History of meditation
The word meditate comes from the Latin root meditatum, i.e. to ponder. In the Old Testament, means to sigh or murmur, but also to meditate. The use of the term meditatio as part of a formal, stepwise process of meditation goes back to the 12th century monk Guigo II. Caravans on the Silk Road helped spread meditative practices from India. It is difficult to trace the history of meditation without considering the religious context within which it was practiced. Data suggest that even at prehistoric times older civilizations used repetitive, rhythmic chants and offerings to appease the gods. Some of the earliest written records of meditation date to 1500BC in Hindu Vedantism. Around 500-600BC Taoists in China and Buddhists in India began to develop meditative practices. The Pali Canon, which dates to 1st century BCE considers Indian Buddhist meditation as a step towards salvation. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100CE included a number of passages on meditation, clearly pointing to Zen. The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other oriental countries, and in 653 the first meditation hall was opened in Japan. Returning from China around 1227, Dogen wrote the instructions for Zazen. Western Christian meditation contrasts with most other approaches in that it does not involve the repetition of any phrase or action and requires no specific posture. Western Christian meditation progressed from the 6th century practice of Bible reading among Benedictine monks called Lectio Divina, i.e. divine reading. Its four formal steps as a "ladder" were defined by the monk Guigo II in the 12th century with the Latin terms lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (i.e. read, ponder, pray, contemplate). Western Christian meditation was further developed by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila in the 16th century. In Concentration meditation the meditator holds attention on a particular object (e.g., a repetitive prayer) while minimizing distractions; bringing the mind back to concentrate on the chosen object. In mindfulness meditation, the meditator sits comfortably and silently, centering attention by focusing awareness on an object or process (such as the breath; a sound, such as a mantra, koan or riddle-like question; a visualization; or an exercise). The meditator is usually encouraged to maintain an open focus or monitoring.
The following guidelines apply to most meditations, they will also be useful for anyone who is finding their own way to meditate and wants an easy, natural meditation style.
Different postures affect how the energy flows through the body and how alert the mind is in meditation. For most meditations, we suggest sitting upright with the spine erect while still being comfortable. It is not necessary to get into a precise or difficult posture to meditate! If you are uncomfortable or straining to be in a certain position, you will not be able to relax completely. Some meditations, such as our Walking Meditation, are done while active. Obviously, if you are doing a meditation for falling asleep, it would be best to lie down.
How Long to Meditate
Usually 15-30 minutes is a good meditation time, although if you are new to meditation, you may want to start with 5 or 10 and build up. If you meditate regularly, it can be helpful to meditate about the same number of minutes each time. (An exception is our Meditation-in-Action which is done for longer periods of time while engaged in activity.)
When to meditate
When you meditate will partly depend on what kind of meditation you are doing and the purpose of the meditation. Although you can meditate at any time, the ideal times are usually in the morning as a start to your day, or in the late afternoon in order to unwind from the activity of the day and be refreshed for the evening.
If you do a meditation which energizes you, it’s better not to do it before bedtime. Some meditations, however, are specifically designed for falling asleep and many people find listening to many of our guided meditations helps them relax into sleep.
Meditations which are deeply relaxing are best done on an empty stomach or at least a couple of hours after a meal.
How often to meditate
The ideal frequency of meditation may vary from person to person depending on many different factors. Generally speaking, once or twice a day is ideal. A regular routine of meditation is invaluable. The benefit derived from meditation starts to carry over into our activity more when we meditate regularly. Many find twice a day to be ideal, but certainly even once a day can make a big difference.
It is possible to meditate too much. Everything in life is about balance and proportion. Usually 15-20 minutes twice a day is sufficient and more could be counter-productive. (Taking brief meditation breaks more often would be OK, however.)
Thoughts in meditation
Thoughts arise spontaneously in the mind. They are a natural part of meditation. The goal of meditation is to become more at ease, relaxed and at peace with whatever is happening. Therefore, it is important to not resist anything that comes in meditation, including thoughts.
