Article by Blue Banyan Meditation Products
Silence the mind, or defocus and let it spin. Carefully monitor the breath into a slow rhythm, or practice a range of breathing techniques that each utilize different sections of the lungs. Move the consciousness into one chakra, or delve into the natural flow of energy as it pulses throughout the body. Sit in a group of individuals and chant together, "Nam myoho renge kyo," or sway alone with the breeze beneath a tree.
There are as many variations on meditation as there are methods of exercising the body. To make the topic more complex, there are few cultural variations of meditation that rely on only one type of activity. Clinically standardized versions of meditation have been devised by researchers for the purposes of eliminating confounding variables, yet this should be recognized as the exception. The rule throughout human history and pre-history, according to anthropologists, is every culture ritualized various methods now referred to as meditative practice.
The position of Western meditators is a new one. When the first Buddhist techniques of meditation were imported into Chinese culture, there was no skepticism. The Chinese already had a rich history of meditative practice built into the culture. There was little mystery invoked among Taoist villagers when a monk retreated to a mountain cave for weeks or months at a time. They did not know what the monk was experiencing in exact terms, had no idea what knowledge the monk would return with, but they did understand the basic act of meditation. In other words, these meditators had cultural precedence.
Perhaps the best definition of meditation thus far comes from Rob Nairn who sees it as a "highly alert and skillful state of mind" requiring psychological presence with whatever happens in and around one without adding to or subtracting from it in any way. It is such an integral part of the present for most cultures and the past of all cultures that everyone has some familiarity with the act if not the word. Do any of the following statements sound familiar?
Each of these statements is an example of a person 'getting out of their own way' and being in the moment. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body though it may include this. It may include many things, and the goal of this essay is to enumerate some of the many types of meditation and their relevant contexts. The first style of meditation to be considered is one that draws upon cultural precedence for many Westerners.
The problem with adapting meditative techniques and importing them from other cultures is a lack of connection. People are more inclined to feel comfortable with something present in the formative years of childhood. Though Western culture has no formal precedence for meditation named as such, spiritual meditation is well recognized and valued in the Christian religion. This is in fact a common ground for all the world religions as an implicit practice rarely referred to as meditation by anyone but an outsider to the religion.
The Jewish Kabbalah is said to be the confluence of wisdom and prophecy according to the numerology. There are three branches to the Kabbalah, one of which is explicitly focused on meditation. The explicit practice of meditation, via the seeking of emotional insight with prayer, visualization of personal connections to the divine, and isolated contemplation of mystical and ethic concepts, is interwoven throughout the religion instead of being a practice somehow separate from daily life. Geometric imagery, the numerical values of words, and the names of angels feature prominently. The prayer shawl or Tallit serves as both ceremonial clothing and meditative focus, and some methods found in the religious texts call for chanting a specific text in isolation while bearing the Tallit.
The Christian religion unsurprisingly contains several forms of meditation. The Eastern Orthodox denomination has long used the repetition of mantras to clear the mind and increase the individual's awareness of connection to God. The Lord's Prayer is another form of meditation when used to achieve an introspective state instead of as a rote memorization. The rosary and sacraments are Catholic versions of meditation. Jesus himself was raised with the meditative traditions of Judaism and changed these similar to the way Buddha adapted and changed the meditative traditions of Hinduism.
Spiritual communion to achieve a meditative state has become uncommon in many traditions, but it is still used and a familiar way for most Westerners to understand meditation.
Inner Space Consolidation/Awareness
Even a basic understanding of biology will allow anyone to realize much more is going on inside the body than can be comprehended any one person. One type of meditation is chiefly occupied with increasing awareness of the body as a physical manifestation of energetic forces. The Eastern importations of this type primarily derive Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine. Each is based on the generational passage of knowledge gained during meditative practice.
