Meditation comes in many forms and varieties. I myself practice at least 10 different styles depending on my needs. This proves that meditation is a versatile tool that can be adapted to many needs.
Meditation is used either to increase well-being or to gain access to knowledge that is not readily available to us. This knowledge comes mostly in the form of psychological truths about ourselves.
Most meditative traditions make this distinction, but not all explicitly. Let me try to guide you through the different traditions and how they use meditation.
As you will see in this article, this is also true for our western tradition called mindfulness.
- Different types of meditation
- What is meditation used for?
- Use of meditation in contemplative traditions
- Use of meditation in western society
- Use of meditation in esotericism
Different types of meditation
Before we start, we should be clear that there are different types of meditation. And they all serve a slightly different purpose.
But, for the purpose of this discussion, I will group them into 2 main categories: concentration and insight.
The most well known meditation in the west as a form of concentration meditation is following the breath.
As the category indicates, this meditation is used to hone our skill of concentration.
Most people cannot keep their mind focused on any single thing for longer than a few seconds. the minds start to wander and thus needs to be trained.
In Buddhism, they call this the monkey mind, jumping from one train of thought to another one. In this category, we find breath following but also mantra meditation and loving-kindness meditation or zazen.
There is also a very well known type of insight meditation in the west. It is called mindfulness meditation.
And although it resembles breath meditation, it is going one step further. Once the mind is sufficiently stable, we can venture out and explore whatever happens in our body and mind.
So if a thought happens, you look at it and then come back to the breath. The same is true for when an emotion or bodily sensation happen: you just notice it and come back to the breath.
So how exactly is this leading to insight?
Well, after a substantial time of doing this exercise, you will start to notice tendencies in yourself that you did not know you had. This knowledge can then be used as a reminder in your own life to maybe rethink how you do things (or not, it is up to you).
What is meditation used for?
Meditation is used in different contexts and in different settings. And this makes that the uses people wat to make of it also differ.
Use of meditation in contemplative traditions
Contemplative traditions like monks in Buddhism or Hinduism are always trained in the 2 pillars of meditation like described above.
The aim of those traditions is always to get to the wisdom stage. But they know and acknowledge that the untrained mind is not suited to get to the wisdom stage. The mind is simply too volatile.
So after the initial training in stabilizing the mind, they continue to try to achieve their ultimate goal. And although the ultimate they want to achieve looks different from the outside, they do call it the same.
In English it is translated as liberation, but in sanskrit it is termed moksha.
The ultimate goal of Buddhism
The first teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni is termed the four noble truths. And in these, he expounds on the fact that people always seem to unsatisfied.
The reason this is so, he explains, is that people have craving. They get attached to whatever they like and they repel whatever they dislike.
By doing this, we perpetuate our state of unhappiness.
So, the obvious solution is to stop this fundamental tendency in ourselves.
By this, he does not say to avoid pleasure and to seek pain. No, he simply makes us aware that both are part of life. And if we learn to treat them as just that, natural occurrences, we will live much happier lives than we do.
So, Buddhists have many, many forms of meditation whose aim is to show you how craving and aversion operate in your life and how to let go of them for greater happiness.
The ultimate goal of Hinduism
The Hindu’s have a long-lasting tradition of meditation. The Buddhists took part of this knowledge and expanded on it.
In Hinduism, there are a few meditative traditions, but the one I will cover here is called Yoga.
Yes, you read it right. Yoga!
I hear you thinking: but isn’t yoga about physical postures and movements?
Yes and no. Yoga has 8 limbs, as they are called. And the postures are limb number 3.
Limb 1 and 2 are all about ethics, Limb 3 and 4 are about the body and cultivating enough energy to be able to climb through limbs 5, 6, and 7 to the ultimate 8.
But Limbs 4 to 8 are all about meditation. That is how important they find this practice in yoga.
The use of meditation in Yoga.
Yoga literally means ‘union’. Depending on who you ask, the yoga practitioner wants to achieve union with God or the universal energy. Albeit both might be the same. I leave that in the middle.
The yogi will thus use his meditation to try to make a connection with the divine. The wisdom aspect here is that you realize that we are connected to all that is surrounding us.
We breathe in the air that the trees have purified for us. Sadhguru (and Indian Guru) half-jokingly sais that half of our lungs are outside of our body. And in a certain sense, he is right.
The meditative practices in yoga are thus geared at showing us that we are part of a whole and that the whole is part of us. Union is achieved!
Use of meditation in western society
We have been very fortunate to have seen the birth of a new meditative tradition in the west. It is based upon a secularised version of Zen and was first introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
This tradition is now known under the name of mindfulness and if you want to know more about this tradition, I recommend my article on what mindfulness actually is. Or you might be in
For the sake of this article, it suffices to say that mindfulness, obviously, has the two main components in it: concentration and wisdom. But, in this tradition, the wisdom part is much more emphasized than the concentration.
In general, mindfulness is not used to attain enlightenment or union with God. Some people use it like this, but it is a minority.
We, in the West, use meditation mainly for increased well-being. This came to be because, in the 80-ties, research was able to show that mindfulness could reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
Since then, mindfulness meditation has been applied in all sort of settings and for all sort of applications:
The original aim of Jon Kabat-Zinn was to help terminally ill people cope with the stress and the anxiety of their condition.
It was the first application of meditation in the west in a clinical setting. It proved so successful that three Oxford professors tried it on their depressed patients.
Treatment of depression.
Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams proved that mindfulness meditation could reduce the probability of people developing depression in people who had recurring episodes of depression.
This research had a huge impact as it was the first intervention that proved to be as good as medication and it skyrocketed the popularity of mindfulness meditation.
Today, many patients that are plagued by depression are now given mindfulness exercises as a complementary treatment to their medication.
Improved work floor happiness
Many businesses were intrigued by the fact that mindfulness could improve the mood of their employees. And form positive psychology, they knew that a happy employee works harder than a sad one.
So the maths was quickly made and this yielded in the large business of corporated mindfulness courses, aimed at improving the spirits of the workforce.
Mindfulness in schools
Obviously, the most important people on earth are our children. It goes to say that anything that can improve their well-being is important.
Studies in schools have indeed seen improved well-being and higher grades when mindfulness was introduced in the curriculum.
Meditation in Prisons
Stress levels sore high in prisons. And this in turn increases the probability of violence.
Meditation helps in both these areas by the way it trains the mind in letting go and accepting what is.
Use of meditation in esotericism
EsotericDefinition in Merriam Webster
Designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone
There are a number of uses of meditation that less standard. These are called esoteric, meaning hidden.
Most of the esoteric knowledge has now been revealed. For instance, the existence of many of the Tibetan Buddhist texts was hidden from us for many centuries.
However, there are also esoteric uses of meditation that try to bend reality to your will. These include the cultivation of powers like clairvoyance or levitation.
Specially designed techniques also exist for these. As this is not the aim of this blog, and since I have no idea if these really work, I will just leave it at mentioning them.
Featured image by Hartwig HKD
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