Mind and Body
There's more to meditation than just closing ones eyes and an understanding of this technique demands an understanding of our mental realm. The subtle state of mind, which is the ultimate stage of meditation, requires a tremendous amount of energy to reach. An absolute harmony between our gross physical realm, sensual realm and our life energy is the prerequisite of a meditative state of mind.
Traditional perceptions of our mental make-up are uncommonly useful in understanding the workings of the mind. According to ayurveda and yoga, both the mind and the body are made up of the 'Five Great Elements' (Panchabhutas) of earth (prithvi), water (jal), fire (agni or tej), air (vayu) and ether or space (akash).
But in spite of such composition, they have absolutely opposite elemental structures. While the body is made up of the heavier elements of earth and water (the ayurvedic kapha or phlegmatic humoral type), it functions through the lighter elements of fire (pitta or heat humoral type) and air (vata or vital energy humor). The pitta, fire or heat of the body controls all digestive processes and the vata, air or vital energy lends its spark to the nervous system.
The mind, meanwhile, is composed of air and ether (vata humor)-the lighter elements, which lend mobility and pervasiveness to the mind. And our mental functions proceed through the heavier elements of fire, water and earth (pitta-heat and kapha-phlegm). The element of fire lends reason and perception to the mind, while water and earth lends it emotion and physical identification. But our mental functions proceed through the heavier elements of fire, water and earth. While fire lends reason and perception to the mind, water and earth lends it emotion and physical identification respectively.
Unlike the phlegmatic body, in substance our minds resemble ether-formless and all pervading. And in motion it resembles air-penetrating, constantly in flux, effervescent and unpredictable!
Mind and Spirit The mind (mana) and the energy spirit (prana, chi or life force) have always had an affinity for each other, being merely the two sides of the same coin. Whatever the mind engages upon is soon infused with life energy, and conversely, whatever the soul hungers for instantly engages our attention. As a result, certain aspects of each are present in the other.
Out of the two, the mind is the finer and more sophisticated version of the cruder life force or prana-it has a storehouse of its own energy and vitality. Some aspects of it naturally spills over, flooding the spirit with thought and intelligence (buddhi). But it is the vital force, which is inherently a conscious power, finding its expression in the mind, which is inherently the active force.
Both prana and mana (mind) are vata (vital force) humoral types, composed of air and ether. But being composed more of the air element rather than the ether, the prana is more active and energetic-like the wind! On the other hand, since the degree of ether is more in the composition of the mind, its nature is receptive and passive-like the wide open spaces.
Meditation, especially passive meditation, brings us face to face with our subconscious. Not unlike opening up a Pandora's box full of mischief, if we are not ready to encounter our inner selves, it could end up being a disastrous experience instead of an enlightening one! And the most vulnerable seem to be-people with overwhelming anxiety, who are emotionally or psychologically disturbed, those who have problems accepting reality, people who suffer from acute paranoia and even those who develop delusions of grandeur from the altered states of consciousness that meditation tends to produce.
To avoid such psychosis or simply getting lost in our thoughts and ending up confused and disturbed, it is necessary to begin meditation sessions with formal practice. Different schools of thought prescribe different methods of such preparation, but they all agree on the absolute necessity of concentration exercises preceding meditation. These preparation techniques are as varied as praying, chanting mantras, performing pranayama or even visualizing. Once the mind becomes trained for concentration, actual formless or mindfulness meditation can proceed, such as sitting in silence, practicing self-inquiry or performing devotional meditation.
While Hinduism-based schools of thought insist on a proper sattvic (pure or ascetic) lifestyle as a primary condition to true meditation, Buddhist mindfulness meditation prescribes contemplation on the 'Four Protections' and the 'Nine Attributes' of the Buddha.
A helpful tip to keep in mind would be that ultimately meditation is all about being at peace with oneself. It cannot perform miracles out of thin air. It does not solve problems magically. It's simply a technique, which acquaints you with the person you really are. And having gained that timeless knowledge, it is you who will take that first step towards self-transformation. Remember always that the technique of meditation is nothing more than a tool in your hands!
Ways of harnessing the ever-changing, ever-shifting mind are as varied as the different techniques of meditation. But by and large, they all practice mental exercises, which aim at capturing the very nature of our minds. While the Buddhist Satipatthana Sutra advises the meditator to be mindful of: the body, feelings, the mind and mental objects-Patanjali's Yoga Sutra talks about the three techniques of: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption or enlightenment).
Dharana, the sixth limb of the Yoga philosopher Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga, literally means 'immovable concentration of the mind'. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction. This is not the forced concentration of, for example, solving a difficult mathematics problem; rather dharana is a form of closer to the state of mind, which could be called receptive concentration.
In practicing dharana, conditions are created for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of radiating out in a million different directions. Deep contemplation and reflection usually creates the right conditions, and the focus on a single chosen point becomes more intense. Concentrative meditative techniques encourage one particular activity of the mind, and the more intense it becomes the more the other preoccupation of the mind cease to exist.
The objective in dharana is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity. Before retracting his senses, one may practice focusing attention on a single inanimate object. After the mind becomes prepared for meditation, it is better able to focus efficiently on one subject or point of experience. Now if the yogi chooses to focus on the center (chakra) of inner energy flow, he/she can directly experience the physical and mental blocks and imbalances that remain in his or her system. This ability to concentrate depends on excellent psychological health and integration and is not an escape from reality, but rather a movement towards the perception of the true nature of the Self.
Dhyana, the seventh limb of Ashtanga Yoga, means worship, or profound and abstract religious meditation. It is perfect contemplation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it.
During dhyana, combining clear insights into distinctions between objects and the subtle layers surrounding intuition further unifies the consciousness. We learn to differentiate between the mind of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived-between words, their meanings and ideas, and even between all the levels of natural evolution. We realize that these are all fused in an undifferentiated continuum. One must apprehend both subject and object clearly in order to perceive their similarities. Thus dhyana is apprehension of real identity among apparent differences.
During dharana, the mind becomes unidirectional, while during dhyana, it becomes ostensibly identified and engaged with the object of focus or attention. That is why, dharana must precede dhyana, since the mind needs focusing on a particular object before a connection can be made. If dharana is the contact, then dhyana is the connection.
Obviously, to focus the attention to one point will not result in insight or realization. One must identify and become "one with" the object of contemplation, in order to know for certain the truth about it. In dharana the consciousness of the practitioner is fixed on one subject, but in dhyana it is in one flow.
The final step in Ashtanga Yoga is the attainment of samadhi.
When we succeed in becoming so absorbed in something that our mind becomes completely one with it, we are in a state of samadhi. Samadhi means "to bring together, to merge". In samadhi our personal identities completely disappear. At the moment of samadhi none of that exists anymore. We become one with the Divine Entity.
During samadhi, we realize what it is to be an identity without differences, and how a liberated soul enjoys a pure awareness of this pure identity. The conscious mind drops back into that unconscious oblivion from which it first emerged. The final stage terminates at the instant the soul is freed. The absolute and eternal freedom of an isolated soul is beyond all stages and beyond all time and place. Once freed, it does not return to bondage.
The perfection of samadhi embraces and glorifies all aspects of the self by subjecting them to the light of understanding. The person capable of samadhi retains his/her individuality and person, but is free of the emotional attachment to it.
Meditation as a Therapy
Meditation has not only been used as an important therapy for psychological and nervous disorders, from simple insomnia to severe emotional disturbances, but lately physicians have also prescribed it for curing various physical ailments as well. It is useful in chronic and debilitating diseases like allergies or arthritis, in which stress or hypersensitivity of the nervous system are involved. Regular meditation practices have also been known to help in dealing with pain and a number of painful diseases, whether chronic or acute. The act of meditation comes in useful because it helps the mind to detach itself from all material and physical attachments-and that is the ultimate cure for all diseases or at least the way to transcend them when we cannot avoid them.
Research has found meditation, especially Transcendental Meditation, to be extremely successful in treating physiological problems. Research on Transcendental Meditation has been conducted at more than 200 universities, hospitals, and research institutions in 27 countries. As a result, more than 500 research and review papers have been written covering a wide variety of physiological, psychological, and sociological effects.
