In a prehistoric forest, maybe while gazing into a forest or noticing the movement of the stars, there must have been a moment when someone first wondered, what is this? Who am I? What is all of this for?
Conceivably, this was the origin of meditation; the first conscious spiritual, religious impulse of humankind.
Others have also wondered about this moment, about the origin of mediation.
Researchers have speculated that meditation is as old as the human race itself. Surveying meditation practices, they have even surmised the possible meditative abilities of Neanderthals who performed rituals with simple chanting and drumming.
However, the first written record we have of meditation appeared about 10,000 years ago in India in the sacred spiritual texts, the Vedas. Meditation was particularly important in the Upanishads, the philosophical narrative and dialogues of the Vedas.
While the human race has obviously changed in many ways, 10,000 years later, we are still meditating. Why is that?
What Is The Goal Of Meditation?
Whether meditation is being used as a ‘worldly’ technique or as a spiritual path, meditation’s unifying goal could be said in the simplest terms to be that of compassionate self-cultivation.
Meditation is a means to better yourself, either physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually — or all of the above.
Why Do People Meditate?
Many people are seeking a path to spiritual realization and want to make sense out of their life by finding more peace and unity in themselves and with their environment.
Others meditate to improve their life with an attitude of solving very ordinary problems like better health, improved focus, a way to manage anxiety, to sleep better, to gain composure and control over emotions, or as a tool for achievement to realize their ideal life.
And there are people facing issues that are inevitable, like aging, sickness and death who are often seeking an attitude of acceptance. These ‘problems’ are a fact of life that are not going away.
Instead of trying to overcome difficulties these folks are looking to meditation to teach them how to accept, engage and use their issues as a way to learn and deepen their experience about life.
What Can Meditation Help With?
Science is catching up with the technology of meditation, revealing how meditation helps with both ordinary problems such as increasing the ability to sustain attention as well as spiritual concerns such as engendering compassion. We can see with more clarity now how all of these ‘benefits’ of meditation help in a deeper introspective spiritual investigation of the self.
Altered Traits, is an excellent book explaining the latest neuroscience and research backing meditation and all that it can help with, including:
- Reducing stress response
- Enhancing empathetic concern
- Activating good feelings and love
- Strengthening the ability to sustain attention
- Decreasing negative self-focused thoughts and feelings
- Reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines, the molecule responsible for inflammation
- Decreasing depression, anxiety and pain (especially when combined with cognitive-based therapy)
- Reversing the effects of aging on the brain
- Increasing awareness of the present moment
- Decreasing rumination on the past
Is The Goal Of Mediation To Help With These Problems?
In the strictest sense, the goal of mediation is not to help with these problems; ultimately it has a loftier purpose.
And yet while most meditations are not designed for a therapeutic purpose, many meditations have still been shown to have remarkable benefits. For example, the Loving-Kindness Meditation, a meditation that cultivates compassion, has been shown to help people recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a system of meditation practice that does have the specific goal of helping with mental and physical health problems. MBSR was created for use as a therapy and as a response to problems related to stress. And it was designed specifically for medical use and clinical testing.
Does Meditation Address The Cause Of Problems?
In the case of anxiety, it is our experience in teaching meditation that anxiety is caused by a kind of tangle of thought that keeps increasing.
The more you think, the more tangled and thus the more anxious you become. So, meditation can help the process of untangling the mind to stop the mechanisms of entanglement that cause anxiety.
Meditation is especially effective for this untangling process when it is accompanied by a rational exploration of the problem that is causing anxiety. Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT) in combination with mediation is great for this.
How Do You Start With Meditation?
The best tip I can give anyone starting on their meditation journey is to ask yourself why you want to meditate. Then, make sure that the meditation you choose is moving you along your purpose. And check in with yourself as you’re doing it and be honest with yourself.
When you’re starting out, should you try a guided meditation online first? Or is it better in person?
Some meditations, like Buddhist meditations, will require a teacher. For others you can download an app and drop it into your life, using it more like a running or an exercise routine.
If using an app makes you feel lonely or cut off, a real teacher will be better for you. Or if you want a deeper experience or wish to seriously change your life, learning meditation with a teacher will be more helpful.
Meditation classes are a great place to start because they will give you a full picture of the practices and the context of meditation. You will have live guided meditations, recorded meditations on demand, and a real-life teacher to answer your questions.
If you have more specific questions now about:
- your life
- which meditations might be suitable for you given your purpose
- concerns that meditation may be harmful for you
- issues relating to self-study
- any other questions,