Compiled by Percy Nanayakkara
Throughout history, there have been numerous traditions of meditation. The history of meditation goes far beyond known human history. From very early times, yoga and other forms of meditation have been essential practices in Hinduism. However, meditation has not been the exclusive privilege of any particular religion. It has been a common practice of many religions. These traditions have continued generation after generation without falling out of practice because they all bring about some beneficial result to people who practice them. While they are all recognized as different forms of meditation, all of them may not produce the same benefits. But they all yield good results; in doing so, they have attracted many serious minded people around the world. Some of the commonest forms of meditation are Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Sufi, Zen, Samatha, Vipassana, and Satipatthana. Of these meditations, Yoga, and Transcendental Meditation are believed to be of Hindu origin. Sufi is from Islam, and the rest of them have been introduced by Buddhism. Meditation has not being a common or widespread practice among the followers of Judaism and Christianity although they too have their own variations of meditation. Thus meditation is a common aspect of many religious traditions.
The Buddha's life story gives detailed accounts of how Siddhartha learned yoga practices from accomplished teachers. However Siddhartha did not give up his search for other forms of meditations. He continued experimenting further with new techniques of meditation. Siddhartha's achievement which made him a Buddha was the result of these experiments. The Buddha taught his disciples the essentials of Buddhist meditation. These traditions continued from generation to generation. From master to master through the ages there have been individual approaches and interpretations to the original practices. When Buddhism was received in different regions of Asia, they added their own methods and interpretations. Japanese Zen and Tibetan Tantra are good examples of such modified versions of Buddhist meditation. From getting up in the morning, till lying down at night, nine-tenths of our actions are automatic. To meditate is to cease the mechanical, the automatic, the habitual; to stop preoccupying the mind with a lot of sensory stimulation, sensory proliferations or distractions. To let things settle. When the dust begins to settle, things become clearer. Although Satipatthana, Vipassana, or Zen can be done in any position, people usually think that a sitting posture is the best position for a meditator. Our mental picture of a meditator is that of a person in the lotus posture. However any particular position is not quintessential for proper meditation. In Sri Lanka, most Buddhist temples have prominades called Sakman Maluwa for monks to practice walking meditation. Several reasons account for the popularity of the lotus posture. The cultural and historical background in India is perhaps the major reason. It is a habit of Indians to sit in lotus posture. The Satipatthana Sutta itself makes special reference to it as a way of getting ready to do certain meditations like the meditation on breath (anapana sati). Obviously, the meditator's lungs remain fully expanded and spinal cord stays straight when one sits in lotus posture. This helps lungs and brain to function freely. Besides, it is a stable and settled position for the meditator. It is not unusual for a person to fall asleep when the mind becomes calmer and calmer. If it happens the meditator will not suffer injury, because he or she is steady in the sitting position. We can imagine what could happen if one falls asleep during the walking meditation. Therefore sitting posture, especially the lotus posture, is a firm and balanced physical position for the meditator. However, we must be mindful of the fact that human body is uncomfortable in any posture if we maintain it for a length of time. As such if you are more comfortable on a low stool or a chair that should be quite appropriate.
Before achieving the Buddhahood, Siddharta Gautama developed supranormal skills based on yogic practices. This type of meditation is known as samatha because by calming down one's thoughts and by cultivating the power of concentration one's mind reaches supranormal states or dhyaana. Thus, samatha meditation came from the pre-Buddhistic practices. What actually led Siddhartha to the Buddhahood was his own experimentation in meditation. This new meditation is known as Vipassana. Vipassana is a Pali term which means insight or penetration into reality. It is through Vipassana that one can attain Nibbana, the Goal of Buddhism. Even the one who has mastered samatha does not attain Nibbana; he has to develop Vipassana in order to attain Nibbana. An essential step of vipassana is satipatthana (i.e. mindfulness or awareness). Through satipatthana the meditator becomes aware of the present moment of life, each and every movement of his or her physical and mental existence. That kind of awareness is essential to have penetrating insight into the physical and mental phenomena which encompasses the whole world. Being aware of your feelings is traditionally known as vedanaanupassana satipatthana.. When the process of feeling is seen clearly with satipatthana, the feeler disappears. In the absence of the feeler, observant, or ego, the meditator becomes in touch with the flux of life or the stream of existence. Normally one does not notice details in one’s activities. Only when one becomes mindful one sees the minute details of one's activities. Similarly in being fully attentive, one can take note of all the movements taking place in daily living. A step beyond the physical movements is thought. The meditator begins to see his or her thoughts, he or she begins to recognize the rising, continuing, and the fall of each thought. Thus, characteristics like impermanence of the physical and mental entities become revealed to the meditator. Seeing these characteristics is Vipassana. This way Satipatthana leads to Vipassana. One's progress towards enlightenment depends on Vipassana meditation.
