History of meditation
The practice of meditation is rooted in the distant past. During the excavations of the Harappan civilization and Mohenjo-Daro (presumably 3300-1300 BC), scientists found seals. They were depicting a man in a posture similar to Baddha Konasana, one of the yoga asanas for the practice of contemplation.
Scientists found images of people in similar poses in the ancient temples of the Mayan civilization (2000 BC. AD – 900 AD). Such bas-reliefs and stone figures were found in Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula.
We do not know what practices are behind those images. However, the possibility that ancient people in many civilizations of the world since ancient times knew and practiced meditation is very high.
In ancient India, austerities and meditation were primarily the practices of forest hermits and truth seekers who left society. Especially the hermitry movement became popular in the time of Buddha. Then, traditional society was confronted with the consequences of growing cities, including social stratification and the increase of civil wars.
Before that time, going to the forest and austerity was mostly the choice of older people preparing to go to another world. In the 6th century BC many young people appeared among the seekers of truth. Prince Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha) was one of them. He set off to seek answers to the questions about the nature of happiness and suffering when he was only 29 years old.
Gautama practiced severe austerities and mortification of the flesh for 6 years. Eventually, one day he almost died from exhaustion, and then he decided to abandon this practice. That moment Buddha attained enlightenment. His teaching was the rejection of the extreme self-torture, and the blind pursuit of pleasures. His choice was the “middle way”, with the focus on the morality, wisdom, and meditation.
Significant interest in Buddhism and meditation techniques arose in the psychoanalytic community in the 1920s and 30s. Mindfulness exercises came to the modern West mainly through the philosophy and practices of Buddhism in the late XIX – early XX centuries. The very word meditation (“meditatio”) came to us from Latin and means to “ponder”.
In the last decade of the last century, meditation of awareness, or “mindfulness”, began to develop in the West. It did not possess any religious attributes, symbols, or exercises. Moreover, for the first time it became an independent psycho-therapeutic method. People could practice it under the guidance of a psychotherapist or independently.
Today, people can practice guided meditation or mindfulness both in traditional monasteries of Asia and in modern meditation centers in Europe, America, and Australia. This is a practice that has no restrictions and attachments to religions and nations. Indeed, in Asia, many monasteries open their doors to Western students and organize courses on various aspects of meditation. It is not a monastic format at all. In Europe and America, meditation is popular as one of the effective methods of psychotherapy. It successfully replaces drug treatment of depression, anxiety and other disorders. At the moment, more than a thousand studies of the meditation effects on improving memory, concentration, well-being and greater life satisfaction have been done.
Oxford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) conducted the research which showed that people who regularly meditate 20-30 minutes a day experienced change in the chemical composition of blood, and improvement of brain function. In just a couple of months, sleep, memory, and ability to concentrate improve.
Meditation is an effective technique of working with the mind. Society widely applied it as a medicine before and now. This technique implies no mysticism. It is very simple and incredibly effective. And most importantly, benefits of meditation are indisputable. People practicing it for 20 minutes per day will get rid of many diseases and disorders, both mental and physical. After all, it will help to enjoy more fully the happy moments of life and experience difficult times with greater awareness.
What is meditation and what are meditation exercises?
The word “meditation” comes from the Latin “meditari” meaning “ponder”. In Pali, meditation is called bhavana, which can be translated as “cultivating”, “developing”. Buddhist bhavana is a culture of the mind which purpose is to calm it down, “cultivate” concentration, insight, develop will and analytical abilities.
In yoga, we can find the term “Samyama” meaning “connection”, “retention”. It implies a continuous focus on the object. Samyama has three stages:
- Dharana – “concentration.” At the first stage, the practitioner needs to make an effort to keep the attention on the object; even if it always slips away.
- Dhyana – “contemplation.” Attention becomes involuntary and you need no effort to hold it. In China, dhyana turned into the term “Chan”, and in Japan – the well-known “Zen”. All of these terms mean the same thing.
- Samadhi – “integrity”, “unity.” Object of meditation fully occupies the yogi’s consciousness; they are merged, so that the rest of the world ceases to exist.
It is not that difficult as it seems. Remember how an interesting book fascinated you. First, you make an effort to understand what you read, then you get carried away, and at some point you forget about everything except reading. Indeed, at this moment you are in the very samadhi state.
Classification of meditation exercises
Meditative exercises generally include 2 groups:
Meditation of concentration, unidirectional concentration. These practices involve the development of continuous, sustained attention directed at one object (breath, sensation, emotion, object, mantra, image, etc.). As a result, you should keep only the selected object in the field of attention, and exclude all other stimuli from the focus.
Mindfulness meditation is open observation, insight meditation, deconcentration, awareness. These techniques do not imply a clear focus of attention. You should just keep it in the present, gently observing both the thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the body, as well as what is happening in the external world.
