Meditation is a very important part of my religious life. It is the path through which I was able to move from religious belief to experiential religious knowledge. This is what drew me to Buddhism. I was deeply religious, but needed a practical path in which to test my religious beliefs. Buddhism, in the form of Zen, offered me that path – the Christian church of my upbringing did not.
Having said that, I find the term meditation itself to be totally inadequate. By and large the term meditation, when uttered in the West, is usually associated with samatha or calm abiding. Zen, having good name recognition, is probably what many think of when they hear the word meditation. And, of course, now there is a lot of talk and excitement about mindfulness as a form of meditation. In the yoga class I attend with my wife, meditation, when it is mentioned, is either synonyms with relaxation or single pointed concentration.
However, in Buddhism there are a vast and varied number of contemplative, yogic and tantric practices and techniques. In all cases, these techniques, are just that – techniques. They are not ends in themselves. Some cultivate beneficial mind states or help settle the mind. Others can help us deconstruct our understanding of our “self.” Still others awaken – liberate - subtle energies in the mind/body complex. Many are preliminary practices that can be used by an experienced teacher to help a student mature in their spiritual life. All of them are intended to be practiced as part of the larger Buddhist path that includes: Ethics, a firm understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, and proper intention or motivation.
Without the larger Buddhist context for the practice of meditation we may find ourselves like the yogis in the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, who have obtained great powers (siddhis) through the practice of austerities and meditation. Often these yogis use their powers to serve their own selfish ends and are, to a great extent, amoral. Which feels, at least to me, a lot like the way meditation and mindfulness are being marketed today. The practice of meditation becomes a tool to make one a better “stock broker” or “sales person” or achieve whatever worldly success we seek. (Financial success being the siddhi of the modern world.)
Obviously, the historical Buddha was aware of these epic stories and likely studied with yogis who had the cultivation of Siddhis as their goal. Gotama, the Buddha, recognized the danger, or perhaps the futility, of such practice and laid out a curriculum that was broader than just the cultivation of elevated spiritual states or spiritual powers. He offered a complete way of life.
The questions I am toying with here is: Can Buddhist meditation that is divorced from the larger Buddhist context, still be considered Buddhist? And how do we clarify and minimize confusion when we use of the term meditation, since the term can refer to such a wide range of practices in Buddhism?
Namo Amida Bu!
Grief is a Different Kind of Meditation
In some respects I would go further. While meditation may have a calming effect on compulsive worriers if they can stick with it and not simply make it into another thing to worry about, I do think that one should exercise caution when it comes to the matter of grief and melancholy. Too many people use meditation as a means of suppressing proper feelings. When a person in major grief comes to me and says "Should i meditate?" I am likely to say, "You should be weeping not meditating." I had a conversation with Elja about this and she told me that meditation had helped her considerably when she was passing through a period of grief following one of life's disappointments. I asked her, "How was that?" and she told me that it was because every time she sat down on her meditation cushion at that time, she started to cry. Well, that kind of "meditation" certainly has my approval. It accords quite closely with the older meaning of the term. Our grandparents, at a time of grief, might well have written something like the following... "I often meditated upon how he had been, how he dressed, his little jokes. Then the feelings would flow. Sometimes I'd visit his old haunts and imagine him there and ponder the things he did and said. In this way i passed a season of grief meditating upon the one I had lost." Now meditation in that sense is certainly wholesome, but it is a distance from what people usually mean today. And if the visits to his haunts had also involved a little prayer to the spirit of the place for the wellbeing of the departed, so much the better. I think we need to find our way back to a more natural place where life in all its tones is respected and stop cooking up techniques intended to "fix" it and deprive it of all the bits that we nowadays seem to regard as unacceptable. They are the stuff of life.
Medicalisation of Meditation is a Mistake
I have just been reading "Overview: Clinical and Physiological Comparison of Meditation with.... This article is a review of major studies of the effectiveness of religiously decontextualised meditation as a treatment strategy for such conditions as depression, anxiety, stress and alcoholism. The results are very much in line with what I would assume from first principles, the chief being that meditation can help people ameliorate all of these conditions, but it is no better and no worse than a great many other things, such as hypnosis, biofeedback, systematic relaxation, or, though this is going a little outside the scope of the article which only has hints in this direction, just about any wholesome activity for which the persons concerned develop an enthusiasm. It stands to reason that doing something that you enjoy or believe in is likely to raise your morale, make you a bit more optimistic, give you something to look forward to, and make dependence upon sources of oblivion less pressing. I imagine that exactly the same must be true regarding the present vogue for mindfulness. Most of the so-called "research" in that field is not much more than publicity, but insofar as that propaganda works, people will believe in it and benefit to a degree.
It seems to me that the whole medicalisation of meditation, etc., is misguided. These are not medical procedures. Buddha was enlightened while sitting under a tree all night reflecting upon how he had wasted his life up to that point. Other people imitating him in a mechanical way will not get the same result. Isn't that obvious?
Sadness is not an Illness
Furthermore, sadness, even of a melancholic degree, worry, over-work, disappointment, agitation and so on are not diseases. They are existential conditions. In each case, they have a personal meaning and embedded in that meaning is a possibility of defeat, a possibility of stalemate, a possibility of growth and a possibility of liberation. No mere technique, applied according to a protocol, is going to be the deciding factor in outcome determination.
As a culture we have gone off the rails in this area and are tilting at windmills. We seem to be seeking a way to live without living, to reduce life to mechanism. Any genuine spiritual discipline should be pointing in exactly the opposite direction.
Nice questions. Thank you, Ananda. Yes, what is meditation and what is it for and is it still meditation when it is applied for a worldly object. Here is the definition given by the Online etymological Dictionary...
c. 1200, "contemplation; devout preoccupation; devotions, prayer," from Old French meditacion "thought, reflection, study," and directly from Latin meditationem (nominative meditatio) "a thinking over, meditation," noun of action from past participle stem of meditari "to meditate, think over, reflect, consider," frequentative form from PIE root *med- "to measure, limit, consider, advise, take appropriate measures" (cognates: Greek medesthai "think about," medon "ruler;" Latin modus "measure, manner," modestus "moderate," modernus "modern," mederi "to heal," medicus "physician;" Sanskrit midiur "I judge, estimate;" Welsh meddwl "mind, thinking;" Gothic miton, Old English metan "to measure;"
I think that from this we can see that the meaning of the term in English before contemporary Buddhism got hold of it is mostly to do with thinking and considering. Much contemporary meditation, however, consists of techniques for moving one away from thinking and considering. So there is a liguistic confusion to sort out as well.