Sunday, March 30, 2008

Centering prayer

Developed in the past few decades by Father Thomas Keating, a Catholic priest, and based on traditional Christian sources, centering prayer is a contemplative practice that opens the mind and heart to the Divine presence. Unlike a mantra, which is designed to clarify or calm the mind, centering prayer purifies the heart to become a vehicle for God’s transformative grace. Instead of repeating it again and again like a mantra, you hold it in your awareness as an object of contemplation.
Here are the instructions for practicing centering prayer, as given by Father Keating (whose words appear in quotation marks):
  1. Choose a “sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.”
  2. Settle comfortably, and silently introduce the sacred word. When your attention wanders, gently bring it back.
  3. Stay with the same word during the period of contemplation.
Some people may prefer to “turn inwardly toward God as if gazing upon him,” without words. In any case, the same guidelines apply. When we open to God, says Father Keating, we find that God is “closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing — closer than consciousness itself.”

Christian meditation: Practicing contemplative prayer

The Christian equivalent of meditation, known as contemplative prayer, dates back to Jesus himself, who fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days and nights. In contemplation, says Father Thomas Keating, whose “centering prayer” has helped revitalize interest in Christian meditation, you open your awareness and your heart to God, the ultimate mystery, who dwells in the depths of your being, beyond the reach of the mind. (See the “Centering prayer” sidebar for more about the practice taught by Father Keating.) After the time of Jesus, the first great Christian meditators were the desert fathers of Egypt and Palestine in the third and fourth centuries, who lived largely in solitude and cultivated awareness of the Divine presence through constant repetition of a sacred phrase. Their direct descendants, the monks, nuns, and mystics of medieval Europe, developed the contemplative practice of repeating and ruminating over a scriptural passage (not to be confused with thinking about or analyzing it!) until its deeper significance revealed itself to the mind. Both of these practices, explains Father Keating, hark back to Jesus’s admonition, “When you pray, go into your closet, your innermost being, and bolt the door.”
In the Eastern Orthodox Church of Greece and Eastern Europe, monks have long engaged in a similar practice combining prostrations (full-body bows) with the repetition of the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner”) until all practices drop away to reveal a deep interior silence filled with love and bliss.
In recent years, many Christian ministers and monastics have been influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist teachers who have appeared in the West in increasing numbers. In response, some have adapted Eastern practices to the needs of Christian audiences. Others, like Father Keating, have delved into their own contemplative roots and resuscitated practices that had become dusty with disuse.

From the Middle East to the Rest of the West

Although meditation in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions had its own independent development, meditators in the Middle East may have been influenced by the practices of their counterparts in India and Southeast Asia . Historians do have evidence that traders and pilgrims traveled between the two regions constantly, and Buddhist monks appeared in Rome in early Christian times! There’s even the rumor, buoyed by some interesting historical coincidences, that Jesus may have learned how to meditate in India. While Indian meditators — following the ancient insight that atman equals Brahman (“I and the ground of being are one”) — turned their attention progressively inward, seeking the sacred in the depths of their own being, Western thinkers and theologians pointed to a God that purportedly exists outside the individual. At the same time, mystics in the West wrestled with the paradox that God is both inside and outside, personal and transcendent.

Meditation in the Western religions usually takes the form of prayer — that is, direct communion with God. But the meditative prayer of the monks and mystics differs from ordinary prayer, which often includes complaints and requests. Instead, meditative prayer approaches God with humility and devotion, contemplates His divine qualities, and invites His presence into the heart of the meditator. Ultimately, the goal is to surrender the individual self completely in union with the Divine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vajrayana Buddhism: The way of transformation

Like China (where Buddhism encountered Taoism), Tibet had its indigenous religion, called Bonpo, which included magical practices designed to appease the local spirits and deities. When the great Indian master Padmasambhava brought Buddhism from India to Tibet in the seventh century A.D., he first had to conquer the hostile spirits that resisted his efforts. Ultimately, these spirits were incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism as protectors and allies in an elaborate pantheon that included various Buddhas and dakinis (awakened women).

Tibetan Buddhists believed that the historical Buddha taught simultaneously at different levels, depending on the needs and abilities of his disciples. The most advanced teachings, they said, were kept secret for centuries and ultimately conveyed to Tibet as the Vajrayana (“the diamond way”). In addition to traditional mindfulness meditation, this approach incorporated elements of Indian tantra and involved powerful practices for working with energy. Instead of eliminating negative emotions and mind-states like anger, greed, and fear, as traditional Buddhism recommends, the Vajrayana teaches practitioners how to transform negativity directly into wisdom and compassion. Meditation in Tibetan Buddhism also employs visualization — the active use of the imagination to invoke potent spiritual forces that fuel the process of spiritual realization.

