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Meditation usually refers to a state of extreme relaxation and concentration, in which the body is generally at rest and the mind quieted of surface thoughts. Several major religions include ritual meditation; however, meditation itself need not be a religious or spiritual activity. Most of the more popular systems of meditation are of Eastern origin.
Another form of meditation is more closely akin to prayer and worship, wherein the practitioner turns spiritual thoughts over in the mind and engages the brain in higher thinking processes. The goal in this case is the receipt of spiritual insights and new understanding.
From the point of view of psychology, meditation can induce - or is itself - an altered state of consciousness.
Strategies common to many forms
Cross-legged posture. See also: Lotus Position
Meditationgenerally involves discounting wandering thoughts and fantasies, and calming and focusing the mind. Meditation does not necessarily require effort and can be experienced as “just happening”. Physical postures include sitting cross-legged, standing, lying down, and walking (sometimes along designated floor patterns). Quietness is often desirable, and some people use repetitive activities such as deep breathing, humming or chanting to help induce a meditative state.
Meditation can be done with the eyes closed (as long as one does not fall asleep), or with the eyes open: focusing the eyes on a certain point of an object or image, and keeping the eyes constantly looking at that point.
Purposes of meditation
The purposes for which people meditate vary almost as widely as practices. It may serve simply as a means of relaxation from a busy daily routine, or even as a means of gaining insight into the nature of reality or of communing with one’s God. Many have found improved concentration, awareness, self-discipline and equanimity through meditation. The disciplined self-cultivation aspect of meditation plays a central role in Taoism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally, there is religious meditation, where one meditates to commune with or on the Divine, and focus meditation, where one meditates to improve health or mental faculties. Very often there is significant overlap between these two positions in many meditative traditions.
In the Samadhi or Shamatha, or concentrative, techniques of meditation, the mind is kept closely focused on a particular word, image, sound, person, or idea. This form of meditation is often found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (especially the Pure Land school), as well as in Christianity (Gregorian chant, for example), Jewish Kabbalah, and in some modern metaphysical schools.
Mindful awareness traditions
Vipassana and anapanasati are parts of the broader notion of mindful awareness, which is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is held to lead to Enlightenment, and expounded upon in the Satipatthana sutta. While in anapanasati meditation the attention is focused on the breath, in vipassana the mind is instead trained to be acutely aware of not only breathing, but all things that one comes to experience.
The concept of vipassana works in believing that the meditator’s mind will eventually take note of every physical and mental experience “real-time” or as it happens, the goal being that it will gradually reveal to the practitioner how one’s mind unknowingly attaches itself to things that are impermanent in nature. Thus, when such things cease to exist, one experiences the suffering from its loss. This in turn can gradually free one’s mind from the attachment to the impermanent that is the root of suffering. In other words, in vipassana (insight, or seeing things as they are) meditation, the mind is trained to notice each perception or thought that passes without “stopping” on any one. This is a characteristic form of meditation in Buddhism.
However, in at least some forms of vipassana, one does not attend to whatever perceptions arise, but purposely moves one’s attention over their body part by part, checking for perceptions, being aware and equanimous with them, and moving on. This form of meditation has some resemblance with “choiceless awareness” - the kind of meditation that J. Krishnamurti addressed.
Jesus, according to the New Testament, often left his apostles and the crowds to distance himself in the wilderness areas of Palestine to engage in long periods of spiritual meditation and fasting wherein he is reported to have communicated with God. The 40 days following his baptism were spent in such a manner. Christian traditions have varying approaches to the subject of meditation, but they are especially to be found in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, often associated with monastic practises.
Health applications and clinical studies of meditation
In the recent years there has been a growing interest within the medical community to study the physiological effects of meditation (Venkatesh et al., 1997; Peng et al., 1999; Lazar et al., 2000; Carlson et.al, 2001). Many concepts of meditation have been applied to clinical settings in order to measure its effect on somatic motor function as well as cardiovascular and respiratory function. Also the hermeneutic and phenomenological aspects of meditation are objects of growing interest. Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. For example, in an early study in 1972, transcendental meditation was shown to affect the human metabolism by lowering the biochemical byproducts of stress, such as lactate (lactic acid), and by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure and inducing favorable brain waves. (Scientific American 226: 84-90 (1972)) The meditative aspects of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and some forms of yoga have also become increasingly popular as means of healthful stress management in recent years.
As a method of stress reduction, meditation is often used in hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications associated with increased stress including a depressed immune system. There is a growing consensus in the medical community that mental factors such as stress significantly contribute to a lack of physical health, and there is a growing movement in mainstream science to fund and do research in this area (e.g. the establishment by the NIH in the U.S. of 5 research centers to research the mind-body aspects of disease.) Dr. James Austin, a neurophysiologist at the University of Colorado, reported that Zen meditation rewires the circuitry of the brain in his landmark book Zen and the Brain (Austin, 1999). This has been confirmed using sophisticated imaging techniques which examine the electrical activity of the brain.
Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the “relaxation response” (Lazar et.al, 2003). The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. Benson and his team have also done clinical studies at Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan Mountains. Among other well-known studies within this particular field of interest we find the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts who have done extensive research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on stress (Kabat-Zinn et.al, 1985; Davidson et.al ,2003).
One of the most important invitatons to study the clinical effects of meditation comes from The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has had many dialogues with Western scientists about this subject and it was at the top of the agenda when he visitied Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 2003 for the “Investigating the Mind conference”.
Adverse effects of meditation
Although a considerable amount of the effects of meditation are reported to be positive, other studies are demonstrating that the case might not always be so. Meditation, if practiced unproperly or too intensely, can lead to considerable psychological and physiological problems. It is not uncommon for teachers of meditation to warn their students about the possible pitfalls of a contemplative path. In the case of Asian contemplative traditions there often exist major challenges connected to the way the particular tradition is to be applied to a Western culture, or a Western mindset. The import of eastern contemplative concepts into popular Western culture has not always been sensitive to, or familiar with the cultural matrix that the meditative concept originated from.
A growing body of clinical literature is now starting to address the phenomenon of meditation-related problems (Lukoff, 1998; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). Several side-effects have been reported, among these we find uncomfortable kinaesthetic sensations, mild dissociation and psychosis-like symptoms (Craven, 1989). From a clinical study of twenty-seven long term meditators Shapiro (1992) reports such adverse effects as depression, relaxation-induced anxiety and panic, paradoxical increases in tension, impaired reality testing, confusion, disorientation and feeling ‘spaced out’. The possibility that meditation might trigger strong emotional reactions is also reported by Kutz, Borysenko & Benson (1985). Within the context of therapy meditation is usually contraindicated when the therapeutic goal is to strengthen ego boundaries, release powerful emotions, or work through complex relational dynamics (Bogart, 1991). The tendency of meditation to disturb object-relations and release unconscious material implies that the beginning meditator should approach the practice with some moderation. It usually takes years of dedication to become stable in a contemplative practice, a perspective that is often overlooked by many new religious movements and New Age therapies.
Many martial arts schools teach forms of meditation, especially based on Buddhist or Taoist models.
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