Why do we meditate? Is it because meditation has become popular in the west over the last few decades and everyone wants to try it out? Or, to put it simply, is it intrinsic to meditate? Even though meditation has gained popularity in the west over the last 70 years, in the East, meditation has been the norm and has been practiced for thousands of years. Meditation originally became popular after the Buddha made it an integral part of Buddhist spiritual practice. Buddhism spread far and wide due to the extensive appeal of its non-denominational nature. As other parts of the world started embracing Buddhism, the original practices adopted some of the local spiritual strengths and came to be practiced as such. However, all forms of Buddhist meditation techniques have come out of Buddha’s experiences about the nature of existence and the causes of suffering and ways of liberating oneself from suffering. Additionally, when one practices meditation, one can experience peace, calm, joyfulness, compassion and better connection to nature and humanity. These benefits are stepping stones to ultimate liberation. Whatever the ultimate goal may be, the benefits of regular meditation are huge, giving us much needed relief from the daily stress, frustration, anger and other negative emotions.
Buddhist meditation techniques come out of two basic practices – concentration and insight – also called mindfulness and awareness. These practices are also called shamatha, vipassana, zazen, vipashyana. The techniques involved in these meditations are briefly described below.
1) Shamatha Meditation: It is also called mindfulness meditation. It is an introductory practice that is a precursor to Vipassana meditation. The primary objective of the Shamatha meditation is to stabilize the mind by using an anchor – which is the breath. This meditation allows us to see the mind as it is, which is full of thoughts both good and bad. The practitioner has to be aware that these are passing thoughts and be mindful to not judge oneself. Keeping that anchor of breath allows the practitioner to watch the thoughts come and go. Eventually as the mind stabilizes we gain much tranquility and learn to accept the thoughts as they are, which eventually calms downs the mind as thoughts start to lessen. Now there is a stable awareness to proceed to the next step of meditation which is Vipassana.
2) Vipassana: It is also called insight meditation and involves attention to the passing sensations. With this meditation the practitioner directly experiences the deep connection between the body and mind. The physical sensation that form life in the body have a deep connection to the mind, therefore conditioning the mind in a certain way. Seeing and understanding how these sensations work on the mind is the process of transforming oneself through observation.
3) Zazen Meditation: This practice is geared towards cultivating stillness within. This technique has specific instructions (such as the counting of the breath) to engage the awareness in the uninterrupted experience of the present moment, without thoughts. The technique eventually enables the practitioner to develop focus and concentration to stay in the present moment for longer and longer durations.
4) Metta Bhavana Meditation: It is also called loving-kindness meditation. This technique involves developing compassion towards oneself and extend that to all beings in a step by step fashion. There are specific phrases that one utters starting with oneself going outward to others to develop the feeling of love and compassion. This is an unconditional, overflowing feeling of love and compassion towards everyone and everything. The feeling has to first start with unconditional acceptance of oneself and then project that to everything else.
No matter the type of meditation, to experience the benefits of the practice, one has to make a genuine commitment to daily practice. The requirements are quite simple. All that is needed is a yoga mat, cushion (if needed) to sit on, a quiet space that is not cluttered, so the mind has less distractions to deal with. The length of time need not be intimidating. Starting with even a 5 minute daily practice can bring positive experiences, which in itself is great motivation to do it daily, and to gradually increase the sitting time. Can you make a 5 minute commitment to start meditating to cultivate peace, joy, tranquility and awareness into your life? If that is enough motivation, there is no better time than now to begin this beautiful inward journey.
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