Notes on Your Practice:
Meditation, Part 1
Written by Miya Kishi Dunets
Just what is mediation? Is it something we do? A state we maybe, someday reach?
To meditate is to train our minds, directing our attention to something—an object, a sound, a being, a concept—in a deliberate way. It is an act and a state that allows us to widen our perspectives to something larger than that of our separate, limited selves. Practices can be formal or informal, undertaken while seated or lying down in stillness, or perhaps while walking, eating, or doing any number of daily activities.
The formal meditation techniques we encounter in our modern lives have ancient and sacred roots. Taking time to learn about and honor the cultures and philosophical systems from which our practices (whatever those practices may be) originate is a vital part of deepening our connection to and respecting these tools, ourselves, and our local and global communities.
Meditative practices are part of every religious and spiritual tradition—Shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Yogism, Sikhism, Islam, Sufiism, Judaism, Kabballah, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and on—and the practices from those traditions branch out further, varying within religious or spiritual sects, by geography, by country and within local cultures.
Often now we encounter secular, meaning non-religious, meditations that utilize traditional techniques and remove the religious context. For example, many are familiar with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This program consists of Buddhist and yogic practices without the inclusion of Buddhist or yogic philosophy and with emphasis on the evidence-based, neuroscientific impact of these techniques. Many other traditional meditation practices have also been secularized, adopted, and popularized.
The process of secularization has made meditation accessible to more people because one doesn’t necessarily need to adhere to specific religious or spiritual beliefs in order to access a practice and its benefits. However, whether we regard meditation as sacred or a brain training exercise, it’s vital to make time to learn about the people, cultures, and systems from which the techniques we use have emerged. This ensures that we are honoring the wisdom shared with us. It also allows us to explore and appreciate the richness of different wisdom traditions, seeking to understand how a meditative technique works not just out in the wild but also within the ecosystem that brought it to fruition.
It can be helpful to categorize meditation techniques or styles as we try practices to see what resonates. For ease and simplicity (acknowledging that it is not necessarily easy or simple to attempt to organize meditative techniques, and that many, many frameworks could be employed), I’ll stick with a categorization provided by Western Buddhist teachers Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield: devotional practices, contemplation practices, and concentration practices.
Devotional practices are dedicated to some kind of divine presence or universal source energy and can include techniques such as focusing on a concept like love, prayer, visualization, chanting, and singing. In contemplation practices, we reflect on something like a passage of sacred text, a prayer, words, or a more abstract concept. When engaging with concentration practices, we focus our attention on an inner or outer experience (e.g. mindfulness of breath or body; repetition of sacred sound like a mantra; focus on an inner state like compassion; gazing at or visualization of a candle or other object; and even open awareness practices, during which we notice all aspects of our experience without latching on to or pushing away any specific facet of that experience), perhaps eventually feeling a sense of merging with the object of focus.
You might begin to notice that there is a great deal of overlap in these categories. Is the chanting of mantras and bhajans performed by Bhakti yogis a concentration practice or a devotional one? It’s both, and a contemplation practice too. Could mindfulness of the body move between concentration and contemplation? Probably. Can reading and re-reading a Sufi poem feel like an expression of concentration, contemplation, and devotion? Yep. As you can see, meditative techniques contain multitudes.
Wondering what you’re experiencing at Chorus? We primarily use secular concentration and sometimes contemplation practices, mostly those of Buddhist and yogic origin. Teachers provide some kind of anchor or anchors for your awareness, so that you can train your mind to stay in the present moment. More time in the present means less time projecting, remembering, ruminating. More time in the present means more time experiencing the richness of life, its joys, its suffering, and everything in between with less judgement, here and now.
Meditation can help us to find more ease, inner freedom, and connection but those benefits come with time, commitment, and effort. If we’re lucky enough to make these practices part of our lives, we can honor that privilege by cultivating respect for the practices themselves and the people and cultures that have shared them with us.
Below are some suggested resources that you might find useful as you delve into meditative practice (note: the below are focused on Buddhist and secular mindfulness and compassion, since those are the techniques most often used within a Chorus practice):
Mindfulness in Plain English (Bhante Gunaratana)
The Miracle of Mindfulness (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach)
How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger (Lama Rod Owens)
Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, Jasmine Syedullah Ph.D.)