Sunday, January 27, 2008

Different paths up the same mountain

Imagine that you’re getting ready to climb this mountain. (If you live in the Netherlands or the midwestern United States, get out your National Geographic for this one!) How are you going to get to the top? You could take some climbing lessons, buy the right gear, and inch your way up one of the rocky faces. Or you could choose one of the many trails that meander up the mountain and take a leisurely hike to the summit. (Of course, you could always cheat and drive your car, but that would ruin my metaphor!) Although they all end up at the same place, every trail has its unique characteristics. One may take you on a gradual ascent through forests and meadows, whereas another may head steeply uphill over dry, rocky terrain. From one, you may have vistas of lush valleys filled with flowers; from another, you may see farmland or desert.
Depending on your energy and your motivation, you may choose to stop at a picnic spot en route and while away a few hours (or a few days) enjoying the peace and quiet. Hey, you might enjoy it so much that you decide not to climb any farther. Perhaps you’d rather climb one of the smaller peaks along the way instead of going the distance to the top. Or you may prefer to charge to the summit as quickly as you can without bothering to linger anywhere. Well, the journey of meditation has a great deal in common with climbing a mountain. You can aim for the top, or you can just set your sights on some grassy knoll or lesser peak halfway up the slope. Whatever your destination, you can have fun and reap the benefits of just breathing deeply and exercising muscles you didn’t even know you had.
People have been climbing the mountain of meditation for thousands of years in different parts of the world. As a result, topographic maps and guidebooks abound, each with its own unique version of how to make your way up the mountain — and its own recommendations for how to hike and what to carry. Traditionally, the guidebooks describe a spiritual path involving a set of beliefs and practices, often secret, that have been passed down from one generation to the next . In recent decades, however, Western researchers and teachers have distilled meditation from its spiritual origins and now offer it as a remedy for a variety of 21st-century ills.
Although the maps and books may describe the summit differently — some emphasize the vast open spaces, others pay more attention to the peace or exhilaration you feel when you get there, and some even claim that there’s more than one peak — I happen to agree with the ancient sage who said:
“Meditation techniques are just different paths up the same mountain.” Here are a few of the many techniques that have been developed over the centuries:
  • Repetition of a meaningful word or phrase, known as a mantra
  • Mindful awareness of the present moment
  • Following or counting your breath
  • Paying attention to the flow of sensations in your body
  • Cultivation of lovingkindness, compassion, forgiveness, and other healing emotions
  • Concentration on a geometric shape or other simple visual object
  • Visualization of a peaceful place or a healing energy or entity
  • Reading and reflecting upon inspirational or sacred writings
  • Gazing at a picture of a holy being or saint
  • Contemplation of nature
  • Chanting praises to the Divine
Throughout this blog, you find opportunities to experiment with many of these techniques, as well as detailed guidance in the practice of one in particular —mindfulness — beginning with your breath and then extending your meditation to every moment of your life.

No comments: