The importance of meditation cannot be overestimated. It is one of the best tools we know to be able to change the internal “software” running in the mind. It is relatively easy to learn — most induction practices take around 30 minutes — but people spend an entire lifetime mastering how to use this special state of mind.
All meditation techniques have in common the production of a certain state of mind that is different than normal consciousness. At it’s most basic, we can consider meditation a physiological response undefined something built into the human body. So you might say, that relaxation response associated with meditation is opposite of the fight or flight response associated with stress.
It was Hans Selye who coined the term “fight or flight” response as an easy to remember label for the physical and mental changes associated with stress. While our ancient ancestors felt stress when staring face to face with a tiger or a wolf, our wolves are more likely to wear business suits and be called the boss.
During the fight or flight response: breathing increases, the heart races, muscle strength increases, you become more alert, focused on the source of danger. Mediation produces the exact opposite response on the body. In fact, Dr. Herbert Benson, coined the term, “The Relaxation Response” to describe the physical effects of meditation and even wrote a book by the same title.
Benson’s research (2) on those practicing transcendental meditation showed that, breathing and heart rate slowed down, stress left the muscles, the brain waves shifted and Beta to Alpha and the of oxygen decreased.
Why Meditation May Not Work
Over the years, different traditions have developed a plethora of techniques to induce mediation. It’s rather unfortunate, that meditation, like hypnosis, is not something you can fall into. It doesn’t come about as a physical need like hunger or sleep. To achieve success, you have to:
· Decide to learn,
· Find effective induction techniques, and
· Find a good teacher, and have a
· Strong desire for continued practice.
In psychology, its long been known that techniques that reduces or cure mental illness depends both on the soundness of the theory and the skill of the person using it. Unfortunately, many who want to learn mediation sometimes are exposed to the wrong technique or have a bad teacher. Some case examples:
You go to a retreat and the teacher says, “Now I want you to do a walking meditation, follow me.” You follow him, but outside of walking painfully slow, nothing changes.
You go to a retreat and the teacher tells you to, “Focus on your breathing,” The person then stays quite for the next 30 minutes while you are sitting cross legged on a pillow, uncomfortable as hell. You keep thinking, “I have breathing all my life, what’s so magical about breathing on top of a pillow.”
In the walking meditation example, it is the wrong technique for the novice. However, for someone who has meditated for a while, walking while meditating is an interesting experience. In the second example, the teacher was at fault for presenting a perfectly good technique, but not guiding people properly through it. In this case, the teacher did not do a guided meditation technique.
Good induction techniques help to access the meditative state. It’s important to understand that meditation induction techniques are different from techniques used during meditation. But not everyone responds equally well to the same technique. For example, many traditions give the beginner a mantra. This technique generally works pretty well, but not every beginner is able to reach a deep state of meditation using this technique the first time.
Major Methods of Accessing The State of Meditation
There are plenty of meditation techniques one can use to induce the state of meditation. What most of these techniques have in common, is a tendency for the mind to focus on monotonous stimuli.
In normal conscious, the mind is constantly scanning the environment, attentive to new stimuli, things that could be of interest, things that could be dangerous. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Responding quickly to stimuli aids survival, ignoring new stimuli could threaten it. However, the mind processes momentous stimuli differently. Take for example listening to the sound of the sea. This sound focuses attention causes the mind to changeundefinedit relaxes.
The thoughts on the surface of the mind become less agitated, thoughts occur less frequently. It’s like the pond. If there are no waves, the mind is relaxed. If there are many waves, there is agitation and anxiety.
Three Types of Induction Patterns
Through Kinesthetic Means
Sitting whether in a chair, pillow or mat is unlikely by itself to induce meditation. However, sitting combined with an auditory or visual technique is likely to be successful.
a. Passive. Sitting. For someone who is just getting started, most teachers say it is important to find the right chair, the couch, the half-lotus, the full lotus and so on. What this positions have in common is a restriction of movement
b. Active. Movement. After one has developed a certain amount of practice skill, one can add movement while one is meditating. There are many types of movements. A simple one is a walking meditation. Another, is the 108 Prostrations in Korean Buddhism or the Whirling Dervishes in Sufism.
Through Visual Means
Putting the mind at rest can be done when the eyes are focused on a single point of concentration with a monotonous stimuli. Lets say you focus on the TV screen for five minutes. It unlikely that you will induces meditation since the scenes coming off the screen are anything but monotonous. However, staring at a blank wall will most certain calm the mind.
Use of Vision.
Eyes Closed. It’s common to learn to meditate with the eyes closed. This makes sense if you think about it. Minimizes that amount of stimuli hitting the mind causes the mind to become more relaxed.
Eyes Open. After hours of practice, one can begin to open the eyes, either while sitting or while moving.
Through Auditory Means
While there is some benefit to creating a nice set of sounds to calm the, most commonly, novices are given a mantra. Many of these mantras consist of a single sound, that is repeated over and over again. Some of these syllabus are considered be sacred, a name of the divine.
External. Sounds are also widely used as on object of meditation and to access the state. Sounds can calm the mind or excite it. Think for a moment how most people wake up. There you are, just in a nice relaxed state of mind. But wait, what is that, a horrible sound, so noxious that you might get out of bed. It is of course, the alarm clock. Then, to make matters worse, one hears this same, terrible sound for two or three times because on engineer has developed something called the snooze button. Internal.
Internal. While today’s technology gives one more options in the use of sounds, classically the sounds that were the most valuable were that ones that one would generate. Some of these sounds have meaning, others do not . Some are very, very old going back thousands of years. To illustrate the difference, let’s look at affirmations and mantras.
Affirmations. An affirmation is typically a phrase repeated over, and over and over again. The act of repeating the phrase may or may not help one to enter the meditative state. For example, one could repeat the words, “I am happy.” Hundreds of time but still not be happy. The same goes with, “I am meditating.”
Mantras. A mantra is a sound or series of sound help one access or stay in a state of meditation. Often these phrases go back a long time, to a language such as Pali, Sanskrit, or a Chinese dialect, so when first heard, it may not have any meaning at all.
Accessing Meditation Through the Mind
Over many thousands of years, a number of techniques have developed that center around the use of mind. For whether you can access meditation and stay depends on your use of awareness and attention.
Awareness. Awareness in this case is defined as process that does not require thought, in fact one way to explore the meaning of awareness is to stop thinking.
Attention, unlike awareness has a focus. It is directed at something, commonly called the object of meditation, whether that is a thought, an image, a sound, movement and so on. Concentration and contemplation are focused attention that occur for a period of time.
To summarize, there are many, many methods to access the meditative state. However, these methods must be practiced. And some people respond to different methods, well, differently. A auditory mantra while sitting may not work and so the person walks away thinking that meditation is not for them. However, like most things, if you persist you are bound to succeed.
The Vision of the Upanishads
Wallace Robert K, Benson Herbert. The physiology of meditation. Scientific American 1972;226:84-90.