Meditation--Trends, Styles and Stages
Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Conway
(The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Our Religions’ Future: Truths, Trends and Challenges for Old and New Spiritualities. Endnotes are indicated as numbers in brackets.)
Increased Use of Meditation, Contemplation and/or Centering Exercises
A strong trend in America, Europe and elsewhere, one that will likely play an even greater role in our religions’ future, is an increasing use of meditation, centering exercises, and contemplative prayer, in addition to the traditional non-mystical practice of simply “talking to God in one’s own words.” According to a 1996 Gallup Poll for the Princeton Religion Research Center, fully half of Americans said that they pray or meditate in private on a daily basis; an additional 18% reported doing so several times a week. And of those who engage in this prayer or meditation, 64% “sit quietly and just think about God,” while 44% “meditate or try to get in touch with God or a higher power.” Sixteen percent “sit quietly and meditate using a secular meditation practice,” while 9% “use an eastern meditation practice.”
This last figure is a relatively small percentage, but undoubtedly a major increase from any number that would have been yielded by a poll 30 years earlier. The figure back then for eastern meditation methods, had pollsters asked, would probably have registered at only 0.5%, 0.1%, or even less. Furthermore, many Christians and Jews in our culture who have little direct exposure to Eastern traditions are utilizing methods of meditative/contemplative prayer given by priests, monks, nuns, and rabbis that mimic or are closely modeled on Vedanta or Buddhist meditation practices. Most of the prominent leaders in the Catholic contemplative prayer revival of the last 30 years, including Thomas Merton, Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux), Sister Vandana, Sister Pascaline Coff, Anthony de Mello, John Main, William Johnston and Thomas Hand have been strongly influenced by Eastern religions, specifically, Vedanta and Buddhism. Neo-Hasidic rabbis like Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Joseph Gelberman, Joseph Schechter, Shlomo Carlebach, David Zeller and others who teach Jewish meditation have also been heavily influenced and inspired by Eastern forms of meditation.
Professor Wade Clark Roof and his team of researchers discovered in their 1988-1989 survey of American Baby Boomers (those born between the years 1946 to 1962), the largest demographic group in the U.S., that the great majority prefer to meditate alone rather than worship with others. In response to the question, “For you, which is most important: to be alone and to meditate, or to worship with others?”—the team found that “fully 53% said it was more important to be alone and to meditate, 29% indicated worship with others, and 18% said either both were important or they were unable to choose between them.”
It would seem that the nonverbal, more profound forms of prayer/ meditation are engaged for different motivations. These include: 1) sincere aspiration to explore the depths of consciousness in hopes of encountering God, realizing Divine Awareness, awakening to Spirit; 2) curiosity about the human potential for experiencing blissful alternate states of consciousness (ASCs); or 3) a need to let go of tensions and burdens, that is, to cope with increasing stress. Harvard economist Juliet Schor in the late 1980s alarmed fellow pundits and Americans in general when she reported that work loads, time spent working, and stress levels were all steadily increasing, not decreasing, as earlier futurists had mistakenly predicted. Today, reports Time journalist Nancy Gibbs, “Americans are working 160 hours more each year than they did 20 years ago, moonlighting is on the rise [from 1979 to 1989, the number of workers with more than one job jumped from 4.7 million to 7.2 million] and nearly half the respondents in one survey said they have less time for lunch. … Anxiety disorders affect more people than depression or substance abuse.”
This stress is worsening with the rampant job insecurity and economic vulnerability brought on by the disparate stratification of wealth and global economy. Here meditation comes to rescue, since meditation has been shown to constitute an effective “psychological survival strategy” for people. Meditation protects us from being overwhelmed by stress by inducing greater relaxation, clarity, “centeredness,” and openness to the “Higher Power” or Divine Grace.
Meditation will become essential for another reason: America is suffering a national sleep deficit, reports Newsweek. “By some estimates, we’re sleeping as much as an hour and a half less per night than we did at the turn of the century—and the problem is getting worse…. The health repercussions of sleep deprivation … [include] ills ranging from heart problems to depression…. Naps would be nice, but at the moment, employers tend to frown on them.” Meditation, which can be fairly easily integrated into our daily lives, including work-breaks at the jobsite, can restore and refresh us.
Because we live in a technological age, rife with the use of electrical appliances, a small yet significant and growing number of people have begun to explore the use of “brain-mind machines” so as to facilitate a meditative, contemplative state. These machines utilize hemispheric synchronization in the brain; promotion of specific brain waves in the alpha, theta and very slow delta frequencies; entrainment via repetitive stimuli; manifold patterns of light and sound; and visual blocking devices like the ganzfeld (which can be roughly duplicated by taping two halves of a ping-pong ball over each eye—obviously one is not to do this while driving a car or engaging in other activities).
