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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 4



             What is Meditation? What is Mindfulness meditation?

Before answering the two questions, let us take care of some of the questions and myths about the practice of meditation.

Is meditation a religious practice? The answer is:  Yes and No. It came out of eastern religious traditions. It can be used to deepen religion-oriented meditation. In addition, all religious traditions have a meditation component although not emphasized. You can meditate on your chosen God, if you please. But meditation is not solely a religious practice. It is primarily a spiritual practice.

Is it self-hypnosis? No, it is not. No one can make you convince yourself about something you do not believe in. Meditation helps to learn self-control and focus.

Is meditation for old people? No, it is not. Any one at any age can learn. Now, several schools in the west teach children, even in kindergarten.

Does meditation require a guru and initiation? No, it does not, certainly not in the current methods of meditation. Of course, you need someone who is trained in one of the techniques and has practiced. The idea of guru and initiation is for people who wish to become monks and nuns and in certain schools. For those of us living a busy life and wish to learn meditation to calm the mind and expand the heart, there is no need for initiation. However, there is need for a guide.

Is meditation thought control?  No. You do not control or suppress thoughts, particularly in the Mindful Meditation school. You learn to be aware of your thoughts, to be a witness to your thoughts, without editing and judging and suppressing.

Is meditation practiced by some to avoid problems? I hope not. It is meant to help us face and deal with suffering and to engage with life effectively, not to escape.

Some people think that meditation will allow demonic ideas to enter our psyche. Some religious sects teach that wrong information. They probably have taken the proverb which says “an empty mind is devil’s workshop” literally.  It is not true and  it is unfortunate some people think so.

But it is fair to state that meditation is not for everybody. There are some people who get anxious and agitated when they have to be alone or quiet. Meditation is not suitable for them unless there is some preparation and guidance. It may cause anxiety and agitation in the presence of some mental disorders although psychologists trained in meditation techniques use Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy as part of their treatment options.

One other point worth making here is that meditation is “sold” as panacea for all kinds of  physical, mental and behavior disorders. That is not correct. 

What is meditation? Dictionary definition is that meditation is contemplation and reflection. It is a process of solemn reflection on spiritual matters. It is state of mind which leads to inner calmness and peace. It is also a process and skills needed to practice meditation can be acquired. (Please see the link to an article on meditation in a recent issue of New York Times, at the end of this post)

Why does one meditate? People get into meditation with different goals in mind. You need to know yours before you learn to practice meditation. Patanjali, the ancient Indian sage, who wrote the earliest treatise on this subject with the title Yoga Sastra, states that the goal of meditation is “Controlling the extroverted activities of the mind” (Yogah chitta vritti nirodhah). The word yoga (root word yuj which means to unite) was used because the aim was  to help the Individual unite with the Universal.

Current practices, which derive from this and other ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, are intended primarily to help  unite Body, Mind and Spirit. It is unfortunate that not much emphasis is given to meditation as a tool for spiritual development, self-inquiry and self transformation. 

My preference is to consider meditation as a practice to calm the mind and expand the “heart”. This goal is more suited for those of us living in this busy world, torn in different directions, losing touch with nature and feeling less connected. It is a form of mental training. Once we can calm the mind and think deeply and clearly, we can work on self-transformation.

I have read somewhere that there are at least 23 major schools of meditation. That includes Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, Greco-Roman, Christian, Sufi and Jewish traditions. There are several sub-sets within each of these schools.

Why then is the focus on Mindful Meditation? And what is Mindful Meditation? (to be continued)

Addendum: Since I wrote this piece, I came across Adi Sankara’s idea on meditation. He says: “meditation means establishing a continuous flow of similar modification of the mind in relation to some object presented by the scriptures and uninterrupted by any foreign idea”. This will be called dhyana in Patanjali’s eight steps process.

In Patanjali’s system, the step preceding dhyana is dharana. When translated to English, dharana means concentration. This is an important distinction as pointed out by another scholar. He says that as long as your mind is fighting distraction, you are still in the dharana mode (concentration) and not in dhayana, in which the mind is fully with the object of meditation – be it sound, form or formless.

Chandogya Upanishad calls this stage as upasana. At this stage, the mind is still aware of duality. It is aware of the subject (the meditator) and the object of meditation. The final stage of samadhi of Patanjali is when that duality disappears.

That is the theory. That is the goal of meditation. But how many of us can get there? 

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