At this point, let us see what modern researchers have done in the field of meditation. First of all modern researchers have recognized that the meditator's brain functions are distinct from that of the non-meditator. In addition it has been discovered that the meditator's brain is not subjected to habituation process, whereas all the others live as victims of habituation of their brains. See the following two experiments. in Electroencephalographic (EEG)Analysis of Meditation
In 1963 a fascinating and unique report on Zen meditation was presented by Dr Akira Kasamatsu and Dr Tomio Hirai of the Department of Neuro-Psychiatry, Tokyo University. It contained the results of a ten-year study of the brain wave or electroencephalographic (EEG) tracing of Zen masters. The EEG tracing revealed that about 90 seconds after an accomplished Zen practitioner begins meditation, a rhythmic slowing in the brain wave pattern occurs known as alpha waves. This slowing occurs with eyes open and progresses with meditation, and after 30 minutes one finds rhythmic alpha waves of seven or eight per second. This effect persists for some minutes after meditation. What is most significant is that this EEG pattern is notably different from those of sleep, normal walking consciousness, and hypnotic trance and is unusual in persons who have not made considerable progress in meditation. In other words, it suggests an unusual mental state; though from the subjective reports of the practitioners, it does not appear to be a unique or highly unusual conscious experience. It was also found that a Zen master's evaluation of the amount of progress another practitioner had made correlated directly with the latter's EEG changes.
Another finding of the same study concerned what are called alpha blocking and habituation. “To understand these phenomena let us imagine that a person who is reading quietly is suddenly disturbed by a loud noise. If the same sound is then repeated with a few seconds later his attention will again be diverted, only not as strongly nor for as long a time. If the sound is then repeated at regular intervals, the person will continue reading and become oblivious to the sound. A normal subject with closed eyes produces alpha waves on an EEG tracing. An auditory stimulation, such as a loud noise normally obliterates alpha waves for seven seconds or more; this is termed alpha blocking. In a Zen master the alpha blocking produced by the first noise lasts only two seconds. If the noise is repeated at 15 second intervals, we find that in the normal subject there is virtually no alpha blocking remaining by the fifth successive noise. This diminution of alpha blocking is termed habituation and persists in normal subjects for as long as the noise continues at regular and frequent intervals. In the Zen master, however, no habituation is seen. His alpha blocking lasts two seconds with the first sound, two seconds with the fifth sound, and two seconds with the twentieth sound. This implies that the Zen master has a greater awareness of his environment as the paradoxical result of meditative concentration.”
EEG tracing is only one example found in modern research. Psychology plays a large role in the modern world and meditation is essentially a psychological affair. Therefore, it is worthwhile for us to compare and contrast briefly modern psychology with Buddhist psychology. The Buddha teaches that the world is operated by mind (cittena neeyati); pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, progression and regression, in brief the whole human civilization is a product of thought. An individual's future and the future of all mankind depends on our power of thinking. The role of consciousness is clearly enumerated by Dr Douglas Burns in his “ Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology”. “ If the basis of Christianity is God, the basis of Buddhism is mind. From the Buddhist viewpoint, mind or consciousness is the core of our existence. Pleasure and pain, good and evil, time and space, life and death have no meaning to us apart from our awareness of them or thoughts about them. Whether God exists or does not exist, whether existence is primarily spiritual or primarily material, whether we live for a few decades or live forever all these matters are, in the Buddhist view, secondary to the one empirical fact of which we do have certainty; that is the existence of conscious experience as it proceeds through the course of daily living. Therefore, Buddhism focuses on the mind; for happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain are psychological experiences”.
Cognitive therapy has become a major outcome of psychology today. This is not surprising at all because a greater part of life is mental; even the physical body is operated by the mind. Mental health should be maintained in order to live a happy life. When one is aware of the feelings that exist on the surface of one's mind, gradually the hidden feelings begin to be revealed by themselves. In using the particular meditation, awareness of feeling, one can take one's feelings under control and manage them in a productive way.
