Joseph Walser. Encyclopedia of Religious and Spiritual Development. Editor: Elizabeth M Dowling & W George Scarlett. Sage Reference, 2006.

There is a story about a young Hindu man named Ratnadatta who grew up in a city in Northern India. Ratnadatta’s father, a wealthy merchant, was a Buddhist devotee. Ratnadatta was ashamed of his father’s religion and criticized it on many occasions. His father objected that both Hinduism and Buddhism teach the importance of compassion and controlling the mind, so his son’s criticisms were unwarranted. Ratnadatta would not listen. The father eventually told the king of the ongoing argument with his son. The king, who supported the religions of all his subjects, hatched a plan. He informed the son that he had been judged guilty of a crime and would be executed in 1 month. Ratnadatta spent the next 2 months worrying about his impending doom and could neither eat nor sleep. At the end of 2 months, he was brought before the king. The king told him that he would not be executed, and that he had pronounced the sentence so that Ratnadatta would learn fear of death. Ratnadatta thanked him, and then asked about the path leading toward liberation from death. The king gave him a bowl full of oil and told him to walk around the city with it. He ordered a contingent of soldiers to follow Ratnadatta, giving them orders to behead him if any oil spilled. Now, at that time there was a festival in the city, but Ratnadatta was so focused on the oil that he did not notice any of it. The king said, “You should practice religion with the same concentration. A man who withdraws from outward distractions realizes the truth and will never again be caught in the web of actions. Thus, I have taught you the essence of the doctrine of liberation” (Somadeva, 1994: 68-69).

This story serves to illustrate two points. The first concerns the centrality of disciplining the mind for the spiritual quest. The second point is that techniques to discipline the mind are not the sole possession of any one religion, but are important to different degrees within all religious traditions. “Meditation” is nothing other than a set of techniques designed to discipline the mind. While this definition may seem simple, the variety of techniques and goals of meditation found across religious traditions vary widely. The following will shed some light on the major varieties of meditation commonly encountered.

When people commonly refer to meditation, they are usually thinking of a formal, usually seated, meditation in which the meditator attempts to transcend the ordinary world and attain a state that defies any attempt to put into words. The meditation techniques found in religions are actually broader in scope than this common definition would suggest. Meditation techniques fall into roughly two groups: meditations that attempt to transcend language and rational deliberation in order to calm the mind, and those that embrace language and deliberation in order to discern what is true according to the principles of religious teaching. In either case, the meditation techniques taught by a religion will always be a product of the doctrines taught by that religion.

Techniques Transcending Language and Deliberation

Meditations of the first category can be found in most of the world’s religions. In most cases, this is the preferred spiritual practice for those who believe that the ultimate reality (whatever that may be) transcends all language. In many of these traditions, the approach to the ultimate state is broken down into stages. While the ultimate goal may be equally indescribable across traditions, the stages of meditation leading to the ultimate goal reflect the doctrinal specificities of the tradition from which the meditation springs.

Certain branches of Hindu yoga hold that the only reality is the Self (atman), which, it turns out, is none other than God. This “Self” is not, however, the self that we are normally familiar with. Rather, it is the unmanifested source of everything that we think and perceive. The self that we are normally aware of is actually an illusion. In these systems of yoga, meditation aims at cutting through the thoughts that lead to the false understanding of the self in order to arrive at the true Self. Since this true Self cannot be captured with words, the closer the mind can come to a wordless state devoid of any representation, the closer it will be to being aware of the true Self. The approach to this self can be taken in stages. An early model for the stages of the path can be found in the “four stages of consciousness” of the Mandukya Upanishad. In that text the path to the Ultimate is likened to four states of consciousness. The first stage is waking consciousness in which subject and object both exist. The next stage is the dream state, in which subject and object appear to exist, but are revealed to be illusions upon awakening. The third stage corresponds to the state of dreamless sleep, in which there are no subjects or objects represented to consciousness. The fourth stage goes beyond the subtlety of the third and is experienced only by practiced yogis. It is a state of consciousness in which no mental representation occurs at all, and is the state in which the Self/God manifests in its true nature.

Buddhists also have meditations that aim at reducing mental activity. In the story of Ratnadatta above, Ratnadatta begins to learn to meditate by focusing on a bowl of oil. By focusing hard on one thing, he is not distracted by the festival that goes on around him. Meditation on physical objects is a common starting point for Buddhist “calming” (samatha) meditation. The stages of Buddhist meditation, like that of Hindu meditation, will step by step remove more and more distractions until a state of one-pointedness and equanimity is reached. Buddhists, for the most part, do not believe in a true Self in the same way that Hindus do. They do, however, use very similar meditations to calm the mind and cut off its discursive activity. The goal of these practices is to stop the mental processes that ultimately lead to sinful actions and to see that there is no Self.

