In the spiritual market these days is a plethora of things people call “meditation”. We may think of them as largely equivalent but in fact there are huge differences. Practised long term, they’ll bring us a very different range of results.
Chatting with a friend recently, an off-hand comment revealed that their complaints about their life were partly a consequence of their practice and began when they took it up. In light of this, I wanted to clarify some points about the subject.
First thing is that a meditation practice has 2 parts:
a- the vehicle of attention
b- the technique used with the vehicle – how to use it properly
I’ll cover the technique first.
For one, if the process is guided in any way – you listen to a CD or follow a teacher’s voice – what you’re doing is hypnosis, not meditation. That’s based very simply on how the mind works. While there are distinct benefits to hypnosis, it will only ever bring you to the astral. Thus, guided practices are neither a meditation nor a spiritual practice.
True meditation, as a spiritual practice, is only ever a self-guided practice you do yourself. You may practice it in a group, but the practice itself you do yourself. It is also one that brings you to spirit. Otherwise it’s not spiritual.
Note that by “spirit” here I mean inner silence or pure being, the divine, not spirits as in angels and guides nor flashy dreamscapes. Broadly, that’s astral again for the most part.
Similarly, relaxation techniques like body awareness are just that, not meditation. They’re recommended for short periods to aid in releasing large blocks of energy or stress that may be discovered. Or in some kinds of healing. But long term, they dull the mind.
Yoga asanas and breathing exercises (pranayama) are understood to be preparations for meditation. We may be meditative during their practice, but meditation as a technique is distinct.
There are several types of actual meditation. Based on their EEG signatures, science has come to classify them as Focused Attention (Concentration and contemplative techniques), Open Monitoring (mindfulness), and Self-Transcending (effortless techniques that transcend their own practice). As readers here know, I recommend the last type. This is based on my own experience and a great deal of science. Note that the practice transcends itself into pure consciousness. People typically experience this during their first meditation. You do not need to practice for years to “reach samadhi” if you choose this route.
Further, I recommend proper instruction. While there are those out there who say you can learn meditation from a book or CD (remember the astral?), a proper instruction is in person. Partly, this ensures you are practising correctly and getting the benefits vs introducing subtle effort, the main reason people stop.
But also, in a proper instruction the teacher does a guru puja or similar to raise their consciousness as high as possible. Then they instruct the student. The result is that the vehicle is planted deep in the student and reverberates thereafter in their consciousness. This brings the deepest results.
This is why the 1970’s studies on crime and accident rates going down based on the % of the population meditating work. It’s not based on the number still meditating. It’s based on the number who start. (although many continue, it varies)
Of course, it’s much more personally beneficial if you practice the technique as instructed and prepare the ground for enlightenment. This is a true spiritual technique that connects us to our spiritual selves. It also enriches our life in many other ways, so it’s well worth your time. It’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made, paying a lifetime of dividends I cannot count.
One more thing about technique – you will never be enlightened by a technique. In fact, you will never be enlightened. Enlightenment is letting go of our identification with the me. It is not something we do. It is the Self that wakes up to itself. A technique simply helps make us a little more prone to it and helps prepare and smooth the process.
And this points to the other half of the equation. The proper vehicle. You can effectively use almost anything as a vehicle to transcend the mind. A candle flame, a mandala, a photo, etc. However, sound is the most subtle sense (vibration is first to arise) and long research in the east has led to a rich science of using sound as a vehicle. This is called mantra.
Many in India suggest you use the name of your chosen or family form of God as a vehicle of devotion. Not as a contemplation but rather a practice of surrender. Westerners however tend to be more mind-oriented. Effortless practices tend to use mantras of known good qualities for that individual but without meaning. Most use short bija or seed mantras but I have seen one that is closer to a devotional phrase.
It can be noted here that everything in Sanskrit can be found to have an associated god. But this does not mean that using a Sanskrit word is secretly praying to that god, unless that is your intention. The whole point is not associating the vehicle (mantra) with any meaning so that the vehicle transcends the mind into pure consciousness. Associating the sound with a god is a different technique.
This is another place where a properly trained teacher is important. And one that knows householder mantras. For example, the classic sound “Om” is often used as a mantra. However, this sound will cause your relationships and possessions to fall away. It is a monks mantra, not suitable for being in the world.
My friend had been following a CD meditation of OM. Fortunately a guided meditation is shallower or the effects would have been felt even more.
And frankly, Om isn’t even the correct sound. The stylized letter we so often see is Aum. The 2 letters have different genders and effects. That may give you a sense of how wise some of the teachings are out there.
The point of meditation is not to withdraw from the world but to live in the world more richly. And eventually, to live spirit in the world.
Finally, enjoy your meditation but keep it in balance. Dive deep, then come out into action. Like pulling back the arrow on the bow. Sleeping all day is not healthy. Neither is meditating too much.
The Middle way – moderation in all things.