Over the course of the last fifty years or so the term ‘meditation’ has come to mean two distinct things. On the one hand there is the traditional concept of meditation being an exercise in thought-control directed towards self-knowledge and spiritual development. On the other hand there is the more recent concept of meditation being a therapeutic exercise in deep relaxation and active imagination directed towards inducing a sense of well-being. The latter is employed more often than not as an antidote to the stresses of modern living, such as in the recent emergence of ‘mindfulness meditation’.
One side associates meditation with oriental religions and philosophies, where the archetypal image that presents itself to the imagination is of a Buddhist monk or Indian sadhu sitting cross-legged on a cushion or low wooden stool, eyes closed and breathing slowly; possibly chanting or repeating a mantra. The other side associates meditation with relaxation and creative visualisation, where a typical image that presents itself is of a person relaxing in a comfortable reclining chair, listening to ambient music and or a gentle voice describing an ‘ideal’ environment wherein the student allows the mind to wander.
In recent times the most popular methods of meditation that have taken root in the modern world are themselves products of the imagination of that world. They are essentially guided imaginings deriving more from a syncretistic blend of Spiritualism, Yoga, Buddhism and Shamanism, and similar sources, than from any school of traditional meditation, oriental or otherwise.
Most of the methods used are not derived from the ancient world, or from the Far East, but emerged in Europe and its colonies, originating in the ideas and practices employed by nineteenth and early twentieth-century esoteric schools, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This particular order is significant in that it became the archetypal model for the formation of a range of esoteric orders and movements, most of which were deeply involved with the magical aspects of Western esotericism – especially with astral projection and all that such implies: and it implies a great deal where modern ideas about meditation are concerned.
Looking back a little further, it is possible to see how in the nineteenth century the emergence of these schools was an inevitable and natural expression of the interest in Hermetic and Rosicrucian thought and philosophy that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe. These schools were not only a focus for the theoretical, but also for the practical workings of Western esotericism.
The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed the resurgence of a type of ancestor worship in the form of Spiritualism, and the latter half of that century saw the emergence of the Theosophical Society, a movement that sought to create a universal religion based upon oriental religious ideas such as those perceived in Buddhism. This point is particularly significant because it was through the activities of this society that Hinduism and Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, became so accessible to popular culture in the West.
The high point of the Theosophical Society was during the 1920’s and 1930’s. However, as was the case for many social movements of that time, the society’s growth and development was impeded by the drama of the Second World War. Curiously, as the world began its slow recovery from the effects of that dreadful war public interest in the Theosophical Society began to fade. A paradoxical if not ironic turn of events because it was at this time that popular interest in Hindu systems of yoga and meditation, nurtured by the Theosophical Society, began to grow in popularity.
Shamanism, on the other hand, did not emerge in popular Western culture until the late twentieth century, and then only in a romanticised form: its popularity, perhaps, being due to its association with chemically induced states of mind conducive to ‘astral projection’ and ‘channelling’; subjects that have either fascinated or horrified humanity from the earliest times. Exploring significant or interesting environments or worlds through the realm of the imagination is not a new thing; it has been around for a long time, but the emphasis on it is certainly a modern phenomenon.
Another significant contribution to the guided imagination approach has come from the various psychodynamic processes that surfaced, particularly in America, from the mid-twentieth century onward. Although deeply influenced by the materialism of analytical psychology and behaviourism, and invariably defined in the psychological language of Freud, Jung and their successors, they are often to be found at the heart of many modern systems of spirituality and self-development.
Yet another dimension in modern thinking about meditation is the concept of ‘endorphins’. These are small, protein molecules produced by cells in the body that work to relieve pain with sedative receptors found in the brain, spinal cord and nerve endings. They come in several forms and are many times more powerful than any pharmaceutical analgesic.
Endorphins are understood to relieve pain, to enhance the immune system and to reduce stress but, more significantly, especially from the point of view of this discussion, they induce an enhanced feeling of well-being. There are several methods known to stimulate the body’s production of endorphins including acupuncture, shiatsu, massage, creative visualisation and a variety of relaxation techniques. Many of these methods are now promoted under the banner of meditation. Consequently, in the popular culture of the Western world, meditation has become synonymous with the practice of guided imagining directed towards evoking an experience of bliss and/or well-being.
As valuable as such tools may be, especially in a therapeutic sense, they have little in common with the objectives and disciplines of traditional meditation. The natural ‘high’ that may occur in traditional meditation, however welcome, is not in itself the main objective but a by-product of the main endeavour, which is invariably self-knowledge and or union with God.
