Varieties of meditation practices

Traditionally meditation has been practiced to achieve a direct experiential knowledge of an absolute such as God, Being, Oneness, Buddha nature—each of these labels being a product of a religious or personal belief system. In the last 60 years, large numbers of people in Europe and North America have learned and practiced meditation, many of them with a quite different purpose in mind: To relieve distress or improve psychological well-being.

By what methods do people seek these differing outcomes? One of the more common forms of meditation involves repeating a sound (sometimes called a “mantra”) either silently or aloud, and the meditator is taught to focus attention on the sound, not favoring other thoughts, external stimuli, and desires. The sound or mantra may be chosen by the meditation teacher as being particularly suitable or powerful for the individual; it may be the name or attribute of a god (Krishna, Ram), or it may be the name of a revered teacher (other examples are “so-hum,” “om,” “she-am”). The degree of focus or concentration on the mantra varies according to teachers, schools, and systems. In some the meditator is urged almost to grit the teeth and strenuously push away thoughts and sensations that intrude during meditation. But most practitioners are taught to develop a more relaxed awareness, neither driving thoughts nor sensations away, but not holding on to them either. Rather, the idea is to persistently and easily return attention to the central focus (Hewitt 1978).

Objects of meditation can also be visual such as a candle flame, a picture of a teacher or “guru," or meaningful visual symbols such as the Christian cross or the Judaic star. Even movement can be used as a focus of meditation; the repetitive touching of the tips of the four fingers with the thumb or the simple act of walking are both movements used as a focus for attention in meditation. There are meditation practices that focus on our impermanence and death; others that focus on transmitting compassion to our loved ones, to enemies, to our communities, to all sentient beings, and to all beings in the universe. There are practices that involve visualizing oneself as a revered god or teacher such as Krishna, Buddha, or Ganesh. And in Zen Buddhism, one practice is “just sitting" or shikantaza in the meditation hall and experiencing all that arises in an accepting and attentive way. The practitioner is urged to be diligent in maintaining awareness and curiosity in order to learn about the nature of the mind and, thereby, the nature of existence.

In the last 20 years there has also been an exponential growth in the use of “mindfulness” techniques in which the meditator may attempt to let the attention dwell on “all that is here and now” in his or her environment and consciousness (Ie, Ngnoumen, and Langer 2014a,b). We will return to discuss mindfulness later in this chapter and it is addressed by many of the contributors later in the volume. And, as we review historical and cross-cultural practices of meditation, still further varieties of meditation practice are revealed.

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