Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What is Meditation?

The best way to start this blog would be to address the question, "What is meditation?" This is a question I will address on a few occasions, particularly to correct some very common misunderstandings many have about the nature of meditation. I wish to start, however, with a useful description given by Sakyong Mipham, heir to the Shambhala lineage, in his book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally:

Even though the bewildered mind is untrained, it is already meditating, whether we know it or not. Meditation is the natural process of becoming familiar with an object by repeatedly placing our minds upon it. Whatever we're doing, we always have a view; we're always placing our mind on one object or another. (24)

One of the primary goals of meditation is to train the mind in its ability to attend to or concentrate on whatever it is that we are doing. The Sanskrit word for meditation is bhavana which means to "cultivate" or "develop" and it is always used in reference to the mind. Much like the body, which we all think can benefit from exercise, the mind can also be trained, yet we rarely set aside time each week to train the mind while we will make an effort to schedule time to exercise our body. One reason for this might be that we think that these capacities are innate and permanent, incapable of cultivation or development. Another reason could be our penchant to think that our happiness depends on external conditions: having a beautiful body, having money, fame, and sex, or having a beautiful girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse are (supposedly) what give us happiness, so we ignore the mind as a potential source of contentment and joy in our lives. One way or the other, the training of the mind does not have a place of importance in 21st century America.

There are many different meditation practices that are meant to train the mind's natural capacities of attention and concentration (shamatha bhavana, concentration meditation). There are also many different meditations that use the power of attention/concentration by directing the mind towards wholesome things and penetrating into the nature of all phenomena (vipassana bhavana, wisdom meditation). This is the core of meditation and any religious trappings are secondary to cultivating this concentration and clarity.

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