To understand what traditional meditation actually is, one must be prepared to peel away the many layers of preconceptions surrounding it in the modern world. A common theme in the secular world is that like all things in our civilisation, the art of meditation has evolved in line with our growing understanding of the world. Many now believe that we have outgrown the traditional approach with all of its outmoded religious connotations, and that the old must give way to the new.
Alternatively, we may recognise that traditional meditation is simply a method of self-enquiry conceived and designed to engage with the underlying reality of existence, a reality that is eternal and changeless and thus beyond biological need or the ambitions of society. This traditional perspective may be a radical point of view in modern terms. However, it should be noted that from a traditional and classical point of view, meditation has long been understood to be a private and introspective discipline of applied thought whereby, in a chemical-free state of deep relaxation, the faculties of the mind are concentrated upon a given theme or subject. In short, traditional meditation is controlling the chemistry of consciousness through thinking about a given subject.
In the precincts of the sanctuary, where traditional meditation evolved, the subject matter to be meditated upon was usually, although not always, derived from sacred texts. Thus in Buddhism the theme was generally taken from the various writings that constitute the Dharma and the life of the Buddha. In Vedanta the theme would be drawn from the Vedas or the Upanishads, and in the Christian world the theme would be drawn from the Scriptures and the life of Christ. It is the simple act of thinking deeply about a given subject that constitutes the core discipline of traditional meditation.
The mind does not necessarily have to be focused upon religious or spiritual themes, but it should be noted that the discipline of traditional meditation evolved and was ever nurtured within the precincts of the sanctuary. In that environment, meditating, or thinking deeply about spiritual themes, establishes the context for the student to engage with the fundamental questions of existence, such as, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is the purpose of life?’ It begins as an exercise in reasoning, but gradually becomes an inward journey of self-knowledge where reason, being inadequate for the task, is replaced by intuition. It is a discipline that is initially difficult to learn, but once learnt has surprising and often sublime results.
Over the centuries many different systems of traditional meditation have emerged, many of which are based on the premise that the discursive activities of the mind may be brought to a standstill by focusing the attention on one subject to the exclusion of all others, thereby revealing the true and permanent reality underpinning all things. Although this premise is essentially true, a common mistake is made by some of those engaging in traditional meditation in assuming that one should avoid trying to think when meditating, but trying not to think is like trying not to breathe, almost impossible. The truth is, and it is a truth that has long been understood in the precincts of the sanctuary, that there is a point in the cycle of meditation when the discursive activities of the mind pause or cease, an event that may be facilitated by focusing the attention on one subject; but it is a place one arrives at, not a place one starts from.
To focus on the breath is a means of stilling the biochemistry of the body, thereby slowing down the mental and emotional activity of the mind. It is the first stage of meditation and has been universally employed in this manner down through the ages. To concentrate the mind on a significant concept or idea is the second stage, although both may be initiated simultaneously.
Within the schools where spiritual development is the primary objective, the focal point of concentration is usually the Scriptures, to which the wandering attention is always returned. However, this activity, no matter how rewarding it may be in terms of inspiration, is not the ultimate objective: meditation is not an endless path of cerebral activity, nor is it an endless state of emptiness. Like all things in the natural world there is a cycle of activity which the traditional schools have come to understand and to which they adhere. That natural cycle, most obvious in the rotation of the seasons, consists of directing the mind towards an activity that results in a form of inspiration culminating in a period of profound stillness.
Meditation is not in itself the objective but a means of achieving the objective. For those who persevere, the discipline of meditation leads the student into the exalted and sublime state of contemplation, in which a deeper understanding of existence is slowly revealed to the maturing student. This is the main objective of traditional meditation. In recent times, however, the term meditation has come to signify two different activities. The first, which is more of a therapeutic method, has many variations, most of which are directed towards bringing about a sense of well-being as an antidote to the stresses of modern living. This focuses upon the use of the imagination as a means of inducing the desired effect.
The second emphasises the use of the imagination and is often applied in certain schools for the development of psychic abilities and skills, such as astral projection and clairvoyance. As such it no longer falls under the heading of meditation and arguably should go by a different name as it has little in common with meditation in general.
Traditional meditation, with its focus on mind control and self-knowledge, is generally very different from the majority of modern meditational systems, which are frequently therapeutic in nature and focussed upon creative imagination, and both of these differ from the psychically dynamic processes presented in certain schools as meditation.
If there is any confusion in making a distinction between them it must inevitably rest in the fact that although they all share certain ideas and processes in common, the objectives and the application of such processes vary greatly. Consequently, the student who seeks union with God will be better served following the path of traditional meditation in whatever school they are led to. Alternatively, the student who is looking for respite from the stresses and strains of the world will be better served undertaking a modern method involving creative imagination etc.
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