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Mapping the world of meditation - Part 1

Small brass statue of the historical Buddha
Traditional image of Shakyamuni Buddha

Recently I’ve had a couple of requests to explain meditation and what I get out of it that’s been keeping me going for over 25 years. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a teaching role for meditation and these requests came from people already interested in spiritual practices and personal growth, but with limited experience meditating (or at least minimal rewarding experience meditating). The feedback I received indicated that there are a couple of things hard to find within the myriad explanations of what meditation is and how to do it that people are looking for. First, is this higher-level perspective, a sort of map of the many forms of meditation that can help people get their bearings and decide on their preferred destination. The second, related aspect, is how meditation relates to everyday life when we aren’t sitting still, intentionally doing nothing.

The landscape of meditation is vast, consider it equivalent to the entire landmass and oceans of the earth combined. In the most general terms possible, meditation is an activity aimed to shift our state of consciousness out of our ordinary way of being. There are so many reasons why we might want to do this, from a simple desire to shift out of a state of stress and into calm for the psychological and physical benefits that come with that shift, to cultivating a heightened sensitivity to our surroundings in order to be more in harmony, to penetrating the deepest philosophical questions of human existence in order to radically change the way we exist as a person.

Shifting consciousness is not foreign territory; we all experience shifts multiple times a day. We do it when we go from sipping coffee in our pajamas to logging into the latest Zoom meeting with work colleagues, or when a friend calls us just as we are feeling down in the dumps, causing a change in our way of perceiving ourselves and the world. The difference with meditation is both the intentional nature of the activity, we consciously choose to do something that will alter our state of consciousness, and we do it because it is a form of mental and emotional exercise in that the more we do it the more easily and the faster we can shift – even from situations in which our minds are deeply invested in their everyday patterns. Meditation is also different from the natural shifts that happen in that we are generally aiming for a specific state of mind, depending on the form of meditation and the tradition from which it comes.

Using the map metaphor is pretty straightforward because the goals and techniques of meditation practices have evolved as a part of cultural traditions around the world. The form of meditation that I have the most experience with was shaped by Tibetan Buddhists starting around 800 A.D. The Tibetans, like all of the Buddhist cultures in Asia, incorporated meditation practices developed in India around 550 B.C. by the historical figure most often referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha (or more commonly, the Buddha). Shakyamuni was born into the Hindu Brahmin caste, and essentially created a major reform movement that became known as Buddhism. From India, Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Each culture incorporated it in accordance with their existing beliefs and their existing views of human nature and was conducive to harmonious social values. So even though there are aspects of Buddhist meditation shared by the pan-Asian Buddhist cultures, the techniques vary significantly as do the specific (but not global) goals. If you’ve traveled in Asia, you can appreciate the immense diversity of the people that live in that huge region (continent) of the world. I provide this context to help explain why the world of meditation can seem so complicated and even contradictory from one description to the next.

Meditation practices from Asia began getting popular attention in the 1960’s along with Yoga (another form of meditation), as the so-called hippies embraced Eastern philosophies and practices. To be sure, there were pockets of meditation existing here long before that, but the 60’s set the stage for the current era in which mindfulness meditation has become an evidence based mental health treatment for stress, depression, and anxiety that insurance companies will pay for. The history and reasons why it took Western culture 2500 years to embrace meditation is fascinating in its own right, but beyond the scope of what is supposed to be a quick-read blog post.

Now, back to the practice of meditation that evolved from Tibetan Buddhism. The spiritual goal of Buddhism is to eliminate the three poisons of ignorance, craving and hatred from our minds, and in so doing, we liberate ourselves from the suffering of mundane existence in the world. The antidote to the three poisons is referred to as wisdom, which boils down to an accurate understanding of how the world and the sentient beings in it exist. Although we all have innate wisdom, we come into the world with cloudy minds and unless we clear them up, we go about creating more cloudiness. The motivation to persevere through all the hard work it takes to get rid of those clouds is compassion, specifically compassion that cannot tolerate an ounce of suffering on the behalf of any living being, oneself included. Thus, the entire body of meditation practices are aimed at cultivating accurate views of reality and generating deep compassion. The two go hand in hand and they are developmental, that is to say you start with whatever understanding of the world you have, and with whatever amount of compassion you have, and you build from there.

This is already a long post so I’m going to stop here and will pick up on the explanation of how the Tibetans have crafted a huge library of meditation practices and thought exercises to pursue their goals. Let me just say, that the reason Tibetan Buddhism has become so popular, is not because everyone is infatuated with their origin story of the universe, they don’t have one. It’s because you don’t have to believe that getting rid of the three poisons is the key to spiritual enlightenment in order to benefit from the practice, it turns out reducing the three poisons even a little brings huge benefits of inner piece, self-esteem, patience and resilience regardless of your spiritual perspective.

While you’re waiting to for the follow up post, head over to my YouTube channel and try out some of the meditations there to start to see for yourself 

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