I predict much more use of this adjunct technology—and more advances in technology. I believe that it will come to be preferred by increasingly numerous people as ways of inducing altered states of consciousness/ASCs (or Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness, NOSC) instead of drugs or many of our traditional religious rituals in the West, which have largely lost their ability to promote ASCs. Some of the more progressive gyms may even begin to create special spaces featuring brain-mind machines so as to promote “mental-spiritual fitness” in addition to physical fitness. A scenario is rapidly coming sometime in the next century—George Orwell, are you listening?—wherein computerized brain-mind devices will be so radically reduced in size that they could be worn as lightweight headsets or even be implanted in or near the brain (like a pacemaker for the heart), capable of “regulating” consciousness in various ways. Yale futurist Wendell Bell has spoken of prospects for the near future (i.e., “within the next 20 years”): “Implants in the body could dispense medicine throughout the day or enhance our ability to think or adjust our moods and emotional states.” Such implants would surely be capable of producing the diverse forms of electronic stimulation currently available with brain-mind machines and thus be used for creating ASCs.
It is important here to realize that merely accessing ASCs does not make one a deeply spiritual individual. Much more important is that one develop Altered Traits of Consciousness (ATCs), such as outlined among the factors of holiness/wholeness,
the criteria for deep spiritual realization,
given in Chapter 1. Transpersonal psychology theorist Ken Wilber holds a similar perspective on this issue:
“I believe that major breakthroughs will occur in electronically inducing brain-wave patterns that appear to mimic meditation (such as deep theta/delta), and that the machines to do this will become widely available commercially. I believe nobody will become 'enlightened' from this, precisely because brain and mind are not merely identical, and enlightenment occurs in the mind (consciousness), not in the brain, although changes occur there also. What this research will show us, I believe, is that brain states more easily 'allow' certain mind states, but do not determine them. A person might even get a 'taste' of the transpersonal through electronic induction, like getting a taste through psychedelics, but without interior cognitive transformation, the state will fade; it will not become a [permanent deep] structure.” [I would add that affective and motivational transformation are needed in addition to the cognitive transformation mentioned by Wilber.]
Styles and Techniques of Meditation
With the greater attention to meditative, contemplative states, I would hope that people realize they have considerable choices in styles or techniques of meditation/contemplation. Let me briefly outline these here.
First, one can practice the traditional one-pointed concentration on a specific object of meditation—a visual, auditory or kinesthetic sensation like the breath-sensations of coolness and warmth at the nostril area; a candle flame; the Jesus prayer; a mantra (sacred syllable or phrase); an artist’s image of the face of Jesus, one’s spiritual master, or the Divine Mother; a mandala (a sacred, centering art-image visualized externally or internally); a flower; the sound of flowing water; a visual point on the ground; or whatever one chooses. This one-pointed concentration is also known as “convergent” meditation. All egoic distractions and escape strategies are quieted and obviated as one merges attention in the object of meditation. This merging allows the Divine nature underlying all forms and events to shine forth, free of interference from the selfish, restless, perpetually seeking and dissatisfied “monkey mind.”
Second, one can adopt “witnessing” or “mindfulness” or “insight” meditation. This “opening” or “divergent” meditative approach simply involves witnessing the parade of thoughts, emotions, and sensations—and noticing the fleeting transiency of these phenomena as they rise and pass away, as well as the spacious gaps between them. All the while one stands free of these phenomena, “upstream” from them as pure Awareness. Eventually there is no more clinging to any phenomena, and perfect release from the syndrome of “me” occurs. Peace and bliss remain.
Third, one can immerse oneself in love for and surrender to God, either with personal Form or as the Formless. This is traditionally considered the devotional path of prayer/meditation. One falls deeper and deeper into the sweetest “intoxication” in practicing the presence of the Beloved. Eventually there is no more lover, only the Beloved. No more “me,” only the all-pervasive “I” of God.
Fourth is the transpersonal, intuitive self-enquiry into the nature of Absolute Awareness ItSelf—for example, utilizing the koan or provocative question “Who/what am I?” as a way of “turning 180º at the root of consciousness” (Lankavatara Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism), disidentifying from the body-mind personality, floating unattached in the perfect freedom of Awareness. One realizes that one is not a body, not a mind, not a “me,” not any-“thing” at all. Neti, neti (“not this, not this”—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, II.iii.6). One surrenders as pure no-thingness of Spirit, “subtler than the subtlest” (Svetasvatara Upanishad, IV.14) And, paradoxically, this Spiritual No-thing, the inner Self of all, is creatively spread out in space-time as everyone and everything. The Void is Full. Emptiness is Form. God alone Is.