Transcendental Meditation allows mental activity to settle down in a natural way while alertness is maintained and enhanced. Following Transcendental Meditation, individuals have reported feeling refreshed physically as well as mentally. The mind has become calmer and more alert, thinking clearer, and energy levels have increased. Those with busy schedules have noted that Transcendental Meditation brings increased efficiency in activity; time is used more effectively. When mental and physical well being are enhanced, personal relationships also improve, a commonly reported and valued benefit of Transcendental Meditation.
Physiological research has shown that Transcendental Meditation gives rise to a state of deep rest characterized by marked reductions in metabolic activity, increased orderliness and integration of brain functioning, increased cerebral blood flow and features directly opposite to the physiological and biochemical effects of stress. Taken together, these studies clearly distinguish the physiology of Transcendental Meditation from sleep or simple relaxation.
A review of research on behavioral therapy for hypertension concluded that Transcendental Meditation provides an optimal non-clinical treatment and preventive program for high blood pressure because the technique: o produces rapid, clinically significant blood pressure reductions; o is distinctly more effective than other meditation and relaxation procedures; o is continued by a high proportion of subjects (in contrast to lower continuation rates for relaxation techniques and the frequent problem of poor compliance with anti-hypertensive drugs); o has documented acceptability and effectiveness in a wide range of populations; o is effective in reducing high blood pressure both when used as sole treatment and when used in concert with medication; o reduces high blood pressure in 'real life' environments outside the clinic; o is free from harmful side-effects or adverse reactions; o reduces other cardiovascular risk factors and improves health in a general way.
However, all forms of meditation are not good for everyone, any more than all foods or herbs are. For this reason both yoga and ayurveda recommends a proper lifestyle and an integral approach to meditation that considers both our different faculties as well as our individual nature.
Meditation and Prayer People in the West are more familiar with prayer than meditation. Prayer is a general term and many types of it exist, but the term usually refers to an active form of meditation in which we project an intention-calling on God to help us or our loved ones in some way. Both ayurveda and yoga use prayer (prarthana) along with mantra and meditation. Generally mantra is energized prayer, a prayer or yogic wish directed by special sound patterns or vibrations of the cosmic Word. Meditation is a silent or contemplative form of prayer in which there may not be any movement of thought or intention.
Devotional meditation is an intensely personal matter and is usually conditioned by one's religious background. Other than worshipping personal gods and deities who appeal to a particular person's consciousness, another important form of devotional worship is-the worship of planetary deities and cosmic powers behind the forces of time and karma.
Affirmation, and Visualization The use of affirmations goes along with prayer and meditation. Affirmations can be employed to emphasize our relationship with the divine or our own inner healing powers. People suffering from negative thoughts about themselves, are often trapped in self-doubt. Affirmations can be very strengthening in such conditions.
Yet affirmations should lead to action and not substitute for it. To do anything in life requires a belief that one can do it and a positive intention to make the effort. In such cases one cannot use the affirmation as an excuse for inaction.
Visualization goes along with prayer and meditation. One may visualize healed and improved conditions that one wishes to achieve. One can also direct healing energy to those who are sicker or to the parts of ones own body that need improvement. Such visualizations usually employ certain colors and mantras to be directed along with the breath. Visualizations can also be of deities or beautiful natural scenes to clear the mental field.
Meditation in Transformation "As a man wishes in his heart, so is he." We create our karma and ourselves through our intentions at a deep level. Motivation or will is the main mental action behind the creation of our beings, the deep-seated conditionings behind the mind and heart.
While yoga cultivates the will for self-realization, Ayurveda cultivates the will of healing. A statement of intentions should precede whatever action one decides to undertake: "I intend to do the following action (in the following manner for a specific period of time) in order to produce the following result."
The path to self-transformation is like a plan or a strategy. No action is done without the seeking of some sort of result. This result depends upon the intention behind the action, not simply the superficiality of what we do. Higher or spiritual actions seek a result that is not ego-bound, like the development of consciousness and the alleviation of suffering for all beings. Lower actions reflect ego desires-to get what we want; to accomplish, achieve or gain for ourselves in some way or another. Spiritual motivations direct us within and help liberate the soul. Ego-based motivations direct us without and bind us further to the external world.