The first group of meditation exercises is easier for beginners, although it involves the development of will and voluntary attention. The second one is more suitable for experienced practitioners and requires more awareness. It is better to start with object meditation, and specifically with the mindful breathing meditation: it calms the mind, trains attention and significantly reduces stress.
Why do you need meditation? what are the benefits of meditation?
We spend most of our life either anxious due to the thoughts about the future or depressed due to the memories about the past. Meditation is a way to be here and now, to experience the present reality.
First, it calms. Because here and now nothing bad happens to you: the director does not shout, creditors do not press, the wife does not argue… Right now everything is fine. Focusing on real feelings, you temporarily stop thinking and eventually calm down.
Secondly, meditation allows you to experience life more fully. People do not live in this world, but in their heads. They do not notice anything around, plunging into thoughts, even into unpleasant ones. And life goes by.
Meditation brings back a sense of life. After all, you can meditate not only sitting on the mat. You can do this when you eat, walk, wash dishes … When you consciously, purposefully and intensely experience reality, this is meditation.
Why to practice breathing meditation?
Breathing is an amazing tool. It happens only here and now. It is impossible to observe the breathing that will be tomorrow, or the exhalation that was yesterday. Watching the breath, lifting and lowering abdomen, chest movements, air flow in the nostrils, we train our mind to be in the present moment.
Soon after you focus on the breathing, your mind will begin to wander. It may happen in a few minutes or even seconds. And it is completely natural. Do not resist thoughts, do not try to get rid of them. Just as the eyes see, the ears hear, the stomach digests – the mind thinks. This is a natural function of the mind. The challenge is to observe the thoughts, letting them pass like clouds. Be an observer.
Do not be upset if you lose the object of concentration again and again – meditation is precisely about noticing that you are distracted, and returning attention to the breathing. This very moment – awareness and return – is meditation. Gradually, you will learn to act in the same way in your life: when unpleasant thoughts and emotions prevail, you will be able to return to the observation of breathing, which will help you to get out of the vicious circle thought-emotion-thought.
It is important not to fight with negative (causing inconvenience, anxiety, pain) emotions and thoughts, if they arise during meditation, but to observe them. And only the awareness and acceptance of those feelings will lead to liberation from them.
Attentive, kind attitude to everything, whatever comes to the mind during meditation – this is the key to a fruitful practice. When, instead of the usual self-accusation, we choose a kind attitude towards ourselves, we are already taking a step towards radical changes in ourselves and in the world.
In meditation, we are not trying to become “better, brighter, kinder”. Our task is simply to be with what we have. Observe breathing, thoughts, changing moods, and feelings. Just be, just look: who am I? what i really am? what I feel? Try to realize what is happening in the body and mind at a given moment of time.
preparation for meditation exercises:
Take a comfortable position while sitting or lying down. Keep your back straight. To do this, pull the crown up, and the coccyx – down, slightly lowering the chin.
Move your attention to the legs, feel the points of contact of the legs with the surface you are sitting on. Raise attention to your knees, hip joints, feel the support they give. Feel that the stomach is relaxed.
Relax your back, shoulders, arms. Lower your eyes a little and relax. You can either look defocused, or close your eyes. If you tend to fall asleep during meditation, it’s better to keep your eyes open. If, on the contrary, you feel that closed eyes help you focus better on sensations, close them.
After you feel that you are sitting straight and relaxed, shift your attention to your breathing. The first point of observation is the nostrils and the space between the upper lip and the nose. Feel the movement of air, cold on the inhale, warm on the exhale. If the sensations are subtle, transfer attention to the abdomen and observe the movement of the abdominal muscles during breathing. See where it is easier for you to keep attention. Choose one point for the entire period of meditation.
Keep your attention on the breathing and all the sensations associated with it. If you realize that you are distracted, mark what exactly distracted you and gently return your attention to your breathing.
Start with a 5-minute meditation and gradually increase the time to 20-30 minutes or more, if desired. You can set the alarm to not check how much time has passed since the beginning of the meditation.
It is not so important how long you meditate, the regularity and quality of meditation is more important. Someone can meditate for half an hour and keep attention perfectly, but someone meditates better for five minutes in the morning and make pauses of awareness during the day. If you do not have twenty minutes on a certain day, devote at least a minute to the practice: even this will help to make meditation a daily habit.
Immediately after meditation, you will feel that anxiety decreases, your mood improves, and your mind becomes calmer. After one or two months of regular practice, you will notice an improvement in concentration, sleep quality, a decrease in stress levels and a steady improvement of mood. In addition, many practitioners also note that intuition is developing, because you begin to hear better, know and understand yourself, and the life really acquires new colors.
