Meditation is a central element of many religious concepts and spiritual practices, including but not limited to Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Jainism. The practice itself is an ancient ritual of prehistoric origin, which has descended from Taoist and Buddhist practices in China and India with its earliest traces dating back to the axial age (800-200 BCE). But what exactly describes the word “meditation”?
The noun med•i•ta•tion refers to
- the profound contemplation on a subject or spiritual matters;
- the holistic discipline of training one’s mind;
- the art of concentrating the mind on a single mantra/object;
- a philosophy and way of life;
that is being performed with the intention of achieving a state of stillness or deep relaxation, without losing conscious or falling asleep, due to its favorable benefits capable to calm down a hectic mind surrounded by a never sleeping environment. Yet, meditation is by far more than the excellent tool to relief from stress as which it is used mostly in the western world. Many also perceive extraordinary states of altered reality and peak enlightenment after years or decades of dedication and intensive training.
Surprisingly, the basic concept of meditation does not necessarily involve what most think meditation is only or mainly about sitting in a yoga position with the eyes closed while trying to empty the mind. Instead, meditation means to be aware. Meditation equals awareness, meaning that whatever you do with full awareness and in a conscious way is basically meditation. This includes focusing on your respiratory organs while watching your breath, counting upwards each time you exhale, repeating a specific mantra over and over in your mind or simply listening to your environment (if you are in nature) or listening to calm and relaxation music. Some would also go so far to meditate about the feelings they are experiencing and the actions they are performing in each moment, such as “I’m walking”; “I’m breathing”; “I’m feeling angry” and so on – which is absolutely fine and just an extensive form of meditation.
The roots of meditation
Contrary to medication that is used to relieve and cure sicknesses of the body, meditation is being used to affect a change within the mind. This change within the mind isn’t so much related to the temporary outcome of meditation that brings a short-term state of peacefulness and calmness, but something that affects a long-term change. Meditation helps to return the mind to a state of clarity, peacefulness, and happiness; out of a state which is influenced by a growingly hectic and harsh environment based on greed, hatred, worrying, manipulation and conditioning that feels unnatural – to say the least – too many of us.
Thus it makes sense why the word meditation derived from the Latin words mederi (to heal, to cure) and meditari (to contemplate, to dwell upon, to think), as the practice of meditation combines aspects of intensive contemplation, the cessation of the thought process and many elements of mental strengthening or healing.
In the ancient teachings about meditation as a way of life, one has to go through several stages and learn/understand each of the lessons they teach, leading to mindfulness (sati), insight (vipassana), wisdom (prajna) that grows and transcends into enlightenment (bodhi).
The Tao of Meditation
The Chinese word Tao – 道 – means in a philosophical context “path”, “way” or more commonly a “principle” that is often as a metaphor for the flow of the universe and is regarded as the archetype that keeps the universe in balance.
On his path towards enlightenment, Siddhārtha Gautama – the founder of the spiritual tradition of Buddhism – had to discover four noble truths about life, which eventually led him onto the Eightfold Path and aided him in becoming Buddha, the awakened one.
The Four Noble Truths
Siddhārtha Gautama was a secluded prince of the Sakya tribe, living in a palace that screened him from the rough reality of life. Understandably, the prince was paralyzed by the reality that unfolded itself in front of his eyes the first time he slipped out of the palace. It is said that the prince noticed a man weakened by age, a morbid man suffering from an illness and a dead corpse that altogether resembled age, illness, death and in general the suffering people had to endure outside the veiled world of the palace. The impressions Siddhārtha gained in the real world troubled him so much that he finally met the decision to leave the palace and seek for possible solutions to the suffering he had witnessed. The prince also noticed a fourth person upon his journey outside the palace, which was a monk who provided him the inspiration to meditate and seek within himself for the cure he attempted to find.
Inspired by the monk, Siddhārtha Gautama decided to leave his well-protected royal home and pursued the life of a homeless man, living in poverty and in search for denouements to the unavoidability of pain, age, and death. He spent the following six years to live a life of extreme poverty that was characterized by austerity and the throughout discipline to practice meditation. Yet, he wasn’t able to find the fulfillment he had hoped to accomplish during this time span and so the decision arose to leave the path he had chosen to pursue.