Finally, in total surrender of every strategy of attention, worldly or spiritual, one simply abides in an open, empty/full, relaxed, alert stillness. This is the unconditioned mode of “just being.” It is a radical interior “stopping” (Taoist non-forcing, or wu-wei) of all forms of attention motivated by egoic seeking. It is an intuition of the nondual Divine that is “always already the case” (Ramana Maharshi) as one’s real nature or Original “No-Face” underneath or prior to the entire egocentric act. Free of any desire to grasp and know objects (Yoga Vasishtha: “Enlightenment is the realization that there are fundamentally no objects, only infinite Awareness”), this spiritual intuition can only be denoted as “unknowingness,” the “Divine ignorance” before/ beyond the busy-ness of the mind caught in its conditioned forms of ignorance. (Kena Upanishad: “Brahman [Absolute Spiritual Reality] is not known by those who know It; It is known by those who do not know it.” II.3) One abides as simple, spontaneous radiance of boundless love and perfect peace, like a flower effortlessly exuding natural fragrance.
I would say that, in mastering any of these ways of meditation, one goes beyond selfishness to become a conduit for blessings to all beings.
All the meditative options outlined above (except for the first, concentration on an object) are easily available during many of one’s routine daily tasks—for instance, being in relationship, walking down a street, shopping in the market, driving a car, exercising, eating, performing personal hygiene activities, and so forth. In each activity one can simultaneously enjoy a conscious, meditative state, focused on the Divine Beloved or transcendental Spirit. One need not be “out to lunch,” occupied or distracted by the tasks of living in the modern world.
I think that most people will find, if they train themselves to do so, that it is quite delightful, renewing, calming and clarifying to engage one of these forms of meditation/contemplation. When our passion is Divine peace, love, bliss and wisdom, there arises a natural, beautiful tendency to spontaneously enter this type of meditative state.
Stages of Meditation
Just as there are different styles of meditation, which can be employed exclusively or in combination, so also people will begin to learn that there are different stages or depth-levels of meditation/contemplation. The most acclaimed masters of meditation and prayerfulness in the sacred traditions would caution us that settling for mere relaxation, special psychic states, visions, “energy rushes,” and so forth, is not the ultimate goal of spiritual practice. This is especially true regarding any initial “beginner’s euphoria” we might experience at an early stage in our practice. The goal is to realize a clearest or highest state of consciousness (CSC or HSC) and altered traits of consciousness (ATCs), not just to manipulate oneself into temporary alternate states of consciousness for the sake of entertainment or novelty.
Along this line, many people have begun to read the classic meditation manuals and treatises of spiritual instruction from East and West regarding the highest stages of transpersonal spiritual liberation or God-realization. The wisdom here is that ultimately one can and must shift from having enjoyable but fleeting periods of meditation into a continuing, ego-free state of enlightenment or sanctification, which ideally is sustained even during one’s dreaming and dreamless-sleep states.
It is important to realize, as many practitioners have already done so, that meditation serves as an “uncovery” technique. Aspects of the subconscious mind, apparently including material from past lives, can well up in small or large waves of emotion—sadness, fear, anger, resentment, shame. The meditator at various stages of the spiritual awakening process may feel that s/he is drowning in this psychological material. Fortunately, many psychotherapists can now be found, through an expanding network of spiritually-oriented mental health professionals (especially of the transpersonal school of psychology and psychiatry), who can help one “process” or “work through” this material if one feels incapable of dealing with it through one’s own resources.
Why such material should come up at all can be explained by a simple metaphor: when one turns on a water tap in a mountain cabin that has not been used for years, the water that flows out is initially rusty and dirty before becoming a clear stream. So also, when one opens up the deeper layers of the psyche after being inattentive to them for most or all of this life (probably many lifetimes), there is a certain amount of less-than-wholesome psychological “stuff” that emerges. Eventually it clears out.
I would say, based on a longtime study and practice of the spiritual traditions, that the crucial asset to cultivate in meditation is an amused, affectionate, sensitive but clear-eyed and detached stance toward whatever arises in one’s meditation sessions. Whether it be thoughts, memories, fantasies, or sensations triggering fear, grief, anger, disgust, shame, guilt, sexual arousal, euphoria or whatever—just deeply feel it and let it go, moment by moment. You are Awareness; these are objects of Awareness. You are the changeless Source; these are changing phenomena. You are the Reality; these are “passing show.”
