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Meditation: A Popular Path to Inner Peace

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

Choose a quiet place and sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair, keeping your back straight. With eyes partially closed, focus on breathing naturally, preferably through your nose. Become aware of the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your nostrils without attempting to control it. Concentrate on that sensation to the exclusion of everything else.

Your mind is likely to be very busy at first and you’ll be tempted to follow different thoughts as they arise. Resist the temptation and stay focused on your breathing. If your mind wanders after stray thoughts, return it to the sensation of breathing right away, and repeat the process as often as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.

Imagine: Practicing a simple breathing meditation like this for just 10-15 minutes can help you overcome stress and gain a sense of inner calm, even if you’ve never meditated before.

Meditation has been practiced since ancient times in one form or another—often as a religious discipline, but also outside the realm of religion. People meditate to achieve a higher state of consciousness or spiritual growth; to increase mental clarity, creativity or self-awareness; or just to reach a quiet, peaceful state of mind.

With such profound benefits to be learned, it’s not surprising that many age-old meditation techniques have been adopted and/or adapted for practice in the 21st century. And they have given rise to "new" forms…new ways of applying time-honored knowledge.

Various kinds of meditation familiar in the United States today are Westernized blends of Eastern philosophy and mysticism that found mainstream roots during the 1960s and ’70s, when youths from diverse backgrounds rebelled against traditional belief systems. In exploring other cultures, many of those young people embraced meditation practices—and discovered a valuable tool for better, healthier living that they carried into the future.

This article does not presume to explain the spiritual and/or philosophical bases of meditation techniques, but rather to offer an overview of some well-known forms of meditation for people who would like to explore possibilities, and have such a tool in their daily lives…

Buddhist Meditation is concerned with the transformation of the mind and the use of the mind to explore itself and other phenomena. It is said that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree, and the 28 Buddhas recounted in Buddhist mythology all used meditation to make spiritual progress.

Although Buddhists practice many types of meditation, it is widely held that to attain enlightenment, one must master two kinds: Shamatha and Vipassana. The former disciplines the mind using a "single-pointed focus," suppressing emotions and conceptual thinking processes, and allowing the individual to gain a sense of peace and balance. The latter involves close observation of the physical sensations of the body and how they interconnect with the mind, fostering calm and clarity—much like the simple meditation at the start of this article.

Yoga Meditation, gifts from Hindu philosophy and culture, is also practiced in many forms. The word "Yoga," derived from the Sanskrit yuj, meaning "to yoke" or "to unite," refers to techniques and disciplines that help a person control the mind, body and senses in order to transcend the ego.

In Yoga meditation, the practitioner focuses his/her attention and stills the mind to perceive the "self." This allows for a greater sense of purpose and strength of will, as well as a clearer mind and improved concentration as he/she discovers the wisdom and tranquility within.

Swami Vivekananda, the modern proponent of Hinduism who first introduced Eastern philosophy to the West in the late 19th century, once said,

"…The meditative state of mind is declared by the Yogis to be the highest state in which the mind exists. When the mind is studying the external object, it gets identified with it, loses itself. To use the simile of the old Indian philosopher: the soul of man is like a piece of crystal, but it takes the color of whatever is near it. Whatever the soul touches...it has to take its color. That is the difficulty. That constitutes the bondage."

Yoga fosters a kind of self awareness that permits the individual to attain and maintain a sense of physical and mental liberation.

Taoism includes a number of meditative and contemplative traditions, and the large, diverse array of breath-training practices associated with them greatly influenced certain martial arts, such as Chinese T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

T’ai Chi is often referred to as "meditation in motion," and two other phrases associated with Taoist meditation also reflect that concept. "Movement in stillness" refers to energetic movement in passive Qigong and seated Taoist meditation. Its converse, "stillness in movement," is a state of mental calm and meditation achieved while practicing the T’ai Chi form.

That’s good news for people who want to enjoy the benefits of meditation but would rather not have to keep still.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was born in 1895 in what was then colonial India, was a renowned writer and speaker on philosophical and spiritual subjects—among them, how to bring about positive change in society, the nature of the mind, and meditation.

However, stressing the need for a revolution in the human psyche that could not be brought about by any external religious, political or social entity, Krishnamurti used the word meditation to mean something other than a systematic practice to "change" the mind.

"Man, in order to escape his conflicts, has invented many forms of meditation," he said. "These have been based on desire, will, and the urge for achievement, and imply conflict and a struggle to arrive. This conscious, deliberate striving is always within the limits of a conditioned mind, and in this there is no freedom. All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation. Meditation is the ending of thought. It is only then that there is a different dimension which is beyond time."

For Krishnamurti, meditation was choiceless awareness in the present… learning about yourself by observing all aspects of your life: from the way you walk, what you eat and the things you say, to any hatred, bitterness or jealousy you may carry inside. "If you are aware of all that in yourself, without any choice, that is part of meditation."

Transcendental Meditation (a.k.a. TM), based on India’s ancient Vedic tradition, was introduced to the West in the 1950s, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began teaching this mantra meditation during a series of world tours. The popularity of TM soared in the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was discovered by celebrities like the Beatles. But you don’t have to be rich and famous to practice TM; you just need the proper training.

According to devotees, practicing TM for 15 to 20 minutes, twice daily, lets the mind "settle inward," beyond thought, bringing the practitioner into a natural state of "pure alertness," or "transcendental consciousness." Attuned to a chanted mantra, without the stresses, distractions and activities of the outer world, the brain can function with improved coherence while the body has a chance to rest deeply. In the process, the meditator can access that vast reservoir of energy, creativity and intelligence inherent within all human beings. Is it any wonder the Beatles jumped on the bandwagon?

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is not meditation, strictly speaking, but rather an intensive program that blends mindfulness meditation, Yoga and selected martial arts to address a variety of health problems.

Developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979, MBSR zeroes in on the mind as a factor in stress and stress-related disorders, capable of affecting numerous autonomic physiological processes—lowering blood pressure, for example.

The Yoga/martial arts portion of the program helps reverse the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, helping to overcome patients’ muscle weakness and atrophy. The meditation aspect of MBSR helps cultivate participants’ awareness of the unity of mind and body, and the ways that negativity can undermine health: physically, emotionally and spiritually. MBSR teaches people to work consciously to maintain positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Recognized for its proven effectiveness at easing the pain of people who suffer from traumatic injury or chronic illness, MBSR has evolved into a respected, widely used form of complementary medicine. The program is now offered in more than 200 medical centers, hospitals and clinics around the world, including such prominent facilities as the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine and the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine.

No matter what practice you follow, meditation is about touching a powerful human essence that transcends religion… something that is not created by the meditation, but rather already exists deep within us, waiting patiently to be recognized and released. Those who experience the joy of this essence may call it nirvana, a state of enlightenment or, perhaps, rebirth.

Yet the true beauty of meditation is that at its core, it is a way to become more aware of yourself and your spiritual nature—a path to a more expansive view of the world and your place in it.

Ellen Eller is a freelance writer and editor based in western Massachusetts, and a regular contributor to Wisdom magazine.

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