Ch’an (Zen): The sound of one hand

You’ve no doubt read about the Zen masters who whacked their disciples with a stick or bellowed instructions at the tops of their lungs. But you may not realize that Zen is a unique blend of Mahayana Buddhism (which is egalitarian) and the native Chinese tradition known as Taoism (which emphasizes the seamless and undivided nature of life, known as the Tao). (Although Indian monks began transporting Buddhism to China in the early centuries A.D., Zen did not emerge as a separate current until the seventh or eighth century.) Zen departed radically from traditional Buddhism by emphasizing direct, wordless transmission of the enlightened state from master to disciple — sometimes through behavior that, by ordinary standards, would be considered eccentric or even bizarre. While the other traditions of Buddhism increasingly focused on scriptural study, Zen cut through the metaphysical underbrush and said: Just sit! Meditation became the primary means for dismantling a lifetime of attachment to the material world and realizing what the Zen masters call Buddha nature, the innate wisdom that exists within each of us. Zen also introduced those seemingly unsolvable riddles known as koans —for example, “What is the sound of one hand?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” By totally immersing himself in the koan, the monk could ultimately see into the nature of existence — what the Zen masters called satori.

In Japan, Zen developed some of its notorious samurai intensity and gave rise to the austere, pristine aesthetic that has made rock gardens and brush paintings so typical of Japanese culture. From Japan, of course, Zen made its way to North America, encountered the Beat generation of the 1950s, and set the stage for the recent explosion of interest in meditation.

To the Roof of the World — and Beyond

Before it left India for good at the end of the first millennium A.D., Buddhism went through significant changes. The early teachings developed into what we now call Theravada — the dominant approach in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, emphasizing a progressive path to liberation largely limited to monks and nuns. At the same time, another major current emerged that preached the ideal of the bodhisattva — the person who dedicates his or her life to liberating others. Known as the Mahayana (“the great vehicle”), this second major branch of Buddhism was more egalitarian and offered the possibility of enlightenment to everyone, whether lay or monastic. From India, wandering monks and scholars transported Mahayana Buddhism over the Himalayas (the “roof of the world”) to China and Tibet. There it mingled with indigenous spiritual teachings, set down roots, and evolved into a number of different traditions and schools, most notably Ch’an (Zen in Japanese) and Vajrayana Buddhism, which took the practice of meditation to new heights.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Indian tantra: Finding the sacred in the world of the senses

Many Westerners associate the word tantra with traditional sexual practices that have been adapted to appeal to a popular audience. However, tantra developed in the early centuries A.D. as a major form of Indian spiritual practice and thought. Believing that absolute reality and the relative world of the senses are inseparable, tantrikas (practitioners of tantra) use the senses —including the practice of ritual sex — as gateways to spiritual realization. Needless to say, such an approach has its pitfalls; whereas yoga and Buddhism can veer toward life-denial, tantra can be confused with sensual indulgence.

Tantric meditation frequently involves practices for awakening the kundalini shakti, believed to be a powerful energy associated with the divine feminine that resides at the base of the spine. Once stimulated, the shakti rises through an energetic channel located in the spine and activates and opens each of the seven energy centers, or chakras, in its path. These centers, which vibrate at different frequencies and are associated with different physical and psychological functions, are located at the perineum, the genitals, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat, the forehead, and the crown of the head, respectively. Ultimately, the shakti may erupt through the crown chakra in a burst of ecstasy. At this point, the practitioner realizes his or her identity with the Divine, while still fully contained in a physical body.

Early Buddhism: The roots of mindfulness meditation

The historical Buddha was a Hindu prince who, according to the traditional account, renounced his luxurious life to find answers to the mystery of suffering, old age, and death. After practicing asceticism and yoga for many years, he decided that rejecting the world and mortifying the flesh would not lead to the understanding he sought. Instead, he sat down under a tree and began looking deeply into his own mind. After seven days and nights of intensive meditation, he woke up to the nature of existence — hence the name Buddha, or “the awakened one.”

The Buddha taught that we suffer because we cling to the false belief that (a) things are permanent and can be relied upon for happiness and (b) we have an abiding self that exists independently of other beings and makes us who we are. Instead, he taught that everything changes constantly — our minds, our emotions, our sense of self, and the circumstances and objects in the external world.

