The practice of meditation is much older than the word meditation. It stems from the Latin root meditatum, meaning “to ponder”. According to one source, “in the Old Testament hāgâ (Hebrew: הגה), means to sigh or murmur, but also to meditate. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, hāgâ became the Greek melete. The Latin Bible then translated hāgâ/melete into meditatio. The use of the term meditatio as part of a formal, stepwise process of meditation goes back to the 12th century monk Guigo II.”
The earliest written records of the practice of meditation (Dhyana), comes from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism around 1500 BC. The well-known practitioner most of us are familiar with is Buddha. According to wikipedia, “the exact origins of Buddhist meditation are subject to debate among scholars. Early written records of the multiple levels and states of meditation in Buddhism in India are found in the sutras of the Pāli Canon, which dates to 1st century BC…By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100AD included a number of passages on meditation and enlightened wisdom, clearly pointing to Zen.
In the west, by 20 BC Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of “spiritual exercises” involving attention (prosoche) and concentration and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed meditative techniques, which however did not attract a following among Christian meditators.
The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other oriental countries. Bodhidharma is traditionally considered the transmitter of the concept of Zen to China…There is evidence that Judaism has inherited meditative practices from its predecessor traditions in Israelite antiquity. For instance, in the Torah, the patriarch Isaac is described as going “lasuach” in the field – a term understood by most commentators as some type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63). There are indications throughout the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) that Judaism always contained a central meditative tradition.”
To provide a complete historical overview of meditation, would require a considerable amount of study and research, which I’d love to do. Just the Buddhist teachings and scriptures by itself are comprehensive and vast and I’ve only lifted a small tip of the veil covering this variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices myself. This post, however, will be brief and hopefully, give you a little more background, and perhaps the inspiration to explore more and eventually start meditating. I’ll focus here on sharing my personal journey with meditation.
Back to Buddha
“Gautama Buddha (c. 563 BC/480 BC – c. 483 BC/400 BC), also known as Siddhārtha Gautama, Shakyamuni Buddha or simply the Buddha, after the title of Buddha, was an ascetic (śramaṇa) and sage, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. He is believed to have lived and taught mostly in the eastern part of ancient India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BC.”
You might be familiar with the story of Buddha (Gautama) famously seated under a Bodhi tree, when he vowed never to arise until he had found the truth. After a reputed 49 days of meditation, at the age of 35, he is said to have attained Enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha or “Awakened One” (“Buddha” is also sometimes translated as “The Enlightened One”). Buddha came to the realization that meditative “dhyana” was the right path to awakening.
Styles of Meditation
There are many ways to meditate, and many of them are based on Buddhist tradition. These meditation techniques focus on developing mindfulness, concentration, tranquility, and insight. The “Live & Dare” website highlights 23 different “styles” of meditation and Giovanni Dienstmann—a writer and meditation teacher—provides a nice compilation of the different techniques, their origins, and guidance on how to practice them.
The 23 meditation styles described are divided into two groups: General Types and Specific Styles. Under the General types, you’ll find “Focused Attention”, “Open Monitoring”, and “Effortless Presence”. Most specific meditation styles contain one or more aspects of these three general types. Giovanni then groups them into different categories, as described in the brief overview below.
Buddhist Meditation: Zen meditation (Zazen), Vipassana meditation, Mindfulness meditation, and Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta).
Hindu Meditation: Mantra meditation, Transcedental mediation, Yoga meditation, and Self-Enquiry meditation.
Chinese Meditation: Taoist meditations and Qigong.
Christian Meditation: contemplative prayer and reading, and “sitting with God”.
Guided Meditation: Guided imagery, Affirmations, and Binaural beats.
My meditation journey started around 2002, as I was trying to make sense of my squeaky (for lack of a better word) relationship, experiencing job loss, a pending move abroad, and most importantly, being pregnant during this already challenging time.
I often felt overwhelmed and stressed and was wondering if and how I could learn to better manage my emotions and thoughts. At that time I was predominantly living in my head, a typical pragmatic and “matter of fact” Dutch girl. I’d been exploring the spiritual, mystical, and other “alternative” life approaches and philosophies, but at that point, I realized I really needed to reconnect with my heart and give the brain a break.
I read somewhere that we think about 50,000 thoughts per day and up to 70% of those are believed to be negative. Although my thoughts were not all negative, they were plenty, and I desperately wanted to clear my mind and be more at peace. I quickly found out that to “just sit” with my eyes closed, trying hard to NOT think any thoughts was a tough task. I had no idea what I was doing and I was happy to discover the technique of meditating with the help of so called “Binaural Beats”.
I’d obtained a cd from a company called Centerpointe, the founder Bill Harris had developed a product called Holosync. “Holosync is a sophisticated form of neuro-audio technology allowing the listener to easily enter various desirable states, and creating many desirable mental, emotional, and spiritual changes, through entrainment of electrical patterns in the brain. This creates a synchronization, or balance, between brain hemispheres, enhancing mental/emotional health and mental functioning. In the process, new neural connections are created between the right and left brain hemispheres, leading to what is known as “whole brain functioning.” In addition to states such as accelerated learning ability and enhanced creativity, Holosync can help a listener easily enter and benefit from states of deep meditation, until now accessible only to long-time meditators practicing many hours a day for many years.”
For a while I enjoyed listening to the 2 CD’s I acquired as part of the “first level” of meditation, it helped me to relax, but often made me fall asleep. Soon I got pulled into their sophisticated marketing machine, where I was nudged into buying more audio files in order to move to the next level of meditation. I refused to become part of this what seemed like a never ending deal and started to look for other techniques.
