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Meditation as a Religious and Secular Practice

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Alternative Medicine


Buddha once said, “ Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.” Though clearly of religious influence, this quote well illustrates man’s eternal quest for knowledge and understanding of the world around him. Human nature pushes us forward continuously for more and more knowledge but there are many different paths for acquiring this. Science, religion, philosophy, are just a few possibilities for pursuing the unattainable complete understanding.  Meditation, one of these paths, is used both secularly and religiously to seek a holistic understanding of self. But before we can learn to seek an understanding of ourselves, it is crucial to understand meditation itself. To do this effectively we must examine meditation’s relationship to its users. The real question to ask is what meditation exactly does for our minds, we understand what it does physically, but what does it do on a spiritual or philosophical level? Can it change our perception of reality and if it can, does that mean our basic, sensory perception is somehow flawed? Clearly in the religious applications of meditation it is believed our normal state of mind is imperfect, and meditation is then the pathway to perfecting it, so that our perception will be like that of which is more than human, or “enlightened.” This philosophical understanding will be further discussed after first analyzing how meditation works in both a religious and secular nature.

What is meditation? There are many answers to this question. From looking at the countless definitions and descriptions, the most basic response is that meditation is an individually-driven exercise leading to a state of consciousness that brings serenity, clarity, and bliss; using intense concentration to gain control over the mind and our emotional, sensory, and physical reactions to outside stimuli. There are many different techniques and types of meditation; each reflecting the intentions of the user. But in both a secular and religious sense, there are two basic types as defined by the intentions of the user. The two basic types of meditation are stabilizing meditation and analytical meditation. Stabilizing meditation is essentially focused on ridding the body of pain whether, it be emotional or physical pain; secular meditation uses this commonly, but it is not limited to secular use. Analytical meditation focuses on finding one’s place or purpose within the universe through an understanding of self; this is customarily used religiously but us not used solely for this purpose. Additionally, there are four pathways, which categorize the techniques of meditation. These pathways are intellect, the emotions, the body, and action. The pathway of intellect includes mostly religiously techniques such as sacred revelation (Christians), mantras, and inner streams of conscious awareness (Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus), but also is used secularly to gain understanding of one’s self by focusing on one’s purpose and place in the universe by technique of visualizations, secular mantras, etc. The pathway of the emotions is used religiously as an attempt to reach the love of the deity (as is done in Christianity) through attentive focus on religious symbols, images, or words; or secularly as a way to maintain emotional control using attentive focus on symbols, image, or words that have personal significance to the individual. The pathway of the body includes techniques such as yoga’s stretches and methods of bodily integration and movement, and can be interpreted as religious or secular depending on the user. The pathway of action requires total concentration on a specific task at hand; some examples are Zen archery or martial arts, Christian songs, prayers, and service, etc; secular uses could include completing any task that will benefit the user in some way but specifically it has been used by artists to stimulate creative flow and athletes as they try to align their body and mind to bring forth the right action. Understanding the various ways meditation is used is useful for defining meditation beyond the basic answer. Despite all of the contrasting uses, there is one, all-encompassing meaning behind practicing these techniques.

            It is now necessary to look at both secular and religious meditation as separate arts to better understand what it means to the users themselves. Since religious meditation came first historically, it is only natural to begin by discussing it as it is used in three different religions including a monotheistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic system of beliefs. Perhaps the most widely used religion known for its meditation practice is Buddhism, a primarily Eastern practiced, non-theistic denomination dating back to as far as 1500 years ago. Buddhism was founded, as the name implies, by a man known as Buddha, a master of meditation techniques who lived in 500 A.D. He was legend to have developed superhuman skills through his mastery of meditation and achieved Nirvana, which is known in Buddhism as an escape from the cycle of reincarnation.

In Buddhism, when we die our souls are continuously recycled in new vessels (bodies), and the only way to end this cycle is to achieve Nirvana in one of our countless lifetimes. Though Nirvana can be achieved in many ways, meditation is the primary means used by Buddhists, and Buddha himself, because it allows the individual to rid the mind of defilements such as anger, greed, pride, wrong views of the world, etc; and to develop goodwill, morality, and wisdom of oneself and the universe. In order to develop such qualities, meditation is an essential technique to employ and must be practiced diligently throughout ones life. There are three goals of meditation in Buddhism which are known as Sila (morality), or an understanding the universal law of cause and effect (karma); Samadhi (concentration), which teaches us to focus our minds and develop the levels of calmness and peace necessary to reach Panna, the third goal. Panna (wisdom) is a complete understanding of the world around us and the true nature of life so that we can maintain our poise and equilibrium in our day-to-day life ever reaching closer to Nirvana. There are two methods of meditation used for reaching these goals known as Samatha, or concentration meditation, which is concerned with creating a one-pointed mind that is unified and focused on one purpose;  and Vipassana, or insight meditation, which seeks an insight for the true nature of things and to have total awareness of the world around us. If we can reach this awareness, then we are using our minds to their fullest capacity, and perhaps changing our perception of reality. If everything that exists comes from our minds, then it is possible the reason for Buddha’s legendary superhumanness is because he used meditation to make that a part of his reality. Thus Buddhists seeking Nirvana are really seeking to have power over reality, and perhaps to improve it.

  Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with similar beliefs to that of Buddhism, and is considered by some to be the father of Buddhism, because, much in the same way Christianity stemmed off of Judaism, Buddhism was created as a neo-variation of Hinduism.  Similar to Buddhists, Hindu’s believe reincarnation after death and the break from this cycle as the final goal for our souls, called Atman, and the preferred way to achieve this is through meditation and establishing good Karma. Hindus believe in one definitive, spiritual actuality over all existence known as Brahman but there are also many deities who are representative of different earthly elements and characteristics but still falling under the same spiritual connection to Brahman. There are many different variations of Hinduism, but these all fall into two main categories, the most popular being articulated by worshipping gods, making offerings, ritualistic prayer, etc; and the second, a more philosophical approach, which is comprised of meditation, yoga practice, and the study of ancient philosophy. Unlike other more traditional religions, each Hindu practices his or her own individual form of the religion, with the same basic principles and beliefs, and each with the final goal of breaking out of their reincarnation and reuniting their atman with Brahman, also known as moksha. Meditation, including both transcendental and yoga, is considered the most important practice towards achieving this.

Transcendentalist meditation is a form of meditation characterized by moving through seven states of consciousness to eventually achieve moksha. The seven states are waking, dreaming, deep sleep, transcendental/pure consciousness, cosmic consciousness, god conscious, and supreme knowledge or unity consciousness. Techniques include but are not limited to recitation of mantras, visualizations, stream of consciousness focusing, and healing meditations. Healing meditations have become the second most widely crossed-over meditation technique practiced commonly by the diseased or injured for relief and fast recovery. The most popular cross over technique then, is of course Yoga, though as a religious practice it is far more complicated than its secular variations. Yoga teaches bodily control, deep breathing, and concentration necessary for deeper meditation as well as serves as a spiritual guide in Hinduism. There are four types of Yoga commonly practiced by Hindu’s tied with the “Eight Limbs” of Yoga which include more religiously correlated codes. The four types of yoga are Karma-Yoga, for one who seeks union (with Brahman) through work; Raja-Yoga, for one who seeks union through mysticism; Yoga for those who seek union in love; and Yoga for those who seek union through philosophy. The “Eight Limbs” of Yoga are Yama, five positive ethical guidelines; Niyama, five positive behaviors; Asana- physical poses designed to give our body strength, flexibility, energy, and deep relaxation; Pranayama, energizing breathing exercises; Pratyahara, detachment from the fluctuations and challenges of life; Dharana, a practice of focused concentration; Dhyana, a devotional meditation on the Brahman; and Samadhi, blissful absorption of one’s individual consciousness into the essence of Brahman. Yoga is more of a preparation art for real meditation as is evident in the descriptions of the eight limbs, an idea clearly lost in its secular alternatives. However, the use of physical movements, which obviously then employs our physical bodies, is contrasting to the meditation of Buddhism. Using muscles, bones, and our senses for meditation means a focus on our physical presence in the world rather than trying to sever our ties to this presence in order to reunite with Brahman. Be that as it may, Hinduism still retains the purpose of understanding self in order to be free from the world and becoming a part of Brahman, a perfected path of existence.

            Christianity is the last of the religions to be discussed and is the least practicing of meditation of the three. Rooting from Judaism after the birth of Jesus Christ, Christians believe in one almighty God who takes three forms  in the Trinity—the God, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. Meditation is primarily used in an outward manner as a way of connecting with God rather than as an inward connection with the self. The techniques are far less structured and can involve music, relaxation, or focus on biblical passages or symbols to communion with God. Though meditation itself is much less emphasized in the religion as a whole, many people consider prayer to be a form of meditation because of its similar nature, eternally seeking answers to the world around us and trying to find meaning in everyday life. Prayer itself is subdivided into four different types which are Prayers of Thanksgiving, giving thanks to God for all parts of your life, including prayers of Wonder which are praises for beauty in the world; Prayers of Petition which are individual requests to God for specific things; Prevailing Prayers, which are continuous prayers for specific causes such as world peace; and Prayers on Behalf of Others, which are prayers for the wellness of others. Also likewise to meditation, prayer is a focused concentration on something and can achieve a sort of peacefulness or understanding if performed correctly. Despite Christianity’s alternate focus for meditation (outward meditation to God), it still essentially is reflective towards the self. If belief in God is part of a Christian’s reality, then believing that his power can influence how things occur means it is possible for our minds to make that true. For example, praying for recovery from an illness would cause the person to believe that God can fix their body and thus if they pray it will be so, and the simple belief that they will be healed, is what heals them, not necessarily the power of God. Everything is controlled by perspective, as people create their own ideas of how things work, it can become true, more so in cases where, like in the example, this change is coming out of their bodies.

