Meditation is a practice where an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content, or as an end in itself.
The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force (qi, ki, prana, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness. A particularly ambitious form of meditation aims at effortlessly sustained single-pointed concentration meant to enable its practitioner to enjoy an indestructible sense of well-being while engaging in any life activity.
The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation has been practiced since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs. Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation is often used to clear the mind and ease many health concerns, such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. It may be done sitting, or in an active way—for instance, Buddhist monks involve awareness in their day-to-day activities as a form of mind-training. Prayer beads or other ritual objects are commonly used during meditation in order to keep track of or remind the practitioner about some aspect of that training.
Meditation may involve generating an emotional state for the purpose of analyzing that state—such as anger, hatred, etc.—or cultivating a particular mental response to various phenomena, such as compassion. The term “meditation” can refer to the state itself, as well as to practices or techniques employed to cultivate the state. Meditation may also involve repeating a mantra and closing the eyes. The mantra is chosen based on its suitability to the individual meditator. Meditation has a calming effect and directs awareness inward until pure awareness is achieved, described as “being awake inside without being aware of anything except awareness itself.” In brief, there are dozens of specific styles of meditation practice, and many different types of activity commonly referred to as meditative practices.
- Modern definitions and Western models
- Definitions and scope
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- Western typologies
- Forms of meditation
- Physical postures
- Prayer beads
- Religious and spiritual meditation
- Indian religions
- New religious movements
- East-Asian religions
- Iranian religions
- Bahá’í Faith
- Abrahamic religions
- Modern spirituality
- New Age
- Pagan and occult religions
- Indian religions
- Western context
- Dissemination in the west
- Secular applications
- Sound-based meditation
- Relaxation Response
- Mental silence
- Sound-based meditation
- Research on meditation
- Beneficial effects
- Negative effects
- Meditation, religion and drugs
The history of meditation is intimately bound up with the religious context within which it was practiced. Some authors have even suggested the hypothesis that the emergence of the capacity for focused attention, an element of many methods of meditation,may have contributed to the final phases of human biological evolution. Some of the earliest references to meditation are found in the Hindu Vedas. Wilson translates the most famous Vedic mantra ‘Gayatri’ thus : “We meditate on that desirable light of the divine Savitri, who influences our pious rites” (Rgveda : Mandala-3, Sukta-62, Rcha-10). Around the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, other forms of meditation developed in Confucian, and Taoist China and Hindu, Jain and Buddhist India.
In the west, by 20 BCE Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of “spiritual exercises” involving attention (prosoche) and concentration and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed meditative techniques.
The Pāli Canon, which dates to 1st century BCE considers Indian Buddhist meditation as a step towards salvation. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100 CE included a number of passages on meditation, clearly pointing to Zen (known as Chan in China, Thiền in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea). The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other Asian countries, and in 653 the first meditation hall was opened in Singapore. Returning from China around 1227, Dōgen wrote the instructions for zazen.
The Islamic practice of Dhikr had involved the repetition of the 99 Names of God since the 8th or 9th century. By the 12th century, the practice of Sufism included specific meditative techniques, and its followers practiced breathing controls and the repetition of holy words. Interactions with Indians or the Sufis may have influenced the Eastern Christian meditation approach to hesychasm, but this can not be proved. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, hesychasm was developed, particularly on Mount Athos in Greece, and involves the repetition of the Jesus prayer.
Western Christian meditation contrasts with most other approaches in that it does not involve the repetition of any phrase or action and requires no specific posture. Western Christian meditation progressed from the 6th century practice of Bible reading among Benedictinemonks called Lectio Divina, i.e. divine reading. Its four formal steps as a “ladder” were defined by the monk Guigo II in the 12th century with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (i.e. read, ponder, pray, contemplate). Western Christian meditation was further developed by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila in the 16th century.
Secular forms of meditation were introduced in India in the 1950s as a Westernized form of Hindu meditative techniques and arrived in the United States and Europe in the 1960s. Rather than focusing on spiritual growth, secular meditation emphasizes stress reduction, relaxation and self-improvement. Both spiritual and secular forms of meditation have been subjects of scientific analyses. Research on meditation began in 1931, with scientific research increasing dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s. Since the beginning of the ’70s more than a thousand studies of meditation in English-language have been reported. However, after 60 years of scientific study, the exact mechanism at work in meditation remains unclear.
Modern definitions and Western models
Definitions and scope
As early as 1971, Claudio Naranjo noted that “The word ‘meditation’ has been used to designate a variety of practices that differ enough from one another so that we may find trouble in defining what meditation is.” There remains no definition of necessary and sufficient criteria for meditation that has achieved universal or widespread acceptance within the modern scientific community, as one study recently noted a “persistent lack of consensus in the literature” and a “seeming intractability of defining meditation“.
In popular usage, the word “meditation” and the phrase “meditative practice” are often used imprecisely to designate broadly similar practices, or sets of practices, that are found across many cultures and traditions.
Some of the difficulty in precisely defining meditation has been the need to recognize the particularities of the many various traditions. There may be differences between the theories of one tradition of meditation as to what it means to practice meditation. The differences between the various traditions themselves, which have grown up a great distance apart from each other, may be even starker. To accurately define “what is meditation” has caused difficulties for modern scientists. Scientific reviews have proposed that researchers attempt to more clearly define the type of meditation being practiced in order that the results of their studies be made clearer. Taylor noted that to refer only to meditation from a particular faith (e.g., “Hindu” or “Buddhist”)
“…is not enough, since the cultural traditions from which a particular kind of meditation comes are quite different and even within a single tradition differ in complex ways. The specific name of a school of thought or a teacher or the title of a specific text is often quite important for identifying a particular type of meditation.”
Several definitions of meditation that have been used by influential modern reviews of research on meditation across multiple traditions. Within a specific context, more precise meanings are not uncommonly given the word “meditation”. For example, “meditation” is sometimes the translation of meditatio in Latin. Meditatio is the third of four steps of Lectio Divina, an ancient form of Christian prayer. “Meditation” also refers to the seventh of the eight steps of Yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a step called dhyāna in Sanskrit. Meditation refers to a mental or spiritual state that may be attained by such practices, and also refers to the practice of that state.
This page mainly focuses on meditation in the broad sense of a type of discipline, found in various forms in many cultures, by which the practitioner attempts to get beyond the reflexive, “thinking” mind (sometimes called “discursive thinking” or “logic”) into a deeper, more devout, or more relaxed state. The terms “meditative practice” and “meditation” are mostly used here in this broad sense. However, usage may vary somewhat by context – readers should be aware that in quotations, or in discussions of particular traditions, more specialized meanings of “meditation” may sometimes be used (with meanings made clear by context whenever possible).