Instructions on how to meditate abound. Most schools teach one (or a combination) of three main meditation techniques, namely mindfulness meditation, concentrative meditation, or analytical meditation.
Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the processes of the mind in order to become aware of the continuous flow of sensations and feelings, images, thoughts, sounds, smells, and other mental activity. The trick here is to be aware of the mental processes as they occur without becoming involved in them. The meditator sits quietly and simply witnesses whatever thoughts come up. She does not react to or identify with any thoughts, memories, worries, or images that arise in her mind. This practise is used to cultivate a peaceful, clear, and non-reactive state of mind. Mindfulness meditation can be likened to a wide-angle lens. The meditator is focused in the present and aware of all mental activity as it takes place without becoming involved in it.
Concentrative meditation: may be likened to the zoom lens of a camera. Here, the meditator purposefully narrows down her field of attention and a single object becomes the focus of awareness. The chosen object of meditation may be the breath, an image, or a sound (mantra). Single-minded concentration on the object of meditation to the exclusion of all other thoughts stills the mind, and allows greater awareness and clarity to emerge. The simplest form of concentrative meditation is to sit quietly, focusing the attention on the breath. Yogic philosophy teaches that there is a direct correlation between our breath and our state of the mind. When we are anxious, scared, upset, or distracted, our breath follows suit by becoming shallow, agitated, and irregular. When we are calm, focused, and composed on the other hand, we find that our breath is equally relaxed – slow, deep, and regular. The ongoing continuous rhythm of inhalation and exhalation provides a natural object of meditation. By focusing the awareness on the breath, the mind eventually becomes absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. As a result, the breath becomes slow and deep, and the mind more tranquil and receptive.
Breathing meditation is usually taught as a preliminary stage of meditation. Nevertheless, it is a very worthwhile practise with quite powerful effects. Breathing meditation is easy to do and it shows us that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment by controlling the mind, without having to depend upon external conditions for our happiness. Once the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arise from within. This feeling of contentment coupled with an enhanced sense of well-being help us to cope with the busy frenzy and the difficulties of daily life. Many of the daily problems we encounter, including bad health, are caused or aggravated by mental stress. By simply practising breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we are able to reduce this stress. As we learn to create a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, many of our usual problems fall away and difficult situations become easier to deal with.
Analytical meditation: differs from mindfulness meditation and concentrative meditation in that it involves rational thinking. This technique teaches the meditator to engage in an intentional process of investigation, or thought, about an object, analyzing its various aspects and examining it from various points of view. Using her imagination, memory and powers of reasoning the meditator attempts to induce a specific thought or feeling. Analytical meditation is used to change the meditator’s old destructive thought patterns and replace them by a more positive, inspired and integrated outlook on life. Hence, objects of meditation include loving kindness, the preciousness of human life, universal compassion, and the ultimate (non-dualistic) nature of reality. Once the meditator has come to grasps with the object of meditation on an intellectual level, she uses concentrative meditation to focus on the object single-pointedly, avoiding all distracting thoughts. When the object of meditation begins to fade, she resumes her analytical meditation to render the object clear or definite again. Eastern meditation masters liken analytical meditation with the bellows needed to light a fire: There comes a time when the fire is strong enough for us to put down the bellows and let it blaze. Likewise, they teach, there comes a time when we cease the practise of analytical meditation and let concentrative meditation take over. Over time, in the same way as a fire gradually loses its intensity so that we have to apply the bellows again, the object of our concentrative meditation will gradually fade and we will have to apply analytical meditation once more.
Analytical meditation: is used to gain a clear and definite understanding of the object of meditation. Once this is established, concentrative meditation is used to render the mind more and more closely acquainted with the object. Eventually the mind and its object mix and become inseparable. For example, analytical meditation on the sufferings experienced by others naturally arouses a feeling of compassion. When this happens, concentrative meditation is used to continuously familiarize the mind with compassion. Eventually, the theory goes, the meditator’s mind will mix inseparably with compassion. This is called a ‘realisation’ of compassion. It is said that once compassion has been ‘realised’, in all that we think and all that we do, our mind is never without compassion.
What is the goal of meditation? : Meditation is used as an aid to relaxation, to make the mind more peaceful and to ‘recharge our batteries’. It allows us to gain a different outlook on life, by allowing us to reflect on the nature of our own mind. In meditation, we have a direct experience of being. By sitting quietly and paying attention to our mind, we are given the chance to discover those parts of ourselves that are usually buried in the subconscious. By integrating these parts of our being we achieve greater inner peace and a sense of purpose and fulfilment that inspires us to live life to the fullest. The masters put it this way: When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the customarily incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through meditation, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear and peace pervades our entire being.