Self transformational motivation or will implies not only developing our own will but also allying our will with the forces that can help it achieve its aim. Therefore it involves a seeking of help, blessings or guidance. Such motivations are generally projected as various affirmations and vows during meditational practices.
There are many meditation techniques. Some of the techniques are quite simple and can be picked up with a little practice. Others require training by an experienced instructor. It is important to note that because of the effects of meditation on repressed memories and the resulting psychological impact, a first time meditator may go through some discomfort initially; hence it is always a good idea to be under the care of a qualified practitioner as one starts to meditate.
In Christian spiritual training, meditation means thinking with concentration about some topic. In the Eastern sense, meditation may be viewed as the opposite of thinking about a topic. Here the objective is to become detached from thoughts and images and opening up silent gaps between them. The result is a quietening of our mind and is sometimes called relaxation response. In Christian mystical practice, this practice is called 'contemplation'.
But whatever the technique of meditation, the following aspects are generally common to all of them:
The best environment for the practice of meditation is a quiet place with minimum distractions. It sometimes helps to set up a meditating room with special pictures, icons, holy books or even burning incense sticks and soothing music in order to infuse the atmosphere with spiritual energy. It is best to sit in a well ventilated room, which receives natural light.
The best attitude to follow while practicing meditation is that of a receptive observer. Try to observe either the mind or the immediate physical environment, without thinking anything in particular. Watch the mind slowly empty itself out.
Assuming a certain posture has been central to many meditation techniques. Classic postures, integral to Hatha Yoga, are given in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which codify ancient yogic healing practices. Other postures appear in the Kum Nye holistic healing system of Tibet, in Islamic prayer, and in Gurdjieff movements. Posture is considered very important in Zen Buddhist practice as well.
A major characteristic of prescribed meditation postures in many traditions is that the spine is kept straight. This is true in Hindu and Buddhist yogas, in the Christian attitude of kneeling prayer, in the Egyptian sitting position, and in the Taoist standing meditation of "embracing the pillar." People with misalignments may feel uncomfortable in the beginning when assuming these postures. The spine is put back into a structurally sound line, and the weight of the body distributed around it in a balanced pattern in which gravity, not muscular tension, is the primary influence. It is possible, although it has not been conclusively proven that this postural realignment affects the state of mind.
In the East, the cross-legged postures, with head and back in vertical line, are considered ideal for meditation. In the classic the Lotus posture, when the legs are crossed with the feet on the thighs, right feeling of poised sitting for meditation is imparted. These postures are difficult and even painful at first for those who are not familiar with them. For such inexperienced individuals, two other traditional Eastern postures-half lotus posture and the Burmese posture-are usually much easier to follow. For those who prefer to meditate while sitting on a chair, there is the Egyptian posture.
In Hindu meditative techniques, the object the attention dwells on is often a mantra, usually a Sanskrit word or syllable. Usually the meditator repeats an affirmation to increase positive spiritual energies. Alternately prayers or are often said for calming the mind. Various short rituals are also prescribed before meditation, such as making offerings of fragrant oils (for earth elements), holy water (element of water), lamps (fire), incense (air) and flowers or garlands (ether). These rituals help in cleansing the psychic energy and preparing the mind for meditation.
In Buddhism, the focus of attention is often the meditator's own breathing, a luminous sphere or a translucent Buddha Statue. Some traditional Buddhist meditations follow forty concentration devices or meditation subjects for tranquilizing the mind as prescribed by the Buddha These are the ten recollections (anussati), ten meditations on impurities (asubha) , ten complete objects (kasina), four immaterial absorption (arupajhana), four divine abiding (brahmavihara), one perception (ahare patikulasanna) or contemplation of the impurity of material food, and one defining contemplation (vavatthana) on the Four Elements (earth, water, fire, and air).
Whether one performs mantra meditation or Buddhist breath meditations, they both fulfill all the elements required for meditating for relaxation.
It is always recommended that meditation be practiced daily, twice a day for best results. Beginners are recommended to meditate for about half an hour daily. Later when one gets used to the practice, one hour is ideal.
Hindu methods of meditation prescribes about a quarter of an hour for performing pranayama, the same for mantras and the same for silent or devotional meditation. What is emphasized is the regularity of practice at all costs.