Every person needs meditational therapy in order to make progress towards enlightenment. If one is satisfied with the usual and habitual worldly life one might not make any attempt to walk a religious path or experiment with meditation. As one should notice, higher benefit of meditation is received by the normal and sane persons. These people are not trying to correct some abnormal mental states, rather they are trying through meditation to achieve the highest spiritual goals possible for mankind. Satipatthana Sutta teaches four types of meditations. They are, kayanuppassana or Bodily or Physical awareness, vedanauppassana the sensory awareness, being aware of thoughts or mind itself is cittanupassana, being aware of certain perceptions such as attachment, hate, love or compassion is dhammanupassana. If we look at the four Satipatthanas - body, sensory, mind, and dharmas, (Kayaanupassana, vedananupassana, cittanupasana, dhammaanupassana), through meditation they become subtler and subtler gradually.. To be mindful of mind or dharmas certain concentration is needed. Clearly sitting down quietly helps one's mind to see itself and to see the content of one's mind. Seeing one's mind is a very essential step in the process of meditation. This is the doctrinal reason for the sitting position to become so attractive to the meditator. Nevertheless, we should not go to an extreme and cling to a sitting position or lotus posture as if it is indispensable to meditation. Nibbana can be realized in any posture. Here the Buddha has taught the meditator to be attentive when he or she is going forward, returning, looking straight ahead, looking in other directions, bending arms-legs- or body, stretching out arms- legs- or body, getting dressed, wearing any thing, eating, drinking, tasting, using the toilet, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, waking, talking and remaining silent. In short, the Satipatthana Sutta teaches that one has to be mindful all the time. It is clear that in each and every bodily movement one must be alert. All the time, through and through one's daily living, one has to be attentive to each and every action. Any object or any event can serve the purpose. The characteristics of the world are present in everything and in every motion of the world. When one's mind is sharp enough one is able to comprehend the true nature of reality. That is what meditation does to the mind, it develops insight in the attentive mind. It is similar to what Isaac Newton experienced observing a falling apple. The law of gravity exists and works everywhere and that particular apple is not the only thing that ever fell to the ground. But maturation of the scientist's wisdom and his observation coincided with the fall of that apple. And he was observing it with his intellectual awareness. He was paying enough attention to that particular event in the nature. So it opened his insight into a universal principle. Meditative attention works the same way.
When we were very young we learned to walk and it has become a habit to us. There is no meditation in habitual walking. It becomes a meditation when the walker pays his or her attention to the act of walking. Just habitual movement of the legs is not meditation. Only when one is aware of the movement of one's feet, does that act of walking become a meditation. If the meditator slows down the habitual movement of the feet, then, paying attention becomes easy to the meditator. Gradually one begins to see some occurrences one has not hitherto seen clearly. For instance, raising a foot, moving it, and placing it, become as distinctive from one another.. Being aware of such feelings of the feet belongs to vedanaanupassana satipatthana. Being aware of the movement of the feet belongs to kaayaanupassana satipatthana. The above quoted EEG experiment has proved that the non-meditator's mind becomes insensitive to the environment and his mind functions on habituation while the meditator's mind remains alert to the outside world. This is paradoxical to meditative concentration. Simply because the sensitivity becomes sharper in the meditative mind, the meditator becomes more and more sensitive to the condition of the world. People and their pleasure and pain become almost like a part of the meditator himself or herself. That is how he or she grows in compassion. He or she cannot remain aloof doing nothing about the suffering in the world. As much as with quiet meditation he or she becomes involved with people, other living things, and rest of the world in a positive and helpful manner instead of running away from the fellow humans and other beings. The true nature of the meditative mind being a sensitive one, there is no closing of such a mind to the world. Because of the strength of such a mind it could remain uninjured by the worldly situation. However, with the same strength the meditative mind works to eliminate the suffering of others and goes out to serve the world. Such is the paradox of the quiet mind. Contrary to the quiet mind, the noisy mind just drifts on habits seeking more and more pleasure, and becomes insensitive to others feelings and needs. If many practiced meditation, this world will be a compassionate, caring and loving world.
Although meditation practices are not limited to the Buddhists, it must be pointed out that the goal of meditation is the goal of Buddhism. They are one and the same. Therefore, the religious path of Buddhism and meditation are inseparable. The well-known Eightfold Path itself incorporates meditation as three of its strands. Thus the journey on the Buddhist path does not start until one starts Buddhist meditation.
REFERENCES: 1. Diigha Nikaaya, the Satipatthana Sutta. 2. “Elements of Buddhist Meditation” Prof Shantha Ratnayake 3. “ Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology” Dr Douglas Burns
"Let one conquer anger with compassion,
evil with righteousness;
Let one conquer the miser with generosity
and the liar with the truth"