Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter M - MEDITATION

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Buddhists also have meditations that aim at reducing mental activity. In the story of Ratnadatta above, Ratnadatta begins to learn to meditate by focusing on a bowl of oil. By focusing hard on one thing, he is not distracted by the festival that goes on around him. Meditation on physical objects is a common starting point for Buddhist "calming" (samatha) meditation. The stages of Buddhist meditation, like that of Hindu meditation, will step by step remove more and more distractions until a state of one-pointedness and equanimity is reached. Buddhists, for the most part, do not believe in a true Self in the same way that Hindus do. They do, however, use very similar meditations to calm the mind and cut off its discursive activity. The goal of these practices is to stop the mental processes that ultimately lead to sinful actions and to see that there is no Self.

Similarly, Taoists held that the Tao (the "Way") is the source of all things, and that all things are in some way manifestations of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching encourages the practitioner to "embrace the One"-a statement that has been interpreted in many ways through the centuries. One early form of Taoist meditation sought to mentally withdraw from all manifestations in order to merge with the original Tao. In Christianity, there have been several saints who have maintained that God or Christ is completely transcendent to the point that we cannot say anything about God. This aspect of Christian mysticism is usually referred to as the "via negativa" (the negative way) or "apophatic theology" (theology by way of denial). Examples can be found in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint John of the Cross, and Theresa of Avila. There are times, especially during prayer, in which the silence of God is experienced. Christian mystics will often refer to this wordless state of mind as "contemplation" as opposed to "meditation" which is more of a reasoned analysis. It is these saints (usually called "mystics") who describe a progressive path to attain union with that source.

In Judaism, the progressive approach to the indescribable is best represented in the literature of Kabbalah. The Sefer Yetzirah presents nine stages (called "spheres") and 22 paths that one may traverse in meditation to the indescribable Ain Soph (Kether).


If we limit our definition of meditation only to those techniques that avoid language and calm the mind, then we will miss many of the other ways in which religions discipline the mind toward religious ends. The majority of meditations used by religions involve or even embrace language as a means of attaining the goal. Here it will be helpful to remember that the English word "meditation" itself comes from the Latin stem meditor, meaning simply "to reflect, muse, consider, meditate, give attention." The same holds for the Sanskrit word dhyana, which also means "attending to" or "thinking about something." Dhyana is the root from which the Japanese word "Zen" is ultimately derived. As noted above, Christian mystics used "contemplation" for mental calming meditations, and reserved the word "meditation" for meditations using language. So, what are some of the different ways that religions use language to discipline the mind toward religious ends?

Meditation as Principled Discernment Meditation techniques that embrace language aim at cultivating a principled discernment of the world. That is to say that the meditations are to transform the way that we ordinarily see the world so that we learn to see all things through the lens of the religious doctrine. Perhaps the most basic of such disciplines consists of accurate self-reflection and evaluation. A good example of this can be found in Buddhism. A Buddhist practitioner who engages in vipassana ("seeing with discernment") or "mindfulness" training will systematically go through all parts of daily experience to see each thing as impermanent, suffering, and without a soul. Other meditations of this category serve as remedies for specific mental afflictions. For example, if someone is distracted by sexual desire, they are to meditate on the body as disgusting. After the meditator has mentally enumerated all of the tissues, fluids, and waste products of the body and mentally labeled each of them "disgusting," the desire for someone else's body wanes. By the same token, if the meditator is distracted by anger, she is to meditate on the feeling of compassion toward someone that she likes and then extend that feeling to all sentient beings. Unlike meditations aimed at stopping deliberative thought, mindfulness meditation is meant to be performed as one goes about his daily business. It is not reserved exclusively for seated meditation. Similar meditations are also found in Christianity and Judaism. For example, for some varieties of Christianity, the awareness of one's sin is crucial to spiritual progress. Ignatius of Loyola describes the enumeration of sins as a formal meditation technique in his Spiritual Exercises. Even beyond such formal meditations, Christians are to reflect on their lives and are to discern and catalogue certain actions as sinful more generally. In this respect, the sacrament of confession not only serves as an opportunity for forgiveness, but it serves as an occasion for mindful self-reflection on the details of one's behavior. As a spiritual discipline, Christian reflections on sin differ from nonreligious types of self-awareness insofar as the identification of sin is guided by Church teachings on what is and is not a sin. Similar reflections on one's sins can be found in virtually every religion. In Judaism, the time of Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection and penitence. Awareness of sins is also important in Buddhism, and plays a large role in Pure Land Buddhism (especially in Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhism).