. This may disadvantage them in a summer run, yet it could confer an obvious advantage in cold weather. Regardless of how similar these two individuals are at the start of the run, their slight differences will be magnified by the end such that one's heart beat will be faster, the other will take longer to recover, and so on.

Meditation is similarly subjective in that one person may end the experience energized with some new insight into a problem while another falls asleep halfway through. One person may simply be more relaxed, and another may have reduced cardiopulmonary function to a nearly imperceptible level. The subjective experience is informed by the community. A group of people running a half-mile might admonish a less physically fit member to slow down and breathe through the nose. A group of meditators may each introduce techniques to new members to help them achieve their goals. They will likewise share their experiences.

The National Institutes of Health uncovered a not-so-strange phenomenon with their 2007 survey. Many people try meditation briefly and quit in discouragement. They apparently learned about health benefits or the increased awareness possible with silencing the mind. After one or two tries, they experience the stress of supposed failure and conclude meditation is unhelpful or too difficult to accomplish without help. A look to the cultural and religious origins of meditation will show this conclusion is somewhat valid. In the long history of meditation, it has rarely been used outside a cultural context.

Buddhist Beginnings

Siddharta Gautama achieved enlightenment with the aid of meditative practice sometime around 500 B.C., after which he was referred to as the Buddha. The teachings and practices ascribed to the Buddha were passed down orally over the next 400 years before being memorialized by Indian poet Asvaghosa. Enlightenment was said to come to Buddha as he meditated on the Bodhi tree for 49 days. The Buddha did not suggest anyone else would have the same experience by meditating under the same or a similar tree for the same length of time.

Instead the Buddha set out to find his two favorite teachers and share his findings with them. Upon learning they were no longer alive, he began traveling and facilitating the enlightenment of others. An early step in this was the creation of the sangha, which is a group of monks. He attracted students from diverse backgrounds and bound them together with a set of ideas and cultural practices, including the Four Noble Truths and the seeking of alms. Meditation was also a binding ritual, and the experiences of each student were presumably shared with each other as well as with their teacher.

Hindu Beginnings?

Buddha poses the earliest written account of meditation, yet his experience was actually only a chapter in humankind's continued exploration of the mind's inner workings. Buddha did not appear from nowhere with his decision to meditate under the Bodhi tree. He was born into a Hindu family where meditation was supposedly a routine practice. How can this be known?

The Buddha was born into the highest caste in India's firmly established caste system. Brahman children were destined from birth to populate the highest offices of government and religion. This fortunate, some would say karmic, birth gave Buddha the opportunity to receive instruction from the highest Hindu priests. Buddha did denounce the caste system and other aspects of Hinduism, but this should be put into context. He was 35 years old upon his reception of enlightenment.

The use of meditation in Hinduism was largely passed through oral means until the establishment of Tantra sometime around the fifth century. The many traditions of Kundalini Yoga are believed to have begun thousands of years before the Buddha's life, and composition of the oldest text was started as far back as 1,400 B.C. Just as Tantra can be seen as a morphing of Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, so too is Yoga. So intertwined are the histories of these cultural movements, and so diverse are the individual schools found in each, that many historians have devoted lifetimes without forming a clear picture of the origins of each strand.

The Taoist Strand

Buddhism later spread and migrated north toward ancient China. It passed through and was incorporated by large populations of Taoists. The practice of Taoism was not formally conceived until around the same time that Buddha achieved enlightenment. The founder was an archivist named Lao Tzu. Like Buddha, Lao Tzu was actually building off an already existing belief system. Elements of Chinese Medicine, which is heavily informed by both Buddhist and Taoist tradition for instance, had existed for thousands of years. Ideas of yin and yang, the five elements, and cosmic energy were passed from Master to student orally. The source of this information was said to be long periods of solitude and meditation, which is a practice some monks continue today.

Tribal America

Meditation is often considered an importation of Eastern philosophy, but anthropologists have found nearly every culture on the planet contains some meditation techniques. Native American religions are referred to as animist. Nearly all tribes had some conception of a Great Spirit, and the spirit was said to be in all things, including objects and land formations.

