Spiritual Glossary: Meditation

Meditation means different things in a variety of contexts and can be practised in an endless variety of ways. The word comes from the Latin meditatio and the verb meditari, which means ‘to think, contemplate, devise, or ponder.’ It was used as a translation for Hindu and Buddhist spiritual practices called dhyana, from the Sanskrit dhyai, which means to contemplate or meditate.

However, this usage could be misleading because the practices of different traditions can vary widely and don’t even have the same intention. Meditation is usually practised within the context of an entire system of belief and other practices, including guidance from a teacher and building relationships in a community with others.

But you don’t have to be spiritual or religious to meditate and it can be practised in an entirely secular way. Meditation has profound healing effects on the body, such as reducing stress and anxiety, and lowering blood pressure. It can instil feelings of joy and contentment and helps to make life flow more smoothly.

But there can be downsides too. This is because the practices have been stripped of their religious context so many aren’t aware of the hidden dangers. It’s not that meditation is inherently dangerous, but that you might not realise what you’re getting yourself into.

In a nutshell, meditation is a technique that helps you to focus and discipline your mind, as well as explore the inner world and develop greater self-knowledge.

But it’s true purpose is to bring you back into alignment with your true Self – your divine nature or Buddha mind. It’s not about achieving anything or making yourself into a ‘better’ person, but about being awake and present in Reality. As Andrew Harvey says in The Direct Path:

“The purpose of meditation is to introduce us to what we really are, to the peace, luminous clarity, and abiding strength of our inmost divine nature and to help us gradually tame, discipline, and refine our minds so we can remain in constant contact with our essential truth.”

This means you have to let go of anything that gets in the way of that essential truth – and that’s where the trouble starts! I’ve explored this in more depth here: The Hidden Dangers of Mindfulness

There are many different types of meditation but they can be broken down into four basic categories:

  • Focusing on an object, such as a candle flame or your breath, or contemplating a word or idea, such as a koan
  • Open practices, such as mindfulness or zazen
  • Repeating a mantra, such as Om
  • Guided meditation or visualisation

There’s also the practice of ‘no thought’ where you empty the mind of all content. This usually happens spontaneously but you can induce it – often by practising one of the other types first and then dropping into no thought when your mind is calm enough.

Meditation is less easy when your mind is full of thoughts and worries, and this is where the practice of mediation can help. By adopting a regular, daily practice you can hone your technique and develop your ‘mind muscles’. Then when life throws something difficult your way, coping will become second nature.

You can make friends with your mind and develop a deeper understanding of yourself. This leads to greater acceptance, not just of yourself, but of everyone and everything else too. You learn to stay centred in your body and present in the moment, no matter what’s happening – even if an apocalypse is erupting around you.

So how do you meditate? The classic posture involves sitting cross-legged on the floor or a cushion with a straight back. But for some, this can be hard to maintain. If your knees aren’t up to it, you can sit on a hard-backed chair. The important thing is to keep your back straight but relaxed. If you slump forward while meditating you’ll get backache or neck ache and may doze off.

Here are the instructions for the classic meditation posture:

  • Sit on a cushion and cross your legs, keeping your spine as straight as you can. Sitting forward on the cushion slightly will force your knees down and helps to maintain the posture without wobbling.
  • If you can, cross your legs so the backs of your feet rest on your thighs, with the right leg above the left. If that makes you scream in agony, experiment with higher cushions so you can lower your knees closer to the floor while keeping your ankles crossed in front of you in the normal way (this is how I do it, when my knees will let me!).
  • Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and balanced, not one higher than the other or rising up to your ears.
  • Tuck your chin in slightly so it’s parallel to the floor. This keeps your head straight and balanced perfectly at the top of your spine, as if you’re suspended from a cord in the ceiling.
  • Keep your eyes open and slightly lowered. Your gaze can fall about three feet in front of you, but keep it soft – no staring. Don’t close your eyes as this will encourage your mind to wander off into daydreams, thinking or even sleep.
  • Keep your jaw relaxed with your tongue against your palate, and breathe through your nose. If you have a cold and are too bunged up, you can breathe through your mouth, but try to clear your passages with a good eucalyptus inhaler first.
  • Place your hands one on top of the other and palms up, just below your navel, if you like. Or just rest your hands on your knees. Whatever feels comfortable.
  • The two important things to remember here are to keep the back straight and to relax. Allow your breath to come naturally. There’s no need to force yourself to breath more slowly than you normally do, or more deeply. Simply allow the breath to be there. As you relax into the practice, your breath will change naturally so there’s no need to force it.

If sitting cross-legged on a cushion is too painful or impossible, you can adopt a similar posture sitting in a hard-backed chair (i.e. not the couch). Place your feet flat on the floor and keep your back straight as before. As I’ve got older, I’ve found I need to sit in a chair to meditate more often, especially if I’m going to be there a while!

Over the following weeks, we’ll have a closer look at specific meditation practices, including vipassana, mantras, and prayer. But we start with the basics in Watching the Breath

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Image: Serene Calmness