What Is Meditation?
For many people, the word meditation conjures up images of Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged, intoning “ooooommmm.” However, meditation in one form or another has been a part of every major religion throughout the world. In the past few decades, conventional Western medicine, professional sports, correctional facilities, and the business world have also discovered the benefits of meditation. Meditation is sometimes described as listening to God, whereas prayer is talking to the Divine.
According to Dr. Martin Hart, President of the American Society of Alternative Therapists, meditation “provides a direct access route into the unconscious, without using artificial means.” Because the unconscious stores everything we've ever experienced, Hart says in meditation “a greater level of information is available to us and this allows us to make better choices in the conscious state.”
When you meditate, you empty your mind of all thoughts and become receptive, allowing impressions and inspiration — from your subconscious or from a higher source — to flow into your awareness. The body's processes slow down. You feel calm, relaxed, and centered.
According to Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth-century English prelate and author, “Meditation is the tongue of the soul and the language of our spirit.” Perhaps that sounds somewhat lofty, but meditation isn't a high-and-mighty process, and you don't need to be a monk to do it. In time, with a little practice, virtually anyone who wants to can learn to meditate.
Why Do People Meditate?
People who practice transcendental meditation (or TM), the most wide-spread type of meditation in the United States, say their goal is to achieve inner connection and focus. Taoists and Buddhists meditate to reach a place of total stillness within. Others seek to clarify their vision of the universe and Spirit. How a person approaches meditation depends on her cultural, religious, spiritual, or philosophical perspective.
Meditation enables you to contemplate ideas at a deeper level and better comprehend them. In meditation, you can explore the great mysteries that have engaged human hearts and minds for eons. Some people choose to ponder a single concept, word, or image, such as the Zen saying “one hand clapping,” during meditation. This technique strengthens your mental muscles and expands your perception.
According to Eddie and Debbie Shapiro, authors of The Meditation Book, “Meditation is not a goal in itself.” Rather, meditation's purpose is “to bring about the transformation of our perception of ourselves and our world — from that of skepticism and doubt to acceptance and kindness.”
Witches find meditation useful because it helps them gain mental and emotional clarity. Daily meditation clears the clutter from your mind, balances the relationship between the inner and outer worlds, disperses tension, centers the spirit, and creates a positive atmosphere for working magick. From this hushed state of the body and soul, you can channel energy more easily. Stress and anxiety dam up the flow of creative energy. As magicians know, a clear, still, focused mind and a quiet heart are necessary to perform effective spells.
The roots of meditation are impossible to trace. The first time a human being gazed thoughtfully into the night sky or paused to reflect upon the beauty of a flower, he was meditating. The dancer twirling near a tribal fire who suddenly felt outside herself, the bard who gave himself over fully to his song and the muse — these people and others like them moved into a meditative state without trying.
The first written texts that link meditation (as an altered state of consciousness) to various therapeutic benefits appeared around three thousand years ago among Indian yogis. Early Christian mystics also practiced meditation, in connection with prayer, contemplation, and fasting, as a way to achieve a direct experience of God. The Bible contains numerous references to states of awareness that sound very much like those achieved through meditation.
In 1959, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced TM into the United States. During the 1960s and '70s, as the New Age movement grew and Westerners sought natural ways to achieve greater peace and well-being, meditation's popularity expanded rapidly.
A few decades ago, medical institutions began examining meditation more seriously. Studies clearly showed the physical benefits of meditation. Today, many hospitals and medical facilities offer instruction in meditation, and many doctors recommend it to their patients.
Health Benefits of Meditation
The benefits of meditation aren't merely subjective; they can be measured physically. During meditation, you move from your ordinary beta state of awareness to alpha. Brainwave frequencies shift from the usual 13 to 30 cycles per second to 8 to 13 cycles per second. Heart rate and respiration slow. The brain also steps up production of endorphins, the proteins that enhance positive feelings.
The American Heart Association reports that daily meditation can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Health insurance statistics show that people who meditate regularly are less prone to illness — 87 percent fewer are hospitalized for coronary disease and 55 percent fewer for cancer.
Clinical studies at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles have demonstrated that regular meditation can lower high blood pressure and help alleviate many other stress-oriented problems. People who suffer from chronic pain have discovered that meditation can reduce their discomfort. Every day you are bombarded with sights, sounds, and hundreds of pieces of information that keep your mind buzzing at warp speed. When you meditate, all that busyness slows down; you stop worrying about work, money, relationships, and daily responsibilities, and allow yourself to exist only in the moment. It's like going on a short retreat without ever leaving home.
Regular meditation also aids:
Emotional detachment and objectivity
Awareness of the body-mind-spirit connection
Inner peace and harmony
Creativity and imagination
Instincts (and control over those instincts)
Balance between heart and mind
Sense of purpose
Feelings of well-being and self-esteem
Relationships with others, the environment, and the world
You don't need to subscribe to a particular religious or philosophical belief system to benefit from meditation. Whether you're seeking spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical benefits, meditation can be the “soul food” you need to live a healthier, happier life.