The shamans of a tribe were those individuals most in tune with the movements of the Great Spirit. They established community meditation rituals by choosing the time and place of a sweat lodge, drum circle, or medicine wheel. In some tribes they also educated the young in preparation for their Spirit Journey into adulthood. It was through such a journey that the Ghost Dance was born, chieftains were chosen, and individuals discovered their place in the society.

Western Offshoots of Meditative Practice

Meditation as a cultural transplant without some existing context is unheard of in the anthropological record. Experts on the growth of Western meditative practice believe it is happening spontaneously to good effect. There are now tantric communities, yoga classes in every state and city, and a reawakening of Native rituals.

Is this all really new and without a pre-existing context? Some researchers believe that the practice of prayer by many monotheists in the Christian and Muslim faiths is actually a form of meditation. Others would distinguish the two by referencing the outward focus of prayer versus the inward focus of meditation. The distinction isn't clear, however, as the Buddha reached enlightenment via meditative focus on a tree, and many other meditative practices use an idea, a chant, or external object as a focal point. Defining meditation has actually proven as difficult for scholars as discerning the origins of any particular practice.

Towards a Unified Definition of Meditation

Since various practices of meditation were brought to the U.S. as part of the 1960s social revolution, it has undergone scrutiny by researchers. Far from having a single focus at that time, research was alternately interested in the ability of meditation to help individuals achieve altered states of consciousness, extra-sensory awareness of their surroundings, and control over what are commonly referred to by biologists as involuntary functions, such as the heart beat and pupil dilation. The work of some individuals, like Harry Houdini and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, shows meditation was present in American culture long before gaining popularity.

In the wake of the social revolution, meditation research was compartmentalized to a few psychology departments in the universities, and more commonly funding was eliminated alongside the closure of parapsychology departments. In the 1980s, a resurgence of research began that has grown to the present cascade. Researchers found the necessary funding by focusing on the health benefits versus what many termed the spiritual aspects of various disciplines.

The early researchers immediately ran into a problem. There is no single form of meditation, and there is no generally accepted definition even among practitioners of the various traditions. How could results be compared when two practitioners of the same discipline had adopted different meditation methodologies? The confusion has persisted, and there are several widely accepted definitions. Each attempts to be vague enough so as to catch as many traditions as possible, yet some attempt to be specific enough to set meditative practice apart from some other passive activity, such as daydreaming.

Meditation is considered to be:

  • A set of practices designed to concentrate the practitioner's focus on some object, idea, or simply awareness of thought in order to increase awareness, relax the central nervous system and musculature, reduce stress, and/or enhance spiritual or personal growth.
  • Any particular technique used repetitively to achieve an experience of restful, mental silence or a blissful alertness.
  • Any practice of retraining the attention.

The question this should raise is just how exclusive does the act of retraining attention have to be before it can be rightfully termed meditation? Is daydreaming in fact a type of spontaneous meditation? The only aspect of the definition that appears in every definition is that meditation has something to do with an individual manipulating their attention.

The difficulty of defining the act for researchers is partly due to the removal of meditation from its contexts and partly a result of the demands of medical research. To be clear, the difficulty is by no means unique. Exercise research is similarly challenged by the difficulty of distinguishing the effects of running versus walking, yoga versus aerobics, and even one type of aerobics versus another type. However, easily measured markers have been established for exercise, so that metabolic equivalence (MET) can be established, for instance, between time spent swimming versus running.

Effects of meditation have been measured, yet researchers are always quick to point out that one set of data may not generalize to other forms of meditation. The research still shows clear benefits, and advanced instruments for measuring brain states have been used for a variety of disciplines.

Research of meditative benefits and clues to the generalisability of those benefits across meditative practice will be explored in the next part of the series.


25 Jun 2012

Article/Information supplied by Blue Banyan Meditation Products

Disclaimer - Any general advice given in any article should not be relied upon and should not be taken as a substitute for visiting a qualified medical Doctor.