Similarly, Taoists held that the Tao (the “Way”) is the source of all things, and that all things are in some way manifestations of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching encourages the practitioner to “embrace the One”—a statement that has been interpreted in many ways through the centuries. One early form of Taoist meditation sought to mentally withdraw from all manifestations in order to merge with the original Tao.

In Christianity, there have been several saints who have maintained that God or Christ is completely transcendent to the point that we cannot say anything about God. This aspect of Christian mysticism is usually referred to as the “via negativa” (the negative way) or “apophatic theology” (theology by way of denial). Examples can be found in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint John of the Cross, and Theresa of Avila. There are times, especially during prayer, in which the silence of God is experienced. Christian mystics will often refer to this wordless state of mind as “contemplation” as opposed to “meditation” which is more of a reasoned analysis. It is these saints (usually called “mystics”) who describe a progressive path to attain union with that source.

In Judaism, the progressive approach to the indescribable is best represented in the literature of Kabbalah. The Sefer Yetzirah presents nine stages (called “spheres”) and 22 paths that one may traverse in meditation to the indescribable Ain Soph (Kether).

Techniques Embracing Language and Rational Deliberation

If we limit our definition of meditation only to those techniques that avoid language and calm the mind, then we will miss many of the other ways in which religions discipline the mind toward religious ends. The majority of meditations used by religions involve or even embrace language as a means of attaining the goal. Here it will be helpful to remember that the English word “meditation” itself comes from the Latin stem meditor, meaning simply “to reflect, muse, consider, meditate, give attention.” The same holds for the Sanskrit word dhyana, which also means “attending to” or “thinking about something.” Dhyana is the root from which the Japanese word “Zen” is ultimately derived. As noted above, Christian mystics used “contemplation” for mental calming meditations, and reserved the word “meditation” for meditations using language. So, what are some of the different ways that religions use language to discipline the mind toward religious ends?

Meditation as Principled Discernment

Meditation techniques that embrace language aim at cultivating a principled discernment of the world. That is to say that the meditations are to transform the way that we ordinarily see the world so that we learn to see all things through the lens of the religious doctrine. Perhaps the most basic of such disciplines consists of accurate self-reflection and evaluation. A good example of this can be found in Buddhism. A Buddhist practitioner who engages in vipassana (“seeing with discernment”) or “mindfulness” training will systematically go through all parts of daily experience to see each thing as impermanent, suffering, and without a soul. Other meditations of this category serve as remedies for specific mental afflictions. For example, if someone is distracted by sexual desire, they are to meditate on the body as disgusting. After the meditator has mentally enumerated all of the tissues, fluids, and waste products of the body and mentally labeled each of them “disgusting,” the desire for someone else’s body wanes. By the same token, if the meditator is distracted by anger, she is to meditate on the feeling of compassion toward someone that she likes and then extend that feeling to all sentient beings. Unlike meditations aimed at stopping deliberative thought, mindfulness meditation is meant to be performed as one goes about his daily business. It is not reserved exclusively for seated meditation.

Similar meditations are also found in Christianity and Judaism. For example, for some varieties of Christianity, the awareness of one’s sin is crucial to spiritual progress. Ignatius of Loyola describes the enumeration of sins as a formal meditation technique in his Spiritual Exercises. Even beyond such formal meditations, Christians are to reflect on their lives and are to discern and catalogue certain actions as sinful more generally. In this respect, the sacrament of confession not only serves as an opportunity for forgiveness, but it serves as an occasion for mindful self-reflection on the details of one’s behavior. As a spiritual discipline, Christian reflections on sin differ from nonreligious types of self-awareness insofar as the identification of sin is guided by Church teachings on what is and is not a sin. Similar reflections on one’s sins can be found in virtually every religion. In Judaism, the time of Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection and penitence. Awareness of sins is also important in Buddhism, and plays a large role in Pure Land Buddhism (especially in Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhism).

It should be noted at this point that techniques employing language and rational deliberation are not necessarily the opposite of techniques that transcend language and rationality. Two examples will suffice. The first example can be found in Zen Buddhism. In certain forms of Zen (especially forms taught in Korea and that taught by the Japanese master Hakuin), one is to meditate on a kind of spiritual riddle called a koan. The typical example of a koan is the question, “What did your face look like before your mother and father met?” This kind of question does not have a rational solution and yet the practitioner is to meditate on the question as if it had an answer. The strenuous application of deliberation on the koan produces doubt. The practitioner is to cultivate and hold onto this doubt until it becomes an all-consuming “great doubt.” Finally, when it seems that all hope is gone, the practitioner somehow breaks through to the other side of the question and achieves a standpoint in which all things appear as they really are. The final experience may be “beyond words and letters,” but the path to that experience was paved with words.

