Meditation is stillness of mind. Keeping the mind still for regular periods gradually brings about a fundamental change. By practicing stillness, eventually a curious thing happens - you begin to see the mind as an object, instead of seeing it as yourself. You see the things it does, and you realise that the awareness feels more like your real self than your thoughts and feelings. It is deeper and richer and more stable, and much more contented.
Think about some of the ways the meditative state has been described by various traditions over the centuries.
An ancient text from India says, "Meditation is stopping the thought waves of the mind." A medieval Christian text calls meditation "the cloud of unknowing," into which the mind must be cast in order to experience something much, much better than the idealism of the religious mind.
What Is NOT Meditation?
Visualisation and guided fantasy are not meditation. Trying to have visions and unusual phenomena is not meditation.
Keeping the mind still for regular periods gradually brings about fundamental change. Keeping the mind active, as in visualising, is more of the same old process we've always known. It is useful in its own way. It is pleasant and relaxing. But it is not meditation. Trying to become a better person is not meditation. Meditation is often thought of as having religious aims, or at least an aim of self-improvement. But meditation is not religion. Meditation is stopping all of this stuff - processes, thoughts, ideas, even our sense of self - rolling around in the mind. Meditation is stillness of mind.
Usually people who meditate do become more pleasant and more co-operative. That's because they give up the personality games that they might have played when they were trying to be this or that sort of person. In meditation, there is no trying this and trying that, there is only stillness.
What are the implications of a still mind?
In a state of stillness, there is no certainty, no taking control, no being right or wrong. In fact, there is no being anything - there's just being! The mind isn't used to that. Meditation then, is a practice in letting go of the activity and constructs of the mind, accepting and ultimately perceiving reality just as it is. We may find, to our surprise, that reality is more interesting and less threatening than our opinions about it, and that happiness is our natural state, not just an occasional mood. We find a little chuckle bubbling away inside ourselves, and realise that the state of stillness is a rich experience of contentment.
Modern applications of Meditation
Change began in the 1970s
Since the 1970s many approaches to meditation have shifted from the deep no-mind outcomes of stillness They may be more goal-oriented, for instance oriented towards better health, reducing stress, focused attention. The basic purpose of meditation then shifts to a strong-mind perspective.
Both may have their place in meditation. Both have the same ancient origin. Still-mind practice tends towards a spiritual view of the world as the grip of the ego reduces. Goal-oriented meditation may also require a delay of ego-gratification.
Since the early work of Herbert Benson, much, much research on meditation has been carried out. Before you go searching google to find research on your favourite topic, we suggest you read this excellent article about Scientific Meditation Research, first. Make sure you read with some understanding of whether what you find is worth reading.
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