For Lovers of Meditation

Part 1 - What is Meditation

by Blue Banyan Australia

The idea of using exercise and nutrition to assist in the treatment of illnesses and chronic diseases may seem like common sense now, but this was not the case decades ago. The occurrence and treatment of disease was actually viewed as some discrete phenomenon completely out of the hands of individual patients. The relics of this old way of thinking can still be seen in cancer clinics around the world. Despite a huge amount of research showing the benefits of exercise for cancer patients, and despite the adoption of this evidence by leading cancer research organizations, many clinics and insurers have yet to share the benefits with their patients.

Meditation has appeared in the Western world at several times in the past, but mainstream culture has only recently begun accepting the benefits to health and a well-balanced life. Perhaps not so curiously, given statistics like one in three women and one in two men destined for a cancer diagnosis, meditation has gained acceptance primarily as a tool for the prevention and treatment of disease.

Meditation has been a ritual practice in uncounted cultures stretching back to pre-historic times. Specific practices have been isolated for the purpose of sharing techniques across culture boundaries. Similarly the practices have been isolated for study in university and private laboratories. This removal of context is necessary for researchers to eliminate confounding variables, yet it is entirely new to meditation. To gain a deeper understanding of this complex phenomenon, the following questions will prove helpful.

Has meditation reached mainstream audiences in North America?

Are the modern practices of meditation fundamentally different from those of the originating cultures?

Is meditation an entirely new concept for Western culture?

How is meditation defined and studied?

Meditation Goes Mainstream

Around the country meditation has been incorporated into birthing classes, addiction treatment programs, gyms, hospitals, and universities. A growing number of doctors, though still a minority, are recommending the practice to patients with heart disease, emotional disorders, migraine headaches, and even diabetes. This acceptance may seem sudden at first glance. The National Institutes of Health only performed their first survey on meditation in 2007. However, mainstream acceptance has only grown in the U.S. since the 1960s. Most Americans had not even heard of the practice until the Beatles returned from their first visit to the ashram of the Mahareshi in India.

An understanding of just how well meditation is now accepted by the mainstream requires a deeper look at the practitioners. Contrary to popular perception, the meditation facilitators and researchers are far from the image of tree-hugging hippies or robe-wearing monks. Most have never puffed on a hookah or even sat in a drum circle.

Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches meditation techniques at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His is no fringe post either. This Professor Emeritus of Medicine founded both the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Health Care and Society. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine at Harvard uses a combination of peripheral physiological measures and neuro-imaging to study effects of meditation. University and corporate publications routinely outline benefits and make suggestions on how meditation can improve the qualities necessary for achievement and leadership.

In other words, meditation is taking a stronger role in Western culture and many of its distinct sub-cultures. In part this is due to the rapid advances in communications and international trade. The Dalai Lama is able to reach many thousands of Americans and others around the world via his Twitter account, and professionals from around the world are regularly coming to North America for vacation, education, or simply to live. Widespread adoption of meditation is also due to a shift in consciousness. Never has it been more imperative for humans to see themselves as interdependent actors in Nature's drama.

However it is used, meditation does not exist without a context. No person ever felled a tree without some purpose in mind, and you would search in vain for a single person laying a paved road. Meditation is at once a goal-oriented act taken on by a person and an act in the context of community. This has always been the case as can be seen by looking to the many origins of Western practice.
The Meditative Context and Variations on the Theme

Every meditative context is at once a singular and a community experience. What does this mean? Once again, exercise can be used to provide a backdoor to understanding the phenomenon. Every individual who runs half a mile is engaged in the same activity. Their perception of the activity may be entirely different. One person may end up doubled over and panting, another may have a heart attack, and yet another will continue for another half mile in utter enjoyment.

Now consider two individuals in optimum shape running the same half mile. One has a slightly longer torso, which creates more wind drag. This person's muscles may seem to work just a little harder to achieve the same goal. The other person has a higher percentage of body fat. This may disadvantage them in a summer run, yet it could confer an obvious advantage in cold weather. Regardless of how similar these two individuals are at the start of the run, their slight differences will be magnified by the end such that one's heart beat will be faster, the other will take longer to recover, and so on.

Meditation is similarly subjective in that one person may end the experience energized with some new insight into a problem while another falls asleep halfway through. One person may simply be more relaxed, and another may have reduced cardiopulmonary function to a nearly imperceptible level. The subjective experience is informed by the community. A group of people running a half-mile might admonish a less physically fit member to slow down and breathe through the nose. A group of meditators may each introduce techniques to new members to help them achieve their goals. They will likewise share their experiences.

The National Institutes of Health uncovered a not-so-strange phenomenon with their 2007 survey. Many people try meditation briefly and quit in discouragement. They apparently learned about health benefits or the increased awareness possible with silencing the mind. After one or two tries, they experience the stress of supposed failure and conclude meditation is unhelpful or too difficult to accomplish without help. A look to the cultural and religious origins of meditation will show this conclusion is somewhat valid. In the long history of meditation, it has rarely been used outside a cultural context.
Buddhist Beginnings

Siddharta Gautama achieved enlightenment with the aid of meditative practice sometime around 500 B.C., after which he was referred to as the Buddha. The teachings and practices ascribed to the Buddha were passed down orally over the next 400 years before being memorialized by Indian poet Asvaghosa. Enlightenment was said to come to Buddha as he meditated on the Bodhi tree for 49 days. The Buddha did not suggest anyone else would have the same experience by meditating under the same or a similar tree for the same length of time.

Instead the Buddha set out to find his two favorite teachers and share his findings with them. Upon learning they were no longer alive, he began traveling and facilitating the enlightenment of others. An early step in this was the creation of the sangha, which is a group of monks. He attracted students from diverse backgrounds and bound them together with a set of ideas and cultural practices, including the Four Noble Truths and the seeking of alms. Meditation was also a binding ritual, and the experiences of each student were presumably shared with each other as well as with their teacher.
Hindu Beginnings?

Buddha poses the earliest written account of meditation, yet his experience was actually only a chapter in humankind's continued exploration of the mind's inner workings. Buddha did not appear from nowhere with his decision to meditate under the Bodhi tree. He was born into a Hindu family where meditation was supposedly a routine practice. How can this be known?

The Buddha was born into the highest caste in India's firmly established caste system. Brahman children were destined from birth to populate the highest offices of government and religion. This fortunate, some would say karmic, birth gave Buddha the opportunity to receive instruction from the highest Hindu priests. Buddha did denounce the caste system and other aspects of Hinduism, but this should be put into context. He was 35 years old upon his reception of enlightenment.

The use of meditation in Hinduism was largely passed through oral means until the establishment of Tantra sometime around the fifth century. The many traditions of Kundalini Yoga are believed to have begun thousands of years before the Buddha's life, and composition of the oldest text was started as far back as 1,400 B.C. Just as Tantra can be seen as a morphing of Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, so too is Yoga. So intertwined are the histories of these cultural movements, and so diverse are the individual schools found in each, that many historians have devoted lifetimes without forming a clear picture of the origins of each strand....

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