A similar process can be found in Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism. The meditations on sin have two purposes. The first, of course, is to become aware that one has done wrong and to generate a resolve not to sin again. The second purpose, which receives greater or lesser emphasis depending on tradition, is to prepare the soul for the experience of grace. When one realizes the magnitude and pervasiveness of one’s own sinfulness, one stops trying to deserve grace. Only then does the true experience and meaning of grace become apparent. In Protestant forms of Christianity, the experience of grace after having realized the extent of one’s sin is called the “conversion experience.” In Pure Land Buddhism, this is called the experience of the “other power” (tariki) of Amitabha Buddha.

Focus on the Divine


Other meditation techniques that involve the constructive activities of the mind include visualization. We all dream, daydream, and fantasize. Visualization uses the same mental function that produces fantasies and turns it toward a productive end. Instead of letting the mind wander wherever it will, the meditator uses visualization to construct a particular image, usually strictly guided by tradition. For example, Pure Land Buddhism holds that there is a Buddha named Amitabha who lives in a faraway Western Paradise. The meditator is to mentally create a picture of that paradise in detail, starting from its outer rim and proceeding to the center where Amitabha teaches. If the meditator works long enough at this visualization, then she may either go to that paradise in a dream or Amitabha will visit her in a dream. Furthermore, if one does this practice for long enough, Amitabha will come to the meditator at the time of death to take him or her away.

There are similar visualizations in Christianity. A good example of Christian visualization techniques can be found in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Just like the Buddhist practitioner, Loyola teaches the Christian practitioner to visualize Christ in a certain setting, such as at the resurrection, in the synagogue, and so on, and to put himself in the picture.

Names and the Power of Words

For many religious traditions, the words of scripture or the names of divine beings become the objects of meditation. The classical Hindu tradition held that gods have at least three bodies. The first body is what the god is in itself. Only rare humans can have any knowledge of this. The second body of the god is a body made of sound. This sound is not the temporary sound that we hear for a moment and is gone. Rather, it is a transcendent sound that is heard with the mind. This sound is made more concrete as it becomes embodied in the Sanskrit alphabet. The sound is finally made physical when one utters it with the physical mouth as a mantra. The more times that one utters the mantra, the more manifest the god associated with the sound becomes. In Hinduism, the practice of repeating the mantra of a particular deity is called jappam.

The belief that the essence of a deity is somehow contained in a mantra or in the name of that deity is also found in Buddhism. The most striking example of this can be found in Pure Land Buddhism, in which Amitabha Buddha offers his name to all sentient beings, so that all they have to do is to utter his name with a pure heart in order to be reborn in his paradise.

Western religions also employ meditations on the name or names of God. For Christians, the name of Christ is especially powerful, while Muslims will recite the 1,001 names of God. For Jews, the Tetragrammaton is especially important. In certain Kabbalah texts such as the Sepher Yetzirah, just as in Hinduism, it is the very alphabet itself that emanates from God and forms creation.

When it comes to meditations using language, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the phenomenon of meditation from that of prayer, especially in Western religions. A primary example of this is the Rosary or the Twenty-first Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want…”). Many people will recite the Twenty-first Psalm as a kind of prayer, with the exception that it is not a prayer insofar as it does not ask for anything. It is rather a statement of fact that the meditator reflects upon as she or he recites it.

Music and Emotion

Related to the meditations that use language are meditations that use music. Here it should be remembered that a meditation is a technique that disciplines the mind toward a religious goal. Here again, there are two ways in which music is used as an aid to disciplining the mind.

There are some religious traditions which hold that certain notes and harmonies actually produce effects on the mind. Pythagoras believed that all things in the universe moved according to certain harmonics. Confucianists held that music was a vehicle through which the gentleman could cultivate his virtues. Some Indian Tantric traditions hold that certain notes can actually awaken the spiritual centers in a yoga practitioner.

More importantly, music connects with our emotions. When we go to the movies, the visual image and the dialogue tell us what is happening, but it is the musical score that tells us how to feel about what we are watching. As human beings we all have emotions. For many traditions, what separates a sinner from a saint is not that the sinner has emotions and the saint does not. The main difference lies in the fact that the saint’s emotions are directed toward the ultimate, while the sinner’s emotions are directed toward the common. As such, religious music will often try to cultivate certain common emotions (usually love), and direct them toward the uncommon, namely the Divine.

Examples abound. Medieval Christian mystics are well known to have written beautiful love poetry with God or Christ as the lover and the singer as the beloved. The Song of Solomon is often interpreted in this light. Love songs are put to similar use in the Ghazzals in Islam and in the many Kirtans and Bhajans dedicated to Hindu gods.

Some traditions combine the belief in the power of the name of the God with the power of music to produce devotion. Some Christian sects will use hymns both to produce the emotions of joy and devotion as well as to utter the name of Jesus. In a similar fashion, Hindus of the Gaudiya sect founded by Caitanya in the 16th century (often referred to as Hari Krishnas) sing the name of God (“Hari Krishna”) repeatedly to music, drumming, and sometimes dancing in order to produce a similar feeling of devotion.