Meditation is an integral part of a larger process of becoming healthy, and as such, it is both a diagnostic and therapeutic tool used in this endeavor. In the Buddhist context, the term meditation is used to translate the Sanskrit term bhavana. While the Tibetan equivalent is gom.
The Sanskrit term bhavana carries with it the connotation of cultivating particular cognitive states. While it’s Tibetan equivalent gom has the idea of developing a familiarity of a perception and emotion such as compassion. Together they imply the concept of a process of repetitive cultivation of functional states of mind, and in this regard you might just call meditation, “mind training”.
Western culture is familiar to the notion of physical training but, not so familiar with the cultivation of the inner qualities that support genuine happiness. As the mind plays a major role in our determining experiences, it makes sense to spend at least some time developing the causes of mental fitness. Why? Because it is through training the mind that we can begin to develop genuine happiness. Rather than trying to squeeze genuine happiness out of the external world we can bring this mental state to everything we do. Meditation, therefore, is an integral part of a larger process of becoming healthy.
Buddhism claims that “enlightenment” is merely the extirpation of dysfunctional cognitive, conative and affective mental states; together with the development of functional mental states. Analysis and reasoning play a large role in this process, to which meditation is a vital diagnostic, therapeutic and analytic tool used in this endeavor. This is true, because philosophical truths are not things we look up in books or that are given to us by some mystical process. Truths are acquired through reading, thinking, and in the Buddhist tradition, meditation. If we merely report what someone else has said we are not doing the investigating for ourselves. However, Buddhist mind science is more than the articulation of philosophical or religious views, it is the critical investigation into whether these views correspond with reality.
By doing so, we are in fact developing the actual causes of genuine happiness. Whether it is with respect to a habit, a way of seeing yourself and the world around you, or a way of being. It can be said that meditation is about becoming familiar with functional states of mind and views of reality that are concordant with happiness producing experiences and states of mind.
Why Is Meditation Important?
Greek philosophers diagnosed the weakness of will to be the problem of why knowledge does not immediately translate into action. Smokers are a good example of this. They know fully well, that every cigarette is killing them, yet they continue to smoke. The Eastern traditions like Buddhism on the other hand, would argue it is not weakness, rather, the problem is the failure to integrate such knowledge into ones dispositional narrative. Meditation serves as the link between knowledge and wisdom. Meditation, moreover, is the tool in the integration of intellectual knowledge and the desired changes in our behavior. Therefore in order to make meaningful changes, we need to change our perspective on life.
In the Buddhist philosophical tradition knowledge can divided into three:
1. Intellectual knowledge
2. Contemplative knowledge.
3. Dispositional knowledge.
In the tradition, these three are known as the three wisdoms: the wisdom of hearing, thinking and meditation. However, it is the third type of knowledge we are cultivating in meditation. These three levels of understanding are a process of deepening stages of insight into the truth of a given subject. First one hears or reads, for example, unhappiness comes from the mind and that we have the capacity to change this situation. At first the understanding remains somewhat superficial and tied closely to understanding the meaning of the words. We then reflect upon the meaning of those words using analysis as well as relating their meaning to our own existence. Eventually a deep sense of conviction will arise of the truth and this is the second level of understanding. Taking the knowledge from reflection – the second level – and applying it in meditation we gain the third level of understanding. We alternate between analysis and absorption meditation to refine our understanding. Finally this level of understanding will pierce the psyche so that it is integrated into our very being, such that it is incorporated into the habit of our mind. This third level of understanding arises as a result of prolonged internalization of the insights gained through meditation. This level of understanding is characterized as being experiential, spontaneous, and effortless. A good analogy here is the process of acquiring a skill such as swimming or riding a bicycle, where the key factor is actual practice. Moreover, meditation should not be understood as some arduous activity – the domain of Buddhist monk. Meditation is simply another skill.
Different Types of Meditation
There is the classic mindfulness meditation, wherein the individual learns to pay deep attention to the minute processes within the flow of his or her breath or mental processes, while remaining undistracted by sensory or discursive thought. Then there is the meditation in the form of taking something as an object, such as when the person takes the fundamental truth that we as all beings want to find happiness and do not want to experience suffering, and that in this regard all beings are equal – thus developing equanimity towards all beings. Then there is the meditation in the form of cultivation of positive mental qualities, such as compassion and loving-kindness or friendliness. Here compassion and loving kindness are not so much as the objects of meditation; rather we are seeking to cultivate these qualities within our heart. There is also the practice of meditation as visualization. Here we use visualization as a tool to overcome ingrained psychological assumptions about ourselves and our capacity for change.
Given the various types of meditation you can see that it requires such different terms as cultivation, visualization, aspiration, reflection, or meditation in different contexts. However broadly speaking, the practice of meditation can be broken into two generic categories: absorptive meditation and analytic meditation. Absorptive meditation is a type of meditation whereby the meditator focuses single-pointedly on a given object or emotion so that one becomes completely absorbed into this experience. Analytic meditation on the other hand is a refined process of analysis and critical thinking whereby we take an object and investigate its nature, function and impact on our mental continuum.
Understanding this diversity of meditation practices and their associated states is crucial if we are to avoid the temptation of viewing meditation as constituting some kind of homogeneous mental state, characterized primarily by absence of thought. This way meditation acts as a therapeutic process whereby we learn to let go of even the most deep-seated tendency to view ourselves and the world around us, as being inherently and concretely a certain way. I would argue that meditation plays a major role in teaching us how to see ourselves and the world, in a new, enlightened way.
The Benefits of Meditation
For Buddhists, meditation is both the means and the end. There is, therefore, no need to tell them about the benefits of meditation. However, as most people have a narrow and naive view of and the capacity of change. That is, most people assume that what appears to them exists the way it appears. Through meditation you can gain insight into the nature of self, of consciousness and thus what makes you do certain habitual actions. Through having greater access into the psychological aspects, which motivate actions you can develop greater understanding of what constitutes human flourishing. Thereby giving you the tool for better decision making. It is meditation that is the link between what we think will serve us best, and the actual serving.
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