Don’t try to push out thoughts or resist them. Simply notice that thoughts are present and let them go the way they come — effortlessly. When you find that the awareness has been caught up in a train of thought, easily come back to the focus of your meditation. (This will vary depending on the type of meditation you are doing. In a breath meditation, for example, come easily back to the experience of the breath.)
It’s important to understand that you have not made a mistake when thoughts come or the mind has become absorbed in thought. It’s a natural part of meditation. The mind may get caught up in a “story” about what is happening in our life, or even what is happening in meditation — what has happened or will happen. Likewise, we can let go of that. Don’t purposely follow the train of thought. Let it go. Let go of the meaning of thoughts. Let thoughts be a meaningless activity in the mind!
Our experience of thoughts may change as we meditate.
As we disengage the gears of the mind, the mind has an opportunity to settle down. We may experience more subtle levels of the thinking process. Thoughts may become more vague, or may even be an intuitive felt sense of something — a knowing that does not get translated into words and concepts. Allow this process of the changing experience of thoughts to happen.
Sometimes you may experience a kind of dream-like state, somewhere between being asleep and awake. This also is a natural experience in meditation. There may also be times when there is a state of “no thought”. No matter what happens just take it easy — take it as it comes!
It’s enjoyable to meditate in a quiet place, but it is not always possible. All of the meditations on our website can be done in a noisy environment. The key is to not resist noise. Don’t try to ignore the noise or to block it out. Simply let it be and continue with your meditation.
Everything is a part of meditation — the noise, your thoughts about it, the way the mind may start to resist it, the emotions that arise about it. Treat everything that arises in meditation the same way — let it be, let yourself be!
Falling asleep in meditation
Hopefully in meditation we enter a state of “non-resistance”. This would include not resisting sleep if it comes. If we try to keep from falling asleep, we are straining. The goal of meditation to establish a state of ease. Therefore, if sleep comes, let it come.
As the body relaxes, it will take the opportunity for sleep if it is needed. If you find that you fall asleep frequently in meditation, it may mean that you need more sleep at night and is a good reminder to make sure you are getting enough rest.
When we enter into a state of relaxation in meditation, strong emotions can sometimes arise. This can happen for several reasons. When the mind settles down in meditation, we may become aware of an emotion that has been “under the surface” while we are busy in activity and focused on other things. It may also be that the deep relaxation of meditation causes a kind of “unwinding” or purification, so that any emotion that has been held in the body is released. The meditative state can be much like the dream state in which various issues are being processed.
If we are uncomfortable with a particular emotion, such as grief, the tendency may be to want to push it out. Emotions are a flow of life energy, and if we resist that flow, the energy becomes “stuck”. If you notice resistance to emotions, let the resistance go. Allow the emotion to be experienced fully and the energy of the emotion can flow and resolve.
On the other hand, when a strong emotion arises, the mind may become very busy interpreting it or dramatizing it with a story about it. If anger arises, for example, the mind might pick up on something that happened in the past, or imagine something happening now as the cause of the anger. This involvement of the mind in the emotion intensifies and feeds it, and also obstructs it from moving through easily. When we become aware of being caught up in a train of thought or a story, let that go and bring the awareness easily back to the focus of the meditation. (The focus will depend on the meditation you are doing.)
If the emotion or thought is so strong that you cannot easily come back to your focus (such as the focus on the breath), then simply allow the mind to feel the emotion. Let the awareness locate a physical sensation in the body that is associated with the strong emotion (or thought). Simply continue to feel that sensation in the body. With the awareness easily on the sensation, it will eventually dissolve and the mind will be free to continue with the focus of the meditation.
It’s important to take time to come out of meditation slowly. When we are deeply rested in meditation, it can be jarring to suddenly get up and start our activity. Remain with your eyes closed for a minute or two. Stretch, move around a bit, and gradually become more active. When you are ready to open your eyes, you can open them downcast at first. Take your time!