Taoist Microcosmic Orbit
Early Taoists and their pre-historical predecessors used meditation to learn the various energy pathways of the body that are now shown on acupressure charts. Meditators first learn the pathways and then follow them with the consciousness, which is an easy feat for someone born to the practice. The practice of the Microcosmic Orbit was first brought to the Western world in the 1970s as a beginning meditative ritual for a deeply complex system. It is helpful for practitioners to have an acupressure chart for visual reference, and guided meditation CDs can be used to prevent the need for reference in the middle of meditation.
There is little but oral records of the foundational practices monks must have used to gain their knowledge. Wilderness meditation is a common theme with monks retreating into the utter darkness of caves and only allowing themselves special foods. This speaks to an early and strong focus in Taoist philosophy of wedding the Earth (grounding the body) to the Heavens (accessing cosmic energies). There are today Taoist retreats dedicated to providing more advanced adepts with total darkness opportunity. Modern practitioners have refined Taoist practices of internal awareness to incorporate and inform current understandings of anatomy and physiology. This fits in neatly with the goal of all inward-focused techniques, which is primarily to utilize the consciousness in identifying and addressing imbalances within the body.
The Ayurvedic method of gaining awareness of the chakras (literally the wheels of life) and aligning them to bring balance is a theoretical companion of Taoist techniques. The first written accounts appeared before the common era, and it is more than likely these were merely the culmination of much more ancient practices passed orally through the generations. Like the Taoist teachings, these would have been passed from a master to a student. The student would expand upon the knowledge via their own meditative practice, much as the Buddha expanded upon knowledge gained from Hindu masters, and so on.
However, the Hindu tradition appears to have relied less upon wilderness retreat than the Taoists. Early practitioners used sounds, such as instruments and mantras, along with color to activate the various chakras. This continues to the present and can be witnessed in Indian ashrams acoustically designed to resonate the chanting. Importation to the Western world of Ayurvedic and Taoist practices has resulted in less distinction between the two systems. Taoist meditations often include color visualization and sub-vocal chants. Ayurvedic meditations have likewise incorporated the Taoist focus on grounding the body before raising energy to the crown chakra. Practitioners may benefit from the incorporation of crystals and minerals aligned to the color and vibration of focal chakras. A chakra chart can also aid in visualization.
All Eastern meditative practice utilizes a focus on breath at some point, yet most call on students to master other aspects first. A few traditions are primarily focus on breathing as a means of calming the mind. It can be particularly effective for individuals having trouble with meditation. It works by at once taking the focus off of thoughts and reducing irregular heart beats.
Vipassana, a Buddhist practice now commonly referred to as a form of mindfullness meditation, forgoes active breath control for the simple instructions of giving total attention to each breath. With regular practice this attention becomes second nature, and meditative practice can move to other focal points more rapidly.
Yogic Foundational Practice
Pranayama yoga is one of the six yogic traditions, and many teachers refer to it as the foundation. Westerners tend to be most familiar with the visually stunning body contortion achieved by practitioners of Hatha yoga, but this advanced practice totally incorporates breath control mastered in Pranayama. The most important tool in this practice is an understanding of posture and a comfortable place to practice.
Instead of simply paying attention to breath, though this can be an early tool to shift awareness, practitioners learn to direct the breath consciously. Different muscles and sections of the lungs are utilized until the many types of breath become second-nature. Masters of this tradition will later be able to shift breathing styles to match immediate needs of the body without consciously making the decision. The inner awareness traditions above incorporate Pranayama yoga practices, but these practices are largely seen as unnecessary until more active forms of meditation are used to awaken the chakras or push energy along a desired meridian.
Meditation is commonly seen as a quiet and still activity. The stillness of the body is thought to impose a stillness on the mind. Many people attempting this have difficulty, which is not surprising. Does anyone attempt to solve complex problems or complete a research paper while simultaneously performing calisthenics? Movement is used in many religious and cultural traditions to facilitate awareness of interconnectedness between mind and mind and enhance transition to the meditative state.
