Published: Mar. 28, 2006
Updated: July 14, 2008
What is meditation?
Meditation refers to the activity of intentionally paying attention, to a particular object for a particular purpose. Spiritual practitioners and members of many faith traditions have developed meditation practices over countless years of human experience. There are literally thousands of ways to practice meditation. As it has been developed in diverse faith traditions, the purpose of all meditation practice is to awaken us. Meditation is intended to bring about transformation and change, through understanding, compassion, and clarity of seeing.
According to many authorities, meditation practices may generally be grouped into two basic categories based on the emphasis placed on directing attention as one practices meditation. First, there are "concentration" practices. In these, the practitioner focuses attention (concentrates) on a narrow field, usually a single object.
For example, in the service of spiritual practice, the person may repeat a meaningful phrase or prayer over and over or they may fix their attention on an object or sacred figure. In these concentration practices, when the attention wanders or is drawn away from the object of attention, the practitioner gently returns attention to the object. The object is selected for reasons specific to the person and to their particular faith tradition. Done for health purposes, concentration practices may select a more neutral object such as the sensation of the breath or the sensation of the body as it moves.
The second general category of meditation practice includes all forms of meditation practice, which emphasize awareness or "mindfulness." Such activities seek to develop and nourish present moment awareness. They encourage paying attention in a way so as to be more aware in the present moment of all that is here, and of the constantly changing nature of what is here. These "mindfulness" practices are often described as "being, not doing," because mindfulness itself is the innate quality of human beings which is bare awareness. Mindfulness can be defined as careful, open-hearted, choiceless, present moment awareness.
Mindfulness benefits from the ability to concentrate attention, but is not the same as concentration. It is a quality, which human beings already have, but they have usually not been advised that they have it, that it is valuable, or that it can be cultivated. Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking (but that which is aware of thinking, as well as aware of each of the other ways we experience the sensory world, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling through the body). Mindfulness is non-judgmental and open-hearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us. By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, individuals can live more fully and less on "automatic pilot," thus, being more present for their own lives. Mindfulness meditation practices seek to develop this quality of clear, present moment awareness in a systematic way so that the practitioner may enjoy these benefits. Being more aware in each moment of life has benefits both to a person doing specific spiritual practice, and also to the same person in everyday life.
Why is meditation now offered in health care settings and for stress reduction?
The use of meditation in health care settings, and for stress reduction is related to discoveries about the mind-body connection in health and illness, which have been made in Western medicine over the last 25 to 30 years. In that time, researchers have discovered that the mind and the body are intimately connected. It is now known that thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and stress all have a great impact on health and illness. Meditation is one of a variety of so-called "self-regulatory practices" that individuals can learn to do for themselves to promote their own health and well-being. Research has shown that individuals who learn and practice these skills are likely to have a better health outcome than those who do not. In particular, research has shown that the ability to concentrate attention can promote deep relaxation in the body, and that the ability to be more mindful in each situation can help break the destructive habitual reactions to stress.
In the approach known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), individuals are taught to practice mindfulness meditation and mindful movement/gentle stretching and yoga as ways to become more aware, more present, and more relaxed as they face the stress of their own lives. Other examples of self-regulatory practices besides meditation are biofeedback, clinical hypnosis, and progressive relaxation exercises.
Why is daily meditation practice important?
Research has shown that meditation is similar to other lifestyle change activities in that it is only effective if you do it! Exercise, diet change, or meditation -- any lifestyle change requires consistent practice to gain results. In early studies of meditation, the cardiologist Herbert Benson, at Harvard, demonstrated that practicing meditation 20 minutes twice-a-day was sufficient to bring about significant reductions in blood pressure in many people. The exact number of minutes of daily practice to bring benefits for large populations is not well understood, and, in truth, it probably varies based on a number of considerations. Generally, however, we can say that regular, daily meditation practice of at least 30 minutes or more is very likely to bring benefits to the person who does it.
Do the meditation practices taught in this program and in other health care settings have any thing to do with "Eastern religions" or cults?
As mentioned previously, human beings of all faith traditions have practiced meditation as part of their spiritual life. The ability to develop calm and focused attention, and the cultivation of deeper and broader present moment awareness (mindfulness), are both vital supports to any genuine spiritual practice, and thus, both of these benefits of meditation have been developed and enjoyed by countless spiritual seekers.
The use of meditation practices here in the West, largely for health benefits and promoted and investigated by the emerging field of mind-body medicine, for practical purposes, is only about 25 to 30 years old at present. Because of this absence of a previously developed and mature methodology of meditation for health promotion in Western medicine, many of the meditation methods now taught in the West for health purposes owe some (or considerable) debt to the instructions and experience detailed by meditation teachers of more ancient traditions.
There already exists an enormous body of experience with meditation and yogic practice in different traditions worldwide. The challenge for those working in the emerging field of mind-body medicine in the West in the past 25-30 years has been to identify what is useful and relevant about meditation and yogic practices in those more ancient and diverse contexts, and to translate it into something practical for those in the contemporary Western health care culture who wish to utilize that information, be they consumer or provider. Those who have pioneered meditation for health purposes in Western medicine in the past three decades, (Herbert Benson, MD, Joan Borysenko, PhD, Dean Ornish, MD, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, to name a few) have made deliberate efforts to make the meditation practices they teach non-sectarian and available to people of any and all faith traditions. This is true, for example, for Benson's method of eliciting the "relaxation response" in which instructions may have either a spiritual or secular focus depending on the individual's own preference. Likewise, the practices of mindfulness meditation and yoga/movement taught in the MBSR model (and this program) developed and taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues are explicitly crafted to appeal to individuals regardless of their faith tradition orientation. There is no specific religious or faith tradition emphasis, and the practices taught are offered for anyone who wishes to use them to enhance their own health.