To be free from suffering, he counseled, we must liberate ourselves from ignorance and eliminate fear, anger, greed, jealousy, and other negative mindstates. The approach he prescribed involves both practices for working with the mind and guidelines for living in the world in a virtuous and spiritual way. Meditation lies at the heart of the historical Buddha’s approach. The practice of meditation he taught, known as mindfulness, involves wakeful attention to our experience from moment to moment.
Here are the four traditional foundations of mindfulness:
  • Awareness of the body
  • Awareness of feelings
  • Awareness of thoughts and mind-states
  • Awareness of the laws of experience (the relationships between what we think and what we experience)
Departing from the other teachers of his day, who generally recommended withdrawing from the world to seek ecstatic union with the Divine, the Buddha taught the importance of gaining direct insight into the nature of existence and into how the mind creates suffering. He likened himself to a physician who offers medicine to heal wounds, rather than a philosopher who provides abstract answers to metaphysical questions.

Classical yoga: The path of blissful union

When you think of yoga, do you picture people twisting and stretching their bodies into challenging poses? Even if you practice hatha yoga yourself, what you may not know is that such “poses” are just one component of the traditional path of classical yoga, which includes breath control and meditation.

The practitioner of classical yoga aims to withdraw from the material world, which is considered illusory, and merge with the formless but ultimate reality of consciousness. After preparing the body with asanas (the familiar hathayoga poses), cultivating refined energy states through various breathing practices, and excluding all external distractions, the yogi focuses on an intermediate object, such as a mantra (repetition of a meaningful word or phrase) or a sacred symbol, and then on consciousness itself. Finally, the yogi arrives at a state known as samadhi, where all traces of separation dissolve and the yogi blissfully unites with consciousness.

Compiled and codified by Patanjali (a sage of the second century A.D.), the philosophy and practices of classical yoga gave rise to numerous and, at times, competing schools over the centuries. Most of the yogis and swamis who have taught in the West trace their lineage to classical yoga.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Indian Connection

You can find meditation’s deepest roots in India, where sadhus (wandering holy men and women) and yogis have cultivated the practice in one form or another for more than 5,000 years. Attribute it to the climate, which slows the pace of life, or to the monsoon, which forces people to spend more time indoors, or just to the unbroken line of meditators over the ages. Whatever the reasons, India provided the fertile soil in which the meditative arts flourished and from which they spread both east and west.

The earliest Indian scriptures, the Vedas, don’t even have a word for meditation, but the Vedic priests performed elaborate rites and chants to the gods that required tremendous concentration. Eventually, these practices evolved into a form of prayerful meditation that combined the use of breath control and devotional focus on the Divine. (See Chapter 1 for more on focus.) The deeper they delved, the more these priests realized that the worshipper and the object of worship, the individual being and the divine being itself, are one and the same — a profound insight that continued to inspire and instruct spiritual seekers through the ages.

From the garden of Vedic and post-Vedic spirituality sprouted three of India’s best-known meditative traditions — yoga, Buddhism, and tantra — which I cover in the following sections.

Shamans: The first great meditators

Long before the time of the Buddha or the great Indian yogis, shamans in hunter-gatherer cultures throughout the world used meditative practices to enter altered states of consciousness, known as trances. Focusing their minds through drumming or rhythmic chanting; dancing in simple, repetitive steps; and sometimes using hallucinogenic plants, these men and women left their bodies and journeyed to the “world of the spirits.” From there they brought back sacred wisdom, healing abilities, magical powers, and spirit blessings for the sake of the tribe.

Cave paintings dating back at least 15,000 years depict figures lying on the ground in meditative absorption. Scholars have determined that these figures were shamans journeying in trance to ask the spirits for a successful hunt. Other cave paintings from a similar period show shamans who transformed into animals — a typical practice that continues to this day. (Depending on your belief system, you may be inclined to dismiss such experiences as figments of an overactive imagination. But the shamans and their followers have no doubt that such journeys and transformations actually occur.)

Though shamanism declined with the shift from hunting and gathering to farming, shamans still act as healers, guides for the dead, and intermediaries between humans and spirits in parts of Siberia, North America, Mexico, South America, Africa, Australia, Indonesia, and Asia. In recent years, through the writings of Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner, and Joseph Campbell, more and more Westerners have taken an interest in shamanism — and some have even become accomplished shamans themselves.

Maditation is a great way to align with a deeper sense of purpose

When you practice making the shift from doing and thinking to being, you discover how to align yourself with a deeper current of meaning and belonging. You may get in touch with personal feelings and aspirations that have long remained hidden from your conscious awareness. Or you may connect with a more universal source of purpose and direction — what some people call the higher self or inner guidance.

