The word meditation refers to a wide variety of techniques for calming and focusing the mind, highly developed in eastern cultures such as India and Japan. What many forms of meditation have in common is escaping the limitations of the normal verbal thought processes. Normally we talk to ourselves all the time. To meditate, one allows language to flow on by without engaging the mind. In doing so, one becomes aware of reality in a more direct way. The conscious thought process 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 not really meditating."

What do many forms of meditation have in common?

     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 actively suppressing them. This can be an unfamiliar process for people accustomed to manipulating thoughts actively, either grasping them or pushing them away.

What are some techniques used to achieve meditative states?

Beginning meditators often do best if they focus attention on something like breathing or a repeated chant or sound, to prevent the mind from wandering. There are various ways to focus attention. Paying close attention to breathing is one widely used technique. A classic form of meditation involves focusing attention at the center of the body, about the level of the navel. Yogic meditators in India often use a mantra. This is a syllable, word, or sentence repeated over and over.

Fast (1977) describes what often happens to a person who tries to meditate 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. It 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 uses a simple, age-old meditation technique that does not depend on any particular philosophy or religious orientation. He sets aside a half hour a day for meditation, preferably in the morning. He seats himself on a comfortable cushion, ankles in front, seat slightly raised by the cushion. Next he gives his full attention to his breathing. He does 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. (p.47)

What are some characteristics of meditative states reported by meditators?

What happens when meditative calm is achieved? The resulting mental state, if one can call it that, is hard to describe. In beginners, surprising sensations may well up from within. Experienced meditators report a freedom from attachment to the senses or the normal thought process, resulting in a state some describe as pure experience or contentless awareness. Some say it is as if a screen is lifted and reality is perceived directly without an intervening thought process.

Why is the word "void" potentially misleading to Westerners?

The word void is sometimes used to describe this experience. But that can be misleading to Westerners, who interpret a void as something empty. To meditators, the feeling is fullness, not emptiness. The mind is empty of ordinary conscious thoughts so it becomes full of what is always there but never grasped, a sort of pure sensation of being. Many meditators simply refuse to put descriptions on their experience, saying it is not something that lends itself to verbal formulation.

Of course, 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]

What sorts of theories about progress in meditation are common in eastern religions?

The student who wrote the preceding essay refers to different levels of meditation. Theories about levels or stages of meditation are common in eastern religions. One might think of the mind being constructed in layers. As each layer is allowed to grow quiet, the one below it is revealed. Ultimately one reaches a complete quietness, openness, or fullness of meditation (choose your metaphor). This state can be profound and illuminating.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey