Brian Smith. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Many religious traditions have practices that could possibly be labeled meditation. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, these practices are usually associated with prayer, contemplation, or recitation of sacred texts. In the religious traditions of the Native Americans, Australian aboriginals, Siberian peoples, and many others, what could be identified as meditation techniques are incorporated within the larger rubric of shamanism. It is, however, in the religions of Asia that meditation has been most developed as a religious method. Meditation has played an important role in the ancient yogic traditions of Hinduism and also in more recent Hindu-based new religious movements such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation program. But it is most especially in the monastic or “elite” forms of the various traditions of Buddhism (Theravada, Tibetan/Vajrayana, and Ch’an/Zen) that meditation techniques have taken center stage and have been developed to the highest degree of sophistication and complexity.
Meditation can be loosely defined as a mental regimen or discipline designed to promote concentration and the capacity for what is called “one-pointedness” (ekagrata) of mind. There are many different meditation methods and many different recommended objects on which to meditate. Some traditions emphasize breathing exercises that focus the mind on inhalation and exhalation; others instruct the practitioner to meditate on the subtle workings of his or her own mind. Still others emphasize concentration on certain symbols (such as cosmic representations known as mandala s or yantra s) or on sacred sounds called mantras. In some traditions it is God or one of the gods (or one of the Buddhas or bodhisattvas) upon which one meditates, while in others it is a problem or puzzle (the Zen koan) or a topic of an analysis such as death or attachment to the physical body. In yet other meditations it is a virtuous emotion or quality such as renunciation, compassion, or loving-kindness upon which one meditates, and in still others it is simple mindfulness or awareness (the constant watchfulness entailing “being here, now”) that is emphasized.
But fundamentally all forms of meditation have as their goal the ability to concentrate for long periods of time single-pointedly and intensely on the object of meditation. The mind is sometimes likened to a pool of water that is muddy and turbulent; the goal of meditation is to calm the mind so as to be able to see its true nature clearly. Alternatively, the goal of meditation is said to be the suspension of ordinary discursive thought and the attainment of a state whereby all dualities are transcended—especially the distinction between the perceiving and thinking subject and the object of perception or thought. In any event, Hindu and Buddhist texts alike claim that the perfection of the ability to meditate well and for long periods of time will help produce in the practitioner high spiritual states of awareness, supernatural powers, wisdom and insight into the true nature of reality, and finally, salvation itself (moksha or nirvana, both of which entail liberation from ignorance, suffering, and rebirth).
The practice of meditation in India goes back to at least the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. and probably much earlier. The ancient Hindu mystical and philosophical texts called the Upanishads refer to meditation, and the early texts of Buddhism assume its existence as a technique taught by a wide variety of religious teachers. By the time of the turn of the Common Era, if not centuries before, meditation had become highly systematized in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
In all the meditation traditions originating in ancient India, emphasis is placed on finding a quiet, solitary place (the wilderness, a monastery, or an ashram or retreat) and assuming a sitting posture that will be conducive to meditation. The most famous of these postures, or asanas, is the “lotus position,” whereby the meditator sits with legs folded and feet resting on the thigh or knees. The hands are kept folded in the lap or in a special gesture called a mudra, and the eyes are kept closed or slightly open in an unfocused, downward-looking gaze. The back is kept straight to enhance alertness and to help the “inner channels” of the mystical body open up and run smoothly.
In Hinduism, meditation is most frequently encountered as part of a more general practice of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classical source on ancient Indian yoga dating to around 200 or 300 C.E. and perhaps earlier, meditation techniques are basically indistinguishable from the practice of yoga. For Patanjali, one might say, yoga is meditation. Yoga is defined as the “cessation of the turnings of thought” (Yoga Sutras 1.2), implying the ability to control even the subtlest example of the mind’s activity.
Patanjali organizes the practice of yoga into eight “limbs” or parts (ashtanga). The first two limbs of yoga entail living a life guided by moral principles and personal observances. The third limb of yoga encompasses the physical postures, which have as their purpose to prepare the body for the meditation techniques that follow. The fourth limb is control of the breath, which “makes the mind fit for concentration” (Yoga Sutras 2.53). The regulation of the breath is followed by “withdrawal of the senses,” the disengagement of the sense organs with their objects and the turning inward of thought. This allows the yogin to develop the final three limbs or stages: concentration (“binding thought in one place”), meditation (unwavering attention on an object), and pure contemplation or samadhi, defined as “meditation that illumines the object alone, as if the subject were devoid of intrinsic form” (Yoga Sutras 3.1-3). These last and culminating stages of the yogic practice are “internal” (as opposed to the “external” limbs that came before) and when they are “focused on a single object constitute perfect discipline” (Yoga Sutras 3.4, 7).
Various techniques for “fixing” the attention (trataka) were developed in later esoteric Hindu traditions, all of which were meant to induce the trance state called samadhi. In some cases the practitioner was instructed to fix his or her attention on certain places in the body—the crown of the head, the spot between the eyebrows, the tip of the nose, the navel, and so on—in order to gather one’s mental energy at a single point. In other instances, the practitioner was instructed to focus on a small object such as a speck on the wall or a mustard seed, or to stare at a distant object to the exclusion of all others in one’s purview, or to focus on one or another of the Sanskrit letters or some other image. Meditation on those powerful, sacred sounds known as mantra s (the most famous of which is “om“) was especially common. In the theistic sects, the object of meditation was often the deity. In the Bhagavad Gita, for example, the practitioner is advised to sit quietly, fix one’s sight on the tip of the nose, and meditate on Krishna.
But it is especially in the Buddhist traditions that stem from India (and were then spread throughout Asia) that meditation becomes absolutely central. Gautama Buddha was said to have achieved his enlightenment through the method of meditation, and ever since, meditative concentration, together with ethics and wisdom or insight, has been the pivot of Buddhist practice. Early Buddhist texts list a set of forty possible topics of meditation (in Pali, kammatthana). Some are labeled “devices” (meditation on the elements, or on shapes or colors) that help the meditator fix his or her concentration on a particular image. Another topic is designated “recollections,” whereby the meditator recalls the virtues of the Buddha, the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), or the sangha (the Buddhist community) or is reminded of his or her own mortality through a meditation on death’s inevitability.
Yet another set of meditation topics is designed to wean the meditator from attachment to the physical body. He or she is encouraged to concentrate on the repulsive and impermanent characteristics of the body or of food (and what happens to it as it is digested), or is urged to focus on various aspects of a decomposing corpse. Still another kind of meditation recommended in the early texts of Buddhism concerns what are known as the “four stations of Brahma” or the “four immeasurables”: friendliness or loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity or even-mindedness. These meditation topics are sometimes recommended to meditators of different personalities or proclivities. For a devotional type of person, for example, meditation on the Buddha or the Sangha might be most appropriate, whereas for a sensual type of mediator the most effective topic might be the disgusting nature of the human body.
Buddhist traditions analyze the results of meditation into eight stages of increasingly subtle states of consciousness called the “absorptions” or “trance” states of higher consciousness (in Pali, jhana; in Sanskrit, dhyana). These are, it is said, the states of mind the Buddha passed through in deep meditation on his way to enlightenment. The first is described as a mental state of detachment from sensual pleasures and craving, in which, however, the discursive intellect is still active. In the second state, the mind grows more still, concentration increases, discursive thought ends, and great joy and peace arise. The third stage is characterized by the transcendence of sensual joy itself and the attainment of equanimity, which brings about a higher form of bliss, and by the diminishing of the sense of self as the subject of this experience. The fourth trance state is where consciousness of all duality abates and one achieves the “utter purity of mindfulness,” which lies beyond all words. The second set of four even subtler states of mind are called the “formless” jhana s because they are based on contemplation of formless subjects: the infinity of space, the infinity of consciousness, nothingness, and “neither perception nor nonperception.” The last of these is where subject and object are nearly indistinguishable and all pairs of opposites are totally transcended.
Such deep states of concentration are to be linked, however, with “insight” (in Pali, vipassana; in Sanskrit, vipashyana) into the true nature of reality in order to produce the state of liberation the Buddhist meditator seeks. When combined with the ability to focus deeply on the object of meditation, the analysis of reality reveals it to be impermanent, without essence or “self,” and thoroughly bound up in suffering. It is these deep insights into the true nature of reality, gained through the ability to concentrate in meditation, that will lead the seeker to “release,” or the “extinguishing” of ignorance and suffering (nirvana), just as such techniques brought the Buddha to his enlightenment.
The Mahayana traditions equally emphasize the importance of meditation and most especially the combination of the ability to focus the mind one-pointedly (what is sometimes here called “calm abiding” or shamatha) and the penetration or insight into the true nature of reality termed vipashyana. Such a potent synthesis is said to lead the meditator to a realization of the “emptiness” (shunyata) of intrinsic existence of all things. Nothing, according to this view, has existence independently or has a self-nature; everything exists only dependently or nominally. Such a realization of emptiness in deep meditation becomes the impetus for the meditator’s own enlightenment.
In the various Mahayana traditions, meditations designed to attain the realization of emptiness range from attempts to empty the mind completely of all conceptual thought, to the stripping away of all conceptual imputations of reality and then analyzing what is left, to even more radical techniques to shock the discursive mind out of its complacency so as to recognize its true, innate, and intuitive “Buddha nature.” Among the most famous of these latter meditative tools is the koan used in the Ch’an/Zen schools of Buddhism. The koan is a kind of a riddle or puzzle designed to break down ordinary ways of thinking and jolt the meditator into the wholly different mind-set of “enlightenment” (Japanese satori).
Other Mahayana traditions are more devotional in their emphasis. Here, meditation takes the form of fixing the mind on the Buddha or bodhisattva to whom one is devoted and whom one asks for help. In these traditions, prayers or mantra s become the centerpiece of meditation practice, or the name of one of the Buddhas or bodhisattvas is invoked repeatedly. The recitation of the phrase namu amida butsu (“Homage to Amida Buddha”) in the Japanese Pure Land sects is an example of this kind of meditation. In some of these devotional Buddhist traditions, certain Sutras or sacred texts are thought to have such salvific power that the mere repetition of the text or even just chanting the condensed verbal essence or title of the Sutra will produce efficacious results in the meditator. In the Pure Land sects of Buddhism, meditation sometimes revolves around complex visualizations of one or another of the “paradises” or “pure lands” of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the hopes of attaining a rebirth there.
Meditation, a feature of many traditional religions, is becoming part of secular life in the modern world. Meditation techniques seem to produce states of mind that Western scientists are beginning to think may very well have measurable effects on the mental and physical health of the meditator. Sports trainers, coaches, and psychologists utilize visualization techniques to help professional athletes perform better. The reduction of anxiety that comes from the ability to focus and calm the mind in meditation is now generally recognized, and meditation is sometimes integrated into the workplace to help workers deal with stress. Neuroscientists and doctors are finding not only that accomplished meditators can achieve states of focused attention and concentration far beyond what scientists previously thought was possible but also that meditation seems to have a positive effect on the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Meditation, for centuries practiced primarily by monks and ascetics in Asia, is increasingly being mainstreamed in the West as a technique that promotes relaxation, better attention and concentration, the reduction of stress, and general good health.