Tai Chi Chi Kung
The roots of both Tai Chi and Qigong (or Chi Kung) can be found in martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Elements of this can be seen in every school of martial arts. Forms are taught to initiates in increasing levels of complexity, and mastering each form is a primary goal for advancement in the schools. Even students with access to a teacher will benefit from the use of instructional materials, such as DVDs and books. Once movements are mastered, these will no longer be necessary.
These movement-oriented forms utilize breath, fluidity, and increased awareness of the muscles and connective tissues. A traditional part of the practice is meditative visualization of each movement before an attempted performance. This type of visualized meditation is a routine practice used by many athletes to enhance their performance. Olympic gymnasts, figure skaters, ballerinas, and many other athletes perform such visualizations in detail before attempting complex feats. Like other forms of meditation, this practice is not specifically originating in one culture. Rather it is part of the human experience. Some animal researchers believe this is one of the original purposes of dreaming. A squirrel, for instance, is thought to spontaneously accomplish skillful leaps because muscle memory has already been established with visualization in the dream state.
The traditions of many American and African tribes included the medicine wheel. A circle of stones is placed at a particular location and time, and an outer circle of meditation is created by drummers, chanters, and others tuning into the spirit world in their own styles. The movement can be found everywhere as the tribe participates in rhythmic dancing around the fire at the center of the medicine circle. Some traditions hold that sensitive individuals may be ridden by one or more spirits during the group meditation. This type of meditation is often referred to in the Western occult as channeling.
Increased awareness of the surrounding environment coupled with a detachment from the need to respond to the environment is invoked explicitly in many of the types of meditation already mentioned. Repetition is often used with a sound, phrase, or geometric pattern to create a consonant state in the mind, which allows for relaxation of focus. There is no attempt necessary to redirect the attention as this is accomplished via external stimuli. From the already mentioned traditions, stimuli include drumming, chanting a phrase, sub-vocal sounds emitted upon exhale, and visualization of a geometric pattern woven into fabric.
Western meditators may benefit from the use of external stimuli, and this has been an area of technological advancements. CDs and biofeedback devices are programmed with specific sound frequencies shown to enhance transition between brainwave frequencies. For those unable to visit a natural setting regularly, the sounds and images of these settings said to be buried in human cellular memory can be accessed easily. Color lenses are used by many, and these may include repetitive patterns designed to entrain the attention towards deeper levels of self awareness.
Depriving the body of sensory stimuli and/or social interaction is an important practice used in most traditions. Christianity includes recommendations for worshippers to engage in prayer both as a group and alone. Transcendentalism popularized by Emerson and Thoreau is aided by total submersion in a natural setting away from the modern trappings of humanity. Jewish history includes a long exile of the Jews to the desert. Later religious leaders, including Jesus and Muhammad, gained communion with God during journeys along through the wilderness. Taoist monks sought an understanding of energy patterns in the body by secluding themselves from society and eliminating as much external stimuli as possible. The vision quest used by some American tribes was social deprivation for the purpose of attuning the individual's self to the will of the creative force of the Universe.
Sensory deprivation remains a powerful tool that forces the mind to reckon with itself. Though difficult to accomplish in the modern world unaided, there are tools now available to help practitioners effectively remove external stimuli. Isolation tanks popularized in films, such as Altered States, are still popular. Hoods and white-noise reproductions are used to eliminate auditory and visual stimuli.
As can be seen, the underlying goal in every form of meditation is changing the focus of attention from linear thought processes to a wider perception of reality. Defocusing the attention can be likened to looking through an object instead of looking at it. The many ways to accomplish this are not fundamentally different from one another in that each performed properly will result in brainwaves changing from beta to alpha frequencies.
The actual practice of a type of meditation will be easier for some individuals than others. It may be aided with electronic or mechanical tools. In part three, the practice of modern meditative forms will be discussed in depth. This should provide a basis for the person new to meditation to choose those forms and tools most conducive for harmonious living.
9 Jul 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.