Try to conduct a meditative experiment in your life for only two months and see what the results will be.
Meditative yoga practice
The practice of yoga is also meditation. Initially, yoga implied the work with the mind, not with the body. In the very first text on yoga – “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali – yoga can be translated as the cessation of mental agitation or control of fluctuations of consciousness.
How to achieve this in practice? There are 3 stages:
1. Meditation on the chosen sensation
This is the easiest, basic skill that beginners should work on. When mastering meditation, it is important that the asanas themselves were not difficult for you, and you could perform them for a long time and to be generally relaxed.
When performing each yoga asana, focus on one particular sensation in the body. It may be a sensation of movement of the abdomen and chest when breathing; or a feeling of air movement in the nostrils. It also can be the sensation of body contact with the floor; or the most remarkable sensation of tension or stretching in the body.
Select one object and hold attention on it while keeping the pose. This feeling should be bright and steady enough for attention to be held easily. No need to try to meditate on the weak subtle sensations.
At some point, you will feel attention slipping away, distracted by thoughts, emotions, other sensations or external stimuli. Notice what exactly distracted you, and gently return the attention back to the selected object.
When you feel that the attention has become stable, the consciousness is relaxed, and the sensations are well recognized, you can proceed to the second stage.
Meditation on the sensation of the body as a whole.
This is the practice of de-concentration. Attention is spread over all bodily sensations. Your task is to feel the body as a whole. How to do this?
Start with the practicing shavasana. Focus on two opposite points of the body, such as the crown of the head and the feet. Transfer attention until you can feel these points at the same time. Then spread the attention to all the space between them, so that the body feels like one object. Be aware of all bodily sensations at the same time, without focusing on any specific one.
Another way. Also in shavasana, focus on the sensation of movement of the abdomen and chest when breathing. Feel the expansion and contraction of the body. When you feel it clearly, imagine that the air fills your entire body. Feel how the body expands and fills with the air as you inhale and contracts as you exhale. Try to spread this feeling to the farthest corners of the body. Then turn on all other body sensations: body contact with the floor, heat or coolness, pulsation, tension or relaxation of specific areas and all other sensations that arise. Try to recognize them at the same time.
When you achieve sustainable de-concentration of attention in shavasana, transfer this skill first to the simplest yoga poses, and then to the whole practice: asanas, and intervals between them.
Inner space meditation
This is a very difficult skill, available only to experienced practitioners. Make sure you have mastered the previous stages well before moving on to this one.
Realize all body sensations in general, as described in the previous paragraph. Then expand the attention to all other processes that occur in your mind. Perhaps you realize some thoughts, or emotions, or external stimuli – sounds, smells, visual objects (if your eyes open) or darkness behind closed eyelids. Try to be aware of all these objects at the same time, together with bodily sensations, not assessing what is happening and not engaging yourself in the thoughts and emotions, just watch them like from the outside.
You will feel that objects lose their meaningfulness: the sounds cease to form in speech, the vision will not catch random objects from the space, body sensations and thoughts will go far away, ceasing to be emotionally colored.
Mantra meditation (ajapa japa)
This is one of the most common meditative techniques in yoga. Japa is the chanting of mantra. Japa becomes ajapa when the mantra is repeated automatically, without conscious effort.
Traditionally the student receives mantra from the teacher, but it also can be a famous mantra or bija mantra: om, so-ham or gayatri mantra.
How to do mantra meditation:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position with a straight back. Focus on the feeling of breathing: the movement of the air in the nostrils or the movement of the abdomen and chest. Observe, be aware of all the sensations associated with breathing until attention becomes steady.
Then focus on the sound with which air enters and leaves the nostrils. Connect the sound and sensations of breathing in your mind. When you do this, with each breath, mentally pronounce the syllable “so”, and with each exhalation – “ham”. These sounds are like the natural sounds of breathing.
Simultaneously hold in your mind the sensations of breathing, its sound and the mental repetition of so-ham. Do the practice for 5 minutes or more.
You can also combine this technique with pranayama, for example, Ujjayi or Nadi Shodhana.
Trataka (yogic gazing technique)
Trataka uses concentration on visual sensations. This is usually a candle flame, or rarely a dot drawn on a piece of paper.
Sit comfortably with your back straight. Place a candle or a leaf with a drawn point directly in front of the sight line, at a distance of half meter or a meter.
Focus on the object, relax, try not to move your sight and body. If you want to blink – blink, but do not transfer the gazing direction.
Focus fully on the object. If attention is distracted, very gently return it. Perform a continuous gazing concentration for at least 3 minutes or until your eyes are tired, then close them. You will see a residual mark on the retina – a bright spot. Focus on this point until it disappears.