When all major religions agree on a point, it’s worth taking into consideration. Meditation is one of the most useful spiritual techniques and it’s possible to attain spiritual goodies without following the doctrine of a specific religion
Length: 1306 words, 7-9 minute read
Subject: I describe the 2 methods I use to meditate and discuss the importance of decoupling spiritual techniques from religious dogma.
The likelihood is that the average reader of this blog is not a religious person. It’s understandable – there is much wrong with contemporary religion. But you do yourself a disservice to throw out spirituality along with religion.
There are many benefits that spiritual study can have in your life. Think of stereotypical wise yogi, with the mental fortitude to overcome pain and fear entirely. Or even of the faithful Christian, who can overcome existential angst with the feeling of purpose that service to God gives him.
It’s possible to attain these spiritual goodies without following the doctrine of a specific religion. In fact, many religions advocate a sort of pick and choose policy when it comes to their ideas – take what is useful to you, whatever helps put you in contact with a higher state of being, and leave the rest.
One of the most useful spiritual techniques is meditation. This technique shows up in some form in almost all religions, from the familiar image of the Buddhist humming whilst sat in the lotus position, to the song, prayer and glossolalia of Christianity.
When almost all major religions agree on a point, it’s worth taking into consideration.
The trouble is that decent meditative guidance is hard to come by. It’s either steeped in religious instruction and focused on praise and worship of God, or it’s thinned out to a kind of guided hypnosis. These approaches might work for the easily suggestible, but if you’re reading this blog, you probably want something with more of a logical underpinning.
Over time I’ve studied the various forms of meditation that different religions practise and have come to understand meditation in the overlaps between these techniques. By taking the parts I like, I’ve reconstructed 2 separate methods of meditation, each of which I use at different times for different effects.
Eliminate fear, anxiety and even pain with Meditative Technique #1 – Zen Meditation
This technique takes cues from Buddhist transcendental meditation and Daoist “presence”. This technique is all about getting you out of your head and into the present moment, rather than obsessing about what could, or has happened. When we exist in the present moment, the pains of the past and the anxiety of the future no longer exist.
To use this technique, you must first understand the concept of negative space. Consider the traditional ying-yang symbol of Eastern philosophy. Only one of the interconnecting shapes need be drawn and the other is inferred by the negative space. Negative space is an incredibly important concept in Eastern philosophy and it greatly influences the aesthetic sensibilities of the East.
How does this relate to meditation? Well the negative space of ourselves is everything else. Without the world around us, we can’t exist. But equally, without our own consciousness to perceive it, the world can’t exist in any form understandable to ourselves. We are inextricable from the world and vice versa. So it’s fair to say that oneself and the world are part of the same whole. As with the ying-yang, one exists only because of the other and if you remove one, then the other disappears.
Once you understand the dual nature of the world and the self, you can start to see how it might be possible to shift your consciousness from the positive space to the negative space. You can exist purely in the world around you, since it is as much a part of you as is your own mind.
Zen meditation is the practise of getting into this negative space.
It’s very easy to do – simply sit quietly, in an upright position, and listen to the sounds around you. Don’t worry about creating a peaceful environment – this works equally as well when listening to birdsong as it does when listening to roadworks. The key to this kind of meditation is egolessness – you aren’t inside your head anymore, so thoughts like “that sound is irritating me” are irrelevant.
However this does not mean that you should suppress your own thoughts – that is counter intuitive. Instead, treat your own thoughts in the same way you treat the sounds in your environment. You exist outside of those thoughts and are simply able to observe them and let them float past you. Don’t let the thought lead you into contemplation, just let it float away.
This will take some time to get the hang of. Most of your problems will probably stem from trying too hard. There is nothing to try in zen meditation, there is no win or fail state. We are doing it to deal with anxiety, or stress, but we mustn’t be focused on these things during the act. Drop the ego and lose yourself in the world around you, then you will crack zen meditation.
Increase focus, intelligence and spiritual understanding with Meditative Technique #2 – Koanic Meditation
This technique is much more internal than zen meditation. Rather than getting out of your own head, you’re getting really deep inside it and looking around to fix things up or develop new ideas.
I like to think of this technique as almost like checking the task manager for my own mind. As I contemplatively meditate I’ll often find unpleasant and persistent memories pop up from nowhere. But I’m able to shut off these processes and accept the memory, which seems to free up my mental processes for other thoughts, resulting in less stress and more energy. I also use this technique to develop ideas, crystallize knowledge and come to deeper conscious spiritual understanding of myself.
To perform this kind of meditation, I take a comfortable, upright seated position and close my eyes. This time rather than focus on external sounds, I’ll focus on an internal question, like the koans studied in Buddhism. A koan is story, or riddle or question that must be deeply contemplated. Something like “what is my life’s purpose?” is an effective koan for meditation.
I begin to breathe deeply – a proper breath should cause your stomach to expand as you inhale, NOT your chest. If you chest is expanding rather than your stomach, you are not breathing correctly. I like to use a steady, calming breathing pattern for this kind of meditation, something like 7 seconds breathing in to 11 seconds breathing out.
You must focus your mind on your chosen koan and consider it deeply, following strings of thoughts to their conclusion but trying to stay relevant to the koan. It’s no use trying to meditate in this way and thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner or the bills you need to pay. But as I said, often difficult memories will present themselves naturally. The way to deal with this is to consider them, accept them and let them drift away, just as in zen meditation. The feeling of acceptance is important and you can often dull the pain of a bad memory via this technique.
If you lose focus on your koan and feel your mind wandering, simply bring yourself back to your breath. Focus on your breathing, then gradually refocus back to your koan.
Eventually contemplative meditation of this kind might even lead to an answer to your koan. This is when you can really feel your spiritual development take a leap – often the changes are subconscious and hard to appreciate, but koanic meditation can take these ideas and solidify them as conscious knowledge, leading to better self understanding and self esteem.
That about covers my two meditative techniques. There is much more that we can learn from religious and spiritual study, but meditation is a great jumping off point that can prove the benefits of religion and spirituality that most never see.