Another (in)famous meditation practice that can become a costly affair is Transcendental Meditation (TM), an “absolutely effortless technique” which is used and promoted by a large and famous crowd. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced the TM technique and TM movement in India, in the mid-1950s. In February 1968, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh in northern India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, their “involvement” contributed to its successful start in the West. This practice uses a personal mantra, which can only be given to you by a trained TM teacher, the beginner/start course—which includes your personal and secret mantra—can cost up to $2500! The TM organization is rumored to be worth between $2 and $3 billion. Meditation can be big business.
Soon, the arrival of my baby girl, followed by a pending divorce, and another long distance move, required all my attention. I had enjoyed a taste of meditation, and after this appetizer, I was ready for the main course.
Again, I found myself wondering about the type of meditation that would work best for me and discovered that guided meditation provided me with a little more “structure” so to say, and slowly, day by day, I found more mental space, peace, and silence. I found many (free) guided meditations and enjoyed many of them.
Of course, life staged a few more hurdles on my path, this time as I had just left my husband as a first step in the divorce process, I also lost my job. Here in the US, there’s not much of a safety net, so after depleting all my savings, and fruitless job searches, I entered a dark and scary time.
My way of dealing with this “demon” was literally, feeding it. “Feeding Your Demons” is the title of a book by Tsultrim Allione. Lama Tsultrim is an author and teacher and has studied in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage. She first traveled to India and Nepal in 1967, and in 1970 she became one of the first American women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun.
The approach of acknowledging the inner (and sometimes outer) demons and feeding them, rather than struggling against them, was originally articulated by an eleventh-century female Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Machig Labdrön (1055–1145). The spiritual practice she developed was called Chöd, and it generated such amazing results that it became very popular, spreading widely throughout Tibet and beyond.
Tsultrim provides a glimpse of this process on this site, it helped me with becoming aware of the demons (or challenges), face them, and giving them a place, which often resulted in removing their power or influences on me.
Something similar I found in the book “The Places That Scare You” by Pema Chödrön, also a Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher. “We always have a choice, Pema Chödrön teaches: We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder.”
The insights from both Tsultrim and Pema I used during meditation, as a focused thought to “ponder” and gain clarity about. I learned a lot from both ladies, above all to not allow fear to rule my life, and be more accepting of what is.
Another form of guided meditation I practiced is called Sahaja meditation. Over the course of a year I joined a group every week and together we would practice the process of awakening our chakras through some silent statements and movements. Sahaja is taught for free via a huge worldwide network of volunteers. Founded by Shri Mataji in the 70-ies, “Sahaja Yoga meditation is the technique she developed to sustain the awakening experienced through self-realization. The word Sahaja means both spontaneous and “born with you”, describing this subtle energy (Kundalini) which exists in every human being. Contrary to popular belief, Yoga does not designate a series of exercises or postures, but in fact means “to join, to unite”…when this union occurs, the integrating force of the Kundalini brings balance and peace both within and between individuals.”
Although I enjoyed this form of meditation a lot, I no longer practice it. To practice as a group is special and enhances your own meditation, but my busy work schedule as a single mom got in the way.
My personal favorite “way” of meditating is listening to the Moola Mantra (also named The Oneness Mantra). Just listening to this for 30-40 minutes, while silently reciting the mantra has an amazing effect, including peacefulness, acceptance, and…love.
Sat Chit Ananda Parabrahma
Sri Bhagavathi Sametha
Sri Bhagavathe Namaha
The simplified meaning
- Om – We are calling on the highest energy, of all there is
- Sat – The formless
- Chit – Consciousness of the universe
- Ananda – Pure love, bliss, and joy
- Para brahma – The supreme creator
- Purushothama – Who has incarnated in human form to help guide mankind
- Paramatma – Who comes to me in my heart, and becomes my inner voice whenever I ask
- Sri Bhagavati – The divine mother, the power aspect of creation
- Same tha – Together within
- Sri Bhagavate -The Father of creation which is unchangeable and permanent
- Namaha – I thank you and acknowledge this presence in my life. I ask for your guidance at all times
As many meditation traditions there are, there are even more teachers. This is just one site where you can explore a few. Studying different practices has connected me with several great teachers. More recently a friend mentioned Sharon Salzberg, who has studied with many great teachers for over 40 years. She spent a significant time together with another famous teacher Ram Dass in India. This website features many of her talks, which she often ends with a guided meditation (check the earliest ones from 2014). In this podcast, she talks with Tara Brach, another great teacher.
While writing this post I realized that most of my teachers are women of different Buddhist schools. I wonder where this “surge” of (mostly Western) females comes from, as the Buddhist tradition is very male oriented. “In Theravada Buddhism, it is impossible for a woman to be a bodhisattva, which is someone on their way to Buddhahood. Bodhisattva can be a human, animal, serpent, or a god, but is never a woman.” However, in the tantric iconography of the Vajrayana practice of Buddhism, female Buddhas do appear. Perhaps this is something to explore for a future post, the role of women in Buddhism.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to meditate and use a mixture of different techniques that fit me personally. Following the breath and the feeling of my breath stays at the heart of my practice. As Sharon said, “The breath is portable”, it can be felt anywhere, standing in line or on the metro. Tip: You can download the mindfulness bell here (provided by Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh), throughout the day it’ll remind you to take a minute and focus on your breathing, a wonderful opportunity to “take a breather” and return to the “now”.
Breathe my dear.