Secular meditation, as stated before, is completely rooted religious meditation practices. Though the transformation of meditation into a secular art occurred in many different times and places, some of the most significant those which were westernized out of Hinduism meditation. Three important Hindu-inspired meditation movements that later developed into the modern practices of today are transcendentalism, theosophy, and new thought. As the name implies, the transcendentalist movement obviously found its roots in Hinduism’s transcendentalist meditation practices, which were brought to the west in the 1800’s by Eastern immigrants. Transcendentalism was a movement primarily led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and involved looking at the world as an “Idealist”, a person who sees every event as spiritual. Emerson developed an ethical system based on the understanding that people create their own reality and thus must live through our minds by being free of the material world of appearance, an idea first popularized by 15th century philosopher Rene’ Descartes. This movement led to and influenced the creation of many of the self-help and self-enlightenment groups that exist today, pushing the belief that if the human mind can create its own reality if free from material attachments. A modern-day example of this is Maslow’s pyramid of Self-Actualization which involves freeing ourselves from the binds of physical and material needs to become self-actualized, which basically means reaching our mind’s full potential. Theosophy (divine wisdom), founded in 1875 by Madame Helena Blavatsky, draws on mysticism from both the West and the East, exploring concepts such as monism (the view that all essence is one) and the merging of the individual soul with the cosmic soul through meditation. The direct influence of such concepts from the ideas of Buddhism and Hinduism is obvious. Theosophy was a short-lived movement but did lead to movements such as the “I AM” Activity, which taught that a person’s higher self could be found through looking at their inner-violet light and the third significant movement, New Thought. Phineas P. Quimby, a practitioner of mesmerism, founded New Thought in the late 1890’s. The movement established the initial study of how control over and understanding of the mind could be used for mental, emotional, and physical healing.

Currently, meditation therapy is a well-established medical practice, but it wasn’t always recognized as such. A study conducted by Herbert Benson and Archie F. Wilson at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970’s was among the first to establish meditation therapy as a legitimate medicinal practice. In their study, 1,862 habituated drug users were subjected to meditation therapy by practicing transcendentalist meditation twice a day for 21 months. At the conclusion of their work, they found that of the 78.3 percent that had been heavy marijuana users only 12.2 percent had continued to use. Similar results were reported for LSD, opiates, amphetamines, barbiturates, alcohol, and tobacco abusers. In fact, meditation’s most popular secular use is for the health benefits (Wallace, 378). Along with the meditation therapy for drug addicts discussed above, studies have also been conducted showing meditation to be beneficial for physical and psychological health. Some physical benefits include a decreased metabolic rate and lower heart rate, lowered levels of chemicals associated with stress, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a younger biological age. Even more impressive than the physical benefits are the psychological ones, meditation has been proven to increase brain-wave coherence, which contributes to greater creativity, improved moral reasoning, and a higher IQ . Additionally, meditation has been shown to significantly decrease anxiety and mood disorders as well as establish a healthier emotional stability. Understanding the reasons behind secular meditation, it is easy to see why the most popular secularly practiced techniques are Yoga and healing meditations. Yoga has become an extremely trendy practice for the simple purpose of exercise and wellness. The use is no longer for the preparation of deep meditation as it is used in Hinduism but is now simply a means of improving flexibility and staying in shape. All of the discussed benefits are further evidence of the concept of the mind’s influence of reality. Evidently, this works more effectively when the reality the user is trying to change is tied directly to themselves (as their minds are part of their physical bodies), but this is one small step towards something bigger. What are the possibilities of meditation on a large scale? Could we heal someone else by believing it is happening in our mind? Or does it only work if the mind is tied to the body? These are a few of the many questions that can be raised concerning the power of meditation.  

As is evident in the trends of its practice, secular meditation is useful for more earthly means rather than spiritual ones. Exercise, wellness, and “self-actualization” are practiced with the intention of improving the lives of the users but not allowing them to reach a new plane of existence. This is possibly the most important difference between secular and religious meditation. Thus it can be understood that the practice of meditation is determined as either religious or secular solely by the intentions of the user. Perhaps the best way to understand the true nature of meditation outside of classifying it as religious or secular is to look at it on a philosophical level.

            A philosopher offering ideas on this exact thing is Rene’ Descartes, who, as mentioned before, studied and meditated extensively on the idea of the existence of self, and the true nature of the human mind. Descartes believes that human senses are flawed by nature and oftentimes lead to false judgments about the world experiences. The only true and distinct thing that we can trust is our minds, and that which comes from our mind—namely mathematics and logic—because these are based on abstract concepts rather than what we physically perceive. He begins his meditation by removing all previous notions including the very knowledge of his existence, and in ending the first meditation concludes that he exists because of his thoughts; “I think, therefore, I am.” His mission eventually is to rebuild all that he knows on a foundation of what is clear and distinct, rather than things that could be incorrectly perceived; in a way, this is a form of enlightenment. Beings thought to be greater than man are not bound by any physical limitations just as Descartes is essentially freeing himself from his. Though meditation does not necessarily remove the previous experiences and knowledge from the user, it does encourage inward thinking and reaching conclusions based not on what we can demonstrate, but what we can conceive out of our minds.  This is the real essence of meditation, emulating something greater than man, and in doing so reaching an entirely new level of human understanding, so that we may bring it forth into the physical world.



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