Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
The word meditation refers to a wide variety of techniques for calming and focusing the mind. These techniques were highly developed in eastern cultures such as India, China, and Japan, where meditation was taught in connection with Buddhism and Hinduism.
What many forms of meditation have in common is quieting the normal thought processes. Normally we talk to ourselves all the time. In meditation, one allows language to flow on by without engaging the mind. The result is a state of consciousness unusual for Westerners.
Conscious thinking may intrude, at first, making meditation difficult for a beginner. The act of trying to stop the inner voice typically results in the inner voice saying something like, "Hey, I'm doing it! I'm not talking to myself!" followed a moment later by "Oops I guess I am."
Buddha in a meditative state
Experienced meditators say when conscious thoughts intrude on the meditative state they simply "let them pass" without trying to suppress them. Meditation is achieved by letting go of thoughts rather than by fighting them.
One approach is to focus attention on something like breathing or a repeated chant or sound. Paying close attention to breathing is one widely used technique.
Fast (1977) described what often happens to a person who tries a thought-quieting, slow breathing meditation for the first time:
...The mind suddenly sees itself as a prisoner. It struggles, resents, tears loose to do what it has always done, to dream, to fancy, to race aimlessly like a squirrel in a cage, to hold conversations with itself–anything to avoid the reality of here.
[The mind] becomes devious and cunning; it thinks and pretends to itself that it is not thinking. And suddenly it breaks out into a warm, satisfying fantasy, and the meditation is shattered. And then the mind sees itself and realizes that to simply sit and be here is perhaps the hardest thing in the world.
What simple technique for meditation does Fast describe?
Fast used a simple, age-old meditation technique. He set aside a half hour a day for meditation in the morning.
He seated himself on a comfortable cushion, ankles in front, seat slightly raised by the cushion. Next he gave his full attention to his breathing. He did not do anything fancy.
Now the meditation begins. I am simply quiet at first, and I point my attention at my breath. I try not to influence my normal breathing, not to change it, but to follow it.
I move my attention with the rise of breath into my nostrils, and I follow the slight movement of my lungs and diaphragm as the breath enters, and then that same point of attention travels with my breath as it falls from my nostrils.
I count ten breaths, normal breaths, no deeper than I would be breathing were my attention elsewhere. Attention is the crux of meditation, and after I have finished counting, through the entire period of meditation, I try with all my will to maintain the sharp point of attention upon my breathing. (Fast, 1977, p.47)
Another approach is to use the voice as part of the meditative process through chanting. Yogic meditators in India often use a mantra. This is a syllable, word, or sentence repeated over and over.
In Pure Land Buddhism, a variety found in Japan, practitioners repeatedly say (to themselves) "Nama Amida Butsu" which means "total reliance upon the compassion of Amida Buddha." This mantra has a name: the nembutsu.
Practitioners of Hare Krishna, members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, date their movement to 1486. It gained a quarter million adherents in the U.S. during the 1960s.
The chant or mantra "Hare Krishna" means "O God Krishna." Hare Krishna devotees are instructed to use a 16 word version of the mantra every day as a form of worship.
The sound "Om" (often spelled "Aum") is traditionally used for meditation in some Buddhist groups. The sound begins at the back of the throat and moves to vibrate the whole vocal cavity, resulting in a sound similar to a gong or (in modern times) a pure synthesizer tone.
Recordings of Buddhist monks chanting "Aum" in monasteries are available on YouTube and can be quite hypnotic. Other videos feature the sounds of Gong meditation, using large or small gongs and meditation bells that resonate to produce a soothing sound.
What are some techniques used to achieve meditative states?
What happens when meditative calm is achieved? The resulting mental state is hard to describe, being non-verbal in nature. In beginners, surprising sensations may well up from within.
Experienced meditators report a freedom from attachment to the outside world or the normal thought process. Some say a screen is lifted and reality is perceived directly without an intervening thought process. Some call it contentless awareness or choiceless awareness.
What are some characteristics of meditative states reported by meditators?
Not everybody has profound experiences while meditating, and people meditate for different reasons. To some it is a daily relaxation period. To others it is a religious observance. One student, from Thailand, said it was a little of both:
It is our custom in Thailand to send a young man of the family to be a monk. All monks in Thailand have to do the meditation for at least 4 hours every day.
First we have to focus our attention on the movement of our breath. Second we have to repeat the word "Puth-Tra" in our mind. (Puth-Tra is the real pronunciation of Buddha).
In the first week, there was nothing happening to me. My second week was my bad week; I had a terrible numbness in my legs. In the third week I began to get into the first level of meditation. I felt relaxed and very quiet. I could not get into the second level because I was too scared that I could not return to the normal stage, so I decided to stop my meditation.
I was a monk for three months. I still do my meditation once in a while. It gets me relaxed and, at the same time, lets me show my respect to my Buddha. [Author's files]
The student who wrote that essay referred to different levels of meditation. Theories about levels or stages of meditation are common in eastern religions.
Early Research on Meditation
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a popularized form of yogic meditation in which meditators concentrate on a word or phrase (mantra). After the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was embraced by the Beatles, TM was practiced by close to a million people in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Early research on TM, often conducted by TM enthusiasts, indicated beneficial stress-reducing effects. Research by skeptics was not so clear-cut and sometimes showed no stress-reducing effects at all.
What were some research findings about TM?
After the initial enthusiastic claims, several studies in the 1970s looked for changes in the stress chemicals, catecholamines, during and after meditation.
Researchers not affiliated with TM found no difference between people who were practicing TM and those who were merely relaxing. Holmes (1984) reviewed all the experimental research on meditation and found no evidence meditation produces biological effects different from ordinary rest or sleep.
This conclusion was contested by researchers at Maharishi University (a private institution later renamed the Maharishi University of Management, owned by the TM organization). Their own research showed TM to be uniquely effective at raising grades of students, preventing prisoners from committing crimes again when released from prison, ending addiction, increasing feelings of happiness and well-
Maupin (1969) did research to find out if college students could be instructed rapidly in a form of "Zen meditation" using the concentration-on-breathing method. During daily 45-minute sessions over a 2- week period, 16 of 28 subjects had significant meditation-related experiences. Maupin put them into five categories, from least to most responsive to meditation.
Type A. The subject experiences dizziness, somewhat unpleasant, and retreats from the task of concentrating. (8 reports)
Type B. Subjects feel calm and relaxed, although complete concentration may not have been sustained. (13 reports)
Type C. Pleasant body sensations occur, some rather strange, such as vibrating, "waves," feelings of being suspended. (11 reports)
Type D. The experience of breathing is exaggerated; belly movements may seem larger, the subject feels "filled with air," concentration seems effortless. (9 reports)
Type E. A lucid state of "nonstriving" consciousness is attained; the subject feels a calmly detached view of thoughts and feelings that happen to emerge. (6 reports) (Maupin, 1969).
What was Maupin's research?
Beginning meditators had many different experiences with relatively little practice. However, even the most profound experience listed above (Type E) is described as a beginning level of meditative experience by expert meditators, who may spend 20 years or more practicing meditation every day.
Fast, H. (1977) The Art of Zen Meditation Los Angeles: Peace Press.
Holmes, D. S. (1984). Meditation and somatic arousal reduction: A review. American Psychologist, 39, 1-10.
Maupin, E. W. (1969). Individual differences in response to a Zen meditation exercise. In C. T. Tart (Ed.), Altered states of consciousness. New York: Wiley.
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