As your meditation gradually opens you to the subtlety and richness of each fleeting but irreplaceable moment, you may naturally begin to see through the veil of appearances to the sacred reality at the heart of things — and you eventually may come to realize (and this one could take lifetimes!) that the very same sacred reality is actually who you are in your own heart of hearts. This deep insight — what the sages and masters call “waking up from the illusion of separation” — cuts through and ultimately eliminates loneliness and alienation and opens you to the beauty of the human condition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Meditation is great to increase appreciation, gratitude, and love

As you begin to open to your experience without judgment or aversion, your heart gradually opens as well — to yourself and others. You can practice specific meditations for cultivating appreciation, gratitude, and love. Or you may find, as so many meditators have before you, that these qualities arise naturally when you can gaze at the world with fresh eyes, free from the usual projections and expectations.

Meditation is great to enhance your performance at work and at play

Studies have shown that basic meditation practice alone can enhance perceptual clarity, creativity, self-actualization, and many of the other factors that contribute to superior performance. In addition, specific meditations have been devised to enhance performance in a variety of activities, from sports to schoolwork.

Meditation is great to feel more centered and grounded

To counter the escalating insecurity of life in rapidly changing times, meditation offers an inner groundedness and balance that external circumstances can’t destroy. When you practice coming home again and again — to your body, your breath, your sensations, your feelings — you eventually grow to realize that you’re always home, no matter where you go. And when you make friends with yourself — embracing the dark and the light, the weak and the strong — you no longer get thrown off-center by the “slings and arrows” of life.

Meditation is great for experiencing focus and flow

When you’re so fully involved in an activity that all sense of self-consciousness, separation, and distraction dissolves, you’ve entered what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow. For human beings, this total immersion constitutes the ultimate enjoyment — and provides the ultimate antidote to the fragmentation and alienation of postmodern life. No doubt you’ve experienced moments like these — creating a work of art, playing a sport, working in the garden, making love. Athletes call it “the zone.” Through meditation, you can discover how to give the same focused attention to — and derive the same enjoyment from — every activity.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Meditation for enjoying more happiness

Research reveals that the daily practice of meditation for just a few months actually makes people happier, as measured not only by their subjective reports, but also by brain-mapping technology. In fact, meditation is apparently the only thing that can permanently change your emotional set point — your basic level of relative happiness that scientists say stays the same throughout your life, no matter what you experience.
If you want lasting happiness, leading-edge science and spiritual wisdom have the same advice to offer: Forget about winning the lottery or landing the perfect job — and begin meditating instead!

Meditation for lighten things up

Perhaps you’ve noticed that nonstop thinking and worrying generate a kind of inner claustrophobia — fears feed on one another, problems get magnified exponentially, and the next thing you know, you’re feeling overwhelmed and panicked. Meditation encourages an inner mental spaciousness in which difficulties and concerns no longer seem so threatening and constructive solutions can naturally arise — as well as a certain detachment that allows for greater objectivity, perspective, and, yes, humor. That mysterious word enlightenment actually refers to the supreme “lightening up”!

Meditation for relaxing the body and calm the mind

As contemporary health researchers have discovered — and traditional texts agree — mind and body are inseparable, and an agitated mind inevitably produces a stressed-out body. As the mind settles, relaxes, and opens during meditation, so does the body — and the longer you meditate (measured both in minutes logged each day and in days and weeks of regular practice), the more this peace and relaxation ripples out to every area of your life, including your health.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Meditation to connect more deeply with others

As you awaken to the present moment and open your heart and mind to your own experience, you naturally extend this quality of awareness and presence to your relationships with family and friends. If you’re like the rest of us, you tend to project your own desires and expectations onto the people close to you, which acts as a barrier to real communication. But when you start to accept others the way they are — a skill you can cultivate through the practice of meditation — you open up the channels for a deeper love and intimacy to flow between you.

Meditation to make friends with yourself

When you’re constantly struggling to live up to images and expectations (your own or someone else’s) or racing to reinvent yourself to survive in a competitive environment, you rarely have the opportunity or the motivation to get to know yourself just the way you are. Self-doubt and self-hatred may appear to fuel the fires of self-improvement, but they’re painful — and besides, they contribute to other negative mind-states, such as fear, anger, depression, and alienation, and prevent you from living up to your full potential. When you meditate, you learn to welcome every experience and facet of your being without judgment or denial. In the process, you begin to treat yourself as you would a close friend, accepting (and even loving) the whole package, the apparent weaknesses and shortcomings as well as the positive qualities and strengths.

Meditation to awaken to the present moment

When you rush breathlessly from one moment to the next, anticipating another problem or hungering for another pleasure, you miss the beauty and immediacy of the present, which is constantly unfolding before your eyes. Meditation teaches you to slow down and take each moment as it comes —the sounds of traffic, the smell of new clothes, the laughter of children, the worried look on an old woman’s face, the coming and going of your breath. In fact, as the meditative traditions remind us, only the present moment exists anyway — the past is just a memory and the future a fantasy, projected on the movie screen of the mind right now.