After his six years lasting rigorous experience of indigence, Siddhārtha Gautama decided to change track and pursue what is known as the middle way, the path between extreme poverty and excessive luxury. It transpired that the middle way was the ideal path for Siddhārtha as it aided him in taking the path to Enlightenment and provided the cessation of suffering. The day Gautama finally achieved enlightenment was the day he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, located next to a temple, and pledged not to rise until he had attained what he felt was at this stage only a matter of time. While reflecting on his life experiences, fully absorbed in meditation, Siddhārtha focused in a “space-like concentration meditation” on the ultimate nature of all things, allowing him to remove the final veils from his mind. Siddhārtha, the young prince of the Sakya tribe had become the Buddha, the awakened one – and had accomplished full enlightenment upon finishing his meditation.
The Four Noble Truths, which are an important principle in Buddhism, were born and can be understood as the insights Buddha gained during his meditation under the Bodhi tree. The discernments he gained can be understood as the realities Siddhārtha experienced, namely:
The Four Noble Truths
1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
2. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering
3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
4. The Noble Truth of the Path that leads to the Cessation of Suffering
A rendition of these insights can be seen as 1) Life means suffering, 2) The origin of this suffering is attachment, 3) The cessation of the attachment towards desire ceases suffering and 4) The Eightfold Path aides in ceasing the suffer. It is interesting to note that the first two Truths focus on the problem and the cause for its origin, while the third and the fourth Truths aid individuals in releasing the suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path as it was expounded by Buddha describes the pathway that leads to the cessation of suffering in life and the awakening of the self. The Eightfold Path can be regarded as an aid to free one from redundant attachments and unrealistic delusions that come with life and shall finally lead to the insightful understanding of the truths about everything that was, is, and will be. Combined with the Four Noble Truths the Eightfold Path forms the foundation of Buddhism.
Each of the eight elements of the path has the word “right” in common, which denotes ideality and perfectness, but also completion. Also, the elements of the Eightfold Path can be regarded as interdependent principles that are linked with each other; the implementation of one principle will encourage the arising of another element, which leads to the cultivation of another one and so on.
In the above, I’ve mentioned that one has to go through several stages and understand each of the lessons they provide, hence the significance of the Eightfold Path lies in its practical implementation, not just in knowing about the various elements. Only through practice and implementation, enlightenment and a higher level of existence may be realized.
The Eightfold Path
1. Right view – to see and understand things as they really are
2. Right intention – the commitment towards self-improvement
3. Right speech – the cultivation of words
4. Right action – the compassionate and respectful behavior
5. Right livelihood – the righteous earning of one’s living
6. Right effort – the prevention of unwholesome states
7. Right mindfulness – the perfected faculty of cognition
8. Right concentration – the development of mental force
The eight elements of the path are said to enable its practitioner to encourage his self-awakening and the extension of liberation, just like it aided Buddha in his development.
Interestingly enough the first and second elements of the path (right view and intention) can be resumed as the wisdom part of the Eightfold Path, as the practitioner will, for instance, have to abandon greed and hatred and thereby try to abandon his previous (biased/wrong) view. The wisdom aspect of the path is designed to enable the individual to see the things as they truly are, without being influenced by bias, delusion, dogmas and believe systems.
The third, fourth and fifth elements (right speech, action, and livelihood) have in common the ethical conduct they address. The ethical conduct aspect of the path shows its participants the necessity of mental purification, by avoiding unhealthful and dangerous doings, for instance by using false or abusive speech, by doing harm to oneself and/or others and by earning a living with harmful activities, for instance, the trading of human beings or weapons.
The third aspect of the path, named mental discipline and meditation, combines the sixth, seventh and eighth elements (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). The third aspect of the path focuses on the mental development and strengthening, for instance by trying to avoid harmful words and thoughts and replacing these with a contemplation of what would be beneficial to oneself and others (= right effort). Also, this kind of aspect deals with the ability perceive the world as it is, without interpretation (= right mindfulness) and finally with the practice of right concentration to unify and direct ones mental faculties on wholesome actions and thoughts.
Photo by pareeerica
This article on the path of Buddhist meditation was presented by our Personal Development Blog.