Eventually, you attain to extraordinary inner freedom and equanimity, cardinal spiritual virtues found consistently across spiritual cultures. At this point, very little can arise in any situation to disturb you or throw you off balance. As the Hindus and Buddhists would say, the basic issue is to become free of the samskaras, the binding likes and dislikes that fuel egocentricity and the delusion of separate selfhood. This is identical to what the ancient Greek sages, the Stoics and Cynics, knew as the virtue of apatheia, freedom from the disturbing passions. In Christian terms, this is “the peace that passes all understanding.”
As one spiritually matures even further with this practice, finally the supreme realization dawns that one’s true nature as free, peaceful awareness is one with the Absolute Awareness or Spirit that is both formless and playing as this kosmos of forms. One is No-thing and Everything, nobody and everybody, beyond all and within all. This is authentic realization of the transcendent and immanent Divine.
Passing On Contemplative Skills to Children
As the efficacy of meditation and deep contemplative prayerfulness is more widely realized, it will become imperative for our children to learn it, just as they would learn the “3 R’s” and good hygiene. This will be important not simply as part of their spiritual development but also as a coping strategy and a means of accessing their inner wells of creativity. Conservative Christians are adamantly and rightly opposed to any formal program of meditation (like TM) being introduced into the schools, just as many people, including Christians, are against the implementing of narrowly Christian forms of prayer into the schools (which offend Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, humanists and atheists).
I think it is imperative, however, that our schools find some agreed-upon way for children to have scheduled time each day to practice in their own way a form of silent “centering,” whether in a relaxation, meditation, prayerful or devotional mode. Look at the present statistics on children and it will be readily agreed that too many of them are in dire need of wellness programs. As former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley has written:
“The statistics concerning America’s children are more than alarming—they are a shock:
•22 percent of our children live in poverty.
•Crime among juveniles has increased 600 percent since the 1960s.
•The incidence of drug and alcohol abuse among children is dangerously high.
•America leads the world in teenage suicides.
•More than a quarter of our high school students will drop out of school.
•More teenagers become pregnant out of wedlock in the U.S. than in any other country. [Also: 580,000 children in the U.S. are on anti-depressants, such as “Peppermint Prozac.”] What the statistics tell us is that we are at risk of losing a generation of young people to a self-indulgent, self-destructive lifestyle.”
I predict that more scientific studies will be performed, indicating that silent “quality time” improves children’s learning rates and emotional wellness, and decreases problem behavior, also serving as an antidote to the well-documented negative effects of television viewing, computer-game addiction, and junk food consumption. Inevitably, goaded by the results of such studies, local school administrations, perhaps along with the federal Board of Education, will find a way to implement this important activity into the schools.
As a consequence, our children will grow in clarity, serenity, contentment, sensitivity, and that beautiful, grace-full inner strength that allows them to become a truly mature human being, a blessing unto the world.
1. The statistics on prayer and meditation come from the Princeton Religion Research Center (with the Gallup International polling agency), Emerging Trends, Vol. 18, No. 6, June 1996, p. 3.
2. Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, HarperSF paperback ed., 1994, p. 70.
3. Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, NY: Basic Books, 1991.
4. Nancy Gibbs, “The Paradox of Prosperity,” Time, Dec. 29, 1997/Jan. 5, 1998.
5. Kendall Hamilton & Karen Springen, “A Good Night’s Sleep—Impossible Dream?” Newsweek, Jan. 12, 1998, p. 10.
6. See Judith Hooper & Dick Teresi, Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman? A Catalog of Revolutionary Tools for a Higher Consciousness, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
7. See Edward Tenner, “Mr. Good News,” George, Feb. 1997, p. 44.
8. Ken Wilber, “Paths Beyond Ego in the Coming Decades,” in Roger Walsh & Frances Vaughan (Eds.), Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision, Tarcher / Putnam, 1993, p. 261.
9. Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience, Tarcher, 1988; Lawrence LeShan, How To Meditate, Bantam, 1974/1988; Ram Dass, Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook, Bantam, 2nd ed., 1990; Dean Shapiro & Roger Walsh (Eds.), Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, NY: Aldine, 1984; Michael Murphy & S. Donovan, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation, San Rafael, CA: Esalen Institute, 1989.
10. See John White (Ed.), The Highest State of Consciousness, Doubleday, 1972; J. White (Ed.), What Is Enlightenment? Exploring the Goal of the Path, Tarcher, 1984; and Timothy Conway, “The Criteria for Spiritual Realization: An Investigation of Optimal Well-Being,” Ph.D. dissertation for the California Institute of Integral Studies, 1989; available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI. Herein I have discussed various “factors of enlightenment” and the need to develop altered traits of consciousness (ATCs).
11. Bill Bradley, “Help America’s Children,” Parade Magazine, Sunday, Aug. 3, 1997, p. 4.